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Their Finest, UK, Sweden 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 27, 2017

This was a BBC project which enjoyed Stephen Woolley as a key producer and recruited Lone Scherfig as director. It was adapted from the novel by Lissa Evans, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, by Gabby Chiape. Stephen Woolley has written on the background to the film in Sight & Sound (May 2017) and there is also an interview with Lone Scherfig in this issue. All of them bring their particular talents to the film. This bears the hall marks of the BBC, both in the reconstruction of wartime Britain and in its particular sense of British values, from the 1940s and the C21st. Stephen Woolley appears to have spearheaded the research into the British film industry of the 1940s, which is the setting for this comedy/drama. Lone Scherfig shows the skill with actors that she demonstrated in An Education (2009) and the combination of comedy and drama that graced the earlier Italian for Beginners (2000). Gabby Chiape has previously written for television, [including ‘East Enders’] and whilst this is a big-screen film the  interactions have a familiar tone found in a certain area of television. The production values are excellent, notably some fine cinematography.

Set in 1940 the film follows the career of Catrin Cole (Gemma Atherton) when she is recruited to provide ‘women’s’ dialogue’ for feature films. She is recruited by the Ministry of Information and then placed in a commercial film company charged with producing ‘propaganda’ that offers ‘authenticity and optimism to inspire a nation’. The brief is also to feature stories about ordinary people including women. Catrin interviews two sisters whose exploit [exaggerated] provides the pitch for a drama around the Dunkirk Evacuation.

Catrin works with two experienced writers in a small office near Wardour Street. Their impresario is clearly modelled on Alexander Korda. The lead writer, Tom Buckley (Sam Caflin), is worldly wise in the ways of the industry. Their narrative becomes a ‘film within a film’, The Nancy Starling.

The cast are filled out with the members of the film production and Whitehall mandarins who are overseeing the project. There is a substantial role for Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard [‘Uncle Frank’ in the film within]. Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons both have sequences where they deliver the rhetoric of the period with aplomb. And the latter adds a ‘yank’ to the film, Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy) seconded from the RAF where he has volunteered as a fighter pilot. Carl has to be given acting lessons by ‘Uncle Frank’ but his presence means that the film will receive US distribution and is shot in Technicolor.

The pre-production sequences where the script emerges and the writers are embroiled in the departmental wartime politics work well. The productions sequences, with a film directed by a documentary filmmaker, capture the technical and conventional aspects of 1940s filming. And the ‘film within a film’ nicely parallels the developments in the actual feature.

The emphasis in the feature is on the writing aspects of film. The film production within this feature uses some settings with visual interest and also with humour. So there is a wry joke regarding ‘Uncle Frank’ and special effects: and a later one whilst shooting a scene in the studio water tank. As well as the ‘ham’ US actor there is [predictably] the rescue of a cute dog. However, there is much less attention paid to the film crafts people than to the writers. Thus the film is supposed directed by someone from the documentary film movement, but we never get any sense of this character. And this applies to the technical people such as cinematographer or sound engineer. And there is no real focus on the editing of the film.

What we do see is a visit by Catrin to a cinema where she watches [in a series of brief clips] the finished and distributed film. The audience at the screening are clearly both involved and entertained by the feature. We watch, in particular, the climax and ending of the film. By this stage we know that finally Catrin has been able to write in a sequence in which one of the sister performs a ‘heroic’ act. And we know that she has written the ending for the film after US distributors thought the original ending to ‘tame’.

This is the only part of the film that we see that has a documentary flavour. With a voice over by one of the characters, intoning the message of continued struggle and US support, there is a long shot of a couple seated on the harbour wall in a small port in Devon. [Actually shot in Pembrokeshire]. We have seen this shot earlier; it is in reality a test shot before the actual filming and is of two of the key characters in the feature itself. This precedes a final sequence where we see that Catrin has succeeded in becoming part of the established film writing team.

This ending takes on a special emotional feel because of development among the key characters in the feature’s story. Whilst the ending of a ‘film within a film’ provides a suitable war-time feel of ‘authenticity’, with ‘optimism’ in the commentary, the knowledge we have about this couple adds a real poignancy to the feature film’s ending.

The shooting of the film within a film in Technicolor is well done and enables the film to be predominantly in colour. Less happily we see extracts from 1940s films, [including the production in this feature] projected for viewers in Academy ratio and then [as clips] in reframed in the 2.35:1 ratio. I find this distracting and unnecessary; presumably the BBC was looking forward to television screenings. But I was also undecided just how well presented is the supposed 1940 film. In his article Stephen Woolley lists a number of British productions from the period that he and colleagues studied in order to gauge style and content. Most of these are familiar titles such as The Foreman Went to France (1940) or ‘Pimpernel’ Smith (1941): but there are also lesser known features such as Tomorrow We Live’(1944). This feature is placed in a period of transition from the 1930s style, frequently relying on conventional techniques and lacking authenticity, certainly in terms of working class characters, to the wartime ‘documentary influenced’ approach epitomised in a film like Love on the Dole (also 1941)..

The Technicolor films that spring to mind are those of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, later and a long way from either the feature or its film within. And there is an uneven tone, notably in the acting. Bill Nighy has been critically commended but I found his ‘Uncle Frank’ stagy for any sense of authenticity. This may be deliberate by the filmmakers,, but it left me unconvinced by the audience response in the cinema to this film within.

 

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An American Tragedy, the novel and the films.

Posted by keith1942 on April 20, 2017

One of my potent memories from my early film going days is of Montgomery Cliff and Elizabeth Taylor entwined in a kiss in A Place in the Sun (1951). For years the sequence remained the embodiment of romantic desire for me. I was not familiar with the literary version from which the film was adapted [via a play], Theodore Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy’ [published in 1925]. Then more recently I saw the 1931 version of the novel [with the original title] directed by Josef von Sternberg. By this time I was also aware that a version of the novel had been planned as part of Sergei Eisenstein’s abortive attempts to make a film in Hollywood. So I read the book: I also read ‘Sister Carrie’, another  Dreiser novel adapted by Hollywood, Carrie (1952), with fine direction by William Wyler and fine performances by Jenifer Jones and Lawrence Olivier.

An early 20th century novel, which judging by the library copy I borrowed is now little read, and two adaptations made in Hollywood more than fifty years ago sounds a little esoteric. But in its day the book was a best seller and very influential. Many critics and commentators also saw it as a compelling commentary on US society. Theodore Dreiser used a real-life murder as the basis for his plot of a young man who loves both a working girl and a rich socialite. Faced by the former’s pregnancy, he first tries abortion then killing. Dreiser maintained

“it could not happen in any other country in the world”.

That claim was illuminated by another book, Mandy Merck’s study of the novel and film versions [2007]. She comments

“the novel and its adaptations both constitute and are constituted by the convulsions of the nation state that is its protagonist and its theme”.

The book is concerned with the sociology of the protagonist’s fate, not the drama.

Merck discusses in detail the origins of Dreiser’s novel, (written whilst he worked in Hollywood), and the three film versions: one by Sergei Eisenstein, unrealised; one by Josef Von Sternberg for Paramount in 1931: and the most famous, directed by George Stevens for Paramount in 1951, A Place in the Sun. Merck points out in her introduction that she studies the authors, who include Dreiser, the directors who worked on the adaptations, and the economic authors, the Hollywood studios. She does this in an exemplary fashion, having clearly engaged in very detailed research.

So we get the development of Dreiser’s mammoth novel, running to 800 pages. Dreiser was an important contributor to a movement for realist fiction. He himself had researched the real-life love and affairs and subsequent murders that are the prime focus. He always carefully researched the places and people who fill his novels. H. L. Mencken commented,

“When he sent some character into an eating-house for a meal it was always some eating-house that he had been to himself, and the meal he described in such relentless detail was one he had eaten, digested and remembered.” (Introduction to the 1948 edition).

Another writer quoted in Merck’s volume opined,

“No one else confronted so directly the sheer intractability of American social life and institutions, or … the difficulty of breaking free from social law.” (D. Denby in 2003).

The length and complexity of this novel made for a daunting adaptation. It was one of the projects worked on by Sergei Eisenstein when he sojourned briefly in Hollywood in 1929. Dreiser’s depiction of class divisions and his sociological standpoint clearly appealed to Eisenstein. He worked up a script for a 14-reel version. Merck studies this in detail, and it promised to be an intelligent and cinematic version of the novel. Dreiser certainly gave his approval. However, it did not get past the studio bosses, presumably made nervous by moral and red-baiting would-be censors. The author’s discussion is interesting in terms of Eisenstein’s career, though I always wonder how either he or his companions seriously imagined they could make a film in Hollywood.

The Sternberg version seems mainly to have been an attempt to recoup some of the costs by the studio. Sternberg was interested in illusion and artifice rather than realism. A quote by Selznick runs,

“I don’t think he has the basic honesty, the tolerance, the understanding this subject absolutely requires, . . .”

Moreover, the imminent arrival of Hollywood system of censorship, the Hays Code, made the explicit subject of the novel difficult. On completion, Dreiser was appalled at what his original had become, and undertook legal action, but he lost.

The post-war version that was very much Stevens’ own project. But Ivan Moffat complained,

“Stevens was a romantic, so the bleak social picture painted by Dreiser took second place to the steamy love-affair between George and Angela” (the protagonist and his privileged amour).

Certainly the film’s centre was the on- (and off-) screen romance: which I vividly remember. It does also have the put-upon workmate/victim of George; a fine performance by Shelley Winters as Alice.

All four versions of the story suffered from censorship and social outrage, since the original plot contained seduction, attempted abortion, murder and official corruption. Some of those involved in the 1950s version were also caught up in the HUAC’s attack on the Industry’s ‘liberals’. Merck spends time on these various social angles and their impact on the succeeding projects, and the overall discourse of book and films.

The book develops into a compelling and informative study of Hollywood and its relationship to US society and the wider world. At the end of the book Merck notes that 2005 saw a version of the original novel at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House: and a faintly disguised borrowing in Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005, inferior). Even Jean-Luc Godard joined the act with a brief reference in Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989 – 1999)..

I certainly recommend Mandy Merck’s authoritative study. I also recommend Dreiser’s original ‘An American Tragedy’. The 800 pages do not seem so many when you get involved in the novel. Coincidentally, I have also recently re-read novels by Dreiser’s fellow realist, Upton Sinclair. So I am now resolved to read that other doyen of North American realism, Frank Norris. Hollywood famously filmed his ‘McTeague’ as Greed (1923), with equally problematic results. The director was Erich Von Stroheim, who, along with Eisenstein, was one of the filmmakers preferred by Dreiser for his own epic work.

‘Hollywood’s American Tragedies: Dreiser, Eisenstein, Sternberg, Stevens’ by Mandy Merck, Berg 2007.

Posted in Book reviews, Hollywood, Literature on Film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Elle, France, Germany, Belgium 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2017

This film has received much critical praise. In particular Isabelle Hubert in the lead role has been uniformly lauded, winning the Best Actress Award at the Golden Globes. At the same time there has been discussion and argument regarding the film’s subject, a woman’s reaction to rape. So this is a very effective title but also one which is somewhat controversial.

The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven, a filmmaker with a reputation for shocking audiences and tending to a degree of exploitation, especially of sex and violence. The best known example would be Basic Instincts (1992). However, I think that there is some difference in content and tone between his films made in Hollywood [the majority] and films made in Europe. In particular Black Book (Netherlands, Germany, UK, Belgium, 2006) struck me as less than conventional with its study of a Jewish women who is caught between the Dutch resistance and the German occupiers during World War II. More generally Verhoeven has the ability to take genre films in unconventional and unexpected directions. His Hollywood film Total Recoil (1990) is one of the more distinctive contributions to the science fiction genre. This likely depends in part on his collaborators. Total Recall was adapted from a work by Philip K. Dick whilst Black Book was scripted by the writer of the original novel Gerard Soeteman.

Elle opens on an assault of Michéle Le Blanc (Isabelle Hubert) by a masked man in her own home. This is violent and kinetic action. The rest of the film studies her responses which include her relations with an ex-husband and son, her woman friend and partner, a lover, and two neighbours. There are two flashbacks to the initial rape, a further assault and a sequence of what is termed ‘rough sex’. There are two important strands. One if Michéle’s response to the experience. The other, which interacts, is the unmasking of the perpetrator.

The rape sequences are treated in a typical visceral fashion by Verhoeven. And we return to these several times. The violence in the film is added to by a family connection to a series of brutal killings. And both are reinforced by the video game company that Michéle runs with her friend Anna (Anne Consigny); in fact the video game aspect is part of a series of false leads that the film exploits. All of these lends credence to the argument by Ginette Vincendeau in Sight & Sound (April 2017) that the film ‘crosses the line’.

However, the character of Michelle as presented by Hubert is far more complex. We see her interactions with her friends, her management at work, and her solitude [importantly with a cat].. Her comments to other characters and the more ambiguous allusions lend weight to the argument by Erika Balsom in S&S that the film ‘explores’ rather than crosses the line.

I found myself being partially convinced by both sets of arguments. My feeling is that the film is on the borderline between a serious study and a piece of exploitation. Borderlines are a common feature of Verhoeven’s work. And indeed they are also familiar in the screen work of Isabelle Hubert.

The generis of the film is interesting. It is based on a French novel which was translated in order to provide a basis for an English-language script pitched to US majors. That failed and seeing the film one can understand why. When Hubert expressed interest the film the script then had to be translated into French. This is a intriguing comment on international film production. But it seems to me that this process, and especially the presence of Hubert, accounts for the ambiguous status of the film. One aspect of the plot which I suspect was left over from the US version of the script is the video game company. I found this the weakest aspect of the film: in the book Michéle and Anna run a team of scriptwriters. The latter is much more in keeping with the characters we see in the film.

Of course, Verhoeven has a tendency to want to ‘have his cake and eat it to’. Inflammatory material for the box office, intriguing thematic angles for critics. But I am finally more impressed than disturbed by the film. It is the best of the Verhoeven films that I have seen. And Isabelle Hubert’s performance is riveting, and that of an actor whose work over a number of decades stands out triumphantly.

Posted in European film, Literature on Film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Derek Jarman – 1942 to 1994.

Posted by keith1942 on April 7, 2017

ARTIST, FILMMAKER, DESIGNER, WRITER, POET, GARDENER, ACTIVIST.

 

The Hebden Bridge Picture House recently screened Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) from a 35mm print in their ‘reel’ film series. The print was rather worn with quite a few scratches but the definition and contrast were fine and the colour palette was great. Running for 93 minutes the film was originally by the BBFC classified at 18 and is now reclassified at 15. It was funded by the BFI / Channel 4. The script by Derek Jarman was developed from an idea by Nicholas Ward Jackson who was also associate producer.

The cinematography was by Gabriel Beristain, using Fuji film processed by Technicolor. This was excellent photography; the colours were vibrant and evocative of the artists’ work, especially in the sequences as he created his paintings. The Production Design was Christopher Hobbs who recreated the Italian settings in a London studio. As with all of Jarman’s films the design combined period recreation with anachronistic contemporary styles. The editing by George Akers worked up a complex series of flashbacks across Caravaggio’s life.  Simon Fisher Turner’s music, as with the design and narrative, combined period style with the contemporary. .

Nigel Terry played the adult Caravaggio and Dexter Fletcher the young artist. Sean Bean, early in his career and looking beautifully muscular, played Ranuccio. Michael Gough was at his urbane and ironic best as Cardinal del Monte. Tilda Swinton played Lena; Nigel Davenport Gustiani; and , and Robbie Coltrane in an unusual role was Scipione Borghese. The budget of about £500,000 was extremely well spent and the film looked more expensive.. The film was awarded a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The larger than usual budget [for Jarman] accounts for the number of well-known actors in the cast list. This was the first film on which Jarman worked with Tilda Swinton, who was to become a close friend and colleague. The film traces episodes in the life of the C16th painter, presented as the flashbacks of the dying artist. The film has a stronger plot than is usual in a Jarman film, but its overall effect is one of a series of tableaux. The film displays homoerotic imagery but also explores the social and economic side of the artist’s life. And the film explores the labyrinthine recesses of church and church patronage in the period.

Derek Jarman’s parents married at the beginning of World War II and his father went off to serve as an officer. The family moved around in his childhood and his father was part of the post-war reconstruction in Europe. Derek had a traditional boarding school education. So his formative years were in a post-war England where cultural changes lagged behind major economic and social changes. The cultural changes became noticeable in the 1960s with political activism, the development of Gay Liberation and of the Feminist movements. There were associated developments in the world of film. In both the USA and the UK avant-garde filmmakers, in an Underground Cinema, experimented with alternative formats like Super 8 mm and 16 mm whilst working way outside the conventions of mainstream cinema.

Derek Jarman studied at King’s College and then the Slade School of Fine Art. Here he developed his artistic skills and interests. But he also ‘came out’ as a homosexual. Along with Fine Art he also studied Theatrical Design. It was in the latter field that he first achieved notice and paid employment: for a production at the Royal Opera House.

He and a friend occupied a glorified squat and it was at a party held there that he met Ken Russell. Whilst they were rather different artists there are intriguing overlaps between these two ‘enfant terrible’ of British culture. Russell invited Jarman to work on the set designs for his infamous The Devils (1971). The film has still not had a cinematic release in a full uncut version. Jarman’s sets were notable and one of the critically praised aspects of the production. Jarman also worked on Russell’s subsequent film Savage Messiah (1972).

It was in the early 1970s that Jarman started experimenting with Super 8 mm film. He went on to produce a large number of experimental Super 8 films and also what were effectively Super 8 ‘pop videos’, especially of Punk Rock bands. Jarman continue to work on Super 8 after he progressed to 16 mm and 35 mm filmmaking. So two later feature length films, The Angelic Conversation (1985) and The Last of England (1987) were originated on Super 8. Derek recalled being influenced by Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger and also Stan Brakeage.

He entered cinematic filmmaking with Sebastiane (1976) shot on 16mm in colour and running for 85 minutes. It had Latin dialogue with English subtitles. The film was originally given an X certificate and is now classified at 18. Megalovision, James Whalley and Howard Malin. Co-directors Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress. Script: James Whalley and Derek Jarman. Cinematography Peter Middleton. Production Design Derek Jarman. Editing Paul Humfress. Music Brian Eno. Cast: Leonardo Treviglio, Barney James, Neil Kennedy, Richard Warwick, Ken Hicks, Gerald Incandela, Christopher Hobbs. Budget £35,000.

The film is set in the 4th Century and presents the story of a Roman soldier Sebastiane, later canonised by the Catholic Church as a martyr. The film was an impromptu affair. It was filmed in four weeks on the Island of Sardinia and the production crew was very much a gay circle of friends. The film is self-consciously homoerotic and remarkably explicit for the period. The use of Latin dialogue is almost unique. It achieved a certain cult status, especially in Italy and Spain. Jarman recalled that in the USA it circulated on the porn cinema circuit. He also reckoned that there was quite a box-office return for exploitation distributors. The film already displays qualities one associates with Jarman: a painterly visual sense, less concern with narrative and sometimes anachronistic depictions of period and settings.

His next feature was Jubilee (1978). Shot on 16mm in colour and running 103 minutes. The film was originally certified as an X and later reclassified – first at 18 then at 15. A Whalley-Malin Production. Scripted by Derek Jarman. Assistant director Guy Ford. Cinematography Peter Middleton. Production Design Kenny Morris and John Maybury. Costumes Christopher Hobbs. Editors Nick Barnard and Tom Priestley. Music Brian Eno. Cast: Jenny Runacre, Little Nell, Jordan, Toyah Wilcox, Wayne County, Adam Ant, Ian Charleson, Karl Johnson, Neil Kennedy, Richard O’Brien, Jack Birkett. Budget £70.000.

The film envisages a time travel journey by Elisabeth 1st forward to England in the 1970s. The film is provocatively iconoclastic, really inventive and often feels completely improvised. The crew was a mixture of gay activists and performers and members of the punk rock world.

The film appeared when the British Board of Film Censors, developing a relatively liberal treatment for films deemed ‘adult’, was coming under increasing fire from conservative moralists, including the Festival of Light. Jarman recalled meeting with a censor from the Board, whose concern was less with the film film’s content than the likely response of moral critics. It seems that they agreed a five-second cut from one sequence. The current release runs for just on 106 minutes, three minutes less than the original 109 minutes. However, it is listed by the BBFC as ‘uncut’?

In 1979 Jarman filmed a version of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This was also shot on 16mm but had a larger budget, £150,000. The film was mainly funded by producer and director Don Boyd: who also supported the later The Last of England and War Requiem (1989). The film was made in an old country house and involved a number of familiar colleagues of Jarman. Apart from a rather camp finale the film was relatively traditional in its treatment of Shakespeare’s classic play.

Jarman continued to work on Super 8 and also experimented with the relatively new VHS video format. His The Angelic Conversation, originated on Super 8, was supported by the BFI onto a 35mm format and given an airing by Channel 4. A gay affair was accompanied by readings from Shakespearean sonnets by Judi Dench.

The next full feature film only appeared in 1986. This was partly due to the furore around explicit films created by moral critics. The MP Winston Churchill moved an Obscenity Bill in Parliament and claimed that Sebastiane and Jubilee were films

‘‘that the British public should not be allowed to see’!

Jarman response was to comment that if Rainer Werner Fassbinder was working in Britain he would probably be forced to still rely on Super 8.

In 1990 Jarman was diagnosed with Aids and this became a theme in his film The Garden. For part of the filming Jarman was in hospital and relied on his collaborators to work on the film, which he oversaw from his bed. The film is set in his home and garden near the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. Gardening had been an interest since his childhood. The film offers a very subjective viewpoint, combining memories and creations. However Jarman still take issue with homophobic moralist, in particular the campaign around Section 28 in relation to education and the debates with the established church regarding homosexuality.

‘The Garden’ Dungeness

Despite his illness Jarman went on to make three more feature films. In 1991 he directed an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play, Edward II. This was a modern dress adaptation with a number of familiar colleagues both in front of and behind the camera. The film is about gay and class relationships in hierarchical society. Crucially Jarman changed the ending from one of violence to one of union.

In 1993 Jarman directed a film about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. This started as a TV programme but thanks to BFI support it developed into a feature film. As usual there were number of familiar collaborators in the production team. Also, somewhat bizarrely, the producer was the 1960s radical activist Tariq Ali and the script was by Marxist-leaning academic Terry Eagleton. The film opted for minimal sets but with notable costumes and lighting.

Jarman’s final film was Blue (1993). This was a return to his experimental film work. Accompanying a continuously blue screen, a cast of the voices of his frequent collaborators read from his poetry and diaries and trace the progress of Jarman’s illness. There is an evocative soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner.

Derek Jarman remains one of the most distinctive voices in recent British cinema. The films are full of memorable images and increasingly these enjoy evocative sounds and music. There is a substantial library of Super 8 work, experimental but extremely varied. The features have enjoyed a life at the cinema and on video and television [mainly Channel 4]. Jarman is probably most noted as an angry voice and an iconoclast – somewhat in the vein of his early mentor Ken Russell. However, whilst these films [like Russell’s] present themselves as narratives, offering some sort of story, they frequently feel like a series of episodes and tableaux. Jarman’s roots in Fine Art and Design are apparent, the strongest impressions left are usually a particular sequence or a particular example of mise en scène.

The films depend strongly on collaboration. Asked about the ‘co-operative nature of film-making’ Jarman responded

“You should try and create an environment where people can be creative with people coming up with ideas. The chance for people to come together to make something wonderful.”

One gets a strong sense of this collaborative process from his films. Derek Jarman clearly had the skills and affinities to draw people out and to enable a pooling of resources.

Jarman also claimed that he had little grasp of film technology, though he must have developed a sense of film design work in his early forays. And his work with video and Super 8 made intriguing use of film speeds and camera effects. He recorded that

“I think that it was fortunate that I was not actually trained in cinema.”

suggesting that such training bought with it a host of conventions that he wished to avoid.

“But then why should I have to be a director (in the ordinary sense of the word)? I’m not.”

Yet his films still bear a distinctive imprint, Jarman would be accorded the status of auteur – recognisable style and themes. This is partly apparent in the controversial aspect of his films, their explicit ‘queerness’ and their challenging of establishments. Jarman’s experience as a homosexual in what was until recently a very repressive society is voiced in all his films. And he offers a particular antipathy to many of the organised religions with their attempts to control sexuality. It is noteworthy than in Sebastiane this Christian saint is presented as a sun worshipper.

Yet the films often have a strong sense of tradition. Wikipedia lists his nationality as ‘English’ rather than British. And his upbringing proceeded the shocks and changes of the 1960s and his world was established before the multicultural changes of the 1970s and 1980s. Jarman himself admitted that his experience shaped and limited his work and there were aspects of modern Britain that were only reflected marginally.

Apart from the Underground filmmakers already mentioned Jarman recorded the impact of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and La Dolce Vita (1960). At other times he praised Jean Cocteau and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Intriguingly he recalled just missing the opportunity of being an extra on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) when that director was working in London.

Jarman was a very accessible artist. There are numerous interviews in which he was always open, courteous and slightly self-deprecating.

*************************************************************************************************

Developed from the notes written for a series of screenings at Bradford’s National Media Museum. Films with production details were screened then.

Resources:

Derek Jarman: A Portrait Artist. Film-maker. Designer. This includes a series of articles to coincide with a major exhibition at the Barbican in London. The book is beautifully illustrated, though the chapters on the films are not that detailed. Take 10 Contemporary British Film Directors by Jonathan Hacker and David Price includes a more detailed study of Jarman’s films up until 1990. Isaac Julien’s film profile Derek (2008) includes on the DVD version includes a substantial interview with Derek Jarman by Colin McCabe from 1992 and some examples of his Super 8 work.  

 

 

Posted in Avant-garde film, British films, Film censorship, UK filmmakers | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Odd Obsession/Kagi, Japan 1959.

Posted by keith1942 on March 29, 2017

Kimura’s introduction to the film.

Every year the Japanese Film Center tours a programme of films, some contemporary and some classics from earlier periods. The programme usually includes a couple of film on 35mm rather than on digital. Unfortunately the programme only visits a limited number of cities or areas, and West Yorkshire in not one of these. So it means travelling to Manchester or Sheffield, the nearest venues screening the films. I caught this film at the Sheffield Showroom. This independent multi-screen is convenient, five minutes from the main railway station. It is well designed and equipped. The auditoriums I have seen are small but have reasonable size screen and proper masking. And the seats are very comfortable.

This film was directed by the great Japanese film-maker, Ichikawa Kon. As a director he has over 90 credits, from the late 1940s to 2006: he died in 2008. Alexander Jacoby, in his excellent ‘A Critical handbook of Japanese Film Directors’ (2008) comments;

“Ichikawa was somewhat underrated … because his apparent eclecticism of theme and style defied auteurist notions of consistency. He himself divided his films into  “light” and “dark” but the two categories  were united by his wry attitude towards experience : … [Masumura Yasuzō explains] he “does not present us with the humour, anger, sadness and joy of humanity in all its rawness, but instead observes it with am ironic and detached gaze.”

His films are often subtly comic, even perverse. This film was a good example.

The main character was a retired antique specialist, with a younger and very attractive wife. His ageing body was less virile whilst his young wife , a seemingly traditional character, balked at some of his suggestions for excitement. So he hit on the novel strategy of generating jealousy by encouraging an attraction between a young trainee doctor engaged to his daughter and his wife. Predictably things did not develop as he expected.

The films structure had a part noir double triangle: older man – desired woman – younger man; younger man – younger woman – …. This seemed deliberate since the sequences in the couple’s homes had a strong sense of claustrophobia; as the story developed, there were recurring shots of the corridor between rooms, in a dark chiaroscuro suitable for noir. There were also a number of external shots full of chiaroscuro, but these were more poetic, especially a recurring shot of densely set trees; giving a sense of escape from the restrictive interiors. It seems the Japanese title means ‘key’, a prop that passes between the characters.

The film was presented with modernist touches. Thus it opened with a direct address to camera and audience by the young doctor Kimura (Nakadai Tatsuya). He intermittently acted as narrator, though as the film unfolded it included actions and events he did not see or hear. We met the central protagonists; Kenmochi Kenji (Nakamura Ganjiro), already on special injections as he coped with an ageing body; Kenmochi Ikuko (Kyo Machiko), the younger wife; and Kenmochi Toshiko (Kato Junko), the daughter engaged to Kimura and also involved in sexual activity with him. These characters were introduced by a freeze frame which interrupted the presentation of the previous character; emphasising the interaction between them which was both the story and the theme of the film. The family also had live-in servant, Hana (Kitabayashi Tanie), who played a more important role in the closing sequences of the film.

Ichikawa worked on the film’s script with his regular collaborator [and partner] Wada Natto and Hasebe Kieji. The script was adapted from a novel by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro which created some shock because of the explicit nature of the tale. This was retained in the film, but there were also apparent changes; in particular in the ending of the film which was extremely sardonic.

The film was screened from a good quality 35mm print. It was in 2.35:1, and shot on Agfa colour film stock. The subtitles were reasonably easy to read. The cinematography by Miyagawa Kazuo was very fine. he worked regularly with Ichikawa but also worked on films like Rashomon (1950, Kurosawa Akira) and Ugetsu Monogatari (1953 Mizoguchi Kenji). The colour cinematography here was very well done: there were bright palettes for scenes of ironic observation contrasted with the darkly noir moments as the character interaction developed in unexpected ways. The visual is expertly combined with the aural, a good soundtrack by Nishii Ken’ichi. There was one fine sequence, with a sharp cut, moving from the copulation of Kimura and Toshiko to a nearby railway junction where we saw and heard two wagons coupling. A witty comment on the endless and varied ellipsis that cover sexual activity on film.

The film ran for 107 minutes and was witty and entertaining. As usual there were points where the mores of Japanese culture escaped one but overall it was clear and absorbing. The film won a special prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival for ‘the courage of its approach’: a comment that reflected the period as well as the film. It also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film in 1960: though the US release was shorter by about ten minutes: the sex scenes?

 

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Of Presidents and Academy Awards

Posted by keith1942 on March 4, 2017

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“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” (Karl Marx in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’, 1852).

One can, if one so wishes, apply this to less than historical events and people. An interesting example is the closeness in many years of the inauguration of a new President of the United States and that great ‘American’ shindig, The Academy Awards.

The first example was the inauguration of Herbert Hoover on March 4th 1929 as 31st President of the United States. The first Academy Awards Ceremony [a private dinner] followed on May 16th and the first ever Best Picture/Production was Wings (Paramount Famous Lasky).  A slightly ironic pairing as Hoover looked backwards to a financial world about to disappear whilst Wings, with its recorded musical soundtrack, looked forward to the new sound era.

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Franklin D Roosevelt enjoyed his first inauguration on March 4th 1933. The Academy Awards followed a year later [missing the inaugural year], March 16th 1934, choosing as Best Picture/Outstanding Production Cavalcade (Fox). Rather than addressing the issues that fuelled the New Deal the film exemplified the escapist and backward-looking aspect of 1930s Hollywood. There was a faux pas at this ceremony, but it concerned Best Director rather than Best Picture. F.D.R.’s second inauguration took place on January 20th 1937: and this more or less remained the date in the decades that followed. The Academy Awards also settled into a routine, usually late February or early March, occasionally in April; in this year the 4th of March. The Best Picture continued the escapist tradition far removed from Roosevelt’s New Deal, The Great Ziegfeld (M-G-M). FDR’s third inauguration was followed by a similar Academy Award choice in 1941 with Rebecca (Selznick International pictures). However, the film did contain themes that presaged the personal disruptions of the forthcoming war.

FDR enjoyed a fourth inauguration in 1945 but little of the Presidency. Harry Truman was inaugurated in a private ceremony in April. The Academy Awards had already taken place on March 15th, but there choice seemed more appropriate to Truman than Roosevelt, Going My Way (Paramount).  Harry Truman’s public inauguration took place in 1949. The Academy Award that year for Best Picture went to Hamlet (J. Arthur Rank Two Cities Films): presumably cementing the ‘special relationship’  opined by Winston Churchill.

Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated in 1953. The Academy came up with The Greatest Show on Earth (Cecil B. de Mille); more appropriate for the illusions of the 1950s than the actual President. For Eisenhower’s second inauguration in 1957 the Academy came up with Around the World in Eighty Days (Michael Todd) which somehow fitted the expanding US ’empire’.

John F. Kennedy enjoyed his inauguration in 1961. In keeping with his new,  liberal values the Academy, meeting in April, selected The Apartment (Billy Wilder). With its critique of nepotism and graft the film fitted the rhetoric [if not the actuality] of the new President.

J.F.K did not see a second inauguration and Lyndon B. Johnson had his first in private, November 22nd 1963. His first public inauguration was in January 1965. The Academy responded with My Fair Lady (Jack L. Warner): the Academy members recognised a peremptory tone?

The next inauguration, in 1969, was for Richard Milhous Nixon. The Academy’s choice of Oliver (John Woolf) with its musical Fagin suggested a flair for criminality that the new president lacked. But the 1973 Academy choice seemed more apt, perhaps with a touch of irony, The Godfather (Albert S. Ruddy).

Gerald Foird only had a private inauguration: August 1974. But had he seen that year’s Academy Awards Best Picture, The Sting (Tony Bill, Michael Phillips, Julia Phillips)?

1977 saw Jimmy Carter’s only inauguration ceremony. He probably wished that he shared the ‘come back skill’ of the Academy’s choice for Best Picture, Rocky (Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff).

Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration in 1981 was followed by the Academy’s Award to Ordinary People (Ronald L. Schwary). His second in 1985 by Amadeus ( Saul Zaentz). Neither really represented the sort of Hollywood seen in Reagan’s own film career.

George Bush Senior was another President who enjoyed only one inauguration in 1989. The Best Picture at the Academy ceremony, Rain Man (Mark Johnson) possibly contained a subtle hint to him.

Bill Clinton enjoyed two inaugurations, the first in 1993. But the Academy’s Best Picture choice offered a possible omen for this future, Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood). His second inauguration in 1997 saw the academy choice, The English Patient (Saul Zaentz, a second time), offering in its plot line a sort of metaphor for his travails.

Barrack Obama was inaugurated first in 2009. Slumdog Millionaire (Christian Colson) seemed completely appropriate for this new era, though [like the Nobel Peace Prize] not really realised. His 2013 inauguration saw an Academy choice for Argo (Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney) a film that misrepresented Iran in similar fashion to the administration.

However it fell to Donald Trump in 2017 to achieve an inaugural first: a complete fiasco at the ceremony around Best Picture. This seems totally appropriate, a ‘false award’. The actual winner, Moonlight (Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleinerdouble-dagger) seemed like a deliberate rebuke by the Academy: offering more aspects likely to offend Trump than any other nominee.

 

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Three Times / Zui hao de shi guang France/Taiwan 2005

Posted by keith1942 on February 26, 2017

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

The film features three stories, all starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen, and including Di Mei in supporting roles.

The first, A Time for Love, is set in 1966. Shu Qi plays May, a snooker-hall girl. Di Mei is her mother. And Chang Chen is Chen, a military conscript on leave.

The second, A Time for Freedom, is set in 1911. Taiwan, [then Formosa] was under Japanese control. In Mainland China, after a revolution, Sun Zhong Shan proclaimed the Republic of China. Shu Qi plays a courtesan, Di Mei is the ‘madame’ of the house, whilst Chang Chen [Mr Chang] is a republican.

The third, A Time for Youth, is a contemporary story set in the world of techno-rock and clubs. Shu Qi is singer Jing, who suffers from epilepsy and partial blindness. Di Mei plays her aunt and Chang Chen [Chen] is a motor-biking photographer. Jing also has a girlfriend, Blue (Chen Shih-shan).

Though Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film focuses on love stories, it also alludes to the political history of Taiwan. This is most overt in the second story, set in the tumultuous year of 1911. But there are also references in the other stories. Hsiao-hsien’s earlier films have also addressed Taiwan’s chequered history. A City of Sadness (Beiqing Chengshi, 1989] dealt with events in the late 1940s, when following the Civil War the mainland Guomindang government evacuated to the island. The Time to Live and the Time to Die (Tongnian Wangshi, 1985) was set in the 1950s and followed the life of a mainland family who had emigrated to the island.

At various stages in its history the Island, formally known as Formosa, was occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and then Chinese. China ceded it to Japan after the war of 1895. This meant the island people were excluded from the great democratic revolution in Mainland China of 1911. The Island remained under Japanese control during the 1920s and 1930s, when the Japanese invaded both China and Korea. And it remained occupied during the Pacific war from 1941 to 1945. It was recovered for Mainland China in 1945 by the Nationalist Guomindang Government. Conflict ensured and there was an island rebellion in 1947, which was brutally suppressed. When the Guomindang lost in the Civil War to the revolutionary Chinese Communist movement, it retreated to Taiwan. With US support they retained the title Republic of China, and benefited from US aid. Despite US propaganda about ‘democracy’ it was an authoritarian regime with little direct democracy. The détente between China and the USA in the 1970s undermined Taiwan. It lost its UN seat and later the US annulled the mutual security pact. The island’s political system gradually opened up though it was only in 1990 that mainland Guomindang members ceased to dominate the parliament. In 2001 the ban on trade and communication with Mainland China was partially lifted.

It is worth observing the mise en scène in the film: and Mark Lee Ping-bing’s lighting and photography are finely crafted. The selection and organisation of camera shots also show that Hsiao-hsien uses distinctive techniques. He particularly favours the long shot and the long take. The editing of the overall film [as opposed to shot-to-shot] is also distinctive. The arrangement of the stories is not chronological, and a parallel breach of chronology also occurs within the stories. Indeed each story has its own distinctive set of techniques and style.

The sound design produces an evocative track, and music plays a key part in this. Each story has a particular and appropriate song. And the music has both diegetic [part of the story] and non-diegetic [accompanying the story] functions.

The following contains plot information and comments on techniques. I should say that when I first saw the film, at the 2006 Göteborg Film Festival, I found an important part of the pleasure was the way the film surprises viewers.

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A Time for Love

The setting in various snooker halls crosses over with Edward Yang’s film A Brighter Summer Day (1991). However, those in this film are not especially seedy and are the locale for a romantic story. The film opens with a shot of May watching Chen play billiards, [in the following scenes the game is snooker; the director in an interview refers to pool halls, but we never see that game]. Only later we realise that this shot is out of sequence. Chen only meets May during the course of the film. The mood of the story is partially set by two classic popular songs – ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ and ‘Rain and Tears’. The latter song actually has a diegetic function as Chen mentions listening to it in a letter to May. But, like the classic Platter’s track, it also provides a commentary on the developing relationship.

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A Time for Freedom

The story is set in 1911 and presented in the silent film format of that period. The use of a dubbed soundtrack was due to technical limitations, but the style that the director has produced is the result of inspired choice. As with the original silent films, dialogue is imparted by title cards and there is accompanying music. In fact, in two scenes which more or less bookend the story, the accompanying music is a traditional song, which the courtesan is actually performing. But this is entirely appropriate, as alongside early experiments in sound there were also silent presentations where live music was synchronised to the cinematic image. The mise en scéne and the music become especially poignant as the courtesan’s situation mirrors that of Taiwan, left alone and outside the great democratic revolution that swept Mainland China.

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A Time for Youth is the most ambiguous of the three stories and the trickiest to follow.

Jing is a singer with two relationships, one with Chen and one with Blue. A key scene shows Jing returning to her flat, where she left Blue earlier. Blue has awakened and found Jing gone. She types a message on the computer:

“I’m fed up hearing your lies, fed up waiting for you.

I love you more than you love me.

You’ll regret this. I’ll kill myself like your ex-girlfriend.”

Jing returns. She lights a cigarette and looks round the flat. She read the message left by Blue. There is an off-screen sound and Jing goes and looks on the balcony. She sits on the bed smoking. Her emotions are difficult to decipher. The viewer is given no further information. I wondered about this scene, and only when I saw the film again was I convinced that the sound we hear is Blue jumping from the balcony. Thus the sequence seems to use a comparatively rare technique, a plot point made by a sound cue.

I have now seen the film three times, appropriately. I still find it an exceptionally fine film, and well up to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s high standards. It also crosses over with the work of Edward Yang; several of the cast have also featured in his films. Yang’s films also make interesting use of sound tracks. This seems to be a particular skill among Taiwanese filmmakers

In colour, aspect ratio 1.66:1. With English subtitles. 134 minutes

Screenplay: Chu Tien-wen, A Time to Love inspired by Tai Ai-jon, Ms Gin Oy. Director of Photography: Mark Lee Ping-bing. Supervising editor: Liao Ch’ing-song. Production designer: Hwarng wern-ying. Music: Lin Ciong, LiKuo-yuan, K-B-N.

Originally a festival report on ITP World.

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2017, a spate of religion on film.

Posted by keith1942 on February 9, 2017

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This year offers the centenary of The Great October Revolution. That seismic event was not only a strike against autocracy and international capital, but against religion: [Karl Marx’s quotation above is taken from  ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’). Sovkino produced a film from the Left Front of Arts in 1929, Opium, directed by Vitaly Zhemchuzhny and scripted by Osip Brik. Unfortunately the early omens for this year are poor as we have already had three films with a fairly strong religious component. Not surprisingly the films also centre around strong violence and at least two of them are rather poor in the representation of women.

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The first that I saw was Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of a novel by Shûsaku Endô, Silence (USA, Taiwan, Mexico 2016). This follows two C17th  Jesuit missionaries as they travel secretly to Japan where the Christian religion is forbidden. The film does recognise the colonial aspects of western religious and trading expeditions to Japan. And the rationale of the Japanese is expressed by their characters, who I founds more interesting than the westerners. However, the film also represents Japanese society as excessively violent and autocratic under the surface formality. But there is a only a brief mention [by a Japanese character] of the violent dispossession that was already the central focus of European ventures into Africa, Asia and the Americas.

The narrative is presented through the letters of one of the missionaries and at the film’s end through the diaries of a Portuguese trader. Whilst one missionary dies, the other two [after torture][ recant their faith. However the resolution privileges an omniscient moment for the audience: a close-up of a religious object suggests that the recantations were only on the surface. A friend pointed out that this was a ‘Citizen Kane’ moment.

The torture used by the Japanese is extremely violent and there are some very strong sequences in the film. In Britain the film was given a 15 certificate and in the USA it was given an R certificate. The plot and focuses almost completely on male characters. The few women we see in the film are either members of a Christian flock or spouses, none are very developed as characters. The violence and the masculinity are the dominant themes in many of Scorsese’s films and I assume this is a reflection of the original novel. But the film at least does not offer a convincing explanation as to why C17th Japanese peasants would embrace a foreign religion at the cost of suffering and even their lives. Why the Japanese authorities would object to a foreign imposition is fairly clear. So the film concentrates on the viewpoint of the Westerners and the Japanese ruling class, with a far less adequate presentations of the viewpoint of ordinary Japanese.

The film is finely produced and executed. The cinematography, design, sound and editing are all excellent. And, fortunately and uncommonly, the film circulated here in a 4K DCP which did fair justice to the production values.

JACKIE (2016) John Hurt, Natalie Portman CR: Bruno Calvo

JACKIE (2016) John Hurt, Natalie Portman CR: Bruno Calvo

My second portion of religion was in Jackie (Chile, France, USA 2016). This is in part a biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy, following the contemporary conventions of homing in on one particular period and event: but it is also another film on the Kennedy legacy as the event in question is the assassination of J. F. Kennedy and the characters and actions around his funeral. The form of the film is an interview given by Jacqueline Kennedy (Wynona Ryder) sometime after the event to a journalist (Billy Crudup) and is inspired by an actual interview of the period. The film cuts between the interview and flashbacks to the assassination and subsequent actions leading up to the state funeral. There are also cuts to extracts from the famous tour of the White House given by Jacqueline Kennedy  for the CBS television channel and also to memories of Jacqueline of her times with Jack Kennedy.

I think one’s response to the film depends on how much one buys into the Kennedy legend. The film clearly does: we get songs from the Musical Camelot played on the soundtrack without any sense of irony. It struck me that the use of J.F.K. is an attempt to match the aurora of F.D.R. [Franklin D. Roosevelt] a comparison that exaggerates the significance of Kennedy.

The religion comes in the form of the Roman Catholic persuasion of Jacqueline and Jack Kennedy. It is personalised in the character of her confessor (John Hurt). There are several scenes where the grieving Jackie meets the priest in secret: just the security men accompany her. At one point there is a fairly veiled reference to Jack’s problems with the seventh and tenth commandments.

The recreation of the assassination in Dallas is very effective. And the subsequent scenes present Jackie resisting the manipulative treatment of the political elite round the White House: Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) finds the appropriate sympathy a difficult task. Bobby Kennedy ((Peter Sarsgaard) is the supportive brother-in-law, a lone male confidante. However, I was sceptical about how accurate the portrayals were. In one scene, on the plane flying the coffin and the party back to Washington, we see Jackie in the toilet wiping blood from her face. Her insistence on remaining in the pink but blood-stained outfit at that time is well recorded: but the blood seemed unlikely.

The film was shot on Super 16 and circulated in Britain on a 2K DCP. This was not really sufficient for the exhibition. Some long shots lacked definition, including one of Jackie and the unnamed journalist in an exterior, where neither was clearly defined. Even given the 16mm format this seemed inadequate. The earlier Carol (USA, UK, Australia 2015 ) was filmed on the same format and the definition on the DCP version of that was superior to this. The recreation of the CBS documentary is well done and it seems that Pablo Larrain [the director] and his cinematographer,  Stéphane Fontaine, used the same video camera that was used for the earlier No (Chile, France, Mexico, USA 2012 ).

However, my most serious problem with this film as the same as the earlier one by Larrain. Both films deal with historical events but both offer partial view of these. Essentially the view of those events is that of a bourgeois perspective. In the case of No, which details the referendum on the Junta government in Chile in 1988, it is the absence of any sense of the class struggle in Chile at the time. In Jackie it is the way the film buys in uncritically to the Kennedy legend when at the time that Presidency was involved in the usual neo-colonial activities of the USA; notably against the Vietnamese and Cuban peoples. The earlier JFK (USA, France 1991) brings out the connections between that policy and the assassination.

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My third encounter with cinematic religion was Hacksaw Ridge (Australia, USA 2016). This is Mel Gibson’s take on a pacifist soldier involved in the US invasion of Okinawa during the closing stages of World War II. As with earlier Gibson films [The Passion of the Christ (USA 2004) and Apocalypto ( USA 2006) the film is full of extreme violence and machismo.

The protagonist Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a Seventh Day Adventist. he believes killing is wrong but insists in enrolling in the US military at the start of the war. The early part of the film treats his induction into the army where he becomes a victim because of his refusal to ‘pick up a gun’. At times this reminded me of the similar sequence in Full Metal Jacket (UK, USA 1987)..

Eventually he becomes a medical orderly and in the invasion of Okinawa he heroically rescues, under fire, 75 wounded GIs The battle scenes are pretty over the top, gun ho and relying on CGI which is sometimes quite noticeable. Hacksaw Ridge itself has quadrupled in height in the years since the war. Even given the casualty rates in the Pacific War there seem to be an awful lot of bodies on this one section of the front: and there are an equal number of body parts strewn around. Great for the prosthetics department.

This is the conventional Hollywood war movie. The platoon in which Desmond serves is multi-ethnic group representing the cross section of the USA. The US soldiers are informingly heroic if sometimes fearful. The Japanese are the violent inscrutable other: we even get a hari kari suicide by a Japanese officer at the end of the film; why? And Desmond has a sweet, pretty nurse patiently waiting back home.

You get a sense of what is to come with then opening sequence, a violent and bloody battle scene. We return to this in extended form at the close of the film. US GIs despatching Japanese horde in the ratio familiar from other war movies and the fate of Native Americans in traditional westerns. This has none of the perceptive e treatment in Clint Eastwood’s back-to-back Flags of Our Fathers (USA 2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (USA 20016). And there is certainly none of the former film’s critical and ironic representation of the US war effort.

I was reminded of an earlier Hollywood film about a pacifist, Sergeant York (1941) with Cary Cooper in the title role. Alvin York, after a religious conversion, becomes a pacifist and when the USA enters World War I a conscientious objector. However, he is persuaded that “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” The film actually has scene where York weights the bible in one and the US Constitution in the other. Desmond’s life parallels York in that, after a violent bout with his brother, he eschews violence. He is at least more consistent than York as he refuses to carry a gun at all. He does though, finally agree to serve on the Sabbath [a Saturday], against another of his principles. Equally to the point, as Peter Bradshaw pointed out in ‘The Guardian’ review:

“Doss is repeatedly and fiercely challenged by the army on his refusal to bear arms, but no one points out that, unarmed or not, he wants to use medical skills to assist the uniformed killers and make the war machine of death run more smoothly. The basis of his “conscientious cooperation” is not in fact investigated all that rigorously.”

The film version certainly has it both ways. There is the lofty moralism of Desmond who will not kill: and yet the film is able to show killing that rivals the opening of Spielberg’s Sergeant Ryan (USA 1998). The Bolshevik led revolution in 1917 was against imperialist war as well as autocracy, capitalism and the opium of religion. Hopefully we will get some anti-war films this year as well as revisiting the Soviet masterworks.

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Arrival – Philosophy on Film

Posted by keith1942 on January 14, 2017

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It seems to me that there has been an increase in writing on film that addresses philosophical issues. However, the content does not always match up to the traditional sense of this concept:

“the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence”

It is even less common for films to address such issues. But this science fiction film (USA 2016) seems to do this to a greater degree than is common, certainly with mainstream films. It is a complex film and I watched it twice before I was satisfied that I have completely grasped the plot. But a second viewing also made me consider some of the existential and moral issues that it raises.

The film is adapted from a short story by a US-based writer Ted Chiang. I have not read the original: our local library has not got a copy. But I have checked out some reviews which has given me a sense of how the film differs from the story. The story, and to a degree the film, address theories regarding language, perception, what we call time, and even cause and effect. Some of these theories are matters of debate among scholars. Some are certainly complex and I did not understand some of the more intricate aspects of some theories. What seemed clear to me was that certain concepts or phrases are treated ambiguously in the film. So I have noted this by using ‘…’ as for ‘present’, ‘past’ and ‘future’, all aspects in the story whose meaning needs to be tested.

The film centres on the character of Doctor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a linguistic scholar. When Alien spaceships arrive on earth Louise is recruited to assist in establishing communications with the Aliens. She works alongside a physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Both are under the control of a Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Agent Halpern (Michael Stulbarg). Most of the action takes place at a temporary military base at the site occupied by the Alien space craft. We learn that there are eleven other such space crafts at various sites round the world. Whilst the Doctors Banks and Donnelly pursue their research there is an interchange via video links with teams in other countries also attempting to communicate with the aliens.

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The concept and visualisation of the Aliens is brilliant. They are seven-limbed and christened ‘Heptapods’. Their spoken and written [graphic] language appear incomprehensible. At the same time they appear more interested in observing than [say] threatening earth. Donnelly christens the two that he and Louise [and we] meet ‘Abbott and Costello’.

Some of the most fascinating sequences are as Louise takes a lead in working out how to communicate with the Aliens. We are told that their spoken language bears no relationship with their written language. The latter appears more like graphic/symbolic displays than writing. And the symbols shoot out from one of the limbs of the Alien and are displayed on the glass screen between the Aliens and the scientists. As Louise develops her understanding of their communication she explains that each symbol is known completely before being presented: she uses the example of writing a sentence with both hands starting on opposite sides of  page. The writer would need to know the whole communication exactly in advance, even the space between letters.

Donnelly contributes to the understanding by identifying and explaining that the Aliens do not relate to what we call time in the same way as humans. Essentially he claims that they are aware of all parts of a series in a timeline at once. This seems not to be the same aspect as involved in time travel but is a mode of perception, even existence.

Since this is a mainstream release it also has an amount of action and suspense. Both are created by tensions and suspicions between the different countries working with/against the Aliens. It falls to Louise to prevent armed conflict at the moment of crisis and climax. She does this by conducting the Commander (General Shang / Tzi Ma)in charge of the Chinese effort and using knowledge she has gained from the Heptapods, defuses the situation. It is worth noting that the representation of the Chinese does not go beyond the Shang character and this presents an autocratic and militaristic regime.

arrival-camp

Interwoven with the somewhat conventional sci-fi plot are a series of sequences with Louise and her daughter Hannah (four actresses of different ages). These both open and close the film and appear frequently in between. At first they seem to be flashbacks: then they seem to possibly be flash-forwards. It is apparent that they are connected in some way with Louise’s contact with the Heptapods.

Another point that develops with the film is the assumption that the use of language affects the way of thinking. In Louise’s case this means as she develops her grasp of the Alien language she also acquires their perception of time. This only falls into place for the viewer towards the end of the film. At this point it becomes apparent that in terms of human perception of time the Alien arrival occurs at the beginning of the narrative that we witness: and that the birth, upbringing and early death of Hannah occur later. The sequences in which we see/hear what seem to be Louise’s perception of Hannah’s life are examples of seeing events across a whole timeline and not as human being usually experience this: in a linear fashion.

The interaction of the two plot lines presents a different manner of regarding time. This is a familiar trope in science fiction but treated in an atypical manner. It raises issues about philosophical questions and also about the film’s plot line itself. Apparently the conflict that develops between the different states engaging with the Aliens and the resolution of this have been added to the original story. I found this not completely convincing. Even at my first viewing the manner in which Louise ‘converts’ General Shang seemed rather pat. Moreover the film implies that the way the conflict and resolution is plotted follows a design by the Aliens. Their visit to earth is motivated by the fact that in several thousand years in the future they will need assistance from earth. So this plotting supposedly produces a unified earth community that will still be round when needed. This was not only pat but given human history [with which the Aliens are presumably conversant] seriously unconvincing.

A second plot problem relates to the personal. In the alternative time sequence we learn that Louise and Ian, now married and parents of Hannah, have separated. The reason is that Louise told Ian something and he could not accept this. What she told him is that she knew when they conceived Hannah that she would die young: he thinks she made the wrong decision. However, if Louise can see across the timeline she would know what Ian’s response would be in advance.

Some reviews suggest that Louise chooses to conceive Louise despite knowing the outcome. This could be applied to Louise telling Ian. I do not find that totally convincing. In both cases one could interpret the events and choices as fated, rather like a Greek tragedy. Another aspect would be other comments in reviews to the purpose that one can know the ‘future’ but not change it. This is intriguing because it separates the treatment of time in this work from that of time travel. It appears that not even the Aliens in ‘Arrival’ time travel. But they see across time, a skill that Louise develops. This aspect raises questions about the relationship between cause and effect.

Arrival appears to have been influenced by Chris Marker’s science fiction classic La Jetée (1962). That film appears to be about time travel as the protagonists goes forward in time and then backwards in time. However, the plot is really about his life story and centrally about memory. At the conclusion the viewer realises that his experience in what seems to be the ‘past’ has characterised all his other experiences. So something similar can be seen in the presentation of Louise and Hannah’s stories. The film and story seems to be playing with philosophical concepts of time. There is Immanuel Kant’s position that this is a ‘systematic mental framework’ and also Eisenstein’s argument in relativity that different observers see events in time differently.

It is worth noting how Louise appears to view across the timeline: the film does not give any idea of how the Heptapods do this. When she has been in close proximity to the Heptapods we see insert shots, as if she has been stimulated by the Aliens. Elsewhere she works at it rather in the way that people work at recovering memories: there is no sense that she has an overview of all elements or events at once. So in one scene she ‘remembers’ a concept taught her by Ian to solve a question by Hannah. The key example is her call to General Shang on a mobile, as she talks on the phone she ‘remembers’ the conversation she will have with the General after the crisis is over. In this case what is in the ‘future’ informs her actions at an earlier point in time. This is the paradox associated with time travel and which also appears in La Jetée  and numerous other science fiction works.

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Louise’s development of the ability to see across the timeline follows from an assumption that language affects the way that humans think. The alternative position is that the way humans think affects language. The film does not follow this through. In the film Louise publishes a book on the Alien language: it is visible at the reception where she meets General Shang and the logo on the book is seen several times in the ‘future sequences’. Are other humans learning the language? Is that the object of the Alien visit so that when the need arises humans will see across the timeline in relation to the Alien situation? Why does Ian not learn the language? He does not seem to display much interest in this. Perhaps he has picked up a smattering and that is the reason that Louise feels impelled to tell him about Hannah.

The aspect of the story that the film does emphasise is gender. Science fiction remains a predominately masculine genre, even after the appearance of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien (1979): and the same problem bedevils Passengers (USA 2016) despite the presence of Jennifer Lawrence. In Arrival Louise is more or less the lone woman in a man’s world. The leading  characters in the ‘present’ are all men. The only other important character is Hannah. Even when we see other research teams round the world on the video-call I do not remember any women members. The most notable females are the presenters on the Television News Broadcasts.

Moreover the male characters in the film display the stereotypical attitudes of men: prone to expect conflict and aggression. So Louis provides an alternative in terms of rationality but also emotional stability. However, it is not clear whether the Heptapods have different genders. Ian christens them as men, but that appears to be his unthinking gesture rather than based on any evidence. The film uses tropes relating to feminine characters repeatedly. The most interesting is Louise’s hair. There is a long tradition in film regarding a woman’s hair. Tied back in some fashion is represents restraint even repression. Hanging loose it represents openness and sexuality. Markedly women frequently cut their hair after moments of trauma, so the Jodie Foster character cuts her hair after the rape in The Accused (1988).

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In Arrival’s present Louise has her hair tied back for most of the time, we see her tying it back after the ‘shower’ on returning from the Alien craft. In the ‘other time;’ sequences with Hannah it is usually hanging loose, and we also see it loose in sequences with Ian from ‘the future’ but not in the ‘present’. The most notable differentiation from this in the film is a solitary visit that Louise makes to the Alien craft. This is approaching the film’s climax, conflict seems imminent. The Alien craft is hovering above the ground and when Louise runs towards it a pod descends and takes her up into the craft. Once in her hair flies free and is at its most unrestricted in the whole film. She is enveloped in mist and floating in the air. The sequence reminded me forcibly of a scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) where the David Bowie character (Thomas Jerome Newton) has coitus with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). Whilst this film is not noticeable sexual this is a moment of real sensuousness. It is also the point that Louise realises she can understand the Alien language.

However, the aspect of Louise’s femininity that the film emphasises is as a mother. The sequences with Hannah all give expression to a strong maternal instinct. And her life after the Alien visit, whilst it involves marriage with Ian, is most concerned with her as mother. Ian really is a plot necessity, he has to impregnate Louise, but at some point in Hannah’s childhood he leaves, so we have a single mother and child.

Ted Chiang’s original story was titled ‘Story of Your Life’. It presumably refers to the life of Hannah. In the film Hannah’s story is seen through the perspective of Louise, hence ‘your life’. So this is emphatically a mother’s point of view. The film clearly makes play with supposed gender differences between men and women. It would be interesting if the written story explores this in terms of the Heptapods. The handling of concepts of language, time, perception and related scientific concepts clearly makes this ‘hard’ science fiction’. The mother/daughter story falls into the realm of melodrama. Part of the effectiveness and success of the film results from the interaction of these two generic strands. As I write I see that Arrival has done well in the BAFTA nominations, better than in the USA Award Festivals. Is that a reflection of different attitudes to science fiction among audiences?

Directed by Denis Villeneuve: Produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levinem Aaron Ryder, David Linde: Screenplay by Eric Heisserer,  Based on “Story of Your Life”  by Ted Chiang: Music by Jóhann Jóhannsson:  Cinematography Bradford Young: Edited by Joe Young. The film was produced in Montréal and Québec in Canada.

It was filmed in colour and in anamorphic widescreen. The version I saw was masked to 2.35:1.

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The Unknown Girl / La fille inconnue,Belgium, France, Italy 2016).

Posted by keith1942 on December 18, 2016

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This is the new film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. It bears their recognisable style and content: that is a social realist approach to a story that is fairly dramatic. As with most of their films the story is driven by character. However, on this occasion the plotting does seem to take control, which dilutes the impact and which is likely the reason why the film has received mixed reviews. In fact, after the Cannes Festival the brothers went back to the film and made changes, about thirty, which resulted in the film running seven minutes shorter. It seems that this affected the way that the main character, a local doctor in a suburb of Liege, Jenny Davin, is presented: she spends the film seeking the identify of a young dead woman,

“In the end, in the second version, one of the main differences from the version we showed in Cannes was that we brought it back into her mind, so that the audience is closer to Jenny.” (Sight & Sound Interview, December 2016).

When the film opens Jenny is working as a locum at the practice where the resident doctor is retiring. After surgery hours someone rings the door buzzer but at that hour Jenny, who is with an Intern Julian, fails to open the door. Next day she discovers that a young woman who is black, has been found dead; identity unknown but recorded on the practice’s CCTV. Partly from guilt Jenny sets out to identify the young woman. We follow her in this quest, both among the patients who are registered with the practice but also in the more dissolute areas of the Seriang suburb: the regular setting for Dardenne films.

Some reviews have characterised this quest as a detective film. I felt it closer to film noir. The police in the film are not that interested in the case. But Jenny becomes the seeker heroine, a rare phenomenon. The young black woman acts as the femme fatale, though she is more endangered than dangerous. And there is definitely an aspect of a chaotic world as Jenny seeks an answer. And the noir style of chiaroscuro re-appear intermittently in the film. There are no flashbacks but people do recount past events. And while we do not have a narrative voice the quest is filmed entirely from the perspective of Jenny.

The Dardenne brother also remarked that:

“At the beginning, we were talking about a doctor who was older and we needed to construct some form of intrigue around her. We had elaborated a more complex life for her – she had failed at some point – but we weren’t able to develop the story that way. We decided to chose someone younger. The face of Adèle Haenel triggered something in us: the innocence of her face.” [S&S Interview).

Adèle Haenel is a French actor. One of her earliest films was the excellent Water Lilies / Naissance des pieuvres (2007). Recently she was a feisty Madeleine in the unusual Love at First Fight / Les combattants (2014). She is really fine in the film as Jenny. She is onscreen for practically the whole of the film and her performance conveys the emotions and responses of the doctor with great subtlety. The supporting cast are [as usual in a Dardenne film] very good. Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), the intern, is important because he brings out aspects of Jenny’s character that clarify her motivations. Her character is presented with little back story: she is possibly an isolated person which makes her sense of identity with the dead woman more likely.

The film runs just under two hours and I was immersed all the way through. However, I did also have reservations, both during the screening and again afterwards. Some of the plotting seems to determine the characters rather than reverse: the latter is more typical of Dardenne’s films. There were several points where I was conscious of how Jenny’s contact with other characters was about forwarding the investigative narrative. After the film I also thought of some implausibilities, one being that the practice does not have a receptionist? There is a lot of plot play with the entry door and buzzer.

The film remains superior to any other new release that I have seen this month. Apart from the skill with which the filmmakers and their cast present this tale and its setting the film has familiar and important themes. There is a controlled passion and a strong compassion as the team thread their way through the disadvantaged spaces of a modern city, as they chart the situations of working class people and the migrants who exist among them and of dedicated people who attempt to service them.

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