Talking Pictures

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Servants / Sluzobníci, Slovakia, Romania, Czech, Republic Ireland, 2020

Posted by keith1942 on June 25, 2022

This very fine drama was screened on Film 4 recently. It appears that this is the only release that the title has received in Britain. And it is available on All Four for the coming two and a bit weeks.

The movie is set in the 1980s in Bratislava: once part of the kingdom of Hungary: incorporated into Czechoslovakia after World War I: and part of the newly independent Slovakia in 1993. The action takes place in a seminary in the years of the suppression of a liberal regime in Czechoslovakia which has been replaced by a so-called communist regime subservient to The Soviet centre of Moscow.

Two young students enter the seminary and we follow their careers as they are caught between elements in the Roman Catholic Church that are attempting to co-exist with the regime: and dissident elements who favour resistance, represented in the film by Radio Free Europe.

Predictably this is a dark and gloomy story; the opening sequence is set at night, and opens with only audio and then the disposal of a corpse near a railway underpass. In fact, this action occurs somewhere in the middle of the narrative. Such Brechtian techniques occur several times and add to the ambiguity of the movie. It is not always easy to identify characters; their talk and actions are frequently unclear without revealed motivation. And the face they present to other characters and the audience can be deceptive.

This makes for a fascinating exploration, not just of the religious world of catholic clergy, but the wider cultures of conformism and resistance. One review made a comparison with the earlier Ida (1913). There are parallels, especially since both titles address the world of religion, though the earlier film is set in Poland and in the 1960s. One of the three writers for Servants also worked on Ida, Rebecca Lenkiewicz. And, like Ida, Servants is shot in excellent black and white cinematography and in academy ratio. The accompanying soundtrack uses Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, BMV: 1041 Allegro; its recurring passages are ideal for this tale.

The director, Ivan Ostrochovský, the other two writers, Marek Lescák, Ivan Ostrochovský, and the cinematographer Juraj Chlpik, are all new to me. But I will certainly look out for future work as all make fine contributions, as do the supporting craft people.

What catches a viewer from the opening sequence is the quality of the mise en scène and the cinematography. There is lustrous low-key lighting and chiaroscuro: distinctive camera work and excellent locations and sets: some of which offer recurring images that take on their own relevance. Everyday and ordinary actions become significant through repetition. The editing by Jan Danhel, Martin Malo and Maros Slapeta is sharp and frequently draws links through the cutting. All helping to create a grim, repressive and low-key sense of threat and doom.

The title is being distributed by Film Movement; available in some format in Europe, North America, China and Japan.. This page gives the aspect ratio as 1.33:1. For my money the title is in academy ratio; that is 1.37:1. There seems to be a lot of confusion about these ratios. 1.33:1 was the standard ratio for silent cinema; when sound cinema came in the addition of a sound track led to the adjusted ratio of 1.37:1. With digital cinema there is no longer a print and, therefore, neither the addition on the print of a sound track. I have come across some modern titles that are actually 1.33:1 but, by and large, titles using the older ratio seem to be 1.37:1. Film journals do not help; it is only recently that Sight and Sound finally dropped reviews which described these sound title videos as 1.33:1; if actually in that ratio the image frame was undoubtedly cropped. To complicate viewers investigations the stills on the Film Movement pages actually seem to be 1.50:1.

The title runs 74 minutes, [81 minutes in theatrical format]. The sub-titles are clearly legible. How accurate they are is, for me, a matter of conjecture. Currently the only way to see this title in Britain is on All Four; a sad reflection on the distribution of movies here. Note, it is only available for another eighteen days.

Posted in East European Film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

On Raymond Williams and on Karl Marx

Posted by keith1942 on March 12, 2022

Raymond Williams was an important and influential writer, commentator and political activist in the 1960s and 1970s. He paid particular attention to the press, media and the printed word. He was not strictly a Marxist though he was clearly influenced by the ideas of Marx and Engels and contributed to Marxist oriented journals such as ‘New Left Review’. He wrote little on cinema, the primary focus of this blog, but his writings on culture are an important aid in studying the moving image medians.

I am also a subscriber to ‘Media North’, the newsletter of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (North) whose content is very much influenced by Williams’ ideas. So I was pleased to read the article by Paul Richards celebrating the contribution of Raymond Williams. The article, in the December 2021 issue, was a ‘lightly edited’ version of an article originally written for and published on the Raymond Williams Foundation Website; ‘Raymond Williams and the popular Press’. I checked out the original article and I found it was more than ‘lightly edited’, being shorter and missing some important comment. However I thought that both versions seem to have simplified Williams’ writings and to misunderstand what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote about Capitalism, culture, the media and economic life.

It is worth picking out the sentences that I found seriously in error and making some comments;

“Williams developed his thinking beyond the traditional Marxist perspective that the mass media was a crude tool of the ruling class, designed to create a ‘false consciousness’ amongst the masses.” [Missing from the shorter version].

Neither Marx nor Engels thought that the dominance of the ruling class was crude. As for ‘false consciousness’, I refer to this in Concepts and The Political Economy of the Olympics;

“I personally avoid the term. Karl Marx never used it. Engels did use it but in a letter discussing a book by Franz Mehring. It seems the term came into more general use in the 1920s, i.e. after the failure of any revolutions outside Russia. One problem for me is the patronising tone implied by the term: intellectuals chiding the working class because they have not yet got the message. But it also suggests a different sense to the term ideology than that found in the substantial works of Marx and Engels.”

If one reads the example of Marx’s discussion of ‘a fair days labour for a fair day’s pay’ in ‘Capital’, Volume 1 it is clear that dominance is a very sophisticated operation.

“Crucially, Williams came to view communications, including the media, as a productive force in its own right, rather than just a reflection or product of society, in a process he coined as ‘cultural materialism’. He contested the orthodox Marxist idea that culture was merely a flimsy ‘superstructure’ built on the sound foundations of the ‘substructure’ of the means of production.”

The error here appears to be that the writer thinks that Marx and Engels use ‘force of production’ to describe technology; in fact it is clear in Capital that the social relations between people are also a force of production.  And Marx and Engels write about base and superstructure, not ‘flimsy superstructure’ and  ‘substructure’. Engels in his speech at Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery gave a summation of their analysis:

” Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.”

If the article offers serious misreading of the ideas of Marx and Engels it also offers a simplistic description of Williams’ ideas on the famous duo.  In ‘Culture and Society, 1780 to 1950’ Williams devotes a whole chapter to ‘Marxism and Culture’, In this he quotes the famous passage by Marx in the ‘Preface to the ‘Critique of Political Economy’, (1859), which  includes;

‘The mode of production in material life determines the general character of social, political and spiritual processes of life.”

Williams spends five pages discussing Marx’s ideas and analysis. He then offers ten pages on more recent followers of Marx, mainly writings in the 1930s. Many of these are long forgotten. And he ends with five pages with his comments on these Marxist ideas; this includes the contribution of Vladimir Lenin. Note that Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders reinterpreted some of Marx’s ideas; ways  in which I think Marx would have critically reviewed . In all three sections Williams is careful to point out that the object of Marx’s study, capitalism, and the study itself, is far too complex for simple conclusions. Indeed he also quotes from Frederick Engels ‘Selected Correspondence’  which opens;

“According to the materialist conception of history, the determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction in real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted.”

Quite a few of the writers referenced by Williams in this chapter clearly paid no heed to Engels’ statement. And it is one to which Paul Richards should have paid careful attention. It is not clear in the article what he means by culture? In ‘Keywords’ (1976) Williams spends four pages on the various meanings of this term. One meaning is ‘all possible life’ which includes production and its means.

Marx’s argument is that under capitalism  human being produce communications as commodities, that is for their exchange value and consequently surplus value and profits;  this is what  determines what they embody, the interests of that mode production; and indeed of the class that controls that mode of production.

In fact, at the end of his article, Richards point out Rupert Murdock; a regular target of Media North. Murdoch is just one of the most successful capitalists owning and controlling the means of production for newspapers, television and film.  What determines the problem with his media empire is not his personality but his role as a member of the capitalist class.  Marx and Engels, if writing today, would have no problem in examining and propounding how Murdoch is an exemplar of the capitalist production of communications.

It is worth adding that ‘Media North’ not only regularly criticise Murdoch and his outlets but also defend the BBC from his and others attacks. This is fair comment. The BBC offers, especially in its new coverage, content and presentations not found in much of the other media. I would add though that Al Jazeera in recent years has provided a higher quality than the BBC. What needs to be stated about both of them are that they are part of the capitalist media. The BBC depends on Government regulation and finance; whilst it has some independence it is not an autonomous body. There is a  recent article in the February edition of US-based ‘Monthly Review’ by Florian Zollman & T, J. Coles, ‘Anatomy of a Propaganda Campaign Jeremy Corbyn’s Political Assassination’. The article concentrates of the mainstream press. However, the authors make the point that television, including the BBC, tended to follow and amplify the press coverage. This was notably true of the fraudulent campaign around ‘supposed anti-Semitism’. The only exceptions were Al Jazeera and, occasionally, RT; the latter is ‘currently not available’.

Where Paul Richards is more accurate on Williams is in his comment regarding Williams’ alternative to the Marxist position;

” He saw it in more complex and nuanced terms, and believed it could be regulated, reformed and democratised within his own lifetime, rather than in some future post-revolutionary utopia. As such, Raymond Williams informed and inspired activists in his own times, and bequeaths his ideas and frameworks to subsequent generations.”

Marx and Engels were quite clear that the people could not reform capitalism; that it need to be abolished and replaced by a superior social system. Defensive action to protect and assist working class activism was one thing; but to argue that this was a solution misled the working class. At one point Richards uses the word ‘utopia’ in relation to Marx’s analysis. He should read ‘Capital’, at least volume one; it is not about utopias but the rigorous analysis of the current mode of production and the social relations immanent within it that provide a base for a better society.

 

 

Posted in Book reviews | Leave a Comment »

My Teenage Daughter [Bad Teenage Girl], Britain 1956.

Posted by keith1942 on February 2, 2022

This is a ‘generation clash’ drama made by Herbert Wilcox and Anna Neagle with their production company Wilcox-Neagle. Herbert Wilcox had started out in the British cinema in the 1920s; interestingly distributing popular US titles in Yorkshire. He progressed to production and direction and in the 1930s was a major force in British cinema. It was in the 1930s that he began his association with Anna Neagle and they went on to make some thirty films together. Neagle was an actor and dancer from the stage and she became a major and popular star in British films. Generally Neagle played independent forthright women; some of her most popular characterisations include ‘Nell Gwyn’, Queen Victoria, Amy Mollison, Florence Nightingale and ‘Odette’ Samson, [a war-time heroine in the French resistance]. Wilcox’s films were always conservative, with predominantly courteous and restrained middle class characters. And Neagle fitted into this template; she also had a cut-glass accent, which I suspect is one reason why she has not received the attention she deserves. Sarah Street in ‘British National Cinema’ (Rutledge, 1997) does give her an intelligent and deserved discussion. One important aspect of her performances is her independence in a male dominated world. This can be seen in her dramatic roles as Victoria or Nightingale; but it is also apparent in her very popular lighter musical dramas; in one instance [Piccadilly Incident, 1946) her male companion is reduced to leaning on a walking stick. And she achieved popularity, including in various film star polls, through the late 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s.

I saw this film on its release in 1956; and I have seen it since on 35mm. Now, recently, I revisited the film in a 16mm copy. This was version released in the USA; probably not the original release but a later versions, possibly for television. It was retitled ‘Teenage Bad Girl’. The film  is complete but the opening credits, which in the British release are large white print against a grey background, have been replaced with credit titles over a sequence from later in the film. This is a sequence set on a river bank where the ‘teenage girl’ is fondling with her boyfriend whilst rock music plays in the background. The change was clearly meant to suggest sexual scenes which in fact the film does not offer.

By the time of this production Neagle was in her fifties. She and Wilcox were obviously casting round for contemporary dramatic themes. In her autobiography, ‘Anna Neagle Says ‘There’s Always Tomorrow”‘ (W. H. Allen 1974). recalls:

“It was Hugh Cudlipp, now Sir Hugh, the brilliant editor of the Daily Mirror, who suggested over dinner one night that it was time I did a ‘contemporary’ film, if possible one with a problem theme which would find an echo in the minds and hearts of a large number of young-to-middle-age people. What about, say, ‘The Generation Gap’ – a phrase which was to become more and more familiar as the ‘fifties progressed. And so My Teenage Daughter was written for us by Felicity Douglas.”

Felicity Douglas had one play already to her credit; ‘It’s Never Too Late’, adapted by the BBC for television. The plot concerns a successful woman novelist who is taken for granted by her family. The parallels are clear and there is a sense in ‘My Teenage Daughter’ as to how the mother’s role as breadwinner is taken for granted.

The film does retain some of the Anna Neagle persona. Playing Valerie Carr, she  is a extremely competent employee at a large firm publishing magazines. Working as a secretary to the Editor, early in the film Valerie is promoted  to fiction editor in a new magazine aimed at teenagers; ‘teenage’. She is a widow; noted visually in a photograph of her dead husband with one of their children. She has two daughters: Janet/Jan (Sylvia Sims) a 17 years old teenager: Poppet (Julia Lockwood) aged thirteen who tends the family dog, ‘Dog’, an engaging and lively border collie and a bitch. The household also includes Aunt Bella (Josephine Fitzgerald) who looks after the house and, to an extent, the sisters. Valerie is an independent woman managing work and home. The film introduces a romantic interest in the shape of Hugh Manning (Norman Wooland), a writer for the magazine who takes a shine to Valerie.

Jan also has a prospective beau: Mark (Michael Meacham): he lives in the country running a farm after the death of his father; he drives an old van and when he calls to take Janet out he is dressed in an evening suit, which fits his conservative image. However, at the social gathering, held at the Savoy Hotel Janet meets Tony Ward-Black (Kenneth Haigh). He is there in an evening suit, but only for the occasion. Soon we see him in very informal leisure wear: driving a open-top-Bentley; and taking Janet to a basement jazz club, ‘Paradis’. We have here a familiar trope; Mark is the domesticated male, Tony is the lover figure. He clearly does not fit into the traditional social attitudes of Valerie and her circle. He turns up with Janet at the publishing firm’s party launch of ‘teenage’ and Valerie’s boss, Sir Joseph (Wilfred Hyde-White), notes him as an ‘accomplished gate-crasher’. A little later Hugh makes the point that Tony’s surname is ‘Ward’ rather than ‘Ward-Black’, with a nick name of ‘debs delight’. ‘Deb’ or Debutante’ was still a common term in the 1950s.

“A debutante  “female beginner”) or deb is a young woman of aristocratic or upper-class family background who has reached maturity and, as a new adult, comes out into society at a formal “debut” or possibly debutante ball. Originally, the term meant that the woman was old enough to be married, and part of the purpose of her coming out was to display her to eligible bachelors and their families, with a view to marriage within a select circle.” (Wikipedia)

It is likely that the Savoy party was a debutante ball. This is an old-fashioned term, part of a culture that is being superseded in the 1950s. Tony, and several friends of his that we see, inhabit a different world. There musical tastes, for the period, are lively and a little unconventional. Their tastes in clothes are extremely casual and they have their own fashion mores and their own language/slang. Their culture carries a sense of rebellion and a hint of looser morals for the period.

Their favourite social venue, ‘Paradis’, is a basement club with alcohol and  a dance  band; not yet the full-blooded rock roll of youth culture. The basement features an intriguing trope; this is the only occasion in the film when we see Afro-Caribbean men, socialising and dancing. Commonly in the period when we see black men in social venues they are such basements. Hammer’s The Last Page (1952) features the trope briefly. The most extreme example is the later film Sapphire (1959), whose racialism is analysed in some detail in ‘Sex, Class and Realism British Cinema 1956 – 1963 by John Hill (BFI publishing, 1986). There is an interaction in films of the period between black men, unbridled sexuality and underground spaces; as well as examples in British cinema this can be seen in a French title of the same year, And God Created Woman (Et Dieu… créa la femme), where at the climax Brigitte Bardot dances in an erotic fashion below ground and in front of both black musicians.

Predictably Jan is led astray by Tony. There are increasing tensions between Janet and Valerie; with the mother unavailingly attempting to restrain her daughters infatuation with Tony and his life style. It is clear in the film that Valerie’s work is interfering with her control of Janet. Following her new promotion Valerie enjoys a business trip to New York to study teenage fashion. Whilst she is away Janet and Tony becoming increasingly close. The sequence on the river bank is found here. The rock music appears to come from the car radio; Tony tries to kiss and fondle Jan who is nervous but finally lets him. There is a cut here but it does not suggest an ellipsis with coitus. Jan also adopts the fashion of Tony’s circle and its language with words like ‘hip’. Aunt Bella is merely an onlooker to this and Poppet is bemused by her elder sister’s behaviour and describes her sitter as ‘a crazy mixed-up kid’; Dog is equally bemused.

Matters come to a head at the club when Tony is menaced by shady looking characters over an unpaid debt; £40. Janet offers to cash in her savings to help him; she already seems to have been  giving him money including a pound she borrowed from her mother ‘to pay a taxi’. However, at home Valerie refuses to let Janet have her Post Office Savings book. Janet, almost hysterical, storms out the house.

Tony, distraught , attempts to borrow money from his aunt Louisa (Helen Haye). When she refuses he grabs at her purse and she has a fatal stroke. Tony and Janet now flee in his Bentley but are soon apprehended by the police. When Valerie visits Janet in a police cell her daughter accuses her of causing the tragedy. Later, during a prison visit at Holloway Jail Jan apologises. Tony and Janet now appear at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court: he is sent for trial at the old Bailey for causing the death of his Aunt Louisa: Janet is not to be prosecuted but the Judge offers a stern lecture. This includes calling on Valerie to stand in court and be sermonised on failings as  a parent.

He claims “serious moral delinquency” and “a lack of parental control”.

This clearly upsets Janet who cries out;

‘Oh No ….”

Both the magistrate’s comments were common in the period as a moral panic set in about youth; especially in the media.

Leaving the court mother and daughter are shepherded pass the crowd and the media by Hugh, who puts them in a taxi to take them home. We do not see Hugh again but he does promise to ring Valerie later. Poppet meanwhile has been sent away from the scandal to stay with Tony on the farm. She nether less finds a newspaper with the story; and soon Mark brings her and Dog home. Like Hugh, Mark leaves but there is a hint that he will see Janet again; Valerie suggests going away to ‘the country’. Mother and daughter are now re-united and promise to stay together; the last shot is of the embrace of mother and daughter.

“We must never lose each other again’.

Intriguingly the character of Valerie does retain some of Anna Neagle’s traditional persona; but this is limited by the typical values of the 1950s. The lecture by the judge does point up the film’s underlying sub-text; that Valerie’s career is hindering her parenting. And this aspect is reinforced by the development of the relationship with Hugh and his expressed attitudes. He does ask Valerie to marry him; and other characters assume this will happen, including Poppet, who is a fan of Hugh’s novels. But earlier Valerie had pronounced that ‘she would not marry again’. As the family crisis deepens she implies to Hugh that this will be the case whilst she attempts to sort out Jan. In the course of the film Valerie is presented as a successful career woman. There are only brief scenes of her at work, [typical of popular film at this time], but she is clearly both competent and in charge. The end of the film has a certain ambiguity; how will the reborn relationship of mother and daughter fit with Valerie’s career? And if Hugh and Mark do return, will mother and daughter become domesticated women? But the final shot of the two women has a strong proto-feminist feeling.

Contemporary critics often picked up on the critical standpoint on Valerie:

“It’s the British answer to those American movies about children who go wrong because of the shro5tvcomings of their Mums and Dads. In a typically British way it takes place in a nice home in London’s semi-swish Hampstead Garden Suburb. In a typically British was ‘Mum’ is a respectable widow with a respectable job in a respectable publishing firm. All ever so nice!. Anna [the actress] refuses to marry again … But that leaves Sylvia [actress] without a dad to spank her when she’s naughty. So Sylvia goes to the bad … in a typically British respectable way.” (F. Jackson, Reynold’s News, 24 June 1956 – quoted by John Hill).

The review is correct about the class-bound nature of the setting and story. But Jan actually gives her address as Highgate Village. The other interesting aspect of the plot and characters is the depiction of the new teenage culture. Hill is one of several writers who think that the property was suggested by the impact of Rebel Without a Cause; released in Britain in January 1956 and which I remember having a real success. However, this title came out in June 1956 so one would think that the British film’s gestation was earlier; one news report suggests the commission for a screenplay was made in August 1955.  Other Hollywood films such as The Blackboard Jungle only appeared in Britain in September 1955 whilst the earlier The Wild One (1953) was banned in Britain at that time. I suspect that Anna Neagle’s phrase ‘generation gap’ means that the film was in response to a growing awareness of a distinct teenage culture and also to concerns about the mores and values of that culture.

There is an interesting distinction between Hollywood ‘teen’ movies and those made in Britain. Generally the Hollywood movies have a more dynamic character and their class divisions are far less obvious. The earliest films, such as those above, do not have a strong register of the new rock and roll culture. The key film here is Rock Around the Clock, released in Britain in august 1956. It had  a major and disruptive influence on younger audiences. As well as focussing on the new youth music the film has a greater integration of white and black characters; an aspect where the US was also in advance of Britain.

In regards to the music of the new youth culture it seems that traditional jazz had a presence in Britain distinct from that in the USA. The key film is Mama Don’t Allow, released in January 1956, but which as an independent documentary short did not enjoy popular distribution. The jazz band as a aspect of British youth culture remains around through the 1950s. In this film there is a song composed by Stanley Black and sung by the Ken-Tones, ‘Get With It. The song is rock inflected dance music rather than a rock and roll song proper. And at other times the music in Paradis is very jazz influenced. The dancing, ‘jive’ could accompany both types of music. As well  as the music club we get as coffee bar; another regular setting in youth movies.

Some reviews commented that both Anna Eagle and Sylvia Syms were too old for the characters they play; Neagle was now 52 and Syms in her second film was 22; but both play their parts extremely well. Syms in particular runs through the gamut of teenage emotions found on-screen. Her enthusiasm and her tantrums ring very true. It is also worth noting that appropriate age plotting and casting was very fluid in this period. In particular we frequently find young females scripted opposite much older men, and apparently not that noteworthy. A year later Gary Cooper [56 years] is romantically cast opposite Audrey Hepburn [28 years] in Love in the Afternoon. Along with this some of the 1950s British films [and to a degree Hollywood] were about a ‘youth culture’ rather than specifically teenagers. . In Britain films like Cosh Boy (1953) have teenage protagonists; others, like The Blue Lamp (1950) present concerns about ‘young criminals’, and Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) is clearly over 20. This would certainly apply to ‘The Wild One’ and the very popular Elvis Presley vehicles

The production is fairly conventional, as is mainly the case with Wilcox films. The technical aspects are well done but follow the mainstream conventions. When Aunt Louisa has her stroke the shot of Tony as he realises is a low angle and emphatic camera shot. There is a sequence set in Holloway Jail where Jan in her cell has a flashback of her relationship with Tony; a series of clips superimposed over her lying in the cell. The cinematography is  by Max Greene / Max Greenbaum in black and white and a ratio of 1.66:1. Green worked as a cinematographer in German silent and sound films. He moved to England in the 1930s; in the 1940s and early 1950s he was a regular on Wilcox productions. The editing was by Basil Warren with music composed and directed by Stanley Black; the latter a popular band leader in the 1950s. Wikipedia records an academic study giving the Box office as £181,467; another youth movie from the same year, It’s Great to Be Young is listed by the same source as taking £282,838[ at the Box Office. The latter film was shot in Technicolor and had John Mills in the lead; its values are similar to My Teenage Daughter. The plot involves teenage school students who rebel when the Head bans their school orchestra playing rock and roll.

Anna Neagle and Herbert Wilcox made a couple more films together; he also produced several titles and she later worked on television. Wilcox directed and Neagle starred in The Lady is a Square (1959) which used the popular singer and performer, Frankie Vaughan as an attraction. This was followed by These Dangerous Years (1957) and The Heart of a Man (1959), both Vaughan vehicles directed by Wilcox and produced by Neagle. These  last films do not really do justice to a long ands successful career for both. This was a problem for experienced actresses in the 1950s. Googie Withers was another star who played strong independent women; in the Wilcox title Derby Day (1952) she effectively reprises her relationship with John McCallum from It Always Rains on a Sunday (1947 ), but this is a pale imitation. And by this time Margaret Lockwood was under contract to Wilcox; Julia/Poppet was her daughter. She was cast in the Technicolor Trouble in the Glen (1954) , a piece of whimsy whose sole virtue is a characteristic appearance by Orson Welles. It is not until 1959 and Expresso Bongo that Sylvia Syms a part with sexual allure.

In many ways this film is emblematic of the 1950s; a decade when contradictions summering under the surface only really burst forth at its end. So the really interesting films about teenagers, parents, family conflict and dated social mores only appear in Britain in the 1960s: especially with A Taste of Honey (1961), though the play premiered in 1958: and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), from a story published in 1959. The director Tony Richardson was one name behind Momma Don’t Allow. However, the later films have had much more attention than the Wilcox/Neagle production. John Hill has only a line on the film: the same is true of Raymond Durgnat in ‘A Mirror for England’ (1970), though he does suggest “If the jazz club isn’t the ante-chamber to Hell (vide Herbert Wilcox’s My Teenage Daughter…)”: Sarah Street sees her character as ‘the familiar persona’ and the film ‘class-bound’: curiously Marcia Landy’s excellent ‘British Genres’ does not mention the film.

Posted in British films | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Happy End (France-Austria-Germany 2017)

Posted by keith1942 on October 8, 2021

I first saw this title at the Leeds International Film Festival and then on its British release in December 2017. I waited to post on the film as I tried to resolve a puzzle. The title failed to achieve an entry in the Sight & Sound ‘Top 40 Films of 2017’. This despite the ludicrous Mother achieving equal 19: several productions that were not actually theatrical releases: and the beautifully undramatic Call Me By Your Name included. I did wonder if the oddity of the S&S list coming out at the beginning of December was the reason? Solving the conundrum proved difficult. The complete lists of voters and votes is actually on the S&S web pages but it was beyond my limited computer skills to crack it. After some delays I managed to get the information from the S&S editorial office. It appears that Michael Haneke’s new film received only one vote, by Geoff Andrews. I shall include him in my top five film critics of the year. I did check the later 2018 list; no sign of Happy End.

Now the title is available on the BBC. Allowing for the limitations of terrestrial digital the film looks and sounds nearly as good as in a theatre. So I wonder, as I did with the theatrical release, what was the problem with the film for so many critics. Adam Nayman’s review in S&S noted,

“In what has to be considered a minor upset by Cannes standards, Happy End was the first Michael Haneke joint to leave the festival without a major prize since 2003 …” [this use of ‘joint’ is new to me].

It is a typical Haneke film. Perhaps critics felt a sense of déjà vu as they watch the familiar characters, situations and events. I did think it is not in the same class as Amour (2012) or Caché / Hidden (2005). But it is very witty, more so than the recent Haneke productions; certainly as effectively as the 1997 Funny Games. This is a sardonic and satirical examination of the French bourgeoisie whilst at the same time drawing attention to the exploitation and oppression that their wealth and success entails.
The setting for most of the film is the area around Calais where the central family live and have their business. The plot presents aspects of that but most of the running time is concerned with the interaction within the family. However, at key points in the narrative there are important scenes involving members of the working class, members of the servant class and the unemployed migrants in the area. The latter are presumable waiting to try and cross the channel to join the British audiences of the film.
The central characters are the family and their circle are as follows;

To these can be added Nathalie (Aurélia Petit ), Thomas’ ex-wife and mother of Eve: a young woman cellist, also a mistress: a site workers and his family: and four or five migrants/refugees, apparently based in the well publicised ‘jungle’. None of the main characters are presented sympathetically; even the family dog bites a small child. We have the well-heeled self-centred bourgeoisie and the hard-pressed people who depend on them, at least financially. The only sympathetic relationship is that between the young Eve and the elderly Georges. The latter’s situation appears to have confused at least one reviewer. Adam Nayman writes:

“It’s strongly implied, as Happy End goes on, that Trintignant is playing the same Georges Laurent he did in Amour; a bit of continuity that is (intentionally) undermined by the fact that the daughter figure played by Hubert in that film was named Eva, not Anne.”

Actually Amour does not provide the surname of Georges, so what occasioned this error?. Though the death of the wives are similar the point is that in Amour the character is a retired piano teacher, miles away from the bourgeois owner of a substantial construction company in Happy End.
The film opens with a series of shots taken on a mobile phone, first of a woman washing and toileting, then of the family pet. These are accompanied by text messages which seem inconsequential but require close attention. These shots set up one strand in the film dealing with modern electronic gadgets. Later we see a series of what I take to be texts messages on a laptop. Some of these are extremely funny. Then at the end of the film we return to the mobile phone; this sequence is noted for provoking audible responses in the audiences; I found it exhilarating.

The opening is followed by a long shot/long take, in typical Haneke fashion, of a Laurent construction site. The event here will create repercussion right throughout the film.
Between these very personal and these very public sequences we see the family politely destroying each other. These interactions fall between expensive rituals like parties and meals. And both types are disrupted by the people from ‘across the tracks’ . Thus whilst Haneke’s representation of the family is sardonic the film also presents the critical alternative worlds as was the case in Caché.
The film is scripted and directed by Michael Haneke. As usual it has a beautifully realised style with fine production design and cinematography by Oliver Radot and Christian Berger respectively. And the editing by Monika Willi is unshowy but very effective; and equally so is the sound.
Adam Nayman does recognize the quality of the film,
“Cut to several months later (from the Cannes Festival in May to the December S&S), and it looks as if Happy End is Haneke’s most interesting film since Hidden (2005) . . . “

Now the title is available on on Blu-ray, streamed and British terrestrial television. The original title was produced on 4K digital though most cinema screening were only at 2K. Some of this quality will be lost on video, streams and television. Still, the narrative, characters and treatment make this genuinely interesting and entertaining viewing.

Posted in European film, Polls and listings | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Sean Connery

Posted by keith1942 on September 20, 2021

Connery was another film star whose career ended in 2020.  One whose films I mainly enjoyed and whose gravitas, with the Scottish accent, was frequently a memorable experience. Whilst he was a very different character, both in culture and values, his career reminded me of his friend Michael Caine. There were the early years of minor movies and minor roles. Then the breakthrough and a screen image that was sexy and charismatic. This was followed by a long career as a major star with an increasing screen presence, partly due to the longevity and the impressiveness of his roles. Whilst their politics were rather different both generally represented conservative values but also made films which intentionally or not subverted those values. However Connery certainly essayed a wider range of roles and worked more extensively beyond the mainstream. He also often exuded a greater sense of irony whilst Caine often seemed to send himself up.

I saw several of Connery’s early films though I did not mark him out at the time, this included the gripping Hell Drivers (1957). The first time I remember being taken by him was in The Frightened City (1961) which had my favourite black and white cinematography format.

Then came the James Bond titles. I was never that impressed with the cycle. However, he was the most convincing Bond and only Daniel Craig has come close since then. I remember standing outside the ABC cinema in Bournemouth with friends and being entertained as the young men with female companions came out of the cinema clearly trying to emulate the Bond persona.

There was Marnie (1964) from Alfred Hitchcock. I never really liked the film and I have been irritated by the attempts by some Hitchcock fans to explain away the rape sequence. But Connery was ideal as the misogynistic protagonist. The Hill (1965) was a far more interesting film directed by Sydney Lumet. This brought out some of the interesting facets of the on-screen characteristics, including the rebellious streak and the stubborn determination. The Molly Maguires (1970), set in the Pennsylvania coal  mines in the 19th century was excellent, well scripted by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt. This was a powerful trade union story and one that the mainstream US industry has tended to avoid and downplay.

‘The Hill’

The Offence (1972) was again directed by Sidney Lumet and adapted from his own play by John Hopkins. Connery’s regular characteristics were here employed in a vicious and violent interrogation of Ian Bannen’s suspected rapist. Both actors were impressive and the film deserves wider recognition.

Zardoz (1974 was written, produced and directed by John Boorman. Connery played a ‘brutal’, a group dominated by ‘the Eternals’ in a future society. In a complex and sometime complicated plot Zed breaks into the world of the Eternals and disrupts it in numerous ways. Audiences at the time found the film confusing and it was panned by the critics. I was fascinated by the quirky SF story from Boorman and the film looked great with cinematography by Godfrey Unsworth. There was the added bonus of Charlotte Rampling.

In 1975 he appeared in two interesting films. The Wind and the Lion set in early 20th century Morocco as the USA flexes its imperial muscle. But the focus was the contrasting characters of Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni (Connery) and Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith). The director John Milius was not really equipped to handle such a colonial episode but Connery, in no way Arabic, is engaging. I however prefer The Man Who Would be King. Taken from a Kipling story; the writer is an imperialist but also has an understanding and sympathy for the great sub-continent. Connery, as Daniel Draviot, is part of a duo with Michael Caine as Peachy Camehan. This is the sort of adventure story in which both actors excel. The director John Huston, with co-writer Gladys Hill, gives the story drama, emotion but also humour. And the landscape looks fine in Oswald Morris’ fine cinematography. The indigenous peoples are merely props for these adventurers but Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish is also memorable.

‘The Man Who Would be King’

1976 saw Richard Lester’s film Robin and Marion. This was an ensemble of talents. James Goldman wrote the screenplay, David Watkins provided the cinematography and John Barry the music. Connery was ably supported by an excellent cast including Audrey Hepburn, Robert Shaw and Nicol Williamson. This is the best version on film of the Robin Hood Legend. The plot develops with real interest and both drama and humour. And the elegiac tone is impressive.

There was a gap of six years before a film that seems equivalent, Five Days One Summer (1982). Fred Zinnemann ably directed this mountaineering film set in the 1930s Alps. Despite poor reviews this was a film for the climbing buff. The accuracy of the representation of mountaineering was no doubt due to the presence of Hamish MacInnes as an advisor and able stand-in on the mountains. The film also has the longest parting between lovers that I can remember.

The Name of the Rose was a credible adaptation of Umberto Eco’s novel and a feast of semiotics. Connery’s William of Somerville provided a rational centre in a monastery full of hysterical fundamentalist and misguided believers. The young Christian Slater as Adso provided a youthful foil to Connery.

Then there is the Oscar-winning performance in The Untouchables (1987). This is classic Brian de Palma film with the happy addition of an Ennio Morricone score. Connery’s Irish-American cop is not that Irish but he does have one of the great death scenes in Hollywood films.

The Russia House (1990) is from a John Le Carré novel and it is hard to go wrong with that, especially when Tom Stoppard does the adaptation . It [as usual] lacks the complexity of the original but the unwinding of the jigsaw is fascinating. Michelle Pfeiffer is good as the romantic interest and James Fox is really fine as the British spy master.

Sean Connery’s last film outing that I really rate is Finding Forrester, a fascinating study directed by Gus Van Sant. Connery is the titular writer and recluse. Rob Brown is a young aspiring Afro-American writer. Both are convincing in their very different characters. The treatment of a black artist in a white-dominated culture needs greater depth but the film holds the attention and has a satisfactory finale.

‘Finding Forrester’

Connery had a few films that bombed at the box office but in most cases they were successful. Much of his career was spent in Hollywood productions like The Hunt for Red October (1990). Whilst this and others were very well produced the narratives tended to the conventional. I think his most interesting work was in independent and European films. And the best of these resurface regularly and I am sure that they will continue to do so. There is no doubt about either his star quality or his position in the top film/actor lists.

Posted in Hollywood stars, Obituary | Leave a Comment »

Out of Blue, Britain, USA 2018

Posted by keith1942 on July 2, 2021

This movie received mixed reviews on release,however Mark Kermode in his television preview was really positive. I saw it on release and I was very impressed. Now it has been aired on BBC2 and is available on the BBC I-player until mid-July. The drama presented in this title is rather unconventional. The narrative mixes objective scenes [the audience assume we are watching a record of realistic events] and subjective scenes [a character’s internal memories and musings] and it is likely to take time for viewers to be able to clearly distinguish them. The plot also mixes actions by characters with philosophical musings by them.

The latter aspect is exemplified by the opening sequence which commences with the night sky and an astronomer speculating on the cosmos. This would appear to be a homage to the British film masterpiece, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It also sets up a treatment of the characters and their experiences which suggest issues of existential consideration.

‘We are all stardust’.

On the surface this is a story of a murder investigation shot in a noir manner, with a world of chaos, a ‘seeker’ hero, flashbacks, triangles of relationships, dark nights paralleled by talk of ‘dark matter’ and ‘black holes’, and visually chiaroscuro. The setting is New Orleans and the production makes good use of the varied character of this city, which at times has an exotic tinge. It is though a symbolic city and despite location filming it is not the city seen in contemporary news. Visually the film is treat. The colours are evocative and suggestive, not just the ‘blue’ of the title but a range of tones which match the different facets of the city. The cinematography, in colour and a ratio of 2.35:1, by Conrad Hall is excellent and the title is well served in all production departments. The editing is deft and precise with cuts at a particular micro-second.

The other compelling aspect of the film is the performance of Patricia Clarkson as detective Houlihan, the investigator. This is a tour de force. I actually pay little attention to the Academy Awards but this performance deserves a Best Actor trophy. It is also a still rare pleasure to see an older actress with a lead role in a thriller. The supporting cast are also excellent.

Detective Mike Houlihan investigates a death with her two assistants; the violent death of Jennifer Rockwell. Her father is a war hero: her brothers run the family business in electronics:her mother is at home with a pet dog [Tibetan Lhasa] and a large portrait of Rockwell senior’s mother.

In one of the edits which make the narrative cryptic and ambiguous it seems that Houlihan and a young local reporter, Stella, both attend an Alcoholics Anonymous therapy session. Her problems with drink provide an important plot turn but they also reveal the tortured psyche of Houlihan; stemming back to her youth, obscure parentage and a problematic sojourn in an institution. Clearly police work provides order for Houlihan life. At one point she states that life only started for her

‘when I joined the Academy’.

Film noir is often as much about an investigation of a woman as it is about a hero. In this title Houlihan is the women investigated; investigated by herself as she gradually trawls up suppressed events from her childhood. These are associated with a selection bric-a-brac. Jennifer apartment is full of them; and a warehouse at Rockwell Electronic is also full of them. Houlihan herself carries at least one example on her person.

The philosophy in the film is important to the development of the plot. It also offers some moment of delicious irony. Morley and her team use visual clues to assist in the investigation but also to draw out the parallels with characters’ intellectual forays. One recurring such foray is talk of ‘Schrodinger’s cat’. Houlihan shares her apartment with a Siamese cat who also has cryptic moments. At one point she jokingly offers the cat in a box, [just like Schrodinger] to Daniel, one time lover of the dead Jennifer.

As well as scientific references the film seems to offer homages to key movies. I have mentioned the Powell and Pressburger title. At other points I detected some sort of trope connected to The Birds (1963): Blade Runner (1982): Chinatown (1974), Citizen Kane (1941): and Pursued (1947).

These fit into a dramatisation and play with the noir discourse; critically revisiting some of the key aspects that so fascinate viewers and critics.

This is the latest movie by Carol Morley. Her Dreams of a Life (2011) stood out amongst recent British documentaries. Mark Kermode commented that she was ‘born a film-maker’. I actually think that quality film-makers develop by commitment and hard work, attention to detail and a serious study of cinematic form. Carol Morley seems to have done all of this. And, uncommon among the ‘new auteurs’, she has mastered both the direction of film and script-writing for film.

The plot is challenging as viewers have to distinguish actual and mental worlds. The film does bring these together in its resolution. Even here though there is an ambiguity with the colour blue pointing to the outcome; ambiguity that runs right through the film. The editing is elliptical and it takes seconds sometime to recognise which character and setting we are viewing. The mise en scene is full of meanings; characters and props seem to disappear as very slight ellipsis lead the plotting on.

The film is adapted from a novel by Martin Amis, ‘Night Train’ (1997), changing the tone and the plot. Amis’ novel aimed to be a parody, this is a fairly bleak film noir. Morley’s version changes the character of the detective, the plotting of both the deaths and the investigation and, finally, the resolution. It was mainly funded by the BBC and the BFI. This may be part of the reason that it stands out in productions by British directors working on US-based stories. Frequently such films are a disappointment and less satisfying than earlier British-based stories by the same film-maker. Here Carol Morley succeeds with a really effective treatment which also develops some of the themes found in her earlier works.

Definitely a film to see. Mark Kermode suggests it repays seeing more than once; I fully agree. If you do enjoy it there is an article, ‘Under Investigation’, privileging the female protagonist as detective in the April 2019 edition of Sight & Sound, and followed by an interview with Carol Morley.

Posted in British noir | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Saudha International Satyajit Ray Congress

Posted by keith1942 on June 7, 2021

The centenary year of this outstanding film-maker started on May 2nd. Happily the day was marked by the opening of this Congress which was operated via zoom. It is now available on You Tube. The Sunday session ran for three hours and a second session on Monday ran for two and half hours. The sessions were chaired by Ahmed Kaysher and  a series of speakers from India and from Britain talked about their experiences and study of Ray himself and of his film work; and some speakers also talked about his literary and musical output. The speaker included people who knew Ray personally, fellow film-makers in India and academics and archivists familiar with his films.

This was a fascinating and varied series of comment and portraits. Nearly all of the Ray titles received a mention, though unsurprisingly the trilogy that established his status was central. We also enjoyed the singing of songs connected with his films.

One got a sense both of Ray’s own views and values and the importance of the tradition of a ‘Bengali renaissance’ for this art. This provided a stimulating commentary for people revisiting or discovering his master-works.

There was mention of a complete retrospective of his films that is being planned by the British Film Institute. There will be celebrations with screenings in other territories as well so fans can anticipate a feast of fine cinema.

Sight & Sound have helpfully re-printed an interview with Ray from the 1950s. There is also a published edition edited by Bert Cardulla (20027) of interviews over the years with Ray. And one would hope that for people who will find such cinema screenings difficult to access that at least the BBC will transmit some titles; two, Mahanagar (1963) and Charulata (1964), screened on Film 4 and are still available on ALL 4. I should say that whilst waiting for cinemas to reopen I have watched the Criterion Blu-ray set of the Apu trilogy and it is very well done.

Posted in Film Directors, Indian film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

International Workers Day

Posted by keith1942 on May 1, 2021

Greetings for the Day of the International Working Class.

This year we also celebrate the anniversary

of the heroic Paris Commune of 1871

but also mourn those who died in

this historic revolutionary action.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Tanaka Kinuyo retrospectives

Posted by keith1942 on March 4, 2021

One the promising highlights for 2020 was the Locarno Film Festival’s intention to screen a retrospective of the work of Japanese actor and director Tanaka Kinuyo. I have long been a fan of this talented and pioneering film-maker so I was working on plans to be able to attend. The arrival of the pandemic torpedoed this prospect. However, the Locarno Festival postponed the retrospective to 2021. Now, whilst only a possibility, there was a prospect of being able to enjoy this programme of films in the summer; 35 titles including a large number in 35mm prints.

“Locarno to fete Japan’s Kinuyo Tanaka in first retrospective devoted to female film-maker.

The Locarno Film Festival will celebrate the work of Japanese director and actress Kinuyo Tanaka at its upcoming 73rd edition (August 5-15), in its first ever retrospective dedicated to a female artist.

Tanaka (1909 –1977) was a pioneering figure in Japanese cinema throughout her 50-year career, appearing in the films of legendary directors Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi before striking off to direct her own films.

This is the first time that the festival will be dedicating its retrospective to a female director, after 73 years,” said Locarno Film Festival artistic director Lili Hinstin, who is embarking on her second edition at the helm.

At the same time, she added, it also raised the question of how an artist like Tanaka – with such “an original and exciting filmography” had been overlooked for so long.

Tanaka first rose to fame in the 1920s, initially working under contract for the Shochiku Film Company, the film department of which is celebrating its centenary this year. There, she collaborated with Japan’s best-known “modernist” directors such as Heinosuke Gosho, Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu.

In the years immediately after World War Two and the 1950s, her striking screen presence became a hallmark of some of the best work by directors of the golden age of Japanese cinema, including Keisuke Kinoshita, Mikio Naruse and Kaneto Shindo.

She also renewed her collaboration with Ozu but her most important artistic partnership was with Mizoguchi, with whom she made 14 films, including the 1952 drama The Life Of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna), which premièred at the Venice Film Festival, winning Best International Film.

Around this time, Tanaka also started going behind the camera to direct a number of films of her own with various studios. At the time, she was only the second women in the history of Japanese cinema to direct after Tazuko Sakane.

Locarno described her six features films as “innovative portraits of women’s roles and conditions in the changing social environment of modern Japan”. The retrospective will screen Tanaka’s complete filmography as a director as well as a selection of 250-odd films in which she appeared..” (Melanie Goodfellow, 23rd January 2020).

Then a friend informed me of the bad news; set about in a report in ‘Screen Daily’:

“The Locarno Film Festival will turn the spotlight on the work of late Italian director Alberto Lattuada for the retrospective of its 74th edition, scheduled to run from August 4- 14 this year.

The programme is the first element of Locarno’s 74th edition to be unveiled by the festival’s newly appointed artistic director Giona A. Nazzaro.

Plans have been dropped for a retrospective celebrating the work of Japanese director and actress Kinuyo Tanaka, which was announced by Nazzaro’s predecessor Lili Hinstin for last year’s cancelled edition as the festival’s first-ever retrospective dedicated to a female artist.

Regarding the decision to cancel the Kinuyo Tanaka retrospective, a spokesperson for the festival said: “The programme was a personal choice of [former artistic director] Lili Hinstin. Therefore, in respect to her work and despite it is a great programme, we have decided to propose another author to our audience for the next edition of the festival.”

My thoughts are best summed up by a borrowing from Oscar Wilde:

“To lose one female artist, dear festival, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.”

I also realised how fortunate I was that in 2012 we had a small but very fine retrospective at the Leeds International Film Festival of the work of Tanaka Kinuyo both as an actor and as a film director; the majority on 35mm film. So I am revisiting my reports from that Festival. Note, there is much plot detail on the individual films; whilst quotations are taken from the English sub-titles in the prints.

“Retrospective of legendary Japanese actress and filmmaker Kinuyo Tanaka

Retrospectives has an especially strong selection this year. The ‘special focus’ is a profile of the Japanese actress and filmmaker Tanaka Kinuyo. She worked through several different periods of Japanese film and with three of its greatest masters, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu. Her scene at the end of Sansho Dayu (1954) is one of the most sublime endings in World Cinema.  She was also a pioneer woman direction in the Industry. There are five of her films, all in either 35 or 16mm, in the retrospective. And there is a workshop on November 3rd at the Centre for World Cinemas at the University of Leeds.

“Our second film retrospective announced for LIFF 26 is dedicated to legendary Japanese actress, and filmmaker, Kinuyo Tanaka (1909-77). While Kinuyo Tanaka is widely recognised as one of the greatest actresses in the history of her nation’s cinema, a lesser known fact is that she was also the first Japanese woman to build a body of work as a filmmaker in her own right. The retrospective aims to remedy this by screening The Eternal Breasts and Girls of Dark, two of Kinuyo Tanaka’s rarely-screened directorial works, both presented on archive 35mm prints imported from Japan. These two films will be accompanied by a selection of her finest performances in films by three of the masters of Japanese cinema: Kenji Mizoguchi (Sansho the Bailiff, 35mm print), Yasujiro Ozu (A Hen in the Wind, imported 16mm print) and Mikio Naruse (Mother, imported 35mm print). The retrospective, to be screened at the Hyde Park Picture House, will both celebrate and shed new light on the career of a figure of significant importance to world cinema history. The retrospective is curated by Michael Smith and is supported by the Japan Foundation and the Mixed Cinema Network/Centre for World Cinemas, University of Leeds.”

I wanted to record some overall comments on the retrospective of this Japanese actress and filmmaker at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival. I had been fortunate enough to see a few of the films in which she starred at Festivals and in other retrospective. But the five films featured in Leeds showed her working as an actress with three of the finest filmmakers in Japanese cinema, and then working in her right behind the camera.

Early on in the Festival there was a workshop on Kinuyo Tanaka at Leeds University. Co-incidentally [or perhaps not as the writer delivered a talk at the workshop} the December 2012 issue of Sight & Sound contained an article by Alex Jacoby on one of her greatest roles, Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954). The workshop provided a context and an overview of Tanaka’s career and pointed up some aspects of her work to look out for.

There was one slight misnomer, as one academic [male] suggested that she was not beautiful in the conventional sense of film stars. I suspect that can be said of a number of my favourite actresses. But when Kinuyo is on screen a sense of beauty is irrelevant. She has a great screen presence. In particular she makes impressive use of her body and her movements. Her positions in scenes and in relation to set and props often accentuate the emotion of a sequence. In her later career, when she often played somewhat tragic roles, one trope was kneeling and leaning slightly askew: displaying the weight of oppression or of the emotional demands on her character.

A Hen in the Wind (Kaze no naka no mendori, 1948)

This first Leeds Film Festival Retrospective screening was a real pleasure. A fine performance from the lead actress Tanaka Kinuyo: a rare masterwork from director Ozu Yasujiro: and viewed in the fine old auditorium of the Hyde Park cinema. The slight drawback was an old 16mm print, somewhat worn with the image quality rather dark, leading to loss of the film’s definition and its play with the nuances of light and shadow. But it is a remarkable and distinctive melodrama showing Ozu’s mature style in its early days.

The film centres on the wife and mother Tokiko (Tanaka Kinuyo) with her son Hiroshi. Tokiko’s husband has been away at war and is among the last of the Japanese soldiers to be repatriated. Tokiko and her son are boarders in the household of the Sakai family. She is hard up and post-war prices are high. Then her son is taken ill with a catarrh of the colon. The distraught Tokiko has to find a doctor and then pay for the subsequent hospital care. This leads her into unseemly action in order to raise the money. When her husband returns and he learns of her actions a marital crisis ensues.

Off-screen Tokiko makes money in a brothel. We only learn of this indirectly; however, from the comments and settings we can infer quite explicit aspects of the incident. Tokiko describes it as ‘foolish’ whilst her husband uses the word ‘mistake’.

Tanaka’s performance is the centre of the film. And she plays the changing responses and emotions of the wife with an emotional flair, whilst avoiding melodramatic excess. In the latter part of the film the focus shifts to the returned husband Shuichi (Sano Shuji) whose conflicting emotions are played out as he grapples with and then comes to terms with his wife’s tragic ‘mistake’. The strong supporting cast include Tokiko’s friend and confidante Chieko, the Sakai family father (Sakamoto Takeshi) and his wife Tsune (Takamatsu Eiko), a colleague of Shuichi, Satake (the familiar Ryu Chishu) and the most negative character Orie (Mizukami Rieko ).

Tanaka presents Tokiko as much through her movement and position as through her delivery and facial expressions. One particular trope in her performance sees her leaning, usually against a set of drawers in her room, displaying at various points the sense of weariness, worry and concern and at potent moments – despair. Shuji, as the husband Shuichi, is at times is tellingly still and passive, as he works through his anger. At other times he is active and even violent. The contrast in styles is very effective.

Ozu’s direction offers many familiar tropes found in his later classic films. The low-angle camera: the sequences between scenes of building and objects: the cutting between shot and reverse right down the 180% line. However, the film makes less use of the long takes and long shots that increased in his later years. And there are two exterior tracking shots which stand out in the film.  In fact at times there are many relatively short camera shots and relatively rapid cutting. Several times he focuses on a character, mainly Tokiko, in a series of reverse shots. The most powerful is a scene where the now shamed Tokiko regards herself in the mirror, a set of images that vividly convey her feelings. A later scene has a similar set of shots and cuts as she regards a portrait of her absent husband.

The film has more dramatic moments that are found in later Ozu. In the climatic moments of the film Shuichi throws his wife down and she falls headlong down the stairs. She lies passive, and then obviously in severe pain rises and climbs painfully back up the stairs. She finds her husband once more in a position of angry passivity. As so often in the film he is shot and framed from behind, emphasising the emotional gulf in the scene.

Alex Jacoby commented on this sequence in his presentation at the Workshop’ drawing attention to the rarity of action on staircases in Ozu film but presenting comparisons with staircases in film that Yanak made with other directors.

The stairs are one of the settings that Ozu returns to with great frequency. Earlier at a moment of anger Shuichi kicks a can and it rolls down the stairs, a premonition of what will follow later.

{Alex Jacoby in his talk at the Workshop presented some sequences from other films starring Tanaka not directed by Ozu. There seems to be an association between Tanaka and stars across these films; whereas seeing someone on a staircase as distinct from at the top or bottom is rare in Ozu.]

Equally Ozu’s frequent exteriors positioned between scenes both place the action but also comment upon the changing story. It may be I missed some relevance in the later films, but these seem to me to carry greater meaning than in those later works. The Sakai house is set near some tanks or gas tanks, which loom large over the streets. At times characters traverse places beyond their small neighbourhood. Tokiko and Chieko share a picnic with Hiroshi on the banks of the river and reminisce about their youth and their dreams for the future. Later Shuichi sits on the bank of the same river and converses with a girl from the brothel – a point at which he can be seen to be coming to terms with his situation and that of his wife. Shuichi had visited the brothel earlier in his driven attempt to discover his wife’s actions. On the way he passes along a dilapidated street and crosses a wasteland covered with industrial piping. And close-up draws attention to a shattered pipe on the ground: a potent symbol of his situation.

Music is used frequently in the film, but with care and deliberate attention. In one scene Shuichi and Tokiko watch their son play with pleasure, and there is light cheerful music on the soundtrack. In a later scene as Shoichi relentless questions his wife the music is darker with a clearer bass sound. This precedes a scene of marital rape. When Shuichi visits the brothel, which is situated behind a school, we hear the children singing, reminding the girl with whom he converses that she once studied there. At work, where he has returned, he discusses his situation indirectly with his colleague Satake. Next door is a dance studio, or even a brothel. Shuichi finds the ‘jazz’ ‘sad’ whilst his colleagues correctly identifies it as ‘merry’.

Ozu also shows his customary attention to objects. A bottle of saké given Tokiko by Tsune is shown several times, once in close-up and then in different positions in the frame. It again speaks volumes regarding the husband. And shortly before the rape (which occurs partly off-screen and in partly implied) a large ball falls to the floor. In the shot following the rape Shuichi sits in a hunched position and the ball is clear in the lower right of the frame.

In the final moments of the film husband and wife embrace and Tokiko tightens her arms around her husband and her hands lock in an attitude of prayer. David Bordwell comments on this moment, “as in the 1930s films [of Ozu], the male falters, scraping by on good intentions and the strength of his woman . . . ”. This seems a fair assessment of the film’s resolution. It also points up what I find to be a major difference between Ozu and his contemporary Naruse Mikio. In Ozu’s films despite their strength, women continue in their predominately subservient role. In many of Naruse’s films women are unable to continue in such roles, and what is striking is their resilience and determination to soldier on, providing them with a flawed independence. Whilst both directors’ films are frequently referred to as belonging to the genre of shomin geki [stories of the little people] Ozu tends to focus on the strata between the working classes and the bourgeoisie, including the petit bourgeoisie: Naruse’s films are more determinably concerned with the working classes and often the lumpen proletariat. However, A Hen in the Wind shows Ozu working much more closely to the territory occupied by Naruse. This might account for the fact that this is a film which is somewhat, neglected on the Ozu oeuvre. I thought it the equal of his famous films from the 1950s.

One last point that struck me was there seemed to be little sense of the US occupation, under which this film was produced. There are a few visual references to US popular culture in the flat of Orie, whose manipulation of Tokiko leads to her situation. She comments at one point that there is ‘an easier life’. There are also western references in some of the music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, though the use of western music in common in films of this period. And the workplace of Shuichi and Satake has a large ‘Time Life’ sign emblazoned on it. But there is little else. However, Bordwell refers to a Japanese critic who sees the film as part of a cycle which comments both on the war and the post-war world. With the plight of Tokiko providing metaphors for the pre-war and post-war codes in Japanese society. This seems an apt reading, the best melodramas comment not just on the personal but on the social as well.

Note:- The Japanese title of the film translated into English does not obviously relate to the narrative. I have looked at a number of reviews and commentaries but I found no-one who addressed the issue. Some on-line fans of the film have made their own attempts.

The first thing the heroin Tokiko did was to sell her wardrobe one by one — she had to pluck her feathers like a hen. Then she had to be plucky and strong in the cold wind.

Literally, it means “If the hen sings, the home will perish.” Figuratively, it means that if the wife gains more power than the husband, their home will be ruined. – l’électeur Feb 9 ’15 at 14:06

It is possible that the title was selected by the studio as indicating a generic story; though the title makes more sense in terms of the first  comment rather than the second translation..

Mother (Okasan, 1952)

The second screening in the Leeds International Film Festival tribute to Japanese actress Tanaka Kinuyo  is a film directed in 1952 by Naruse Mikio. Naruse is one of the outstanding masters of what is often referred to as the ‘golden age’ of Japanese cinema. The film belongs to a popular genre of haha-mono, a ‘mother picture’ which usually deal with the relationships between a mother and her children. Tanaka plays Fukuhara Masako with Misaim Masao as her husband Ryosuke. Her eldest daughter is Toshiko played by Kagawa Kyoto, who can also be seen as the daughter in Sansho Dayu, and who plays the youngest daughter in Ozu Yasujiro’s celebrated Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari, 1953)

. There is an elder son Susumu (Katayama Akihito), a younger daughter Chako (Enonami Keiko) and Tetsu the son of Masako’s widowed sister Noriko (Nakakita Chieko). The other important characters are Uncle Kimura, a family friend (Kato Daisuke, one of the ‘magnificent seven’ in Kurosawa’s famous samurai film) and Shinjiro (Okada Eiji) a friend of Toshiko and son of a local bakery family.

At one time the Fukuhara family ran a laundry business, destroyed in a fire. Now the father works as a factory guard, but he is also converting the front of the house and plans to re-launch the laundry with help of Kimura. Two bereavements strike down the men of the family. Masako struggles with the laundry, helped by Kimura. Toshiko works at a street food stall, pancakes in winter, popsicle in summer. The economic hardships finally compel Masako to accept help from relatives who adopt Chaco. She continues to care for her sister’s son whilst Noriko works to train and succeed as a hairdresser.

Tanaka brings the same reticence but also emotional power that she displayed in A Hen in the Wind. She is able to communicate powerfully with her face, her body and her gestures. At the Festival / University workshop on the actress attention was drawn to her use of gestures before her face: and I noted one striking moment as she faintly touches her shoulder in a moment of reflection. We also learnt about her early career when she as a major young star noted for her ‘pert smile’. In a flashback in this film she recreates that character as she remembers her youthful marriage. And her mature smile at moments in the film recalled the younger attractive smile.

Kagawa is also impressive as the young daughter. She is a ‘modern miss’, frequently seen in jacket and slacks: a contrast to the garb of her more traditional mother. It is Toshiko who narrates the story of the film, looking back at the travails and devotion that her mother gave to her family. The voice-over is particularly potent in the introduction of the film as Toshiko sets the scene and in the final prayer for her mother, full of sentiment but very effective.

Toshiko’s relationship with Shinjiro provides the romantic strand in the film: though it is an essentially chaste romance, but enlivened by Toshiko’s own pert responses. This relationship also introduces one of the complications into family life. Shinjiro recounts gossip locally about Masako and Kimura to Toshiko. And for a time this produces a tension in the relationships, only resolved when Kimura (probably unwillingly) moves away to a new job.

Naruse is a filmmaker who concentrates on character and performance. The settings outside the family home in the local streets, on a river trip and a day at an amusement park, are mainly plot directed. The focus of the film is the family relationships and the home in which these develop. Whilst Naruse has a fairly conventional camera style and shot length, he carefully places characters in the mise en scène. There are any number of framings that allow the setting to relate to the characters. There is a recurring framing that places several characters in a proscenium as we view them. Likewise he only occasionally focuses closely on objects and props: one powerful image being a drawing of her mother by the youngest daughter Chato. And he frequently uses head-on close-ups of individual characters, relying on the performer to communicate the emotion of the scene. The most dramatic events, like the deaths, take place off-screen and it is the characters that tell us of what has occurred and of their responses.

There is plentiful music in the film, ranging from bright and light music at times of happiness or pleasure, and lower bass-like music for the monument of darkness and concern. One of the lighter moments in the film is a traditional music festival. Toshiko performs a traditional song whilst Chato performs a traditional dance. Later Shinjiro sings a popular imported song, ‘O Sole Mio’: and this theme recurs frequently through the film from then on.

Set in 1950 the film notes without emphasis the travails of the period. Besides Noriko there are other war widows among the characters. Kimura has only recently returned from a Soviet prison camp. And Masako’s difficulties with customers and the work by Toshiko point up the economic hardships. However, I noticed no sense of the occupation or indeed little sign of the authorities of the period. There are however, signs of the ravages of war in the settings around the family house.

The film also presents the contrast between the traditional cultural codes and the new codes of post-war Japan. Whilst Shinjiro sings his imported song at the Festival his parents turn, slightly sadly, and leave: clearly out of tune with the new music. And the only time we see Toshiko in traditional garb is when she models for her aunt Noriko: an event that is completely misread by Shinjiro.

This is a lower key film than A Hen in the Wind but it has beautiful pacing and the force of the performances is completely engrossing. The script is by a female writer. Mizuki Yoko, who worked on several Naruse films in this period, and who adapted the story from a prize-winning school essay. Tanaka provides another fine central lead and the film is a masterful depiction of Naruse’s world of lower class life and of a woman’s resilience in the face of adversity. The film won the Silver Lion at the 1952 Venice Film Festival.

Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, 1954).

This was the third of the films featuring Tanaka Kinuyo screened in 2012. This was a film that I had seen before on 35mm, unlike the other titles. It is one of the great films by Mizoguchi Kenji with whom Tanaka worked on a number of occasions.

The film opens with a set of titles on-screen, setting out the story:

“This story dates from medieval Japan when there was a form of feudal society. The majority of the people were considered less than human. This legend has been told since those days.”

In the manner of legends the exact times and places are not spelt out. It is apparently set in the 11th century. This was a period of imperial rule with the capital in Kyoto though the military class exercised effective power. In is mainly from the dialogue that ages and places can be discerned. The film falls into three segments separated by time and space; again only discernible in the dialogue. The titular character, the bailiff of a mansion of a high official, only appears in the second segment, forty minutes into the film.

After the initial titles the film presents a family on a journey. There is the mother Tamaki (Tanaka Kinuyo): her son Zushiô (Hanayagi Yoshiaki) now about 13 years: her daughter Anju, (Kagawa Kyôko) aged about seven: and a woman servant, Ubatake (Naniwa Chieko). As they walk through the Japanese countryside there are several flashbacks, not obviously motivated’ but apparently the memories of Tamaki; mainly opened and closed by lap dissolves. These are set six years earlier when her husband Mausaji Taira no (Shimizu Masao), the father of the children, was the Governor of a province, Mutsu. Provinces were the basic level of administration in Feudal Japan; and this large province was in the North East alongside the sea.

The Governor had fallen foul of military leaders by opposing increased conscription of the peasants. His humanity had made him popular with the ordinary people but not with officials. As a punishment he is sent into exile to the province of Tsukushi, far away in the south of Japan. We see his support amongst the poor. And we see the farewells to his family who are to stay with Tamaki’s brother. When he parts from Zushiô the father recites his philosophy to his son and gives him an amulet, the Goddess of Mercy.

“”Without mercy, a man is like a beast. Be sympathetic to others. Men are created equal. No one should be denied happiness.”

These mantras will be repeated at key stages of the subsequent narrative and the amulet becomes an important icon in the story.

On their journey the family are misled by a woman claiming to be a priestess. The result is the death of Ubatake, Tamaki being sold into prostitution and the children sold into slave labour.

We now encounter the mansion of which Sansho is the Bailiff ((Shindo Eitaro). He is a brutal and exploitative master; illustrated by the branding of an inmate who attempts escape. However his son Taro (Kono Akitake) is critical of his father’s brutality and attempts to ease the plight of the labourers; then leaving the mansion for Kyoto. The children do not reveal their names for fear of the consequences, [the possibility of ransom demands?]. For their time at the mansion they are known as Mutsu and Shinobu.

There is an ellipsis of ten tears and now Zushiô/Mutsu is 23 and Anju/Shinobu is 17, Zushiô has been brutalised over time and has become an overseer. The illustration is when he brands another would-be escapee. Anju remains committed to the teachings of their father. In an important sequence she hears a new girl worker sing a song;

“How I long for you, Zushiô, Anju”

On Sado Island [in the Sea of Japan] Tamaki {now called Nakayama] desperately tries to flee and find her lost children. As a punishment she is hamstrung and disabled. We see her singing her sad refrain. Anju realises this is their mother pining for her children. She tells Zushiô but he is immured in their situation.

An opportunity now arises for Zushiô and Anju to escape when they have to carry an aged woman, no longer able to work, to a place to die alone. . But to prevent her brother’s recapture Anju remains and commits suicide rather than betray Zushiô. He gains sanctuary in an Imperial Monastery where he meets Taro again; now a Buddhist monk.

In the final section Zushiô journeys to the capital Kyoto. His father has died recently and it is too late to reinstate him. However, the injustice suffered is recognised and Zushiô is appointed Governor of the province of Tango, which contains the Mansion overseen by Sansho.. Once there Zushiô goes even farther than his father and confronts Sansho and the system of forced labour. He then journeys to Sado Island and after some travails find his mother in a hovel on a beach, now blind as well as crippled. He has to tell her of the death of both her husband and her daughter. Whilst they comfort each other he shows his mother the amulet of the Goddess of Mercy that he still carries.

His mother responds,

“I do know that you followed your father’s words. That is … that is why we can meet here now.”

The scene and the film end with a crane shot which pans across the beach and rests two small islets: offering what critics have called a transcendental conclusion to the film: reinforcing the humanist values which are embodied in the film. The ending uses as music woodblocks, flutes and a harp, adds an appropriate emotional tone. The whole films show the command of Mizoguchi and his craft team, especially cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo, of visual style: there are frequent graceful tracking shot and the mise en scene uses the landscape to great effect: physically beautiful on occasions, grimly realistic on others. The contrasting vistas add to the dramatisation of the story. When we first encounter the family the landscape is beautifully set; at one point they traverse a bed of flowered reeds. One spot is where Zushiô and Anju collect wood and reeds for a night time shelter. This scene has a parallel in the woody spot just before Zushiô’s escape, offering a motivation for his change of heart. Later the open and large seascape when the family are seized has an appropriately desolate feel. The mansion of Sansho is a grim setting as is the hovel on Sado island. These contrast with the opulent and highly formal setting of Kyoto, the Governor’s palace and the reception offered by Sansho to an emissary of the owner. And the monastery presents a solemn silent space rudely disrupted by Sansho armed retainers; and Taro’s care a contrast to the brutal treatment of the serfs in the mansion. The music, led by the woodblocks, flutes and harp has occasional orchestral backing but is minimal only accompanying key scenes. The harp dominates in the sequence as Anju slowly walks into the lake in a sacrificial suicide. Parallel music accompanies the scene as Zushiô stands by the lake mourning his sister. And the song we hear in the sequence showing Tamaki prostituted on Sado island re-appears in the final sequence but now the crippled Tamaki can hardly sing the words and mostly she is just humming theme.

The cast are excellent. Tanaka Kinuyo has an important presence in the opening section ; following this she appears in shorter sequences in the middle and concluding sections. In the course of the film she is changed from a formally attired aristocratic lady to a crippled and poverty stricken old woman. Her use of her body emphasises the changes from the formal characterisation of her early appearances to the wasted and stricken character at the finale. This is a part of the powerful and tragic development in the film.

The critical sense in the narrative also develops. Mausaji Taira opposes the ruling of the military elite but accepts the punishment laid down. But when Zushiô becomes a governor he is warned not to overstep the bounds but deliberately does this and confronts the unjust laws. Immediately he resigns knowing that this will lead to his punishment. So his conduct is more radical than that of his father thought the oppressive system remains. An audience may wonder what happens to the protagonist after mother and son are reunited. But they should also wonder if the oppressive serf system will not be re-imposed when a new Governor takes office.

Mizoguchi was one of the directors in the 1950s who bought Japanese cinema to the attention of western critics and audiences. A number of the films were winners of prestigious awards at European film festivals; Sansho dayu won the Silver Lion Award at the 1954 Venice Film Festival, alongside Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai.

The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare, 1955)

This was the first film directed by Tanaka Kinuyo in the Leeds International Film Festival retrospective. I found the film impressive. It deals with a topic that even today that filmmakers find difficult to address directly, a woman who suffers a mastectomy. Tanaka, and her scriptwriter Tanaka Sumie [not related], have taken the story of an actual character, Tanaka Fumiko. She was a tanka poet [an important short poem form] who suffered a cancer, which led to the removal of her breasts. As the catalogue comments this is developed into “an unflinching account of a modern-minded woman afflicted with breast cancer’. Fumiko  (Tsukioka Yurneji) is married to a taciturn and unsympathetic husband and has two children, Noboru and Aiko. She seems like a devoted and dutiful wife, but is dissatisfied with her situation. Her husband has an extra-marital affair that leads to a divorce, with her son residing with the father whilst she remains with custody of her daughter. Her family pressurises her to consider remarriage. Then she is diagnosed with breast cancer. After the operation Fumiko is partly distraught by the effects on her body but also show signs of an awakening as a new woman. This is signed visually by her changed and stylish hair cut, [a sign in Japan of a woman’s change and in wider cinema often a sign of a woman’s trauma].

Fumiko has also been involved in a local poetry circle. The publication of some of her poems leads to interest by the Press, mainly it seems because of her tragic situation. This leads to her meeting a reporter from the Tokyo Daily News, Ōtsuki. At first part of the cynical exploitation of her, a relationship develops between them, but it is cut short by her death.

The basic plot suggests a fairly melodramatic story and a large dose of sentiment. In fact this is avoided, partly by the emphasis on her personal development and by an astringent depiction of the travails of her situation. It is only in the last scenes of the film that sentiment becomes unrestrained, as Ōtsuki and her children in a traditional gesture cast flowers into the water. This is presumably to provide a more upbeat tone to a tragic tale.

What impressed me was that the film mainly avoids the sense of tragedy. The focus in this tale is on the change in Fumiko, in her developing strength and in her unsentimental response to her situation. The catalogue describes her as follows: “ Fumiko is instead refreshingly presented as an imperfect, often selfish character and Tanaka’s handling of the film as a whole is tinged with the same even-handed humanity as she projected in the best of her own performances.” This is in part due to the fine performance of Tsukioka Yurneji in the lead role. After her operation she is transformed, not just visually with her new hairstyle, but in her behaviour. She becomes obviously sexy in a way that was absent when she was seen as the dutiful wife.

Looking back the signs were there even in her married times. Her poetry acts as an outlet for her frustrations. She writes poems that are critical of her husband: which occasions catty comments from other women in the poetry circle. At the same time, after her operation, she remains a loving mother, caring and concerned for her children. She leaves them a final poem as a recollection of herself for her two children.

The style of the film is also impressive. Just as Fumiko changes after her operation, so does the film. The early scenes are fairly conventional. The family live in a rural location surrounded by farmland, sheep and cows. The camera positions are straightforward, as is the editing though occasional shots suggest the darker side of the situation. At the moment when Fumiko discovers her husband’s infidelity there is a close-up as hand reaches back to collect a forgotten handbag. Another close-up shows a pair of white gloves, which Fumiko flings at her husband’s head.

Following the operation the film has a much more urban feel [set in the city of Hokkaido], we spend much of the time in a hospital. Outside visits are to streets, the railway station and a local school. The camera seems more mobile and there are very effective shots set in corridors and stairways: the latter settings for moments of great intensity. Noticeable the amount of close-ups increases: often of Fumiko but also of the characters that surround her.

There are several powerful scenes placing Fumiko behind frames and bars. As Ōtsuki leaves her to return to Tokyo Fumiko stands behind the bars of a window and the camera very slowly tracks in on her. Another especially effective sequence has a camera tracking Fumiko as she follows a corpse and grieving relatives to the hospital morgue. This group is framed in a long corridor and the sequence ends with Fumiko stopped by the bars of the door into the morgue. This is also an example of how effectively the film uses repetition: after her death Ōtsuki and her children follow her body to the morgue. But the gate into the receptacle of death again bars the children.

Alex Jacoby offers comments in his excellent ‘Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors on Tanaka’. He suggests she lacks the individual style that marks out the auteur. This is the old chestnut of auteur versus metteur en scéne. What Tanaka does is to extremely effectively bring to visual and aural life the story provided by from actual life and adapted her scriptwriter. It is true that Tanaka’s films shows the influence of the directors with whom she worked as an actress. Apparently her earliest film followed the style of Yasujiro Ozu, with whom he worked several times. There are occasional signs of his style in this film. There are low-angle camera shots: exteriors that occur before or after an interior scene, though much shorter than those found in Ozu.  And there is the frequent continuation of a sequence when the main plot interest has ended. However, a more marked influence in Mikio Naruse, with whom she also worked on a number of films. Much of the framing recalls Naruse, as do the frequent powerful close-ups relying on the performer for impact. Like him the exteriors seem mainly about setting, the drama is almost completely played out in the interiors. Like both Naruse and Ozu Tanaka also frequently uses very effective deep staging to place the characters and their relationships. Costumes and sets reinforce this angle. In the course of the film Yoshio marries. However at the ceremony Fumiko remains preparing food and avoids wearing the traditional kimono required for such ceremonies. The music, by Kojun Saitó, recalls Naruse, with varied combinations from orchestral string, through a recurring accordion and the occasional combination of vibraphone and piano. And in the dramatic operation scene there is an insistent bass drum. There is a parallel with an earlier film: in the scene where Fumiko bathes she is heard humming ‘O solo mio’ – a song that featured in Naruse’s film Mother, starring Tanaka.

The influence is probably due in part to the writer Tanaka Sumie, who wrote several of Naruse’s fine 1950s films, also addressing women’s issues. One influence that is missing is that of the director with whom Tanaka worked most frequently, Mizoguchi Kenji. The record of Mizoguchi opposing her move into direction could explain this, whereas Ozu was very supportive, letting her film one of his scripts. But it is probably also due to Mizoguchi’s contradictory treatment of women characters. In his films women tend to remain dutiful, and are often the victims of sacrifice for the men.

This is definitely not the case with Tanaka. Fumiko is a rounded character with contradictory emotions and responses. But she shows remarkable resilience as she faces the crises in her life. Here she is closer to both Ozu, whose women are strong but usually dutiful, and even more to Naruse, whose women stolidly face up to the oppression of life. Tanaka goes further however in detailing the actual experience of women and how they learn to live with these travails.

The operation includes close-up of her breast as the nurse prepares for the surgeon’s knife and then there is a close-up of the scalpel that will cut away the flesh. Equally the film openly addresses women’s desires. In an early scene Fumiko visits the home of her friend Hori and his wife Kinuko. At the start of the sequence Kinuko heats the stove whilst her husband takes a bath. At one point she slides back the small window looking into the bathroom, as her husband relaxes in the hot water. After Fumiko’s arrival Kinuko leaves for a teachers’ meeting and in the course of the evening Fumiko expresses her love for Hori, though this remains unconsummated. Hori dies and in a later scene, after her operation, Fumiko uses the same bath and Kinuko heats the water. Kinuko slides open the window but is shocked when Fumiko happily displays her disfigured chest, [not though to the audience]. After this incident Fumiko admits her love for Hori and says that she wanted to once bathe in the same place that he had done. The later apparently sexual relationship between Fumiko and Ōtsuki is handled with much greater discretion.

In introducing the film Michael Smith suggested that Fumiko is not a ‘likeable character’, a different emphasis from his description in the catalogue. And after the film a young woman said that she really liked the film but that ‘the men were terrible’. This is partly true but it is a larger issue in the film. The husband is discredited and the reporter also, at least in his early appearances. But Fumiko suffers a great amount of unsympathetic treatment from other characters. I have already mentioned the poetry circle and the Press exploitation. At another point in the film she tells her mother [grandma] that it was her insistence that led to Fumiko’s marriage. And her friend Kinuko is seen as hidebound by social attitudes and is unable to face her new condition. It is in this context that I find Fumiko shows great strength of character.

It should be noted that she is strongly supported in her illness by her mother and by her brother Yoshio. And Kinuko visits her and gives her a music box that belonged to her husband Hori. In a parallel between her loves, later in the film Fumiko gives the music box to Ōtsuki.

There is possibly an autobiographical theme in the film. In the early 1950s Tanaka, a popular star, returned from the USA and arrived back in western style clothes. She received many complaints from fans and criticism in the press for this ‘lapse’. Whilst in her many film roles she is often strong and also stoical, I have not seen a film in which she was able to play a character that represents the liberation of the ‘modern miss’. But this is the battle that Fumiko is fighting in this film.

Alex Jacoby, whilst praising the film and the performances, criticised the emphasis on the personal rather than on a women making her own life and career in place of marriage. This is a fair point; in fact Tanaka’s own career followed that pattern, she never married but she made her way as a star and then as a filmmaker. However, the film is dealing with a particular oppressive aspect of life for women: not just in terms of their sexual roles but in their ability to determine their own relationships. I think the film remains an early and powerful expression of a woman’s struggle. And it seems that Tanaka remains a rare example of a successful and really interesting woman filmmaker in Japanese cinema.

Girls of Dark ( Onna bakari no yoru, 1961)

This film was the last screening in the Tanaka Kinuyo retrospective at the Leeds International Film Festival. It was her fifth film and was released in 1961. The scriptwriter was once again Tanaka Sumie together with Masaka Yana. The film deals with the rehabilitation of prostitutes. Prostitution was a common theme in Japanese films in this period. In 1956 the Government passed an anti-prostitution law which came into effect in 1958. The book from which the film was adapted came out in this period. There were also a cycle of films dealing with prostitution, a famous example was Mizoguchi Kenji’s Street of Shame (1956). However, Tanaka’s film is atypical in dealing with the question of the rehabilitation of these ‘fallen women’. The film seems to have differed from the book in a number of respects. The scriptwriters changed some of the story, including explicit references to lesbianism. However, it seems that the director re-introduced at least aspects of the last theme, and that topic is explicit in the finished film.

The opening of the film features a series of short newspaper articles, and sequences in the red light district, including raids by the police. After the credits the action opens in the Chiragiku Home for Women [a rehabilitation centre]: it is worth noting that the more recidivist offenders were sent to reformatories. We meet the staff, including the directress Nogami and a group of new inmates. The centre is toured along with a group from a Ladies Club, and includes a young married woman, Mrs Shima (Kyoko Kagawa who had already appeared alongside Tanaka Kinuyo in Mother and Sansho Dayu). I found the opening scenes not easy to follow as we meet a large number of characters and I found it difficult to catch all their names.

One couple that stood out were two older inmates, Kameju asnd Yoshimi. Kameju constantly makes advances to Yoshimi, who is fairly unrepentant about her trade. And at one point Kameju snuggles down besides Yoshimi under a coverlet telling her that ‘‘woman are better than men’. Yoshima makes frequent attempts to escape and this finally leads to a tragic end for the smitten Kameju.

Then the narrative narrows to focus on Kuniko (Hara Hisako) and to a lesser extent on her friend Chi-chan. Having obtained a good record in the Home Kuniko is allowed to leave and to attempt to re-establish herself in society and work. We follow her as she makes her way through three different jobs. Occasional voice-overs give us access to her thoughts and feelings. And she writes letters to Nogami, which the director reads out to the inmates.

In the first job Kuniko is a paid help for a married couple with a shop. The work is hard and the wages low, 2,500 yen a month: apparently not a living wage. [It is worth noting that in the Home the inmates receive anything from a 62 to 15 yen rate for their work]. Embittered Kinuko wreaks her revenge on the husband and momentarily considers returning to her previous life. However, she is picked up by the police.

Back in the home Kuniko is now placed in a factory. She is set apart from the other girls there, and when she tells them about her past she is subjected to bullying and a sadistic attack by a group of fellow workers. She returns to the home painfully injured.

Her third job is in a ‘rose nursery’ owned by the husband of Mrs Shima. The husband is a lecturer. The young wife is very supportive of Kuniko, and there has already been a hint of attraction on her part when she visited the Home. Kuniko shares a room with her friend Chi-Chan, who has a job in a local cafeteria. The rule of the Home is to avoid entanglements with men, however Kuniko develops a relationship with the young worker in the nursery, Tsugasa. She is also visited by an old flame and pimp from her past. The social antagonisms around prostitution follow her here as she attempts to make a new life.

Michael Smith in his introduction remarked that the film showed more of a distinctive style than Tanaka’s earlier films. This was apparent and one of the visual pleasures was the use of the Tohoscope format in black and white. This is a fine film format and there are some striking compositions, especially in the several dramatic exteriors. I noted that more of the drama of this film was played out in the exterior settings. But there was also the use of framing and the drama on staircases and corridors that we saw in her earlier film, The Eternal Breasts. In many scenes Tanaka used the widescreen format to place characters in the setting and to place significant objects in the frame. There are placements and close-ups of roses in the nursery sequences which comments upon the situation. The filming of groups in especially well handled, and there are several stark tableaux-like shots at moments of intense drama.

I found the action and characters more conventional than in the earlier The Eternal Breasts. For example there are fights among the women in the factory section, a staple of such films. The red light scenes seemed very familiar.  However, my colleague at the screening thought the film the less conventional of the two. My feelings were that whilst the relationships between the women were very interesting, the treatment of rehabilitation and of prostitution was familiar from other film treatments.

I was though, struck by the final sequence of the film. Kuniko is once more working, this time with woman collecting marine food in the waters along a beach. Her voice-over speaks of her wish to achieve stability and purity. The final shot shows her in a line of women returning with their heavy baskets along the sands. Then we have a great camera crane above the women, tilting up to show the sea and surrounding vista. The shot seems like a reverse image of the famous shot that ends Mizoguchi Kenji’s Sansho Dayu and conjures up a similar feeling of calm and perseverance. Perhaps it was homage to a master. In the Mizoguchi film the final shot shows two humped-back islets. In Tanaka’s film the equivalence are two rock pillars: Freudians would be able to make great play with this.

The whole series of films has been remarkably absorbing and extremely enjoyable. Michael Smith summed up the week with thanks to the Leeds International Film Festival, The Centre for World Cinema, The Japan Film Foundation and the Hyde Park Cinema Picture House. The applause from the audience was also a well-deserved thank-you to him from the audience for his labours in bringing these rare films to Leeds and introducing us to a little known but clearly very fine actress and outstanding woman filmmaker.

Posted in Films by women, Japanese film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Satyajit Ray, born May 2nd 1921

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2021

So as 2021 opens we can hopefully envisage seeing films in theatrical settings and no longer suffering the inferior facsimiles of video, television and streaming. Optimists can plan for screenings to celebrate the centenary of one of the truly great film-makers in world cinema. From his pioneering neo-realist films in the 1950s, through his more modernist and critical studies of his home culture, Satyajit Ray has been a dominant force, both in his home cinema and in the wider world of art and foreign language distribution.

It seems unfortunately likely that many fans will have to settle for digital versions; whereas Ray’s impressive and poetic films deserve their original and proper format; 35mm prints. So it is worth checking national or even local film archives and badgering exhibitors to provide the ‘reel’ thing.

Happily the National Film Archive in Britain has a number of Ray’s finest films available in 35 mm prints. The condition of some of them is not great and it may be that not all are accessible for screenings. And the British Film Institution, which controls access to the archive, is not that diligent in enabling access. I have been denied requests for known prints in the archive: seen the lesser of two or several prints sent out to the provinces: and its published face of film, Sight & Sound, displays a cavalier attitude to works of art that originated on photo-chemical film.

Still the quality that comes from the 35mm print world, even with scratches and jump cuts, make the effort worthwhile. So these are the titles currently listed as held in the archive.

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) is a 1955 Bengali film produced by the Government of West Bengal. It was based on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s 1929 Bengali novel of the same name and was Ray’s directorial debut. The first film in ‘The Apu Trilogy’, Pather Panchali depicts the childhood of the protagonist Apu and his elder sister Durga and the harsh village life of their poor family.

I first saw this film in my early film society years on 16mm. It was a wonderful eye-opener to a very different cinema. One impressive sequence shows a first sight of a train thundering and smoking across the landscape; a trope that I have seen again many times in Indian films.

Aparajito (The Unvanquished) is a 1956 Bengali film and is the second part of ‘The Apu Trilogy’. It was adapted from Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee’s novels ‘Pather Panchali’ and its sequel ‘Aparajito’ (1932). It starts off where the previous film ended, with Apu’s family moving to Varanasi, and chronicles Apu’s life from childhood to adolescence in college, right up to his mother’s death, when he is left all alone.

The World of Apu (Apur Sansar) is a 1959 Bengali film and.the third part of ‘The Apu Trilogy’. The film is based on the later part of the novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. Released in 1959, The World of Apu focuses on Apu’s adult life. Happily I was able to see this title in 35mm. This final part of the trilogy has wonderful sequences as Apu enters married life. There is a tonga ride back from an entertainment: a scene of domesticity of Apu and his young wife: and finally a sequence of father and son which is a fine expression of the humanist values that inform Ray’s films.

Jalsaghar ( The Music Room) is a 1958 Bengali film based on a popular short story by Bengali writer Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay. The fourth of Ray’s feature films, it was filmed in a village in West Bengal.. Jalsaghar depicts the end days of a decadent zamindar (landlord) in Bengal and his efforts to uphold his family prestige while facing economic adversity. The landlord, Biswambhar Roy, is a just but otherworldly man who loves to spend time listening to music and putting up spectacles rather than managing his properties ravaged by floods and the government’s abolition of the zamindari system.

Devi (The Goddess) is a 1960 Bengali film based on a short story by Provatkumar Mukhopadhyay. ‘Devi’ focuses on a young woman who is deemed a goddess when her father-in-law, a rich feudal land-lord, has a dream envisioning her as an avatar of Kali.

Rabindranath Tagore is a 1961 documentary film produced by Films Division of India in English about the life and works of noted Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore. Shot in black-and-white, the finished film was released during the birth centenary year of Rabindranath Tagore.

Teen Kanya is a 1961 Indian Bengali anthology film based upon short stories by Rabindranath Tagore. The title means “Three Girls”, and the film’s original Indian release contained three stories. However, the international release of the film contained only two stories, missing the second (“Monihara: The Lost Jewels”).

Kanchenjungha (Kanchonjônggha) is a 1962 Bengali film. It is about an upper class Bengali family on vacation in Darjeeling, a popular hill station and resort, near Kanchenjunga.

Abhijan (The Expedition) is a 1962 Bengali film. When a corrupt cop takes away Narsingh’s taxi license after an illegal car race, Narsingh finds himself reduced to poverty living in the outskirts of Kolkata. A practicing Sikh, he finds himself having to accept work from a dubious business man, Sukhanram, who employs Narsingh in dope smuggling.

Mahanagar (The Big City) is a 1963 Bengali film based on the short story ‘Abataranika’ by Narendranath Mitra, it tells the story of a housewife who disconcerts her traditionalist family by getting a job as a saleswoman. Shot in the first half of 1963 in Kolkata, this was also the first film directed by Ray set entirely in his native Kolkata, reflecting contemporary realities of the urban middle-class, where women going to work is no longer merely driven by ideas of emancipation but has become an economic reality.

The Lonely Wife ( Charulata) is a 1964 Bengali film. Charu lives a lonely and idle life in 1870s India. Although her husband Bhupati devotes more time to his newspaper than to their marriage, he sees her loneliness and asks his brother-in-law, Umapada to keep her company. At the same time Bhupati’s own cousin, Amal, a would-be writer comes home finishing his college education.

Chiriakhana or Chiriyakhana (The Zoo) is a 1967 Bengali crime thriller, based on the story of the same name by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. Byomkesh Bakshi, a detective, is hired by a rich man to investigate the name of an actress appeared in a movie decades ago, who has eloped ever since. The case became complicated when the rich man is murdered by someone for that.

Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) is a Bengali film released in 1970, based upon the Bengali novel of the same name by Sunil Gangopadhyay. The film uses humour to undercut the main narrative. A group of Kolkata city slickers, including the well-off Asim, the meek Sanjoy and the brutish Hari, head out for a weekend in the wilderness.

Jana Aranya is a 1976 Bengali film, based on the novel of the same name by Mani Shankar Mukherjee. It is the last among Ray’s Kolkata trilogy series, the previous two being, Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970) and Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971). The film portrays the economic difficulties faced by middle-class, educated, urban youth in 1970s India.

Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) is a 1977 Indian film based on Munshi Premchand’s short story of the same name. Wajid Ali Shah, King of Awadh, is subverted by General James Outram, aided by the king’s obsession with chess..

Sadgati ( Salvation [or] Deliverance) is an 1981 Hindi television film directed by Satyajit Ray, based on a short story of same name by Munshi Premchand. Ray called this drama of a poor Dalit “a deeply angry film […] not the anger of an exploding bomb but of a bow stretched taut and quivering.”

There are many other fine film written and directed by Satyajit Ray and graced by fine performers and craft people. Maybe some will turn up in Britain [or in other places] to be enjoyed.

Posted in Film Directors, Indian film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »