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Tony Garnett – 3rd April 1936 till 12th January 2020

Posted by keith1942 on January 17, 2020

So Tony Garnett has ended his career as a major critical force in British television and film. He leaves behind an impressive body of work which stands out for its political content and for its successful creation of a distinct British social realism. The tributes on radio and television have tended to refer to the famous productions: Cathy Come Home (BBC 1966), Kes (1969) and Law and Order (BBC 1978 ). For me the most memorable work which he produced was the BBC mini-series Days of Hope (1975).

I was fortunate to see and hear Tony Garnett at an event organised by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (North) at the Unity+Works in Wakefield. The Unity+Works was a converted Co-op building close to the railway station; now sadly gone. The event was well attended, say close to a 100.

The afternoon opened with Tony Garnett talking about his new ‘autobiography’: ‘The Day the Music Died: a Memoir’ (subtitled ‘A Life Lived Behind the Lens’, Constable, London 2016). This was the first time I had heard Garnett live and he was an able speaker with a passionate concern for working class expression. He was the most interesting contributor to the film Versus:. . . (2016) on the life and work of his regular collaborator Ken Loach. At Unity+Works he talked about the book and certain sections from it. It opens with his early life in Birmingham, I recognised many of the settings he mentioned. To learn about ‘the day the music died’ you need to look at the book, but it clearly was a significant event in Garnett’s life. As you might expect he talked about some of the deservedly famous television and film productions on which he has worked. These included Up the Junction (BBC 1965, in ‘The Penny Drops’ in the memoir), Cathy Come Home (BBC 1966, in the Chapter with same title), Kes (1969, in ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’) and The Spongers (BBC 1978, in the Chapter of same title). He included some droll stories about the people he worked with on these. He also talked about the BBC and in particular the MI5 vetting system that operated there.

He then took some questions. The most intriguing concerned his relations with the Socialist Labour League, later to morph into the Workers Revolutionary Party, (see ‘Protest and Confusion’). It seems that Tony hosted a series of discussion evenings at his place for people on the left in London. Gerry Healey, the leader of the SLL came along. His organisation was famous for some of the members, including Vanessa and Corin Redgrave. Trevor Griffith describes something of this ilk in his play ‘The Party’ (1973). I saw it at the Oxford Playhouse, a witty presentation. All of the audience laughed at certain lines, but some other lines only received laughter from one part of the audience: my friend and I identified, for different responses, groups from the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Workers Party.  Garnett’s was a fascinating and rewarding talk. In the break the CPBF stall sold and unfortunately ran out of copies of the Memoir. Mine later arrived in the post.

The second part was a tribute to the writer and activist Barry Hines, who died in . We heard from his widow Eleanor, from fellow writer Ian Clayton, from Granville Williams of the CPBF and again from Tony Garnett. He summed up Barry’s stance to his work:

“Socialism without art is dead: it is also dangerous.”

Whilst the speaker paid their tributes a montage of stills from Barry’s television and film work played on the screen behind: including Kes, The Price of Coal, and Threads (1984). The CPBF has  produced a pamphlet Celebrating his Life and Work (CPBF (North) with pieces from his fellow artists and activists.

The afternoon was rounded off with a screening of Meet the People (BBC 1977), the first part of The Price of Coal. The Hall had  a large screen and good sound. The play was full of recognisable tropes from the work of Barry Hines, Tony Garnett and Ken Loach. There was the authentic voice and sense of culture of the northern working class. There was the pointed but well dramatised class conflict, embodied by believable characters. And there was also a wry sense of humour and irony, more so that in many the productions authored by this talented trio.

‘The Price of Coal’

Now Ken Loach is probably the most well-known name of this group. I do think that Loach’s most political work, alongside Days of Hope, we had The Big Flame (1969),. was with Tony Garnett and writer Jim Allen. But all three were collaborative film-makers rather than ‘auteurs’; an aspect that has been strong in British film over the years; combining craft and political discourse.

Tony Garnett actually had a sojourn in the USA and work connected to Hollywood. I have only seen Handgun (1983), which aimed to dissect a relation between rape and gun culture. It unfortunately tended to the voyeuristic, the result of Garnett attempting to marry a social realist style, a political theme and the demands of mainstream film company EMI who re-edited the film..

His British work suffered from censorship and prejudice. Days of Hope actually was attacked in a Times Editorial. Conservative members of the BBC hierarchy and of the political parties often held forth. And believe it or not, when Tony Garnett was the producer of Loach’s The Save the Children Fund Film (1969) their work was suppressed for 40 years.

Garnett’s ‘Memoir’ is the best obituary to his life and work. He combines fascinating personal memories with descriptions of his production for film and television. Hopefully the works of Garnett [and of Barry Hines] will continue to circulate in the years to come. A major voice has been lost in the British media.

NB Part of this tribute is from a post on the CPBF meeting in Wakefield.

Posted in Obituary, Television film, UK filmmakers | Leave a Comment »

Desert Island Film Scores

Posted by keith1942 on January 5, 2020

‘Robinson Crusoe’ in 1954

Roy Plomley, in the original programme which started in 1942, offered a ‘castaway’ a choice of  eight recordings (usually, but not always, music), three  books and a luxury item that they would take if they were to be cast away on a desert island. Whilst we heard extracts from their choice of music they talked about their lives and gave  the reasons for their choices.  They also received a gramophone and endless supply of needles.

For castaway cineastes the following format might be more appropriate.

Eight film scores.

A film score is original music written specifically to accompany a film.

Castaways can opt for a music track of sourced  music for one of these..

My initial list is as follows:

Edmund Meisel’s music for Battleship Potemkin  / Bronenosets Potemkin, USSR 1925.

The music that accompanied the première of  Un Chin Andalu, France 1929 ; Argentinean tangos and  extracts from Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’ played on a wind-up gramophone by Luis Buñuel.

Bernard Herrmann’s music for Citizen Kane , USA 1941.

Bernard Herrman with Orson Welles

Vaughan Williams music for Scott of the Antarctic , Britain 1948

Ennio Morricone’s music for The Battle of Algiers / La battaglia di Algeri / Maʿrakat al-Jazāʾir , Italy / Algeria 1966

Idalberto Gálvez’s music for 79 primaveras, Cuba 1969

I. R. Rahman’s music for Bombay, India 1995

A. R. Rahman with Mani Ratnam

The castaway is allowed three books, not the mandatory Bible and Shakespeare but three choices.

A book on cinema:

‘How Films Were Made’, Some aspects of the technical side of motion picture film 1895 – 2015. By David Cleveland & Brian Pritchard.

Published by David Cleveland, 2015.

A source book or property for films:

‘In Search of Lost Time’/ ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ by Marcel Proust, 1909 to 1922.

Filmed in 1999 as Time Regained.

A published screenplay:

‘Citizen Kane’  Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles.

And the luxury is an item of cinema memorabilia;

A poster for Winter Sleep / Kis Uykusu, Turkey – France – Germany 2014.

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Sorry We Missed You, Britain 2019

Posted by keith1942 on November 22, 2019

This is the new title from Ken Loach and his regular scriptwriter Paul Laverty. As with the last title, I, Daniel Blake (2016), the production offers a bleak view of another burden falling on the working class. This title also is set in Newcastle upon Tyne, but this time it is a family rather than a single individual that provides the focus.

Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) and his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) live in rented accommodation with their two children, Seb (Rhys Stone) and Lisa Jane (Katie Proctor). Abby works for a sub-contractor to the NHS as a carer to a number of home-bound patients: two senior citizens, a young man with learning difficulties, and a middle-aged woman with a disability. There are likely others we do not see,

Ricky has been out of work for some time though he claims that he has not signed on. He is desperate to work but also he also wants to improve the family situation: specifically by finding the money to obtain their own house. Seb is in the last year at school but alienated from both education and adult society. He hangs round with a group of friends who are on the edge of legality in their activities. Lisa is the youngest; she takes after her mother and is more stable than Seb.

The film opens with a blank screen and the sound of two voices. The image appears and Ricky is being interviewed by a manager at a Delivery firm depot. As the latter explains the terms of the work, labelled self-employment, there is already an ominous sense of where this may lead. Ricky is neither the type of character nor in a situation where he is able to be properly critical of the contract on offer.

It is the merit of Paul Laverty’s screenplay that the premonitions this engenders for an audience do not materialise in a conventional manner.. The narrative not only presents the extremely exploitative nature of the work Ricky performs but also relates this to the problems and tensions within the family. To start with Ricky has to provide a van and he pressurises Abby to sell her car to provide a deposit. This means that she has to use public transport to visit a number of clients who seem to be some way apart, lengthening her working day.

Whilst Ricky owns the van the working arrangements mean that he is tied to a long day, with electronic supervision through the gadget that he must carry at all times. This is a relentless work schedule, with time of delivery set, lots of driving, and often unhelpful or absent recipients.. One occasion when Ricky tries to outmaneuvre a parking warden so he can make a quick delivery offers an example of this brutal work timetable. On another occasion, when Lisa accompanies him for the day, they have a charming moment of rest, sitting looking out over a pleasant landscape. Then the timer on the gadget calls Ricky back to the cab and work.

So both Ricky and Abby are working long hours and therefore absent from their children. We see Lisa and Seb on a number of occasions at home alone, with Lisa making their meals and coping without parents. It is a sign of Lisa’s greater stability that she is seen rousing the unwilling Seb so he is not late for school.

The downward spiral suggested at the opening does result. However, it does so in unexpected ways and with a sense of naturalism that is always one of the strengths of Ken Loach’s film-making. And his cast of characters are convincing and more complex than is the norm in British realist cinema. Chris Hitchen conveys well the driven desperation of Ricky. Debbie Hollywood has the more empathetic role, as the mainstay of the family and as a sympathetic carer. She delivers this with warmth and commitment. Katie Proctor is good as Lisa, seemingly mature beyond her years. Rhys Stone catches the volatile and sometimes erratic behaviour of the teenage Seb. However, this character does not convince in the same way. The changes from his warmth in the family at a meal-time does not quite fit with his later volatile and erratic behaviour. When a rare family meal occurs he is a warm member of the event. But this seems a long way from his malicious prank when his phone is threatened.

There are few characters outside side the family and none of them are fully developed. Their main function is to provide the plot development that impact on the family. The manager at the depot is convincing as a manipulator who must keep the workforce on track and on time. He seems approachable but when the rules require he is completely ruthless. Ricky’s only apparent friend is a colleague at the Depot who appears to fit into the requirements easily. We do see, briefly, another driver, who violently confronts the manager when the ruthless regime is imposed. But this passes with little seeming impact.

We see Abby’s clients’ on several occasion. They provide the needs which demonstrate her caring warmth and devotion. An audience is likely to wonder about other clients whose carers are less dedicated. We do see a school friend of Lisa and we see Seb together with his group, but in neither case are characters developed.

This tight focus leads to a number of limitations in the narrative. In ‘I, Daniel Blake’ a viewer encountered different examples of the state bureaucracy. Here the exploiting class has only one representative, the Depot manager. At one point he explains to Ricky the rationale of his management. He claims that the ‘depot’ is a golden example in the chain, with high rates of accuracy in deliveries. Unsaid is the cost to the workforce of his regime. In that sense the viewer is left to draw conclusions about the profitability of Ricky’s stressful job. One reviewer remarked how this film does not have one of the Loachian tropes; a sequence where the politics of the situation are discussed. In the famous BBC production, Days of Hope (1975), the role of capital and the state were clearly describe and analysed. I doubt that a substantial part of the audience will consider that relationship during this film. One can be appalled at the exploitation but think this is an aspect of particularly exploitative company or ‘the gig economy. In a similar fashion ‘I, Daniel Blake’ could suggest an uncaring bureaucracy without pointing to the role of state agencies in disciplining labour for capital.

The tight focus on the family means that we do not see a working class community. This is similar to the presentation of I, Daniel Blake where a constructed family is centre.  It is generally accepted that the traditional working class communities have, to a degree, fragmented. But they do still exist and there are newer ethnic communities in today’s Britain. The recent Loach films have privileged northern settings where identifiable working class communities can still be seen, always a tendency in the output. The early Laverty scripts had a sense of community. But this has not been maintained in recent films. The strongest communities were is period films like Jimmy’s Hall (2014), set in Eire in the 1930s.

In one way we are back to Ken Loach’s initial features like Cathy Come Home (1966) or Kes (1969), with a couple or individual alienated from a community by circumstance. But there are other films where the community is central to the narrative. Riff-Raff (1991)has a working community.

The latter film also exemplifies another absence, the organised working class; in that film autonomous. This too has suffered decline in recent decades but it remains a force in Britain. The gig economy represented in the film suffers from an absence of organisation for the workers; but the case of Uber drivers demonstrates that this can change. And an earlier title like Looking for Eric (2009)demonstrated the use of both community and working class organisation.

One factor in these absences is Loach choice of pitching his films in the mainstream mode, even if at its peripheries. Thus the films offer a limited number of key characters. Their story is centred around their actions and the actions upon them. The narrative tends to the linear and actions are clearly motivated. Loach rarely uses flashbacks or include reflexive sequences. His films are didactic; a point that repeatedly annoys bourgeois critics. The features are melodramas of protest, usually ending not in victory but at least in the torch of resistance being passed on. But a number are more properly described as melodramas of defeat, and the ending of Sorry We Missed You, while not closure, does suggest defeat.

It is instructive to remember the input by the sadly deceased Jim Allen. His Land and Freedom (1995) is a period piece to which The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) can be favourably compared. But the earlier Hidden Agenda (1990)treats of the colonial issue, in the north of Eire, from a contemporary point of view. And Days of Hope has an overt political dimension that is more potent than in any other Loach work. It was also a period drama but it relevance was clear from the attacks in the series, including the dubious honour a Times editorial. Along with other Allen scripts, such as for ‘The Wednesday Play’ like ‘The Lump’ (1967) and ‘The Big Flame’ (1969), it now seems that the early television work was more radical than the recent feature films; ironic in that Loach gave up on television because of censorship.

Ken Loach and his colleagues do produce films that provide and accurate and authentic representation of a common working class experience in the C21st. They do so with passion, warmth and attention to detail: whilst never mentioned in the dialogue the Turner house suffers [among other problems] from damp, the patches clearly visible on the walls in the large screen. And in a contrasting touch the stairwell is decorated with the family photographs taken mainly by Abby. In a complex plotting these same photographs dramatise the family tensions which clearly arise from their economic position. Whilst the political presentation is limited in a number of ways this film, like others by the company, are the powerful representations of contemporary working class life.

The film was shot by Loach’s now regular and excellent cinematographer Robbie Ryan. In is filmed in the typical Loach manner with much use of a long lens; sometimes producing a rather flat canvas but with a good depth of field. It is also shot on 35mm/super 16 but disappointing is only circulated in a digital transfer. But the quality of the chromatography shows through as does the attention to setting, editing and sound design. This is another remarkable milestone in a career now stretching back over fifty years. And it is a title that repays seeing it in a theatrical setting.

 

 

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Churchill and the |Movie Mogul, BBC 2019

Posted by keith1942 on November 13, 2019

“Before the Second World War, Winston Churchill work for film producer Alexander Korda as screenwriter and historical advisor.

The Power of cinema later became a vital weapon in wartime.” (Opening on-screen titles).

“Churchill understood the power of films, but the true extent of his use of cinema as a propaganda tool is rarely explored. In 1934, one of Britain’s most celebrated film producers, Alexander Korda, signed Churchill up as a screenwriter and historical advisor. It was the start of a unique collaboration. Churchill provided script notes for Korea’s productions and penned an epic screenplay.

When war broke out, their collaboration took on national importance. Korda was sent on a mission to Hollywood to help bring America into the war, with positive results.

With access to previously undiscovered documents, this film documentary examines that mission and a friendship that underpinned a unique, creative partnership.” [BBC profile].

This new documentary for the BBC is an example of how cinema can be misconstrued on television. And this sort of construction’s seems to becoming more common on that median.

The programme at the start treats the relationship between the politician and the film producer in the early 1930s. The one screenplay that Churchill produced is featured, ‘The Life and Times of King George V’. The topic fits both Churchill’s pre-occupations and bears the hallmark of his writings. The film was not produced, the reason given in the programme is that the treatment would have been too expensive to make. This is quite likely but, having read Churchill, I suspect that his screenplay was too rhetorical for a film treatment.

One of the contributors to the programme is Charles Drazin, author of ‘Korda Britain’s Only Movie Mogul’, (2002). In this book Drazin notes a six month contract between Churchill and Korda in 1934. Projects included five short films as well as the ‘George V’ proposal. The latter had ‘difficulties’ with the script as well as likely production costs. After the contract ended Drazin records no other actual involvement by Churchill in film projects. He does record that Korda later pu8rchased the rights to some of Churchill’s published writings but these did not even reach the scripting stage. He, of course, when he contributed to the programme may have been unaware of the conjectures made about other work.

These ‘conjectures’ concern other script suggestions though no actual evidence for the examples are produced. The film relies on drawing parallels between Churchill known interests and particular films produced by Alexander Korda. One example of the 1939 The Four Feathers. The connection drawn is between the experience of the young Churchill at the battle in Omdurmand (19898). The sequence in the book and the film follows the British colonial expedition in the 1882 Sudan campaign.

The other example is Lady Hamilton / That Hamilton Woman (1941) which was produced in association with Hollywood. The documentary points to Churchill’s known interest in Horatio Nelson, Emma Hamilton’s lover; a relationship which forms the centre of the film narrative. One interviewee comments that the

“suggestion must have come from Churchill.”

And another, quoted alongside a sequence where nelson agitates for military action, that

“it is easy to imagine that he might have done …”

Suggestions for the screenplay. The film is obviously one of those British titles that draw comparison from British history to the then current war with the Third Reich. Another quoted title is Fire Over England set in Elizabethan England at the time of the Armada. It also points to Churchill known fondness for the film, quoting one occasion when, on board a naval al ship in the Atlantic, he screened the film for Roosevelt and his entourage. But there is no evidence presented that Churchill actually contributed in any way to the film screenplay.

The extracts from Triumph of the Will are used to comment on the relationship between Adolf Hitler and film-maker Leni Riefienstahl. A parallel is drawn [in terms of cinema not politics] between that and the relationship between Churchill and Korda. However, there is evidence on record of the relationship between Hitler and Riefienstahl; if there is such evidence for Churchill / Korda it is not presented here.

The documentary goes on to chart the way that Korda assisted Churchill in his efforts to bring the USA into the European war. The commentary is on stronger ground here though this is already a well-trodden subject, including by Charles Drazin. And, ironically, it was the War in the Pacific and Hitler’s misjudged declaration of war on the USA that ushered in the Yanks.

What is really disconcerting about this documentary is its use of archival film. This is an area where television has a littered trail of abuse, regularly changing, editing and re-framing original film footage from the past. But ‘Churchill and the Movie Mogul’ has some of the worse examples that I have seen.

A still from ‘Lady Hamilton’ in the wrong ratio.

There is an amount of newsreel footage and studio record footage used from the 1930s and 1940s. Almost uniformly this has been re-framed to fir the 16:9/1.78:1 aspect ratio. An interview with Churchill [possibly the late 1940s] starts in academy ratio, off-centre so as the also show the projector; then it cuts to a re-framed screen of 16:9, This is repeated with other film extracts. Much of the footage from the feature films is screened in its original aspect ratio, 1.37:1. But Lady Hamilton appears in both academy and 16:9. and oddly at one point footage from Lady Hamilton appears in the academy ratio, briefly in 16:9 and then in another fragment sharing the frame with a projector. Some film, [The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Thief of Baghdad and Triumph of the Will] are screened in a cinema, [I think the Regent near Oxford Circus] with an audience; this film is in academy but shots of the audience are in colour and in academy and then in colour and 16:9. Added to this CGI has been used to attempt to recreate cinema screening of the films. In this case an auditorium complete with audience has been created digitally and then the academy ratio black and white footage inserted in a frame {auditorium screen] at the central focus. A similar sequence is set in a US drive-in cinema. It is a mess and one can only sympathise with the poor and abused cinematographers from the past, including George Périnal and Rudolph Maté, whose work has been mutilated.

It is difficult to know why the footage has been so mistreated. Perhaps they have used different sources and just followed the state of the source: some taken from original 35mm film and some taken from video copies of original film. The programme uses a series of experts, academics, biographers and historians. Whilst they talk about Churchill, Korda and several of the films none seem to actually give a specific detail on Churchill’s work as a consultant. We do see photographed of his one screenplay. And the commentators do speak specifically of the work of Korda on behalf of Churchill in the USA. They, of course, spoke during the making of the programme; they presumably were not familiar with the final form of the documentary.

There are extracts from The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Scarlett Pimpernel (1934). Fire over England (1937), The Four Feather (1939), The Lion Has Winds (1939), The Thief of Baghdad (1940)and Lady Hamilton (1941). There are also extracts from Triumph of the Will (1935) and newsreel from the Third Reich.

All are abused in some fashion, including the now anonymous cinematographers on newsreels. I am happy to see Leni Riefienstahl criticised but I think we should at least study her films in the form in which they were originally intended.

 

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The Radical Film Network ’68’

Posted by keith1942 on October 29, 2019

Formed in 2013 in London this linkage is now fairly widespread across several continents. The objects are to further ‘radical film’ and participants are involved in production, exhibition and associated activities. Radical is defined as

“… first and foremost to a political affiliation to progressive politics and struggles for social justice –  from workers’ rights and environmental sustainability to gender, racial and sexual equality.”

A current and welcome project is ‘RFN 68’,

“Taking the radical uprisings and revolutionary fervour of this rare and volatile year as a source of inspiration, the  RFN68 festival examines the legacy of the events of 1968 through an international programme of films, workshops, discussion and social events, organised by the Radical Film Network.”

Several events have taken place in Leeds and I attended a screening of In the Intense Now / No Intenso Agora (João Moreira Salles, Brazil, 2017 ) at the Hyde Park Picture House.

This is a documentary about 1968 but offering a distinctive approach. A compilation documentary it uses home movies from Salles’ family and found footage from films of the period, amateur film footage and some material from television, radio and printed sources.  Some of the film soundtracks appear in the film but for most of the running time there is a commentative voice of the director. The film is in black and white and colour and in the Academy ratio: it is good to see a film where the makers resists the conventional re-framing of archive footage.

This is a fairly subjective but sympathetic revisiting of Paris in May 1968 and parallel places and events though the parallels are those felt by the director. The film opens with footage from a home movie shot by the director’s mother on a visit to China in 1966 followed by film of events in Prague in 1968 and then some more home movie, this time in a street in Brazil. These signal some of the preoccupations of the film-maker, though they are only clarified as the film progresses. The footage from China was filmed during the Cultural Revolution and features Red Guards who are surprisingly friendly to these bourgeois tourists. The footage from Brazil shows family members but also, as the narrative voice points out, the class situation in which they live.

Then the film is mainly devoted to events in Paris in May 1968. The film  more or less follows the chronology of events but this is not a history of that month but a series of fragments that give a sense of what happened and offer [as one review suggested] ‘radical romanticism’.

Certain characters occupy the centre. Thus we see and hear General de Gaulle at the New Year of 1967; twice towards the end of May 1968; and finally at the New Year 1968. On television he seems a relic from the past but on radio he is the voice of tradition and moderation. The film includes television  coverage of the mass demonstration of conservatives that followed the radio broadcast.

There is also ample coverage of Daniel Cohn-Bandit, mainly on film but also on radio. There is a certain  identification with Daniel but also a strong note of irony as the film  records his rather doubtful co-operation with ‘Paris Match’. And there is much film of the students, the workers and the street clashes that filled the city.

Part 2 includes more material from Paris but also extended coverage of the suppression of ‘The Prague Spring’ by the armies of the Warsaw Pact. Later in the film there is coverage of the funeral of Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself in protest. This leads into a series of films that deal with death and burial. These include a student who died in a protest in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1968; a suicide by a student during the protests in Paris; and a policeman killed during a demonstration in Lyon in the same period. In these passages there is none of the earlier irony but a note of quiet mourning. This seems to aim at generating a sense of loss  over the upheavals.

The film ends with more footage from the home movie shot in China and then film of Mao Zedong and one of his poems. Finally we see the famous shot by the Lumière Brothers of workers leaving their factory: why I was unsure.

Whilst the ‘romantic’ does describe much of the treatment there is a continuing tone of irony. Thus at one point the commentary notes the provenance of the famous aphorism,

“Sous les pavés, la plage! (“Under the paving stones, the beach.”)”.

Was this a political slogan or an advertiser’s gimmick. At another point the commentary notes the predominance of short hair among the male protesters and compares this with the USA where the hair was longer and the events [according to the commentator] were more radical. It also notes the dominance of men in Paris 68, [not quite accurate if you watch the footage carefully].

The film offers a fascinating revisiting of these radical events. However it is structured round the personal rather than the analytical. In the end the significance of ’68 seems uncertain. I was struck by the inclusion of ‘The Prague Spring’. The other locations were significant for the director. His family came from Brazil, were living in Paris in May 1968 and his mother did visit China in 1966. But Czechoslovakia has no such relationship. I wondered, as Paris and Rio de Janeiro were protests essentially about capitalism that he felt the need to include a protest against ‘socialism’, in which case he misconstrues the significance of events in Prague.

And I would question the comparison between Paris and the USA. ‘PBS America’ recently broadcast the Ken Burns Vietnam programme, in its entirety, not cut as was the case with the BBC. What is apparent in the film is that while many voices supported the Liberation struggle in Vietnam the mass of the protest was against the effects of the war within the USA. Paris was more radical. One aspect of this was the influence of the radical politics in China’s Cultural Revolution. We do get footage of Mao and we do see some Maoists at work in Paris but the parallels are not really drawn out in this film.

Even so I was fascinated by the film  which is definitely worth seeing. The research and selection of found footage in impressive. The structure of the film brings out interesting aspects and the editing makes both ironic and political comments. Among the footage in this film is some from the work of Chris Marker. His A Grin Without A Cat  / Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) remains the essential viewing on this period. It would be good if we could have an opportunity to revisit this film as well.

The Radical Film Network has a calendar of events for RFN 68 on its WebPages. And one can sign up to be kept informed and even participate,.

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The Man in the Barn, M-G-M 1937

Posted by keith1942 on September 30, 2019

By coincidence I watched this film on 16mm shortly after I finished my post on The Lincoln Cycle/ The Son of Democracy (USA 1918). The latter is a series of short films which dramatise Lincoln as president but also his earlier life as a motivation for his actions and values. The cycle as unfinished so it never reached the assassination of Lincoln, just as the celebrations started for the defeat of the Confederacy.  The ‘man in the barn’ connects as it is John Wilkes Booth, the assassin. Twelve days after the killing he was cornered by Union troops in a barn in Maryland and, as the barn burned, refused to surrender and was shot, dying three hours later.

This one-reel film comes from a series , ‘An Historical Mystery’. The plot picks up on theories circulating in the early 1900s that the person killed at the barn was a Wilkes Booth look-a-like and that the assassin lived on for years. In the film in 1903 a man on his deathbed  in an Oklahoma town claims to  be John Wilkes Booth but expires before he can explain further.

In the film a series of brief flashbacks dramatise Wilkes escape and the finale at the barn. Then. with a series of close-ups and a comentative voice, question the identification of the man in the barn and the claimant thirty years later. These focus on his physiognomy and scars on his body.

The film does not offer a full explanation as to how Wilkes might have escaped. But three scenes with voice-over comment propose that Wilkes evaded capture because an unseen hand covered his escape route. So here we have a implied conspiracy theory that Wilkes escaped justice because of co-operation by characters who, presumably, exercised power over state actions. And it is true that some factions celebrated Lincoln’s murder, even in Washington. A sign of the enmity that he motivated in many supporters of the Confederate cause.

It reminded me of the conspiracy theories around the murder of John F. Kennedy. In his case we have had several full-length film features on the subject.  In fact a book on Lincoln and Booth, ‘The Lincoln Conspiracy’  was filmed in 1977 but I have never seen this.

I was moved to check out the follow-on from the one other Presidential assassination, William McKinley in 1901. But there does not appear to be conspiracy theories about this event, the President being shot by  a man with associations to Anarchists. Presumably the furores around the actions of both Lincoln and Kennedy are the reason why people suspect the official verdict.

This short black and white film is just a footnote in the cinema of US Presidents. However, it is crisply filmed and works through the subject with economy.  It did not, however, convince me that Wilkes was not the man who was shot ‘in the Barn’.

The film was scripted by Morgan Cox who had a lot of credits in this period: and another writer, Charles Whittaker, is credited with ‘Historical Compilations’, which i think probably refers to the series. The director Jacques Tourneur was an experienced director noted for both horror and film noir; both relevant to this short. I did not catch the cinematographer but the film, as the story would suggest, is a combination of light and shadow. The editing is very well done, covering quite an amount of plot in the running time of eleven minutes.

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The Radical Film Network

Posted by keith1942 on September 10, 2019

Formed in 2013 in London this association is now fairly widespread across several continents. The objects are to further ‘radical film’ and participants are involved in production, exhibition and associated activities. Radical is defined as

“… first and foremost a political affiliation to progressive politics and struggles for social justice –  from workers’ rights and environmental sustainability to gender, racial and sexual equality.”

There are regular circulars/emails with information and comment. One that caught my interest was by a filmmaker, Duncan Reekie circulated as a tape/slide presentation:

‘What Actually is Radical Cinema’ [available on line running six minutes with 20 slides] PechaKucha 20×20 – What Actually Is Radical Cinema?

Duncan Reekie explains that the idea of ‘radical cinema’ can be confusing  and certainly there are numerous definitions. he takes the line of listing a series of categories or ‘trajectories’ with brief comments.

‘Mainstreaming’ which hopes to catch a mass [and working class] audience. The illustrative still is from ‘Cathy Come Home’ {BBC, Ken Loach 1966). I suspect that Ken Loach would take issue with the use of ‘mainstream’; more accurately this involves attempting to distribute and  exhibit in commercial cinema.

‘Independence’ rather than ‘Independent’. Aiming to be autonomous and often avoid capitalism. The latter is impossible; even Soviet cinema was affected by the market of commodities. The illustrative still shows  a small group tracking in a hand-cart among high-rise flats; suggesting low-budget and addressing the situation of ordinary lives.

‘Agit-prop’, protest and direct action. Illustrated by a group of demonstrators surrounded by British police. But this should also include the ‘agitational’ which Soviet cinema saw as addressing a mass audience.

‘Collective’ which is outside the industrial hierarchy. This also stresses the involvement of the many rather than ‘auteur’. The latter developed as a critical tool and is now usually an industry marketing tool.

‘Cultural Democracy’, participant cinema, ‘the dream that anyone can make a film’. Is it realised today? It depends how you define film and even so the mass audience remains focused on the mainstream; so much produced by by participants replicates the values and tropes of the mainstream.

‘The avant-garde’ emphasizing artists and artistry. This is a different meaning from the many and early avant-garde groups and Manifestos.  There is no film still’; why not Jan Švankmajer.

‘Subjectivity’ is the work of individuals. But it should be noted that this covers a wide range of subjects, styles and attitudes.

‘Ant-art’ is the ‘sublation’  [deny, contradict, negate] of Art; avoiding that fetishism. The illustration is a dadaist urinal, not a film; perhaps a still from a film by Kenneth Anger?

‘Demystification’ addresses the hypnotism of the masses. The illustrative diagram seems to be a variation on the metaphor of the ‘cave’ in Plato. This could use the still from ‘The Conformist’ which also quotes Plato. I think terms like ‘hypnotism’, or indeed ‘false consciousness’ overstate reality. And Plato’s hypothesis was elitist as well as being anti-realist.

‘The Occult’ is about magic and film-makers who believe in magic. I did not really get  handle on this.

‘The Underground’ is a hybrid of other categories plus drugs and rock music.  But there is a division between those that have overt politics and those that do not.

‘Third Cinema’ is anti-colonial and anti-imperialist and here is referenced by Latin-American cinema and a still from Antonio das Mortes / O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro (1969). But the cinema and the Manifestos aimed beyond one continent to the global conflict.

‘cybertopia’ sees the Web as solving capitalism, globalism and copy right. There is an interesting question here about ‘utopian’ cinemas: read Jemma Desai’s review of the ‘Flaherty Seminar’, ‘A week in Utopia’, in Sight & Sound October 2019.

‘micro cinema’, where the author operates. Local but also [possibly] ‘convivial’, people interact during the screenings. In Britain the development of pop-up cinemas and ‘video lounges’ [i.e. Everyman] has expropriated this into a reflection of the mainstream.

He ends by seeing ‘Radical Cinema’ as still fractured with no coherent centre. This is possibly a virtue; like genre itself the notion is slippery. So the idea of a network is helpful. And discussions about what constitutes this – who should be in or out – is healthy.

The Radical Network proposes ‘progressive’ but in the proper sense of ‘radical’ one would have to include non-progressive films; I would suggest that Leni Riefenstahl’s films are radical and they are clearly reactionary. And as noted, some political standpoints would exclude others: films from the Chinese Cultural Revolution? I would argue that Breaking with Old Ideas / Jue lie (1976) is radical but I suspect I would encounter opposition.

In fact, the slide show includes a reference and a photograph of Jean-Luc Godard; where could one place his film work? An intriguing debate.

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Seven Journeys / In Jenen Tagen, West Germany 1947.

Posted by keith1942 on August 2, 2019

Steffen and Sybille in 1933

This film was part of a programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019, “We Are Natives of Trizonia” Inventing West German Cinema, 1945 – 1949. Trizone was the overall term for those parts of Germany occupied by the western Allies; Britain, France and the USA. The Catalogue refers to a popular song of the period, ‘We Are the natives of Trizonia’ / ‘Weir sind die ingeborenen von Trizonesien’. This was a song performed at the Cologne Carnival in 1948 by Karl Berbuer.

“It’s nothing short of a national anthem, a declaration of independence by an occupied people sensing that freedom and new statehood are near.” (Olaf Möller in the Festival Catalogue).

This was  a period when there was a short-lived genre of Trümmerfilme (‘Rubble Films’). The actual devastation, most notably in Berlin, remains an iconic visual image in both German and foreign films. Seven Journeys is not strictly speaking a ‘rubble film’ but the stark and massive ruins of Berlin are a recurring image in the film. The writer [with Ernst Schnabel) and director was Helmut Käutner. We enjoyed a programme of his films at the 2018 Festival. I was impressed with the 1940s and 1950s titles by Käutner, so I was keen not to miss this film.

The film opens in 1945, shortly after the end of the war. Amid the Berlin ruins and rubble we find two men working on an old car. This uses poetic license as the car is 1936 Opel Olympia though the plot goes back to 1933. One of the distinctive features of the film is that it is narrated by the car, [voiced by Käutner himself]. The story offers seven owners of the vehicle over a twelve-year period in flashbacks from the present. The little stories of the people’s experiences provide a commentary on the Third Reich.

The two men working on the car are Karl (Erich Schellow) and Willi (Erich Schellow). Their painstaking labour to make the car serviceable again mirror the parallel efforts of Berliners to salvage what they can among the ruins. As they work they find objects and mementos in the car; each triggering a flashback to one of the stories.

 

  1. The men notice a date carved into the glass of the windscreen. So we meet Sybille (Winnie Markus) who is loved by two men, both of whom propose to her. Steffen (Werner Hinz) is leaving by ship for a post in Mexico. In the evening she goes with Peter (Karl John) into Berlin where they witness a large demonstration. Peter writes the date on the car window with a diamond ring; 30th  January 1933; Hitler becomes Chancellor.

 

  1. The men find a comb in the car. We now meet the family of Wolfgang Buschhagen (Franz Schafheitlin), his wife Elizabeth (Alice Treff) and their daughter Angela (Gisela Tantau). Wolfgang works in a Museum. His friend Wolfgang Grunelius (Hans Nielsen) is a modernist composer. Different people drive in the car and then, Angela, finds her mother’s missing comb in the car. She suspects this is the sign of an affair between Elizabeth and Grunelius.

 

  1. The men notice a clip on the dashboard. We see that this used by Wilhelm Bienert (Willy Maertens) and his wife Sally (Ida Ehre) to hold papers. They own a small shop but the notice on the clip is the notification of the ‘Oath of Disclosure’ which prevents them now owning a business. After the ‘Brown shirts’ smash their shop and others owned by Jews the husband commits suicide.

 

  1. The men find an old horse shoe. We then see it fixed to the dashboard as Dorothea (Erica Balqué) drives round Berlin looking for friends. The man, Jochen (Hermann Schomberg), is leaving to seek safety as the war begins. Both Dorothea and her sister Ruth are involved with Jochen. Dorothea has to decide on her course of action. At one point she is stopped by a soldier. He recognizes the car, it is Peter from 1933, now in the army.

 

  1. The men now notice bullet holes in the chassis. We now see the car on the Soviet front where a driver, August (Hermann Speelmans) is collecting a new lieutenant (Fritz Wagner). Despite August’s fears of partisans the lieutenant insists on driving to the military station through the night. After some hours the moon appears, all is like daylight.

 

  1. The men find some old papers. Now we see the car, back in Berlin, in an underground garage. It is the later stages of the war. Erna (Isa Vermehre) borrows the car as she wants to drive an old friend from the city to the countryside, Her passenger is a Baroness (Margarete Haagen) whose husband has been arrested following the attempted assassination of Hitler. But the journey is interrupted when a policeman demands to see their papers, incriminating papers.

 

  1. When the men inspect the boot they find straw there. The straw is from a barn where the dilapidated cart is seen. A motor-bike dispatch rider takes shelter in the barn, as does a young women with a baby. Marie (Bettina Moissi) and Josef (Carl Raddatz) spends a couple of days sheltering in the barn. Refugees pass during the day and at night bombers pass overhead. Josef gets the car working and he makes a detour from his assignment to drop Marie near Hamburg. He now has to face questioning by roadside patrols.

The narrator, the car, now tries to remember what happened after that, but

“I don’t remember’.

A montage of spinning car wheels has the faces of the characters from the ‘Seven Journeys’ superimposed. And we leave the car and the two mechanics among the Berlin ruins, but flowers are growing in the rubble.

The stories work well and the characters are carefully drawn in relatively brief plot lines. The film makes good use of locations in these stories. This was also the case in an earlier film by Käutner, Under the Bridges / Unter den Brücken (1946). Here he was again working with several of the same crafts people. The cinematography, finely done, is by Igor Oberberg. And the editing, which cuts within and between stories and the film’s present, is by Wolfgang Wehrun.

This film was cut on release by about 20 minutes. What was cut is not clear to me but it seems likely that the censorship was done by the Occupying Powers who remained in control in West Germany; one key component of their policies was the ‘denazification’ campaign. It may be that the lack of conscious guilt in the film was a factor.

The film covers the twelve years of the Third Reich. The characters’ stories are spread across this period leading to the cataclysmic situation as Germany suffered defeat. The Catalogue points out that the stories presented do not offer representation across the population.

In Jenen Tagen is a among the very first productions ventured in the future Trizone. Käutner offers a historical panorama in seven anecdotes, detailing German sorrow, suffering and unexpected benevolence during the Nazi regime, ……. how could Germans not see themselves as the guilty party at that points in time?”

The writer goes on to comment the film

“never suggests that this terror regime functioned only because almost everybody made their compromise-laden peace with it …..”

but also makes the point that

“the good deeds he shows were the exceptions to the rule.”

The film has a little more than thus credits. Thus at the opening the car tells us that,

“when I was young [I thought that] I would last a thousand years … [but] it was only twelve.”

And in an interesting line of dialogue we learn from Peter in the 1933 story that the parade they pass are the Spartacists [Spartakusaufstand, by then The Communist Party of Germany / Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) And in several stories, as that of the Biernerts, one senses the a malignant and dominant force under which people quality or perish. Moreover, the German population had already had a ‘denazification’ programme enforced on them, which included being forced to watch some of the films of the now opening and horrific concentration camps. My sense is at this time that the occupation powers paid as little attention to German resistance as the German population paid to any national culpability. Films made under mainstream conventions are usually inadequate for such complex situations.

We had a 35mm print in German with English sub-titles. the image and sound were fine so we were able to appreciate the full original version of the film.

 

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Kimuak – Basque Short Films

Posted by keith1942 on June 15, 2019

‘Above 592 meters’

This was a programme of short films at the Hyde Park Picture House with the support of the Cervantes Institute. The programme was organised by ‘cinemaattic’ and screened in a number of major cities. An annual event, the ‘Kimuak [Basque word for ‘sprout’] encourages film-makers to work in the shorter length format. We enjoyed seven films in a variety of forms and subjects from 2018. I have seen a few feature length Basque films in the past but this was an unusual and welcome opportunity.
Above 592 Meters (592 Metroz Goiti, director Maddi Barber). In colour and 1.85:1, with English sub-titles.
This is a documentary about the construction of a dam in the Pyrenees which flooded seven villages. The title is the level of the water in the dam. The film opens with footage of the landscape and wildlife around the completed dam. Then the film explores the impact of the construction on one family that was displaced. There is some fine cinematography included a night-time electric storm. And the family are articulate with a photograph record of the displacement. I think the screening ratio was different from the original footage as there seems to be some cropping in the frame.
Mother (Ama, director Josu Martinez). In colour and 1.85:1 with English subtitles.
This is a short drama set during World War I. A wife and mother waits for a letter from her husband fighting on the Western front. When the letter comes she has to ask a neighbour to read this for her. Finely done with the cinematography and design creating the sad world of the past.
Still Fireflies (Ancora Lucciole, director Maria Elorza. In colour and 1.85:1 with English subtitles.
The film opens with a reference to 1972 and Pier Paulo Pasolini lamenting the disappearance of fireflies. Then the title combines a voice-over addressing the possible extinction of fireflies whilst a child plays with an example in a jar. The ‘fireflies’ in the film are digitally produced and are vibrant against the varied settings, ranging from light to darkest shadows.
The Great Expedition (Espedizio Handia, director Iban del Campo). In colour and black and white and academy ratio.
This title combines images in a tapestry that contrasts heavenly images with more mundane human characters.


Kafenio Kastello (directed by Miguel Ángel Jiménez). In colour and 2.35:1 with English sub-titles.
The title is set in Athens and the background is one of the frequent demonstrations against ‘austerity’ with street conflicts between protesters and police. However the characters in focus are a small group in an urban quarter concerned with more mundane problems of their relationships. The characters and plot are treated in a somewhat surreal manner with references to [amongst] others Tarkovsky and his Andre Rublev(1966) .Do Not Wake Me Up (No me Despertéis, director Sara Fantova), In colour and 2.35:1 with English sub-titles.
Set in the Basque city of Bilbao in 2009 the story follows a school student caught between nationalist activism in her school and her father’s role in the regional Government. The title catches the teenage milieu and the emotional contradictions experienced by this young woman.
Waiting (Zain, director Pello Gutiérrez). In colour and 1.85:1 with English sub-titles.
This is a rather surreal presentation that reminded me most of the style and tone of the Swedish film-maker Roy Andersson. This title has the deadpan humour and ironic style found in his films. A singer with a deadpan delivery is seen first with a musical group and then a solo musician. Meanwhile the audience watching gradually grows smaller. An enjoyable tone portrait.
An entertaining and fascinating two hours with an introduction from people and film-makers involved in the programme.

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The Austrian Short Film Festival

Posted by keith1942 on May 27, 2019

The Hyde Park Picture House, supported by the University of Leeds and the Austrian Film Academy, hosted a selection of titles from this event (“Österreichische Kurzfilmschau”). This was the third annual visit. The films are all nominees for the film award. The programme screened in Leeds included:

Ars Moriendi Oder die Kunst des Lebens / The Art of Living Kristina (Austria / Germany 2018). Running 29 minutes, in colour and 2.35:1 with English sub-titles.

Rosemarie Achenbach is 93 years old. Time and again, she has found the strength to liberate herself: During World War II, she was trapped under rubble following an aerial bombardment, but survived. As a pastor’s wife, she was trapped by the expectations of patriarchal post-war society. After her husband’s death, she took her life into her own two hands. She completed her degree in philosophy and today she is writing her doctorate. She is writing about death, because “I am old enough for it”. This is both the portrait of a woman and the portrait of a century now past.

Kristina Schranz’s title is well done. The subject, Rosemarie, was an impressive character. She celebrated her 93rd birthday in the course of the film with her children and grandchild. The cutting between home [personal] and the university [institution] worked well. And the framing of characters and scenes was finely done.

When Time Moves Faster (Austria … 2016) 7 minutes, in colour and 1.85:1).

Amongst other things, the director’s, Anna Vasof, working method was influenced by pre-cinematic devices stemming from her fascination with the movement of photographic images. These only appear animated given our persistence of vision. Vasof cites the Zoetrope as an example of this phenomenon, a device that filled people of all ages with wonder at fairs of old. This work demonstrates Anna Vasof’s unbelievable pleasure in experimentation and simultaneously shares her delight in demonstrating the illusion enabled solely through the medium of cinema.

Entschildigung (Ich suche den Tishtennisraum und meine freundid / Excuse Me, I am looking for the table-tennis and my friend (Austria / Germany … 2018). Running 23 minutes, in colour and 1.85:1 with English sub-titles

A film Bernhard Wenger about a couple on a wellness trip, where one partner disappears and the other isn’t sure whether he’s looking for her or himself. Within the bizarre world of the Alpine wellness resort, Aron begins a new chapter in his life. This had a rather dry humour and recurring tropes. I did think the ending could have been stronger.

Kids n Cats – Frizzle Frizz (Austria 2017). Running time 4 minutes, in colour and academy ratio.

The world of vain and self-absorbed characters gets flooded by gigantic insect legs. The director Patryk Senwicki offered a combination of stop motion and live action techniques filled with surrealist imagery and objects accompanied by a song from a ménage à trois.

Der Sieg der Barmherzigkeit (Austria 2017), Running time 24 minutes, in colour, academy ratio and with English sub-titles.

Musicologist Mr. Szabo has dedicated himself to collecting archival material from the history of Austrian pop music. Due to an unfortunate coincidence, an original stage costume of a Viennese beat band from the 60s ended up in a charity clothing collection. To retrieve the rare piece, Szabo doesn’t shy away from a veritable break-in. His young, aspiring colleague Mr. Fitzthum helps him – not entirely voluntarily. Unlike Szabo he has a lot to lose: his job, his career and above all, his freedom.

Albert Meisl’s bizarre is tale full of dry humour. Szabo is a full blown eccentric. Fitzthum is a naïve victim of Szabo’s obsession. They are caught in a series of whimsical situations.

A good and varied selection of films. Previous years had more avant-garde examples but this year’s all fell into a recognisable genre.

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