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Taxi / Taxi Teheran, Iran 2015

Posted by keith1942 on November 15, 2015


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

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

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

The film is fascinating, witty and deeply subversive. It offers  a rich mine of stories, observations, complaints and the varied tapestry of Iranian urban life. The ending, following the appearance of the motorcycle, is very smart.

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

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

Reviews tend to pick up on the way that Panahi has subverted the repressive and very conservative regime in Iran. But equally the film gives testimony to the rich variety of Iranian culture, including a long tradition of quality films. It  says something about the dynamic qualities of this society [usually ignored by the West] that it can produce so many fine art works. The film has an extra screening at the Festival on Monday 16th November .



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Suffragette, UK 2015

Posted by keith1942 on November 6, 2015

suffragette 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sylvia arrested in 1911

Sylvia arrested in 1911

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

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

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

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

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

Indian Sound Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on October 23, 2015

India map marks

Indian Cinema – the impact of sound in pre-Independence cinema, 1931 to 1947.

On the eve of the sound era, 85 per cent of films screened in India were imported, predominantly from Hollywood. These were shown at nearly 350 cinemas around the country. Hollywood enjoyed an advantage, as they had already recouped production costs in their own domestic market. Indian films tended to cost distributors and exhibitors more than the Hollywood competitor, and were thus disadvantaged in the film market.

However, the advent of sound radically altered the situation. The first Indian sound film was Alam Ara (1931). Filmed in Hindi and Urdu, and containing seven songs, it provided the basic formula for the new sound film industry. It was also demonstrated how to work with the new sound technology, mastering the problem of a single-system camera, which recorded image and sound simultaneously. For largely illiterate rural audiences, in particular, images and songs could be related to familiar traditional art and entertainment forms. Pat paintings (images on screens) had long been used to illustrate the narratives of traditional sagas in nocturnal performances lasting several hours or even running over for days. Traditional song and dance and the more recent Parsee Theatre strongly influenced the sound film. There had already been several Parsee versions of the Raja Harishchandra myth on stage before Phalke made his film version. The traditions of Parsee Theatre both encouraged stories with a strong melodramatic content and a narrative form that was far looser than that developed in the mainstream western films. Songs and dances were the most important part of such legacies, providing both familiar pleasures, but also crossing regional and linguistic boundaries.

The ‘ Masala’ Musical

The predominant form became the musical film. In early sound films actors and actresses sang live on the sound stages. Later, producers experimented with dubbing the singing to improve the sound quality and the ‘playback’ system appeared in 1935.

One actor describes how the playback system evolved as follows:

‘Filming and song recording were carried out simultaneously. The whole song was taken from one angle. Now another angle was selected and the song was again picturised. Like if there were 15 shots, we had to sing the song 15 times. 30 shots, 30 times!

‘To act in films one had to know singing. When I first went to a producer (when I was freelancing) he asked to read the dialogue in rhythm. When Himansui [Rai] took me into films he made it clear that I must sing in my own films.” (Siddarth Kak, 1980)

It is recorded that Bombay Talkies was the first studio to introduce this new system, which took several years to catch on. In playback a pre-recorded song is ‘played back’ on the set or location and the cast mime and dance to the music. Whilst the early playback singers were un-credited, the audience’s pleasure in their performances was later to lead to credits and stardom.


The coming of sound was, however, a mixed blessing for Indian filmmakers. As film historian Khalid Mohamed (1990) pointed out,

‘During this period, [the 1930s] although an increasing number of entrepreneurs were turning their business interests towards cinema, the market was splintering into linguistic zones. Hindi was the most far-reaching language. But people from different states demanded and received films in their regional language.’

Three main production centres developed. Bombay/Mumbai became associated largely with Hindi language film while its neighbouring cities were associated with Marathi. Bengali films were made in Calcutta/Kolkata and Madras/Chennai became the centre for filmmaking of the South Indian languages, Tamil and Teluga.  Sound film actually was a factor in Hindi becoming widely used and understood: audiences in differences provinces with different languages were able [to a degree] to follow Hindi dialogue and lyrics. Thus it was that over time the Bombay industry became a sort of national cinema.

The records for film output give an idea of the developments;

Bengali            – 3 films in 1931, risen to 19 by 1935

Gujarati           – the first production appeared in 1935

Hindi              – 23 in 1931 and increased to 154 in 1935.

Kanada            – produced the one and only film of the period in 1935,

Marathi            – a first feature in 1935, followed by 8 more.

Tamil               – 1 in 1931 and increased to 38 in 1935.

Teluga             – a first film in 1935 accompanied by six others.

Malayam         – the only film not produced until 1940.

It can be seen that after Bombay/Mumbai the Bengali and Tamil cinemas were the most productive and influential.

However, though fragmentation due to the different language demands was a problem for Indian filmmakers in terms of ensuring the largest possible audiences and dominance in the national market, it did give them a huge advantage over Hollywood and enabled them to develop the industry with far less competition from their big North American rivals.

1930s Studios


Large production studios, like Bombay Talkies dominated the 1930s Hindi film industry. This studio was founded by Himansui Rai, a pioneer producer. Bombay Talkies was the most famous of the ‘Bollywood’ Studios, and whilst they shared a mode of production similar to the Hollywood Studios, they differed both in the working atmosphere and their power within the Industry.

They system was described as a ‘joint-family’ system. Following Phalke’s practices they were often groups of relatives. In a similar fashion to the west they tended to have a production studio and its least a preview theatre. The studios developed in sizeable complexes, with facilities for staff, libraries of costumes, props and film properties,

Prabhat had its own menagerie. Whilst Bombay Talkies had its own medical clinic. This studio system was also less hierarchical than Hollywood.

‘When not acting, an actor might be put to fencing or riding lessons. Or he might be given temporary technical duties. At Bombay talkies an actor was expected to do some work as a cutter, as an essential part of his film training. Similarly, a technician might occasionally perform.’ (Barnouw and Krishaswamy, 1980).

There were stars who establish their popularity and who became important in publicising the films. But there was not a star system on the Hollywood model.

Producers and directors were them important and influential figures and they tended to enjoy higher salaries than the stars.

Constraints on Filmmakers – Censorship

Censorship imposed a major limitation in the form and content of films in India. The British colonial masters introduced a censorship system in 1918. While it shared some of the taboos of British censorship (such as forbidding exaggerated scenes of debauchery, desecration of religious places of worship etc), censors were particularly concerned with anything that appeared to support or encourage communalism and nationalist politics. For example, the Government banned a series of topical films on Mahatma Gandhi. These constraints were backed up with propaganda. Official film units produced ‘Newsreels’ and ‘Topicals’, which exhibitors were legally required to screen in programmes. There are instances of audiences protesting by walking out the cinema for their duration.

However, the censors were frequently literal-minded and insensitive to cultural nuances. During the Second World War, when Congress took a line of neutrality, the major hit was a film called Kismet (1943, dir. Gyan Mukherjee). It included a heroic song, ‘Go away, you invaders! India is ours!’ (Door hato O duniyavato, Hindustan hamara hai), which the censors read as anti-Japanese, but which audiences appear to have read as anti-British.


The Indian film market – which, under the British Raj, comprised what we now identify as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar) – remained divided into territories and regions based on languages. Indian film companies never achieved unified control over production, distribution and exhibition, known as vertical integration and the basis of the power of the Hollywood Majors.

The impact of the war

The war introduced changes that were to have far-reaching effects on the film industry. The increased economic activity gave many people money to spend, including on film-going. However, there were government restrictions on film stock, as well as on cinema buildings which accentuated a poor ratio of screenings to potential audiences. Annual output fell in most of the different film industries.

An increasing amount of ‘black money’, money made through illegal activities or undeclared, came into film production. Financing films became a way of laundering money for criminals, and/or avoiding taxes for black market entrepreneurs (hence the term ‘black money’). For example, sometimes important personnel, especially stars, were paid an official ‘above the line’ salary and a covert ‘below the line’ sum of money. Usually, no taxes would be paid on the latter. Such financing was illegal, unreliable and unacceptable to public institutions such as banks. The problem intensified after the war and has remained a problem within the industry to this day.

Nargis with Raj Kapoor

Nargis with Raj Kapoor

Meanwhile, notably in the Bombay/Mumbai studios, there arrived really popular star figures. Ashok Kumar was a actor/producer, he had an early hit in 1936 playing opposite an established star Devika Rani in Jeevan Naiya (1936). He was joined in the 1940s by Yusuf Khan, who was renamed Dilip Kumar. Another would be Dev Anand who started at Prabhat and then moved to Bombay Talkies where he enjoyed an early hit Ziddi (1948). The female star Nargis started as child actress in 1934 and by the 1940s enjoyed major hit in 1949 with Andaz and Barsaat. In these she played opposite actor/producer/director Raj Kapoor. The greatest of the stars of this period, his career really started in the 1940s. And he spawned a family line of popular film players that are still important  today. These stars also enjoyed a shift in the Indian film industry with the decline of the importance of the studios and the growth of the centrality of stars in funding, marketing and the popularity of titles at the box office.

Almost immediately after the war came Independence, but it also produced the split between India and Pakistan, and later Bangladesh. The suffering and separations this produced have provided recurring themes in modern Indian cinema.

One of the key films of the 1930s is Devdas (1935) produced by New Theatres Ltd and adapted from a  famous novel. It was directed by PC Barua, a filmmaker who worked in the industry up until 1950.  Devdas belongs to an affluent family in his home village, but develops a friendship and then romance with Paro. However, the are class and cultural differences and their marriage is prevented. The film then follows a long Odyssey by Devdas as he declines into alcoholism and returns to the village to die. The film was immensely influential and has been remade several times. The first Hindi remake was by the cinematographer of the 1935 version, Bimal Roy, in 1955. However, the film’s influence is also in the character of its protagonist, and there are many Indian films that have a similar ‘hero’.

Sant Tukaram (1936), a Prabhat feature, in is an example of the mythological/religious film. This was an important and popular genre in pre-independence cinema. This example presents the life of a C17th poet and saint. The film  is interesting because it includes the struggle against the caste system, a recurring conflict in Indian cinema.

An example of a genre film is Diamond Queen (1940) produced by Wadia Movietone. This is a swashbuckler in which the heroine Nadia and her sidekicks clean up a town, rather like a western. Fearless Nadia as she was known was a popular star of the 1930s. She was actually Australian circus performer recruited into Indian films. She was billed as ‘India’s Pearl White’ and was a great stunt artist.

For Parallel cinema.

Eric Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy, Indian Film, Oxford University Press, 1980.

Siddharth Kak, The Bombay Talkies School in Cinema Vision. Vol. 1. No 2, April 1980.

Khalid Mohamed, The Sound of Stardom in Cinema in India, [Journal, Sponsored by National Film Development Corp]  September 1990.

The above post was developed from a contribution to a BFI CD-Rom, [no longer available].

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Macbeth, UK/France/USA

Posted by keith1942 on October 20, 2015


I was not really taken with this adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy. A couple of the people at the screening were impressed with it and it has enjoyed pretty good reviews. For me it fell between two stools. This was the triumph of technique over character and drama: it did not quite work as a Scottish story but neither as Shakespeare.

The film was shot in colour and full widescreen. The latter choice accentuated certain problems. The film makes extensive use of the Scottish landscapes, but for much of the time it overwhelmed the drama. I noticed a cut from Skye to Glencoe! Films do use different locations but I also noticed that the background varied in certain key sequences.

Then the editing was over the top. We had frequent cuts from scenes to either flashbacks or mental imagery. If it was meant to be Brechtian that is not quite Shakespeare: and neither is montage.

The dialogue was often tricky with the Scottish accents – some good, some less so. But after a while I noticed that the accents diminished when the character was delivering famous lines, such as ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me’?

And the dialogue had to compete with an over-the-top accompaniment. Many modern films have scores that I find overly intrusive, and that was the case with this film.

There is an interesting version of Macbeth in here. Both Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are excellent when the film allows. And the supporting cast are generally good. There are some inventive additions. The film  opens with the burial of a child: one of those undeveloped aspects in the original play.

But overall this did not do a lot for me or for Shakespeare, ‘a false creation proceeding from a technique-impressed brain’. Can we have the fine Orson Welles adaptation from 1948 please.


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Chantal Akerman, 1950 to 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on October 16, 2015


I was at the Pordenone Festival when I heard the sad news of the death of this major filmmaker. She has made impressive contributions to both political/art film and to feminist film. I have only a partial sense of her achievements because it has always proved difficult to see her films. There has been a major retrospective in London at the ICA over the last year, but few of the films have travelled outside of the metropolis and the one screening planned for West Yorkshire fell through. I am hoping I shall get to see her most recent film, No Home Movie (20125).

The last time I saw her work was when Leeds International Film Festival screened her early masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Belgium, France 1975). This feature was screened as part of a series of European Catalyst Films: one of the titles that actually measured up to the heading. This is what I wrote after a an exhilarating visit to the cinema.

Jeanne Dielman

This was the most impressive film for me personally at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is an almost flawless masterpiece. I write flawless because it seemed to me that the film perfectly captures the intent of its writer and director Chantal Akerman. It is a film where the distinction that we usually make between form and content is almost redundant, because they are in complete synchrony.

The film charts almost three days in the life of the widow Jeanne and her son Sylvain. That she is a widow is important: a photograph of her wedding day, with her husband, stands on her dressing room table. The critics quoted in the Catalogue uses the term ‘single mother’, but certainly in English ‘widow’ and single mother’ have very different connotations.

On the first day, Wednesday we join the routine of Jeanne as housewife and mother. Her day includes looking after a neighbour’s baby, shopping, domestic duties and preparing meals: and of a different order, servicing regular male clients whilst her son is out at school. Her activities are all performed with methodical care. And this is also true of the evenings when her son Sylvain returns home. There is a simple meal, followed by reading to help retain his French accent as he is attending a Flemish school: reading a letter from a married sister in Canada.  And there is a constitutional walk before bedtime. Of a slightly different character is the bedtime exchange when the son probes his mother’s past emotional life.

Thursday the second day seems very similar. But we notice small discords that intrude on Jeanne’s routines. Another male client attends, but the transaction seems little different from the preceding day. The son’s bedtime questions are more probing and personal, including emotional comments on the dead father.

On Friday, day three, the discords become much more apparent and Jeanne’s growing disquiet moves from subtle expression to clear disruptions. It is on day three that a dramatic event occurs. This completely breaks down Jeanne’s life of orderly routine but also shines a strong illumination on all that has gone before. The ending of the film leaves a number of conventional plot questions unresolved, but exposes the contradictions under which Jeanne has laboured.

Jeanne corridor

The film is shot predominantly in mid-shot with occasional long shots. The rhythm of the film is slow; whole sequences are often filmed in one take. And the sound track on the film is natural and diegetic. The audience is asked to watch and consider. Since the film runs for 201 minutes this is quite an ask. But I found, and other audience members concurred, that the film did not seem anywhere as long as that.

As the title suggests Jeanne’s labour as a prostitute is presented as an example of commodity exchange. And the routines that she follows when preparing for her clients emphasise this aspect. In fact we do not see the actual acts of intercourse on the Wednesday or Thursday. However we do enter the bedroom for the coitus on the Friday. This act is clearly of a different order from those of the preceding days. Essentially the use value and exchange value of Jeanne’s sexuality come into conflict at this point.

Whilst the events on the Friday are likely to take the audience by surprise, the film is careful to prepare the ground, though this is done in a low-key and fairly subtle manner. But the methodical behaviour that Jeanne follows, and the increasing discrepancies that become apparent, both lead up to the climax. Seeing the film again I noted the neon sign in the street creates a flashing reflection which is seen on the sitting room wall in the evenings Jeanne spends with her son. Now this seems like a premonition with a strong film noir flavour.

The Catalogue refers to the influence of two of the USA avant-garde filmmakers, Michael Snow and Andy Warhol. This is noticeable in the importance of space and time in the film. Ackerman herself has acknowledged the influence of Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard. The latter possibly influenced the way that the film uses repetition and ellipsis to present the routines of Jeanne. What struck me was the way that the film uses props in the mise en scène, also relying on the depth of field, and recalling the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. [I later read this was another acknowledged influence]. I found the similarity especially pronounced in the long shots along corridors.

If the film’s direction is beautifully modulated then this is also true of the central performance by Delphine Seyrig. Her Jeanne is some way removed from her character in Last Year in Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961). Indeed that film’s director Alain Resnais is another obvious influence. Whilst the two films are very different, what they share is a formal rigour.

The screening used a fairly good 35mm print, with only a few noticeably worn sections. So it showed off the production skills of Babette Mangolte’s cinematography, Patricia Canino’s editing and Alain Marchall’s sound editing. This is also a film that should be seen in a cinema.

ITP Festival Review.

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A Very BFI coup.

Posted by keith1942 on September 29, 2015

Harry Perkins

Harry Perkins with Sir Percy behind him!

The reference to the title of a novel and television adaptation is deliberate: so I should offer apologies to the character of Sir Percy Browne, who is a consumate operator. The actual example below is less urbane and pays less attention to detail.

The Board of Governors for the British Film Institute has announced an election for a Members’ Governor on the Board.

“Help shape the future of film

Call for nominations for the Governor Election 2015

The BFI Governors are guardians of Britain’s moving image culture and heritage and also help shape the strategic direction of the Government’s lead agency for film.

One BFI Governor is elected to serve a four-year term in office by BFI Membership and Sight & Sound subscribers. Due to an upcoming vacancy, we’re seeking nominations for candidates for a Governor Election.”

However, the notification sent out to members and S&S subscribers is somewhat ‘economical’ with the facts. This election is overdue by at least a year and there should be for two Governors elected by Members, one of which posts has been vacant for a couple of years. And the current Member, designated as Regional, should have been up for re-election in 2014.

Mark Newell helpfully pointed out some information buried in the BFI Report 2014/15. I used the term ‘buried’ advisedly as this was only to be found on page 52. The Report records two changes to the Member Governor posts: though it does not actually admit they are changes. It appears two posts have been reduced to one; and the period of the post extended from 3 to 4 years.

The supposed rationale for this is the follow up to the Triennial review of the BFI. However, the recommendations in that Review state that ‘no changes’ are recommended to the Member Governor posts.

This would appear to be the Governors and managers ‘sneaking through’ changes. I use those terms advisedly because there as been no notification to the electorate regarding this. The BFI regularly issues Press Releases when some establishment figure joins the Board. There have been none on these changes. Presumably there is some detail of this in the Board Minutes, but the delay in making these available on the BFI website increases all the time. Currently we are waiting for those of February 2015 to be posted.

And there was a similar tactical silence on the extension that was agreed to the Regional Member Governor post: which should have been up for re-election in the autumn of 2014. Electors were left to discover this when there was no election. The person occupying that post seems to be at one with the other Governors, since he never took the trouble to either consult or inform electors about this extension.

The information available to people with voting rights has decreased year by year. There is little information on the member’s pages and the Members Board seems equally defunct. As noted in earlier postings the Board now appears to consist entirely of people who work in London and who reside no more than 40 or 50 miles from the capital. The Triennial Report recommended Regional Representation but none of the current Governors are described as such. This is what should be termed a democratic deficit.

Harry Perkins, who graces the head of this post, had a favorite mantra – ‘it’s the will of the people’. One can hardly imagine any member of the Current Board of Governors chanting that refrain!


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Michelangelo Antonioni – Poet of Alienation

Posted by keith1942 on September 18, 2015


L'eclliseThe BFI have released a digitally restored version of one of the most famous films by this filmmaker – L’ecclisse / The Eclipse (1962). This is a welcome return of one of the most important directors of art cinema in the 1960s. I hope that this film will be follows by re-issues of L’avventura (1959) and La Notte (1961) 


Antonioni was born in 1912. In the 1930s he experimented with 16-mm film and also contributed film criticism to a local newspaper. In 1940 he attended the Italian film school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. He then worked as a scriptwriter, including on one film for Roberto Rossellini. His first film as a director was a short documentary, Gente del Po, on which he worked from 1943 to 1947. In the 1950s he directed a number of features and continued as a scriptwriter, including contributing to Fellini’s The White Sheikh/Lo Sceicco Bianco (1952).

In 1960 L’avventura bought him international success. The film won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Festival. It formed a trilogy with his next two films La notte, winner of the Best Film Award at Berlin in 1961: and L’eclisse, which also won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, in 1962. All three films starred the actress Monica Vitti; almost as regular in Antonioni’s films as was Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s. Antonioni was clearly seen as an auteur. His dominant theme was the emotional barrenness of modern man – the futile search to assert him or herself in a technological world and their frustrating inability to communicate with others. Ephraim Katz comments “Long lingering shots follow his characters until their inner selves are revealed. By their leisurely immobility the shots suggest the overbearing pressure that times exerts upon human emotions. The surrounding physical world is also used to convey a state of mind and to express the strains of alienation and psychological agony. Antonioni’s films are almost plotless, their narrative vagueness almost bordering on mystery. “ [In the International Film Encyclopaedia, 1994].


Italian film context:

Antonioni grew up under Fascism and his early filmmaking career paralleled the development of Neo-realism. These films focussed on the lives of ordinary people. Neorealist used location shooting, non-professional actors and a somewhat unconventional style compared with mainstream studio films. In the 1950s Antonioni’s films moved away from the Neorealist aesthetic and began to display the visual and narrative ambiguities of his most famous films.

At the same time changes in cinema audiences and film exhibition impacted on Italian filmmakers. These were part of wider changes in international post-war cinema. Cinemas, especially in rural areas and small towns, frequently closed. City based cinemas survived but prices increased. Moreover there developed what we now call ‘niche’ audiences. There were the mainstream popular films, including imports from Hollywood, And there were ‘quality’ or art films. The latter often made a virtue of black and white cinematography, which generally cost less. But it also provided a distinctive style as colour became the norm in the mainstream . Antonioni only made a colour film, The Red Desert / Il Deserto Rosso in 1964. Along with the style went a distinctive approach to plot, character and the resolution of the film story.

Antonioni – The trilogy


L’avventura, La notte and L’ecclise form a thematic trilogy. Antonioni made them between 1960 and 1962. All won festival awards, and they established his reputation and his directorial persona. Monica Vitti appears in all the films. Antonioni together with Tonino Guerra wrote the scripts. Eraldo Da Roma was the editor on all three films; Gianni Da Venanzo was director of photography on La notte and L’eclisse; and Giovanni Fusco composed the music for both L’avventura and L’eclisse. In the same period, apart from Fellini’s La dolce vita, Igmar Bergman directed Winter Light; and Alain Resnais directed Last Year in Marienbad. All great modernist films.

In L’avventura “A young woman, Anna [Lea Massari], disappears while cruising near Sicily in the company of a group of rich Italians. Her lover, Sandro Gabriele Ferzetti], and her friend, Claudia [Monica Vitti], search unsuccessfully for her, developing a tenuous relationship in the process. There is no resolution of the conventional type. Anna’s disappearance is never explained and ceases to be of nay interest. At the end of the film Claudia and Sandro achieve a bleak sympathy, but hardly a consummation. Nor are we permitted any semblance of orthodox narrative involvement. The film is paced very slowly, much of its action is seen in real time. Its characters communicate little dialogue, and more often than not, are to be found looking away from each other into the bleak and arid Sicilian landscape.” [Andrew Tutor]. 

La notte “is about an artist’s life at the height of Italy’s economic miracle; it depicts several hours, including the whole night, in the life of Giovanni Pontano [Marcello Mastroianni], a novelist, on the day of the publication of his latest book. Jeanne Moreau plays his wife. And Monica Vitti plays the daughter of an industrialist whom Giovanni attempts but fails to seduce.

Antonioni manipulates entrances and exits and ambiguous shifts of scale, in order to shift regularly between his principal characters while maintaining the impression that their independent actions are linked together, almost as if they see each other in their privacy.” [P. Adam Sitney].


L’ECLISSE [The Eclipse].


L’ecclisse is set in Rome and the central relationship involves Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero (Alain Delon). The plot involves the city’s Stock Exchange whilst the settings are mainly in the upmarket and fashionable EUR area of Rome. The film is [for my money] the most abstract of the trilogy.

The film is set in two areas of Rome, though there is also a light aeroplane flight to Verona aerodrome. The prime focus is in the EUR district where Vittoria lives in a modern, smart apartment. EUR was a project of the 1930s Fascist regime. It was to be an architectural and planning monument constructed round a great expo Exhibition. The exhibition never took place and the area was developed post-war as both a residential and business area. So the district has a mixture of styles from pre-war and post-war. And, as is so often the case in Italian films, architecture caries a particular resonance from the past.

The film opens in the nearby apartment of Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) whose relationship with Vittoria is coming to an end. Later Vittoria returns to her own apartment. Riccardo vainly calls there. Later in the film Piero will call, more successfully. There is also a sequence in the flat of a neighbour visited by Vittoria and a friend. This is a somewhat oddball sequence. The hostess has lived in Kenya for a period and she is quietly racist about the black people there. The women actually play and dress up in her collection of African costumes. I find this sequence dates the film in a way that does not happen with L’avventura.

The second area is the old centre of the city. Here is sited the Stock Exchange, the apartment of Piero’s parents, and the office from which he works. Vittoria and Piero meet at the Stock Exchange, where Vittoria’s mother goes to check investments. This offers a bedlam of noise and frenetic activity. And in the first sequence there this is emphasised by a minute’s silence held for a departed stock broker. The Exchange is a centre of gambling fever, for me it recalled the shorter and stylistic different sequence in Fritz Lang’ Doctor Mabuse (1922). Piero is as afflicted as every other member of the exchange, at one point Vittoria says to him:

“you never stand still”.

The events at the Exchange feature a bubble and crash, reflecting actual economic events in Italy in 1961.

There is also a sequence at the Tiber. Piero’s sports car was stolen and the driven into the river. We see the car, and the dead driver, hauled from the river. But it is followed a by a sequence when Piero and Vittoria walk across a park together.

It is an exterior and a junction that dominates the last reels of the film. This is in the EUR district at a cross roads. There is an unfinished building with scaffolding and coverings: even a water running to a tank and leaking onto the road. We see this junction on several occasions. We see passerby, including a nurse pushing a pram. And at one point in the twilight a bus stops, passengers disembark and it drives on. It is here that we return at the end of the film. We see some of the passerby, including a man with a newspaper. Then the junction becomes deserted. We are waiting but never see what may happen. Visually this is a stunning sequence, with a series of shots of the junction, the building, and close-ups of detail. It also seems to be the most abstract sequence in an Antonioni film.

The film is constructed round dolly shots. The camera cuts frequently, often to oblique angles. They very much service the mise en scène. Characters are placed against objects, walls and buildings. There is a shot of Vittoria in Riccardo’s flat, on the extreme left of the frame, facing into the room and a mirror. Riccardo is separated by space, walls and furniture. When Vittoria and Piero first talk at the Exchange, they converse round a large pillar as the minute’s silence proceeds. Some of the shots, especially of Vitti, reminded me of those in La Notte. The shots are not especially long. There are a number of tracks in the film and they seemed mainly to occur when there is some sort of ending occurring.

We have both daytime and night-time sequences and a range of interiors and exteriors. What I had forgotten from a previous screenings was that a night-time sequence features a number of dogs. Vittoria chases these, in particular the pet of her neighbour. I cannot remember other dogs in Antonioni films?

Apart from dialogue and noise the soundtrack is sparse. There are two diegetic songs and a diegetic singer. Non-diegetic brief musical phrases occur early in the film. There are more of them in a sequence where Piero shows Vittoria his parent’s apartment. But the greatest amount of accompanying music is in the final lengthy, and also most empty of people, sequence.

Elclissee still

There is no doubt that Antonioni is an auteur in themes and style. However, this is a work [as his others] that relies on the team of filmmakers involved. The cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo is especially fine. And the production design and editing are also excellent. Whilst the sparse music by Giovanni Fusco is atmospheric.

Like all of Antonioni’s films there is a high degree of ambiguity, both in regard to the characters and the plot, but also in terms of the themes it expresses. But this is certainly a modernist and alienating environment. But whilst the old centre has far more life and action it also is fairly vacuous, when it is not merely exploitative. The visual quality of the film offers great pleasure, and the sound and music add to this. It is also stimulating because whilst some viewers may be bored, [I have heard this said] if the film involves one it seems very difficult not to ponder and question after the final ‘Fine’.

Italy / France 1962. Produced by Robert and Raymond Hakim.

Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, with Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri; cinematography: Gianni Di Venanzo; editor: Eraldo Da Roma; sound: Claudio Mailed and Mario Bramonti; production design: Piero Poletto; music: Giovanni Fusco.

Cast: Alain Delon (Piero); Monica Vitti (Vittoria); Francisco Rabal [Riccardo]; with Lilla Brignone, Rosanna Rory, Mirella Ricciardi, Louis Seignier.

Screening in a DCP, black and white with English subtitles: running 126 minutes.

Synopses from the Macmillan International Dictionary of Film.

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Black Coal, Thin Ice, Bai ri yan huo, China / Hong Kong 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on August 29, 2015


I saw this film at the same time as two friends and we had rather different responses. One liked it, one disliked it: I think I was the most impressed. That is along with the Berlin Film Festival where the film won the Golden Bear. So I have spent a little time considering what it is about the film that impressed me.

The film was written and directed by Yi’nan Diao and it is his third feature released internationally. Black Coal, Thin Ice shares some concerns and plot issues with his previous film Night Train (Ye Che, 2007).It is sited in classic film noir territory, though for much of the film it is not clear whether the protagonist is a seeker or victim hero. Likewise it takes time to get a sense of the murder plot and to identify the femme fatale.

The cinematography of Dong Jinsong and the Art Direction of Liu Qiang provide an excellent noir world. There are the shadowy and sometimes neon-lit visuals. There are the enclosing settings and the wintry landscapes. This is the environment where criminality and chaos abound: and the ambiguity is heightened by the many times that a view or a setting is not clearly placed with the developing plot. There is some very effective editing: in particular a cut in a long travelling shot that transports character and viewers across five years. This also caries across the angst and uncertainties that plague the protagonist.

I found the performances very effective. Zhang Zili plays the investigator Fan Liao, whilst Wu Zhizhen plays the woman, Gwei Lun Mei, who comes to obsess him. Both remain partly undeveloped characters, which makes the climax and resolution the more effective.

The film is the more ambiguous because it is full of scenes whose function in the plot is unclear. I think this was the aspect of the film that most annoyed my less enthusiastic friend. I think I am probably less concerned with linear plots than some audience members. I actually enjoyed the digressions and seemingly unmotivated sequences that occurred regularly in the film. But I also thought that they contributed to the themes of the film. Noir constantly explores the problems of the world of the [usually male] hero: but great noirs [say Force of Evil, 1948) equally explore the problems of the world of the audience that is watching the film. This is how I read Diao’s film: the investigation and relationships of the plot are set against the a contemporary China full of dislocations and contradictions.

Diao’s two previous films explored family dislocation and the pressures of internal migration: and there is a sense of these issues in this film. I suppose the challenge for the audience was to keep tabs on what related to the film’s official plot and what related to the world in which that is supposed to occur. Just to offer a prime example: apparently the film’s original title translates as Daylight Firework Club. But we only encounter this late in the film and the closing sequence deals much more with this event than it does with the official noir mystery of the film.

So I enjoyed it immensely, but if you go to see it [preferably at the cinema – it looks and sounds great] be prepared for a less than straightforward 110 minutes.

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The Third Man, UK 1949

Posted by keith1942 on July 29, 2015

Third man ferris wheel

This classic film is being re-issued as part of the Orson Welles Centenary celebrations. Certainly Welles, oozing both his onscreen charm but also his shadowy otherness, dominates the film as Harry Lime. It contains some of his most memorable dialogue: his aside on the cuckoo clock is one of the most oft-quoted lines in English-language cinema.

But the film is also a tribute to the talents of a number of fine, mainly British, filmmakers. The director was Carol Reed is often dismissed by the appellation ‘metteur en scène’: a phrase that stresses reliance on collaborators as opposed to the supposed dominating talent of the ‘auteur’. In fact many of the great films depend exactly on such a constellation of talents, and this is especially true of British cinema where many a final film is much more than just the sum of its parts.

The film has a fine script by Graham Greene, adapted from his own short story. Certainly Reed’s direction benefits from the magisterial black and white cinematography of Robert Krasker. And his work depends to a degree on Vincent Korda’s atmospheric art direction. Both are ably served by the editing of Oswald Haffenrichter. And there is the inspired choice of Anton Karas’ music: his zither is as famous as dialogue of Orson Welles.

The cast, both leading and supporting players, is ‘pitch perfect’. Alongside Welles Joseph Cotton turns in one of his finest performances as Holly Martin. And Alida Valli is hauntingly beautiful and tragic as Anna Then there are Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee with brief but memorable appearances from Ernst Deutsch and Paul Hoerbiger among others. It is the combination of all these talents that makes the occupied and divided post-war Vienna so believable. This is a perfect gem of a movie.

the-third-man holly and anna

Reviewing it I enjoyed the witty and ironic early sequences in the film. This is very much down to Greene’s skilful script. But the players give just the right emphasis to the lines or placement: as with the recurring comments on Holly Martin’s literary output. I assume that the seminar with the Cultural Re-education Section’s ‘little meeting’ allowed Greene to air a few prejudices.

The noir landscape of the city is brilliant. Light and shadow not only advance the plot: as with the first appearance of Harry Lime. They create this world of chaos, corruption and criminality, which threaten the nominal hero and heroine.

The last stages of the film are more sombre but have even greater resonance. The underground sewer system provides the labyrinth, which is a recurring metaphor in film noir. Here Holly [the prince] hunts down the monster [Lime]. But as so often in the noir world, the death of the monster provides little relief or release.

Third Man lime

Then we have the cemetery. In the original Cretan version the princess [Anna] provides the means for the hero’s safe entry and exit from the labyrinth. But here Anna resolutely refuses to aid Holly. Thus the long take as she passes by the passive Holly leaving the audience to speculate on the fate or either character. This makes Holly a passive character in comparison to Lime. Another aspect of the irony that suffuses this film.

I revisited the film on a 2k DCP screening; both the dynamic contrast and the definition, especially in longer shots for the latter, seemed inferior to 35mm prints. There is a useful article on this version at:



Posted in British films, British noir, Film Directors, Film noir, UK filmmakers | Leave a Comment »

Amy, UK 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on July 18, 2015


This documentary has been compiled by Asif Kapadia from ‘found footage’, found photographs, found audio including mobile phones, and runs for 128 minutes [possibly slightly over-long]. At times it is quite hard viewing, partly because of the grim downward spiral of its protagonist Amy Winehouse: but also because much of the amateur or video footage is extremely grainy and there are several sequences of rapid flash photography by the paparazzi. However, it is an extremely involving film and likely will grip audiences in the way that Kapadia’s earlier Senna (2010) succeeded.

Both films rely on the compiled visual and aural material. The editing by Chris King is impressive as is the work of the Sound Department supervised by Stephen Griffiths. There is no overarching commentary and the tapestry of image and sound works to provide a portrait. This has the feel of a subjective portrait, but by implication and counterpoint rather than by direct statement, the film does ‘point the finger’ at the situations and the people that fed into the singer’s tragic demise. Cumulatively the film builds up a strong case against the mainstream music industry, the media and what is known as the paparazzi. And the film emphasises these points with long, large close-ups of Amy, as she deteriorates physically and psychologically.

For me there is also a less emphasised irony in the film. For Amy Winehouse’s writing and singing appear strongest early in her career. The later songs, when she became a musical icon, did not seem to have the power and intensity of her first two albums. In fact, the film relies on much informal recording of her singing and performances. Her main output remains under copyright and presumably will surface in a biopic which is likely to be rather bland by comparison.

The film works more or less chronologically, with a few well-chosen flashbacks. It is more a biopic than a musical study. This means that the film does not really address Winehouse’s espousal of a particular strand in US Blues and Jazz singing, [represented by her idols Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan]. Other British singers with parallel vocal talent seem to me to have a distinctive UK take on blues and jazz: [Cleo Lane or Julie Driscoll would be good examples]. This seems to be to offer a interesting area of study. Of course, the trajectory presented in the film reminds one irresistibly of Billie Holiday, another wonderful singer fated by demonic muses.


Posted in British films, Documentary | Leave a Comment »


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