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Polanski’s Ghosts

Posted by keith1942 on June 30, 2015

Polanski directing The Ghost.

Polanski directing The Ghost.

 

There is an off-quoted line in the Black Audio Film Collective’s documentary Handsworth Songs (1986):

“There are no stories [in the riots] only the ghosts of other stories.”

I remembered the line when I was mulling over Roman Polanski’s film The Ghost (2010). As with other directors honoured as auteurs his films often stimulate recollections of his own earlier films: ghostly traces or memories from the previous works. Thanks to Channel 4 (who screened the film more or less in the original aspect ratio) when I watched The Ghost again some of these ghostly references reminded me strongly of his classic Chinatown (1974) The S & S review also rightly suggested ‘ghosts’ from Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), Cul-de-sac (1966) and Frantic (1988) among others. The reviewer (Michael Brooke) makes the point that the film closely follows the original book by Robert Harris (who scripted the film with Polanski) but suggests that the plot and story world are in part what attracted Polanski to the property. Of course, both the book and the film use familiar generic elements, but the parallels seem to be to be stronger than that. Much of the film does adhere closely to the plot found in the book, as indeed does the dialogue. However, there are two significant changes, which I comment on below.

Filming Chinatown

Filming Chinatown

In Chinatown a private eye investigates first an affair with and then the death of a prominent Los Angeles citizen Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Swerling). The private eye becomes involved with the widow and her father, a corporate baron. His investigations lead him to discover fraud and corruption in the L.A. Water and Power Company. In The Ghost a writer who polishes and re-writes autobiographies for prominent people is hired to  ‘ghost-write’ the memoirs of ex-British prime minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). His predecessor, Mike McAra, has died in a drowning at sea. When Adam Lang is publicly pilloried for aiding secret CIA rendition of suspects, political secrets surface and become threatening.

The parallels with Chinatown are there most obviously in the two male protagonists of these films. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), the private eye in Chinatown, thinks he knows his trade, but by the film’s finale he is clearly out in depth in the world of criminality symbolised by the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. Ewan McGregor’s Ghost appears to be a smart member of a little-publicised authorial profession; but he also is soon out of his depth in the murky world of power politics. Both men appear in a scene where they look at evidence but fail to unravel the meaning of a word at the time. Jake talks to the Japanese gardener by the Mulwray pool, and only later realises the possible meaning of ‘glass’. The ghostwriter reads the opening chapter of Adam Lang’s memoir without realising the significance of ‘beginnings’. In the end Jake survives, unlike the ghostwriter, but he is equally destroyed by a world that is far more sinister and complex than any he has previously experienced.

Both men are victims of a woman who is essentially a femme fatale, alluring but dangerous. The women are deceptive and it is unclear to what degree they are responding to the hero or merely manipulating him. Ruth Lang [Olivia Williams] of The Ghost survives unlike Evelyn Mulwray née Cross (Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown, but both are equally the puppets of powerful men: men whose public persona is far removed from their actual ruthless real selves. John Huston’s corporate baron Noah Cross is prepared to go to any lengths to profit from the exploitation of L.A.’s dependence on water: and he is equally determined in pursuing his personal power. Tom Wilkinson’s Professor Paul Emmett pursues political power and profit with an equivalent ruthlessness, though we learn far less about his personal pursuits. Noah Cross is an actual father who literally embodies a classic myth of incest and the sexual exploitation of the child: Paul Emmett is a father figure rather than literal parent: but indirectly he controls Ruth’s sexuality through the arranged marriage to Adam Lang.

The secret in Chinatown is the manipulation of water whilst in The Ghost it is the identity of a CIA agent. However, in both films it is the search to crack the secret than impels the narrative. Moreover, that basic element water is key in the mise en scène of both films. We see water in Chinatown in the reservoirs, in the ocean, in a boating lake and in the pool of the Mulwray mansion. In The Ghost it surrounds the main action, on Martha’s Vineyard Island on the US eastern seaboard, and characters constantly cross over it or walk alongside it. And in both films the action that starts to crack open the secret is the drowning of an innocent man, Evelyn Mulwray’s husband in Chinatown, previous ghostwriter Mike McAra in The Ghost. Both are made to look like suicides but in reality they are the victims of a secret conspiracy. Moreover, a female witness in the case also dies, literally in Chinatown, comatosed in The Ghost. The first significant change from the plot of the book is related to the death in The Ghost. Late in the book the writer, fearing the close attentions of the CIA, meets an ex-colleague of Adam Lang, the politician Robert Rycart (Robert Pugh). He travels to New York City for the meeting. In the film they meet at the motel alongside the mainland ferry terminus for the Island. The sequence includes the writer joining and leaving the ferry, as he fears a repeat of the death of his predecessor Mike McAra. The change immediately conjures up both the plot and the symbolism of the earlier Chinatown.

There are crossovers elsewhere in the mise en scène. Both protagonists wander in desolate places like beaches and dried-up riverbeds. The framing and blocking in particular scenes offers hints as to the way the mystery will unravel. This is particularly true of the Asian servants in both households. One intriguing plot piece is that in Chinatown it is the Japanese gardener (Jerry Fujikawa) who inadvertently reveals to Gittes the key information around a man’s death by the pool in the Mulwray garden. In The Ghost, as in Chinatown, house servants are Asian, Dep and Duc. And it is the Vietnamese gardener (Hong Thay Lee) who offers the use of the car to our ghostwriter, and it is the car, which leads him to Paul Emmett and the secret behind the death of Mike McAra.

In both films photographs provide key evidence for the investigation. In particular a photograph of long ago that reveals an important but unknown relationship: Adam Lang with Paul Emmett in The Ghost and Noah Cross with Hollis Mulwray in Chinatown. The more recent film also uses technologies not available when Chinatown was produced or set. But in both cases the investigation depends partly on information provided by individuals and partly by commercial or state institutions: public records in Chinatown and the Internet in The Ghost. Both the L.A. Water and Power Company and the Central Intelligence Agency appear as large, secretive and corrupt institutions, balefully exploiting rather than protecting the citizenry they are supposed to serve.

Chinatown

Chinatown

In particular it is the final scenes of the films that have so many common elements. Both Jake Gittes and the ghostwriter are bought down by hubris. Jake meets the chief villain Noah Cross to expose his crimes, only to be overpowered by his henchman. The ghostwriter presents his discovery of the secret to Rachel Lang, who tells Emmett and death follows. In the final sequence of Chinatown shots are fired as a car drives away, the car halts, horn sounds and a girl screams. A crowd gathers, and then we see the dead woman. As Jake is led away into the darkened and emptying street, newspapers blow across the desolate space. In The Ghost a car speeds towards the writer and us. We hear a car bump, and see concerned or shocked pedestrians run towards an ‘accident’. As the light fades the pages of a manuscript blow across the desolate space. The latter is the second major change from Harris’ book and is similar to the way that Polanski altered the original script for Chinatown by Robert Towne.

The Ghost

The Ghost

Viewers are likely to take away a similar feeling from both movies, a tragic end in failure. The powerful remain unscathed and unexposed: the innocent have died: and the well-meaning but ineffectual hero has failed in his quest. There is a telling line in Chinatown spoken by Lieutenant Escobar (Perry Lopez) to Jake Gittes, “it takes a while for a man to find himself’. The tragedy of both of these films is that the man in question fails to find himself, or at least finds himself too late.

Originally posted on ITP World.

Posted in auteurs, Film noir, Hollywood, Literature on Film | Leave a Comment »

HUAC – PARANOIA – FILM NOIR

Posted by keith1942 on June 19, 2015

Paranoia

The House of Representative Committee on Un-American Activities was most prominent in the late 1940s and early 19150s, at the same time as the genre of classic  film noir was at its peak. Whilst HUAC or its members or agents rarely get literal representation in these films, the subtexts seem to be full of them. The one notable example is not a film noir:  the pro-Committee Big Jim McLain (1952) has John Wayne  hunting down communists and includes actual film of the Committee hearings with studio inserts. Both the actual Committee and the fictional film world of noir have common qualities, notably a strong sense of paranoia.

HUAC

The discussions of the Committee are primarily of the 1940s and the 1950s but the roots of what has become known as ‘McCarthyism’ goes back several decades. There was anti-working class USA state action in the years prior to World War I, primarily directed against the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World). 1917 saw the Socialist Revolution in Russia and 1918 the official end of the W. W. I. However, a joint military expedition by the UK, USA, France and Japan involved an invasion of the new socialist state in an attempt to suppress the revolution.

The 1920s saw heavy oppression and repression in the USA against working class militancy and the young socialist movement. Edgar Hoover’s new Federal Bureau of Investigation was in the front line here. Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil gives a dramatic representation of these events; [representations completely excised from the film adaptation There Will be Blood, USA 2007].

1929 saw the great financial crash and in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated the National Recovery Programmes with radical economic policies. The conservative elements in the political establishment, notably in the Republican Party, regarded this as ‘socialist’: their common language reflected what can be described as ‘political illiteracy’. It in this period that the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities [also known as the Dies Committee, from its chair Martin Dies Jr.] was set up, to expose ‘communists and subversives’. One of their targets was the Federal Theatre Programme, which provided employment for theatre professionals and theatrical presentations for ordinary people across the states. It included many radical elements, among them members of the Communist Party USA. It is worth noting that many of the people who joined the Party in this period were motivated by anti-fascism; their grasp of the analysis of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was often limited.

One important factor in the conflicts were strikes by Hollywood workers, notably by members of the Screenwriters’ Guild. Walt Disney, whose autocratic style occasioned one strike, blamed it on ‘communist subversives’. In 1938 Dies conducted an early investigation of Hollywood including questioning actors and film crafts people. One actor, Lionel Stander, was fired from the Republic Studio: in No Time to Marry (USA, 1938) the film, [scripted by John Howard Lawson, another blacklisted writer]  has him whistling the Internationale.

Committee

Cradle Will Rock (USA, 1999) presents a picture of some of the work of the Dies Committee in relation to the Federal Theatre Programme. John Houseman and Orson Welles produced the show of the title, which was a sort of Brechtian musical exposing the exploitation and oppression rife in the USA. The play’s opening night coincided with the shutting down of the Federal Theatre funding. In the film [written and directed by Tim Robbins] there are several sequences that show the Dies Committee in action  One sequence [80 minutes into the film] has the Committee grilling a Federal Employee re this ‘subversion': humorous but frightening. The exchanges with the Committee in the film are based on actual records.

The agitation around left politics continued at the end of the Second World War. This period was characterised by Winston Churchill [and George Orwell] as the ‘cold war’: with the Soviet Union and its allies. It is worth noting that there was wholesale repression of National Liberation Movements in the colonised countries and a rapid expansion of US neo-colonialism. Racism, including what is termed anti-Semitism, and homophobia were also rife. And there was a strong strand of misogyny in the culture. In this atmosphere HUAC pursued the phantom of communist infiltration across a host of US institutions, including the media.

Between March and September 1947 HUAC, under the chairmanship of Parnell Thomas, launched an investigation of Hollywood. It is clear that this was partly motivated by the desire for publicity: at the later hearings Arthur Miller was advised he could be excused a hearing if his wife, then Marilyn Monroe, would agree to have her photograph taken with members of the Committee. The initial response of the Industry was strong resistance. But as the investigations continued, with public hearings, the producers buckled. When the Committee cited ten ‘unfriendly witnesses’ for ‘contempt of Congress’, with subsequent jail terms, the Motion Picture Producers Association of America responded with the ‘blacklist’.

The Hollywood Ten – Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole, Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz.  Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott.

The ‘Ten’ can be seen in the film produced to defend them in 1950 when they were fighting their sentences for ‘contempt of Congress’ in The Supreme Court, The Hollywood Ten written and directed by John Berry.

Red Hollywood (1995) is a documentary that studies the influence of radical filmmakers on Hollywood’s output in the period: a contentious area. It uses an opening clip from Johnny Guitar (1954) as an example: there are numerous references to ‘naming names’ in Hollywood films of this time. But the opening of this documentary also briefly displays the operation of the Committee with clips from films of the period. The film does not really address of the post-war politics of ‘the left’ and the Communist Party USA. The subservience of  the CPUSA to the interests of the Soviet Union meant that revolution in the USA was no longer on its agenda.

When HUAC returned with a fresh investigation between 1951 and 1953 the industry and its members generally collapsed before this attack. Actors and craftspeople who had been friends and/or colleagues of the ‘Ten’ now confessed their activities and even named names. Apart from The Ten many other people in the industry suffered blacklisting and there were similar purges in Television, the media and institutions like the State Department. One result was refugees working in the UK and Europe – Joseph Losey’s career in British film was a direct result of HUAC.

Ten demo

The Way We Were (1973) has a sequence from 1947 presenting a fictionalised version of one attempt by Hollywood stars and filmmakers to support the ‘Ten’. This is followed by a sequence with a conversation between Hubble (Robert Redford) and Katie (Barbara Streisand) that shows some of the attitudes and arguments circulating in Hollywood at the time. Some of the filmmakers involved in the project [like writer Arthur Laurents] had suffered during the blacklist:  it is worth noting that the film was cut of several important scenes for general release.

Film Noir

This Hollywood genre has its roots in German expressionism and many of the filmmakers involved were either émigrés or refugees from Europe, especially Germany. It was also influenced by the French poetic realism of the 1930s. The genre’s title was only applied in retrospect: at the time most of the films fell into crime genres or similar.

The most common and basic plot involved a hero [nearly always male] who is drawn by an attraction, commonly a femme fatale or dangerous woman, into a world of criminality and chaos. The main focus of the plot is whether the hero wills survive – the seeker hero; or whether he will perish – the victim hero.

Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1944) has a victim hero: Murder My Sweet / Farewell My Lovely (RKO, 1944) has a seeker hero. The latter film also has filmmakers involved who suffered under HUAC and the blacklist: Adrian Scot and Edward Dmytryk. A number of the radical and noir films were made at the RKO Studio: Orson Welles worked there. When Howard Hughes acquired the studio in 1948 he closed it down for six months whilst he carried out a check [witch-hunt] of the studio personnel; followed by a number of sackings.

Both of the above  films above demonstrate the stylistic tropes of the genre, which make it rather distinctive for the time. Extensive use of chiaroscuro or light and shadow: notable camera angles: the voice-over and confessional mode. And overall the films frequently project an atmosphere, of cynicism, fear and paranoia.

Critics have offered many suggestions for the rise and influence of this genre in the 1940s particularly. There were the dislocations and uncertainties in the post-war world. An air of cynicism was common. The changing roles of women with changes in the mores of sexuality produced a reaction and often misogyny. Despite the horror at the excesses of the Third Reich there was frequent public anti-Semitism, racism especially directed at Negroes or Afro-Americans, and pronounced though not usually explicitly articulated homophobia. But undoubtedly the activities directed at so-called Un-Americanism also had a powerful effect, especially on the workforce in Hollywood.

Arthur

Lady from Shanghai (Columbia, 1947, written and directed by Orson Welles) offers an example of coded language which could be seen as anti-capitalist [the dominant value system in the USA] or anti-USA  values, with subtle allusion to US racism. The scenes with an argument between Michael (Orson Welles) and Arthur (Everett Sloan), with Elsa (Rita Hayworth) and George  (Glenn Anders ) looking on, is a good example.

Red Menace (Republic, 1949) shows some of the attributes of noir being used to attack ‘anti-Americanism’ and communist ‘subversion’ with a portrayal of a villainous Communist Party USA akin to the mafia.

Another critical example  is Body and Soul (Enterprise, 1947) which was written by Abraham Polonsky, later one of the Hollywood Ten. The film demonstrates how crime organised crime is effectively ‘business’ and capitalist business.  The film stars John Garfield, whose treatment by HUAC was possibly a factor in his early death. Both men were involved in a number of film noirs or films with liberal values and both had Jewish heritage. Polonsky would go on to write and direct Force of Evil (MGM, 1948).  This is the great ‘political’ film noir. The drama is set in the numbers racket, [organised gambling controlled by a criminal ‘mob’]. During the story a take-over is organised by a larger combine: the parallels with a critical observation of the operation of capitalism run throughout the film. The film includes wire-taps, surveillance, the ‘naming of names’, betrayal and tragedy. And in the personal dramas, interweaved with this corporate action, there is a frequently a strong sense of paranoia.

Named

The above is taken from the notes for a Study Day at the Swarthmore Centre in Leeds.

Wikipedia has detailed pages on ‘The Hollywood Blacklist’ with links to other Webpages.

The Inquisition in Hollywood Politics in the film community, 1930 – 1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, University of California Press, 1983 is the best study of HUAC in Hollywood that I have read.

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Obituaries, June 2015

Posted by keith1942 on June 13, 2015

There is an old saying, ‘deaths come in threes’. It certainly seems o this week, with three important names in the world of cinema.

 

As Mycroft Holmes

As Mycroft Holmes

Christopher Lee; I was amazed at how long was the list of his screen appearances on IMDB. He played not only in many films but also in several film industries. The newspapers are already ‘identifying’ his key roles. Mine are all early in his career. There affine later performances but in the early days he appeared in key and fine films.

There are the great Hammer horrors:

The Curse of Frankenstein 1957.

The Hounds of the Baskervilles 1959,

Dracula: Prince of Darkness 1966.

I saw all of them in the cinema whilst reviewers worried over my moral corruption. My taste in horror was settled in those films and their performances.

The Wicker Man (1973) sort of subverted hammer though I always thought the film was overrated, but Lee was its best feature along with the cinematography in the final sequence; by Harry Waxman.

And then there was The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). This is the finest portrayal of the great detective on film: but then it was written by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond and directed by Wilder.

Ron Moody with Oliver Reed.

Ron Moody with Oliver Reed.

Ron Moody: he also made a number of films but, for me, it is one performance that stands out: his Fagin in Oliver! (1968). The character is problematic in terms of prejudicial representation of Jewish people, (also true in the book). The BBC played an interview clips with Moody this morning. He said when the film came out he was most nervous about review that would appear in ‘The Jewish Chronicle’. To his relief the review stated that the film was ‘suitable family viewing’. He opined that this was the apogee of critical terms in the Chronicle.

Ornette Coleman.

Ornette Coleman.

Finally Ornette Coleman, a jazz rather than film performer. In fact he was one of the truly great innovators and performers in Jazz. Surely one of his recordings should be included in a desert island ten. However he scored one very appropriate film, The Naked Lunch (1991). And along with the recordings there is a film portrait, Ornette Coleman: Made in America (1985).

All will be missed. And I shall watch or listen to all three over the coming week. Especially Coleman who was the most active in recent years.

 

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Where I End & You Begin, UK 2014

Posted by keith1942 on May 31, 2015

 

Lyall's film

This film is in the form of a Cine-Roman: the most famous example being Chris Marker’s La Jetee (1962). The impression is given of a series of stills, thus exposing the basic form of what we call moving pictures. I love this form, both because of its subversive function but also because, when well done, it is poetic, atmospheric and can be immensely stimulating. In some ways it seems to me the cinematic equivalent of the Japanese Haiku, a form of brief poem with a highly conventionalised form.

So this particular example is by a friend of mine, Lyall. It does include a couple of sequences with traditional ‘moving’ images: something that occurs just for a few frames in the Marker film. This film also has a very effective voice-over and sparse but potent music. Lyall is studying music and sound on film.

Definitely worth a visit. If you type the term ‘Cine-riman’ into a search engine, once you get pass the advertising, you can find other examples. One of my other favourites is Despondent Divorcee.

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Far From the Madding Crowd, UK 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on May 11, 2015

far_from_the_madding_crowd_matthias_schoenaerts_carey_mulligan_1

When I saw the trailer for this film I was afraid that this was going to be an extremely conventional and clichéd heritage film. In fact, it is better than that, though given that there is already an excellent earlier version – from 1967 – at times it feels redundant. I have not yet been able to revisit John Schlesinger adaptation, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp. Since it is available I wait in hope that some adventurous exhibitor will screen it. I don’t really want to attempt it on video, for [like the new version] it is in colour and wide screen., I did feel that someone involved in the new version had watched the earlier, likely several times. This film is full of sequences which remind one of the former. This does not just apply to the opening sequence that introduces the characters of Gabriel and Bathsheba. There are later scenes that look so familiar: Troy’s furtive meeting with Fanny at the Fair: the announcement to Bathsheba of her husband’s suicide; and Boldwood’s final fateful scene in prison.

The film has distinctive aspects, one of the best being Carey Mulligan’s characterisation of Bathsheba; it is different from that offered by Christie and seemed to me closer to the heroine in Hardy’s original novel. Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel is passable, Michael Sheen as Farmer Boldwood is good, but I think neither characterisation matches that of Bates or Finch. Some of the minor characters are excellent; I especially liked Liddy (Jessica Barden). However, Tom Sturridge is not up to the Troy presented by Stamp,

The direction is fair, but seems inhibited by the script. Some sequences, both between the film’s Gabriel and Bathsheba and Bathsheba and Troy, are well done. The use of landscape is excellent. The sequence where Troy demonstrates his swordsmanship to Bathsheba is now set in woodland and looks splendid. And the change from the towering cliff line to the arable farmland is effective. But there are also odd close-ups of props and shots of vacant sets – in one case flowers, in another the Everdene mansion – that suggest rather than deliver some intended metaphor.

My sense is that part of the problem is in the script.  It seems to be attempting to be faithful to the novel, frequently quoting dialogue from the book.  But it strains at transferring to the more literal medium of mainstream film. There are several sequences where Gabriel is added to a scene involving Bathsheba and one or other of her suitors. Early in the film the separate meetings of Gabriel with Fanny and Fanny with Troy are combined, presumably to tie the plot together. And then there are odd ellipses which actually hinder one’s sense of characterisation. Gabriel’s flute, an important prop and skill, is also missing.

The initial accident that besets Gabriel’s farm and Bathsheba’s good fortune are reversed in the chronology. It would appear that the writer could not envisage a visual means of imparting Gabriel’s discovery. The important scene in terms of Bathsheba’s fortitude, when she rescues Gabriel from a smoke filled cabin, is missing. The sequence when Fanny calls to Troy in the barracks is gone: a scene that fills out his character. The swordplay display by Troy looks good, but again the 1967 version captures the description in the book: this does not. There is an important scene with a meeting between Troy and Boldwood missing and weakening the characterisation of both men. Towards the climax of the story Troy’s whereabouts becomes important. The 1967 version had a variation on that in the book, to good effect. This version settles for fleeting shots of Troy, again odd rather than effective.

The film opens with Bathsheba’s voice-over sketching in her life: and there is a single voice-over by her later in the film. However, there is little sense otherwise of Bathsheba’s subjectivity. We get one shot as she responds to the presence of Troy and later there is a shot of her view of Boldwood with different emotional tone. But for most of the film we share the point-of-view of the narrator, exemplified by the conventional shot/reverse shot technique. Similar conventional shots and moments occur frequently in the film. When Bathsheba leaves her aunt to take up the farm she has been left she is wearing a bright red coat. Fanny arrives at the wrong church for her wedding to Troy, opening the door on someone else’s wedding. Preparing to slip out and meet Troy, Bathsheba unwinds the plait in her hair. And the film is very fond of sequences where Bathsheba bestrides a galloping horse: thus when her sheep are stricken rather than sending a note to Gabriel she rides there herself.

01-far-from-the-madding-crowd_w1200_h630

The other inhibitor is the score for the film: I assume that royalties are being paid to Vaughan Williams executors. It is frequently over the top and swamps some of the subtleties that the script does offer. There is a key example in the opening and closing of the film. The opening sequence, as in the book, shows Bathsheba out riding in a leather jacket and trousers [the latter seems anachronistic]. As she lies back on her horse to pass under hanging branches she is observed by Gabriel, standing in a field. Then at the end of the film Gabriel has announced his intentions to emigrate to the Americas. After agonising over this Bathsheba sets out after him on horseback wearing the leather jacket but this time a skirt rather than trousers. . Catching Gabriel on a track Bathsheba dismounts: the dialogue is very close to the penultimate chapter in the novel. Prompted by Bathsheba Gabriel kisses her passionately and she responds [miles away from Hardy’s description]. The couple then turn and start to walk home with Gabriel leading the horse.  This sequence inverts the opening in a subtle comment on the relationship: but it is accompanied by a full orchestral score and rim lighting of the couple in close-up provided by the sun. The subtlety seems completely lost.

In fact the Hardy narrative offers a strong proviso on the apparently happy ending. And the 1967 film managed to suggest his with a scene of the couple sitting in the parlour, followed by a close-up of a model soldier on the mantelpiece. A touch of irony missing in the remake.

One improvement in the new film is the treatment of dogs. Both old George and young George [unnamed in the novel] are here. However, the film still treats this conventionally. young George’s presence is cut short. And instead of arriving at Everdene farm with Gabriel old George re-appears near the end. In fact, he is an important presence as Bathsheba wrestles with the choices that have arisen over the story. However, what we have here is another conventional trope, this time regarding endings.

Part of the pleasure of Hardy’s novel is the description of the background and the story’s community. Neither film really attempts to include this, though I felt that the earlier version did have a better sense of its ambience. At one point a schoolboy passes rehearsing a lesson to himself; Schlesinger’s team capture this moment, the new team miss it out. Both films fail to include the fact that both the Everdene and Boldwood farms are tenancies: an important class and economic aspect. The films are clearly intended as adaptations of the novel, rather than transformations or inspirations for a new style work. The credits of this new film include Fox Searchlight and the BBC. Clearly the producers wanted a recognisable genre film for audiences. If one has never read the novel the film could work fairly well, though even here I think the characters motivations will appear undeveloped.

Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd doe offer a series of pleasures that neither film essays and it is well worth reading and re-reading. If you do, then it is worth looking at Amy Jenkins; ‘Bathsheba and Me’ in The Guardian Review (11 October 2014).

 

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Strangers on a Train, USA 1951.

Posted by keith1942 on May 8, 2015

strangers on a train poster

I was able to revisit this film at the Leeds Young Film Festival. We were fortunate to have the film in a relatively good 35mm print. Intriguingly I realised later that this was the ‘pre-release’ version, which only came to light in 1995. Michael Walker, in Hitchcock’s Motifs (2005), provides a description of this version: it has additional footage but lacks the final humorous encounter by Guy and Ann on a train. Michael also makes the point that Strangers on a Train has the greatest number of the motifs that he identified across Hitchcock’s work: this makes it not only a very enjoyable but also a very interesting film.

The film has a striking opening as we follow two pairs of shoes from a taxi rank through Central Station to a waiting train. The shoes suggest something of the owners. The camera shots are deliberately placed in opposing angles. And when the shoes finally meet in the lounge car on the train a slight nudge provides an introduction. Guy Haynes [Farley Granger) is a restrained conventional character, a successful tennis star: he works for a US senator and is having a romance with his daughter Ann (Ruth Roman). Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) does not work but lives off his affluent parents: He is coded as gay. He appears exuberant and is obviously unconventional. What they have in common is a problem: in Guy’s case a separated and pregnant wife who will not divorce him: in Bruno’s case a father who he finds oppressive, ‘I hate him’. Out of this chance encounter the original Patricia Highsmith novel developed a distinctive murder mystery. If you are familiar with Highsmith’s writings then it will come as no surprise that the film makes considerably alterations to the plot of the novel, especially in the latter stages. Whilst the script removes the darker aspects of the novel it also introduces effective additions: for example the issue of competitive tennis which provides a suspenseful climatic sequence.

The audience can enjoy a film that has many of Hitchcock’s virtues. The plotting is ingenious and absorbing. The mechanics of the murder investigation are carefully spread out over the film. The character of the apparently innocent man provides a moral force to the tale. And the stylistic touches, including expressionist techniques and carefully suspenseful editing, add to the brio and allure of the film.

The most notable of these techniques is a reflection of a murder in the lenses of a pair of spectacles. The spectacles are passed to Guy by Bruno and then seem to disappear from the plot. They clearly suggest overtones of guilt but unlike another object – a lighter – their fate is unknown. Michael Walker also draws attention to another facet – both Miriam and Ann’s sister Patricia (Patricia Hitchcock) have a similar look, partly due to the spectacles they wear. He makes a general point regarding women characters who wear spectacles:

strangers-on-a-train

Apart from the connotations of ‘cleverness’ (in itself, a potential threat to a man), they also serve to draw attention to the fact that she was looking and lent her a certain intensity, the sort of intensity that men, apparently, find disturbing.

This is apt, for both Miriam and Patricia are ‘sassy’ women: they answer back to men. Miriam does this in an argument with Guy: Patricia to her father, a patriarchal figure who is also a lawmaker. Ann on the other hand is the dependent non-threatening woman. She stands by Guy even to the point when he appears to be guilty of a crime.

This gives the film a subversive edge, but the resolution – different from that offered by Patricia Highsmith – recoups this for the audience.

 

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Selma, USA 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on April 30, 2015

 

selma-movie

This is the best mainstream film that I have seen for some time: it is certainly better than the competitors that carried off Academy Awards. It may sound banal but perhaps the members of the Academy felt that honouring 12 Years a Slave in 2014 sufficed. Perhaps more tellingly, the only Oscar awarded to Selma was for Best Song ‘Glory’. It would seem that the US discourse around “race”, ethnicity and colour still suffers from stereotypes, such as Afro-Americans only make good entertainers and sports people!

Revisiting on film the Civil Rights movement in the USA of the 1950s and 1960s is like revisiting the European holocaust or some of the brutal events of colonial and neo-colonial history – always something of a shock. The sheer violence and viciousness of the system of oppression and apartheid turns out to be even more extreme than one remembered. Here the story is the organising of a march by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to pressurise President Johnson to pass a Voting Rights Act. The main aspect of the film is a portrait of both the public and private figure of Dr. Martin Luther King. But it is also a portrait of an important group of black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: of some key individuals involved in that struggle: and of other key political figures involved in these events, which occurred in 1965. The film presents and dramatises the conflicts between King’s public and private life: the tensions and conflicts in the black civil rights movement: and the conflicts within the US political establishment between leaders seen as liberal or conservative.

The film has a striking opening. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) stands in front of a mirror rehearsing a speech: his wife Coretta (Carmen Elogo) helps him adjust his tie/Ascot: Dr King receives the Nobel Peace Prize. As he delivers his speech the film cuts to a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A group of children playfully descend a staircase and a violent explosion, killing four young black girls, shatters the calm. The last sequence was shot using noticeable CGI techniques, which the film tends to eschew later on. It provides a shocking moment, which of course, was the frequent experience of black people in the South at that time.

The film continues with scenes from the private life of Martin and Coretta. We see the preparations by black leaders for the march, including some dissension and arguments. Cameos of ordinary black characters fill out the actual day to day experience of the black population. And there are high level meetings between President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King and his colleagues. One effective technique is the use of onscreen Teletype titles, which record the spying by the FBI on Dr. King and his colleagues. We also get a brief glimpse of J. Edgar Hoover.

The early parts of the film tend to the low key, with limited musical accompaniment. When we do hear it there is frequently a noticeable percussion strand.  Church meetings, where Dr. King’s charisma electrifies and galvanises the ordinary black population, punctuate the plot.

When the film reaches the actual march the drama and the onscreen violence increase dramatically. The sound of noises, such as truncheons hitting heads, are obviously increased in volume for effect. And the musical accompaniment moves up several notches: as the marchers cross a now famous bridge it swells with orchestral accompaniment: an infrequent trope in the film. This is the mode of the melodrama of protest, and the film very effectively uses those conventions to draw the audience and their sympathies to the courageous black marchers. Somewhat unusually in this genre, though the film ends with the torch of the struggle for Civil Rights carried forward, it does also close with an identifiable victory, the passage of the historic Voting Rights Acts. On screen titles chart the course of the central characters: the continuation of white-on-black violence: but also the effect of the right to vote for black citizens.

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Whilst in this sense the film is agitational it also addresses more complex matters. So the speeches and discussions by the black leaders gradually impart to the audience the actual mechanics of the racist denial of voting rights. The politics and political manoeuvring are also apparent: and the film delineates the actuality of non-violent protest in an extremely effective manner. The meetings with Johnson demonstrate how this ‘liberal’ politician was actually driven [like F.D.R.] by popular and organised pressure to effect the historic legislation of his Presidency. And the range of attitudes and prejudices within the political establishment are well aired. What the film does not essay, perhaps understandably given its intent, is an attempt to understand the basis of white prejudice in the way that it explores black resistance.

If the Academy’s Best Picture Award is for a film that has the highest quality in every department, [and is invariably an English language film], then I cannot think of a better candidate than Selma. Indeed, it is worthy of an Oscar in several other categories. It is beautifully produced, has an intelligent but highly dramatic approach to its subject, and this itself is an important topic and not just in the USA. I have seen the film thrice now, on each occasion there were good sized audiences who were clearly impressed by the film – you can tell by how many and for how long the audience sit through the final credit sequence. After the most recent screening the manager told me a number of people stopped to remark on the power and emotional impact of the film

The film is obviously well scripted, by British Paul Webb. However, in an interview in Sight & Sound (March 2015), the director Ava DuVernay explained how she had rewritten and added to the script. This was cleanly a substantial addition though she does not seem to have an onscreen credit: she does though get ‘a DuVernay film’. Judging by her comments she added considerably to both the intelligent and dramatic treatment of the subject. And whilst the film is serious it has its lighter moments. At one point Mahalia Jackson renders a spiritual down the telephone to hearten Dr. King. And when activists preparing for the final march hear that some Hollywood black stars, including Harry Belafonte, are coming to join them they break into a chorus of Deooooo! Daylight come….  [The opening lyric of a Belafonte hit].

The film is also conscious on the issue of gender. On the way to Selma the black leadership group stop at the home of a female activist for a meal: women nearly always provide the food in this film. When Malcom X appears to the chagrin of the black male leaders, Coretta King is deputised to meet and talk with him. However this is followed by a scene where Correta visit Martin in prison and shows herself more open to the political implications of the visit.

In addition to this DuVernay has ably marshalled a sizeable production team, all of whom should be commended for their inputs. The acting in the film has been duly praised and honoured. David Oyelowo has been singled out deservedly. Ironically along with two other fine performers, Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, we have a key ‘American film’ where major characters are performed by British actors. Carmen Elogo is excellent and so are the many performers working as colleagues of King. And the cameos are finely drawn with Ofrah Winfrey offering one as activist Annie Lee Cooper. White characters do tend to the stereotypical, but that too is in line with the intent of the film.

The cinematography by Bradford Young is excellent. At times mid-shots and close-ups takes us into the personal drama. But longer shots and high and low-angle shots accompany the action sequences. What struck me especially on the second viewing is the use of lighting. Young uses an amount of rim lighting, which is very effective in setting out the black faces with their darker pigmentation. In an early speech Dr. King tells the congregation that they must stand up ‘in the daylight’. This becomes a theme in the film, as the lighting develops a pattern of light and shadow, reaching its culmination at the final rally in Montgomery. Here in bright sunshine and standing before the white capital of the State, King addresses his jubilant followers. Just to give an example of two sequential scenes. At a moment of doubt in the campaign King has a conversation with a young activist in a car. They are partly in darkness, mainly lit by spill and reflective lighting. As the conversation develops we see moments where the light falls frontally on them. And in the following sequence a rejuvenated King stands with his colleagues in the brightness of the State Supreme Court Building and is joined by Coretta. [In what is almost now a convention Martin Sheen appears as the Judge].

The film was mainly shot on location. This in itself provides rich denotative and connotative meanings. A key site, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, was named after a southern general, Senator and one-tine leader of the Ku Klux Klan. There is a very effective recreation of the period both in settings and costumes. And there are nice touches that set off the subject. There is King and Johnston arguing beneath a portrait of George Washington. Then we see a Southern style meal eagerly despatched by the black leadership, waited on by a female black activist. The meeting between Malcom X and Coretta is shot against a brightly coloured stained glass window. Right at the end we see Johnson, with the Stars and Stripes on either side, siting regally in the Oval office. More subtly King’s home features a portrait of Gandhi. However, at one point marital tensions arise when Coretta is sent a tape recording by the FBI that suggests King’s extra-martial affairs: a small statuette of Gandhi, notable for his calls for purity, is positioned in the foreground.

And the film has a very effective and well-balanced soundtrack. Whilst the voices and accents seemed to be authentic the dialogue is mainly easy to follow. There is a judicious use of noise, which is amplified for the action sequences. And the music is minimal at times and then reaches effective crescendos at times of action. This is several times combined with well-known songs or offers music which clearly has a base in the spirituals beloved of the black communities. At one point as police violence is meted out to the black protesters on a key site, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we hear Mahalia Jackson on the soundtrack: later, again on the bridge, the marchers are accompanied by Odette’s rendering of ‘Masters of War’. And at the end of the credits, after the Award winning ‘Glory’, there is a medley of protest songs sang by ‘workers in Selma’.

The end of the film uses archive footage of the actual march intercut with the film’s recreation. Both are in the 2.39:1 anarmorphic ratio, which means stretching or cropping the archive footage – this is not a technique with which I am happy but it seems to work well here. I did have other concerns. It seems that the production could not use King’s actual speeches as they are already copyrighted: though those in the film seemed perfectly in keeping with the King I remember from television and film. The speeches have been copyrighted to Steven Spielberg, who also planned a film on Martin Luther King. I assume that this production requested their use – I would have thought Spielberg could have been satisfied with offering an effective portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Finally the film was shot on 35mm but has been digitally re-mastered for cinema exhibition [and for other formats]. The re-mastering has been done at 2K. I do not think the 2K standard does justice to good quality 35mm. The longer the shot, the greater likelihood of a lack of definition and I noted this at times in this film. And given the film’s play with light and shadow the dynamic contrast of 35mm or 4K digital would have served this better. In the scenes with chiaroscuro there was sometimes a lack of definition in the background, and I am sure this would have improved with higher quality. When filmmakers are using 4K for digital film and exhibitors proudly advertise 4K projectors this seems an unacceptably stingy practice by producers and distributors.

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Religion and religious motifs are central to the film, as one would expect. In a key scene between the imprisoned King and a colleague, shot in chiaroscuro, we hear a quotation from the Gospel of St Matthew. King’s sermons/speeches to church congregations are vital moments in the development of the political campaign. Comments and discussions are full both of political and religious illustrations. And moment like the initial explosion or before the stained glass window constantly remind of the central role of religious experience and commitment in the black civil rights movement.

In terms of its politics this film is only partly radical, as you might expect when the distributor are C20th Fox and Pathé. A colleague suggested that the film reflected the politics of Ofrah Winfrey, who is also a producer. I only have a generalised notion of her political values, but the film is clearly reformist. One can see this in its treatment of the agreement between the black leadership and the US political establishment. It is clear again in the cameo for Malcom X, who in the last days of his life was rethinking his politics. However, the struggle around voting rights is mainly about the oppression of the black US population rather than their exploitation. In that sense the film charts an important opening up of black political power.

However, the film’s ending does emphasise one side of the struggle. Among the end credits, which give ‘what next’ for the main characters, we find a woman who shortly afterwards was killed by the Ku Klux Klan. And of course, Martin Luther King, Malcom X and even George Wallace died or suffered from extreme violence. But others leaders, like Andrew Young, had successful political careers: the dominant tone here. Yet in recent US elections it has been clear that, especially in the South, that the restriction of entitlement for black voters is a continuing problem. There are the continuing series of deaths of Afro-Americans at the hands of the police.  And Barack Obama, who obviously approves of this film, himself still suffers some of the derogatory attacks endured by King and his colleagues decades earlier.

Still this is a powerful and moving drama with a lot more politics at its core that is the norm for Hollywood.  If you see one Oscar winning film this year, make it Selma – you will be absorbed, shocked, moved and entertained.

 

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Citizen Kane, USA 1941

Posted by keith1942 on April 27, 2015

Nurse

In September 2012, in a Film Extra programme at the National Media Museum, we followed up the Sight & Sound once-in-a-decade Poll of the ‘Greatest Film of All Times’. Given that it seems irrefutable that no single person has seen every film ever made the Poll needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt. However, the Museum programmed the top three films in the recent Poll – Vertigo (1958), Citizen Kane (1941) and Tokyo Story (1953). There was a chance to discuss the films and the Poll following the screenings with myself pitching for Citizen Kane, Jen [the then Education Officer) pitching for Vertigo and Roy (of ITP World) pitching for Tokyo Story.

It is worth noting that Citizen Kane was the only one of the three screened in 35mm: the other two were screened from DCPs. I have seen all three films a number of times. I found that the critics first choice, Vertigo, did not really stand up to another viewing. Citizen Kane delighted me as much as in earlier viewings: it is the film that has the most panache. Tokyo Story also stood the test of an umpteenth viewing: and since this film and that by Orson Welles represent entirely different types of cinema, how do you compare or contrast them?

I was reminded of that earlier occasion when I noted an article in the Review section of The Guardian (Saturday April 25th) in which Peter Bradshaw discussed the memorable Welles film. In particular he claimed to offer a new reading of that most famous word from the film, ‘Rosebud’. He joins a long line of interpreters of this particular metaphor, as it is nearly always seen to be. I have a feeling that I have made this point on earlier occasions and surely someone else has, though I do not remember reading it. How does anyone know what is the final breathy word of Charles Foster Kane. In the film a series of cuts carry us through the grounds of Xanadu: a further cut transports the camera and the audience into the chamber where Kane lies dying. Only after he breaths his final word and drops the snow toy does a nurse enter the room. There appears to be no one else in the room at this point?

The explanation usually relies on a line of dialogue by Raymond, the major domo at Xanadu. He, with other servants, heard Kane say ‘Rosebud’ after Susan leaves, and Kane was also holding the snow toy then. Raymond adds a repetition for Thompson, ‘that other time’, the death sequence. But why would Raymond be alone in the chamber with the dying Kane. There is no acknowledgement by the nurse to any one when she enters the room. It is entirely plausible that since no one heard Kane’s final word or words that Raymond invented it for the newspapers. He is certainly trying to milk the journalists for money.

At a more general level the film critiques the reliability and reliance of memories. Those of different characters contradict each other. And they clearly suffer from the personal stance of the character. But more than  this memories can represent very different experiences. Thompson, the investigative reporter, interviews Berstein, Kane’s old manager. He asks him about Rosebud and Berstein suggests ‘some gal’.  He expands.

  “One day back in 1896 I was crossing over the Jersey on the ferry. And as we pulled     out there was another ferry pulled in. And on it there was girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. And she was carrying a white parasol. And I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t got by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

Visually a series of symbols seemingly refer to Rosebud – a number of these are consigned to the flames of the final furnace. Among them is at least one of the jigsaw puzzles that occupied Susan in Xanadu. Certainly Rosebud can be seen as piece of a jigsaw puzzle, the final piece in the film. Individually not that significant, but in terms of the whole puzzle it takes on added connotations. And the structure of the film resembles the playing of a jigsaw puzzle: a point suggested by Thompson’s final lines of dialogue.

Covering slight holes in the plot is a common device in Hollywood films: so Raymond’s line ‘explains’ the characters’ knowledge of Rosebud. Given how smart Welles and Mankiewicz were I am sure they noted this cheat. I rather imagine they had moments filled with quiet chuckles as they read the interpretations offered for this single word.

As the journalist Thompson remarks,  “I don’t think one word can explain a man’s life”. Nor indeed does the sledge, which the privileged audience seen consigned to the flames. What Rosebud really does is subvert the apparent closure of the film. Thompson goes back to his news agency; the audience go home, but Kane remains, the enigma. Surely one of the reasons that the film has endured so long.

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A Matter of Life and Death,

Posted by keith1942 on April 23, 2015

Title

This film recently, screened in the Leeds Young Film Festival, is one of the finest of the collaborations between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It has a well-written script, the assemblage of conventional and unconventional film techniques, and an oddly quirky but romantic sense of British/English culture. Moreover the film includes contributions by one of the best production teams that Powell and Pressburger worked with. There is Jack Cardiff, possibly the finest cinematographer to work in the Technicolor format. Alfred Junge and Hein Heckwith’s Production Design are both stylish and apt. The editing by Reginald Mills offers the necessary continuity but at other points introduces contrast and counterpoint. And Allan Gray, who had already worked on I Know Where I’m Going, provides music that is both apt and offers well grounded motifs.

There is also a very fine cast. David Niven combines feeling with a sharp edge in the character of Squadron leader Peter Cartwright:

”We also saw, for the first time, the real David Niven: shrewd, kind, quick-witted and full of fantasy, the image of our hero Peter …”

Kim Hunter achieves a genuine sense of emotional feeling as June:

“When she acted, imagination and intelligence showed in every line she spoke.”

Between them Roger Livesey manages the character of Dr. Frank Reeves as on one hand a bluff Englishman, on the other hand one with a strain of committed idealism. And Marius Goring is a sheer delight as the French aristocrat reduced to heavenly work as Conductor 71. There is a Powell regular Kathleen Byron, unfortunately, apart from one fleeting Technicolor close-up, only seen in the monochrome sequences of the film. Robert Coote is the cheery, but now dead, radio operator [sparks] Bob. And then there are visiting stars like Raymond Massey (as Abraham Farlan) bringing the requisite ‘American’ touch to the film.

The plot of the film involves earth and ‘the other world’; though the word ‘heaven’ pops up in the dialogue. And the odyssey of the hero, crossing from life to death, would seem to address for many in the contemporary audience a sense of an after life, which still retained religious connotations. The film certainly speaks to the loss and grief, which was the experience of so many who themselves survived the war.

Revisiting the film for the umpteenth time I was struck by the complexity of tropes, motifs and generic facets that combine in this film. The Red Shoes offers a greater intensity: Black Narcissus offers more exotic and sensuous settings: but this film seems to explore the philosophical predilections of the duo in great depth. The complexity can be illustrated to a degree by looking at the generic aspects of the film.

War Movie:

Lancaster

This is the obvious aspect of the plot: a love affair threatened by the exigencies of armed conflict. After the introduction the film offers a splendid sequence as a crippled Lancaster bomber attempts to return to its base and England. The military personnel and institutions dominate both the earthly sequences and the heavenly sequences of the film. Whilst the film does not dwell on sadness and loss, we are constantly reminded by characters who have paid the ultimate price in armed conflict.

Romance:

This offers the emotional heart of the film and viewers are likely to identify with and root for the young lovers. In classic generic mould love is threatened by forced separation. Whilst familiarly this has a religious aspect the film manages to find a daring alternative to the norm. The technique of monochrome and Technicolor alternation reaches a climax when ‘the other world’ finally enters its rich palette. And in terms of that film study favourite Propp we have – a villain – Farlan: a donor – Reeves: a helper – Bob: a princess – June: a dispatcher – Conductor 71: a hero/victim – Peter. All we are missing is a false hero.

Peter June

An Atlanticist paean:

This particular type of film is especially strong in the war years and early post-war years. Powell and Pressburger’s earlier films touch on the topic of the ‘special relationship’ between Great Britain [as it then liked to term itself] and the United States. The 49th Parallel is set in Canada but clearly wishes to draw political parallels between the culture of Britain and the culture of North America. The presence of Raymond Massey in both films is intriguing. In A Matter of Life and Death the script deftly resolves past tensions and cements the new alliance in the union of ‘British boy’ and ‘American girl’.

Science fiction:

Not an immediately obvious genre for the film but the opening sequence takes us on a brief trawl across the universe and then arrive on earth. Early in the film Conductor 71 is able to make ‘time stand still’ or as he explains

“We are talking in space not time.”

This is a staple of the genre: one can imagine that G. K. Dick enjoyed or would have enjoyed this film. Moreover in the heavenly sequences we have that familiar pre-occupation of the science fiction film, the form of a future society. Sci-fi’s preoccupation with technology is there with the military hardware and with the Camera Obscure: and one shot of the ‘heavenly records’ looked from above like a modern computer board.

Records

Psychological drama:

Peter is suffering from a mental illness, but aspects of it can be seen as a form of psychosis. The title tell us that one world

“… exists only in the mind …”

The film, unlike Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), is not that interested in the psychoanalytical. However it share with the Hollywood film psychological states presented in dream sequences and a very distinctive mise en scène for these.

Medical drama:

The central conflict of the film resolves around the illness suffered by Peter and the treatment of this by the several doctors. And the climatic sequences of the film cut between heaven and the operating theatre. Indeed to the resolution of the film is at once both medical and judicial.

Courtroom drama:

The climax and resolution of the film occur in the heavenly court. And in earlier sequences we have briefings between prosecutors and between the defendant and his counsel. Very cleverly the film crosses over between its two worlds in these characters. The final witty touch is that one and the same actor plays surgeon and judge.

Political film:

This type of film is not that common in British cinema. But a sense of wider political culture informs a number of Powell and Pressburger’s films: especially The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Canterbury Tale. But this film addresses such values in the most direct manner and takes these issues farther. Especially in the declamations to the court by Prosecutor Farlan and Defence Council Dr Reeves we hear aired both contemporary political debates and past debates that still inform the presence.

A film about literature:

Stairway

Peter Cartwright is a poet and he is inclined to frequently quote other poets including Andrew Marvell and refers to the classics, as with Plato. We have witty rehearsal of a scene from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Dr Reeves has published in medical journals: Conductor 71 ‘borrows’ a book on chess from Peter: and literary figures loom large on the impressive staircase running from earth to heaven. At the resolution the Judge makes a witty remark about Sir Walter Scot.

A film about cinema:

The obvious point here is Dr Reeves’ Camera Obscura. And there is the use of both monochrome and Technicolor cinematography. Conductor 71, on the first visit to this world [earth], remarks,

“One if starved for Technicolor up there.”

Numerous critics have discussed the striking techniques involved in a monochrome ‘heaven’ and a Technicolor earth. But the eyelids that close at the start of the operation also have a cinematic feel.

Canine friendly:

Obscura

The film starts well. Peter walks along a beach, under the misapprehension he is in the ‘other world’, heaven? A black Labrador barks at him and as he walks over to pat the dog he remarks,

“Oh, I always hoped there would be dogs.”

A little later, as Dr. Reeves unveils his new lens on his Camera Obscura: his view of the village is shared by two cocker spaniels [belonging to Michael Powell. But then the cut that introduces June also removes the dogs and they never ere-appear. A mainstream convention that Powell and Pressburger often avoid.

This rich tapestry of motifs and references is one factor which enables the film to work for an audience seventy years on from its initial release. The film’s sense of Englishness and of ‘American’ culture have now past on, in the manner of Farlan and even Reeves, in the film’s plot. But the cultural sensibilities the two filmmakers and their colleagues bought to the work continue to effect a rewarding 104 minutes of proper cinematic pleasures.

 

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The Tin Drum / Die Blechtrommel, West Germany 1979

Posted by keith1942 on April 17, 2015

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Gunther Grass died in the last week. A towering figure in recent world literature, his most famous work also became a famous film. I have read the novel twice: the second time to prepare for a screening of the film version [in 35mm] as part of a series at York City Screen of European Classic on Film. The other three screenings were The Lady With a Dog from Chekhov: La Bête Humaine from Emile Zola: and That Obscure Object of Desire from Pierre Louys’ The Woman and the Puppet. The Tin Drum was the fourth and final screening. On the way to York that morning I read [as usual] the Saturday Guardian: the best section being the Review. That issue opened with a long article by Salmon Rushdie on adapting literature into film: and he ended by singling out the film version of the Günther Grass novel as a fine example of this art. One could list other adaptation of the same calibre and, as I suggest below, the adaptation has limitations: still it is a great example of the craft and a worthy addition to memorials to the novelist.

Günther Grass’s book, first published in 1959, is reckoned to be the finest novel published in Germany since the end of World War II. [Both the Penguin and Vintage editions are translated by Ralph Manheim]. It is also a key work, dramatising Germany’s pre-occupation with its past, especially the period of the Third Reich: the extreme nationalism, the wars and the European Holocaust. These remain potent themes, witness the success of the recent fictional work, The Reader / Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink.

Grass’s story is focused on Oskar, a unique individual who stopped growing at the age of three years, and refuses to grow to adult size. He is also gifted with an unusually piercing scream, which punctuates the story of his life. And he plays with, to great effect, the instrument in the title. Oskar narrates his tale from a mental institution, where he has been committed, in the 1950s.

The narration is unusual. Oskar switches from first to third person and back again repeatedly. The book is structured around flashbacks, so the reader constantly returns to Oskar in the then present. The style of the book is far from the naturalism of Zola. The narrative is full of bizarre events, presented alongside detailed descriptions of actual places and of re-created historical actions. Oskar commences his tale in 1899 with the meeting of his grandparents: then takes us through the birth of his mother, her marriage and his own conception in 1924. Thus most of Oskar’s childhood and adulthood are passed under the shadow of the rise of Fascism and of the Third Reich.

Grass sets the novel in his hometown of Danzig. This is a potent spot in modern German history. Danzig was part of Prussia and therefore acceded to the new German Empire in 1871. After World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the creation of a Polish State dramatically moved the borders in this region. Much of Prussia was ceded to Poland. In addition East Prussia was separated from the main mass of Germany. As an important and strategic port for the area Danzig was declared a ‘Free City’ under the protection of the League of Nations, [in January 1920]. It had its own administration, currency and so on. Poland, which surrounded this small territory, had a military presence on the Westerplatte and a Polish Post Office. According to the census taken in 1934, Danzig had 383,955 inhabitants, 96 % Germans, 3 % Poles, Kashubians; 60 % Lutherans, 35 % Catholics. Predictably the separation from the ‘German fatherland’ caused outrage among German–speakers in Danzig and in Germany itself.

In the 1930s the National Socialist Party increased its representation in the city. There was also an increasing emigration from the small Jewish population. In November 1938 the city introduced the Nuremberg Race Laws. In 1939 Hitler demanded a ‘korridor’ between Germany and its province of East Prussia. In August the Danzig Gauleiter staged a coup d’etat. Then on September 1st a German warship opened fire on the Westerplatte. The invasion of Poland and the European war had commenced. The Polish Post Office became a battleground. Danzig was annexed to the Third Reich.

Early in 1945 the Red Army conquered the city which it placed under Polish administration. This was followed by large-scale migration from the city by German-speakers. After the war the port remained in Poland and became known as Gdansk. As the latter city it was to have further dynamic and influential conflicts.

THE FILMMAKERS.

Volker Schlöndorff was an appropriate person to transpose the novel to the screen. There had been several earlier attempts, which came to nought. Schlöndorff had already directed several screen adaptations from literature. His first film, which was very well received, was Der Junge Törless (Young Torless, 1966, from the novel by Robert Musil). The film was set in the turn-of-the-century German boarding school, critically examining its cruelties. [This has been a theme in a number of German films: there are parallels with Michael Haneke’s recent The White Ribbon / Das Weise Band Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte, 2009].

Schlöndorff was equally apt because he was a member of a group which was to become the New German Cinema. Junger Deutcher Film was inaugurated in 1962 with the issuing of the Oberhausen Manifesto. This was a group of 26 writers and filmmakers who demanded freedom from industry conventions and commercial strictures. They were able to make their way at this time through government grants, support by a new Film Institute in Berlin, and with financial support by German Television. The group included [besides Schlöndorff], Edgar Reich and Jean-Marie Straub. To these were added directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Hertzog and Wim Wenders. The films had disparate styles but the common bond was a critical approach, both to the question of Germany’s past, and to the ‘bourgeois complacency’ of contemporary Germany. This did not always translate into success at the domestic box office, but many of the films were critical successes and fared well on the International Art Circuit.

Schlöndorff Young Torless fitted in with this critical approach, as the film could be read as a metaphorical indictment of German complicity in the crimes of Nazism. His wife, Margarethe von Trotta, who started as an actress, also took up film direction. Her Die Bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters, 1979) examined the impact of such movements as the Red Army Faction or Baader-Meinhoff Group.

The Tin Drum / Die Blechtrommel, 1979. West Germany / France.

Bioskop Films Artemis Films & Argos Films.

Director: Volker Schlöndorff. Screenplay: Jean Claude Carrière [familiar from Bunuel’s films], Volker Schlöndorff, Franz Seit, and Günter Grass [who is credited with dialogue].

Cinematography: Igor Luther. Editor: Suzanne Baron. Production Design: Nicos Perakis. Music Maurice Jarre. The film is in colour and European widescreen. Running time 142 minutes. German with English subtitles.

Cast: Mario Adorf – Alfred Matzerath. Angela Winkler – Agnes Matzerath. Katharina Thalbach – Maria Matzerath. David Bennent – Oskar Matzerath. Daniel Olbrychski – Jan Bronski. Tina Engel – Anna Koljaiczek (young). Berta Drews – Anna Koljaiczek (old). Charles Aznavour – Sigismund Markus. Roland Teubner – Joseph Koljaiczek. Tadeusz Kunikowski – Uncle Vinzenz. Andréa Ferréol – Lina Greff. Heinz Bennent – Greff. Ilse Pagé – Gretchen Scheffler. Werner Rehm – Scheffler. Käte Jaenicke – Mother Truczinski. Helmut Brasch – Old Heilandt.

The Tin Drum was one of the most financially successful German films of the 1970s. It won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and was jointly awarded the 1979 Palme d’Or at Cannes, along with Apocalypse Now.

Predictably the film both compresses and shortens the novel, which itself ran to 580 pages. For example, the opening sequence concerning Oskar’s grandparents leaves out quite a lot of writing and plot. Similarly, in the course of the novel certain sequences are eliminated. But many of the most powerful, like the Nazi rally in Danzig or the battle at the Polish Post Office, remain.

The film also alters the narrative voice. We still have Oskar’s commentary, but the flashback structure has been replaced with a linear form. More drastically, the film ends in 1945 as Oskar and his family joined the evacuation of the German-speaking citizens. This leaves out Part Three of the novel, about 150 pages. The written story carries on until 1954 and contains ironic developments in Oskar life, which comment obliquely on post-war Germany.

Another important change stems from the casting. Oskar is played by the 12 year old David Bennent, [brilliantly]. However, in the novel Grass insistently tells the reader that Oskar develops: though he remains in a child size body.

The film did suffer some attempted censorship in the USA. This was mainly due to objections to the explicit sex scenes, and [I suspect] the outrage was exacerbated by the child-like central protagonist.

The-Tin-Drum-1979

About his preference for screen adaptations Schlöndorff has said:

“A great part of my experience in life is reading. A filmmaker translates an experience into cinema. And I consider it legitimate to translate my reading experience into film to try to recall what moved me.”

And regarding the narrative stance of the film:

“It will not always work to stay in Oskar’s skin. Just as he speaks sometimes in the first person and sometimes, alienatingly child-like, in the third, so must the film narrative at times be quite subjective and at times show his shock from outside.”

[Quoted in Nazi-Retro Film How German Narrative Cinema Remembers the Past by Robert C. Reimer and Carol J. Reimer, 1992].

POSTSCRIPT.

Re-watching these films and listening to the discussion caused me to think again about the films and the categories of ‘film adaptation’ suggested by Geoffrey Wagner. Transposition – Commentary – Analogy. These categories were used each week as an analytical tool in relating the individual films to a more general ‘Literature on Film approach’.

Transposition, ‘in which a novel is given directly on the screen with a minimum of apparent interference.’

Commentary, ‘where an original is taken and with purposively or inadvertently altered in some respect … when there has been a different intention on the part of the filmmaker, rather than infidelity or outright violence.’

Analogy, ‘which must represent a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art.’

 

Lady with the Dog / Dama s Sobachkoi, 19159 – The stultifying social atmosphere in Chekhov’s writings is a symptom of the decadent Tsarist Society. Perhaps there is a subtle reading to be made of the film’s relevance to 1960s Russia. It was then part of a moribund Soviet Union, which had lost the revolutionary political and cultural impulse of earlier Bolshevik periods. One can imagine apparatchiks aping the ennui of Dimitry’s acquaintances.

La Bête Humaine, 1938 – Zola’s novel provides a scathing critique of the political culture of 1860s France. This is most notable in the final careering train with its troops off to the Franco-Prussian war; [none of the three versions that I have seen actually uses Zola’s amazing descriptive and symbolic conclusion]. That was a war that caused the political establishment to collapse. This is clearly a strand in the Renoir adaptation, but it is less overt than in the novel. In the following year, in 1939, Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu [The Rules of the Game] does provide a quite ruthless demolition of ruling class values.

So both the above films could be seen as using the novel’s narrative to provide a commentary on their own times.

That Obscure Object of Desire / Cet Obscur Objet du Désir 1977  – Louy’s novel seems to satirise C19th bourgeois sexual mores, through the stereotypes of Spanish machismo. These were popular stereotypes in literature. Bunuel’s adaptation retains that satire, but crosses it with themes of social and political violence, social ritual, voyeurism and tourism. Thus the film appears to draw analogies between the novel and contemporary society, but also between social, political and cultural contradictions. Thus I find the film much more subversive than the original book, [and two earlier film versions – a silent ‘porn’ version from 192 and the famous 1939 adaptation with Marlene Dietrich, The Devil is a Woman]. Also, whilst the film’s staging bears the recognisable signs of the 1970s, thematically it seems to me a powerful parable for the new C21st.

To a degree Renoir’s film version is an analogy. Undoubtedly, Buñuel’s work falls under analogy: in his case for the sake of art and of turning art upside down.

The Tin Drum – Before the discussion I remarked on how revisiting the book and novel had sharpened my sense of how the film curtails the narrative of the novel. It seems that Schlöndorff closes down Grass’s critique to a focus on the Third Reich and Nazism. This possibly makes the film more pointed, but it produces a slightly restricted ‘commentary’. The emphasis is on Germany’s ‘past’: an approach that ties in with the New German Cinema approach. The film is very much ‘adaptation’, for which Rushdie rightly praises it. The ‘commentary’ aspect relates to the ‘commentary’ in Grass’ novel, but in a restricted manner.

So the major problem with the film’s adaptation is that Grass critique of the post-Third Reich Germany is largely missing. This is a crucial theme across Grass’s work, culminating in his unfashionable opposition to the form taken for reunification. Moreover, Grass, especially in later works, addresses the problems of the ‘Soviet Liberation’ and the issue of the DDR. But in its treatment of the fascist period the film remains one of the most biting and powerful dissections of that period of German history. I still find The Tin Drum more politically powerful than recent parallel films like The Reader (2008) or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008).

I have recently seen the film adaptation of The Book Thief, a novel that I enjoyed immensely and which seems to be influence by Grass’s use of fantasy alongside realism. This later film just emphasises the quality of the Schlondorf film. If, as Rushdie argues, The Tin Drum is a great example of how to translate literature to film then The Book Thief is a text book example of how not to do so.

After the screenings, as at every session, we had a 20 to 25 minute questions and comments by the audience, composed of about 65 people. The final comment was by a young women who had attended all the screening and who usually had something interesting to say. I thanked everyone and said I hoped they had enjoyed the film and the morning. She sharply questioned my use of the word ‘enjoy’ and remarked on the grimness of the film. She was, of course, quite right. But I think she also agreed that enjoyment is only one aspect of cinema: there are other equally rewarding responses, and The Tin Drum feeds into a number of these.

Taken from the notes prepared for the York screening. Quotes by Grass in Nazi-Retro Film How German Narrative Cinema Remembers the Past by Robert C. Reimer and Carol J. Reimer, 1992. Adaptive categories in Geoffrey Wagner, The Novel and the Cinema, 1975.

Posted in German film, History on film, Literature on Film | Leave a Comment »

 
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