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The Divide UK 2015

Posted by keith1942 on April 22, 2016

Framing Keith

Framing Keith

This documentary was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House and followed by a Q&A with the director, Katherine Round. The film is ‘inspired’ by the best-selling The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009). There was an audience of around 200 for the event. This is probably partly due to the topicality of the central issue in the film: inequality. But also Katherine Round studied at Leeds University.

This is a powerful documentary with telling effects and arguments. But I felt that it also had severe limitations. To start with the virtues. The core of the film is the presentation of the part-stories and situations of seven people living in either the USA or UK.

Alden, a New York psychologist whose clients include Wall Street Bankers. He is affluent but works long hours and so has a diminished family life.

Leah is an Afro-American single mother in Virginia and she works in a Kentucky Fried Chicken diner.

Jen and her husband live in a gated’ community. They seem less affluent than their neighbours and appear isolated. Their income is unclear.

Janet and her husband ran a video store which failed. She now works for Al-Mart in Louisiana.

Rochelle is a care worker in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Her pay is low and her hours demanding. She has difficulty feeding and clothing her children.

Darren lives on an estate in Glasgow where poverty and unemployment are endemic. He has problems with addictions.

Keith is in a California Penitentiary. he fell foul of the ‘three strikes’ rule.

We meet and hear the seven several times and learn something of their situation and their lives. We also occasionally hear the interviewer Katherine Round. Alden and Jen seem somewhat dissatisfied with their lives. Leah is more buoyant about life and Janet is active in the union. Rochelle is hard-pressed to cope. Darren’s life is very problematic but he has some hopes. Whilst Keith, after seventeen years in jail, is extremely oppressed.

The interviews and film of these subjects is intercut with comments by professionals and academics. Among these we see and hear well known names such as the author Richard Wilkinson, Noam Chomsky and Ha-Joon Chang. There are clips of political leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and [briefly] Tony Blair at his most fatuous.

These are accompanied by archive films and television footage. They come from key years between 1979 [UK] and 1981 [USA] and the present. This is part of an argument regarding changes in the way these modern capitalist societies are organised, in particular the growing disparity between the bulk of the population and an extremely rich elite. The now familiar argument is made about how the elite, through their influence on political power, are able to not only defend but to aggrandize their share of the national cake.

The film is well shot by cinematographer Woody James. there are some excellent framing of subjects, especially Keith in the penitentiary. The editing by John Mister is extremely effective as it crosses time, the USA and the Atlantic. And the team of sound recordists have blended a variety of voices, noises and effects to good purpose, with much of the accompanying music offering a blues tone.

There were however for me serious limitation in this film. Katherine Round has worked on many documentaries for Television and I found the films’ form somewhat conventional. The film of and interviews with the subjects work very well, though the subjects do not get an equal amount of time. And the commentative voices do seem a little like ‘talking heads’. Noam Chomsky, for example, appears a couple of times with only one or two sentences: and he is not known for his brevity. Some of the illustrative material, like the adverts, feel like the visual spots in the news, filling space rather than informing. And the identification of voices or footage is not consistent. I thought that some film of the subjects could have been older footage, but this was not clear.

In terms of the inspiration by The Spirit Level, the film does not follow the book, which was very much a presentation of research. This is a more poetic vision. However, I think this approach does not present all of the book’s view. In the Q&A one audience member remarked on the absence from the film of the ‘top one percent’. Round suggested that all of the subjects were in some sense disadvantaged and therefore dissatisfied. I thought that was in the film but the sense of the oppressiveness of lives for the most exploited was much clearer. And the idea behind this ignores the way that economic impacts are more fundamental than psychological ones.

Part of the problem is that the film does not have a clear sense of class. There is a lack of economic data on the subjects. We learn that Alden gets 1500 dollars for treating clients, but we do not learn about the income of the others. In Jen’s case it is not clear where her family income comes from. Rochelle confesses to having to buy food and clothes on her credit card as she waits for payday. Leah and Janet have their own houses apparently, whilst Rochelle and Darren appear to live in council hosing. But otherwise we are left in the dark.

In fact the film spends more time on housing than income or wealth. There is more material on ‘gated communities’ than other aspects. This seems to relate to the role of ‘sub-prime mortgages’ in the 2008 crash. The geography of the film is problematic. We have widely scattered abodes across the USA: and the film does not really address the way that the different settings vary. Even more problematic is the cross-over between the USA and UK. I am not really sure I you compare the Southern USA with northern Britain. The settings are as varied as the class position of the subjects.

The analysis in the film is limited in other ways. The main argument concerns changes in the advanced capitalist economies since the 1980s. An argument that has moved centre stage since the 2008 crash. But there appears to be an unexpressed acceptance of the capitalist mode of production. A venture capitalist defends his ‘wealth making’ without challenge. Several speakers talk of how things have ‘got out of hand’. And a couple, including Chomsky, refer to the ‘unregulated market’ and that we no longer all ‘play by the same set of rules’. The anarchy of the market is at the centre of capitalism but the fundamental aspect of this mode of production is the commodity and the way that the value created in it by labour power is expropriated by the capitalist class. On the platform with Katherine Round was an equality campaigner [whose name I did not catch]. He referred to the minimum wage: a valid defensive tactic but not one that changes the fundamentals. There was no sense of the arguments by Marx and Engels that the basic mechanism of this society leads to expropriation and so inequality.

Moreover the historical view in the film is extremely limited. So it fails to draw any parallels with the 1929 crash and The Great Depression. One could tell seven stories from the 1930s that parallel those in The Divide and here we are again. [CBS documentary Meltdown: The Global Financial Collapse series draws the comparison]. And the realisation that it is a fundamental issue predates Marx and Engels. A hundred years earlier Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract, or Of the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique; 1762) that what was required was that

“no citizen is rich enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.”

Even so the film is worth seeing, because there is not that much critical material around. It screens again at the Hyde Park on April 27th and it will screen at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum on May 31st.

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Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, Belgium, France 1975

Posted by keith1942 on April 14, 2016

Son and mother

Son and mother

Over the last year A Nos Amours have made available several films by Chantal Ackerman who died in 2015. None of these reached Leeds unfortunately. However in 2013 this film was screened at the Leeds International Film Festival on a 35mm print. 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 Ackerman. 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. 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.

Domestic labour

Domestic labour

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 emphasises 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 LIFF 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, 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.

Along with the films A Nos Amours arranged an exhibition of Ackerman’s Installations.

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A Taste of Honey UK 1961

Posted by keith1942 on April 2, 2016

Taste of poster

This screening of the film was part of the work and research of a project at University College London – Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s. It was a real pleasure to revisit this film, which now looks like one of the finest features of the New British Cinema. This was a good 35mm print: neither dupe nor dark. The film does rely on extensive locations, and some of these – on dismal days or at night – are grey or shadowy.

The film was adapted by Tony Richardson, the director, and Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the original and very fine play. The film follows the play fairly closely, but fills out the story with sequences that are ‘off-stage’ in the theatre. So the film opens with a pre-credit sequence which introduces the protagonist Jo (Rita Tushingham) at her school, where she is in her final year. Then we meet her mother Helen (Dora Bryan) at their bedsit as she prepares for a ‘moonlight flit’. The scenes set up the central characters of the film. There is then a sequence behind the credits travelling across central Manchester, with a number of the city’s landmarks visible.

The film returns to central Manchester later when we see Jo, and her prospective friend Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin) watching the annual city Roman Catholic Parade. There are also scenes at the Blackpool resort; at the shoe shop where Jo works for a period; in Public Houses where Helen is in her element; at the car dealers where her boyfriend Peter Smith (Robert Stephens) works: and in a ballroom, that recurring setting in British films of this and earlier decades. And there are distinctive sequences set on and around the Manchester Ship Canal. Most of the urban centres are in Salford, where Jo and Geoffrey live.

Jo, Geoffrey and the Manchester Ship Canal

Jo, Geoffrey and the Manchester Ship Canal

What stands out at a viewing are the performances. 18 year old Rita Tushingham is a delight to behold. In the pre-credit sequence we see her in a class at the school and her behaviour and actions set up the character for the subsequent story. She is the centre of the film, and there are innumerable scenes with memorable delivery of dialogue or of carefully nuanced movement and expressions. She has a great smile but she also offers evocative stances and positioning. So in the class room, as she regales her fellow students, the use of her body, arms and stance all contribute to the personality. And the supporting cast is excellent. Dora Bryan turns in a performance as Helen which is full of panache and exuberance, her bubbly persona reminiscence of the music hall. Murray Melvin as Geoffrey is excellent, suggesting the fine line around sexual orientation which was almost completely absent from British film at this time. He is slightly camp but is also able to introduce the note of both anger and pathos. And Robert Stephens’ performance as the rather callow boyfriend was better than I remembered, the class is not quite right but the seediness is apt. There is also Paul Danquah in a minor role as the sailor-cum-cook who has a brief relationship with Jo. His blackness is another distinctive feature for the period. Frequently surrounding these are a group of children who play and sing in many of the exteriors. Presumably local Salford children they are completely convincing. Which reminds one of what a good director of actors was Tony Richardson.

The production overall is excellent. The structure of the film combines the freshness of the original drama with definitive cinematic quality. This seems the most assured of the film that Richardson directed in this period. Visually the film is a delight to watch. Much of the film was shot on location. The cinematographer, Walter Lassally, at the same time captures the state of the run-down Salford area with beautifully composed shots of the urban landscape. There is one memorable series of shots near a viaduct which is not only visually impressive but captures the élan of Jo and Geoffrey as they discuss their place in this world.

Taste of Honey

The film also has a very good soundtrack, full of interesting location noise. The music by Richard Addinsell is evocative and often lyrical Inserted are a series of children’s songs and rhymes, like ‘The Big Ship Sails on the Ally Ally o’ at the film’s opening. My memory of the film was that it softened slightly the original play. However, I have revisited this in a BBC Radio production. And now I feel that the film does capture the play’s lyrical qualities but also its rather more downbeat ruminations. The film ends with a fine visual addition; we see Geoffrey in the shadows, Helen having retuned to Jo’s rather ramshackle room; and Jo herself watching a Guy Fawkes fire whilst the children sing. This ambiguous closure is as good as any other sequence in the film.

After the screening there was Q&A cum discussion as the project team encouraged the audience to remember aspect of cinema-going in the 1960s. We got dating, smoking and its effect [not on health but the screen], refreshments like Kia-Ora and the general plush interiors of the cinemas, especially chains like ABC or Odeon. The project team are looking for more reminiscences so if interested visit their website: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/cinemamemories

 Review for a screening at the National Media Musuem.

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Hollywood’s ‘Un-American activities committee’.

Posted by keith1942 on March 23, 2016

huac_title

This committee did not really exist but there were plenty of possible contenders for membership. If it hadexisted, two definite members would have been John Wayne and Hedda Hopper. Both are characters in two recent films that include the infamous Congressional Committee hearings and the studio ‘blacklist’.

First up was Trumbo (2015), directed by Jay Roach and adapted by John McNamara from a book by  Bruce Cook, with a star turn in the title role by Bryan Cranston. The film starts in the late 1940s and follows the development of the HUAC witch-hunt, the craven appeasement by the heads of the studios and then the struggle by the famed Hollywood Ten [mainly writers] to continue working and finally end the blacklisting. The film works as a sort of biopic of Dalton Trumbo and over emphasises his role in the story. To give one example. The film includes the  dramatisation of Trumbo, along with the other nine ‘unfriendly witnesses’, being jailed for contempt of Congress. In a scene in jail he meets ex-Congressman Parnell Thomas, one-time Chair of HUAC, now in prison for misuse of his office payroll. In actual fact it was two other members of the Ten who were at the same prison as Thomas, Ring Lardner and Lester Cole. And it was Cole who exchanged the lines with Thomas [mis] quoted in the film.

But in other ways the film has merits. It seems to be the best treatment of the notorious era coming out of a mainstream US feature film. Early in the film there is space for the radical activities of the members of the Communist Party USA working in Hollywood, including supporting strikes and opposing victimisation of migrant workers. The political tensions between the various writers is also apparent; in a couple of scenes Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), another writers, draws attention to the contradictions between Trumbo’s radical sympathies and his privileged life style. Moreover the film treats the film footage, or recreations of the same, with proper respect and correct aspect ratios.

Trumbo and Hopper

Trumbo and Hopper

As you might expect the film has little sense of the actual politics of the Communist Party USA, or indeed of the International Communist Movement of which it was a member. Neither does it delve deeply into the politics that lay behind phenomenon like HUAC; for example the wartime alliance with the USSR and the question of the legacy of F.D. Roosevelt. It does though characterise the Hollywood conservatives, especially the aforesaid John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). The latter piece of casting would seem to continue the Hollywood convention of casting British actors as villains.

There is more British casting in the second film, Hail, Caesar! (USA 2015) with a Hedda Hopper style character played this time by Tilda Swinton. The film was by Ethan and Joel Coen. This is a pastiche of Hollywood at the start of the 1950s, revisiting the Capital Pictures studio of their earlier movie Barton Fink (1991). This is not serious drama like Trumbo. In fact it is pretty over the top. Despite being set in 1951 at one point a film is using Vista Vision, which only arrived in 1954: and the aspect ratios are all over the place. In the filming of a musical sequence Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum)  is aping not just Gene Kelly but also Fred Astaire.

Where HUAC and the blacklist make their entrance is when the Studio chief and fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) finds that his biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped and he is faced with a ransom demand. What the audience already know is that Whitlock has been kidnapped by a not very secretive group of blacklisted writers. They are assisted by Professor Marcuse (John Bluthall – I wrote that it is over the top). Of course, Trumbo is a political treatise compared with this film. I thought the plotline bizarre. However, on reflection it occurs to me that if you recognise that the paranoia of HUAC and the associated campaigns affected not just it proponents but many ordinary US citizens then the fantasy of the kidnapping might have been believed. In fact we have a sequence where the main communist subversive, Gurney, attempts to decamp to the Soviet Union with the ransom money.

Kidnapped Baird Whitlock

Kidnapped Baird Whitlock

Over the years Hollywood has ventured into the territory of what was popularly termed McCarthyism. During the actual period there were a number of films that supported the investigations, persecutions and reactionary rhetoric. John Wayne persuaded Warner Bros. to produce Big Jim McLain (1952), a supposed police procedural which used actual footage of the hearings edited [fairly obviously] into the studio-based sequences.

But there have also been critical forays into the territory. Trumbo details the way in which its protagonist and his follow writers survived by working under pseudonyms and ‘fronts’. This is the strategy highlighted for comic effect in Woody Allen’s The Front (1976). Howard Prince in  that film is a typical Allen creation. And there is little exploration of the actual HUAC and its activities. The film does also include the effects on the new medium of Television. A writer is also the focus in another film from the same studio, Columbia Pictures, The Way We Were (1973). In fact we have two writers, Katie (Barbra Streisand) and Hubbell (Robert Redford): though it is Hubbell who works as a screenwriter in Hollywood. There is an interesting sequence in which Katie and Hubbell return from the demonstration by Hollywood luminaries in support of the Hollywood Ten. However, the film was actually edited before release with a couple of scenes from this point in the film removed. It seems that the end product was more in line with Hubbell/Redford’s views than Katie/Streisand’s. She was clearly, like Katie, the more  radical. The film also suggests that the apolitical Hubbell has the greater writing talent. This is in line with Hollywood’s convictions that commitment and screenwriting are best separated.

Way we were

Guilty by Suspicion (1991) from C20th Fox was originally planned from a script by Abraham Polonsky, a writer and director whose best work [e.g. Force of Evil 1948) possibly came closest to a Hollywood critique of capitalism. However, Polonsky’s pitch for a filmmaker who was indeed a communist, was too close to history. The final film has a liberal filmmaker who finally testifies before the HUAC committee.

The Majestic (2001) from Castle Rock Entertainment has Jim Carey as Peter Appleton, a Hollyood writer accused of being a communist. The plot has Peter involved in an accident, suffering amnesia and turning up in a Californian town where he is believed to be missing war hero. Cleary the film sublimates the terrors of HUAC and allows the protagonist to indulge in a dream-like wish fulfilment. This continues when he recovers and appears before a Congressional Committee. An impassioned speech, relayed on television, sways the audience in his favour. Art least the film avoids a completely saccharine resolution as he finds he can no longer work within the required conventions of Hollywood.

Cradle Will Rock (1999) is set in the 1930s, when the HUAC predecessor, the Dies Committee, was investigating the Federal Theatre Programme: part of the New Deal. The film is based on actual events around the production of a theatrical musical The Cradle Will Rock. The film is very political by US mainstream film standards, [produced by Tocustone Pictures and distributed by Buebna Vista]. It uses what are usually described as ‘Brechtian techniques’ to present a radical representation of the events, issues and period..

There are also a number of US documentaries about HUAC and the blacklist. However, the radical screenwriters and other communist members or ‘fellow travellers’ in Hollywood were not greatly interested in the documentary. But after the blacklist at least three, Herbert J Biberman, Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico, were inspired to work in social realism – that memorable feature based on the real-life struggles of ‘Chicanos’ in New Mexico, Salt of the Earth (1954).

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Victim UK 1961

Posted by keith1942 on March 9, 2016

63 'Victim', 1961

I was able to revisit this film when the Hyde Park Picture House screened it in a fine 35mm print. The film stands up well. It has a strong cast and is generally well filmed if in a rather conventional style. It is a seminal film of the early 1960s, basically because it addresses explicitly the question of sexual orientation and homosexuality. Homosexual practice was illegal in the UK in this period though the 1958 Wolfenden Report had recommended liberalisation. Gay people had suffered from police harassment and prosecutions. By 1961 the police were generally more laid back, partly because the law was seen as a ‘blackmailer’s charter’ and gay men as easy but innocent victims. The film reflects these aspects in its plot and characters. It is worth noting that the moral panics around paedophilia are much more recent. There are slight references to ‘corruption’ in the film but modern films on the issue would likely be more pronounced. In fact I saw the film in the same week as Spotlight (USA 2015) and that film is centrally constructed around the issue of abuse.

Dirk Bogarde plays Melvin Farr, a successful lawyer who has had a relationship with a younger man, ‘Boy’ Barrett (Peter McInery). Farr is married to Laura (Sylvia Syms) though they have no children. He had had a previous same sex relationship at University and Laura knew about this before they were married. Barrett is being blackmailed and because he loves/is besotted with Farr he steals at work to pay off the blackmailers. So the police enter the picture. Barrett commits suicide in custody. Farr, who initially refused contact with Barrett, is now struck by guilt and determines to hunt down the blackmailers. This involves him in seeking out gay men being blackmailed: some of whom turn out to be his own friends and professional colleagues.

The police question Barrett

The police question Barrett

The thriller format allows the film to appear primarily as a genre piece. It even has a rather heavy handed red herring. But it is a noir thriller, full of chiaroscuro lighting.  Characters are constantly presented in shadow. There is one intriguing scene early in the film when Melville returns home late and finds Laura still up: she has risen to answer the telephone. It was Barrett but Laura is still unaware of the implications. As they ascend the stairs Melville tells her he loves her and they embrace. Yet both are in deep shadow and the clinch is hardly visible. At other times full illumination falls on a character: one such point is at the moment that Farr realises that Barrett’s death is a sacrifice for his interests.

The cinematography is fairly typical of mainstream films of the period, moving from long shots to mid-shots and then close-ups, especially at moments of intense drama. There are frequent dollies and tracks, and less often crane shots and high and low angle camera settings for particular emphasis. The editing uses frequent parallel cuts, to draw links between characters and events. So in the opening section of the film we first see Barrett on the building site where he works as a wages clerk. There is a crane shot with high angle camera as the police arrive. The following sequences cut between Barrett as he desperately seeks help from his friends and gay acquaintances: the police as they close in on Barrett: and Farr, who refuses to engage with Barrett’s phone calls. As these sequences progress we move from daylight to night and to an increasing noir sensibility.

The film uses quite a number of scenes shot on actual location. Four of these are exteriors of the Farr house. On the second occasion Melville returns in his car and parks. A tilt and pan follow him as he looks to his right. A cut with an eye-line match shows a disconsolate Laura standing by the river. However, the locations do not match. The first shot shows railing and shrubs on the offside, the reverse shot shows a low wall with the river and a panorama beyond. The reverse shot is presumably to emphasise the desolation felt by Laura, but most locations seem mainly to present a particular sense of place.

The gay character are an interesting cross-section: including an actor Calloway (Dennis Price): a photographer Paul Mandrake (Peter Copley) : a prominent lawyer Lord Fullbrook (Anthony Nicholls): a car salesman Phip (Nigel Stock):a hairdresser Harold Doe (Norman Bird) and a bookshop owner Henry (Charles Lloyd Pack). These characters are presented in a relatively sympathetic fashion. Interestingly the main villain, Sandy (Derren Nesbit) has a rather homoerotic air to his flat: including a punch ball and an illustration of a  classical nude male sculpture. In fact the most stereotypical characterisation is a police plain clothes officer (John Bennett), who is presumably straight. The key straight character appears to be Barrett’s friend Eddy (Donald Churchill) who assist Barrett at the beginning and then Farr in his investigation.

Harold with Sandy

Harold with Sandy

There are other straight characters, and frequently they express distaste for homosexuals. At an early stage Barrett seeks help from his friend Frank (Alan Howard): and Frank’s girlfriends Sylvie (Dawn Beret) is adamant that

“I wouldn’t have him at home. … Why can’t he stay with his own kind?”

A little later as they embrace at bedtime Frank remarks to Sylvie that Barrett

“hasn’t got what you and I’ve got.”

The two key policeman are Detective Inspector Harris (John Barrie) – relatively liberal in his attitude – and his aide Bridie (John Cairney) who clearly finds homosexuals distasteful. The barman (Frank Petitt) at a regular haunt for Barrett and friends is amicable in their presence but scathing about them when they are gone. And Sandy’s assistant in the blackmail, Miss Benham (Margaret Diamond) is [according to Sandy]

‘a cross between an avenging angel and a peeping Tom’

with regard to homosexuals. It is her who comes up with the idea of daubing Farr’s garage with

“Farr is Queer”.

Another character who finds homosexuality problematic is Laura’s brother Scott (Alan MacNaughton), also a lawyer. At one point, when he realises about Melville’s orientation, Scott questions Laura about her marriage, asking ‘have you been satisfied’. To this Laura responds that Melville has been ‘kind and understanding’ adding the rider ‘it’s all I’ve known’.

It is pointed that Melville and Laura have no children. In fact, Laura has taken on a day-time teaching job even though she does not need to work for money. It is a ‘working with difficult kids’. We see the children several times in the film. At one potent point Laura is observing a problem child who is, at this moment, painting in a relaxed manner. She peruses a newspaper and then starts as she reads the report of Barrett’s suicide; matters start to fall into place. Immediately the child, in a spasm, daubs his picture of a woman’s head with striking crosses.

In fact, little is made of the question of adult homosexuals and younger males. Barrett clearly has had a relationship prior to Melville with Harold, the older book shop owner. In a scene where Melville meets three gay men and realises their orientation one remarks that ‘ he has never corrupted the normal’. Scott, who is a widower, tells Laura that he fears that his son Ronnie could come to ‘hero worship’ Melville.

The most powerful scene in which the film addresses the issue of gay sex is when Laura, having realised that there is some sort of relationship between Melville and Barrett, questions him. Melville insists that the relationship was platonic. But he goes on to admit that

‘I wanted him’.

This powerful moment was not in the original script but was added at Bogarde’s insistence and with him proposing the dialogue. For the period it is a moment of dramatic and unconventional intensity.

Laura questions Melville

Laura questions Melville

But Farr has clearly repressed his desires. When Mandrake refers to the young man with whom Melville had a relationship at University and who later committed suicide [again!] Melville strikes him. In an early version of the film the script had Melville telling Laura that

“Only religion can help any man who falls in love with those of his own sex but knows that he should deny himself in the interests of society.”

The change is a definite improvement. However there is a short sequence, after Melville’s ‘confession’, when he is seen leaving a churchyard: it is as if he has been to religious confession.

The script had been written by Janet Green and John McCormick. They were a wife and husband team with Green obviously the key writer. She had worked on a number of films produced by Michael Relph and directed by Basil Dearden. Interestingly a little earlier all three were involved with Sapphire (1959). This was also a film with a thriller format. In this case the central focus was racism, dramatised by an investigation of a young woman who was of ‘mixed race’. In that film also there was distinction between a liberal police inspector and his more obviously prejudiced subordinate. As with Victim and homosexuality, the treatment of “race” was problematic. In fact that film has less apparent sympathy for the black characters than Victim displays for its gay ones.

Relph and Dearden were an important team in 1950s and early 1960s British cinema. Among their output were a number of social problem films. Cage of Gold {1950) is set in the then new National Health Service. I Believe in You (1952) deals with parole officers and delinquency. And there is Pool of London (1951). This film demonstrates equally how their social consciousness is limited by the attitudes of the time. A subplot allows a tentative romance to develop between Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron – a frequent black face in British films of the period including Sapphire) and Pat (Susan Shaw, blonde and white). But it cannot be realised. There is a key scene where as Pat leaves on a bus Johnny leans forward to kiss her, and the bus starts off with a jolt!

This sort of inhibition is apparent in Victim. So we never see any actual physical contact between any of the men. In fact, the blackmail is constructed round a photograph taken of Melville and Barrett in the former’s car through a telephoto lens. But the audience never see the photograph, though it is shown to several characters. And the final moment of the film shows Melville burns the photo. Odd, as it would presumably be evidence in the prosecution that the films’ plot proposed in the resolution though the police do have the negative.

There are more subtle hints to audiences. Early in the film Barrett visits Harold in his bookshop. As they enter his study, in the foreground of the image, a kettle is about to boil. This would seem a steal/homage from Crossfire (USA 1947) in which there is a similar shot of a bubbling coffee pot. Harold runs his own hairdressing salon: indeed one of his customers is Calloway. As Farr travels in Lord Fulbrook’s car at night they pass the building site where Barrett worked. The building is topped by the sign ‘Trollope and Colls’. Spelt as ‘trollop’ the term applies to promiscuous women: here, is it coincidence or comment?

Melville’s home is primarily of the professional class, with a housekeeper. But in the lounge, lined up on the mantelpiece are a line of C19th military toys. All in the flamboyant and skin tight uniform of the early part of the century. They are most visible in a close-up of Melville as he leans over the fire and confesses to Laura.

Even with what may now appear extreme reticence the film encountered problems with the British Board of Film Censors. There is a detailed discussion of this in James C. Robertson key study, The Hidden Cinema British Film censorship in action, 1913 – 1975 (Routledge 1989). Predictably the Boards censors had problems with the film. The fairly long-serving Audrey Field commented:

The synopsis reads perfectly all right: it is a sympathetic, perceptive, moral and responsible discussion of a problem…. But the film may well be a bit of a problem: it is very oppressive … to be confronted with a world peopled with practically no one but `queers’; and there are precious few other characters in this synopsis. Great tact and discretion will be needed if this project is to come off, and the `queerness’ must not be laid on with a trowel.

However, John Trevelyan was the recently appointed secretary and he was more sympathetic to the project. But he also had his reservation,

It is, I think, most important that the division of public opinion should be reflected in this, or any other film dealing with the subject, and I think it would be wise to treat the subject with the greatest discretion. Furthermore, I think it is really important that a film of this subject should be one of serious purpose and should not include any material which might lead to sensationalism and would lessen its claim to seriousness.

Dearden revised the script and the final film involved this response:

“Their reaction was largely favour­able, but four dialogue objections emerged. In the scene between Mel and his wife when he first divulges to her his homosexual urges, she says, `You were attracted to that boy as a man would be to a girl?’ and he replies, `Because I wanted him. Do you understand? Because I wanted him.’ The BBFC sought the deletion of the underlined words, and the report on the film continued:

Reel 8 We don’t like the scene between Mel and the three men in Mandrake’s studios, where we feel that the case for homosexual practices between consenting adults is too plausibly put and not sufficiently countered. (There was more from Mel about self-control in the last script we read.) We think that this scene should be shortened. Reel 9 We think that the statement `there’s a moment of choice for almost every adolescent boy’ is too sweeping and not a good idea to put into the minds of adolescents in the audience.

Reel 11 … vindictive outburst against homosexuals is likely to give a spurious justification for the kind of blackmail shown in the film; and some reduction would be desirable.

These issues were taken up with Relph, and Trevelyan subsequently met him and Basil Dearden. Evidently they put up a strong fight against the proposed cuts for an `X’ certificate award, for in the event the BBFC insisted upon only the deletion in the ninth reel of the dialogue about adolescent boys. This represented a cut of merely a few feet, on which basis the BBFC allowed Victim on 1 June 1961.

So little was cut but Dearden his team had bought the screenplay closer to the wishes of the Board. There is a slight oddity here as there is apparently a ninety minute cut of the film, which would mean ten minutes deleted from the producers version. But from Robertson’s research it would appear that only a very light cut was demanded. Even so, the film received an X Certificate. Nearly all of the really interesting British films of this period suffered the X certificate, including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). However, times change and over the years the certification had reduced, first to 15 under the new categories, then 12 and finally PG.

Trevelyan, in What the Censor Saw (Michael Joseph 1973) recorded the rather different response that film received in the USA.

“As an example of this I remember being surprised that a Code Seal (a seal of approval) was given to Suddenly Last Summer in 1959, a film that included almost all known sexual perversions, but refused in 1961 to a British film called Victim which was a thriller with a background of homosexual blackmail: when I asked the reason for this I was told that the former film did not violate Section III (6) of the Code -‘Sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden’ – because the perversions were never specified, whereas the later film violated it because homosexuality was specifically referred to.”

What a difference several decades makes!

Posted in British film stars, British films, British noir, Film censorship, Film Directors, Movies with messages, UK filmmakers | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Assassin/Nie yin niang, France – Taiwan – China – Hong Kong 2015

Posted by keith1942 on March 3, 2016

Yinniang

Nie Yinniang

The film was screened several times in the Official Section at Leeds International Film Festival and is now on release in the UK. The director, Hsiao-hsien Hou won the Best Director Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. This is a stunningly beautiful film. Note it opens in black and white and then changes to colour. And whilst the bulk of the film is in Academy ratio 1.37:1], there two sequences [of only one or two shots] in standard widescreen [1.85:1]. Unfortunately not all presentations allow for this, I attended one screening where the widescreen was masked by blacking.

If you know the earlier films of Hsiao-hsien Hou, Three Times (2005) Zui hao de shi guang or The Puppetmaster (1993) Xi meng ren sheng, you will know what to expect. Some of the audience in Leeds were presumably excepting a typical martial arts films: they left early. The UK marketing uses the martial art genre in the publicity, which is a mistake. Apparently similar marketing and responses took place when the film received a mainstream release in China. This is a slow, artful film with a fairly opaque plotline: it has parallels in terms of plot with Hero (Ying xiong 2002). Moreover, for a western audience, I think it takes some time to identify the separate characters, especially when for much of the time they wear the formal clothing of the period. In addition the film moves around in space and time, often without clear indications.

How well you manage depends on the manner in which you view films. One friend managed most of the characters and plot at his first screening: impressive. I managed the basic characters and plot at my first screening but it was only the second time round that I followed the whole coherently. Another friend was a neither informed or impressed: and his complaint was about the paucity of subtitle information in English and the difficulties produced by so many long shots.

Rather than describe the plot, the main point of which is relatively simple, it may help to describe those I believe to be the main characters: [based on the descriptions on Wikipedia].

Shu Qi as Nie Yinniang, the eponymous assassin: she appears in the pre-credit sequence dressed in black . [One release version is titled The Assassin in Black].

Chang Chen as Tian Ji’an, cousin to Nie Yinniang, formerly betrothed to her, and military governor (Jiedushi), ruling Weibo Circuit.

Zhou Yun as Lady Tian, Tian Ji’an’s wife. She belongs to family of a separate Provincial ruler and this was a marriage to cement an alliance.

Satoshi Tsumabuki as the Mirror Polisher. [Unidentified by name, the character’s title action is easy to miss: he appears late in the film, first by a rushing river, then when he comes to the rescue during an ambush in woods.

Ethan Juan as Xia Jing, Tian Ji’an’s bodyguard

Hsieh Hsin-Ying as Huji ( her name means “orchid”), Tian Ji’an’s concubine and a dancer

Ni Dahong as Nie Feng, Nie Yinniang’s father and Tian Ji’an’s provost

Yong Mei as Nie Tian

Fang-Yi Sheu as Princess Jiacheng and her twin sister, the Princess Jiaxin turned Taoist nun. Jiaxin appears in the opening sequence with Yinniang. Jiacheng appears in the widescreen sequences, the only flashback. This sequence offers a metaphor for part if not of the tale.

Lei Zhenyu as Tian Xing, the uncle of Yinniang. First seen ill in bed, he is the centre of an ambush in a forest and is rescued by the Mirror Polisher and Yinniang.

And there is an older whiskered character who I believe is Jacques Picoux as Lady Tian’s teacher: he appears twice sitting in his study.

Tian Ji'an

Tian Ji’an

The opening segment of the film is in black and white and precedes the credits. This is a prelude to the main story and we meet two key characters; Yinniang and Jiaxin. Then the film changes to Academy colour. After a several scenes we move to the main setting in Weibo and the key characters here are carefully introduced. Whilst the plot deals mainly with a series of actions involving these characters, the context is tensions between the Imperial Court and provinces on the periphery, like Weibo, and who will exercise power. But there is also personal conflict, partly motivated by personal experiences from the past, and partly motivated by the power conflicts at the court and, from a distance, Imperial / provincial relations. The two sequences in New Academy seem to be a suggestion on a central metaphor of the film. We see a zither, an instrument that recurs the last time that we see Jiaxin, perhaps a confirmation of this.

For me the film holds ones attention completely: it was a pleasure to watch it twice [and now a third time]. It has an immaculate mise en scène and a distinctive sound track. There are few of the action sequences beloved in martial art films. But the are many formal settings where what is left unsaid seems as potent as what is said. And there are also informal settings of personal interaction, but never really informal. The film uses decor, mirrors, light and shadow, gauzes and even smoke to offer settings with subtle variations. If the interiors tend to the strictly formal, there is something of the same sense in the exteriors, which are also beautifully captured.

One must pay great compliments to the production team working under the director.

Music by Giong Lim

Cinematography by Ping Bin Lee

Film Editing by Chih-Chia Huang and Ching-Song Liao

Production Design by Wen-Ying Huang

Costume Design by Wen-Ying Huang

Sound Department Shih Yi Chu, Duu-Chih Tu and Shu-yao Wu

Special Effects by Ardi Lee

The camera work relies to a degree on long shots and fairly long takes. In both interiors and exteriors there is both deep focus and deep staging: there are lovely moments when an outline or a shadow emerges in deep field. The camera movements are varied but the most common are slow and slight dollies, with slow pans and tilts in interiors. And there are some fine tracking shots in the exteriors.

Lady Tian in mask

Lady Tian in mask

The editing is often elliptical, which can make for difficulties in following the developments, but this enables the film to draw the parallels between the complex interactions among characters. The soundtrack is also a treat. The music is sparse but very evocative. There is the frequent slow playing of drums and percussion. There is zither music. And, over the end credits, some exhilarating music from flutes or bagpipes. But for much of the time we enjoy natural sound, including bird songs and cicadas.

And the production design is truly impressive. One review thought the film was ‘too pretty’. In fact, it is ornate, as it would seem were the Chinese courts of the period. The settings, especially the interiors, provide a great canvas for the cinematography.

Hsiao-hsien Hou immersed himself in reading and research for the film. In quotes in the Festival Catalogue he notes the subtlety and complexity of the period.

“For example, there were different ways of taking a bath, depending on whether you were a wealthy merchant, a high official or a peasant. I also looked into the story’s political context in some detail. It was a chaotic period when the omnipotence of the Tang Court was threatened by provincial governors who challenged the authority of the Tang Emperor: some provinces even tried to secede from the Empire by force.”

We actually see the preparations for a royal bath. Reviews have tended to praise the style of the film, but some also express reservations about the plotting of the story and even the sheer physical attraction of the settings right through them film. The film though, focuses on a particular social segment, one with great wealth and privilege. And we only see the peasants mentioned by Hsiao-hsien briefly, though in an important sequence.

The film was shot on Kodak 35mm and has been transferred to DCP via 4K. However, I think most audiences in the UK will only be able to see it in 2K. Even so it does look and sound good. IMDB gives the exhibition ratio as 1.41:1, I have never come across this before? It runs for 107 minutes and crams a lot into that space. There are apparently more than one version. The Japanese release has extra scenes involving the Mirror Polisher, played by a Japanese film star. But reviews of the film also differ on plot detail: this may be confusion or it may be that they enjoyed extra scenes or suffered missing some scenes.

Originally a Festival review

Posted in Chinese film, History on film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

A Japanese Tragedy / Nihon no higeki Japan 1953

Posted by keith1942 on February 26, 2016

Tagasugi and Harako

Tagasugi and Harako

This was one of the films in the Japanese Film Season from the Japan Foundation screened at the Sheffield Showroom. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case, West Yorkshire missed out. However it was worth the trek to Sheffield to see this very fine post-war melodrama. There was also a helpful introduction by Dr Kate E Taylor-Jones from the University of Sheffield.

The film was both written and directed by Kinoshita Keisuke. He was a popular filmmaker from the 1940s to the 1980s. As was often the case in the Japanese film industry he started out as an assistant, in his case to the very fine director Shimazu Yazujirō. He developed his skills writing scripts in the 1930s and directed his first film in 1943, The Blossoming Port / Hana saku minato. The earliest of his films that I have seen is Carmen Comes Home / Karumen kokyōni kaer, a comedy with a fine lead performance by one of my favourite actresses Takamine Hideko.

The central characters and plot of this film are a widow Inoue Haruko (Mochizuki Yuko) and her two grown-up children, her daughter Utako (Katsuragi Yuko) and her son Seiichi (Taura Masami). Haruko works as a barmaid in the seaside resort of Atami. But such work shades over into entertaining male customers and prostitution. Haruko has also dabbled in the black market of the times and [unsuccessfully] in the stock market. The family suffered notable deprivation in the years immediately after the end of the war, presented as typical of the times. Because of her work in bars the children were raised for much of the time by Haruko’s brother-in-law [the husband died during the war] and his wife. They have denigrated Haruko and her work and the children have developed a contempt for their mother.

In the present of the film Seiichi is a medical student in Tokyo. He is also trying to have himself adopted by an aged wealthy couple who lost their son in the war. This seems to have been a frequent event at this time, demonstrating the importance of the son and heir in the culture. Also typical of the films is Seiichi’s dependence on his sister, [a trope in many of the films of Mizoguchi). Utako is studying dressmaking in order to gain independence: she is also studying English, a useful skill in the period. Unbeknown to her mother she is having an affair with the English teacher, Akazawa Masayuki (Uehara Ken). It is these relationships that dominate film and their downward spiral that leads to the tragic conclusion.

Seiichi and Utako

Seiichi and Utako

Whilst the centre of the film is the present and the family triangle there is much more for the viewer to take in. I felt that I really want to see this film again in order to master all is complexities. There are frequent flashbacks, but not signalled in a conventional manner and in some cases apparently not motivated by a particular character. Thus we see the family deprivation in the immediate post-war period as Haruko’s scrimps, saves and even steals to feed her children. We see how Utako and Seiichi are embarrassed, including at school, by the social contempt directed by others at Haruko’s means of supporting her family.

At least two of the flashbacks are character motivated. One, repeated, shows us Haruko’s struggles to obtain food for her children. The other, also repeated and motivated by Utako, concerns a rape. In the traditional manner of Japanese mainstream drama this is not depicted at all but symbolised by the camera shots of stones and broken glass followed by an ellipsis.

But the flashbacks also include actual footage [some of it newsreel, other shots of newspapers] of Japan at this time. The film cuts from present and past to the ‘actual’ without conventional signals. Thus it operates in the manner of montage in the Soviet usage. I felt, but was not sure, that these montages also proffered thematic comment. Certainly we saw post-war deprivation and poverty. criminality and prostitution, including provision for the occupying G.I.s. Another segment addressed corruption in government and business. There were demonstrations and strikes. Much of this was accompanied by non-diegetic music, including at one point a variant on The Red Flag. And another sequence, repeated, appeared to show homeless people, pursued by police or security forces: this footage was silent.

There is an amount of commentative techniques in the film: on the lines often associated with Brecht but equally set out for the Soviet filmmakers by Vsevolod Meyerhold, There are a number of musical numbers in the film and the most important is Resort Town Elegy. This is sung for Haruko by Takasugi (Sada Keiji), an itinerant street musician. It is he that provides the final obituary for Haruko in the company of  the cook at the bar who enjoys a friendship,  but also running verbal battles, with Haruko.

Stylistically the film is dominated by static mid-shots and plan américains. The accompanying close-ups seemed to be to be slightly fewer than was common in popular narrative film. This was also true of dollies and tracks and of low and high angle shots, though all these were used as well, often for emphasis. Much of the film was in deep focus, but there was little deep staging. The exception was a long take late in the film with Haruko at Yugowara Railway Station, [on the way back from Tokyo). She stands still and we gradually discern the approaching train in the distance: followed by three mid-shots and then a close-up of a discarded sandal.

The film was produced by Shochiku, who had a tradition in the ‘shomin geki’ film [lower middle-class dramas]: though this is closer to the lumpen proletarian situation found in some of the films by Naruse Mikio. Essentially this film is a ‘mother picture’ or haha-mono, and this genre frequently depicts unsympathetic children.  It is certainly a melodrama whilst at the same time it offers the sort of social critique more commonly associated with social realism. Kinoshita worked with a number of regular film actors and crafts people on this film: and the production values are very good. Apart from the montage sequence the style is generally straightforward, more akin to Naruse than Ozu: though the latter’s Tokyo Story (1953) also features the Atami resort. There are also parallels with the films of Kinoshita’s mentor, Shimazu Yasujiro:. I was especially struck by a couple of low-angle shots up stairwells and staircases which reminded me of Children of the Beehive (1948 Hachi no su no kodomotachi ), director Shimizu Hiroshi.

The films are still touring the UK and worth looking out for. A Japanese Tragedy was screened in 35mm. It was a fair print though it was a dupe. The definition was pretty good but the contrast was not brilliant, especially in night scenes.

 

 

Posted in Japanese film, Movies with messages | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Time Out to Music

Posted by keith1942 on February 16, 2016

Sing As We Go back to creating surplus value.

Sing As We Go back to creating surplus value.

In a key article, `Entertainment and Utopia’, Richard Dyer (1977) offers an examination of the ideological function of the film musical. His argument is that, like entertainment as a larger category, musicals offer an alternative world, a sort of emotional utopia for the spectator.

 “Two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment, as ‘escape’ and as ‘wish-fulfilment’ point to its central thrust, namely utopianism … the utopia is contained in the feelings it embodies. it presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would fell like rather than how it would be organised. It thus works at the level of sensibility.”

He provides a series of `categories of entertainment’s utopian sensibilities’ and their oppositions; the latter being actual inadequacies:

Utopian Oppositional Categories Categories

Energy/Exhaustion – Abundance/Scarcity – Intensity/Dreariness – Transparency/Manipulation  – Community/Fragmentation

He also provides some discussion of examples from the classic Hollywood musical which show these sensibilities at work. He is careful to point out that these categories are present not just at the representational level – i.e. plot, characters, lyrics – but also at the non-­representational level; setting, costume, colour, movement and so on. He says less about the content of these utopias. Even if they are about feelings, one would expect them to be concretised in settings and situations. I want to examine how these categories can be seen operating in a number of British film musicals, and to suggest some strands of utopian content this reveals. My thoughts about how these musicals offered an alternative and an escape from `reality’ for British spectators were crystallised in the pithy remark of a colleague, Mike Hammond, at a BFI seminar (`What is British Cinema?’, 1989). After watching Sing as We Go (UK 1934) he remarked that

“Gracie Fields was taking the working class on holiday whilst capitalism recouped itself.”

sing as we go

This is an apt summary of the film’s ideological project, [the set of values and interests that it privileges]. Gracie Platt (Fields) is thrown out of work by the closure of Greybeck Mills. Undaunted, she cycles to Blackpool to seek work. There she provides a catalyst to the romance of Hugh (John Loder – son of the Mill owner) and Phyllis (Dorothy Hyson – an office worker), and brings together the capital of a tycoon, Sir William Upton (Lawrence Grossmith) and the productive forces of the factory. Thus the film can end with Gracie, newly-appointed welfare officer, leading the workers back into the re-opened mill.

Blackpool offers an opposition of conspicuous consumption to the scarcity of work and money in Greybeck. Everything in Blackpool is excess. Excess of fun, of sweets and goodies, even an excess of song, as Gracie sings and sings again a number being plugged at a sheet music stall. Because Blackpool is essentially a working class resort, we are not presented with affluence, the abundance is relative (i.e. relative to the scarcity of Greybeck). One example; Gracie, her uncle and his friend, have their evening in Greybeck abruptly halted by the return of the aunt. She represents a strand of repressive older women found particularly in 1930 films. Her return stifles their lively fun, re- emphasising drabness and exhaustion.

Their opposites, energy and intensity, figure both in the character of Gracie, but also in the activities of the holidaymakers. The resort has `oomph’ and `pow’, two characteristics Dyer associates with this category. The intensity, `not holding back; can be seen both in Gracie’s involvement in the various jobs at the resort, and in the manner in which spectators indulge the resort’s pleasures.

Transparency, what you see is what you get, is an essential characteristic of the Fields persona. She offers an open and honest contrast to some of the manipulative characters at the resort, to the exploitative guest house owner, to the hucksters at the funfair.

This transparency is contagious. Gracie’s activities show to the cinema audience the manipulation behind fairground shows owned by petty bourgeois. Then, in a key scene, Gracie sings “Love fools you ..:” and a series of vignettes show characters embracing sincere relationships. For example, Madame Osiris, the fortune teller, reveals herself as a one-time mill hand and factory-worker’s wife.

This sequence also re-inforces the cross-class impetus of the script, (written by J.B. Priestley), as one of the manipulative song salesmen appears in a romantic (i.e. transparent) role here. The class structure of the film is fairly clear, proletarians, petty bourgeois, bourgeoisie. In keeping with British traditions the actual `marriage’ is between the bourgeoisie, in the shape of Sir William’s capital and proletarians, represented by Gracie. The Hugh/Phyllis union offers a romantic coupling between bourgeoisie and that ambiguous state, the middle classes. {Footnote 1]. This is mainly a plot device necessitated by Gracie’s persona, which is not made for romance. Attempts in later films to move her up the class ladder and add romance failed.

Most of the utopian categories appear in Blackpool in the form of the commodities, everywhere people buying and selling the attributes of pleasure. The closure of the film depends crucially on commodification. [Footnote 2]. Early in the film Hugh, son of the factory owner, learns of a new cheap process that can save the factory, but this only becomes viable when they find the capital of Sir William. The spectators are not expected to believe in the miraculous transformation of the film. But it offers an oppositional sensibility to the depression of the 1930s.

“Sing as we go … I never miss Gracie Fields. She lifts me to a high plane as well as entertains me with her thorough affinity with human joys and sorrow.” – Housewife in Lincoln from Richardson and Sheridan (eds) 1987, p261)

The use of the holiday seaside is apt. Capitalism and industrialisation had formed a working class whose lives were organised by the calendar, the timetable and the clock. An oppositional note is provided by Gracie’s Uncle Murgatroyd, with his house full of clocks that don’t work, “even the clocks have gone on strike” : The growth of both public holidays, and holidays away, had grown up in the nineteenth century.

One of the classic dramas of working class life is the play Hindle Wakes (filmed four times with sound versions in 1932 and 1952), which depicts the sexual freedom found in seaside Blackpool in the traditional holiday week. Like Sing as We Go the play details cross-class romance. However, Hindle Wakes substitutes working class realism for cinematic utopianism; at the play’s end the heroine declines the bourgeois lover for her own world.

What musicals like Sing as We Go offer are resolutely alternative worlds to the experience of organised and controlled time for the majority audience. Other examples would be George Formby, always leaving working life for sport, the TT … or Jessie Matthews variously away from the working world, in Paris or even, miraculously, out of the world of time altogether in Evergreen (UK, 1934).

The Good Companions

Good Companions

Matthews is one of the stars of an earlier film musical, The Good Companions (UK, 1933). This is taken from the novel by J. B. Priestley, the scriptwriter of Sing as We Go. The story displays not only Priestley’s tendency to build cross class alliances but his liking for a tone that echoes Chaucer. The voice-over for the prologue runs,

“a story of the roads and wandering places of mother England:”

A group of varied individuals set off on a journey by road. Their meeting provides an alternative to the unsatisfactory state of their present lives. Appropriately, the paean to middle England starts in Rawsley, a fictional town placed in the centre of the country. The bourgeois, Miss Trant (Mary Glynne), has remained a spinster from caring for an aged and ill father. The petty bourgeois, Inigo (John Gielgud), is fleeing from the travails of public school. And the proletarian, Jess (Edmund Gwenn), from the confines of his work and his home. This trio meet up with the Dinky Doos, a currently unemployed concert party. Together they build a successful show, funded by Miss Trant’s legacy and crowned by stardom for the leading light, Susie (Jessie Matthews).

The film ends with the promise of romance for Susie and Inigo but also, crucially, with Jess Oakroyd emigrating to Canada to be re-united with his daughter and her family. Presumably by the end of his voyage capitalism will be re-invigorated in that area. And, of course, the colonies had long provided an escape from the travails of the mother country. Miss Trant finds romance and embarks on a lengthy cruise. The Dinky Doos take up an offer in Bournemouth, the pinnacle of genteel entertainment.

In terms of utopian sensibilities the remake of the film in 1956, in CinemaScope and Technicolor, is instructive. Despite the technical improvements, the 1950s version lacks the élan of the 1930s. Whilst the story remains remarkably similar, Priestley’s narrative of overcoming economic adversity does not quite suit the more affluent fifties. Despite retaining all the main characters, there are significant changes. Jess Oakroyd is now played by Eric Porter, a very different type from the earlier Edmund Gwenn. Though he starts out as proletarian as the 1940s Jess, by the film’s end a subtle transformation has occurred. The migration to Canada has gone, and he sits in the auditorium alongside the Dinky Doos in a smart, new suit, as seemingly as bourgeois as Miss Trant (Celia Johnson). The film has also dropped the romance for Miss Trant and the continuing concert  career of the Dinky Doos.

This is a rather different closure that rests all on the stardom of Susie (Jeanette Scott) and relates to changes in the way the film handles the utopian categories. The abundance of the earlier version, achieved by displaying the world of stardom that Susie can enter at the film’s finale, is gone. Abundance in this version is displayed in the final big musical number, `Round the World’, performed by Susie. It is a series of sketches about the pleasures of travel and holidays, starting and finishing in the that modern Mecca, an airline terminal. It is a prime example of what Marx termed commodity fetishism. [Footnote 3]. The underlying labour and productive relations that enable us to fly off hither and thither are disguised in the surface appearances. We merely need to purchase the tickets to purchase the pleasure.

Cliff Richard musicals

CR movies

 

The mystification of work and leisure continues in a key musical of the 1960s, The Young Ones (UK, 1961). Whilst the film is very British, in its stars, its story and its lyrics, it is also partly transatlantic. This follows from the clear borrowing from the successful Hollywood musical West Side Story (USA, 1961 – even referenced in one of the lyrics). The influence is apparent from the opening crane shot, and clearly continues in the narrative oppositions, choreography and mise en scène.

Simply put, a youth club is under threat because it stands in the way of a property developer. Working class youth must move on while capital re-invests. The film develops as a struggle between youth and age, the club members versus the property developer. However, crossing this divide in true Gracie Fields fashion is Nick/Nicky (Cliff Richard), club member, but also the son of the manipulative developer. As the hero he is able to negotiate these conflicts to a satisfactory conclusion. Whilst the abundance in the film would seem to be with the developer, Hamilton Black (Robert Morley), youth displays an abundance of colour, dress, movement… They are also able to display energy and intensity, notably in the set piece dance numbers and the two `putting on a show’ sequences that fill out the narrative.

Nicky’s romance provides moment of transparency, but this category is most noticeable at the finale. Here, Nicky confesses his real relationship to the club members, but also goes to rescue his father from an assault by rougher members of the club. Father and son both figure in the final show finale which closes the film and re-emphasises the sense of community represented by the club. But, the final community is rather problematic. The club has both middle class and working class members. And, in keeping with the 1950s moral panics, the working class members are `rough’. They have to be disciplined for the community to be re-established. This is achieved by the fight in which Nicky comes to the rescue of his father.

More problematic are other exclusions. The finale of the film, `What d’you know, you’ve got a show’, provides a feast of energy, intensity and abundance. The audience is composed mainly of young people, but includes older members, as do the scenes of idolatry of Nicky/Cliff as pop idol. The audience is also both male and female, and it appears to include both middle and working classes. The site of this community is a refurbished theatre, rather than the doomed club building. This move is significant because it represents a world apart from the real world. What is missing is the newest element in the real British society, black people. There are only two representations of black people in the film. One is the drawings of North American jazz musicians on the club bandstand. The other is a black male in a wanted poster outside a police station, part of the background for a Richard song and dance number. Both have been left behind in the old world. Cliff Richard continued in a series of film musicals that opted out of the world of work.

The 'wanted poster' appears in this sequence - visible in 35mm prints.

The ‘wanted poster’ appears in this sequence – visible in 35mm prints.

Summer Holiday (UK, 1963), literally a `busman’s holiday; takes in both Europe and transatlantic romance and It’s a Wonderful Life (UK, 1964) sees Cliff and his Shadows leave ship work for a desert island. Both these films also produce alliances that cross class and age boundaries. The gender boundaries are crossed in the traditional manner of romance. But again, the films fail to cross what we now term ethnic barriers.

All these musicals offer an utopian world of feelings and all can be deconstructed in terms of Dyer’s categories. The 1930s films offer a depression background, with its immediate sense of scarcity, drabness and lack. The 1950 and 1960 variants do not feature general unemployment, but in each case the characters’ work is both drab and unfulfilling. The Good Companions shows all the characters dissatisfied and restless. In The Young Ones work, as so often the case in mainstream film, never appears on screen. We only see people knocking off, or if found at work, they are not working but avoiding it. Labour, by implication, is necessary, but unexciting and unfulfilling. These almost dystopian worlds of work are exchanged for one that offers all the utopian qualities. And in each case it is the world of entertainment, be it holiday pleasures in Blackpool, the West End Stage, or the world of pop success.

Dyer quotes Hans Magnus Enzensberger:

“Consumption as spectacle contains the promise that want will disappear… (but) so long as scarcity holds sway, use value remains a decisive category which can only be abolished by trickery. (Dyer, 1997, p6).”

The rise of organised leisure, a concomitant of capitalism, produces entertainment; organised and commercialised entertainment. Dyer discusses this aspect in some detail and notes,

“entertainment provides alternatives to capitalism which will be provided by capitalism:”

And in these films, each group of characters take time out from the real world of scarcity, exhaustion and fragmentation to go `over a rainbow’ to a world where all these lacks are banished. The finale of each film then works to remove the divide between the two worlds. In Sing as We Go, Gracie leads the workers back into the mill. However, in The Good Companions and The Young Ones return is eschewed in favour of a new site which contains the virtues missing in the old world. In the former the West End Theatre, or possibly Canada; in the latter a converted theatre. What they all share is the nature of the community that occupies these sites.

In all the films there is a conscious effort to cross the divides of class, gender and age. Gracie bring together both capital and labour, and the petty bourgeois is sandwiched between. The Good Companions achieves the re-unification, with a greater emphasis on age and gender. The Young Ones highlights the age gap, but again works to unify all three categories. Whilst it ignores an equally important category of `race’, it works by denying its existence rather than recognising the exclusion.

Absolute Beginners

absolute beginners

A rather different slant on these issues is given by the more recent and much maligned Absolute Beginners (UK 1986). Shot in colour and widescreen, this musical presents the romance of Colin (Eddie O’Connell) and Suzette (Patsy Kensit) against the background of the 1958 Notting Hill Riots and the Notting Hill Carnival which arose out of this. Colin takes photographs, Suzette is in the world of design.

Moving between the film’s W 11 interracial slum of Napoli and Soho, this musical presents the world of pornography, pop and politics in a heady mixture. The disruption to this world comes (as with The Young Ones) from a proposed property development. Its development is hazy as the narrative tends at time to incoherence, a likely factor in its failure at the box office. But the set dances, the vibrant score (by Gil Evans) and the stylish camera work and mise en scène exude the energy and intensity somewhat lacking in the 1950s and 1960s musicals discussed earlier. Some of this vibrancy is enjoyed by the ethnic sequences, which depict Afro-Caribbeans receiving and responding to covert and overt racism. But the most vibrant depicts the seedy world of 1950s Soho. Absolute Beginners celebrates the lumpen-proletarians that are erased or avoided by the other musicals. Soho has the abundance and energy that the characters in the film are seeking. The transparency in the film is mainly offered by Colin, an innocent who learns about life, but retains some innocence.

The weakest of Dyer’s categories here is community. The film’s different worlds are all fragmenting at an amazing rate. The post-riot Carnival section does suggest a new community which overcomes racist divisions. However, Colin and Suzette leave this for their own private world of love and sex, a retreat that echoes Matthew Arnold’s `Dover Beach’. So what the film eventually offers the viewer is an immensely vital and attractive dystopia, rather than the utopia tabled by Dyer.

Wild West

Another musical in which ethnicity has a particular impact on its utopia is Wild West (UK, 1992). Three Pakistani brothers, Zaf, Ali and Kay, live in west London and, in between various jobs, run a country band. The opening shot of Zaf (Naveen Andrews) cycling passed a huge Marlborough poster sets up cross-generic currents.

The film continues to play with genres, notably in a contrast between British realism and Bollywood style fantasy. The trio of brothers suffer the social prejudice and economic hardship familiar from Absolute Beginners. Whilst these hardships arise from the social context, much of their oppression is directly motivated by whites. Zaf suffers this directly. He also has a romance with Rifat (Saita Choudhury), who suffers from an oppressive white husband. The film avoids both predictable romantic and economic closure; Rifat gets a recording contract and their paths diverge. Unlike Colin and Susette, Zaf and his brothers do not withdraw into a private world, we see them last as they embark for the USA and Nashville. Utopia is obviously across the Atlantic. 

Babymother

Babymother-POS0052

An Afro-Caribbean utopia is to be found in Babymother (UK, 1998),’a reggae musical’. The heroine, Anita (Anjela Lauren Smith), battles the pressures of child rearing and male power in her bid to become a `dancehall queen: She leads a female trio in overcoming the male dominance of the club and record recording world. Her final triumph is in beating boyfriend Byron in a promoter’s contest and there we leave her enjoying the acclaim of fans.

Babymother suffers from what appears to be generic confusions, with partly realist representation of everyday life and the more glam world of musical spectacle. The later provides the utopian categories of the film:

…dancehall represents the thin, shapely, aggressively stylised and eroticised black body of Hot Britain… (Hall, 1998).

It is vibrant, energetic, colourful, postulating transparent relationships as Anita sings, “Babymother! Be a Mother to Your Child” : The black dancehall utopia at the close is more accessible than the emigration required by Wild West more community based than the closed world of Absolute Beginners’ Colin and Susette.

It thus appears to obtain some of the conviction that accompanied the closure of the earlier musicals. Left outside are the oppositional categories, the scarcity, drabness, exhaustion and fragmentation endured in the world of work and domesticity. Closure is, in this sense, as escapist as the retreat of Colin and Susette, or that of Zaf and his brothers.

Conclusion.

The abiding image of Sing as We Go is the final shot of Gracie leading the workers back to the factory waving Union Jacks. The film’s utopian feeling was able to embrace both the entertainment world of Blackpool and, by closure, the reconstructed world of Greybeck’s Mills. By the 1950s and 60s the re-make of The Good Companions and The Young Ones eschew a return and leave the characters firmly in the embrace of the world of entertainment. The latter does hold out the promise of a property development with a new youth club. By Absolute Beginners even that unseen promise is gone, Colin’s and Suzette’s private world leaves outside what appears to be rapidly fragmenting communities. Wild West offers emigration and Babymother the enclosed world of dancehall – both are also alternatives to the fragmented worlds outside. It would appear that, both generically and ideologically, the musical has to bridge an increasing divide between its utopian world and the actual world of the viewer.

References

Richard Dyer (1977) `Entertainment and Utopia; in Movie No 24, reprinted in Only Entertainment (Richard Dyer, Routledge 1992).

Stuart Hall (1998) `A Rage in Harlesden’ in Sight & Sound, September 1998.

Andrew Higson (1995) Waving the Flag Clarendon Press. This has an extended discussion of Sing as We Go and its context.

Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (Eds) (1987) Mass Observation at the Movies, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Filmography:

Sing as We Go 1934, Associated Talking Pictures, produced and directed by Basil Dean.

The Good Companions 1933, Gaumont­-Welsh-Pearson, directed by Victor Saville.

The Good Companions 1956, Associated British, produced and directed by J. Lee Thompson.

The Young Ones 1961, Associated British Pictures, directed by Sydney J. Furie.

Absolute Beginners 1986, Palace Pictures, directed by Julian Temple.

Wild West 1992, First Independent, directed by David Attwood.

Babymother 1998, colour, Channel 4, directed by Julian Henriques.

Footnotes:

1. The Marxist terms for class are more exact than the vague British usage of `working’, `middle’ and `upper’ classes. Bourgeoisie- own capital and hence the means of producing goods and are able to employ the labour power of the: Proletariat, who own no property and can only sell their ability to work. Petty bourgeoisie – own their own property and hence do not need to work for the bourgeoisie: however, they do not own enough to employ labour on any scale. The bourgeoisie and the proletariat wage class war over the value produced by labour, the petty bourgeoisie vacillate in between.

2. Commodities are produced by labour power and, importantly, this means they are produced for exchange. They therefore become the property of somebody, first the capitalist and then the consumer. Exchange value does not depend on the use value, i.e. what we can do with the commodity.

3. Fetishism arises when we see commodities only in terms of exchange value – their actual usage goes unnoticed. Hence lumps of hardened earth or animal skins can be very costly, especially when exhibited in an art gallery.

The original article appeared in itp Film Reader 2, 2000.

Posted in British films, Musicals | Leave a Comment »

Whistle Down the Wind UK 1961.

Posted by keith1942 on February 10, 2016

whistle down wind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Contains one use of mild language.”

I am trying to remember what that was?

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

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

Posted by keith1942 on January 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irish dimension

A Republican 'flying column'.

A Republican ‘flying column’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Form and Style

The Wind That Shakes the Barley 6

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

“is absolutely a group activity”.

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

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

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

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

Republican traditions

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

Box Office

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

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

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

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

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

“England would still rule you”.

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

Value judgments

A warm reception on the Continent

A warm reception on the Continent

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

‘politics inform your aesthetics.’

British critics also tend to dislike didactic cinema,

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

Originally published in ITP in the picture November 2006.

Posted in History on film, Movies with messages, Political film, UK filmmakers | 1 Comment »

 
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