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‘Opium’ at the movies.

Posted by keith1942 on September 11, 2018

Perhaps it is my sensibilities but there seems to have been an awful lot of religion on film this summer. We had Apostasy, on which I have already posted. Here one had to sit through an amount of Jehovah Witness theology.

This turned up again in The Children’s Act (2017): another victim declining a blood transfusion. In fact I felt that this was not the prime focus of the film but rather the emotional cataclysm for the liberal judge. The film had the merit of treating the issue from the legal rather than the theological point of view.

Both had been preceded by First Reformed (2017) with another fundamentalist character. He is effectively a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, an organisation which tends towards Calvinism. Their lists of ‘do nots’ is not quite as extreme as the Jehovah Witnesses. This was a higher quality film, though I found the writing by Paul Schrader stronger than his direction. The film seemed to follow the style of a Robert Bresson film for much of its fairly long running time. But the climax suggested the masochism one finds in the Catholic Church; and it also reminded me of some of the themes in the writings of Ian McEwan.

Better than these was The Apparition (L’apparition, 2018). In this film a sceptical journalist is asked to investigate a claim of an apparition by the Virgin Mary. Parts of the film depicted the processes of the Roman Catholic Church in such instances. At times these sequences felt like they could have been written by John Le Carré. The actual investigation and the blessed recipient of the apparition were equally fascinating. And the film managed to effect a surprising climax and resolution, the latter rather indefinite.

Also an improvement, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018). A teenager caught in a Lesbian embrace after a school prom is packed off to ‘God’s promise’ by her conservative guardian. This religious camp supposedly is able to cure her ‘affliction’. The film is critical, funny and, at times, dramatic. As in Apostasy watching and listening to the fundamentalist characters was hard work, though the performers make these characters convincing. What intrigued me most is that the film seems to recycle the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). We have equivalents of Nurse Ratched, the Native American chief, excited viewing of television, a suicide and therapy sessions. And the ending has parallels though it is less dramatic. The film is adapted from a novel of the same name: I am unclear as to what degree the novel shares these parallels. The film certainly changes some things, Cameron is older in the film than the novel.

In Puzzle (2018) we get Roman Catholicism; but this is with irony and sly subversion. Agnes discovers she has a talent for puzzles and teams up with Robert for the National Championships. This enables her to assert herself in the patriarchal family set-up. This is small-town USA with regular church going. Intriguingly religion does not resolve the oppressive situation. Robert, a New Yorker, remarks that ‘life is chaos’ but that when completed puzzles offer a ‘perfect picture’. In fact we never see Agnes reading a bible though we do see her carrying the ‘ash cross’ that marks the beginning of Lent. By the film’s end she is emerging from this wintry fast.

And one I have not seen is Pope Francis: a Man of his Word. This is by Wim Wenders and I would rather see his excellent Buena Vista Social Club (1999) or the more recent Pina (2011), neither especially laden with religious tropes.

At least I was able to enjoy a snippet of Richard Dawkins puncturing the balloon of such superstitions. But only briefly at the opening of Ex Libris. And, of course, The Young Karl Marx offers the greatest modern hatchet job on religion.

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Oscar R.I.P.

Posted by keith1942 on August 22, 2018

Born 18 May 203; adopted 16 December 2015; passed on 22 August 2018.

A faithful companion through many ling walks, both in sunshine and inclement weather.

To be honest he slept through most of the films that I watched at home; they included digital and 16mm. He occasionally woke up, as in the climatic sequence of Lassie (2005).

He passé on in a manager similar to Marley & Me (2008).

He will be missed, especially  in my evening walk and on return, checking the sofa when I switch on the DVD Player.

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The Happy Prince, Germany, Belgium, Britain 2018

Posted by keith1942 on August 20, 2018

This is the new film about Oscar Wilde, titled from his famous short story. Oscar Wilde’s rise and fall is one of the most well-known and dramatic careers in C19th Britain. A popular writer and journalist, a successful playwright, raconteur and epigrammatist, the revelation of his homosexuality, the repressed and noir looking underground of Victorian society, led to disaster and early death. There have been numerous books about Wilde, and quite a few theatrical plays and television features and programmes. And there have been four English language features films, and French and German features, plus several documentarians. And his plays and his one novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’, have a number of film adaptations.

There is much material for the films. Apart from biographies and treatments in other media, memoirs of Wilde abound. There is his own ‘De Profundis’, though this and the recollections of people who knew him are not always reliable. And the famous trials were recorded in detail and all these film versions utilise the more notable contributions by Wilde. ‘The love that dare not speak its name’ [from an essay] has become a well used phrase in English.

Oscar Wilde (1960) was produced by Vantage Films and distributed by C20th Fox. It garnered an ‘X’ certificate from the British Board of Film Censors, a classification that seems bizarre fifty years on. It was shot in black and white and in the Academy ratio, quite a late example of the use of this ratio. The director was Gregory Ratoff, a Russian émigré who moved first to Paris and then Hollywood. The script was by Jo Eisinger and based on a play that included reminiscences by Wilde’s friend Frank Harris. Eisinger had earlier scripted the notable 1950 Night and the City.

The key members of the cast were Robert Morley as Oscar Wilde; Phyllis Calvert as his wife Constance; and John Neville as Lord Alfred Douglas,[Bosie], Wilde’s lover and the cause of his downfall. Morley is fine presenting Wilde as society wit and epigrammatist; the sexual side is much weaker. But the film itself is weak on this; apparently a scene involving Wilde soliciting a ‘rent boy’ was cut. Neville as Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) does not generate enough charm to justify the obsession that Wilde developed for him. Calvert’s Constance is under-written and her casting presumably followed from earlier roles where she was a put-upon wife, such as They Were Sisters (1945).

The film opens and closes ion Wilde’s grave in Paris at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. It then revisits Wilde’s infatuation and introduces his nemesis, Bosie ‘s father, The Marquis of Queensbury [spellings vary], played by Edmunds Chapman who never exhibits the manic qualities ascribed to the character. What stands out is the trial and the now famous cross-examination by Sir Edward Carson (Ralph Richardson). Richardson plays the character as steely and pitiless. The film also uses the trial transcripts and offers the fullest dramatisation of the court hearing. Following the trial we briefly see Wilde’s incarceration and then his decline in Paris.

The Monthly Film Bulletin (July 1960]] notes the circumstances of the film’s release.

“The film, by five days, of two neck and neck versions of the Wilde story to reach the screen, Oscar Wilde was still being edited up to a couple of hours before the press show. “

This partly accounts for the lack of life in the film and in the portrayals. Possibly responding to Richardson’s careful demolition Morley does give eloquence to the passage of the ‘Love that dare not speak its name’.

The competing version was The Trials of Oscar Wilde, with executive producers Irving Allan and Albert R. Broccoli. This film also received an ‘X’ certificate, with slightly more justification. The film was both scripted and directed by Ken Hughes,; he went on to direct the fine film version of Oliver Cromwell (1970). The film was based on a novel of the same name by Montgomery Hyde and a theatrical adaptation by John Furnell, ‘The Stringed Lute’. The film was shot in Technirama 70, with fine Technicolor and a ratio of 2.20:1 in the 70mm prints, [2.35:1 in the 35mm prints]. The film had a talented production crew, Ted Moore providing the cinematography : he worked on several Bond films. As also did the designer [along with Bill Constable] Ken Adams. And Ron Goodwin provided the music. The film looks and sounds much better than its rival.

The plot begins at the same point as Oscar Wilde, the opening of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. However the film fills in the preceding relationship between Wilde and ‘Bosie’. In fact the film portrays this relationship in much greater depth. One gets a sense of the involvement between the two men and their other relationships, wife and father. John Fraser is good as lord Douglas whilst Lionel Jefferies is excellent as the mad, manic and macho Marquis of Queensbury. Yvonne Mitchell plays Wilde’s wife Constance but the part is again underwritten. We meet their children briefly and at one point hear Oscar telling ‘The Happy Prince’ [incomplete]. At the centre of the film is Peter Finch’s portrayal of Wilde. He does not really catch the writer or the notorious public figure but invests great skill in his obsession with ‘Bosie’ and in the way his life collapses.

Given the title of the film the treatment of the criminal libel case is underdeveloped; ‘trials’ in the sense of the personal. James Mason is not as ruthless as the Richardson portrayal. The film does deal with the two subsequent prosecutions, one ending in a dead-locked jury the other in Wilde’s draconian and moralistic punishment. The film ends with Wilde’s release and does not follow him in his exile in Paris. The last shot is as he leaves London by train. This common trope offers the sight of Wilde spurning ‘Bosie’ as his train departs.

This is a pretty good portrait of Wilde but its primary concern is the in famous relationship and his personal suffering. London and theatre-land of the period is well drawn but seems slightly external to the characters. The powerful scenes are those where Wilde’s obsession increases at the same time as Bosie’s demands increasingly sap his artistry and his social position.

Thirty seven years on and with social attitudes to sexual orientation much changed came Wilde (1997). This biopic was produced in a period when films openly and explicitly addressing gay love were frequent. The film was credited as British and to three other territories; there are a number of production companies, including monies from British and European state agencies. The screenplay is by Julian Mitchell from the book ‘Oscar Wilde’ by Richard Ellmann. It is filmed in anamorphic 2.35:1 and in full Metrocolor. Martin Fuhrer cinematography makes good use of the production design by Maria Djurkovic and very fine costumes by Nic Ede. Oscar Wilde is played in the film by Christopher Fry whose personal and sexual orientation are closer to the subject than that of the earlier actors. He does capture the flamboyance of Wilde’s public image and [to a degree] the contradictory nature of his desires and attractions. The film sets this up in an inspired opening sequence. Prior to marriage the young Wilde, already a noted social figure, visits and entertains miners as he makes a trip to the USA and ‘out west’. This nicely sets up the public figure of Wilde and his ambiguous standing.

The film gives us Wilde’s married life and his two children. Jennifer Ehle has a better written part than her predecessors and offers more rounded portrait of the character. Michael Sheen plays Robert Ross, who both introduces Wilde to the pleasures of homosexuality and also remains a steadfast friend through the travails that will follow. But the film’s prime interest is in Wilde’s sexuality and his obsession with Lord Alfred Douglas, (Jude Law). Their sequences are the most extended in the film and the two actors give full rein to the obsession on one side and the self-centred conduct on the other. Some of the scenes, like Wilde’s sojourn in Brighton whilst ill, cross over with the earlier Trials. But this representation is more powerful and complex, thanks in part to the greater latitude allowed the subject in this period. Tom Wilkinson, as the Marquess of Queensbury, is good and allowed a more complex characterisation than the earlier films.

The film was classified ’15’, how times changed. And it contains a certain amount of explicit sexual conduct. However, I do not think there is any frontal nudity, and the film successfully avoided the ’18’ classification in Britain. The film does show us both Wilde and Bosie’s sexual relationship and their indulgence in what then [as more recently] were described as ‘rent boys’. But that focus takes the film away from the most famous aspect of the story, the notorious trials. The treatment of the libel case is fairly perfunctory in relation to the earlier versions. And the two cases of prosecution are past over.

There are some grim sequences of Wilde’s prison term. And we follow him to exile in France. However, the film ends when he and Bosie re-unite, [though in actuality this was a brief reunion].

The film, as in earlier versions, uses much of the recorded dialogue. Some of the stormier scenes are taken from the account Wilde himself gave in ‘De Profundis’. And there are a number of scenes where we hear Wilde’s famous short story, ‘The Selfish Giant’; suggesting a critical line in the narrative,.

Now, twenty years later, we have a new version of Oscar Wilde. ‘A passion project’ for writer and director Rupert Everett. Apparently it took Everett five years to bring the project to completion. It is credited to Belgium, Italy and Britain; the list of Production Companies runs to two columns in S&S, the main sources being the BBC, Tele München and Télevision belge. The film was shot digitally and in colour and 2.35:1. The main location for the project was Bavaria, with other sites in Belgium, France and Italy. The cinematography by John Conroy looks good as does the production design by Brian Morris. Both interiors and exteriors are convincing and full of interest. The locations partly reflect the film’s focus, the last years of Wilde’s life following his imprisonment and exile. The title of the film is taken from the famous short story by Oscar Wilde, which also figured briefly in the earlier Trials. But here the story becomes a metaphor for the downward spiral of Wilde’s life. The last line of that story suggests the posthumous upward spiral of his work and reputation.

The film opens in 1900 with Wilde already in exile. His life there is intercut with flashbacks to the earlier parts of the story. In a couple of places we get a montage of clips summoning up the past but also highlighting the parallels and oppositions in his career. In an early sequence he entertains a crowd in a low Paris bar with a rendition of a music hall favourite, he collapses and this is followed by a montage of clips including his sentencing for ‘immorality’, the vindictive Marquess of Queensbury and the deeply depressing Reading Gaol. In another sequence, that also appeared in Wilde, we see Oscar pursued by homophobic young Englishness in a Normandy town. There follows a montage of clips that present the opposition and parallels in Wilde life, including a grim sequence as he was baited on his way to prison counterposed with his triumph at the opening night of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. Right through the film Everett and his team counterpose the life in exile with memories and returns to both Wilde success and fame and his degradation after his fall. Nicolas Gaster editing is to be commended.

Everett’s Wilde dominates the film. Philip Kemp notes that

Rupert Everett, in his magisterial role as writer, director and star, catches the theatricality self-mocking aspect of the flamboyant littérateur almost from the start.” (Sight & Sound July 2018).

Everett also catches the rumbustious vitality which enabled Wilde to entertain people across the Victorian divide, from bourgeois to proletarians. This also brings out his sympathy, [though not very analytical] for the exploited and oppressed.

Everett dominates the screen so that other characters are not that fully developed. Both Edwin Thomas) Robbie Ross) and Colin Morgan (Lord Alfred Douglas are excellent as Oscar’s lovers. Emily Watson is fine but gets only limited screen time. The rest of the cast are those who Wilde encounters in exile with a key British character, like the Marquess of Queensbury’ seen only briefly and not credited.

The film offers a valedictory portrait of the artist, with all his flaws and vices. It also give insight into this destructive urges which explain how his great success was followed by such a precipitous fall. And it addresses directly and fully his homosexual activities. The BBFC gave the film a ’15’ certificate noting that

very strong language, strong nudity, drug misuse”.

We see Oscar recounting ‘The Happy Prince’ to two young French urchins, one of who he pays for sex. And in another fine transition we cut to the earlier Wilde recounting that story to his two sons. I think this story makes a better metaphor for Wilde himself that that of ‘The Selfish Giant’ used in Wilde. Everett subtly changes some of the tale to suit the film. Thus the ‘young man in as garret’ becomes

a broken man … He was a writer, but he was too cold to finish his play”.

Here the sentimentality in some of Wilde’s work, though not his famous plays, comes to the fore. And the part of the story [featured elsewhere in the film] where the Mayor decrees the fate of the statue of the ‘Happy Prince,’ cast aside and melted down, draws Wilde’s moral with emphasis to his own fate at the hands of the moralistic Victorian society.

The film has its flaws and the occasional longueur. But Everett’s characterisation, the vivid portrayal of Wilde’s treatment, and the moral valuation offered by the film, make this my favourite of the film adaptations. Given Wilde’s place in the Pantheon, the richness of his artistic work, and the key place he occupies in the history of ‘coming out’, I am sure that we will see more films on this subject in the future.

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Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on August 15, 2018

This is the most recent documentary from Frederick Wiseman. Since Titticut Follies in 1967 Wiseman has been a prolific and central figure in observational documentary: after all these years he is almost the definition of films that offer a dispassionate but detailed portrait, mainly of institutions. In this long film, 197 minutes, he examines both the famous landmark in Bryant Park on 5th Avenue [a key setting in the successful The Day After Tomorrow, 2004] and a number of the other libraries in the New York public network. I have been fortunate enough to visit the iconic central building and one of the pleasures of the film was how Wiseman explores both the parts I have seen and the less seen staff and machinery behind this.

The film opens with great style as we observe an event in the libraries main foyer; Richard Dawkins giving a lunch-time talk with all his eloquence and commitment. We see a number of such events, some like this less formal, and others in one of the library auditorium with a more formal presentation and a large audience. I particularly enjoyed the session of an interview with Elvis Costello. And we see smaller events, more open, at branch libraries. The most fascinating was a young black woman explaining the ‘southern ideology’ which criticised Northern capitalism from a right-wing standpoint; not quite as formidable as that by Karl Marx but an important component in the struggle over slavery. There are concert performance in auditorium but also less formal presentations and the odd amateur improvisation; not a part of the official library. Title cards identify performers and venues for the viewer.

Wiseman tends to wander around an institution and he records and presents his observations without comment. Seemingly these sequences are laid out in arbitrary manner. So along with the events we gets shots of the staff, both at the main library and at branches, occupied in their tasks, frequently involving library members and members of the public. One is a telephone enquiry service and we see and hear as an operator check the word ‘unicorn’ on a computer and answers questions by a caller. This is one of those moments of sympathetic humour found in Wiseman’s films. We see staff checking in and out books and other library resources. Behind the scenes we see a group of male works working on a conveyor belt to sort books for return to their branches.

Wiseman offers repetition of groups and settings and the most frequent in this film are a series of meetings involving the library management. We see and hear them discussing the library finances: after some years of reductions 2016 saw a welcome increase in the budget allocated by the city. We also hear how important is the role of private funding for the library. And they discuss some of the processes in running the library, developments at particular venues and some of their longer-term goals.

Their discussions and the sequence of library staff and activity demonstrate how much wider than printed books are the resources of a modern library. British users of libraries will recognise this and both the parallels and differences in the library system. Certainly the |New York Public Library network appears to have avoided the savage cutbacks experienced in Britain.

Whilst Wiseman presentation seems an ad hoc portrait of the public library the editing, in particular, provides a less formal and slightly ambiguous commentary. There are frequent touches of irony as Wiseman’s camera moves from one activity to another. One notable counterpoint follows a meeting of the management discussing [with liberalism] vagrancy and the problem of the libraries being used as a place of sleep rather than activity. Then we see a sleeping Afro-American user at a desk. This points up, [as do other parallels], that the management is also uniformly Caucasian.

As the film passes from branch library to branch library we get shots of New York streets and intersections. New Yorkers will probably place buildings in this way.: less likely for British viewers. For me these felt rather more like the ‘pillow shots’ that fill films by Ozu Yasujiro, though Wiseman only provides natural sound.

The film is long but absorbing. However, I did find the last twenty minutes or so palled. This was not so much due to the length but to the repetitions. At the end we visit another management meeting, I forget the topic. Then we see a meeting of Afro-American women at a branch [Queens I think]. They all talk volubly but briefly. The lengthy contribution comes from an Afro-American director of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. There follows a formal event in the main auditorium which fits into Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas regarding ‘aesthetic dispositions’.

There is clearly some irony intended here. But by this stage I felt we had had more of such events and of managers than of ordinary users and workers. I have not seen National Gallery (2014) again but my memory is that that film had more of such moments; it certainly emphasised the ironic contrasts between British and North American staff at that institution. . In fact we do not get a sequence where the ordinary workers in the public library discuss issues in the space offered repeatedly to managers. Nor do we see any Trade Union activity. I wondered if there as not an occasion where the workers of the conveyor belt seen earlier – the most repetitious and alienating activity in the film – had a gathering or talk. The management are very liberal but by the end I felt that their behaviours was affected by their consciousness of the camera. I did not feel this with the ordinary staff.

The Sight & Sound [August 2018] review offers,

“Lofty idealism informs conversations about what kind of society the library wants to help to build, giving a surprising urgency to scenes of people sitting in rooms talking.”

From one angle this is true but I did not get a sense of what the pressures of budgets, routines , public demand and the compulsion of wage labour exerted on the staff/workers in the network. I suspect that they are there. Certainly one gets a sense of this in some of the other Wiseman documentaries,.

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Apostasy, Britain 2017

Posted by keith1942 on August 5, 2018

This is a new release which has enjoyed a number of favourable reviews but for me the word that best describes the title is ‘glum’. This was due to a combination of factors, especially the subject, plot and the style.

The subject is a family who are members of the Jehovah Witnesses. There is an absent father [unexplained] the mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran ), the elder daughter Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and the younger daughter Alex (Molly Wright). The plot presents both their family and the local Kingdom Hall congregation of which they are members. As the narrative proceeds the faith of the family comes up against increasing contradictions which are fuelled by the authoritarian nature of the Witnesses, embodied by the all-male elders.

Ivanna is strong in her faith despite the problems she faces; she works in what seems to be a council office. Alex is also committed but she suffers from anaemia; she works in a gardening team.. This as a problem is raised right at the start of the story when we learn that as a child Alex had a blood transfusion, insisted on by a hospital despite this being contrary to the beliefs of the Witnesses. Luisa is the odd one out. She attends a local college and her encounters with people of other or of no faith has an effect. She becomes pregnant and it this this issue that drives a wedge between the family and incurs the restrained wrath of the elders.

As you might guess the film ends up with a critical perspective on the Jehovah Witnesses. The narrative is generally low-key and the presentation of the meetings and rituals of the Witnesses is matter-of-a fact and [it seems] very accurate. The drama, as much as there is, is partly presented through performance and partly through the use of ellipses in the plot.

The cast are good and they are convincing and [despite the low-key presentation] there are scenes of powerful emotion . The film aims to add to this through the style. The palette of the film is almost dismal and the framing concentrates on the interaction of the actors. At time though the settings [such as the family home] are important in setting the mood.

The problem with the style for me is that the title is shot on a digital format and not one of particularly high quality as far as I could tell. [I have not been able to find a listing that gives the technical information]. The title is in colour and the unusual aspect ratio of 1.5:1, [apparently the ratio used in photographs that were source for the production]. But especially in the interiors of the family home the image has low contrast and low definition: 35mm film would have improved both areas. The visual effect was, for me, best described as ‘muddy’.

I also found the narrative uneven. It seems to aim for a social realist presentation. Yet there are some lacunae in the plot. When Luisa is pregnant Ivanna has to bail her out as Luisa has not got a job and appears broke. Yet she drives round in a relatively new saloon car. I also wondered if other aspects of the Witnesses beliefs would not have created problems? We get their ‘shunning’ of apostates, their reliance on a particular version of the bible and their proselytizing. But they also reject quite a few obligations of citizenship and this seems to be missing.

The narrative is hard work, partly because we get so much of the Witnesses theology, which is fundamentalist and reactionary. I possibly could have managed the plot and characters if it were not for the poor image. As it was I found the title’s 95 minutes a real struggle. I saw it at local cinema where it seems the film has so far enjoyed good audiences, and quite a few of them thought it good. The writer/director Daniel Kokotajlo [who has direct experience of the Witnesses] clearly aims to subvert the fundamentalist religious values propagated by the Witnesses. But we have been here before. Michael Relph and Basil Dearden addressed the central topic, the objection to blood transfusions, in one of their social-problem films, Life For Ruth (1962). This was a film in black and white and in the 1.66:1 ratio. The Witnesses were not actually identified as the religious sect in this film, but it clearly dramatised the same issue. My memory of it is that it worked better as a drama that this new title.

Apart from the hardship of sitting through the film I am also unhappy about the vagaries of British distribution. So Apostasy is screening at a local cinema for seven night but not a single cinema in Leeds/Bradford has yet screened The Young Karl Marx which is both politically superior and far more entertaining.

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Further thoughts on Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary Japan 2015

Posted by keith1942 on July 30, 2018

I discussed this film with a student group in Talking Pictures. The response was positive. And the discussion raised some further aspects of the film which I find interesting. One student, familiar with Japan and Japanese culture made a comment about the title:

Umimachi Diary (Japanese: 海街diary?, lit. “Seaside Town Diary”) is a Japanese ‘josei manga’ [comic book] by Akimi Yoshida serialized in Monthly Flowers magazine.

It seems that in the original comic book, whilst the sisters are the key characters there is more about the town itself. Kamakura is a small coastal town about fifty kilometres south west of Tokyo. In the film [and I believe the comic] the film opens with the three sisters [Sachi, aged 29, Yoshino aged 22, and Chika, aged 19) travelling to Yamagata in the north of Japan for the funeral of their father, who deserted them and their mother 15 years or more ago for another women. At the funeral they meet the fourth sister, Suzu [aged 13]. She was bought up in Sendai, not that far from Yamagata.

For the western viewer the topography is not spelt out but presumably it is quite clear to a Japanese audience. Travelling north suggests moving from the relatively warn coastal region to the north, which suffers more severe winters and is prey to much stormier conditions; it is in the north that the 2011 Tsunami wreaked havoc. The difference between the key towns in the story would appear to mirror differences among the characters. Whilst the sisters have their failings and foibles they generally adhere to a set of values around family and personal responsibilities. But characters away from Kamakura, like the father and their absent mother, seem much less faithful to these values.

The film appears to follow a set of seasons over a year. It could be longer. In the manga source Suzu is thirteen when she meets her older sisters. In the film, but the concluding summer of the story, she is given as fifteen. The film is ambiguous about time, as we move from setting to setting, defined more by the season than the calendar. The film is [more or less] bookended by funerals; at the opening that of the absent father which brings the four sisters together; at the end it is the funeral of Ms Nimoniya (Fabuki Jun), whose seaside café is an important and recurring setting in the film.

The film uses a number of recurring tropes and motifs, which fill out relationships and comment on the characters. One particular trope that struck me was people going up and down hill: steps, stairways and paths through woods or up hills. This trope occurs in most of Koreeda’s films. These walks seem to mirror the up and down rhythms of the lives of characters. There is one splendid sequence when Suzu is given a bicycle spin by a fellow students and they glide downhill under an overarching cover of cherry blossom; and cherry blossom is a motif that crops up a couple of times in characters dialogue and memories.

Memory is central to Koreeda’s family dramas, indeed to all of his films that I have seen. Memories can fill out the resonance of lives and relationships. This is represented most frequently in the film by the plum wine. At a key moment of reconciliation Sachi, who has argued painfully with her mother on a brief return visit, caries the last jar of the grandmother’s vintage plum wine as a parting gift.  Other memories are more problematic and characters are inhibited about these. An example is whitebait, which Suzu experiences as a treat of Ms Nimoniya’s café. However, she cannot admit that it is a dish that she shared with her father in times past.

Food is notable in this film. And it seems to me that it is a much more notable presence in South East Asian films, especially those from Japan. Ritual like food preparation and enjoyment provide moments when characters can group together. And the shared pleasures bring out a warmth in relationships. In some films meal times are moment of crisis, but not in Our Little Sister. Moreover, they are also associated with memories. Not only in the case of Suzu and whitebait but with Yoshino and fried mackerel.

The sisters house is the central set of the story. Old and lacking full up-to-date amenities, it represents a feel for past. It does enjoy a splendid garden, with the luxuriant plum tree near the house. Within it are the personal spaces, represented by the sisters’ rooms. But there are the shared spaces like the bathroom, seen briefly, but a site of a tussle between Yoshino and Sachi. And there are the communal spaces, notably the kitchen and the lounge which is where meals are taken.

We see Sachi at her work at a local hospital, where she is also involved with a doctor, married but whose wife’s mental problem mean she is housed in an institution. We see Yoshino working at the bank, and indeed one of the feckless young men who she dates, usually disastrously. We also see her on visits as a financial advisor, including to Ms Nominiya’s café, where the latter’s ill health is exacerbated by financial problems. And we see Chika at the sport shop, where she works with her  boyfriend. They regularly support the school football team, in which Suzu becomes a star player. And we see Suzu at school with her follow students and friends.

Late in the film, in late summer we watch an annual town firework display; held over the waters alongside the small port. There is a beautifully spectacular long shot of Suzu and her friends in a small boat watching the firework display; with its coloured reflection in the evening waters. And there is a smaller celebration with sparklers in the garden.

This is one of many sequences in the film that strike the viewer with their beauty. But they also offer occasions where we see the sisters in the wider communities of the town. In this film, whilst there are traumas and conflicts within family groups, the sense of relationships is generally positive: something not found in all of Koreeda’s dramas. The film is a pleasure to watch and to listen to. It generally moves at a slow and undramatic pace and this is part of its pleasure. And it offers a portrait of family life that stands out both in  Japanese film and World Cinema.

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The Retrieval USA 2013

Posted by keith1942 on July 19, 2018

This film appears to have only had screenings at film festivals. I saw this US Indie at the Leeds International Film Festival in 2013 [a UK première] and it was attended by the director Chris Eska. Since then it has not surfaced anywhere in my range. This is a shame. It is both an excellent film and an interesting variation on a major genre: the US Civil War movie.

The film is set in the later stages of the US Civil War, 1864. The Union armies are into the Confederate territories and we see both a violent skirmish and the aftermath of some battle. However, what makes the film distinctive is that it focuses on black slaves, runaways and freed slaves caught up in this great conflict. For much of the film we are alone with a small trio of black men. There is thirteen year old Negro boy, Will [a fine performance by Ashton Sanders]. His mentor is Marcus (John Keston) who has trained him to work alongside as they assist a gang of white mercenaries who are hunting down runaway slaves for the bounty on their heads.

Marcus with Will is sent north into Union-held territory to bring back fellow Negro Nate (Tishuan Scott). He is not a runaway but a freed slave. However, six years earlier, in resisting an attempt to capture and enslave him, he shot a white gang member. So the journey involves both revenge and a bounty. Marcus and Will use a tale of a sick brother to entice Nate back close enough to the gang’s camp to enable his capture. As readers can imagine, this is the point at which the contradictions of the war and the period come to a climax.

Most of the film is taken up with the journey and the changing relationships between the three men. On the way they encounter both a live battle and the strewn corpses of the aftermath of another. A civil war film that spends most of its time with three black men is distinctive. However the story in which they are embedded is fairly conventional. I could reckon many of the developments before they arrived and the resolution of the film became more clearly predictable over the course of the film’s 92 minutes.

The writer and director Chris Eska also wrote the screenplay and edited the film. He is quoted in the Festival Catalogue:

“I start with the emotions first, then I tend to work backwards to find the setting of the characters that are going to highlight those emotions and themes.”

Using a civil war setting seems to have been the third possibility considered. This explains why there are so many familiar tropes in the film. In fact the emotions are the strongest aspect of the film. The characters interactions and developments are engaging. There is one very fine sequence when Nate and Will visit the homestead Nate left six years earlier. And they meet his former wife and her ‘new man’. It is sensitively filmed and acted.

The visual aspects of the film are also very good. The film was shot by Yasu Tanida in the 4K digital format. And the landscape along the journey looks great. The ratio seems to be 1.78:1. This is not a a cinematic ratio. I wondered if this was down to using digital or the hope that it would get screenings on television.. Whether that happened I am uncertain but it has been available on online streaming. Eska does not seem to have been able to make any subsequent features.

But there is also a serious weakness to the film. This is the music score by Matthew Wiedemann and the Yellow 6 band. Wiedemann seems to have provided the primary input, with ‘sixteen tracks’. The majority of the score accompanies the sequences of the journey. The music accompanies the changing landscape and also signals dramatic development. But at times it did not seem to have a discernible function. I thought the film was over-scored. This is a shame, because the natural sounds on the track when they appear are extremely well done.

I assume the music was worked out with Eska as he remarked that he and Wiedemann had worked together before. Eska participated in a Q&A after the screening. I, unfortunately, had to leave to catch a bus. A friend told me about some of the discussion. Eska remarked that finding funding for an independent film in the USA was hard: harder than a decade ago. I had found the final closing sequence of the film the most conventional. Eska explained that this was added because one of the producers would not accept the original ending. He talked about the editing which he found was essential in creating the structure that he wanted. He also talked about working with the Afro-American actors, for whom these were the first opportunities to play a leading role.

The film clearly failed to find a British distributor or elsewhere, even in the USA. Independent film distribution has decline din recent years but this would also seem to be an example of the neglect of the Afro-American experience in US cinema. At the time that it was exhibited at the Leeds International Film Festival that famous epic Gone With the Wind (193) was enjoying yet another re-release. This film is, among other matters, an eloquent rebuff to that film. I wonder how long I will have to wait to see it again at the cinema?

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The Rape of Recy Taylor, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on June 22, 2018

The film recounts the rape of a young Afro-American woman and mother in 1944 in Alabama by a gang of white men and her struggle for justice. This was before the period of activism known for ‘The Civil Rights Movement’. Rape of black women, like the lynching of black people, was common in the period dominated by the racist culture called ‘Jim Crow’. Recy’s struggle for justice was supported by National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP] and by one of its field officers, Rosa Parks. Parks is famous for her role in the ‘Bus Boycotts’ in the 1950s. But this case was equally important is the development of black resistance to the racism endemic in the USA. The NAACP, committed to constitutional action, was for decades the lead organisation in the struggle for equality for Afro-Americans.

The central event in the film, an assault and rape on the 24 year-old black woman on a Sunday evening as she returned from a church service, is told through the filmed testimony of her family members and audio recordings of Recy herself. The perpetrators were six white teenagers. Though identified the local sheriff contrived to avoid any action. And Recy’s family home was terrorised and there were death threats when she pursued her claim for justice. These testimonies are intercut with contemporary footage, tending to impressionistic, of the settings, in darkness and with travelling shots that suggest a noir, even horror, feel. Alongside this are extracts from documentary film of the period and archive photographs. And as a distinctive addition clips from the ‘race cinema’ of the period and earlier.

The ‘race cinema’ operated from about 1910 to the end of the 1940s. It was a segregated cinema, in its production, distribution and exhibition, not just in the South but across the USA. Whilst it suffered from low production values due the poor economics of the business the films provided a potent experience for black audiences. The films presented black culture in its own estimation, valorised black heroes and heroines, vilified the lumpen proletarian elements in black communities and the racist white communities from which Afro-Americans had suffered. The films dramatised the brutalities and inequalities of US culture in the period, including explicit representation of rapes and lynchings and the real violent face of organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

These clips provides a dramatic tapestry into which Recy’s story is implanted. And the film uses virtuoso techniques to increase the drama. There are fine superimpositions of archival footage over the contemporary film. There are montage sequences which interweave, factual and fictionalised renderings. And there is added to this a powerful musical accompaniment of sombre orchestral music and well chosen songs from the Africo-American culture. Some of the characters in the events are now deceased and are voiced by actors. So the film is partly a drama-documentary and shares some formal aspects with the film of Ken Burns and his colleagues.

The film is directed by Nancy Buirski whose previous films include a documentary The Loving Story (2011) and a dramatised treatment Loving (2016) of an inter-racial couple prosecuted for breaking laws against ‘miscegenation’. This new feature falls somewhere in between, a documentary approach but dramatised by particular material and techniques. Buirski scripted the film and skilfully orchestrates the various components. There is excellent contribution in the cinematography by Rex Miller and the film uses drone cinematography to great effect. Also deserving praise is the film editing by Anthony Ripoli; the visual effects by Aaron Hodgins Davis; and the work of the eight crafts-people in the sound department. To this the credits add a long list of researchers who must have combed all sorts of archives and collections as well as tracking down people to be interviewed. The film respects the archive film and materials using their original aspect ratios.

Recy’s family member comment on the issues as well as recounting the events. In the latter stages of the film two contemporary voices add to this analysis: Daniel L. McGuire whose book ‘At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power’ details the whole violent culture which was inflicted on Afro-American women over decades [Published in 2011 the book’s title is taken from a 1960’s song].. And there is Afro-American historian Crystal Feimster. Their contributions place this story in the wider culture of racist violence and black resistance. In particular the film draws out the role of Rosa Parks, a NAACP field officer who took up Recy’s case and worked to develop a widespread protest that reached beyond the black communities. Rosa Parks is more famous for her role in the Montgomery ‘Bus Boycott’, The commentators emphasise how the campaign of support for Recy was an equally important in the development of resistance by black people. They also emphasise how important was the role of black women in the movement, both in the 1940s and the 1950s despite the sometime over-emphasis on iconic male leaders. This argument is convincing but I would have liked more on the struggle in the 1940s. The film refers to one other campaign by another black women who suffered rape but the film implies more.

One difference between the 1940s and 1950s was, that whilst the bus boycott led on toe increase action and results, in Recy’s case despite widespread campaigning she was not able to get a fair trail of her assailants. The first trial was a mockery and subsequently an all-white jury refused indictments. The film does note that in 2011 the Alabama State Legislature passed the following:

“BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, that we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we express our deepest sympathies and solemn regrets to Recy Taylor and her family and friends.”

Apart from the long and insulting delay the film, at this point, also includes interviews with white residents from Abbeville. They are aware of the events but are not really prepared to condemn them or offer praise for Recy’s struggle for justice. But we do see her, old and infirm, [in a residential home I think}, and she remains as resolute as she must have been in 1944. She died late in 2017. It seems unlikely that she would have seen this film’ tribute to her courage and resilience.

This films uses a complex mixture of personal film and audio testimonies, commentary and archive material. The latter includes a clip from the films of Oscar Micheaux whose work was a central component of the ‘race cinema’, segregated film production and exhibition in the USA from the 1910s to the 1940s.

This promises to be a powerful and stimulating documentary on issues that, as the news constantly reminds us, remains a central problematic in US culture. What would be good would be if we could have a follow-up of a screening of one of Oscar Micheaux’s powerful film dramas: Within Our Gates (1920) is a classic that addresses both rape and lynchings of black people.

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The Girls / Flickorna, Sweden 1968

Posted by keith1942 on June 9, 2018

This title was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the ‘Radical Film Network’s’ ‘1968’ programme. This is the first time the film has been released in Britain, though it may have featured at some Festival here in the past. It seems that it aroused some controversy in Sweden on it initial release. Here in Britain the BBFC gave it a ’15’ certificate with the comment ‘sexualised nudity’, [a new one on me].

The film was directed by Mail Zetterling and also scripted by her with David Hughes who was a co-writer on several of the films in Sweden. Mai Zetterling’s initial career was in the Swedish film industry but she then had a lengthy acting career in British film. Among her memorable titles are Frieda (1947) and Only Two can Play (1962); she also worked extensively on British television. One of he late appearances was in Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (190)..

From 1960 she moved into writing and directing films, mainly in Sweden. Her films were often controversial and address issues of a particular relevance to women. In 1982 she made the English-language film Scrubbers . Like the better known Scum (1979) it deals with the experience of Borstal, but in this film for women.

The Girls takes the famous play ‘Lysistrata’ by the Greek writer Aristophanes and puts a contemporary spin on the work. Three established actresses tour a performance of the play round Sweden. Whilst we see part so the various performances much of the film focusses on the women’s responses to the themes of the play and how this relates to their own lives and their relationships with men. Their experience of the play brings out the tragic dimension of a work normally presented as a comedy. Our sense of the play is intensified by performances before regional audiences who appear not to really understand the play and frequently display boredom.

The film enjoys a talented cast: the actresses are played by Bibi Andersson as Liz Lindstrand, Harriet Andersson as Marianne and Gunnel Lindblom as Gunilla. Whilst the less sympathetic male characters include part played by Gunnar Björnstrand and Erland Josephson. These are all fine actors, known in particular for performances in films by Ingmar Bergman. They make the quite challenging film really absorbing.

The challenge lies in the somewhat unconventional form of the film. This is in many ways similar to the ‘new wave’ films appearing across Europe in the 1960s; though we do not think of a Swedish ‘new wave’. There is unconventional editing and sound. In particular a series of sequences that appear as ‘imagined’ by the characters are show with a bleached-out look produced by over-exposure and film processing: a device found in films by Ingmar Bergman and other directors in this period.

The visualisation of the film is very effective. The opening shot appears to be three lightly coloured panels, but, as the camera tracks back, we see that they are reflections in the window of the room where the three actresses are talking about the play. Zetterling and her cinematographer [Rune Ericsson, who worked on several of her films] make great use of surfaces, windows and mirrors. There is a splendid shot of Marianne in a store partly caught in a mirror with the shop assistant over and above her dominating the frame. And there are some fine travelling shots, especially in some actual locations; towns in the north of Sweden where the play travels. The film was shot in black and white and in the 1.66:1 ratio and the print has English sub-titles. The screening used a DCP but, fortunately, Scandinavian digital transfers are well done: only the sound was a little harsh.

The film editing by Wic Kjellin and the sound with Bob Allen; Kalle Boman, sound effects and Sven Fahlén, sound mixer, is extremely complex. Zetterling intercuts the actor’s routines and the performances with each other and with ‘imagined’ sequences that present the subjective feelings of the characters. These are mainly of the women but there are also a couple by the men. Along with this there are frequent passages with overlapping sound, so that we hear the lines from the play over other scenes and the internal voices of the actors over both the play and daily routines.

Some of these techniques work better than others. Whilst Zetterling’s strategies of filming , editing and use of sound provide a commentary and a series of metaphors on the lives of the actresses and the play in which they are involved, at time it feels like over-emphasis. But it is certainly stimulating and provides a distinctive take on Aristophanes and on the experience of women in this famous decade.

There are several explicit scenes but I found the BBFC comment odd. In late 1960s Sweden the film would not seem to offer anything exceptional in this area. I suspect some controversy was partly fuelled by the feminist point-of-view on art and sexuality. But the film enjoys a high reputation in Sweden being voted into a list of top films. ‘Club des Femmes’, involved in the screening, offered an interesting comment on the film by Anna Backman, a lecturer and journalist.

“It is, indeed, an unruly and disobedient work of art and it must be experienced as such. Flickorna is a film that functions as a blowtorch on lazy, priapic narratives; it lampoons the perennial expectations of women to be kind, nurturing and soft; it positions women as active, wilful, defiant and wise in the face of men who continue to act like tyrannical toddlers and make increasingly ludicrous demands.”

The actresses and their characters display of these effectively. Whist the film does not offer a full resolution to the problems encountered the film does end with an announcement of a divorce.

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The Young Karl Marx/Le jeune Karl Marx/Der junge Karl Marx, France, Belgium, Germany (2017)

Posted by keith1942 on May 26, 2018

A must for genuine communists and recommended for anyone who is a fan of Karl Marx: the 200th anniversary of his birthday falls this month, May 5th 1818. 200 years on his ‘spectre’ still haunts the European [and now the world] bourgeoisie. The newly released film by Raoul Peck is centred on the friendship and collaboration between Marx and Friedrich Engel, the two intellectual giants of the modern era. Note, the play ‘Young Marx’ apparently commences where this dramatisation leaves off. The film covers the period from 1841 to 1848 when these youthful rebels were finding their feet and their intellectual ground. We follow Marx from Germany to Paris, to Brussels to London. We see and hear his wife Jenny and watch as he develops a relationship with Engels, already in the throes of an affair with Mary Burns.

Over this period Marx was writing for ‘Rheinische Zeitung’ (‘Rhineland News’); ‘Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher’ (‘German-French Annals’); ‘Vorwärts!’ (‘Forward!’), the last for the League of the Just. Engels had already published his famous ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844’. Marx and Engels jointly published ‘The Holy Family’ (1845). Marx followed up with ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ (1847). Then early in 1848 he and Engels wrote for The Communist League [previously The League of the Just] ‘The Communist Manifesto’. This was published in February 1848 as a wave of proletarian revolutions swept across Europe. At this point the modern Communist movement was born and Marx and Engels continued their political activities whilst developing the analysis of Capitalism, an analysis that is as accurate today as it was when ‘Das Kapital’ (Volume 1) was first published in 1867.

Marx and Engels dominate the film as do their political discussions. We do see both Jenny and Mary involved in political action and commenting on the political debates. A number of other famous activists and theorists of the period also appear in the film. We have Michael Bakunin briefly. More frequently we see and hear Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Among the people debated with and criticised by Marx is Wilhelm Weitling.

Only Marx and Engels are presented as rounded characters. But they and the supporting cast portray these revolutionaries in a convincing manner as they also do with their political debates and arguments. It is the strength of the acting that makes the film work.

In fact it is a fairly conventional treatment, an example of the modern film biopic which tends to dramatise a character through one aspect of their life and work. Essentially this film charts the friendship and the way that it leads up to the seminal manifesto. The narrative is linear; carefully structured to include action and drama. The basic plot, though using fictional elements, is broadly historically accurate. Where it less typical is in the amount of time that it allows for political statements and debates. Visually it is similar to many other costume dramas.

The film’s running time is 118 minutes. A more daring length, such as in Peter Watkins La Commune (Paris 1871) (2000) which runs for 345 minutes., would enable a fuller treatment of the politics. Whilst an audience will get a sense of the radical ideas and analysis what actually constitutes the contribution of Marx and Engels in this period will only be clear to people familiar with the written works. When we reach ‘The Communist Manifesto’ we hear the opening paragraphs but not the equally famous ending. The complete Manifesto would have been a better choice. Perhaps a more radical film-maker [Jean-Luc Godard?] might have essayed this.

A more serious omission in some ways is the absence of the voice of the proletariat. The film opens with a fine sequence as we watch rural proletarians hunted down as they attempt to gather kindling: and a commentative voice explains the relevance of the different meanings of theft to this situation When we reach the Manifesto there is an evening sequence as Marx, Engels, Jenny and Mary read the opening of the almost complete Manifesto. Then in a montage of stills we see groups of silent proletarians offering a direct gaze to the audience and the bourgeoisie. But their voice is mainly absent. There are some excellent scenes of of factory exploitation; street meetings; and a Communist League meeting where proletarians are present. But they are only supporting where as in the work of Marx and Engels they are both the object and the subject. The Manifesto would make more sense if the proletarian impact on Marx and Engels was made clear. The film does though make clear that these two are not just isolated intellectuals but are involved in practical political action, as are both Jenny and Mary.

Within the limits of the genre the production is well done. The design, editing and use of music is rather conventional but works well. The cinematography is generally well done. However, it does use the modern technique of filming characters standing before or beside windows. This reduces the clarity in the image of the character/s, and I suspect digital formats emphasise this. The DCP I saw was generally good but the contrast was lower than it might have been on 35mm. I think the film was probably shot in a digital format. The British version is in German, French and English with appropriate sub-titles. It uses both colour and black and white in a ratio of 2.35:1.

I enjoyed the film and I was genuinely moved at times. But after the sequence constructed around ‘The Communist Manifesto’ there are two end titles pointing forward to ‘Das Kapital’. Apparently , in an effort to emphasise the continuing relevance of the Manifesto there follows a second montage of well-known events and figures in the succeeding decades. These are not all well-chosen; several of the figures would have been roundly attacked by Marx and Engels if they were still around. Better would have been a montage illustrating the final and ringing declaration of the Manifesto, the working classes still have ‘nothing to lose but their chains!

Posted in European film, History on film | 1 Comment »