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Of Presidents and Academy Awards

Posted by keith1942 on March 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Posted by keith1942 on February 26, 2017

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Time for Love

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

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A Time for Freedom

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

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

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

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

I love you more than you love me.

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

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

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

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

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

Originally a festival report on ITP World.

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2017, a spate of religion on film.

Posted by keith1942 on February 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arrival – Philosophy on Film

Posted by keith1942 on January 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by keith1942 on December 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

The Dardenne brother also remarked that:

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

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

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

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

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Nocturnal Animals, USA 2016

Posted by keith1942 on November 27, 2016

50805_AA_4167_v4lo Academy Award nominee Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow in writer/director Tom Ford’s romantic thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

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Academy Award nominee Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow in writer/director Tom Ford’s romantic thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

 

This is the second film directed by Tom Ford. I was not taken with his first, A Single Man (2009). It was accomplished and offered a fine performance by Colin Firth. But it was so beautifully designed with scarcely a hair out of place. It reminded me of The Hours (2002), which was extremely well done but even in the baking sequence no flour was spilt. It also reminded me of I Am Love (Io sono l’amore, 2009), another spotless movie which made me long for Boudu to wander in and spit in the extremely expensive soup. Tom Ford was a designer and worked for Gucci prior to moving into film. It shows. His films are rather like a mannequin parade, style over substance.

Having noted this I found Nocturnal Animals a lot more interesting than the first film: I suspect that is due to the source novel by Austin Wright. It has Amy Adams, but the tight design constrains her enormously. Interesting in terms of gender treatment Jake Gyllenhaal is not so severely restrained. He plays the ex-husband, Tony Hastings, of our heroine Susan Morrow. Her philandering second husband, Hutton Morrow (Arnie Hammer) is away and Tony sends Susan a draft copy of his novel, something she has waited years to see. The story in the novel works as an insert in the main film, and features Jake Gyllenhaal, but not Amy Adams, playing a character, Edward Sheffield.

The whole film is an exercise in noir though the inset story plays much darker and strays into horror. In Tony’s novel Sheffield’s wife and daughter becomes the targets in a rather nasty ‘road rage’ incident. The theme of Tony’s novel is revenge: a point made when Susan, who works in a gallery, passes a pop art painting constructed round this word. Revealingly she has forgotten the painting though she acquired it for the gallery.

The whole film is beautifully designed and in addition includes numerous art displays, including one by Damien Hurst. The film opens with a gallery display of actual women on show in ‘art works’. These appear to be designed to comment on the position of women in relation to sexuality and objectification. The art works continue throughout the film. I did not recognise all of them but I was aware that i was constantly seeing examples of ‘good taste’ in the sense used by Pierre Bourdieu. I did recognise settings modelled on the work of Edward Hopper, including the final shot of Susan, which presumably points up the moral of the film.

I was especially unhappy about the opening gallery presentation. This, like at least one sequence in the story within a story, struck me as pornographic: presumably deliberately. Evelyn Waugh in his masterpiece, The Sword of Honour trilogy, has a character remark that ‘all pornography is about death’. This is central to this film. However, unlike say in a film by Ingmar Bergman, I did not feel there was a redeeming theme to counter this. I thought that both Amy Adams’s Louise Banks and Arrival (2016) are a more worthwhile trip to the cinema.

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In the Mood for Love/ Faa yeung nin wa, Hong Kong / China 2000

Posted by keith1942 on November 21, 2016

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The film came second in ‘BBC Culture’s 100 greatest films of the 21st Century’. Nick James, in an editorial in Sight & Sound, made a personal argument that it should be in the first place. It is certainly critically highly regarded and has good rankings in many different listings: it has also won many awards. The International title in English comes from a popular song of the 1930s: recorded many times over the years. The Chinese title has a couple of meanings, one being ‘the flowery years’:  a ‘Chinese metaphor for the fleeting time of youth, beauty and love’. The film uses Cantonese, Shanghainese and French [with subtitles] and the songs on the soundtrack come in several languages as well.

The basic story is simple and the main plot suggested by an opening on-screen title. Set in the early 1960s Hong Kong, a married man and woman move into adjoining apartments. As they become acquainted they realise that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Despite this, their growing friendship remains platonic. Later in the film the man moves to Singapore and they are separated. They miss meeting each other later in Hong Kong. At the film’s end the man visits the Buddhist Temple at Angkor Wat where he performs a ritual relating to his memories.

The main setting is important. We are in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony. There is a brief reference in the film to the unrest there in 1967 and demonstrations against the British occupation. In the same period Hong Kong was an emerging, dynamic market with a rapidly expanding population. One of the key aspects of the film is the sense of an overcrowded urban area with competition for living space. The characters are on top of each other and accommodation is a prized commodity.

Food is an important component in the film. We see characters at meals on a number of occasions. The depiction of food and eating seems to be a common motif in South East Asian films. And the communal aspects of eating is important here. There are a number of occasions when the landlady of the apartments invites one character to join them in a meal. But we also see characters eating alone and using taken out food: emphasising a sense of alienation for some.

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The two main characters are Su Li-zhen – Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan  (Tony Leung). They are two of the best known Hong Kong film stars internationally and have appeared in several films together. These include other films by the director Won Kar-wai and martial arts films such as Hero (2002).   Their performances and the relationship they create onscreen is important for the feel of the film. Moreover, throughout the film Mrs Chan is dressed in the traditional cheongsam dresses whilst Chow is uniformly in suits, though he at one point removes his jacket and at another both jacket and shirt. All these add to the strong sense of period.

This and the style of the film would appear to account for its appeal. It is very much a cineaste’s film, with a strong emphasises on visual and aural style. The cinematography by Chris Doyle [a Wong-Kar Wai regular] and Mark Lee Ping Bin is lustrous. It is also carefully constructed. The sense of cramped space and of society bearing in on the characters is strong, with characters frequently blocked in by lines, buildings and fittings. There are several shots that use mirrors for reflection. Long shots also suggest characters trapped by their environment. And the leisurely long takes that recur, notably in the final sequence at Ankur Wat Temple, produce a meditative feel. Much of the film relies on chiaroscuro lighting and the colour palette lacks saturated hues.

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The soundtrack and in particular then use of popular song adds to the feel of the film. The Chinese title track is “Hua Yang De Nian Hua”, a popular song from the 1940s. There are also several songs performed by Nat King Cole including “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” [known as ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’ in an English rendering],  a popular Cuban song. The song ‘In the Mood for Love’, which inspires the international English-language title, does not appear in the film. The choice of songs adds to the wishful feel in the film and a sense of loss and transitory times.

The editing by William Chang is elliptical: moments are cut off whilst we are still following the action. And at other time shots are held beyond the point of the import for plot. This helps the feeling of ambiguity that pervades the film. The audience are listening in but never completely hear all the relevant information. The later point is emphasised in the final sequence, a sort of epilogue. When Chow visits the Ankor Wat Temple he whispers his secret into a cavity in a tree. We do not hear the words but we can guess at their import.

When we discussed the film students had a number of reservations about the film, though they were impressed by the production and felt the emotional effect of the story. Some felt that the film was too ambiguous and also found the style of the film inhibited involvement with the characters. It strikes me that In the Mood for Love is indeed a cineaste’s film. When I looked at the BBC Culture ‘top 100’ I saw that this Wong-Kar-wai film followed David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). That film is even more ambiguous and even trickier to follow than In the Mood for Love. The BBC list was compiled from responses from 177 film critics. This is a very specialist audience and, moreover, both directors are regarded as ‘auteurs’, beloved by critics. It would seem that In the Mood for Love is a classic with a specific and limited audience. It is worth adding that the film received a further outing in Leeds earlier this year. This was a screening organised by the Confucius Business Institute. The Institute is a parallel to the British Council, propagandising China’ economic potential abroad. Confucius was rightly criticised under the genuine Communist rule but has made a comeback under the ‘capitalist roaders’. The film does connect in some ways with Confucian morals which emphasise ‘correct’ social relationships and ‘family values’. However, at the end of the film, Chow is at a Buddhist temple, a movement that emphasises the transitory nature of our temporary life here; added to by an end-on-screen title. So I would be chary of subscribing Confucian values to this film: I doubt Confucius would have sympathised with the sense of loss that the film engenders.

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Woman of the dunes aka The Woman in the Dunes / Suna no onna Japan 1964

Posted by keith1942 on November 9, 2016

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I had seen this film a couple of times before and I was able to revisit it when it was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a Leeds International Film Festival retrospective celebrating the ‘film soundtrack’. The film is certainly a favourite that does enjoy re-releases. It reportedly did well at the Japanese box office. On its international release it garnered the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

In terms of soundtrack the film has both distinctive sound and music. The score was composed by Takemitsu Toru, a colleague of the director Teshigahara Hiroshi. The music is electronic and discordant and emphasises the avant-garde style of the film. At certain points in the film noise is used, seemingly amplified, on the soundtrack. The film was produced by the director under Teshigahara Productions and distributed by Toho. There was a ‘road show’ version released in Japan that ran 147 minutes, longer then the international release at 127 minutes. The film was adapted from a novel by Abe Kōbō, and a another variant on the title is ‘sand woman’.

The basic plot involves a man (Okada Eiji): only at the end of the film do we learn his actual name Junpei Niki. He is an amateur etymologist and has taken three days holiday to visit the sea-side near Tokyo in order to collect specimens. Late in the afternoon he is told by local villagers that the last bus has left but that he can have accommodation for night in a local house. This turns out to be that of a widow (Kishida Kyoko), and is situated in steep sided pit in the sand dunes. When he tries to leave next morning he discovers that the rope ladder out the pit has been removed and that the sand cliffs of the pit are impossible to climb. He learns that the villagers have deliberately lured him to this spot and trapped him there in order to assist the widow in coping with the shifting sand. The sand accumulates and drifts everywhere and as it seeps into the pit it endangers the widow’s wooden hut. More importantly he learns that if her pit collapses it will endanger all the houses in the village.

It seems that this tactic is one regularly used by the villagers to preserve their habitat,

“the native place spirit is strong.”

Another women in the village has a trapped salesman. The widow has lost her husband and her daughter in a sand slide. The work to prevent further slides recurs every night as she and [eventually] the unwilling prisoner shovel sand into boxes that are hoisted up and taken away by the villagers. The widow tells the man that the villagers sell it ‘half-price’ as building material though it is actually unfit for this. When he suggests that a more efficient way of preventing sand erosion would be to plant trees she replies simply that

“it’s much cheaper this way”.

The man’s initial response is destructive. Then he ties up the woman and stops her nightly labours to remove the sand. But the villagers respond by cutting off the supplies of water, food, sake and cigarettes. Eventually he becomes a reluctant partner with the woman. The partnership develops to include sexual relations. The first coitus is a fairly violent affair on the part of both the man and the woman. But as he settles to become part of the labour force and the household the relationship becomes rather like a marriage.

However the man continues to try and escape. One night, with a makeshift rope and grapple, he manages to climb out of the pit. As he searches for a way from the sand dunes the villagers pursue him. Then he is trapped in quicksand and the villagers have to rescue him. He is unceremoniously returned to the pit and the house.

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He then constructs a trap for the crows that circle and pounce on any food scraps. However, whilst he fails to trap a bird he discovers that he can collect water through capillary activity in the sand. He thus perfects a water collecting device. At this point it becomes apparent that the woman is pregnant. Signalling to the villagers with a torch on a long pole, the woman is hoisted to the surface and taken either to a doctor or a midwife. However, the villagers leave the rope ladder in place and the man is able to climb out of the pit. He walks down the dunes and looks out at the sea. Then he returns to the pit. The audience can assume that he remains with the woman and their new-born child. In an internal voice he rationalises that he will finish his water collecting device: he can leave at another time.

The film depends to a great deal on the relationship between the man and the woman: to a lesser degree on that with the other villagers. The film plays with the classic distinction between city and countryside, though we never see the city, we only hear the characters refer to it. Initially the man’s attitude is one of superiority. He assumes that the villagers are simple and naïve. This is his undoing when he first meets them because he fails to realise their real purpose. Once in the sand pit with the woman he treats her with a certain contempt. She explains to him that the sand attracts water and this rots the woodwork of the house. He dismisses this as a ignorant misunderstanding on her part. Later in the film, when he realises that she is right, he is able to develop his water collection. She also has a assumed reverence for the city, mentioning Tokyo several times as a place of superior facilities and attractions. When not working at shifting sand she carefully threads sand grains into necklaces which she will sell in order to make money to buy a radio.

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The man’s situation, imprisoned in this pit, is paralleled by his activity as an etymologist. He carefully collects specimens at the start of the film placing them in his receptacle and later pinning them out in his collector boxes. At times the camera carefully contrasts the insects in their boxes with the man in the box like structure of the wooden house. In a key moment in the relationship the man empties his collection, throwing it on the fire, so that the woman can use the frames for her jewellery.

There is notable erotic charge to their relationship. At the beginning of the film the man sits alone in a ruined boat on the beach. He remembers a woman and her figure and voice are superimposed on the shot. She chides him for the failing in their relationship.

“you criticised me … I argued too much.”

One critic suggests that she is/was his wife, though this is not apparent in the English sub-titled version. When the man is them imprisoned in the pit with the woman he takes her for granted. The first night of captivity sees her sleeping semi-naked in the hut, and the drifting sand moulds her figure. But this apparently does not affect him. Then later, when his emotions are charged by his frustrations, sake and a violent shake from sand falls, he impetuously grabs and embraces her. She responds and we witness a fairly violent bout of love making. We can presume that this sexual relations, once started, continues. And in the latter stages of the film the woman is pregnant.

The plot of the film is linear and recognisable though also unconventional. However, it is carefully encased in an overall film whose style is unconventional, ambiguous and extremely reflective. So at the opening we see of close-ups of insects accompanied by natural sounds. This sets up the theme of entrapment which is central to the story. These shot intersperse with the simple shots of the credits which are adorned with official-looking stamps. Throughout the film sequences of the characters interaction are intercut with shots of sand and sand dunes. These shorts empathise the material texture of the sand and also form abstract patterns. So at times the shifting sand resembles the movement of water, a central motif in the film. At other times the folds of the dunes resemble part of the human body, part of the erotic theme in the film.

The cinematography by Segawa Hiroshi brings out aspects of this. It is shot in crisp black and white film, with high contrast and in the Academy Ratio. The shots tend to deep focus, so we are aware of both the foreground and background. There are a great many long shots which emphasise the placement of the character in the environment. And Segawa also uses the occasional high angle shot which feeds into a sense of omniscience and relates to the theme of containment. There are many extreme close-ups, both of the characters but also of the sand which becomes a character in the story. Takemitsu Toro’s electronic score adds to both the moment of intensity and to the abstract quality of the film. So the music is occasional, but notable when the relationship becomes emotional. Alongside this there are non-melodic chords accompanying the shots of the sand and the dunes.

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The ambiguities in the plot leave questions about the villagers and the woman. Is the rope ladder being left an omission or have the savvy villagers figured that the man will no longer attempt to leave. And the woman’s pregnancy is unexplained. it may be the man’s. However what detail there is about dates queries this. At the end of the film we learn that the man went missing in August. At one point the woman comments he has been there three months. When the pregnancy occurs the woman states that the signs started in October: we already know from comments that December is coming when the wind stirs up the sand. So either there has been an ellipsis of getting on for 12 months or the man is not the father? In the latter case is this also part of the villagers’ manipulations?

A further theme emerges at the end of the film. In the opening, when the man wanders alone on the beach he, at one point, muses on the different certificate and identity forms required in modern life. This relates back the official stamps that decorate the opening credits. Then at the close of the film a voice over accompanies shots of an official form, informing us that Junpei Niki went missing in 1956 and that in 1963, after a gap of seven years, he was legally termed a missing person. It is left to viewer to decide if this is a flight from the demands of modern urban living or a celebration of re-alignment with nature. I would suggest that both themes relate to a sense of freedom. The musings on certification suggest that Junpei feels trapped in his ordinary urban life and work. When he is imprisoned he is trapped in a different way. However by the film’s end he has chosen to stay and work in the pit. The complication is the nature of his new community, which seems to have its own containment and manipulations. Meanwhile the officialdom of his previous existence has removed his chains by deeming him absent, presumed dead. One critic suggested that the film’s story is “is a modern version of the myth of Sisyphus, the man condemned by the gods to spend eternity rolling a boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back down.” There is an element of truth here, But Junpei moves beyond this in his choice at the climax of the film.

Teshigahara had studied painting [like Mizoguchi] and made some short documentaries. However, as with other directors identified as a Japanese New Wave, he moved to less conventional films. His preceding film, also scripted by Abe Kōbō, included elements of the kwaidan eiga [ghost film]. There is a ghost-like quality to Woman of the Dunes. It is clearly not a realist film, and works like an allegory. But given the narration is set -up by the male character and the impersonal voice that ends the film it could be an imagined story.

 

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Ida Poland, Denmark, France, UK 2013

Posted by keith1942 on September 29, 2016

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This film received high praise on its release. I included it in my top five new releases when it arrived in the UK. Pawel Pawlikowski directed the film from a script by himself and Rebecca Lenkiezewski. Pawlikowski has worked in the UK for a number of years and this is his first film set in Poland where he was born and spent his early years. Praise has also been heaped on the design, cinematography, editing and music. The film was shot on digital and then processed to create a black and white image in Academy ratio. The film has a distinctive look with the grainy surface found on celluloid whilst the predominately static camera and minimal non-diegetic music create an atmosphere of silent contemplation.

The film opens on Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young novice in a Convent about to take her vows – poverty, chastity and obedience. She was bought there as a child and is now 18. The Superior sends her out into the world to visit her only surviving relative, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza) who lives in Lodz. Ida’s visit leads to her discovering that her parents were Jewish and died during WWII. Wanda drinks and has occasional affairs despite being a judge. These two seemingly ill-matched women embark on a journey to find out more about Ida’s parents and their fate. Along the way they seek out people where the parents (Lebensteins) lived and also meet with a young jazz musician, Lis (David Ogrodnik). Wanda’s life changes drastically following the odyssey, what Ida’s future will be is ambiguous.

S&S notes the film is set in 1961, presumably from information in the Press Pack. The film is opaque on both dates and to a degree places. But we are in the so-called Polish Socialist society of the early 1960s. The Regime has hardened into a fairly repressive society whilst the economy seems to have little developed since the end of the war. One character invites the protagonist to join him on a visit to Gdansk, clearly a reference to the future and Solidarity.

The class viewed the film and then discussed it. What follows is my record of the many comments and the incomplete consensus on the film, though all enjoyed and/or were impressed by it. Students commented on the film’s feel of grim scarcity, both material and emotional. There are a few moments of liveliness or even joy: the dance at the hotel where the women stay: moments Ida’s spends with her fellow novices: and, though less certain, a jazz club. Whilst Wanda offers frequent extrovert behaviour Ida is mainly placid. There are a few moments of emotion: a silent laugh in the Convent refectory, but unexplained; a tear as a fellow novice takes her vows; and another as she bids farewell to Wanda.

Everyone was impressed by the style of the film. Much of the feeling generated and our sense of the characters is communicated visually. The film features a number of shots with characters set against windows. Then, at the climax we see a character by an open window.  And the film also works through the music. Suitable for Ida is a Bach theme whilst Wanda enjoys a Mozart symphony. And Lis plays a piece by John Coltrane.

It seemed clear that Ida is an outsider in this Polish society. This enables her to offer a rather detached viewpoint. Intriguingly nearly everyone she meets behaves slightly differently with her, as she wears her nun’s habit for most of the film. The Catholic religion is a key component in Polish culture; even to this day, so religion also offers a separate set of values in the film. And this is enhanced by the presence of Jewish characters and our awareness of the persecution during war years: a persecution in which many Poles were complicit.

There was some discussion of the camera work in particular. The film adheres for most of its length to static camera shots. Even when there are tracks, six or seven, these also use a fixed camera on a car, tram or dolly. However, and this suggests the ambiguity at the end of the film, our last sight of Ida, again wearing her nun’s habit, is in a reverse hand-held [or simulated on a Steadicam] camera. There are also several notable and impressive shots. One is an acute low angle, through a balustrade, as Ida reaches an agreement with a man who knew her parents. Another is a high angle shot of the hotel stairwell as Ida ventures down to the dance below. And there is a stunningly ambiguous shot as Ida wraps herself in a lace curtain after a particular tragic sequence. One aspect of the film is how it revisits the style and approach of the Polish and Eastern European cinemas of the 1960s: often subversive views of their societies.

One intriguing suggestion was that the film could be seen as a road movie. Certainly the film offers an odyssey for Ida, who meets a range of characters to whom she responds in different ways. And the end the film poses the question – has she arrived or does the road continue.

Production Design by Katarzyna Sobanska and Marcel Slawinski. Cinematography by Lukasz Zal and Ricard Lenczewski. Editing by Jaroslaw Karminski. Music by Kristina Selin and Eidnes Anderson.

Running time 80 minutes with English subtitles.

 

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21st Century classic films?

Posted by keith1942 on September 4, 2016

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I am planning a film study course this autumn which will discuss ‘C21st classics’. Do we have memorable films to compare with [for example among English language films] Brighton Rock (1947), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial(1982) or the original Mad Max (1979)? This will involve myself and students deciding what is a classic film. The online dictionary offers the following:

ADJECTIVE

  1. judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind:
  2. very typical of its kind:

NOUN

  1. a work of art of recognized and established value:

“his books have become classics”

There are, as you might except numerous definitions, comments, explanations and listings on this topic on the Internet. One entry asks:

“What’s your definition of “classic”? Record-breaking? Precedent-setting? Influential? Enduring? How soon can such a status be determined? (Films have to be at least 25 years old to qualify for the National Film Registry; acts don’t become eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 25 years after the release of their first record.) Are their films from the 1990s and 2000s that you would already consider worthy of classic status? Have at it.”

A filmmaker opines:

“I am fondly reminded that I, along with countless others, was asked-to-answer this very question by the Director’s Guild of America for their February 1992 issue of their monthly magazine featuring this topic. Pick up a copy if you can because you’ll enjoy getting a breadth of answers from many of the industry’s then-luminaries.

That being said, I believe my answer then still holds:

“A film that captures a past generation’s heart, challenges a present generation’s mind, and nourishes a future generation’s soul.”

An anonymous film buff offers:

“When it pushes the boundaries of filmmaking techniques (e.g. visual effects, storytelling, thematic exploration, etc.) and filmmaking itself (e.g. scale of production.) Being a trendsetter (i.e. a lot of movies that follow copy one or more of the original movie’s aspects) helps as well.”

We also, to my surprise, have numerous listings of the best films [i.e. potential classics] since the start of the century, 2000. Some opt for ten titles, one opted for a hundred. Among the titles chosen as number one we find:

Mulholland Drive (USA 20011)

Hunger (UK 2008)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The Master (USA 2012)

Carol (USA 2015)

They are all relatively mainstream, though quite varied collection of films. Moreover, the more recent films seem to stick in the memory. They are all English-language. Hollywood does still dominate the international market, but other cinemas might offer different titles. This is certainly true of 20th films: in Japan one classic is Carmen Comes Home / Karumen kokyô ni kaeru (1951) whilst in India one undoubted classic is Sholay (1975).

There is a question to what degree classic status varies according to audiences. Mainstream classic presumably have the largest audience, but national and regional cinemas may offer variations. Then we have the art film audience, audiences for foreign language films, documentaries, animation, independents, avant-garde … To which we might add, are we discussing films that screen in cinemas or are viewed on some of the contemporary alternatives.

audience-in-movie-theater-1935-archive-holdings-inc

My inclination is to look at possible classics in a range of varied film industries. Every year now I pick the top five new releases that I have seen: there are some I miss but also some that do not get either a distribution or an adequate UK release. I attempted to reduce the 75 titles to 15. I managed 20 features [with some difficulty]: time will probably reduce this list a little. I include the title, country of origin and arrange them in date of release. Some of the films are clearly by distinctive filmmakers, but the idea of ‘auteur’ is a problematic one. In nearly every case the quality of the film cannot be reduced to one person. That in itself makes for interesting points of discussion on the films.

Bamboozled (USA 2000)

Set in a fictional Television company this is satire of the highest order. The film is constructed around the idea of blackface, with a powerful and moving montage to close.

In the Mood for Love / Faa yeung nin wa (Hong Kong, China 2000)

Slow. elegant and with minimal sex, romance to die for.

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (India 2001)

Set at the end of the C19th in rural India this is both a great cricketing film and a critique of British colonialism.

Belleville Rendez-vous / Les triplettes de Belleville, (France, Belgium, Canada, UK, Latvia 2003)

This is a brilliant animation, quirky, witty and with a distinctive palette.

Dogville (Denmark, Sweden, UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Italy 2003)

The film is presented on a series of minimal theatrical sets: the drama is down to the characters, lighting, camerawork and editing. Brilliantly successful.

Moolaadé (Senegal, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon, France 2004)

A fine drama about oppressive traditional practices and women’s resistance to them. 

Flags of Our Fathers (USA 2006)

This is a Hollywood film with a difference. The construction of the film takes in aspects that most war films do not even envisage.

The Lives of Others Germany / Das Leben der Anderen (Germany 2006)

There has been a number of films about the repressive security system in the DDR: this is a particularly fine example with echoes of Victor Hugo.

Let the Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (Sweden 2008)

A stand-out vampire film. Essaying a brilliant variation on the genre.

35 Rhum (France 2009)

Essentially a family dram, low-key and sometimes slow but powerful in its evocation of life.

The Secret in Their Eyes / El secreto de sus ojos (Argentina 2009)

The main character revisits past events which finally reveal the ‘secret’, part of which is the past of Argentina itself.

Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) / Prezít svuj zivot (teorie a praxe) (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Japan 2010)

This is genuine surrealism and both very witty and technically brilliant.

Nader and Simin a separation / Jodaí-e Nadér az Simín (Iran 2010)

The film follows a family break-up but actually reflects on contemporary Iranian society.

Once upon a Time in Anatolia / Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da (Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina 2011)

I saw this film three times. It retained its luminous images and sounds but increased in complexity at every viewing.

Turin Horse / A torinói ló (Hungary, France, Germany, Switzerland, USA 2011)

Probably the ultimate in ‘slow cinema’. It also enjoyed the model trailer, at least in the UK.

Amour (France, Germany, Austria 2012)

The film has fine direction, but what most impresses are the performances.

The Great Beauty / La grande bellezza (Italy, France 2013)

The most stylish film I have seen that year: the final track along the Tiber is magnificent.

Selma (USA 2014)

A model of what a biopic should be, combining intelligence with mainstream production values.

45 Years (UK 2015)

Slow, elegant and very complex: the acting performances of the year.

Carol (USA 2015)

What other praise than this is as good as the Patricia Highsmith original novel.

Our younger sister / Umimachi Diary (Japan 2015)

A study of four sisters, little drama but a completely satisfying study.

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