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Whistle Down the Wind UK 1961.

Posted by keith1942 on February 10, 2016

whistle down wind

The film was screened in a fine 35mm print at the Hebden Bridge Picture House. The visual quality was very good. The soundtrack was slightly problematic because the mono original did not fit the modern system for surround sound: so the dialogue in particular was occasionally rather loud or rather soft. Also there was some cropping of the 1.66:1 image, presumably due to the masking. Even so, it was a real pleasure to revisit this classic from the 1960s.

The film was produced by Beaver Films, whose other work included The Angry Silence (1960) and Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). Beaver Films worked with Allied Filmmakers, whose other films included Victim (1961)  The key players in this production were Richard Attenborough [Producer] and Bryan Forbes [Director]. The film was adapted from a novel by Mary Hayley Mills [her daughter Hailey Mills was the star] with the screenplay produced by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. So the film involved a number of key members of the British film industry in this period.

Hayley Mills, a rising star at this point, plays Kathy, one of the three Bostock children. Her younger sister is Nan (Diane Holgate) and her brother, the youngest, is Charlie (Alan Barnes). They live with their widowed father (Bernard Lee) and his sister [their aunt] Dorothy (Elsie Wagstaff). The setting is a hillside farm near Clitheroe in Lancashire: set in the Ribble Valley and lying in hilly moorlands.  And the other farm member is Eddie (Norman Bird) who does little work but spends time trying to trap local wildlife. Nearby locations included a quarry and a railway line and the local town, Burnley [?], with a church and Sunday school attended by the children. We meet other local people but the important part of the supporting cast are the local children with whom the trio play and study.

The drama gets under way when the children discover a man asleep in one of the barns: Blakey (Alan Bates in his film debut). He is injured and clearly hiding. The audience learn that he is in fact a wanted murderer on the run. However the children [mistakenly] accept him as a Jesus, who has figured in their lessons at the local church. Thus whilst the police and locals are on the lookout for the wanted man the children visit and assist the fugitive. The resolution of the film is predictable in terms of the fugitive but the children are able to maintain their belief in the special status of the man. There is a fine final shot as Kathy tells a pair of latecomers that ‘he will return’.

The performances are generally convincing and those of the children are impressive. The film achieves a sense of naturalism that makes the story, rather fey in some ways, entirely convincing. Waterhouse and Willis have produced a well structured story that develops the drama but also offers the pleasures of character, place and time. There are many references to the New Testament: these include a shot of Blakey in a crucifix stance and a young boy who repeats the triple denial by Peter of Jesus.

The film relies extensively on location filming. The settings and the landscapes are well used. The cinematography of Arthur Ibbetson is especially fine. He worked on other Beaver Productions and also on a fine example of colour cinematography, Tunes of Glory (1960). The film uses what seemed to me an usually high ratio of long shots. The characters are constantly placed in the landscape, and at times there is a lyrical quality to the image. There is a particular fine long shot of the children dancing away under trees. Rather like the work of Tony Richardson I felt that the director and cinematographer had watched some of the early nouvelle vague films. My friend Jake thought there were crossovers with Luis Malle’s very fine [and later] Au revoir les Enfants (1987).

The lyricism is re-enforced by the fine score for the film by Malcolm Arnold. There is a distinctive musical theme which accompanies the children in the film. And Arnold also uses traditional songs in his score, including ‘We Thee Kings’.. The film was a success on its original release and it remains a fine example of 1960s British film. It seems to have been the most profitable of the Beaver Productions. The film received a U Certificate at the time from the BBFC and now is rated PG,

“Contains one use of mild language.”

I am trying to remember what that was?

Posted in British film stars, British films, Literature on Film, UK filmmakers | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Wind That Shakes the Barley Eire / UK / Germany / Italy / Spain / France / Belgium / Switzerland 2006

Posted by keith1942 on January 27, 2016

THWTSTBThe Wind That Shakes the Barley received a very hostile reaction from right-wing political commentators in British newspapers on its release, being called a

“poisonously anti-British corruption of the history of the war of Irish independence” (Tim Luckhurst in The Times) or a “portrayal of the British as sadists and the Irish as romantic, idealistic resistance fighters who take to violence only because there is no other self-respecting course” (Ruth Dudley Edwards in the Daily Mail).

However, the reaction from film critics – as opposed to political commentators (some of whom, like Simon Heffer, attacked the film before even seeing it) – has been generally extremely positive. The right­wing Daily Telegraph‘s film critic described it as a

“brave, gripping drama” and said that Loach was “part of a noble and very English tradition of dissent”.

The film critic of The Times said that the film showed Loach “at his creative and inflammatory best”.” (www.wikepedia.org).

The response summarised above is not unusual for a film directed by Ken Loach. His 1966 television film, Cathy Come Home, was followed by one of the earliest television ‘balancing’ programmes. His films about organised labour, Questions of Leadership (1983) and Which Side Are You On? (1984), were effectively banned. When the subject was Ireland, as in Hidden

Agenda (1990) on the ‘shoot to kill’ policy, the campaign became almost hysterical. And so the BBC series, Days of Hope (1975) which included labour and Ireland, provoked leaders in both The Times and The Daily Telegraph.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley compounds its sympathy for Irish republicanism by drawing parallels:

“I think what happened in Ireland is such a classic story of a fight for independence, to establish a democratic mandate and to resist an occupying army. Yet it was also a fight for a country with a new social structure. The British army in Ireland during 1920-21 did what armies of occupation do the world over – adopt a racist attitude towards the people they are attacking and occupying. They destroy people’s houses, engage in acts of brutality and generally oppress the people -and in Iraq that’s exactly what the British army is doing.” (Loach interview http://www.socialistworker.co.uk).

The Irish dimension

A Republican 'flying column'.

A Republican ‘flying column’.

Few of the reviews have actually explored these parallels in detail, focusing mainly on the Irish dimension. Quite often such comment include odd asides. Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian:

“To be fair, there is surely a bigger market for anti-Brit diatribes across the Channel”

And Edward Lawrenson in Sight & Sound comments re the anti-Treaty hero

“is his implication that any deviation from Damien’s principles is perfidy and his distaste for the very idea of compromise appropriate in these post-Good Friday Agreement times?”

Lawrenson goes on to make a point common to a number of reviewers:

“This coarsening of Loach’s artistry is most evident in the director’s depiction of the English and Scottish soldiers as either pantomime toffs or brutish squaddies.”

He believes that Loach is using stereotypes, a technique not peculiar to this director.

In the same issue of Sight & Sound there is a review of United 93 (US 2006). This is also a historical reconstruction on film. The characterisation of the hijackers gets no mention in that review. What the film offers is a stereotypical group who

“pray, read the Koran, bow to Mecca, perform ablutions, and hug goodbye-the rites of religious cleansing before a holy war.” (Cineaste, Fall 2006).

Moreover, the only other foreign accent in this film belongs to the one dissenting voice among the passengers. It would seem that stereotypes are at least partly in the mind of the beholder.

Form and Style

The Wind That Shakes the Barley 6

What receives less attention than the political standpoint of the film is its form and style. As Loach remarked film

“is absolutely a group activity”.

Some sense of the production team and their use of film techniques is presented in a Channel Four documentary Carry on Ken. The title reflects Ken Loach’s liking for the oft­ reviled Carry On films. The programme includes examples of the improvisation techniques of actors, and points out the way that a long lens is used.

One comment on the staging is by Lawrenson who refers to the farmhouse where several acts of violence by the British occur. He comments:

“It comes across on the screen as an implausible and heavy-handed bit of symbolism.”

This is to ignore the way that place can function to enrich stories. This is another aspect of the film accorded little attention, in that it builds on the iconography and generic elements of the cycle of films dealing with Irish Republicanism. The majority of such films have tended to stereotype the liberation fighters. Typical are two portrayals, James Cagney in Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) and Miranda Richardson in The Crying Game (1992). Both are psychotic killers. More sympathetic films romanticise the republicans, as doomed victim in Odd Man Out (1947) or as heroic leader in Michael Collins (1996). In neither case is there much involvement with the politics of the Republican movement, or of the occupying power, Britain.

Republican traditions

This is exactly what The Wind That Shakes the Barley does do. And it does so by tapping into Irish academic and popular traditions of Republicanism. So the film not only relied on Irish locations and casting, but the narrative features actual figures and events from the period. It also uses the iconography of Irish films. Little is seen of these in the UK but they go back to the early years of the Irish Free State. Channel Four screened The Dawn (1936) in the 1990s. This film centres on two brothers with different responses to the war, and it features scenes of marching volunteers and ambushes of the Black and Tans. But it does not address the post Treaty Civil war.

Box Office

Despite or because of all the publicity, good and bad, The Wind That Shakes the Barley has done very well – for a Loach film (£3.7 million and on initial release). The UK release was planned to be only thirty prints, but with 300 touted for France, the UK figure was upped to 105. On the first weekend the film posted £390,000,

“nearly three times that of his previous biggest opening Sweet Sixteen” (an 18 rather than a 15 Certificate film). ‘

The Numbers’ column in Sight & Sound went on to point out that:

“The Irish territories accounted for 73% of the … box office total.”

The Irish territories apparently include the North and the South; both lumped in with the UK. This is a poetic confirmation of the argument put by Dan (Liam Cunningham) against the Treaty,

“England would still rule you”.

(In France the film has made over £3 million.)

Value judgments

A warm reception on the Continent

A warm reception on the Continent

Two aspects of the critical responses strike me especially in relation to The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Whilst critics do not claim to be objective, there is a sense in which they claim to be judging films on identified technical and aesthetic standards. Yet the revealing asides in so many reviews indicate that value judgments are often just as important. As with Loach himself,

‘politics inform your aesthetics.’

British critics also tend to dislike didactic cinema,

‘film with a message.’ Jeffries comments: “but there is a deeper problem: we are always sure whose side Loach is on and the dramatic journeys he take us on are ultimately not engaging because we know where they are headed.”

The reviewer’s comments on United 93’s message reckons that it:

“terrifyingly conveys the nature of the threat facing the world today and poignantly conveys onscreen the decision by a few brave individuals to fight back”.

Both films clearly embrace and present a set of value judgements about the world of their story. The differing comments are revealing. Ken Loach was quoted on one occasion:

“I’ve spent as much time defending my films as I have making them.”

Does he mind that much? Just because his films are not mere entertainment but social and political interventions, they spark discussion and debate. I think it is highly likely that the arguments in the review columns are endlessly repeated and developed long after audiences have left the cinemas.

References

Sight & Sound reviews of the two films are July 2006. ‘The Numbers’ is August 2006.

Carry on Ken, A Feasible Film for Channel Four tx More 4 on 17 June 2006.

Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill (1987) Cinema and Ireland, Routledge

Originally published in ITP in the picture November 2006.

Posted in History on film, Movies with messages, Political film, UK filmmakers | Leave a Comment »

Capitalism: A Love Story USA 2009

Posted by keith1942 on January 21, 2016

capitalism-a-love-story-524324567a289

Written, directed and co-produced by Michael Moore. Now an established and famous voice on screen Moore tilts at his largest target yet. In fact, the title is somewhat grandiose: rather than deconstructing the contemporary mode of production, Moore is mainly concerned with the Financial Sector, especially the Banks. The film has all the familiar ingredients: the director’s caustic commentary and stunts, ordinary people coping in extraordinary situations, the revealing but till now unseen [or at least unnoticed] stories, background and leaks in the media. Regular fans may well experience a feeling of déjà vu. There is a hint of this in the closing comments by Moore himself, [over the end credits] as he pleads with his audience to join him in ‘action’. Reports of the film’s performance suggest this has not activated hordes of ordinary people. Yet, like some of his more vacuous fellow celebrities, Moore has winning charm. He also has a newsman’s nose for the scoop and the overlooked exposé. So, much of the film is absorbing, at times entertaining, and to a degree shocking.

Moore’s ‘capitalism’ does not start in the 13th century or with the rise of the Protestant Ethic. His villain is Ronald Reagan. Here Moore places the blame for deregulation, the rise of short-term profits, and the regressive changes in taxation. Certainty he provides ample evidence for the greed of the financial barons, and also for their myopic fall into chaos, ably abetted by Government Regulators. The most poignant sections are when Moore visits victims of this legalised robbery. As always, Moore can both facilitate the voice of the oppressed and exploited, and construct a powerful mosaic of anger at injustice and malfeasance. He also manages to find more reassuring groups who have organised resistance: a worker’s occupation in Chicago fighting for their wages: a community that rehouses an evicted family. So the audience are shown both the exploitation and the resistance.

But Moore’s virtues are partly undermined by his limitations. His films lack a full historical context and even more a rigorous analysis. The current crisis, which he examines, is only the latest in a cycle which goes back at least two centuries. And the majority of US citizens have suffered the expropriation of their surplus value since they arrived in the United States, either soon after birth or immediately on immigration. This matters since the direction that resistance takes will determine its success. One can find similar stories of both poverty and deprivation as well as of resistance and fight-back in the Great Depression. But eighty years on another remarkably similar financial bubble has wreaked havoc on the ordinary working people.

Like other liberals (for example, Naomi Klein) Franklin Delano Roosevelt appears to be one of Moore’s heroes. Near the end of his film Moore screens a long and (seemingly) forgotten newsreel by FDR calling for basic rights for ordinary people: rights that should include health care, a home, employment, pensions . . . As Moore points out these rights have never be legalised in the USA. The problem with this argument is that there have been existing rights in law, including those against arbitrary arrest, false imprisonment, secret surveillance, and torture. As in the UK the state has been able to tear up the paper on which such laws were written. Moore’s film also seems slightly opportunistic. His treatment of Barrack Obama is rather ambiguous, and he dwells once more on the joy that greeted Obama’s election rather than the policies since then. But Obama does not appear to be about to change that part of the capitalist system that is Moore’s target. In the film at one point the commentary refers to the coalition that pressurised Congress to agree to the Bailout of the Banks: despite the vocal opposition of a majority of the electorate. This included both the President and President-Elect, the aforesaid Obama. And the commentary also identifies a number of the latter’s advisers who earlier belonged to the most successful finance house, Goldman Sachs. As Balzac observed,

“behind every great fortune there is a great crime.”

Despite these limitations Moore’s new film is an entertaining two hours which also contains many nuggets of useful information. One is an interview with the chairperson of a Senate Committee charged with Oversight of the Banks, woefully confessing that she could not even force the banks to explain how they spent the monies received in the bailout. And of course there are his inimitable stunts. At the end of the film Moore unwinds a roll of police tape marked ‘crime scene’ round the Wall Street Financial buildings. That anti-social clique that controls the nation’s economy watches him from inside the buildings. They are clearly discomfited and embarrassed. Unfortunately I don’t feel that Michael Moore’s film will take us any farther. We need something more drastic. But we also need at least this level of assault on the equivalent nefarious activities in the UK.

 

Originally posted  on the film’s release.

Posted in Documentary, Political film, US films | Leave a Comment »

The BAFTA Nominations 2016

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2016

BAFTA award

The Award season is upon us. And quickly out the starting blocks is the Ceremony of Awards by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. On past years’ performances the BAFTA members, rather like the Hollywood Academy, appear to watch a fairly narrow selection of films. Hence their choices reflect on only a part of the films released in the UK. Some of these have yet to get a general release so I am not familiar with all the titles.

However there are several glaring omissions among the nominations. 45 Years is sidelined in a category titled Outstanding British Film. I am uncertain what function of this category serves. Just to make one comparison. Among the five nominees in the Best Film category is Carol. I would reckon that this is a fine movie, but not any better than 45 Years. Moreover, I think the British film has greater complexity.

It gets worse. Neither Tom Courtney nor Charlotte Rampling enjoy nominations in the Best Actress or Best Actor category. Clearly the Jury at the Berlin Film Festival possessed greater discrimination than their British counterparts.

Tom Courtney has, in the past won a Film and a TV BAFTA and has also received three other nominations. However Charlotte Rampling appears to have never received a nomination at the BAFTAs, though she has been nominated for 45 Years in the British Independent Film Awards. I think Charlotte Rampling is the most striking and challenging actress working in current English-language [and French-language] cinema. Perhaps that is the very reason that the BAFTA members do not seem to appreciate her.

45 Years has suffered in other ways. It failed to get a nomination in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. There we find Carol, which is in some ways of equal quality, and also Brooklyn and Steve Jobs, which are definitely not of the same quality.

Postscript: it seems that the members of the Hollywood Academy do have a more critical gaze than those of the BAFTA; Charlotte Rampling has been nominated in the Best actress category for 45 Years.

Posted in British film stars | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Of Presidents and Pistols

Posted by keith1942 on January 3, 2016

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

  This article was originally written shortly after the release of The American President (Columbia / Castle Rock, 1995). I have not updated the main article [except for one brief reference] but provided this introduction and an after-thought on the intervening years. The American President was directed by Rob Reiner and scripted by Aaron Sorkin: who subsequently went on to work on the enormously successful television series of The West Wing. My sense is that though we have seen a few ‘bad apple’ presidents onscreen (for example Primary Colours (Universal, 1998) and Absolute Power (Columbia / Castle Rock, 1997), the mainstream movie still privileges the supreme post in the USA. Of course, we now have Barack Obama in the White House – so the sacred office is no longer the preserve of the white male; we may even see a female president soon. There have already been screen female Presidents: Wikipedia has lists of the films and of the actors who played in them, it is very long. And Obama was preceded by several black screen Presidents, with Morgan Freeman establishing a special hold on the office. The Presidential Myth.

“Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it history evaporates. It is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from…” Myths today, Roland Barthes.

Barthes’ comment describes the way that stories often maximise our pleasure whilst minimising the content we have to grapple with. It would certainly seem an apt reflection on Hollywood films, which have in so many areas produced great entertainment which avoids unsettling the audience with the harsher realities of either the recorded or imagined events. The west, the U.S. family, the civil war, the space programme… the myth presented is wrapped up so that the memories we take out the auditorium are not too disquieting. One of the most powerful myths among the many generated by Hollywood is the presidential myth. One example is appropriately entitled The American President, with President Andy Shephard [Michael Douglas] generating real comedy as he battles to enjoy an ordinary romance with career woman, Sydney Wade [Annette Bening]. These are obviously not ‘ordinary people’, but the film works hard to make them seem so, even sharing a meat-loaf dinner. It knows the Presidential Office is serious, and injects serious matters into the narrative; crime, environment, policing the world. However, the seriousness is strictly controlled, so that the only issue to get extended attention is the environmental one. Crime is just rhetoric and policing the world, with Shephard authorising a military strike against a Gaddaffi-style figure, allows the President to display decisive leadership whilst expressing human feelings but at the same time it is safely tucked away from the dramatic crisis and climax of the movie, so that viewers don’t have to worry over it. president shepard speaks with staff the american president 1995 movie micheal douglas martin sheen micheal j fox The American President bears a fairly obvious political agenda. Andy Shephard has no military record, a musical daughter and courts a successful woman, who is so liberal she even helped burn the flag in her youth – predictably the production received strong co-operation from the Clinton White House. In fact, Clinton’s State of the Union tribute to Hilary suggests he was powerfully influenced by one scene in the film. The film most likely did not get help from republican Bob Dole [Clinton’s Republican opponent at the time for the Presidential Office], who also has his shadow – as the villain. With Oliver Stone’s Nixon (Entertainment, 1995) also released over here, the democrats had a filmic edge on republicans at this point in time. But many Hollywood films have serviced one or other party. Frank Capra, the subject of one of the best jokes in The American President, was the great polemicist for the New Deal. Intriguingly, several of the films I discuss were produced by Warner Bros., strong supporters of Roosevelt in the 1930s. The Wind and the Lion (Herb Jaffe, 1975), created by the right-wing libertarian John Milius, was homage to Theodore Roosevelt. Whilst the two parties might argue over the merits of particular movies, both are tied into the myths they create. The opening titles of The American President are a montage of images – portraits and photographs of past presidents intertwined with art objects and artefacts from the White House, home and symbol of the President. They all seem to be there, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, up to Kennedy and Johnson; [thus avoiding the more contemporary dilemmas like Nixon, Ford and Carter]. When Andy and Sydney first get together, they discuss and then tour this national treasury. Sydney’s problem is how to have romance with a man who she has to call Mr President – a living exhibit in this treasury. The tentative relationship between the two encapsulates the view of the President as shared by much of the American audience. The President must be at the same time the ‘boy next door’ and the most powerful man in the world – to span the log cabin and the white house. Anyone can make it to the White House, … Poster%20-%20Young%20Mr_%20Lincoln_02 In one of the classic renderings of the myth, Young Mr Lincoln (C20th Fox, 1939), we are presented with homespun Abe, a man of the people, who has to rise to become the figurehead of the people.  This film closes with the famous memorial statue on Capital Hill, accompanied by the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic‘. His passage from the backwoods to the White House is the clear expression of the US’s claim to be the open society. The associations around emancipation address a mythic moral nation which conveniently forgets the ambiguities in the practices of this Republican President and his party. A rather more contradictory view is espoused in Spielberg’s Lincoln (Dreamworks / C20th Fox, 2012), which film dwells on the manipulative and corrupt politics that were required to bring the 13th Amendment [abolishing slavery] to the Stature Book. But even here the film leaves the audience with the celebrations by liberals and Afro-Americans at the passage of the Bill and then the death of the US’s ‘greatest’ president. The ordinary side of the Presidential myth has been expressed in a myriad ways. Lincoln’s chopping wood; Teddy Roosevelt’s sporting prowess; Kennedy humping ammunition in PT109 (Warner Bros., 1963), the film about his war service – the marks of difference are carefully deleted. Andy Shephard remarks that Franklin D Roosevelt would not have been elected as President in the age of television because of his wheelchair. At the time, newsreels appear to have avoided shots of Roosevelt in his chair (in the famous Yalta photograph a rug  covers his legs and chair), and in PT109 Kennedy’s chronic back problem gets no mention. These are all examples of the ‘evaporation of history’ described by Barthes. Sydney’s problem with Andy is one that all the films have to negotiate – the audience needs to both identify with the filmic hero, and stand in awe of the super-ordinary figure. The Cahiers du Cinéma article on Young Mr Lincoln discusses how that film dramatises the Lincoln figure above mere politics.

“the first scene of the film already shows Lincoln as a political candidate without providing any information either on what may have brought him to this stage….or on the results of this electoral campaign [his first – he lost]…..Lincoln’s character makes all politics appear trivial.”

The American President uses a similar approach, Andy spends much of the film wheeling and dealing for Senate votes for bills watered down to avoid offending interest groups. At the movies’ end, Andy drops his worries about image, re-election, and opinion polls and stands up for what matters, the well-being of the nation. His reward is a standing ovation in Congress, and presumably a silent one from the cinema audience. nixon_monument But the films also have to deal with the dark side of the myth – misdeeds, corruption and death. Oliver Stone’s Nixon (Cinergi Pictures / Hollywood Pictures 1995) presented one part of this darker side. Oliver Stone has already delved into villainy with J.F.K. (Warner, 1991). Much of that film has a noirish look as Jim Garrison [Kevin Costner] investigates the hidden worlds of intelligence, contras, right-wing militias and political manipulation, seeking the truth about the Kennedy assassination. The film, not too convincingly, posits a political-military conspiracy stemming from Kennedy’s supposed preparedness to exit the Vietnam conflict. What is interesting is not how accurate Stone might be, but how the film’s twinning of these two great national disasters struck so powerfully into the US psyche, drawing strong responses, for and against, in reviews. Thirty years on the loss of the Arthurian style president (there were frequent allusions to Camelot in the Kennedy era) and the US’s only major military defeat still rankles. In-the-Line-of-Fire-1993 The problem of the loss of this mythic president has also been worked out in several movies about the presidential bodyguard. In the Line of Fire (Columbia, 1993) has Tom Horrigan [Clint Eastwood] relive the failure of Dallas in 1963 as he attempts to ward off a contemporary Presidential assassin [John Malcovich]. The film reworks past Eastwood characters, [especially Dirty Harry, Warner, 1971] as Horrigan returns to the presidential bodyguard after years on other work. Like Jim Garrison, his search parallels a psychological rerun for the US public. In an early scene the re-called Horrigan puffs and pants during escort duty for the presidential cavalcade. Through the film he returns to fitness and successfully wards off the assassin, thus seeming to symbolise the way that the US has overcome its traumas about the loss of the presidential hero. In The Bodyguard (Kasdan Pictures / Warner Bros., 1992) Frank Farmer [Costner again] failed to protect Ronald Reagan, but the film reads just as well if Kennedy is substituted, especially as it was first written in the 1960’s (thanks to Michael Johns for this insight). In one scene Farmer rescues Fletcher, fatherless son of black entertainer Rachel Marron [Whitney Huston]. This would seen to twin concerns about fatherhood and racism – powerful motifs in the Kennedy myth. The father figure returns at the end of the film as the camera tracks in on Farmer whilst a minister addresses god – somewhat over the top, but US presidents, including Nixon, have happily used the portrait of the all-time patriarch that graces the dollar. In both these films and others which feature assassins, the favoured weapon is the gun. Historically this fits the record of attempts on Lincoln, Mckinley, Kennedy and Reagan. Even so, it is hard to resist a psychological response. Uniformly male, usually [in the terms of the contemporary culture] young, they seem to offer youthful rebellion against the father. Lincoln’s memorial is the perfect embodiment of patriarchy, as lesser mortals stand beneath and peer up at the personification of the law. But in a further contradiction, these patriarchal victims can also be young in years and ‘outside’ in terms of traditional values. Writing about the two Kennedys, Martin Luther King and Malcom X, Philip Slater perceptively remarked:

“It is probably not accidental that these recent figures were all rather young men – not conservative father figures trying to retain power and preserve old ways, but young liberals or radicals trying to effect social change. If we make the rather safe assumption that the potential assassin has conflicts about authority, the assassination of such men satisfies both their rebellious and submissive tendencies; the assassin does not really kill authority, he kills in the name of authority.” [Slater, 1970).

The scenario works exactly in J.F.K., and also in Anthony Man’s  The Tall Target  (MGM, 1951). There, the attempt on Lincoln’s life portrayed in the film is organised by pro-slavery southerners, and there is a real sense of Lincoln as outsider and disrupter. In one scene passengers on a train argue strongly for and against Abe. The potential assassin is a young man with a rifle, but his mentor (Adolphe Menjou – a crucial casting choice) is both older and more established. At the closure Lincoln expresses his contradictory position with the metaphor of himself `stealing into the White House like a thief`. the-tall-target Yet the film is aware of the need to maintain Lincoln’s stature, dramatized by the attitude of the detective who saves him, not a supporter but impressed with Lincoln as the man. So another recent foray, Dave (Warner, 1991), has an undesirable president replaced by his look-alike, innocent, but honest in the mould of the classic Capra hero. All The Presidents’ Men (Warner, 1976) essays a similar task as the journalist heroes, in the gleaming White Washington Post offices, uncover the dark deeds of White House, FBI and Republican activists. Interestingly, we only see Nixon at one remove – on a Television monitor. Regardless of party politics or federal/state antagonisms, the presidential figure rises above ordinary political concerns.  This elevation correspondingly demands the vilification of the assassin. They are beyond ordinary evil in a world of psychosis or underhand and subversive forces. The Manchurian Candidate (United Artists, 1962 and Paramount, 2004) uses malevolent communist brain washing to produce its assassin [and a corporate/military conspiracy in the remake]: the earlier film has some parallels with The Tall Target secessionists. In the Line of Fire uses dissident CIA operative, as does J.F.K., where the world of the assassins is a disturbing noir world both threatening and sleazy. Given Slater’s comments, the national guilt over Lincoln, Kennedy, King and Malcom could be working out both admiration and resentment. Thus the extremity of the narrative motivations for the assassins would seem to be a displacement for these ambiguous emotions. Not all filmic Presidents are quite as patriarchal, not all assassins so demonised. In Twilight’s Last Gleamings (Lorimar, 1977 – originally released in a shortened version] the well-meaning President dies, shot by his own men, as they attempt to silence dissident military bent on exposing the partial truth about the Vietnam war. This film by the consistently liberal Robert Aldrich was savagely cut on release and is still hardly ever seen. It is possible to argue that the equally liberal Oliver Stone, despite ostensibly addressing the Vietnam War in both JFK and the Vietnam trilogy (Platoon, Hemdale, 1986; 4th of July and …Heaven & Earth, Warner 1993), avoids seriously addressing the issue. JFK does attack the Washington/Pentagon establishment, but the presidency is rescued in the person of Kennedy, who retains his position above politics. The American President travels this same territory when, at the film’s closure, Andy Shephard embraces unpopular environment and gun controls because it is his responsibility as leader of the nation.  The father knows best, the law is right even if sometimes misapplied. After-thought: abraham-lincoln-wallpaper It seems to me that not a lot has changed since the 1990s. There is the film with the occasional ‘rotten apple’: Absolute Power  is a good example. But the norm is the films that valorise the President. Thus in Independence Day (C20th Fox 1996) President ‘Pullman’ leads the sorties against he alien space ships, having first stolen a rousing speech to his men stolen from William Shakespeare’s Henry V. Harrison Ford has to lecture a misbehaving Present in Clear and Present danger (Paramount, 1994) but then represents a President who can outwit and outfight Kazakhstani terrorist in Air Force One (Columbia, 1997). The Vice-President in The Day After Tomorrow (C20th Fox, 2004) has a closed mind, but ‘the office maketh the man’ and he redeems himself when the President’s death elevates him to the supreme office. Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln manages the tricky feat of valorising the most famous President whilst exposing the political manipulations that he indulged in. The sort of satirical exposure typified in Oliver Stone’s Nixon remains rare. W. (Lionsgate 2008) is in some ways an inferior remake, but Stone is a Hollywood Maverick, possibly the exception that proves the rule. Sources: There doesn’t seem to be much writing specifically on Presidential films. A famous analysis of Young Mr Lincoln, was done by Cahiers de Cinema, reprinted in Movies and Methods, Vol. 1 Ed Bill Nichols, Univ. California 1976. J.F.K. has an accompanying book and was also debated in Cineaste, 1992 vol.19, no 1. Sight and Sound has discussed The American President, and Dave in September 1993 issue; and JFK, in February 1992. Presidential movies get a mention in From Personality Cult to Apotheosis in Politics and Film, Furhammar and Isaksson, 1968.  

Thanks to Michael Walker for suggesting The Tall Target.

Posted in History on film, Hollywood | Leave a Comment »

‘The Male Gaze’?

Posted by keith1942 on December 27, 2015

Mulvey This term goes back to a well-known article in Screen Journal by Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975). Feminist film writing has been greatly influenced by psychoanalytic theory since the mid-1970s. Laura Mulvey’s influential article was one that had an impact on feminist film theorists and critics. It was part of a general theoretical attempt to use the work of Freud and Lacan for the analysis of mainstream cinema. In her piece, Mulvey claims,

“that psychoanalytic theory can be appropriated… as a political weapon.”

There have been plenty of critiques of the article. One that I find especially helpful includes this:

“She argues that it offers a causal analysis of women’s oppression under patriarchy which can provide the foundation for political action and social change. Concerned with the relationship between the gendered spectator, the cinematic image and the pleasures of dominant cinema, Mulvey asserts that mainstream cinema organises the spectator in a gender-specific way. She argues that the visual pleasures of popular film are associated with fetishistic and voyeuristic ways of looking. These looks are organised so that the spec-tator has no choice but to identify with the narrative’s male protagonist and thus becomes complicit with his objectification of female charac-ters. Women, according to Mulvey’s article, are theorised as the passive `sexual Spectacle’,’ at the mercy of the active male gaze. In popular film Mulvey argues, men look and women are looked at; men act and women are acted upon. This claim may emphasise male control, but it tends to obscure differences between definitions of masculinity and femininity within society. It also, and perhaps most worryingly, tends to emphasise domination rather than struggle, contestation or resistance. In this way, it tends to reproduce the very ideas of women as victims which many feminists have criticised so vehemently.” From Psychoanalytic feminism to popular feminism by Liza Taylor in Approaches to Popular Film edited by Joanne Hollows and Mark Jancovich. 1995.”

Mulvey’s concept appears to have enjoyed a new lease of life over the last couple of years. It turned up in a film review in Sight & Sound of Blue is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle 2013): not without some justification in terms of the film’s treatment of female sexuality. Then it reappeared again in a letter of fulsome praise in the same magazine.

“So whether we are born biologically female, male or other; whether we subsequently define our gender as feminine, masculine or other; and whether we define our sexuality as gay, straight, bisexual or other; we have all already adopted the male gaze.” (S&S July 2014).

This would seem to go beyond Mulvey’s own arguments. And it overlooks people who define their sexuality through chastity. Still, one can recognise the absolute nature and application of the concept. I do not want to address the psychoanalytical arguments offered by Mulvey, the comments by Liza Taylor seem to me very apt. However I do want to criticise a couple of her specific arguments regarding cinema and its audiences and then look at some examples of films that appear to not fit into her construction. At one point Mulvey discusses the concept of scopophlia [sexual pleasure from looking at erotica] and following this she claims:

“Although the film is really being shown, is there to be seen, conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world.”

audience 1940s

This is not an uncommon comment on cinema exhibition; hence also the frequent use of the dream parallel. But this ignores the actuality of cinema, especially cinema during the era of the studio system, which is the period that Mulvey focuses on. I am not sure if there are any statistics, but descriptions, records and my own experience seem to indicate that the majority audience in cinema then were the couple, the group or the family. The isolated film fan or viewer was a minority, possibly quite a large one. In fact the power and popularity of cinema probably related to this aspect. The darkened auditorium and the dominating screen and sound system certainly worked, but there was also the atmosphere of a communal ritual. One could follow the narrative partially at an individual level, but the group response was also important. This was most obvious in comedy, where the laugher in the auditorium was a stimulant and an encouragement. But it also worked in drama. Those great moments of élan or surprise: the singing of the ‘Marsellaise’ in Casablanca (Warner Bros. 1942): the opening graveyard scene in Great Expectations (Cineguild 1946): the ironic dialogue as Holly Martin mistook matters in The Third Man (London Film Prod. 1949). Other audience members could be disruptive but the majority respected the attention of their fellow members: a discipline that spoke to the importance of the group experience. What is noticeable about Mulvey’s article is how few film titles actually get discussed. Those included comprise Marilyn Monroe, in The River of No Return and Lauren Bacall’s songs in To Have or Have and Not, Busby Berkeley, Marlene Dietrich and Morocco, Alfred Hitchcock and Vertigo, Marnie and Rear Window. The majority of the ten pages in Mulvey’s article are taken up with references to and comments on Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. This is THEORY rather than the ‘concrete analysis of concrete things’. The films that Mulvey refers to in her article are predominantly those of Holywwod in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. They certainly were films where the contemporary audience enjoyed them in large, usually fairly full auditoriums. An important element in the pleasure they offered was this collective experience. When you examine many of the studio films one finds that they offer pleasure for a varied audience: a ‘male gaze’, a ‘female gaze’; and one that was likely not gender specific. I want to look at some examples of films where the audience is offered dynamic active women characters, and where male characters are offered as objects of pleasure for women [and other men], both onscreen and in the auditorium. The Flesh and the Devil, MGM 1926 FleshAndDevilD Greta Garbo was one of the great icons of early cinema. But she was not just the object of male subjects. In this film, she plays the siren Felicitas, who has a dramatic effect on both Leo (John Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hansen). She actively seduces Leo and manipulates Ulrich for her own ends. She does, of course, suffer a conventionally moral fate at the film’s end, but that is for villainy as well as for her gender. And for the many women in the audience her obvious desire for the character played by Gilbert must have offered a fulfilling experience. The love scenes between the two characters are torrid, and Garbo generates as much sense of physical desire as Gilbert. This is an aspect that re-appears in a number of their films together. Queen Christina (MGM 1933) has a scene set in an inn, with Christina (Greta Garbo) reclining and Antonio (John Gilbert) seated at her feet. Her gaze upon Gilbert embodies physical passion and desire. Morocco, Paramount 1930 This film stars an actress referred to by Mulvey, Marlene Dietrich as Mamoiselle Amy Jolly. To imagine, after The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel UFA 1931), that Dietrich could be constrained within the gaze of a mere man seems misplaced. This film also stars Gary Cooper as Légionnaire Tom Brown. Cooper was noted in his early career for his physical beauty. In The Wolf Song (Paramount 1929) one of the pleasure of his appearance as Sam Lash is a scene where he is nude but not quite completely exposed. Lupe Velez as Lola Salazar certainly lusts after him. And in this film he becomes the object of Dietrich’s explicit desire. Moreover the film has a delightful moment when Dietrich, dressed in male attire, gently kisses a female member of her audience. Gone With the Wind, Selznick International Pictures 1939 Gone With the Wind movie image This is in many respects the seminal film of the Hollywood Studio system. Its immense popularity, at the time and subsequently, likely follows on from the pleasures it offers specifically to women; pleasures Mulvey does not seem to recognise. Certainly the film offers the pleasures of the male object. Primarily this is in the character of Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable. Within the film diegesis he is clearly an object of pleasure for Scarlet O’Hara; one has just to watch how Vivian Leigh [as Scarlet] looks at him; repeatedly, at different stages of the film. And Gable was clearly an object of pleasure for substantial part of the audience. The petitions to cast him in the role of Rhett, long before the film entered actual production, speak volumes about his attractions. But there is an alternative object for female pleasure, Ashley Wilkes (Lesley Howard). So Scarlet, and the audience, had a choice – in fact in terms of plot a number of choices. Ashley is the domesticated male, whilst Rhett is the lover male: the equivalents of male choices in other genre films. It might seem that Rhett matters as the active character. But the film deliberately subverts this role. Thus after having rescued Scarlet from burning Atlanta, Rhett leaves the narrative to volunteer in the Confederate army. A decision scornfully criticised by Scarlet. Then, as the film reaches its closure, he again leaves; and thus it is Scarlet and the plantation that dominate the final frames of the film. The potency of this ending is demonstrated by the failures to ever provide a satisfactory sequel to the film and the book. And Scarlet is equally forceful in social and economic matters. For much of the film she scorns traditional conventions. And her business prowess comes to the fore in the period of construction. Much of this is a repeat of the presentation in the novel by Margaret Mitchell. The latter raises another issue that Mulvey does not address. How films work with non-cinematic sources. Whilst the racism of the book is diluted in the film, the centrality and dynamism of Scarlet is apparent in both. This sort of novel, with its female protagonist, would require substantial subversion to fit into Mulvey’s frame. His Girl Friday, Columbia Pictures 1940 Despite the title Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is not the subordinate of editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant). This is a very clever and very witty reworking of the classic comedy The Front Page [now filmed at least five times]. In this version gender and sexual politics get one of the most entertaining outings in the studio era. Hildy can handle her editor, the governor, the prison warden, her newspaper colleagues, the chief of police and anyone else who stand between her and her story. As well as a remarkably doughty fighter Hildy is the investigator par excellence. Here she crosses over with a series of female investigators in newspaper stories, crime thrillers and film noirs. [See the excellent study – Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film, 2011 by Philippa Gates]. Double Indemnity, Paramount 1944, This is another film adaptation from a novel, an example of extremely tough pulp fiction. In the book the femme fatale Phyllis has a scene with Walter Neff in which she almost seems to devour him. Whilst the operation of the Production Code meant that the film toned down aspects of the book Barbara Stanwyck’s portrayal of Phyllis embodies her strength and her active sexuality. Aspects of her character that her husband, Mr Dietrichson (Tom Powers), Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson – indirectly) all learn to their cost. Duel in the Sun, Selznick Studio 1946. Duel in the Sun This is a film that Mulvey comment upon in her “Afterthought’. She sees Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) as caught between two masculine views of her as an attractive woman. Pearl’s active presence in the film is finally subsumed under the ‘male gaze’. It is probably the case that for some men in the audience this is the way the film works: personally from the first screening I was always rooting for Pearl. And I am sure that this was also the case for many women. Lewt McCanies (Gregory Peck) and Jesse McCanies (Joseph Cotton) represent two conventional types of men, the domesticated male and the lover male. Pearl, however, neither fits neatly into the domesticated women nor into the lover woman. This is one of the aspects that make the film so interesting. There are a number of scenes where Pearl’s gaze upon Lewt is full of laviscious desire: returning the gaze that Lewt directs at her. In the climatic showdown Pearl actively lays hands upon and fires the gun: so frequently seen as a stand-in for the phallus [penis] in psychoanalytical commentaries. This is followed by the terrific sequence in which she crawls to the dying Lewt and they expire together in a dramatic crane shot. If, as Mulvey seems to think, the phallus denotes activity, then it is a mute point who has a stronger hold in the film. River of No Return C20th Fox 1954. This film features Marilyn Monroe as Kay Weston, basically a good-time girl: a role she reprised a number of times. Here she is paired with Robert Mitchum as Matt Calder, unusually for Mitchum he is a domesticated male with a son. The film includes a dangerous ride down river torrents. It closes with Matt carrying Kay away from her work as a saloon moll and home to cabin and family. Whilst Mitchum’s Matt is an action hero Marilyn’s Kay is more than a moll or perspective wife and mother. Like Pearl she has a choice between two men. Like other western heroines she has to survive physical danger, here river rapids, and hostile Indians. And at a key moment in the film she not only chooses but also provides care and attention for Matt. Rear Window Paramount 1954 Rearwindow This is one of the films directed by Alfred Hitchcock that is referred to by Mulvey. Hitchcock is, of course, a favourite with writers interested in psychoanalytical and voyeuristic standpoints. This is currently my favourite Hitchcock and I have seen it on number of occasions. Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) is no mere object for L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart). He is wheel-chair bound for just about the whole film. And whilst he spends time playing with the phallic telephoto lens of his camera, he is not really potent. It is Lisa who ventures into the dangerous territory of the apartment in which a murder may have been committed. It is Lisa who makes the running in their romantic relationship and in a scene like the evening dinner ‘Jeff’ is clearly the object of Lisa’s attentions. And it is likely at the end that it is ‘Jeff’ who has been landed by Lisa rather than the other way round. Of course, the film is full of male voyeurism but it is a voyeurism that comes badly unstuck in the climax of the film. I am sure readers could think of many other examples. And these are all films that are products of a studio system. It is not just a question of certain directors, but includes writers and performers. There is The Wind (MGM 1928), scripted by Frances Marion. In this film Lillian Gish plays Letty and what the film shows us is predominately her view or gaze. And I should definitely mention Dance Girl, Dance (RKO 1940). It is directed by Dorothy Arzner. But it is actually Maureen O’Hara’s Judy O’Brien who delivers the lecture to the mainly male audience about their ‘gaze’. I note that MGM and Paramount get more mentions in my examples. An intriguing question would relate to how distinctive on this issue were any studios? Mulvey’s article would appear to be about fitting the studio cinema into framework of the ideas of Freud and Lacan. But as the quotation from Liza Taylor suggests, if you take the analysis’ claims seriously then women in the audience have ‘no choice’. In fact, Mulvey wants to deconstruct the ‘male gaze’. She identifies the mechanism in mainstream film as follows: “There are three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience.” I am not convinced by the arguments about how audiences watch films, popular or otherwise. It does seem the norm for films presented as entertainment that audiences do not pay much attention to the camera, or other technical aspects. But there is a fourth aspect, which is the projection and its environs. Depending on the lighting, the seating and the audience one can be more or less involved in the film drama. And that involvement is a matter of choice for every individual. That choice is affected by the amount of sympathy or empathy we have for the film’s content. So our responses and involvement vary across a range films. But Mulvey’s argument sees the female audience as determined within the whole output of a particular form of cinema. This is a tendency I find in psychoanalytical analyses, and also in semiotics. My sense of film, popular or otherwise, is that only proportion of the meanings in films are denotative, and that far more are commentative. It should be a matter of empirical investigation as to what meanings particular audiences take from particular films. If we do identify with a particular character in a film we may accept the point of view they offer. But it can be complete and it can be only partial. In my experience and in discussions with friends and fellow viewers it is clear that on many occasions they and myself have opted for different identification figures. Just as the commentative language of film allows for multiple readings so do the films allow for multiple identifications, for multiple ‘gazes’.   Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) – Laura Mulvey. Originally Published – Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975 pp. 6-18 Afterthoughts on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” inspired by Duel in the Sun by Laura Mulvey  

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Pavilion presents Peter Gidal / Mark Fell: Film / Sound

Posted by keith1942 on December 20, 2015

Pavilion Fell This event was held at The Leeds Library and one one of a series under the title Images and Journeys.. This is a private lending library in Leeds city centre. Its focus is geography and topography. The Library has an early last-century feel. Slightly quaint rooms filled with shelves of books, mainly hardback. The rear room where the event took place has a wooden staircase, a balcony for the upper shelves, and a glass dome, which gives it a great atmosphere. This really set of the event itself. Peter Gill is an artist who works mainly with 16mm film. Mark Fell is a sound artist. Both have worked with the Pavilion before. The evening offered several short films by Peter Gidal with added sound by Mark Fell. The films were projected on 16 mm whilst Fell provided four channel accompaniment from a console. This opened with three recent films, Coda, Coda II and Not Far at All, running about two minutes each. The films were all of sky and clouds, with occasional additions on the edge of a frame, like part of a branch. I found this rather unfocussed as the images lacked any distinct definition. The sound accompaniment did work well, adding a resonance of noise and music. The main film was Volcano, which Gidal made in 2003. This was a longer film, running twenty-five minutes. It was filmed in Hawaii. The film runs through the day and into what seems to be evening. The camera examines the rocks, water and debris and constantly changes it focus. Some of Gidal’s structuralist ideas do not illuminate for me, but I found this visually interesting and developing a cumulative sense of place. However, I was not so impressed with the sound accompaniment. This was composed of two main elements. Noise and music, including a cello, which I thought associated well with the images. And then extracts from a recognisable conference speech by David Cameron. The relevance of the latter completely escaped me and did not add anything to the visual and aural experience. We did get some comments regarding Fell’s sound tracks. Earlier in 2015 he was involved in a project at York University, Moving Pictures and Photoplays: New Perspectives in Silent Cinema. The soundtrack was designed for a screening of Gidal’s film at the conference. As a regular viewer and writer on silent film I did not quite see the point of the exercise. Moreover, there seemed to be two distinct types of silent cinema here: early film before the introduction of sound, and recent art film, which eschews sound. I am not sure what the relationship is supposed to be? There was more commentary in a presentation of questions and answers between Gidal and Fell. These seem to be have been done by email and were read out to the audience by two performers. If you look at their WebPages you will see that both Gidal and Fell discuss their work in fairly arcane language. This was the case here and one audience member left expressing dissent in a voluble manner.

http://www.luxonline.org.uk/artists/peter_gidal/index.html http://www.markfell.com/wiki/index.php?n=Mf.News http://www.luxonline.org.uk/artists/peter_gidal/volcano.html

I listened and did learn something. The Coda films were set to the Atlantic jet stream, which made more sense of them. The sound accompaniment for Volcano also used a vibraphone and there was clapping, wind and whistles. They did indeed work well, at time they reminded me of the some of the improvisations of Derek Bailey. However, I did not hear anything that convinced me about the use of the Cameron speech. Moreover, I the comments of both Gidal and fell regarding film tended to voice opposition in generalised terms to mainstream and narrative cinema. That was apparent in the work but overlooked a whole area of non-narrative cinema. I have posted already on the NOW installations by Chantal Akerman. I thought her work offered d much better intertwining of image and sound. Still I found the evening interesting and enjoyed part of it. And it is a treat to see 16mm in good condition and projected properly. And I do like the venue.

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Chantal Akerman’s NOW

Posted by keith1942 on December 17, 2015

Shanghai

‘Shanghai’

This was a series of installations displayed at Ambika P3, an exhibition space at the University of Westminster. It is sited nearly opposite Baker Street Tube Station. The site is a cavernous subterranean space worthy of one of cinema’s noir sequences. It is all concrete, with piping, metal stairs and fairly dark with green exit signs glowing through the gloom. It suited this exhibition of video installations: the only drawback was that the large, high spaces had an echoing quality and one had to listen carefully where there was dialogue as part of the sound design. Chantal Akerman was a major filmmaker and artist, sadly she died earlier this year. The exhibition was organised by A Nos Amours along with a series of screenings of her films at the ICA. I unfortunately was not able to make any of the screenings and I hope that in time at least some prints will appear in Yorkshire. There were seven installations spread across a number of alcoves and one change in level. The majority offered images and sound in fairly constant movement. I went round in sequence but then wandered round from installation to installation experiencing the changing images and sound-scapes. I found this a good way to enjoy the exhibition. And it increased my sense of its complexity. In the Mirror (1971), This was a scene from a black and white 16mm Akerman film with a young woman examining her body and commenting on its aspects. This exemplifies Akerman’s frequent focus on women’s representations and their sense of autonomy. A Voice in the Desert (2002), This was a videos sequence edited from an Akerman documentary. In the film she studied both sides of the border between the USA and Mexico. The sequences were screened at the actual border, with different views depending on which side one stood. The installation mirrored this by alternating film from either side. One could hear Akerman reading on the accompanying sound Maniac Summer (2009). This installation covered three walls, in both colour and black and white images. The video was filmed from her Paris apartment, some with the camera just left running, some pointedly recording. The accompanying sound was similar, and at times one could hear Akerman’s life proceeding in her flat. The Exhibition notes commented, “Akerman was looking for, and finding traces, shadows, remnants – “ Some of the imagery of families was in warm colours whilst other was shadowy nights or stark black and whit images.

Paris colour

‘Paris’

Maniac Shadows (2013). This consisted or a letterbox triptych of images along a wall with an alcove showing a smaller video and a wall of photographs. The larger image was a record of New York, both everyday minutia by a New York apartment, and more public records from television including President Obama. The smaller screen and photographs related to Akerman’s own mother. The latter was accompanied by readings by Akerman herself. There were some parallels to the proceeding installation but a greater sense of subjectivities.

'New York'

‘New York’

Tombes de sur Shanghai (2007). This video film was part of a larger project, The State of the World, which included other artists. Akerman filmed with a locked off camera as night fell over Shanghai. There ware long shots of the city, but interspersed were shots of people as day moved into night. There were two decorative lanterns below the screen. I was uncertain if these were part of the work or not. They were and re-appeared in NOW. D’est: au bord de la fiction (1995). These were excerpts from another Akerman film set in Eastern European countries when still part of the Soviet alliance. The sequences were unstructured and repetitive. The two common scenes were people waiting and people walking, mainly in wet or freezing conditions. There was a sense of grim and relentless life. The use of monitors gave it a televisual effect, providing less impact than the larger installations. NOW (2015) was the centrepiece of the exhibition, the only installation with its own specially constructed room. There were five screens and a multi-channel sound track. It used film of desert regions, stark, rocky, and empty of people. The recurring sequences were mainly fast tracks, apparently shot from a car. The accompanying sounds of gunfire, sirens, animals and tonal noise added the sense of threatening and threatened landscapes. We were clearly in the conflict zones of the Middle East,

“Where ignorant armies clash by night …”

This was a powerful and suggestive installation. It was Akerman’s final gallery work and a fitting end piece.

'NOW'

‘NOW’

I was really impressed with the exhibition and glad that I managed to get down and experience it before it closed, early December. The setting and the setting-out did good service to the works. A number of the installations were edited for the exhibition by Claire Atherton who would seem to have done an excellent job on this. It would be nice if some, if not all, could be seen in the North.        

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Taxi / Taxi Teheran, Iran 2015

Posted by keith1942 on November 15, 2015

Taxi3web

Another fine contribution to the Official Selection at the Leeds International Film Festival. This is a distinctive film in so many ways; for starters the entire production crew consists the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi: with the exception of  Massoumeh Lahidji, who prepared the French sub-titled version: [the alternative title appears to be to avoid confusion with the earlier films of that title] .

The film, like at least two earlier Iranian films, is set in a taxi circling Teheran. The driver is Jafar Panahi and sited on the dashboard is a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. There is a some additional footage shot on cell phones and a digital camera. The rest of the cast are non-professionals, unidentified to protect the innocent. The car, a friend informed me, is a Peugeot 405, built under licence in Iran.

What we see and hear, along with Panahi, are a man who works as a free lancer [fairly conservative] and a woman teacher [liberal]: a man injured in an accident and his wife: there is a man who distribute videos, some at least illegal (Omid): two women carrying a gold fish to a well/shrine: Panahi’s niece (Miss Hana), who is also making a film: an old school friend (Mr Arash) who has a story of his troubles: and a lady with flowers who is a suspended lawyer. Some of them recognise Panahi, some apparently do not. There are also, outside the car, a fruit seller, a CD seller, a waiter, a boy collecting empty plastic bottles, a wedding party, various passersby, medical staff, and [finally] two black clad men on a motorcycle. Most of the characters in the car talk as only Iranians can talk.

The film is fascinating, witty and deeply subversive. It offers  a rich mine of stories, observations, complaints and the varied tapestry of Iranian urban life. There are also references to current events including political issues. The ending, following the appearance of the motorcycle, is very smart.

Of course, Panahi has form. He is currently suspended from filmmaking, but managed the equally impressive This is Not a Film (2011). This time his latest film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival: few film awards carry greater kudos.

Panahi has had a long and productive career. This film references a number of his earlier films. The ones I picked up were Offside (2006), Crimson Gold (2003, mentioned by Omid in the film), The Circle (2002) and The White Balloon (1995). The latter includes another recurring Iranian motif, gold fish.

Reviews tend to pick up on the way that Panahi has subverted the repressive and very conservative regime in Iran. But equally the film gives testimony to the rich variety of Iranian culture, including a long tradition of quality films. It  says something about the dynamic qualities of this society [usually ignored by the West] that it can produce so many fine art works. The film had an extra screening at the Festival and later received a couple of screenings at the Hyde Park Picture House.

 

 

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Suffragette, UK 2015

Posted by keith1942 on November 6, 2015

suffragette 2014

This film has received generally good reviews and quite a few friends, especially women, have been impressed with the film. It certainly has good production values and an impressive set of performances, notably by Cary Mulligan in the central role of Maud. But I found the film problematic, partly because of weaknesses in the script but even more because of the superficial treatment of an important political movement in the early C20th.

The film opens with a set of introductory titles, one of which states that the films deals with a ‘group of working women’. This is a something of a misnomer. Maud and Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) are both clearly working class. Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), with her husband, runs a pharmacy. The employment of the other members of this group is unclear. Moreover, apart from Maud the other women characters are undeveloped. The film fits into a type of historical drama beloved by Richard Attenborough [e.g. Gandhi (1982) and Cry Freedom (1987)]. In this type of films the personal dramas outweigh the social: the plot is constructed around action sequences: and the characters are filled out by star cameos. So, unlike the excellent Selma (2014), we never meet a character who spells out the political line of the Women’s Social and Political Union. The film’s choice of specific years in the period appears to have been chosen so that the plot could include the famous/infamous action at the 1913 Derby. But the film’s production  is not really up to this; the ‘dummies’ and the CGI are rather obvious. And then we have Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, addressing her followers, from a  balcony no less. Yet this is her solitary appearance in the film.

Much of the film’s drama revolves around the activities of the police and state surveillance. The key character here is Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a character who appears to liaise between the political class and the police. He is of Irish origin. And there is one line where he refers to both the Republican struggle against British colonialism and to working class agitation in Liverpool: but that is it. What the film focuses on is the personal confrontation between him and Maud. It even has him expressing distaste when the film arrives at the force-feeding. A change of heart that I find unconvincing.

From a political point-of-view the film is beset with problems. For a start we never get a clear explanation of the politics of the WSPU. There is the famous dictum, ‘deeds not words’ and the emphasis by the organisation on women’s suffrage at the expense of other issues. What the film appears not to notice is that the WSPU demand was for limited suffrage for women based on property right: that right already enjoyed by men. This means that Maud’s struggles in the film, even is successful, would not win her the vote. For that she would need the universal suffrage advocated by alternative organisations. But as the film does make clear the WSPU refused to work with other organisations unless they made the women suffrage demand their primary demand: a line that led to extremely sectarian conduct.

The film does also suggest, though not strongly, the autocratic control of the organisation exerted by Emmeline Pankhurst and her elder daughter Christabel. Opposition to this behaviour led to a split and the formation of the Women’s Freedom league in 1907. In fact there was a larger Woman’s Suffrage Movement of which the film gives little sense and one that predated the WSPU.

Emmeline and Christabel were not really interested in working class members. In the years in which the film is set there were a number of branches in the East End of London but these were closed down by the leading duo. This was a factor in the split with the younger daughter Sylvia. Sylvia’s only mention in the film is a line ‘Sylvia won’t like that’ with reference to militant actions. This is a real distortion. It is true that Sylvia became increasingly critical of the militant line pursued by Emmeline and Christabel. But the disagreements were larger and more political. In fact Sylvia was, in the years in which the film is set, the most active member of the Pankhurst family. In total she was sent to jail over thirty times and suffered force-feeding at least fifteen times. She organised great demonstrations in and from the East End. And she publically addressed Parliament and political leaders. Despite this she was expelled from the WSPU for, among other errors, organising in the East End, speaking on a joint platform with the ILP and George Lansbury, and for speaking in support of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, led by James Larkin, in the great Dublin lockout.

Sylvia arrested in 1911

Sylvia arrested in 1911

The real disagreements between Sylvia and her mother and elder sister were to do the wider political struggle, almost totally absent from the film. It is difficult to grasp from the film that this period was one of intense political struggle, by women, by trade unions and the working class, by the young socialist organisations and by the Irish freedom fighters. Both the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation officially supported women’s suffrage, though there were dissenters in both organisations. In 1911 George Lansbury [also missing from the film] stood in a Parliamentary by-election on a platform of Women’s Suffrage.

Sylvia’s response to expulsion was to lead the formation of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which in 1914 launched the marvellously titled Women’s Dreadnought. 1914 also bought the imperialist war. The political differences among the women came down to a fundamental line: Emmeline and Christabel suspended the struggle by the WSPU for the duration of the war. Sylvia became an important leader in the anti-war struggle: leadership that won her the praise of Lenin. Emmeline later developed into an anti-Bolshevik and joined the Conservative party, though in her earlier years she had staunchly  supported the young socialist organisations.

It does seem unlikely that Maud, working class, living in the East End, and working in a laundry was more likely to meet middle class WSPU agitators in central London rather than the organised socialist and suffrage women in her own East End. If she had she would not only have campaigned for a suffrage policy that embraced herself but she could also have fought against the exploitation and oppression vividly dramatised in the film’s sequences.

That she does not is down to a plot coincidence, a frequent plot device in melodramas. The rationale for this is that the film dramatises that ‘the personal is political’, where as in the early teens of the C19th social and political struggles, including in the WSPU, were premised on the ‘political is personal’.

Posted in British films, Films by women, Movies with messages | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

 
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