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The Political Economy of the Olympics

Posted by keith1942 on November 4, 2013

2012_Summer_Olympics_opening_ceremony_3400

The following article was written for the Olympics held in Britain in 2012 but much is still applicable in 2021. It would seem that the presence or absence of spectators has little impact on the media circus. The ordinary Japanese citizens’ viewpoints do not count for Global Capital. What matters is the extraction of surplus value on the capital investment. 

This article was written initially for the Media Education Journal. I felt that much media comment and criticism focussed on the Olympics as an ideological exercise, an expression of value systems. Whilst that is certainly part of the Games they also seem to me an exercise for generating surplus value, the raison d’être of capitalism. My commentary on this was felt to be to marginal in relation to the media and its treatment of the Olympics by the MEJ editors. But my argument is an attempt to examine the way the media and other discourses focus on the clash of values, without paying close attention to the economic interests that such values express. The focus on events as primarily ideological rather than economic seems to me to be a particular misidentification in the contemporary media. The policies of both the British Parliamentary Coalition and their opposition are frequently labelled [especially by their opponents] as ideological. But, by and large, those policies at base express economic interests. The same phenomenon can be seen in the recent discourse around the Democrat / Republican tussles in the USA. State health care, in the UK and the USA, is an economic issue – who receives what, both in services and in the value embodied in health commodities.

Following the 2012 Olympics a number of contributors to MEJ [Issue 52, Winter 2012 / 13] were asked for a short piece on the Opening Ceremony. However, as the articles were submitted the original word length seems to have got lost. I think Geoff Lealand and I were the only ones to adhere to the original word limit. Cary Bazalgette, Roy Stafford and Margaret Hubbard wrote at increasing lengths. Pete Bennett and Julian McDougall extended this to almost a page, [though it seemed to me with no greater coherence]. And Douglas Allen actually contributed a piece that ran two pages and was three times longer than any other. Yet in all this commentary economics only figures twice: my brief point about the disparities among the contributors to the Ceremony and Bennett’s and McDougall’s almost impenetrable comment, “In lived, material practice, economics IS the ideology [from Žižek}.” Slavoj Žižek’s own formulation occurs in an article in New Left Review (Issue 54, 2010] “What has happened in the latest stage of post-68 capitalism is that the economy itself – the logic of market and competition – has progressively imposed itself as the hegemonic ideology”. This seems to be rather different from the emphasis of Karl Marx in The German Ideology (Ed. David McLellan, 1977), “men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking.”  In fact Bennett and McDougall do not develop this issue of economics in any sense. They claim that ‘the IDEA of Britain exists only in exhibition, in service, retail and tourism …’ A list that fails to include any obvious productive activity.  They add later that ‘hosting the Olympics is our performance.’ However behind the performance, as in all aspects of life under capitalism, lies the economic.

The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Website has a lot of information but I could find no actual financial figures. A graph does show percentages for income and disbursements: 45% of the income is provided by sponsorship: with about 49% of the actual Games income due to broadcasting payments. Wikipedia does offer more detail from the early C21st Games, “The Olympic Movement generated a total of more than US$4 billion, €2.5 billion in revenue during the Olympic quadrennial from 2001 to 2004.” 10% of these monies are retained for administration.

The new Olympic President is Thomas Bach a German gold medallist in fencing at the 1976 Olympics. Since then he has varied business experience, including working as an executive for Adidas and a consultant for Siemens. He has been on the IOC board for 22 years. He stated he would not take a salary, but he does receive expenses.  There have been claims that he has favoured certain interests: claims also made against other IOC members alongside claims of the misuse of ‘expenses’. [See Wikipedia].

The Olympic Committee relies substantially on the sponsors. One of the top brands here is Samsung, whose phones were promoted in the opening ceremony. Samsung is the market leader in the production and sale of mobile phones. Like its fellow sponsors, [which includes Coca-Cola and MacDonalds] it has a global reach, partly through innumerable subsidiaries. Samsung is also one of those conglomerates who have a record of tax evasion. And there are questions about labour conditions in its subsidiaries and suppliers. The Olympics have provided Samsung with the opportunity to promote and improve its public image. “Most of us had never heard of Samsung before their Olympic sponsorship, but now we can’t imagine a world without them,” says John Davis, author of The Olympic Games Effect. Samsung became a top sponsor in 1997 and its brand value increased from US$3.1 billion two years later to $23.4 billion in 2011. (The Guardian 10 August 201, Patrick Barkham|). With timely organisation the firm also opened a new flagship store in Westfield Stratford. Meanwhile Adidas, the ‘official sportswear partner’ reported improved sales in 2012 for its Olympic related merchandise, selling about £78 million worth of stock.

Another area of commerce and profits is Games security, which cost £500 in additional funding. Most of the publicity during the Olympics focused on the poor performance of G4S. However, another player in this area is Manchester-based EADS Defence and Security Systems Ltd, the Systems House of EADS in the UK. EADS was involved in the security for the previous Beijing Olympics. They are a global arms and security company. One way they have caught some media attention was the investigation into corruption relating to contracts with the Saudi Arabia government.

Such firms are the main beneficiaries of the Tax-free Zone of the Olympic area. This zone is a requirement in the Olympic bidding. There is a temporary exemption from UK Corporation Tax and UK Income Tax. The wording in briefings is convoluted but it appears that it applies to favoured companies registered to the Games and also to the winnings of participants: [I assume the latter means payments to star athletes – See Tim Hunt’s The Great Olympic Tax Swindle].

This requirement by the Olympic Committee is legalising something that we now know is endemic in the world of business. It is part of an important contemporary phenomenon: that the State is bailing out the declining rate of profit of capitalists.  In the case of the Olympics the State’s provided £9.3 billion plus pounds of expenditure. The most recent report on the National Audit Website suggests that the amount that will be recouped from the infrastructure created for the Games remains unclear. But these large sums cannot be recouped through tax collection from the main beneficiaries. It is not clear how much tax has been avoided in this way.

There is another facet of modern capitalism, monopoly. The Olympic Zone was not only a tax haven but also a ‘brand haven’. This zone protects the marketing interests of the major companies in the pocket of the Olympic Committee, [or should I write in whose pockets are to be found the Olympic Committee]. There seems little coverage in the Press but some petty bourgeois traders [small fry] fell foul of this. And despite the additional profits from nil taxation the Olympic Zone prices seem to have been higher than those in the taxed zone of the rest of London.

The rewards for assisting in the giant business venture vary considerably. The athletes in the games were traditionally amateurs. In the past that meant such sport tended to be the preserve of the wealthy: in Chariots of Fire (1981) Harold Abraham’s can afford to pay for his own personal trainer. These days the athletes are part of the large merchandising Olympic Roadshow. Top performers from the British team, like Jess Ennis and Mo Farah, have their own agents and their own companies, marketing, for example, ‘image rights’. A report (The Guardian 17/08/12) suggests expectations of £1 to £3 million a year for such star performers.

The opening Ceremony cost £27 million pounds: it is not clear how much Danny Boyle and his colleagues received from this amount. However, they had a workforce of apparently 10,000, including crafts people and performers. The latter, numbering 800, received the proper Equity rate. This would have included Kenneth Branagh’s personification of Isambard Brunel and Daniel Craig’s of 007. The Queen, meanwhile, presumably regarded this as part of her official duties, lavishly funded by the taxpayer.

A substantial body of ordinary people will not have benefited from any payment or from the tax benefit – the over 7,000 volunteers who were the ‘extras’ in the Opening Ceremony. And there were up to 70,000 volunteers across the entire Games, Olympic and Paralympic. All were required to undergo training and make a minimal commitment in terms of their input. [These were genuine ‘zero pay contracts’]. Wouldn’t you know that this volunteer programme was first dreamt up in the 1948 London Olympics! “Volunteers are the lifeblood of the Olympic Games and part of the DNA of thousands of people in this country,” said Sebastian Coe, Chair of the London 2012 Organising Committee, when the volunteer programme was launched.”

Were the hundreds of nurses supposed, like the Queen, to regard this as part of their professional duties?  After the event Radio 4 had an interview with a family who came down from the Midlands to volunteer throughout the Games. They rented a house in Chelmsford, the nearest they could find at an economic rate. This meant they were leaving home as early as 7 a.m. and returning sometimes later than 12 midnight. In fact, they had clearly enjoyed their volunteering and had found it a rewarding experience: an alternative holiday.

One might be tempted to use here the phrase, ‘false consciousness’. Certainly Slavoj Žižek uses the phrase in his writing. 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.

Whilst in The German Ideology they recognise that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” They go on to note that “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production.”

They do not discount propaganda and manipulation, but they assert the primacy of the way we produce and re-produce. “If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.”  Marx’s analysis of the appropriation of surplus value is germane here. He points out that the surface appearances suggest that capital employs labour on ‘A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’

. However this disguises the underlying relations of exploitation, the unpaid labour that provides a surplus and the capitalist profit. But that surface appearance is not merely an accident. The control of social relations by the bourgeoisie means that this maxim is embodied in a host of social institutions. It is the basis of the pay system: it is embodied in the legal code of employment: and it forms the basis of both the negotiations and the struggles between capital and labour. Rather than being ‘false’ an acceptance of this system appears to reflect that visible reality of life and production. (See Capital Volume I – The Transformation of the Value of Labour-Power into Wages). Working class consciousness needs to grow and develop so that is can dig beneath these surface appearances and come to a grasp of the underlying social relations.

In a parallel fashion the Olympics presents itself as a celebration of physical prowess. A spectacle of free activity which is separate and different from the norm of paid labour in capitalist society. However, if we study the Olympics it can be seen that it is an occasion for the generation of profits: profits built on the expropriation of surplus labour value. The extreme differentials between those who receive much and those who receive little or nothing reflects the class divisions in capitalism. But given the dominance of the bourgeoisie in what is often termed the superstructure the games also fulfil an ideological function, reifying the surface appearance that disguises the actual economic process. One aspect of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony that won much praise [and some rightwing criticism] was the sequence featuring the National Health Service. I heard comments of how it took us back to its founding year of 1948 and [of course] the reforming Labour Government led by Clem Atlee. Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ’45 took a similar journey, contrasting those years of notable change with the reactive politics of the 1979 Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher. However, whilst celebrating the achievement of labour between 1945 and 1952, the film glossed over quite fundamental problems. One was the failure to confront finance capital [missing from Bennett and McDougall’s list]; another was in relation to the exploitative policies against the Colonies and the Liberation Movements of the oppressed peoples. These are parallel to omissions in the Opening Ceremony. Instead of addressing the extraction and accumulation of exploited labour as profits the ceremony presented the person of Isambard Brunel performed by Kenneth Branagh in his Shakespearean mode. We saw ‘dark satanic mills’ but without any sense of their economic operation. And the nationalism of the ceremony and of the media coverage of the events displayed a similar chauvinism to Britain’s nearly defunct imperial role.

To be positive, there is a film which does present a picture much closer the raw reality. This is the 2004 film Shijia (The World), directed by Jia Zhangke with funding by China, Japan and France. It does not cover the Olympics but it set in a Beijing ‘World Theme Park’, a sort of parallel spectacle to the Games. We get to see the attractions and spectacles, but more to the point we also get to see the exploitative and oppressive situations in which the people who work in such operations suffer. The Chinese Theme Park is tawdrier than London 2012 was and the exploitation is more naked, but that it because China is not yet an advanced capitalist country. It will be interesting to watch the developments in Brazil, where the next Olympic spectacle is due. Brazil is another nation state that has not yet achieved the advanced status. It is reassuring that already ordinary Brazilians have already shown scepticism about the costs and dislocations involved.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ace in Hole, Paramount 1951.

Posted by keith1942 on December 23, 2020

As the 49th President of the USA prepares for his final [hopefully] Christmas in the White House it is worth discussing this film which presents a world modelled on the values of Donald Trump.

The basic plot is simple and contemporary for the 1950s. A journalist covers the developing story of the rescue of a man trapped in a network of ancient Indian caves in New Mexico. The journalist’s dream of a Pulitzer Prize leads him to organise the rescue in the most news-worthy fashion. However, the values of the film are embodied in the characters.

Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is the reporter, driven by unbridled egoism and ambition. He is prepared to use every person and every event to achieve his goals.

Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is the man trapped in an inaccessible cave. He is dominated by Tatum’s personality and right up until the end remains an uncritical fan.

Lorraine Mimosa (Jan Sterling) is the venal wife of Leo; her wedding vows are subordinated to every dollar that goes into the cash register.

Herbie Cook (Bob Arthur) is the junior photographer dazzled by Tatum’s power and apparent success.

Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal) is the corrupt local official whose only concern is his re-election to this sinecure.

Construction contractor Sam Smollett (Frank Jacquet) is easily persuaded to set up a news worthy rescue.

Dr. Hilton (Harry Harvey) tends the patient, Leo, as best he can but never seems to question the method of rescue; with Leo’s condition becoming more and more serious.

Mr. Federber (Frank Cady), is a tourist and voyeur; the representative of the crowds that come to follow the dram. He happily claims to have been the first onlooker to arrive.

Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall) is the editor, publisher and owner of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. He employs Tatum despite the journalist’s previous escapades which led him to leave New York and work for a local newspaper. Boot never really confronts Tatum.

The competing journalists from national titles are solely concerned with Tatum’s monopoly of the story and press coverage. A New York editor is willing to pay a high p[rice for that story despite his previous [negative] experience with Tatum.

A local priest comes to give Leo the last rites [he is a Catholic] but the minister shows no awareness of the larger event.

Papa Minosa (John Berkes) and Mama Minosa (Frances Dominguez) are the only characters who wholly sympathise and worry about Leo. Both are either migrants or descendants of the indigenous people in the lands stolen from Mexico.

It is intriguing that Salt of the Earth (1954), a truly radical film, is also set in New Mexico among the Mexican people exploited by a US mining company; the latter aided and abetted by the US law enforcement officers.

Billy Wilder, the writer and director, is known for his critical and often satirical treatment of US culture. This is probably his most sardonic treatment of what is known as ‘the American dream’; that ‘dream’, an illusion and a delusion, which Hollywood so frequently valorised.

Ace in the Hole provides a world that certainly existed in its time but which has now appeared in its most grotesque manifestation. Sadly this actuality following fiction differs in one important respect; we do not [yet] see the resolution in the film repeated in reality.

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The Spirit of ’45, Britain 2013

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2020

I have recently read some comments on where ‘the left’ should go in Britain today. The comments were interesting and also claimed to be inspired by this Ken Loach documentary; distributed digitally. It has the subtitle of ‘The Labour Victory of 1945 – memories and reflections’. It is a historical investigation with a clear political message to the Britain of the Coalition’s policies of ‘austerity’. Loach has a long pedigree of political films, both fictional features and documentaries, that address contemporary and historical Britain from a left position. This cinema of Loach and his collaborators is a cinema of opposition. I however have reservations about this documentary and the interpretation of the politics of the late 1940s. Note though, there is a ‘spirit of ’45’ national day in August [apparently started in the USA]  which appears a completely uncritical celebration.

Like his earlier work this title relies  on the distribution system of mainstream cinema. But the films are not typically mainstream and whilst they are often placed in art and independent categories it  is fair to distinguish his work from that of the ‘auteurs using ‘non-standard language’ . The boundaries of categories are always slippery. Loach clearly is a distinctive film-maker in terms of style of content: but it is also the case that the films are the product of a collective: as Loach has often affirmed the script is the determining basis of his works. That definitely seems the case with this new title and as it relies on an amount of archive footage and of a number of interviews there are several voices peaking to us here.  with its overt political message directed at the current activities of the British bourgeoisie provides an interesting case study to assess his politics and their place in a movement of real opposition.

The Spirit of ’45 focuses on the five years, [1945 – 1950] of the post W.W.II Labour Government led by Clement Atlee. The Labour Party won a surprise landslide victory in June 1945. It then proceeded on possibly the most radical restructuring of British economic, political and civil society of the C20th. The coincidence of the death of Tory Leader Margaret Thatcher during this film’s current distribution provides a telling set of parallels. It also provides a contradictory position to the hype that has tried to elevate her to the top in UK Prime Minster ratings.

This contrast is deliberately presented in the film. It is constructed around to set of polarities. The first is between the 1930s, Auden’s ‘low decade’, and the late 1940s. The 1930s were the decade of the great depression and of the Tory dominated National Government. The levels of exploitation, poverty and deprivation are only now being matched in the current austerity.

Later the film sets up a second set of polarities, between the 1945 Labour Government and the 1979 Conservative Government. They are indeed polar opposites. And the 1980s saw the start of the destruction of the Welfare State created under Labour. It should be noted that the destruction has taken longer than the original construction, and that the obverse is usually the case. This speaks to the importance of the welfare institutions to Britain’s working classes.

The film is constructed mainly from archive footage. There should be a word of praise for archivist Jimmy Anderson, who has researched and supplied a rich and varied selection of film from the 1930s through to the 1980s. Interspersed with the archive footage are a series of interviews with people who lived through or have studied these different decades. Many of these are working people with direct experience of the 1940s and indeed the 1930s. There are several ‘experts’ and few representatives of the political classes. All are filmed in black and white by Stephen Standen, matching the predominately black and white archive footage.

The interviews are the strong centre of this film. The witnesses are clear and direct, often extremely eloquent. They provide both evidence and personal testimonies to support and enrich the archive material. They are also often moving, as for example the woman who recalls her grandfather carrying round in his wallet the letter informing him of his first council house. A doctor recalls calling on a working class family who, counting the pennies, only advised him of one sick son when there were two. He told the mother; ‘from today it’s free!’

There are also moments, of humour, some grim some satirical. A conservative MP reads out a letter from a constituent who fears that the British Army’s ‘Current Affairs Education Programme’, late in the war, is both subversive and in danger of creating demobbed soldiers ‘all pansy-pink.’

The style is recognisable from Loach’s other work. There is frequent use of overlapping sound. Parallel editing creates significant and signifying contrasts. The interviews are almost uniformly shot from a frontal viewpoint in mid-shot. However, on just two occasions the camera cuts to a side-angle and close-up: in both cases the witness is remembering a traumatic death. In the first instance Bert remembers realising that his mother has died from a miscarriage and the lack of proper medical provision. In the latter Ray remembers the death of a fellow miner due to the lack of pit props in the seam where they were working.

Unfortunately one technical weakness is that the 1930s and 1940s film footage has been re-framed to fit the 1.85:1 frame of the digital release. I was surprised at this act in a Loach film. I wondered if it is down to one of the funders, Film Four, who will sooner or later transmit the film on television. It does show a lack of respect for the footage so carefully selected. And it is quite obvious on occasion, as with newsreel footage where titles are often only partly visible.

A much more effective technique is colourisation, the first time I have approved of such manipulation. The film opens with celebrations by people on VE day 1945. We see them singing, dancing, cheering in the streets and in iconic setting such as Trafalgar Square. At the film’s end the footage re-appears, now in colour. The contrast achieves a fine, upbeat sense. And it fits with the thrust of the film, which is that the loss sense of community of the 1940s is actually re-achievable today.

In both the coverage of the 1940s and of the 1980s there is detailed film on the policies and actions of the two governments. As one might expect, this is a series of oppositions. The Labour’ Governments major achievements are dealt with in turn – nationalising the mines, transport, housing and centrally the National Health Service. And it is in this iconic achievement that the destruction of the later governments is most forcibly made apparent.

The film is not unalloyed praise for the great 1945 reforming Labour Party. In particular the experts offer some critical comments. These include Tony Benn, who was both a participant but who also looks back and examines. Two points in particular emerge as criticism of the Labour Governments implementation of their policies. One is the dominance of centralisation: the other is the lack of any sort of control by the working class. A particular example of this is the new National Coal Board. Its head was an ex-coal owner who had led the opposition to nationalisation.

But there are important aspects of the 1945 Labour Government that the documentary omits. One ‘elephant in the room’ is Finance Capital. In fact one of the early nationalisation in the 1940s was the Bank of England. But the Government went no further, though nationalising the top 100 companies including the banks was a policy supported by grass roots activists. This failure becomes more obvious when our gaze [which the films prompts] comes forward to the current crisis. It is worth noting that the reforming Labour Government was constrained in the same manner as the current Coalition Government. The need to placate the banks and the markets so that they would fund the debts to pay for government action. The UK was a substantial recipient of monies in the USA ‘s Marshall Plan, and pressure from across the Atlantic was clearly a powerful factor. One commentator in the film suggests that the USA aid was partly motivated by the fears of radical change or even revolution by the British working class.

There is the another ‘elephant in the room’; Britain’s membership of what became the Western Imperialist front [NATO], led by the USA. Nowhere in the film are the policies of imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism addressed. Among the important issues from the 1940s would be the suppression of the democracy in the Greek Civil War: the handing back of Vietnam to the French colonialist: covert support to suppress the movement for Independence in Indonesia: the creation of a settler Zionist State in Palestine: and the partition of the Indian sub-continent. Notable also was Bevin’s insistence on the development of a nuclear option. The government saw the empire / Commonwealth, particularly Africa, as a source of cheap resources: the groundnut scandal was not about economic independence for Africans but bailing out Britain’s own faltering economy.

These omissions may seem surprising. Ken Loach in earlier films has addressed the Republican war against fascism in Spain (Land and Freedom, 1995); though it omitted the issue of Spanish colonialism. Other films have addressed colonialism: the War of Independence in Eire (The Wind That Shakes the Barley): and resistance to US neo-colonialism in Nicaragua (Carla’s Song, 1996). However, only The Wind That Shakes the Barley actually addresses British colonialism and the central focus of that film is the Irish Civil War. The earlier film Hidden Agenda (190) actually focused on the abuses by the British state and the representation of the Republicans was problematic. The more recent Jimmy’s Hall (20140 is about the struggle in the new Irish free State. Loach clearly supports National Liberation Struggles, witness his defamation by Zionists, but it is not properly developed in his films or this documentary.

These lacunae carry over into the treatment of the UK class struggle. Loach’s film completely fails to deal with one of the most potent factors in the politics of the decade, the arrival of large numbers of black people from Britain’s colonies. This was underway during the 1940s, partly due to the need for additional labour. The Labour Home Secretary opined that ‘he would be happier if the intake could be limited to entrants from the Western countries.” Part of his motivations were questions of ‘tradition and social background’, partly the possible problems of deportation if needed. The Trade Unions were often hostile, as Bevan reported to the Cabinet in 1946. By 1949 there were occasional racist riots, but the Government ‘sat on its hands’. By 1950 a review was underway to “check immigrants into the country of colonial people from the British Colonial territories”. [See Race & Class 1984].

This would seem to be a broader issue that has never been squarely confronted in Loach’s output. His films do feature positive black characters, but only in subordinate roles. Given his output is almost entirely devoted to issue of the class struggle in Britain, the absence of a film that centrally deals with what is termed “race” is surprising. More generally whilst Loach’s film focuses on and supports the struggles of the working class it is debatable whether it fully confront ‘the system’. The continuing strand that runs through most of his films is the sense of ‘betrayal’. This is the message that appears at the end of the very fine series for BBC Days of Hope (1975). And it a feeling that figures in The Spirit of ’45. The film’s main analytical conclusion centres on the failure of working class control. This begs the question of what are the politics of that control.

A number of screenings of the film have featured a Live Satellite coverage of a Q&A following a screening at Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema. There was Ken Loach, Dot Gibson, Owen Jones and Jeremy Hardy. Dot is interesting because she recalled being expelled from the Labour Party in the 1950s for belonging to a group that promoted the policy of nationalising the banks! The central theme of this discussion was a new political movement, Left Unity. This offers the appearance of being a new, more democratic, more radical version of the Labour Party. This also begs the question of the political line required to effect actual, real change. Britain’s Empire was a factor in enabling the British capitalist class to make concessions to the working class. Certainly socialism is not compatible with imperialist power or imperialist ambitions.

The original post was on Third Cinema Revisited and also addressed the question of a distinction between films that address decolonization and films that address  class struggle.

Race & Class 1994, see ‘The Role Labour in the creation of a racist Britain’ by S Joshi and B Carter, Volume XXV, number 3.

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‘From Méliès to New Media’: the problem of the facsimiles in the digital age.

Posted by keith1942 on August 17, 2020

Al in ‘Detour’

Detour (Producer Releasing Corporation, 1945 ) was directed Edgar Ulmer and is generally labelled a film noir though it is also in some sense a road movie. The basic plot offers us Al ( Tom Neal) who is hitch-hiking to California to join his girl-friend Sue (Claudia Drake). Along the way he first meets Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) who gives him a lift  and then Vera (Ann Savage), who turns out to be the femme fatale. He is also drawn into a world of chaos and criminality from which, as a ‘victim hero” he fails to emerge in safety. As is common in film noirs Al recounts this story in flashback and in the confessional mode.  The film has an excellent discussion in an analysis by Andrew Britton in ‘The Movie Book of Film Noir’, edited by Ian Cameron (Studio Vista 1992). There is also an excellent discussion of the genre in the Introduction by Michael Walker, including defining the ‘victim hero’.

Detour is one of the titles discussed in ’From Méliès to New Media’ by Wendy Haslem, published by Intellect 2019. I reviewed this book for the Media Education Journal and found it challenging. At times I felt like Al who, in his narration, constantly asks why this is happening in this way; why are his assumptions so frequently frustrated? I felt rather in that situation after struggling through this volume page by page. Finally I had figured out who had said or written what and, importantly, what I thought this signified. Signifiers are important here as this is a book informed by ‘signs’.

I did complete a review for MEJ but at just over a 1,000 words there was not the space to address in detail all the theory and analysis in the book. But by the end I was convinced that there was some misconstruction in the critical discussion. Hence this longer article where I wish to subject some of the assumptions and arguments made to detailed criticism.

This is an academic work replete with uncommon terms and concepts and with frequent references to authors who have a reputation for difficulty. Predominantly those quoted can be categorised as proposing THEORY; the upper case letters denote a particular emphasis on the theoretical. The author  relies on the discipline called semiotics. I have had earlier occasions to grapple with the discourse of this, notably in the pages of the journal ‘Screen’. I have a working  understanding of the language and concepts involved but since I do not use them in my criticism I frequently have to revisit sources of explanation.

The central concept that informs the book is a term from Semiotics.

“[film] has been understood to have a direct relationship to the concept of indexicality. To understand the index …we need to return to the literary origin of this concept. Writing on semiotics in 1931, Charles Sanders Pierce described the associative power of the index as, ‘like  a pronoun demonstrative or relative, [it] forces the attention to a particular object intended without describing it’.” (Pages 14 and 15).

This tricky passage does not quite give the sense of the index. The author uses  the index as a sign that does which points to or offers evidence of the intended object. One example in a quotation from Pierce offers;

“the pole star … to show us which way is north.” (page 15).

This demonstrates for me the limitation of the uses of index. You need to know the function of the pole star in order to realise that it gives evidence of the direction of north and this itself assumes some knowledge of astronomy. When we come to examples offered of the indexical in certain films I will point out such limitations.

The book uses a number of examples of 35mm film prints transferred to digital. The author raises the question as to whether the indexical characteristics of a film transfer to a digital version. The complication is that film is ‘material’ whilst digital is ‘immaterial’. This distinction offers a problematic usage of ‘material’. I can see that photo-chemical film is tangible in a way that digital images are not. But both forms rely on light and sound which are actually also material. They involved either radiation or waves which have material properties though they are not tangible to human senses.  From the audience point  of view both film and digital files would seem to be immaterial. What they present is a stream of light projected onto a screen where it forms  moving images and the sound is projected into the auditorium seemingly invisibly. This is part of the mainstream film industry presentations which seeks to avoid drawing the attention of viewers to the paraphernalia of presentation; just as film-makers in the mainstream avoid drawing attention to the techniques that present plot and character. Occasionally in the latter case  a technique is empathized for effect. And there have been infrequent attempts by  non-mainstream film workers to subvert the dominant mode, but with little impact.

One of my major problems with the author’s approach is that there is a tendency to downplay the distinction between photo-chemical film and digital files. This is fairly common in film writing and comment. The industry has tended to obfuscate the differences for commercial reasons. When the subject is addressed the hype tends to overstate the quality of digital in relation to film. The author does actually detail the differences between photo-chemical film’s random silver halide grains and digital uniform non-random pixels. But much of the book assumes a fair equivalence between the two median. At one point  digital versions are described as ‘spectral simulations’. There are a number of quotations from Paulo Cherchi Usai but not the argument in ‘Silent Cinema’, [Third edition, 2019] that digitized versions of photo-chemical films are not copies but facsimiles. Usai does recognise that digital versions provided a site for investigation but bearing in mind that the two are separate and distinct. For me photochemical film and digital moving images are incommensurable.

The Introduction Chapter 1 bears the title; ‘Cigarette Burns and Bullet Holes; Celluloid Cues in Digital Cinema’. This title follows on from a description of watching  Detour. The writer opens with

“Not so long ago whilst on the tram on my way home from work I began watching the 1945 celluloid print of Edgar G. Ulmer’s B film noir Detour downloaded and configured for my mobile screen.” [page 5].  Then adds,” I watched the chemical, celluloid material form of Detour on a tiny digital screen that was rotated so that it measured eleven centimetres in width and almost six centimetres in height.” [page 6}.

The writer does not specify the source format or the viewing equipment.  The writer does acknowledge differences quoting Thomas Elsaesser that this is

“doing the same thing with different means.” (page 6)

But such a comment does not really address the problem. The pixels [of what quality?] compressed into a small electronic display are somewhat removed from a large projected image composed of the random halide grains. An oddity is the description is that

“the original screen ratio of 1.37:1 was unfurled using an anamorphic lens in theatrical exhibition.” [page 6}.

Anamorphic lens were not in use in mainstream production or exhibition in the 1940s. They came into use with the advent of wide-screen processes like CinemaScope in the 1950s. The sentence seems confused; perhaps, given the dimensions of the screen, the version is not in academy but some other ratio? The term ‘anamorphic’ appears in descriptions of digital technology but the process varies from format to format and in many cases is an electronic as opposed to a lens process.

Al and Vera in ‘Detour’

A little further on there is a comment and quotation from Laura Mulvey; [see critique of her theorizing].

“The intersection of different historical moments and the illusion of oppositional contemporaneities is outlined by Laura\ Mulvey who writes, ‘[i]n this dialogue between old and new, past and present, the opposition between film and new technologies begins to break down and the new modes of spectator illuminate aspects of cinema that, like the still frame, have been hidden from view’.” [page 16].

I would query how a screen 11 centimetres by 6 centimetres relates to a theatrical space upwards of 4 by 6 meters. And just how this opposition breaks down is unclear. The author’s example for this development are the cue marks that appear at each reel change in a 35mm projection; [hence the chapter title]. Apparently these were visible whilst viewing the 11 by 6 centimetres screen; impressive eye sight. And, if using wide-screen FHA then the image was not in 1.37:1. If cropped , presumably the cue marks would be missing as they sit in the top left hand corner of the frame. But most people watching a small screen, even if they spot the cure marks, are unlikely to know their function. Audiences may well presume they are signs of the damaged condition of old films. And there is a problem with the supposition that using modern digital techniques, including stopping, winding or rewinding the moving image tells us about the linear projection  of 35mm film in its theatrical setting.

Later in the chapter the author discusses different responses to the question of the differences between film and digital files; returning to the issues of indexical and immaterial. Whilst maintaining the sense of these medium as indexical they are  both termed ‘ material’. The presentation is complex, and I thought, complicated. The writing uses the term ‘spectral’ to describe traces of original film in new digital files. These spectral traces are the basis, it is opined, for a new history of film through digital versions. I still find this argument fails to recognise just how different are the differences; and it is a matter of investigation whether the digital does indeed offer ‘new histories’.

The first section in the book is titled ‘Early Cinema: Colour and Spectrality’ with Chapter 2 on ‘Applied Colour: Chromatic Frankenstein’s Monster’; more on the ‘monster’ later. The text for study in this chapter is an early and seminal film, Le Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon, produced by a key pioneer in film history George Méliès . In fact, the author is discussing just one version of this much produced film; that created by the French company Lobster Films, This version was constructed using different materials, but the key source was print found in 1993 in the Filmoteca de Catalunya. Using modern digital technology the team produced a colour version. The original would have been hand-painted but most surviving version are in black and white, and do differ in the ‘cut‘ on offer. The author saw this version, at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2011. It was screened from a digital version with an added soundtrack of musical accompaniment. The author was both amazed and thrilled with this version.

I was also at the Festival but skipped the screening in the Piazza Maggiore because I always prioritize 35mm prints at the Festival. I did see the same version later at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto where we had separate screenings from digital files and from a 35mm print. The latter was copied from the digital version. I did prefer the latter, mainly because it had  a piano accompaniment. I was not happy about the visual sheen of the versions though the colour recreation was impressive. I thought the music on digital files was anachronistic. I was not amazed or thrilled. Whilst the techniques used are impressive it does feel exactly like a facsimile of the original. Because of the state of the source material traces of damage over time and use remain in the digital version. The author sees these as traces of the original and therefore indexical signs of that in the digital files. What is not discussed here are the additions not in the original or the source material. Because of the limitations of digital specifications most digital projectors do not project at a lower frame rate than 24 fps. But the Méliès  would have [on average as screening varied] projected at 14 fps. This means inserting extra frames, in this case probably 10 a second; the technique  is called step-printing. And even the 35mm print was copied from the digital master and projected at 24 fps. When I attended my early silent festivals in the 1990s frame rates, along with aspect ratios and colouring  were common topics of debates. Now one rarely hears discussion of frame rates. In addition, frame rates could vary in screenings for effect; this is not possible in digital projection though a dedicated projectionist could do so on 35mm. [A pleasure one can experience in some of the screening presented by Kevin Brownlow]. So of what are these frames an indexical sign of? Presumably digital techniques, though they re only occasionally visible to viewers with effects like ‘ghosting’, caused by the additional frames. This is not a topic seriously discussed in the book.

‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’

The author is right to be impressed with the project and result; which has been accompanied by a volume with many illustrations and information from Lobster Films. The work in producing this title is impressive and involves state-of-the art digital technology. But it remains a facsimile. And the book is curiously opaque on at least one aspect: the achievement of 24 fps is described as ‘time-converted’. Something I find like a mystification.

The author offers a long discussion on both the celluloid original and copies of the Méliès  title and the new digital version. The latter provides much technical information on the process of handling, reworking and transferring the frames of the 1998 film. As the chapter title suggests there is particular attention to the process involving colour; which is one of the aspects that the Lobster version offers. The writer concedes that this is a simulation rather than a copy. And it is in part a recreation, which is where the sense of a ‘Frankenstein monster’ appears.

One aside in a discussion of the famous argument by Walter Benjamin that ‘originals; have an aura lacking in reproductions. I have never really been convinced by this argument. It strikes me that the ;’aura’ [like beauty] is in the mind of the beholder. And John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972) critiqued some of the impositions on art works caused by ideas in the minds of beholders. Because the author sees the indexical working from the celluloid to the digital version we are offered quotations arguing that both the original mechanical reproduction’ and its transfer in digital files both retain such an ‘aura’.

There is much close reading and research apparent in this chapter but what escapes my eye is why a digital version should be seen as ‘forcing’ new readings. The chapter seems to merge the reading of the celluloid original and the digital transfer; as a facsimile I think that they remain separate.

With Chapter 3 we encounter ‘The Serpentine Dance Films: ‘Dream Visions that change ten thousand times a minute’. You might call the ‘serpentine dance’ a genre. The Edison company produced Annabelle’s Dance in 1895. It caught the public fancy  and innumerable short films, usually a single camera shot, were made of dancers, often in voluminous garments that waved over the screen. What made these dancers a particular experience was the use of colour which went though transformations as the dancer and her veils moved. The author provides extensive  information on the invention and development of this ‘international rage’ and its creator, Loie Fuller. The author, as with the Méliès , is especially interested in the use of colour. The chapter concludes with a discussion of music videos inspired by the early cinematic versions. This exploration is fascinating but, as with the Méliès , the celluloid and digital seem to remain distinct.

Section II commences with ‘Luminescence, Montage and frame ratios’ Within this Chapter 4 deals with Memory and Noir: Neon Contrasts’. The opening title discussed is Blade Runner: 2049 (2017), a production that originated not on photo-chemical film but on the digital codex format. So the issues here are different from those relating to the earlier study texts. We then get Memento (2000) which did originate on 35mm, produced in 2.39:1. In The Mood for Love  (2000) follows, also in 35mm but in the much narrower ratio of 1.66:1. Then Drive (2011), another digital wide screen title using the SXS Pro format. So the discussion is dealing with differing formats. This ends with ‘Fifth Night’ which is a gallery presentation where 35mm has been transferred to a digital format.

The author discusses how these titles inform understanding of earlier noir films including what are commonly seen as ‘classic noir’. I do think the inclusion of In the Mood for Love is problematic. The film does use some techniques common to the noir cycles, including chiaroscuro. But in other senses this sort of ‘Brief Encounter’ story is far removed from the criminality which is endemic in noir. People do endlessly debate what constitutes film noir; I think the opening chapter of the ‘The Movie Book of Film Noir’ is a model to follow.

The chapter is fairly dense, including quoting from Gilles Deleuze, an intellectual who comes only second to Jacques Lacan in the use of complicated language. On the interaction between memory and the noir experience:

“Taken more broadly as an approach to historical mapping, memory allows for a consideration of the influences and various iterations of noir, its presence and absence across time in a Deleuzian rhizomatic network rather than as an evolutionary teology.” (page 83)

Thankfully I was able to look up ‘rhizomatic’ on Wikipedia.

“theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.”

So this complicated sentence seems to opine that the genre of noir should be viewed not just in a linear fashion over time but as a toing and froing between films and film-makings and audiences. This treats the noir titles as texts rather than events. It also seems to suppose that a study in a linear form presupposes and defines end; which is not necessarily the case.  This complex arguments centre on the idea that the ‘indexicality’ of titles in a digital format evidence titles originally in 35mm. This leads to some interest research and discussion of film noir from its origins to the present. But this latter aspect does not seem to need to prompt of the digital; it could equally be prompted by 35mm, 16mm copies and analogue video facsimile of film noir.

Chapter five is titled ‘Cutting: Shock and Endurance.’ Here the writing addresses ‘montage, opening with a quotation from Sergei Eisenstein. The two key  titles discussed are Man With a Movie Camera and Eyes Without a Face. This makes the opening quotation from Eisenstein slightly odd because the former film was made by the ‘Factory of Facts’, convened by Dziga Vertov. Vertov had rather different ideas from Eisenstein on what constituted montage and they engaged [as was common in the Soviet art world] in fairly forceful argument. Equally the two titles are oddly chosen. The term montage has a range of meanings; referring to rather different formal strategies in Soviet or [for example] Surrealist film-making and in mainstream film production; and Un Chien Andalu (1929) does get a mention . You can describe the operating sequence in Eyes Without a Face as montage, but apart from fast editing, it bears little relationship to the montage used by Vertov and his comrades. The author opines that the most famous example of montage is the shower sequence in Psycho. But if you read Alfred Hitchcock discussing montage in comparison to Dziga Vertov discussing montage, differences are immediately apparent.

The chapter goes on to discuss work by the media artist Christian Marclay. He constructs ‘new films from old’. His use of film footage offers counterpoint to bring out new associations. Whilst this might seem to parallel in some sense the work of Vertov: the descriptions of his pieces suggests little political or social intent: something that is essential in the work of the’ Factory of Facts’.

Chapter 6 bears the title ‘Screens, Scale Ratio: Verticality celluloid in the Digital Age’. This chapter discusses the work of gallery artists using photo-chemical film and digital forms , notably Tacita Dean. One of her works, Film (2011) is discussed in detail. On this occasion the presentation is correctly described as using an anamorphic lens, that used in the CinemaScope format. One aspect of this presentation in the Tate Modern gallery was the ability of spectators to choose their position and standpoint and vary it; something that is far more difficult in a cinema. The author explores this as another aspect of indexicality; viewers reconsidering their viewing strategy. This is fair comment but seems to me of a different order to that repositioning that may occur with digital facsimile. The writer goes on to discuss parallel issues regarding another gallery artist, Christian Boltanski, whose work I have not seen.

Tacita dean’s ‘Film’ at the Tate Modern

Section 1211 opens with ‘Cinema Beyond the Frame’ and Chapter 7 ‘Haluucinatory Framing and Kaleidescopic Vision’. Here we read about an early film  series of genre, ‘The Phantom Ride’. Then the discussion movers on to more gallery presentations including the ‘24 hour Psycho’ and some other exhibitions which I have not seen.

With Chapter 8 we reach ‘Ephemeral Screens: The Muybridgizer’ which h is an on line digital version of the work of the early pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. All of these contain well conducted research and interesting discussion. But the author constantly returns to the key point, regarding indexicality. We have a quote from the well-known film scholar Thomas Elsaesser who asks regarding digital media:

“did it bring about  a rupture in the history of cinema that some critics have experienced as traumatic and terminal, or have we merely misunderstand the meaning of ‘index’. For those in the former camp, digitization quite literally means the end c cinema, so that there cannot possibly be a convergence. Instead in this light, an era of post-cinema has begun , with its own characteristics and certainty based on a different ontology.” (page 176)

The author then comments:

“The argument about the loss of indexicality in digital film imagines a coherent, formal evolutionary history, a dominant narrative that has framed  cinema for more than one hundred years. Such historical mapping according to a traditional understanding of indexicality and cinematic specificity reduces the definition  of films to its potential to a capture the ‘real’.” [page 176].

This is problematic in all sort of ways and demonstrates why focusing on the term ‘index’ does not address the full issue. For a start film and cinema are not synonymous, though often treated as so. Cinema is a particular forum for moving images; traditionally this has been 35mm film but it now theatrical DCPs. One has to add  the innovation of non-theatrical screenings in what are termed cinemas.

More importantly the assumption that film in cinema is accessing the real or evidencing the actual world is really dubious. Vertov and his comrades had to use montage in order for film to address the world of the spectators; Soviet citizens. Un Chien Andalu consciously drove a coach and horses through any illusions that cinema was delivering the actual world in which audiences lived. And Méliès offered this audiences fantasies, entertainment that escape, like the characters in Voyage to the Moon, from their early limitations.

This volume is full of interesting and well-researched material on aspects of film history, cinema history and the new digital technologies that are replacing the traditional. One of the overarching arguments of the book is that this work has been motivated by digital viewings. However, it appears that such research and discussion could have been motivated by viewing on different formats, or indeed, from readings. I did wonder if this was developed from a post-graduate thesis. The THEORY in the volume appears to overlay the research and discussion; something that follows from academic requirements to reference writers, views, research and recognised studies.

There is also a major lacunae which is an important feature of digital which is the necessity of compression. Essentially once a image enters the digital process it experiences a range of compression. This is the term used though it not strictly accurate. Compression implies that when uncompressed the object merges again as the image compressed in the anamorphic process emerges on screen in its full wide format. But digital compression actually removes pixels.  The sophisticated techniques involved in digital compensate when the screening or viewing commences. But it does not replace the pixels removed. The process uses algorithms which [apparently] remove redundant data; this might be information not considered essential to the image and data that is repeated and can be duplicated in projection. Because it is not as dense  in terms of data the sound does not require the same level of compression.

This is not a new issue. The 35mm system involved copies of the originals negative and masters take from this. The more times a title was copied the increased loss of quality in the image. Thus there were prints described as ‘dupes’ where the contrast and definition, even the colour palette, were noticeably reduced. But the original, unless lost, remained for preservation and restoration. A digital master has already suffered compression. And, I have not found comment on this; since digital requires transferring of data as systems become redundant, what happens to the compressed data?

It is also worth noting that the range of digital formats means that the levels of compression vary considerably; increasing as the format capacity reduces. A DVD can house 4.7 gigabytes: High Definition Television and streaming services exceed this standard: but Blue-Ray exceed the live transmission systems offering 25 gigabytes of storage. When we reach theatrical standards a 2K DCP offers between 70 and a 100 gigabytes: whilst a 4K DCP can reach 300 gigabytes. Added to this it is far simpler to copy highly compressed data to higher-quality systems; the final result is only as good as the original source. Unfortunately the volume does not provide what size or standard the digital versions of Detour offered.

And there is an important feature that is common to photo-chemical film and to analogue facsimiles and digital facsimiles; this that they are all commodities. What determines the production of these titles and audience access to these is their exchange value. This applies across cinema and the moving image industries. Even the Soviet film-makers, working in a phase of socialist transition, were caught up in commodity exchange. To a degree they relied on commodities for production and even if the audiences in the Worker Clubs were not paying  a price for such products, for the Soviet Un ion they were frequently a vehicle  outside the Union and earning much need foreign exchange. In the similar fashion surrealist film-makers may not have relied  on audiences paying a price for their work but he funding from the affluent relied on the profits that arose from commodity production.

In his volume ‘ Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking’ (2011)  David Bordwell, whilst not really engaging with commodity production as such, details how the production of digital cinema aims at restoring or increasing the profits [surplus value] from industry products and, moreover, how it has been used by the oligopoly  that dominate the industry. In the era of photo-chemical film and, now in the era of digital forms, what mainly determines the production, form and content of film and its facsimiles is the commodity form and the necessity of producing surplus value.

This is the capitalist world in which Al, Se and Vera struggle to find a place. As Andrew Britton comments;

“Ulmer’s road is not a refuge for exiles from a culture in which America’s ideals have been degraded, but a place where the real logic of advanced capitalist society is ac ted out by characters who have completely internalised its values, and whose interaction exemplifies the grotesque deformation of all human relationships by the principles of the market.”

This explains whilst it is increasingly difficult to see 35mm titles. In fact, whilst, as mentioned in Bordwell’s study, there is continuing presentation and restoration of photo-chemical film, it is increasingly the case that the archival product in digital rather than filmic. This is despite the fact that digital storage costs more than filmic storage and that the former’s shelf life is about only 10% of that of 35mm film, nitrate or safety. It also explains why the theatrical DCP, commonly in Britain, at what is termed 2K, is not an equivalent to 35mm prints. And it is debatable where the 4K  DCP, relatively rare, is equivalent either.

Usai’s use of ‘facsimile is a more accurate description of the digital version than copy and more useful than the term ‘simulation’; the latter might work better for gallery presentations or for a work like Hugo (2011) which renders version of Méliès titles into 3D. It is not always a matter of choice for viewers which they can see and hear. So digital facsimiles are of definite use for audiences and individuals. But it is not the same. A student can clearly write an essay of Leonardo da Vinci without visiting the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. And it will cheaper and easier; no crowds on a computer screen. But even if you do not subscribe to Benjamin’s ‘aura’, the texture of the image is not the same. This applies just as well to films and digital files. I have seen several hundred titles transferred from 35mm to digital files. In only a few cases does the viewing seem equivalent to the original. The Scandinavian archives have a very high standard. One title I have seen in both formats is the 1924 Kean. One notable difference is the tinting on the 35mm print, which has been carefully recreated on a restoration by the Cinémathèque with assistance from the Czech archive; whilst t on the digital version the tinting is over saturated.

The books offers interesting material and, at time, sharp comment. But the overarching values accept uncritically the transformation of cinematic film by theatrical [and indeed non-theatrical] digital formats. With a film shot digitally, like Blade Runner 2049, this is fine with its own aesthetic. But when the transfer is of works like those by Edward Ulmer and Georges Méliès I find the result problematic. I felt the author was, like Al, an ‘unreliable narrator’. It paralleled the way that Andrew Britton describes Al’s narration;

“Al’s commentary, however, though it is not hypocritical – he plainly believes every word of it – is profoundly self-deceived and systematically unreliable.

“The whole meaning of Detour depends on the fact that Al is incapable of providing the impartial account of the action which convention leads us to expect in first-person narrative, and when we examine the film’s detail, we discover that his commentary has a status quite different….”

In detour Haskell first offers a lift to Al: later, Al offers a lift to Vera: all three characters find their expectations frustrated by events. I often feel like that when I watch a digital facsimile of an earlier film. So, I borrow and reword with an acknowledgement to Groucho Marx;

‘Every time someone switches on a digital facsimile I can [hopefully] go into another auditorium and watch a 35mm print.’

 

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