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The Post (USA/India 2017) with a Q&A

Posted by keith1942 on February 4, 2018

This is the new film directed by Steven Spielberg. It recounts that actual events [not completely accurately] around the publication of a set of secret documents that detailed the history of the war by the Unites States against Vietnam up until 1966. These documents revealed that, among other failings, the US administration, including Presidents, had lied to the US people. The film presents the story of how The Washington Post, with limited acknowledgement of The New York Times who actually broke the story, published parts of The Papers and successfully defended this in the Supreme Court of the USA. The film’s focus is primarily on the owner of the publishing company, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep); a company that owned other media including television stations. The other key character is the then editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Less centrally we see Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who leaked the documents; Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), then Secretary of Defence, who commission The Papers; various journalists and,. briefly, workers at the paper, opponents of the Vietnam War and, in reverse shots through a window, President Nixon (Curzon Dobell).

On Sunday January 28th the Hyde Park screened the title followed by a Q&A led by Granville Williams. This rather made up for every screening bar one in that week [Jupiter’s Moon on Tuesday] on the cinema’s single screen was this drama. Granville Williams is an experienced writer and commentator on the Media and the Press. For a long time he was the editor of the FreePress of the Campaign for Freedom in the Press and Media. Over a hundred people turned up for the screening and about half of them stayed for the Q&A.

Granville introduced the discussion with some background on the events depicted in the film. He commented that there were a selection of films that portrayed journalist in an ‘honourable’ light. He mentioned All the President’s Men (1976), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and Spotlight (2015). Not in the same class but also recent was State of Play (2009), inferior to the original British television version. Of course, classic Hollywood had a whole cycle of films about conscientious, determined and ‘freedom loving’ journalists: think Frank Capra and Howard Hawks.

Granville made the point that The Post does not offer a proper focus on the role of The New York Times. Moreover, The Washington Post, as the film characters tell us, was not national paper in the same way as The Times at this point. But in addition The Post only joined the criticisms of the US war in Vietnam in 1969.

Granville was not convinced by the characterisation of Katharine Graham in the film. The portrayal shows her as frequently hesitant, which was not his sense of the actual person. When she took over the company after the death of her husband [a nasty-sounding type) and her son, she started to change the paper. It was she that recruited Ben Bradlee as editor. Granville also reckoned that the actual Bradlee was more motivated by competition with The New York Times than the liberal cause; a point only slightly proposed in the film. And Granville lamented that since then both The Times and The Post had sunk to supporting the US military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One of the aspects of the film that did impress him was the focus on the actual process of printing the paper. But later shareholder pressure, [the film shows the company going ‘public’ on Wall Street] led to the introduce of new technology. There was a long strike in 1975 through 1976 which Granville compared to the events at Wapping organised by the Murdoch Press. And he noted that late in her life Graham supported Ronald Reagan.

Granville got a well deserved round of applause for this introduction and then we had some questions and comments by members of the audience.

A woman commented on the decline of the US provincial press, papers which are briefly referenced in the film, and noted that critical journalism on the war in Afghanistan tended to be in books rather than the mainstream media.

Granville gave an example of books produced by journalists, remarking that because much of this reportage was not aired on television the journalist had to rely on book publishing to recount their stories. He gave an example of one involving the USA where missiles supposedly supplied to the Mujahidin ended up in other hands. Regarding the provincial press in the USA he noted that this was a pale shadow of it former self.

A man asked about The New York Times’ role and compared the press role then and the seemingly chaotic media coverage in the USA today.

Granville praised the high standards that operated in The Times at this period. He noted that issues like ‘fake news’ were part of the problems in the USA media. But he pointed out there were still alternative press and media.

Another audience member commented that the crisis in journalism was not just in the USA but globally. He opined that there was also a crisis in the recruitment of a new generation of journalists which exacerbated problems. Granville concurred with this and cited the developments in Russia.

An earlier questioner returned to the state of the US press and regretted the demise of what was an array of ‘afternoon papers’ in the USA. She did though, see a ‘ray of light’ in the British Financial Times’ exposé of the events at the Presidents’ Club.

Granville picked up on the issue of ‘good journalism’. He noted a US report which showed that the number of major media corporations in the USA had reduced from 50 in 1953 to only 5 in 2004. He also noted similar problems in Britain and cited the increasing monopoly in the regional press.

Another questioner asked about the issue of ‘fake news’ and how this related to the representation of social groups in the newspaper industry in the USA.

Granville responded that there was a class division in the contemporary readership. The press mainly catered for the rich and affluent classes, exemplified in the type of advertising which catered for the well-off. He felt that a good newspaper should be rooted in communities. He noted how The Washington Post, even in it heyday, catered for the Washington elite. He gave as an example in Britain the Daily Mirror. Though he did not approve of Piers Morgan it should be noted that when he was editor, the paper opposed the military aggression in Iraq. The only other papers to do so were The Independent and The Guardian. He reckoned this was very much to do with The Mirror’s relationship to its readership. It was a paper that addressed work and working people.

I raised three points here. One was the failure of the film to represent the workers at The Post in any meaningful way. There was the almost complete absence of any representation of the Vietnamese People against whom the illegal war was waged. And I also suggested that The Post and The Times did not oppose the war per se but only the misconduct and cover-up by administrations.

Granville broadly agreed. He told a story about a CBS reporter who intervened when US soldiers were threatening to ‘incinerate’ Vietnamese woman and children. His employer, CBS, agonized over whether to run the story or not. When they did run the story, in a telephone call that mirrored scenes in the film, a White House aide rang and complained the network had ‘shit on the American Flag’. Granville went on to point out how the draft was class divided: working class recruits, frequently black, went to die in Vietnam whilst more affluent youngsters were able to avoid this.

The session wrapped up then with an appreciation of Granville’s presentation and responses.

I found this session following the film very helpful in getting to grips with the issues involved. My impression after the screening, including comments by other members of the audience, was that the majority were impressed with the film. I was not. Even as cinema I had lots of reservations. The film struck me as extremely conventional. For example, after the main title there is the whir and thump of a helicopter on the sound track and then it is 1966 and we see ‘grunts’ [US soldiers] forming up at a camp in Vietnam. There follows a night ‘firefight’ with the Viet Cong, merely shadows among the trees firing at the US squad. There is a cut to daytime and there is Daniel Ellsberg siting in the open at a typewriter on a makeshift desk. Where have I seen and heard this before?

There follows a sequence on a US plane flying from Vietnam. Ellsberg is called by Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara to support his claim that the war is going badly. But when the plane lands McNamara tells the assembled Press that the conduct of the war ‘exceeds our expectations’.

By 1969 Ellsberg is working at the RAND Corporation and has access to the report that McNamara commissioned on the history of the war in Vietnam, i.e. ‘The Pentagon Papers’. We see him smuggling out parts of this voluminous report and then, with help, photocopying pages whilst another man cuts off the ‘Top Secret’ titling on each page. This is the point in the film when the audience are given a sense of what is in these papers. This is a typical Hollywood trope; shots of sections of pages and particular paragraphs. It is a sort of montage just giving viewers snippets. It reminded me of a similar sequence in Reds (1981) where a potentially interesting discussion between John Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) is reduced to a series of snippets devoid of serious political content.

Several people have remarked that one needs a sense of ‘The Pentagon Papers’ to follow the early part of the film, as it fails to give a thorough presentation. This rather glib approach re-appears later in the film. The Washington Post receives copies of those parts of the papers purloined by Ellsberg. The editor and a group of journalist sort through these, under a deadline pressure, sifting out information for a major report. In this scene the papers are all mixed up and the journalists have to try and sort them. I found this odd. Given the type of character Ellsberg was this seems rather unlikely. Moreover it works as a way of producing more snippets from the papers. Individual journalists call out sentences of note from the papers, other journalist respond and add to this. It is melee of quotes that damn different Presidents but do not really give the overall sense, apart from a the recurring sense of administration lies and cover-ups. They do point the finger at all the Presidents, and we see their images at one point on screen: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and, now Nixon.

A major problem in the film follows from the way that the story is scripted. The original script was by Liz Hannah. This was worked over by Josh Singer. Spielberg does not have a script credits but he appears to have had some input here. The story focuses on The Washington Post and in particular the owner at this period [it was a family owned company] Katherine Graham. This choice immediately side-lines the role of The New York Times. Ellsberg initially pass the copies of the papers to a Times journalist, It was the New York Times that broke the story and was taking to court by the administration. The Supreme Court decision in this case involved both The New York Times and The Washington post. In fact, The Times was the paper that won a Pulitzer prize for its reporting of the issue.

So the central character in the film is Katherine Graham, owner of the publishing company. In what seems to be the influence of current gender concerns in the industry the film presents Graham as a woman resisting masculine hegemony in a world dominated by men. So at Board meetings Graham, despite being officially in control, is side-lined and patronised by the suited male members. The characters is written as repressed by this dominance but gradually emerging and exercising authority. Granville used the term ‘hesitant’ to describe the character. He questioned whether this was accurate: characterising her as powerful and decisive. I was unconvinced by the characterisation in the course of the film, it did not seem to fit. Whilst Streep does give a fine performance it also seemed rather mannered; she does have that tendency. In some scenes it reminded me of her performance in Florence Foster Jenkins (2016).

Another point is interesting. Granville commented on her now dead husband. Apparently at one point he had a very public affair with another woman, which was a humiliating experience for Graham in the closed circles of the Washington elite. That seems an aspect that would have fitted current Academe concerns. As it is the film overdoes the issue of gender. After the Supreme Court hearing we see Graham wending her way through a crowd of young, smiling women: no men in sight. That might happen in 2017, it seems much less likely in 1973.The film spends quite a lot of time on the issue of The Post going public, i.e. opening up the company to investors beyond the family and selling these on the Wall Street Stock Exchange. Thus brings an added set of pressures on the paper and on Graham. We see several board meetings where Graham is patronised by the male members and where they also oppose the paper’s reporting of The Pentagon Papers as likely to undermine the business. The film takes this type of capitalist system for granted. There is not really a questioning of either family control of a media business and the question of financial control is not addressed. There is a sort irony here because the film is distributed by Fox Searchlight, part of a prime example of a family controlled media empire. I did wonder if I should boo when the Fox Searchlight logo appeared.

The film also spends time on the family life of Graham and of her editor Bradlee. Graham’s daughter is shown as supportive and there are references to the dead husband and son. In Bradlee’s case we see his young daughter, a budding entrepreneur who makes dollars selling lemonade to the working journalists; a missed opportunity for irony. None of the other characters enjoy this sort of personal background, certainly not Ellsberg, who we learn in dialogue has recently married.

I also had reservations about the characterisation of Ben Bradlee. In the early stages we get sense of how important is the competitive aspect with The New York Times for The Post editor. But in the later stages and by the climax the emphasis is on Press Freedom and the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The role does not effect the sharp edge that Newspaper editors need, brilliantly done by Jason Robards as the same character in All The Presidents’ Men and also well done by John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr. in Spotlight. Tom Hanks does a fair job with the role and I think the weakness is in the writing. There is a scene with Graham and Bradlee as they survey set of regional titles now carrying reports on The Papers. This is an example of collective defence but their main response is that it demonstrates that The Post has arrived as a ‘national newspaper’.

In fact the film does not develop journalistic practices as effectively as the other films mentioned. The only journalist/editor whose work we see in some detail is Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), who was the paper’s staff member who actually received The Papers from Ellsberg. But even here little space is giving to his journalistic work in reporting this. That is an aspect, as with journalist investigation that both All The President’s Men and Spotlight do very well. There is little of this in The Post. The scene that I mentioned earlier where Bradlee and a team sort through The Papers does not have much of a journalistic flavour and is more concerned with presenting notable snippets to viewers.

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The same applies to the print workers at the paper. We get a series of close-ups of the machinery as the reports are printed. However, the shot of the print workers are mainly long-shots and only concerned with their actions, at the machinery or loading the printed papers onto lorries. There is one shot where the workers pick up the printed newspapers as they stream from the machinery, but there is no indication of their responses. A comparable sequence in the British political thriller Defence of the Realm (1986) does offer some characterisation of the print-workers on a British paper.

A similar problem applies to the other ordinary workers we see in the film. We do get a slight cameo from a secretary as Graham attends the Supreme Court for the hearings. But this scene seems mainly designed to reinforce the message re gender, as the secretary complains about her boss, a Senator,.

The ‘grunts’ in the opening sequence do a little better. We hear their dialogue, but this is so that we know that Daniel Ellsberg is going with them into the jungle. Here, in a night scene, we get our single look at the Vietnamese, shadows behind trees and foliage firing at the US soldiers. The peace groupings opposed to the war do little better. We see a protest where just about everyone is dressed like hippies and as a man takes up a microphone: we cut to another scene. I could not see any of the Vietnam veterans, already s significant force by this stage.

And we see only glimpses of the Supreme Court Justices, the event that the whole of the previous film has been leading up to. The decision is actually heard own a telephone as a breathless woman office worker calls out the result. President Nixon does somewhat better than these social groupings. We see and hear him several times, in a reverse shot as he stands by a White House window talking down the telephone; these lines seem some of the most accurate in the film and are presumably taken from the infamous tape recordings.

Individually, many of these decisions in the film could be justified. However, overall it renders the storytelling extremely conventional. The focus of gender is fine, but it denies space to equally important issues such as class and imperial xenophobia. It apparently also denies space to anti-racism. There were some black faces, including among the ‘grunts’. But they were not noticeable on The Post. Yet Granville pointed out that, due to the Civil Rights movement, by this stage the paper had recruited a number of young Afro-Americans. The treatment also undermines generic features,. Several critics describe the films as ‘political thriller’. But I found the story, even in the sequences meant to generate tension, lacking in this. Many of the audience will know from history that The Post [and the New York Times] won the battle. So the lengthy sequences where the editor and his journalists or Graham and her board members debate the issuer lacked tension over the outcome.

This is matter of style. Spotlight was a film where many of us knew the outcome but the film still generated tension in certain sequences. Spotlight also effectively gave voice to the victims of Church abuse. This, as I suggest, is missing in The Post. And it is missing in the treatment of Ellsberg. We only find out in the dialogue that he was recently married when these event occurred. He does not receive the family context awarded to Graham and Bradlee. Much of the film was predictable including the closing shots, the Watergate Building as the staff discover the burglars sent by the White House. This is an unfortunate choice. It reminds viewers of the fine political thriller, All the Presidents’ Men. That is a film that dramatises a parallel story, present journalist practice very effectively, ramps up the tension in many sequences, and is able to give viewers a clear sense of the crimes perpetrated.

The Post was put together when another Spielberg project fell through. Apparently it was made relativity fast. This may account for the main weak aspects of the film. It compares unfavourably with other treatments. A particularly good example is The Most Dangerous Man in America.: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers [the first part of the title is a quote by Henry Kissinger, [another participants never bought to justice]. This is a documentary partially narrated by Ellsberg himself. It was written by Lawrence Lerew & Rick Goldsmith & Judith Ehrlich & Michael Chandler. The film was directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith for Goldsmith’s company Kovno Communications. It premiered in the USA on Public Broadcast Television and has been seen at festivals and on national television networks. It won an Academy Award as Best Documentary.

The film covers a lot of matters left out in The Post. We learn much more about Ellsberg, his career and his motivations. The story of The New York Times is fully presented. And the events that follows between publication in the two papers and the Supreme Court hearings are filled in. Thus it becomes clear that Ellsberg passed The Pentagon Papers to other new outlets who also printed them. And we see a US Senator, Mike Gravel, who read extensive extracts from The Papers into the Congressional record.

Some of the scenes, like that between Ellsberg and McNamara flying back from Vietnam, are extremely similar: both part of the record. But Ellsberg experiences in Vietnam and researching the war is presented in an extensive fashion. Even here it is difficult give a comprehensive sense of the exposure but it is fuller than in the Hollywood version. And in a small but significant scene we see the print-workers at The Post congratulating each other as the newspapers, with the reports, stream off the machines.

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Granville also prepared some notes prior to the screening which include some of the books he mentioned:

The Post in an honourable addition to Hollywood films All The Presidents Men (1976), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Spotlight (2015)) which portray journalists and journalism in a positive way, as opposed to grubby hacks chasing squalid, sensational headlines .

When I see films like these I wonder why UK film directors haven’t tackled such subjects. Couldn’t the dogged work of Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, as he probed and finally exposed the industrial scale of phone-hacking at Murdoch’s News of the World, be a suitable subject?

The credits for The Post say it is ‘based on a true story’ and whilst I can quibble with the way the film modifies some of the facts about the way the Washington Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, finally came to back publication of the Pentagon Papers, I think the film captures perfectly how enmeshed she was in the Washington elite and the political and commercial pressures on her to take an easier route, and not publish the papers.

I will talk more about this in the Q&A session following the 5.00pm showing of the film on Sunday 28 January at the Hyde Park Picture House. Here I just want to develop a couple of points about two aspects of the film.

One is the way that Spielberg focuses on the old hot metal printing press scenes and the workings of the Linotype machines assembling the lines of type for the stories. It’s very evocative.

In 1975 after Watergate there was a ferocious strike by printers which set her and the newspaper on a conservative course. Graham devoted dozens of pages in her autobiography Personal History to vilifying Post press operators who went on strike in 1975. She stressed the damage done to printing equipment as the walkout began and “the unforgivable acts of violence throughout the strike.”

John Hanrahan, a Newspaper Guild member at the Post, wouldn’t cross the picket lines and never went back. He pointed out,

“The Washington Post under Katharine Graham pioneered the union-busting ‘replacement worker’ strategy that Ronald Reagan subsequently used against the air-traffic controllers and that corporate America — in the Caterpillar, Bridgestone/Firestone and other strikes — used to throw thousands of workers out of their jobs in the 1980s and the ’90s.”

The other point is on the role of Ben Bagdikian in the film – he’s the journalist who gets access to Daniel Ellsberg and persuades him to hand over 4000 pages for the Post to use. He was national editor on the Post, a man who the editor, Ben Bradlee, in his autobiography, ‘A Good Life’, describes as ‘thorny’. Bagdikian had a big influence on me, and others interested in media reform. He wrote a key book ‘The Media Monopoly’ (1983) which warned about the chilling effects of corporate ownership and mass advertising on US media. Fifty corporations owned most of the US media when he wrote the first edition. By the time he wrote ‘The New Media Monopoly’ (2004) it had dwindled to five.

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Granville made a mention of Ken Burns documentary series The Vietnam War (2017), which has been screened on BBC 4. However, it should be noted that the original was 18 hours of archive material and comment. The version transmitted by the BBC only ran a little over nine hours. Worse, at no point did the BBC publicity or announcements point out that this was a truncated version.

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Posted in History on film, Hollywood, Movies with messages | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Giant / Kyojinden, Japan 1938

Posted by keith1942 on January 23, 2018

This film was part of the programme of ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2017. The ‘Valley of Darkness’ was the period in the 1930s when Japan was under militaristic rule. So the films in this programme were examples of liberal and critical cinema. The notes by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström explained

here, he [the director Itami Mansaku] relocated ‘Les Misérables’ to Kyushi and the era of the Satsuma Rebellion. Victor Hugo’s novel was a totemic one for liberal Japanese intellectuals in the early twentieth century, and its anti-authoritarian and humanist sentiments were daring in the age of militarism.”

The ‘Satsuma Rebellion’ was a key event following the ‘Meiji restoration of 1868. This ushers in the period of modernisation in Japan. Wikipedia has a detailed article on the Rebellion:

“The Satsuma Rebellion (西南戦争 Seinan Sensō, “Southwestern War”) was a revolt of disaffected samurai against the new imperial government, nine years into the Meiji Era. Its name comes from Satsuma Domain, which had been influential in the Restoration and became home to unemployed samurai after military reforms rendered their status obsolete. The rebellion lasted from January 29, 1877, until September of that year, when it was decisively crushed and its leader, Saigō Takamori, committed seppuku after being mortally wounded.”

This was a key event in modern Japanese history. Intriguingly three of the films in the Ritrovato programme were set round this event. It would seem that it had particular relevance in a period dominated by the military and in which the military and right-wing grouping constantly referred to the values associated with the Samurai.

The film opens well into the story of the convict protagonist. In a small town we find crowds celebrating, food stalls and brass bands: the occasion is the unveiling of a bust of the Mayor. The Mayor, Onuma (Okochi Denjiro), arrived ‘from somewhere up north’ and has benefited the town. Onuma meets the ‘the new man’ with the police, Sogabe Yajiro (Maruyama Sadao), who feels that ‘we’ve met before’. The celebrations are interrupted by a fire and a man trapped in the flames. A barred window prevents his rescue but Onuma breaks in and carries shim to safety. The rescue causes Sogabe to comment that

“only one man could free him’ in that way.”

We now have one of the several flashback sin the film. Onuma was at one time imprisoned on Toro Island and made to work as forced labour in a mine. His original sentence had extended by attempted escapes to nineteen years. But he tries again, killing a guard in the process, Travelling on the road he is given food and shelter by a priest (Shiome Yo) in a small temple. Sanpei repays his hospitality by stealing a candlestick, but this one is gold rather than silver. Caught and bought back to the Temple by the police, Sanpei is saved when the priest provides his alibi. As Sanpei leaves with two candlesticks the priest essays

“Promise me, starting today, you won’t do anything wrong”.

Sanpei will be true to the promise he gives, we even have the scene where he is guilt-struck after purloining a young boy’s coin.

Years on Sanpei, now Onuma, has become the Mayor and is a wealthy and respected citizen. Sogabe’s investigations lead to Onuma attending a court hearing and clearing a man wrongly suspected of being the escaped convict Sanpei. Another flashback fills out events at this point.

Onuma has also encountered the case of Ofude (Hanbusa Yuriko), hospitalised after losing her job. Despite Onuma’s care she dies. When he flees because of the discovery of his past he goes to succour her daughter Chiyo (Katagiri Hinako), in the ‘care’ of exploitative foster parents. When they move on it is with a doll that he has bought Chiyo.

 

Years later the setting is the Southern Island off Kyushi. Onuma is older and now known as Sankichi. Chiyo is now a young woman, [played by the young Hara Setsuko, a treat for Ozu fans in the audience). Her romantic object is a young English teacher, Ryoma (Sayama Ryo), who provides language lessons, [a reference to the modernization process]. The various other characters from the original have their equivalents, including Okuni (Tsutsumi Masako) as the girl sweet on Ryoma, and Goro (Imaizumi Kei) as the urchin who dies on the barricades. These are part of the rebellion in which all the characters are caught up. Sankichi has to rescue Ryoma, thus enabling the union which he initially opposed. Sogabe continuous his relentless hunt, but finally is struck by Sankichi/Onuma/Sanpei’s humanity. These events take place in canal from which Sankichi and Ryoma emerge to Chiyo’s relief. The film closes on the young couple and Sankichi and Old Seike (Osamu Takizawa), Ryoma’s grandfather. The latter jokes that one should

“’Give your children the dolls they like’.

At which the two men laugh.

It will be clear that the film is fairly faithful to the Hugo novel. The opening, set at the point when Sogabe once more encounters Sanpei/Onuma, is very effective: as are the flashbacks that fill in the story. Where the film replaces French events and places with Japanese these are well chosen. Whilst the Rebellion may speak to 1930s Japan, in terms of the history it is the obvious conflict that is equivalent to the Paris insurrection in the novel.

The cast are good and Okochi Denjiro is splendid as the Japanese version of the immensely strong Jean Valjean. The script does not give Maruyama Sadao’s version of Javert the obsessive drive for what he considers justice, but he does effect the relentless pursuit of the convict.

The film ran for 127 minutes in a 35mm print with English subtitles. So, as with most screen versions, there is considerable compression. But, as will be clear, what many readers remember from the novel is there on screen.

Posted in Japanese film, Literature on Film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Nineteen Eighty-Four: Adaptations and Reformulations of Orwell’s Novel

Posted by keith1942 on December 25, 2017

The grim futurist vision in Orwell’s famous novel would seem not to have come to pass. Even though, thirty years further on from the titular date, we still have not suffered the dystopia he envisaged, the book remains a potent and influential text. Orwell’s novel reflected a host of influences: his early life and preparatory school: his experience of the depression in the 1930s: his experience of sectarianism, the suppression of anarcho-syndicalist organisations in Barcelona in 1937: his experience of the destruction and scarcity of the war years: his time at the BBC and his experience of its bureaucracy: his readings and knowledge of events both in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, including Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’ (1940), and of the Fascist dictatorships in the 1920s and 1930s: and writing the novel in the post-war world of rationing and the ‘cold war’.

There is also the influence of the earlier novel by Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1931), though this book relies on hedonistic addiction rather than brutal surveillance. A stronger influence would be the Soviet novel We (Мы)  a dystopian story by Yevgeny Zamyatin completed in 1921. There are many plot cross-overs though Yevgeny’s novel is set farther in the future in an advanced technological society.

Orwell’s vision is bleak and pessimistic. He subscribes to the notion of a totalitarian state. And as is common with that concept he elides the political economy of his society. Whilst it offers some version of socialism it also appears to operate under a system of commodity production and exchange.

The book has been adapted into plays, radio plays [including ‘The Goons’], for television [including the trivial Room 101]; into an opera and even a ballet; the last impressed me more than I expected. Predictably there are also television and film feature length versions: some attempt a literal translation others involve influence or reformulation.

The BBC broadcast an adaption in 1954: CBS had already broadcast a US Network version in 1953. The BBC production was written by Nigel Kneale, a key figure in television science fiction. It was directed by Rudolph Cartier who was a seminal figure in early British television drama. The production was recorded in a studio with filmed inserts. The dominance of close-ups and fairly bare television sets works to generate a real sense of paranoia appropriate to the book. This version closely follows the book though some sections are elided, as for example with the exterior sequences in the ‘prole’ area. We do get the INGSOC slogans, examples of Newspeak and references to the critical work of Emmanuel Goldstein. However, the long analysis in Orwell’s book from this source is missing. The film does essay the brutal interrogations inflicted by O’Brien and the final defeatist sequence. Peter Cushing as Winston and André Morell as O’Brien stand out in a strong cast.

In 1956 Holiday Film Productions filmed the novel in the UK at the Elstree Studio, including using London locations. This is an inferior version to the BBC production. The translation to the screen cuts down on the novel, much of the plot is there but the discussions of the politics and values of Oceania are missing as is the analysis of Goldstein. One addition is Winston demonstrating to the Telescreen in his flat that he is not carrying any forbidden items. Names are changed, O’Brien becomes O’Connor and Goldstein becomes Kalador. The film was a tool in the Cold War. The United States Information Agency provided about a third of the budget. The emphasis of the film is the ‘Red Menace’. An introductory title tells us it is not science fiction but set ‘in the immediate future’. At the film’s end a voice over enjoins that this fate await our children if we ‘fail to preserve our heritage of freedom’. The film was shot in London and aims for a realistic narrative giving a contemporary feel. Some of this is very well done and evocative. There are two striking shots in particular. One, of feet ascending steps in Trafalgar Square, seems [wittingly or unwittingly] to invert the famous shots from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). And, near the end, there is a striking overhead shot of Winston as he stands before a large poster of Big Brother. In fact there were two endings. The one for the US market closely followed the book. However, for the UK,

“It seems that the BBC flap prompted Columbia Pictures, the distributors, to shoot two endings, one faithful to the novel and the other more hopeful.” (Tony Shaw, 2006).

1984 (1956)
Directed by Michael Anderson
Shown: Edmond O’Brien

Similar influences lay behind the 1954 adaptation of Orwell’s other dystopian fable, Animal Farm. The animation by Joy Batchelor and John Halas is excellent but the film strays from Orwell’s original in ways that parallel the Holiday Film 1984. There are also several television films of this novel. I did wonder if the CBS television version of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ had a similar provenance.

Then in the actual year of 1984 Virgin Cinema Films produced a version, set in London and filmed in the locations listed in the book and in the time-frame of the book (April to June) and adhering Orwell’s original title. It opens with an onscreen quotation from the book,

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

The film was scripted by Michael Radford with added material by Jonathan Gems and directed by Michael Radford. The two key characters are John Hurt as Winston and Richard Burton as O’Brien. Hurt is aptly cast, Burton never quite achieves O’Brien’s Machiavellian persona. But the major problem is the scripting. The film emphasizes the subjective viewpoint of Winston Smith. Some of this, like the diary with an internal voice, is very effective, as are flashbacks to Winston’s childhood. The book’s analysis is only briefly presented. At one point Winston reads to Julia from Goldstein’s book the passage about war, but little else. Oddly when Winston visits O’Brien [alone] the latter is not explicit about claiming to be part of the undergrounds. Even more oddly there are a series of ‘dream’ sequences which involve a door marked ‘101’ opening onto a green but artificial landscape bathed in sunlight. At various points the landscape includes Winston, Winston and Julia, Winston and O’Brien and all three: plus one shot where it is empty. Room 1001 is one of the memorable inventions in Orwell’s book, the site of the ultimate torture and mind-bending experience. But what exactly these ‘dream’ sequences’ were meant to suggest is not really resolved though they obviously provide an opposition to the actual Room 101 and stress Winston’s subjective stance. Perhaps they relate to the final ambiguous shot of Winston, face screwed up, mumbling ‘I love Big Brother’.

The sound and vision of the film is effective. The production design presents a sort of grunge war-time Britain. This is shot with great skill by Roger Deakins, director of photography and camera operator. And the Eastman film stock received special processing to achieve the desaturated look. But the story within this feels rather hollow and never achieves the grim dystopian feel of the book.

Released only a year later Brazil (UK 1985) is in many ways the most brilliant of  cinematic rendering of Orwell’s novel. It is directed by Terry Gilliam, combining his usual surrealist touches with sardonic often macabre humour and a wishful romanticism. The script, by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown is witty though the narrative does fly off at tangents at times. The design, cinematography and special effects are all excellent and contribute to making this bizarre dystopia believable. The basic modus operandi of the film is to invert just about every aspect of the Orwellian original. So whilst the literary Winston might seem to be driven by a search for father figures this protagonist, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), is mother fixated. In fact his romantic ideal, Jill Layton (Kim Greist), seems at times interchangeable with his mother Mrs Ida Lowry (Katherine Helmond): there is even a brief visual reference to Vertigo (1958). The dystopia is a world of bureaucratic ministries gone mad, driven by control freaks and obsessed with covering over errors. The war is replaced by faceless urban terrorists. The surveillance and policing is overbearing but also fails to achieve its objectives.  The buildings are grandiose but the technology is constantly breaking down and operating incorrectly. The slogans are less frequent, also inverted, but just as disturbing,

“Truth is Freedom.”

It is also a capitalist society based on commodity production.

This film has the familiar look of Gilliam’s style: I was especially taken with a automated surveillance machine that acted rather like an eager puppy. There is a brief visual reference to Potemkin, [playing with the 1956 version?] Like its immediate predecessor, and typical of Gilliam’s work, the film offers a series of fantasy/dreams. These offer alternative romantic and upbeat sequences to the dystopian world. And, unlike the preceding Ninety Eighty-Four, they come together at the conclusion to offer resolution between the subjective and objective worlds in the film. That conclusion plays intriguingly with that in Orwell’s novel. The film repeatedly offers sequences that are as brutal and downbeat as the novel. And, like Orwell, Gilliam and his team come up with original and distinctive images and motifs. Hapless victims are trussed in metal tagged sacks for torture. The site of this is Room 5001. But the ‘brainwashed’ or ‘unthinking populace’ are not central except in the brutally realistic terrorist acts.

A slightly earlier science fiction film is an example of influence rather than transposition, Blade Runner (1982). We have replicants instead of proles or perpetrators of ‘thought crime’. But we do have the intrusive surveillance in what is clearly another dystopia. And the impressive design of this film also harks back to Orwell.

“The Ministry of Truth … was startlingly different from other objects in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” (‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, Orwell).

Intriguingly the original release version also contained the much criticised flight by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young) from the city to a green landscape. This parallels the setting presented [dreamlike] at the end of Brazil and it is similar to the dreams of Hurt’s character, Winston, in his subjective version of Room 101. In the book green countryside is the site of Winston’s and Julia’s first tryst and initial sexual acts. Otherwise Orwell’s book is resolutely urban, conjuring up the traditional opposition between the urban and the rural that is a central trope in traditional melodrama.

That is also a trope in another dystopian film, Logan’s Run (1976): though that film seems to be more influenced by Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. That would also be true of the far better science fiction film Gattaca (1997). Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is probably influenced by both but the idea of firemen who burn books and an underground dedicated to memorising forbidden texts appears to be a riposte by the original author Ray Bradbury to Orwell.

There are indeed many other films that offer examples of the influence of Orwell’s classic. Dark City (1998) has another dystopia, somewhat removed from the world described by Orwell, but whose hero suffers the problem of rediscovering the actual past whilst an underworld power controls to a degree how people perceive. This is one among a number of suggestions on the Web by fans of the novel and its numerous re-interpretations. Robert Harris, the novelist, regards ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ as the most influential novel in modern writing. His books reflect this, as do film versions such as Fatherland (1994) and his screenplay for The Ghost Writer (2010).

And the cycle will probably continue, a

‘Romantic’ new version of 1984 planned with Kristen Stewart’ (Yahoo Movies in 2016).

seems to have fallen by the wayside. It is a sign of how Orwell’s nightmare vision has gripped the popular imagination that artists continually return to his classic novel. It seems that ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ will be with us for many years to come.

There are many articles and books and Web postings on Orwell and ‘1984’. Especially useful for Film Studies is Tony Shaw, 2006 – British Cinema and the Cold War The State, Propaganda and Consensus, I. B. Tauris, London and New York. This article was originally  written for the Media Education Journal, Issue 60, which celebrated the magazine which first appeared in 1984. It seemed a nice touch to write about Orwell’s now famous year.

Posted in British films, Literature on Film, Movies with messages, Science Fiction | Leave a Comment »

La Bête Humaine., France 1938

Posted by keith1942 on December 12, 2017

 

The novel is part of Émile Zola’s great fictional series, Les Rougon-Macquart. This chain of novels takes its title from the two families who are the subject of the stories. The Rougons are bourgeois in the French sense, what in the UK is colloquially refereed to as upper middle class. The Macquarts are rural poor and become urban working class. The stories are set in the second Empire; that fairly reactionary regime lorded over by Louis-Napoleon. Zola’s approach belongs to the new naturalism of the later nineteenth century, very detailed and realistic portrayals, which the author equated with the work of experimental scientists.  Zola’s political stance tended towards socialism, but he was also strongly influenced by recent environmental and hereditary studies.

These conflicting factors can be seen at work in La Bête Humaine. The novel has very detailed and convincing passages on the industry and its workers. One fine chapter, which has not made it into any of the film adaptations that I have seen, recounts a hazardous and arduous train journey through snow and blizzards. Many of the motivations of the characters arise from the social relations in which they are trapped. Yet the central character, Jacques Lantier, [the offspring of the two main protagonists in L’Assommoir], is in the grip of a violent obsession, which the author attributes to genetic factors, ‘and bad blood’.

Film Adaptations.

As might be expected Zola has been a popular source for film versions. L’Assommoir appears to have provided the basis for a 1902 short film. And there were other early adaptations by filmmaker as prominent as D. W. Griffith [A Drunkard’s Reformation 1909] and Victor Sjöström [Germinal, 1913]. The 1913 French adaptation of the same novel by Albert Capellani runs for 147 minutes. It is distinguished by its use of actual locations and a strong identification with the striking miners. It struck me as more political than the Zola original.

In 1918 there was a silent version of La Bête Humaine. And in the 1920s another Germinal, and versions of Nana, Therese Raquin and L’Argent. With the arrival of sound further film versions of some of these novels were produced. And from the 1930s until the present day Zola remains a popular source, with a new Germinal in the 1990s and Nana in 2002. The most recent versions of La Bête Humaine appear to have been in the 1950s.

1930s.

Despite the International dominance of Hollywood French film was relatively successful in this period, [more so than British film]. In the late 1930s there were a series of films that were successful at the domestic box office and garnered high praise from critics. A key cycle of films was known as Poetic Realism. This cycle shared some characteristics with the later Hollywood film noir.  The settings were associated with criminality, and the use of light and shadow created a world of darkness and danger. Two key filmmakers in this cycle were the scriptwriter Jacques Prévert and the director Marcel Carné. One of their finest collaborations is Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938). An army deserter arrives in Le Havre. He is adopted by a stray dog, falls in love with an orphan girl, and crosses the leader of a local criminal gang. The tragic ending is clearly foreshadowed in the settings, all shadows and mist. The star is Jean Gabin. He provides a strong sense of romantic fatalism, which characterised this and the other poetic realist films. The endings are uniformly tragic, unlike the Hollywood film noir, where the films sometimes lead to death [e.g. Double Indemnity, 1944] but just as often the hero wins through [On Dangerous Ground, 1951].  In the Quai des Brumes the hero is led on by a fatal romance, but the heroine is romantic. In French noir there tends to be less emphasis on the heroine as duplicitous and dangerous, again different from the femme fatale in film noir.

‘Quai des brumes’

Jean Renoir

Renoir is one of the most renowned film directors in French Cinema, indeed across World Cinema. His father was the famous Impressionist painter. The young Jean entered French filmmaking in the 1920s, still the era of silent films. One of his early films was an adaptation of Zola’s novel Nana [1926]. A slum girl rises to become a demimondaine [a woman outside respectable society]. I feel that the film fails because Catherine Hessling [who plays Nana] does not bring the character alive or make her believable.

In the sound era Renoir directed a film version of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. It is far closer to the book than the Hollywood version, both in plot and in its view of Emma Bovary. However, it suffered because the producers did not allow Renoir to make the full versions that he desired. One important film of his in this period is Toni [1935]. A story set among Italian migrants, the film was an early example of location filming and the use of non-professionals. It was an important influence on the later Italian neo-realist movement.

Like many artists and intellectuals Renoir was extremely sympathetic to the Popular Front, which won the French elections in 1936. He directed La Marseillaise, a film about the original revolutionary volunteers from Marseilles in 1789. It was partly funded by trade unions and subscriptions. Prior to this he had also made Le Crime de Monsieur Lange [1935), partly a thriller, it is set in a workers print co-operative. This is one of his finest films and has a powerful sense of community and co-operation.

The overt class-conscious themes in these films weaken in the late 1930s. La Bête Humaine, whilst it has a strong sense of industry and the world of work has little evidence of co-operation. In fact it shares the pessimism that seemed so central to the poetic realist cycle. It is a pessimism that is one powerful strand in his later masterpiece, La Regle du Jeu (1939). That film so angered audiences that the prints were cut, then withdrawn and finally banned. The film was later restored in the 1950s and gained a reputation as one of the all-time great films. It is worth noting that both La Bête Humaine  and La Regle du Jeu were both banned under the German occupation.

La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast). France 1938.

Director Jean Renoir Scenario Jean Renoir based on the novel by Zola Photography Curt Courant Art Direction Eugène Lourié Music Joseph Kosma Editor Marguer­ite Renoir. Cast Jean Gabin, Julien Car­ette, Fernand Ledoux, Jean Renoir, Si­mone Simon, Jenny Hélia, Blanchette Brunoy. Production Paris Films. 99 minutes. Black and white.

“Lantier (Gabin), a railway mechanic and hereditary alcoholic, is pushed into crime. He becomes the lover of Séverine (Simon), who wants him to kill her hus­band, Roubaud (Ledoux), himself a criminal, but he ends by strangling her.

Renoir, after the unmerited failure of La Maseillaise (1937), agreed to make this film because Gabin very much wanted to play a railway worker. He had less than vague memories of the novel, which is far from being one of Zola’s best, and is one in which the three pro­tagonists are modern Atridae [classical Greek reference], whose heredity condemned them to worse crimes. With some hesitation he rejected an adaptation by Roger Martin Du Gard that concluded with the declaration of war in August 1914, and finally himself wrote a scenario that mainly retained “a love story of the railroads” from the ori­ginal novel.

The opening sequence showing, in a doc­umentary style, the Paris-Le Havre run seen from a train, is a masterpiece of editing and perfect simplicity. It is comparable to another sequence, less impressionistic but still very beautiful, showing the life of the migrant railway workers. In this way, Renoir depicted Lantier’s social milieu by showing him at work. His impulse to murder is power­fully but quietly expressed in the brief scene showing his desire to kill a woman (Brunoy) who had given herself to him while a train was passing. Later, the drama becomes more involved and three sequences are equally admirable: the killing committed by Roubaud in an ex­press; the attempt to kill him in the noc­turnal setting of the railway tracks; the final strangling of Séverine, intercut with a railway workers’ fair, while a voice on the soundtrack sings a turn-of-the-­century ballad.

“I try to discover the unity of action before considering the unity of place and time,” wrote Renoir. La Bête Humaine is far superior to La Grande Illusion and was far from being a commercial failure. [It apparently did well internationally including in the USA. There it was one important influence on the film noir cycle]. However, some critical attacks hampered its success. M. Vinel (Rebatet), though he did not deny the qualities of the film, set the pattern in L’Action Fran­çaise: “In politics, Renoir is out of the same Jewish-Democratic lineage as Zola. We hope we will not see him again in the miry rut of the class cinema.”

The acting is of exceptional quality. It is one of Gabin’s great roles and Carette responds intelligently to his performance. Simone Simon is a Séverine of tragic proportions, while Ledoux, as the callous Roubaud, is remarkable.” (Georges Sadoul in his Dictionary of Films, 1965, translated by Peter Morris).

Renoir on La Bête Humaine

“Those first-hand railway shots were in any case highly dangerous. The State Railways had lent us ten kilometres of track on which we could run and stop the train as we pleased. We hitched a platform truck, carrying the lighting generator, to the locomotive, and behind this an ordinary coach which served as a make-up and rest-room for the actors between scenes. When I decided to shoot with these hindrances I encountered lively opposition. It was pointed out to me that mock-ups had been perfected to the point where it was impossible to tell them from first-hand shooting. But I was unshakable in my belief in the influence of the setting on the actors, and fortunately I won the day. Gabin and Carette could never have played so realistically in front of an artificial background, if only because the very noise forced them to communicate by means of ges­tures.

The cameramen were Curt Courant and my nephew, Claude Renoir. Curt Courant was a skinny little man, a real featherweight. He was always in danger of being carried off by the wind which blew like the devil through that rushing studio and more than once I had to grab hold of him to prevent him being swept away. Claude had attached a small platform to the side of the locomotive which he occupied with his camera. The camera stuck out a little too far and was knocked off at the entrance to a tunnel; but Claude hung on and came through unscathed.

La Bête Humaine strengthened my longing to achieve poetic realism. The steel mass of the locomotive became in my imagination the flying carpet of oriental fable. Zola, from the depths of the grave, gave me powerful assistance. His novels are filled with wonderful passages of popular poetry. For example, Séverine and Jacques Lentier [Lantier] have arranged to meet in the Square des Batignolles. It is their first meeting. Jacques Lentier is so moved that he cannot utter a word. Séverine says with a faint smile, `Don’t look it me like that, you’ll wear your eyes out.’ A trifle, but it had to be thought of. The setting of locomotives, railroad sidings and puffs of steam had furnished me with that poetry or rather had supplied it to the actors and enabled them to get into the skin of their parts better than any amount.”  (My Life and My Films by Jean Renoir, translated by Norman Denny. Da Capo, 1974).

There is a Hollywood version of the Zola novel, Human Desire [1954}. The film was produced at the Columbia Studio, and directed by German émigré Fritz Lang. The stars are Glen Ford, Gloria Grahame and Broderick Crawford. Given this was the 1940s and the period of the Hays Code, it is unsurprising that the adaptation diverges in important ways from the novel.

Notes for a course on European literature on Film.

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Two Post-Franco Political Thrillers From Spain

Posted by keith1942 on December 5, 2017

These films were part of a programme of ‘States of danger and deceit’ produced by the Manchester HOME together with the British Film Institute. Much of the programme was screened at the recent Leeds International Film Festival. Most of the titles were on digital but these two were shown in their original film formats. Both films were interesting because they were produced in the period between the death of General Franco in 1975 and the attempted military coup by fascist elements in the army in 1981. In this period there was a gradual move towards a western capitalist style democratic government, [‘La Transición’]. Because of the competing social movements the progress was slow. It was only in 1977 that the Communist Party of Spain [Partido Comunista de España] was legalized and Trade Union laws liberalised.

El diputado / The Deputy  (1978),  was written and directed by Eloy de la Iglesia  from a story by Gonzalo Goicoechea. The main character, Roberto Orbea (José Sacristán), is an elected Congressman in the Spanish Cortes. He is a member of the opposition party, though in the film this is unclear if it is meant to be the Socialist Party of Spain [Partido Socialista Obrero Español] or the Communist Party of Spain: the dialogue frequently references ‘communist’ but the organisation looks closer to socialist,.

Roberto is either homosexual or bi-sexual. He is married but becomes involved with a ‘rent boy’ and then with an underage gigolo, Juanito (José Luis Alonso). Same-sex relationships were only legalised in 1979 with the age of consent set at sixteen. The film  presents a series of flashbacks, most of which are ‘remembered’ by Roberto as he is driven to the Party Congress where he is expected to be elected Secretary. The earliest occurs during the Franco regime when Roberto, involved in underground activities, is caught and interrogated by the secret police. His interrogation leads to him being hospitalised where he meets Nes (Ángel Pardo). After his release he commences homosexual acts with him: and then is introduced to Juanito. Over this period ‘La Transición’ commences so Roberto’s affair, which is passionate and obsessive on his part, offers the opportunity for blackmail by a shadowy right-wing group.

The film struck me as more interested in the homoerotic aspects of the story than in the political. In fact, the director, is a ‘gay socialist’. The film spends much of its time on the homosexual relationships with a number of explicit sequences. It would appear to have taken advantage of the liberalisation of the period.

Roberto’s character is well played but I found his actions somewhat unconvincing. He seems incredibly naïve for a man who had worked in an underground organisation and is set to become a national political leader. My colleague Roy Stafford suggested that

” I think we have to accept that Roberto genuinely loves Juanito and can’t let him go…”.

He also included a reference to the British film Victim (1961) which offers an interesting comparison.

I remain sceptical. Apart from Roberto’s naivety the dialogue relating to politics, and especially to Marxism, are fairly simplistic. I think this is part of the film’s predominant interest in sexuality rather than political.

Another limitation of the film is Roberto’s wife Carmen, who is aware of his homosexual activities and goes along with them. Carmen (María Luisa San José) is a seriously underdeveloped character. The film does not really explore her situation or motivation. Later in the film and the relationships Juanito becomes a regular participant of the family, i.e. Roberto and Carmen. He is treated almost like an adopted son and we are told is introduced to friends as a relative.

Junaito’s feelings for Roberto are ambiguous but there does seem to be a growing affection on his part. Together with Roberto and Carmen he indulges into their more affluent life style and, interestingly, attends rallies and demonstration by the Party. He does co-operate with the group attempting to black mail Roberto. But late in the film he turns and refuses co-operation which leads to the climactic sequence.

As the film progresses the motivation for the flashbacks becomes ambiguous. At least one involving the ‘family’ appears to come from Carmen. And one involving the blackmailers would seem to come from Juanito. There are other flashback to the blackmailers which Roberto would not seem to know about, but it is likely these are conjectures by him. As far as the sexual activity goes there is one sequence where we start to see a ménage á trois between Carmen, Juanito and Roberto. The scene is cut just as it becomes risqué, indicative of the film’s primary focus on the homoerotic.

There is an interesting class dimension to the film. Roberto and Carmen are probably best described as petty-bourgeois. Juanito is from a working class background whilst Nez would seem to be part of the lumpen-proletariat. And the blackmailers are from the bourgeoisie proper. Juanito is inducted into the higher social class. This crosses over with Victim where the protagonist, Melville Farr  (Dirk Bogarde) is also a lawyer and of a similar class to Roberto whilst his homosexual lover, Barrett (Peter McEnery) seems to be working class. However, in the British film the two class worlds are kept strictly separate. Moreover, Barrett is an adult. The Spanish film comes later in the period but it is also the case that the British film wants present homosexuality in a supportive light, an under-age lover would have militated against this. In fact in the film one of the gay character specifically rules out affairs with the ‘normal’ and by implication with the under-aged. In The Deputy the issue of age assists the blackmail.

The 35mm print was a little odd: the projectionist had problems with the aspect ratio from reel to reel. IMDB lists the film as 1.85:1 and shot on Kodak Eastmancolor. Films on the continent were still frequently shot on 1.66:1. It seemed that the ratio was not consistent across the reels, I thought it might have been a composite print and the sources were not uniform? The definition and colour palette were pretty good though stylistically the film is very conventional.

Seven Days in January / 7 días de enero (1979) was co-written, produced and directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, a long standing director/writer in the Industry whose career runs from 1948. The film dramatises an actual event from 1977, ‘the Massacre of Atocha’. This occurred in ‘La Transición’. A secret group of fascists murdered a group of left-wing lawyers at offices in Atocha Street in Madrid. The public response, including large demonstrations for the funerals. added to the pressures to legalise the Communist Party. Some of the assassins were caught, tried and imprisoned but the suspicion remained that shadowy figures high up escaped justice.

Bardem films follows the record fairly closely though there are some odd differences. The main one that I noticed was during the actual murder, committed in the film with automatic handguns. The Wikipedia record gives sub-machine guns/ And in the film the individual shots were not really convincing given the number killed [five] and wounded [four].

The film does include the main aspects of the infamous killings. This included a strike organised by the Sindicato Vertical, a trade union for transport workers; the lawyers relationship with the Communist Party; meetings and preparations by the assassins and their secret ‘masters’, this presumably deduction rather than the record. And, accentuating the conflict and the sense of crisis, incidents organised by a militant left-wing group, GRAPO (Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero de Octubre).

The events are presented in a flashback structure so that whilst we see events following the murders, notably the massive demonstration that accompanied the funeral, we only see the actual killings in full close to the end of the film. The flashbacks show us the workers involved in the strike whom the lawyers are supporting; the activities of the lawyers and their offices; and meetings between the assassins and between them and their secret backers.

I found that this structure enabled the viewer to note and relate the different characters and their activities in the narrative. However, it did seem to diminish the drama of the story and did not fully clarify different aspects which seemed less central than others. IMDB gives the film a running time of 124 minutes but some other listings give 180 minutes. I wondered if the English language release was shorter than the original film. This would have affected the flashback structure which could work better in a longer version: it might also affect issues like the strike which in this print needs developing.

The print was screened in 1.185:1 and was shot in colour. There was a flaw on the audience left-hand side of the frame which the projectionist had to make adjustments for. The definition and colour were both reasonable: but the film does use noir lighting and I wondered if the tones of this were accurate.

Both these films suffered from weaknesses in their scripting and delivery. I found in both that the political dimension was not fully developed. They were certainly interesting in terms of the conflicted values of ‘La Transición’. Both use artefacts from the period, film, stills, publications and illustrative art. Some of this comments on the characters and actions but its function seems mainly to help a sense of authenticity. There were a series of films addressing both the political conflicts and the sexual contradictions of the period. It would be interesting to view these and compare other dramas with these two thrillers.

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October 1917 on film.

Posted by keith1942 on October 25, 2017

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre:…”

The famous s opening line by Marx and Engels of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ of 1848 appears to be as true today. Certainly the same spectre haunts the contemporary European bourgeoisie; hence the sad lack of celebrations to mark the Centenary of The Great October Socialist Revolution; 25th October old-style calendar, 7th November new-style calendar. The same silence and absence characterises cinematic celebrations [at least in my film circles] despite the fact that the Revolution was the inspiration for the most challenging and influential film movement in the C20th world cinema – Soviet montage.

It is not a total absence. Kino Klassica have organised a number of screenings in London including a performance of the 1928 October (October 1917 Ten Days That Shook the World / Oktyabr) at the Barbican on October 26th. Like the screenings earlier in the year this was a weekday evening, not viable for people far from the Metropolis. It seems that the organisation did apply to the British Film Institute for a grant to organise screenings outside the Metropolis, but were turned down. Unsurprisingly the BFI London Film Festival offered no screenings of any of the Soviet classics.

Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna did better, featuring several films of relevance in the programme ‘A Hundred Years Ago: 50 films of 1917 in 35mm’. This included an attractive Danish animation, Petrograd in the Sign of Revolution and a film from Jakov Protozanov, Stop Shedding Blood (Ne nado krovii). Hopefully future programmes will see films from the succeeding years of the Revolution.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto did worse. The Soviet Programme was ‘Soviet Travelogues’ which were interesting but rather low on political content. There was a 35mm print of Aelita (1924), more interested in Science Fiction than the Revolution. And there was An Unprecedented Campaign / Nebuvalyi Pokhid (UkrSSr, 1931) directed by Mikhail Kaufman. The film celebrated the first five year plan: my friend who watched the whole film was impressed. I had problems with the digital copy, not good visual quality and running too fast. However, I had even more problems with the musical accompaniment by a Ukrainian collective. Anton Baibakov. This has more to do with Ukrainian petit–bourgeois nationalism than Socialist Construction and effectively sabotaged the film.

The Leeds International Film Festival [like that in London] was notable only for the complete absence of any Soviet Titles. This was despite the Leeds Festival including the date of the Revolution [new style Calendar]. HOME in Manchester went better with a number of Soviet titles in a programme of films. However, the title of the programme, ‘A Revolution Betrayed?’, denigrated rather than celebrated the Revolution. The title appeared to be a reference to the writings of Leon Trotsky. He was probably justified in feeling personally betrayed but given that in 1917 he was one of the leaders of the Revolution, this sectarian treatment seemed misconceived.

West Yorkshire did have screenings of The End of St Petersburg / Konets Sankt-Peterburga (1927) in September [HPPH] and October [[Sheffield Showroom] on 35mm: and Man With a Movie Camera / Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929) in September [HBPH] on digital. The former had an excellent musical accompaniment from the Harmonie Band though unfortunately the print was a copy of a sound transfer in 1969 with cropping of the image. Still to come in Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potemkin (1925) at Hebden Bridge Picture House on December 2nd, with live piano accompaniment.

There is always the account written by John Reed, ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ (1921). The BBC Radio 4 offered a ten-part dramatisation of the book which is still available on the Webpages [definitely at least until November 7th]. It is much shorter than the book and is not a real substitute for reading this account recommended by Lenin himself. But it does give a taste of Reed’s fine writing and coverage of the Revolution. Interestingly it also includes occasional additions by Louise Bryant who produced her own account, ‘Six Red Months in Russia’ (1918).

*********************************************

Postscript:

I should add something on the new British release The Death of Stalin , written and directed by Armando Iannucci. I always found his television work distinctly unfunny and the trailer for the film seemed to be much of the same: heavy-handed satire. Like, he never uses a mallet when there is a sledge-hammer to hand.

So I have not seen it. Friends and colleagues opine:

‘funny but in bad taste’ – unfunny and in bad taste’ ‘much funnier than the trailer and totally reprehensible’.

It has a lot of good reviews but I do not have a high regard for much of the critical discourse.

Worse though is the release of the film as we approach the Centenary of the Great October Revolution: which I take to be a deliberate tactic. One exhibitor offered,

” CITIZENS! PATRIOTS! PICTUREHOUSE MEMBERS!

Your country needs you to celebrate the October Revolution (in comedy filmmaking)!

The Death Of Stalin, the greatest movie this nation has ever produced, is in cinemas now.

The leadership calls on all true comrades not to let the counter-revolutionary forces of nihilism and unpatriotic not-going-to-the-cinema triumph! Instead, make your way to your local Picturehouse to celebrate our nation’s greatest filmic achievement and maybe also buy some popcorn.

Death to mediocre films! Death to comedies that only raise the odd titter! They are traitor films, the product of saboteurs and imperialists and bad writing and stuff. Instead, join all Picturehouse comrades in saluting Comrade Director Armando Iannucci, Father of Alan Partridge and The Thick Of It, mighty excavator of major LOLs; praise Comrade Actors Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin and the other supreme talents of the Central Committee in their selfless devotion to doing acting and saying their lines.

We call on you to join the appropriate throng of comrades heading to the Picturehouse, to revel in the patriotic triumph of this great movie, and then tell all your comrade followers on social(ist) media.

Though not during the film.

LONG LIVE THE DEATH OF STALIN! LONG LIVE CINEMA!”

This is truly reprehensible and banal but worth quoting in full so one can remember the depths to which the contemporary cinema industry can plunge. It is not actually accurate in reproducing the personality cult in the USSR. I suppose the one tenuous  connection is that, just as Stalin and the Party leadership did not have a full and proper grasp of Marx’s analysis, the writers of this poppycock have zero grasp of socialism.

 

 

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‘Modern Ghost Melodramas’

Posted by keith1942 on September 27, 2017

This is a new book by Michael Walker and published by the Amsterdam University Press. Michael’s previous book was ‘Hitchcock’s Motifs’ [also Amsterdam University Press, 2005 ). That book presented a study of an auteur through the motifs that form part of his distinctive themes and style. This new book presents genre study and, to a degree, discusses the motifs that contribute to the common features across a range of films.

This is a modern genre cycle and Michael is mainly interested in the films that work as melodrama rather than horror. The variety of films represents a genre that is found across the international film industry. He discusses over fifty films in fair detail with the primary focus on their narratives. He also tends to a psycho-analytical standpoint though he also discusses social and cultural aspects.

The style of the book is accessible and he is careful to define terms and concepts and he avoids cumbersome footnotes. He does, though, reference a range of published works on aspects of the films and the genre.

The book itself is well produced and the illustrative stills are of a high quality.

I am writing several reviews of the book and it struck me that as it is large and comlex [460 odds pages]that the details of the contents would help to give an overall sense of the book.  So I am including this below.

 

Contents

Acknowledgments

  1. Introduction The Gothic Tradition Freud and Motifs
  2. Three Major Predecessors

The Haunted House    The Changeling (Peter Medak, Canada, 1979)

The Malevolent Hotel The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, GB, I980)

The Avenging Ghost   |Ghost Story (John Irvin, US, 1981)

  1. The Fallow Years: An Assortment of Ghosts

Bringing Back the Past           Lady in White (Frank LaLoggia, US, 1988) and

Ijintachi Tono Natsu / The Discarnates (Nobuhiko Obayashi, Japan, 1988)

Benevolent Ghosts       Ghost (Jerry Zucker, US, 1990)   Always (Steven Spielberg, US, 198  The Seductive Revenant Haunted (Lewis Gilbert, UK/ US, 1995)

Seminal Films

  1. Ghosts in the City

A Ghost World     The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, US, 1999)

Working-class Tensions  Stir of Echoes (David Koepp, US, 1999)

  1. Ghosts in the Machine Ringu / Ring (Hideo Nakata, Japan, 1998) and

Ringu 2 / Ring 2 (Nakata, Japan, 1999)

  1. Schoolgirl Angst Kokkuri-san / Kokkuri (Takahisa Zeze, Japan, 1997)

Memento Mori (Kim Tae-yong & Min Kyu-dong, South Korea, 1999)

  1. Childhood Abuse In Dreams (Neil Jordan, US, 1998) and

The Dark (John Fawcett, UK/Germany, 2005)   The Haunting (Jan de Bont, US, 1999)

Evolution of the cycle

  1. Generic Developments 1: Messages from the Dead

A Ghost Movie Thriller What Lies Beneath (Robert Zemeckis, US, 2000)

Southern Gothic The Gift (Sam Raimi, US, 2000)

Bereaved Husband Dragonfly (Tom Shadyac, US/Germany, 2002)

  1. Spain and History 1: Politics and War El espinazo del Diablo / The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, Spain/Mexico, 2001).Tthe Others / Los Otros (Alejandro Amenabar, Spain/ US, 2001)

l0. Hollywood Reinflections The Ring (Gore Verbinski 2002) and The Ring Two (Hideo Nakata 2005)                 Male Melodrama Below (David Twohy, 2002)

  1. Asian Variations Pon / Phone (Ahn Byung-ki, South Korea. 2000). Ju-on (Takashi Shimizu, Japan, 2004) and The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, US, 2004) Chakushin Ar / One Missed Call (Takashi Miike, Japan, 2004)

I2. Generic Developments 2: Ghosts in the Woman’s Film    Honogurai mizu

No Soko Kara / Dark Water (Hideo Nakata,Japan, 2002)      Dark Water (Walter Salles, US, 2005)           Half Light (Craig Rosenberg, Germany/US, 2006) The Marsh (Jordan Barker, Canada/ US, 2006)

  1. Ghosts and Institutions I: South Korea

The School The Yeogo Goedam films           – Whispering Corridors (Park Ki-hyeong 1998) Voice (Choi Equan 2005) A Blood Pledge (Lee Jong-yong 2009)

The Department Store Geoul Sokeru / Into the Mirror (Kim Sung-ho 2003)

  1. Ghosts and institutions 2: The West

The Hospital    Riget/the Kingdom (4-part TV series) (Lars von Trier & Morten Arnfred, Denmark, 1994)  Fragile / Frágiles (Jaume Balaguero, Spain/UK, 2005)

The Prison Gothika (Mathieu Kassovitz, US, 2003)

  1. National Variations

Hong Kong Inner Senses (LO Chi-leurig 2002)         India Bbhoot / Ghost (Ram Gopal Varma, 2003)       France Histoire de Marie et Julien (Jacques Rivette 2003)

Italy: Three Films NonTti Muovere / Don’t Move (Sergio Castellitto, Italy/Spain/

UK, 2004) L’aniore Ritorna (Sergio Rubini 2004)     Ovunque sei (Michele Placido 2004)

  1. Anatomy of the Ghost Melodrama Themes and Motifs

Ryeong /The Ghost / Dead Friend (Kim Tae-kyoung, South Korea, 2004)

Narrative structure Sakesi / Retribution (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2006)

  1. Spain and History

2: The Franco Legacy and the Catholic Church

Lost Children El Orfanato / The Orphanage (J.A. Bayona 2006)

Unwilling Martyrs No-Do/ The Haunting / The Beckoning (Elio Quiroga 2009)

  1. The Return of the British Ghost Film The Disappeared (Johnny Kevorkian, UK, 2008) Genova (Michael Winterbottom, UK/Cayman Islands, 2008)    The Awakening (Nick Murphy UK/France, 2011)

The Woman in Black  The Woman in Black (Herbert Wise, TVM, 1989)    The Woman in Black (James Watkins, UK/US/Canada/Sweden, 2011)         The Secret of Crickley Hall (Joe Ahearne 2012,3-part BBC TV mini-series)

  1. Recent US developments and conclusion

Return to Haunted-house Horror

Broken Families and Mourning

 

Conclusion

Filmography

Illustrations

Bibliography

Index

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Notes from another India.

Posted by keith1942 on August 27, 2017

A Kolkata shanty town – Alamy file.

This was another screening presented by the Pavilion together with the Hyde Park Picture House. In fact, we can look forward to a number of films about the sub-continent and the states created seventy years ago, in 1947, India and Pakistan. As one would expect from the Pavilion these are unconventional film which offer a distinctive take on the sub-continent and its cultures

The programme offered

“three perspectives on Kolkata, a city whose name was anglicised to Calcutta during the British Imperial period, then officially changed to it’s Bengali pronunciation in 2001.”

Tales From Planet Kolkata (UK, 1993, 38 min)

Rochir Joshi is an Indian writer and filmmaker and also authors a columns in ‘The Telegraph’, ‘India Today’ and other publications. He was born in Kolkata and now is an artist in the Diaspora, commuting between London and Delhi.

“In 1993, Ruchir Joshi decided to spoof the Western cinematic notions of the city that he loves.

“My documentary Tales From Planet Kolkata was made to mock the popular perception of the city. I was fed up of everyone telling me about the progression of Mumbai and Delhi while Kolkata, apparently, languished in the backwaters,” says Joshi.” (From ‘Indian Express’: the film was commissioned by Channel 4.

The film is in colour and in the academy ratio. It was projected from a digital source.

The film offers a series of shots and sequences from the city. Some of these offer comments on the history, notably two singers who display traditional scrolls with paintings about events, including the British presence in the city. The soundtrack is quite diverse, some of it is actual sound with voices of the inhabitants. There is a reflective strand in the film as people refer to the earlier western filmmakers who have filmed in the city: notably Louis Malle and Pier Paulo Pasolini. A recurring strand is film of the making of ‘City of Joy’ (1991) which starred Patrick Swayze. These cinematic references are completed with the final imagery of acetate film floating and then sinking in the river.

The cinematography in the film is very well done and it is visually pleasing. The sound, images and metaphors do not completely translate for English viewers [though there are sub-titles] but I suspect that it deliberate.

There were then two films made by Mark LaPore, a USA-based experimental filmmaker and teacher: he died in 2005. The ‘Boston Glove’ obituary included the comment on Lapore’s films as :

”unique, a form of visual anthropology but equally about the mystery of being and film as consciousness. These uncompromising films have enormous integrity and deserve a very important place within the entire history of film.’”

Will Rose in introducing the films pointed out that LaPore’s work was ethnographic but also personal and offered a strong sense of place. I certainly got this sense from the films.

The Glass System (USA, 2000, 20 min)

The film was in black and white, academy ratio and was projected on 16mm. It was a series of shots of the city and its people. There is a thread running through the film but rather tenuous; there is definitely the sense of the personal in the selection of images and sounds. LaPore has a tendency for long takes. The film is mostly in long shot with the camera moving to mid-shots and close-ups, most frequently on people. The camera is most often in “plan américain”, a straight-on shot at mid-height. The sound appears to be predominantly actual including the music.

Mark LaPore on an improvised dolly.

Kolkata (USA, 2005, 35 min – his final film)

This was my favourite of the three titles. It was also filmed in black and white and academy on 16mm. Like The Glass System the film is composed of a series of shots of the city and its people. In this film the emphasis is on the streets, their vendors and shoppers and a street market. At the centre of the film are two remarkably parallel tracks, one reversing the other. Both seem to run for about five minutes as LaPore [and we with him] observe the life of the street. Both tracks are plan américain. The accompanying sound seems mainly actual, though the complex mix of sounds produces an aural tapestry.

And finally there was an excerpt from

Dreams and Apparitions of Mark Lapore (Saul Levine, 2006/7, 12 min)

This film, made after LaPore’s death [by suicide], offers friends and colleagues talking about him and his work.

Here a colleague recounts a minor but telling incident. She was preparing for a film class and checked her bag for her materials, including two cans of Kodak Tri-Pax. After the class she realised that one can was used film. it turned out to be film shot be LaPore before he died. It was filmed in India and focussed on elephants, a particular interest of the filmmaker. So she screened the film for us, [whilst the original was in colour this extract was on black and white video].

You gained a real sense of both a working relationship and a friendship from the film.

This was a really worthwhile set of screenings. It is always pleasure, [rare now] to watch 16mm film prints. The texture and contrast of the films, especially in black and white, is distinct from digital formats. And the films were, to differing degrees, fascinating.

The Pavilion have two more events planned at the Hyde Park Picture House in this series.

And the Independent Cinema Office have a number of titles, really fine films produced in India, circulating over the months of the anniversary.

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Two Monks / Dos Monjes, Mexico 1934.

Posted by keith1942 on August 21, 2017

This was part of a programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017 presenting ‘Revolution and Adventure: Mexican Cinema in the Golden Age. The programmers Daniela Michel and Chloë Roddick explained in the Festival Catalogue;

“This programme aims to offer a broad spectrum of work that explores some of the most significant political, social and cultural moments in Mexican history. beginning with the nascent sound cinema of the early 1930s, the selection encompasses a variety of styles and genres through the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s.”

It appears that film production in Mexico took off in 1933. And this early sound film is both intensely interesting and seems to have been influential. The curators again,

“The beginnings of sound cinema in Mexico in the early 1930s saw the birth of a strange new genre that might reasonably be called ‘Mexican Gothic’. Arguably, in part, a more subtle and obscure response to the violence [that] had been imprinted on the collective psyche by the Revolution, films like the Spanish-language remake of Tod Browning’s Drácula (1931), …”

This film certainly combines some of the key features found in Gothic, horror, death and romance. It also includes tropes and motifs common in the genre, with unexpected revelations, gloomy and threatening buildings, religious paraphernalia and characters who suffer and/or swoon.

The film opens in a monastery where Brother Javier(Carlos Villatoro) appears to be in the process of some sort of mental breakdown. His condition is exacerbated when a new arrival, Brother Servando, appears.  He recounts the experiences to the Prior is an extensive flashback.

Javier is an affluent young man living with his mother Gertrude (Emma Roldán) with a particular talent for music and composition. He is smitten with the young women staying with his neighbours, Ana (Magda Heller). Their relationship develops but it is hampered by Javier’s delicate health: he appears to suffer from some sort of consumption. An old friend Juan (Victor Urruchúa) returns to the town. As the marriage of Javier and Ana approaches Javier discovers Ana and Juan in a compromising situation. In the ensuing fight Ana is accidentally shot by Juan.

As the flashback ends Javier tells the \prior that he searched for ‘Ana’s murderer’ everywhere and finally ended up in the monastery. Low and behold Juan appears in the guise of Brother Servando. The Prior now questions Juan/Servando who also confesses in another long flashback.

Much of this presents the same detail as in Javier’s confession, but from a different angle. What we do learn is that Juan and Ana were lovers prior to his leaving the town. On his return,

“like a bad dream”

he finds her ands Javier engaged. We also learn that Javier’s ill-health means that a shock could kill him. Hence Juan and Ana repress their re-wakened love until the night when Javier discovers them. Juan is planning to once more leave the town and this is his farewell.

The second flashback ends and we follow as Javier goes to the chapel, followed by Juan, the Prior and the other monks. Javier then expires playing the chapel organ.

The story is oddball but full of the themes that delighted surrealists: romanticism, repression, dream worlds, and fetishistic objects. The Catalogue notes informed that

“French surrealist and writer André Breton was reportedly taken with the film, which he saw during a visit to Mexico, dubbing it a “bold and unusual experiment”.”

However, there is also the influence of German expressionism

“evident in the film’s moody, nuanced use of black and white, and the photography of celebrated Mexican photographer Augustin Jiménez, which together create a strange, distorted atmosphere.”

So the film combines the obsession with desire [surrealism] with the dark eruptions of the psyche [expressionism].

The monastery in particular is full of chiaroscuro. And the religion objects, especially the crucifixes, are weirdly distorted. The mansion where Javier lives with his mother has odd objects, including a strangely elongated clock. And the camera constantly presents characters framed through window bars and grills. The sets are frequently oddly angled, and the camera mirrors this with low angle shots. In a real coup Javier and Juan are presented in alternative black and white clothing’s in the two flashbacks; emphasising the ambiguous nature of the revelations. There is the mother/son relationship, to become a staple of film noirs. And the final dramatic organ sequence became a staple of the horror genre.

The film was screened from a DCP in Spanish with English sub-titles. The restoration was part of the World Cinema Project of The Film Foundation.

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Under the Bridge / Unter Brücken, Germany 1945 – 1949.

Posted by keith1942 on July 31, 2017

This film, on 35mm and in black and white, was part of a programme ‘Watchful Dreamer: The Subversive Melancholia of Helmut Käutner’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. He started out as an actor in the German film industry in 1932 and progressed to writing and directing in 1939. He made nine films during the war years and continued filmmaking into the 1960s and work for television into the 1970s. This film, like two others, only received a proper release after the end of the war, hence the release years indicated. The Catalogue entry by Olaf Möller comments on one of the other titles, the 1944/45 Great Freedom No. 7 / Grosse Freieit Nr.7,  that

“Kautner created a world-weary melodrama whose doom-laden mood and non-conformist spirit were too much for the reigning powers…”

The problems with that film may have affected Under the Bridge, Helmut directed and  co-scripted both films. This later film eschews reference to the war, at a time when the Allies’ bombing campaigns were starting to devastate the German homeland. Möller notes that this film was,

“a timeless tale about river barge sailors inside the city as well as the surrounding areas…”

Despite being filmed in Berlin and its environs this is not the recognisable Germany of this late war period:

“for one thing, Käutner shot places in the capital (among others the old Jannowitzbrücke and the Schlütersteg-Brücke) that were bombed soon after … creating documents of a Berlin now gone. Also, he registered a few ruins from the first bombing in ’44. i.e. some of the earliest signs of the city’s coming annihilation.”

The film seems as unaware of the war as the German population appeared to be of the Nazi death camps.

Recalling earlier films set on barges and canals we meet the two owners-cum-sailors of a barge ‘Liselotte’, Hendrik Feldkamp (Carl Raddatz) and Willy (Gustav Knuth). Hendrik is the successful womaniser on their trips ashore, as we see in the opening sequence of the film. Whilst Willy is shyer and lacking the same confidence. For much of the time the pair work the barge, usually part of a convoy pulled along canals and rivers by a tug. Their port visits provide the opportunity for pleasure, drinking and women. Hendrik and Willy also discuss buying a diesel engine for the barge which would widen their scope and their income. But it would also involve a substantial loan and eight years of paying this off. [The film, of course, is unaware of the irony involved in taking on this debt and the repayment period].

The events that disrupt this steady and relatively pleasant and harmonious life is fairly conventional. One night, passing under one of the many bridges that line the route and give the film its title, Hendrik spies a lone woman apparently planning to leap from a bridge into the river. This is Anna Altmann (Hannelore Schroth). Anna has come from Silesia to work in Berlin and is all alone in the world.

Hendrik and Anna

Predictably both men are taken with this young and attractive woman. We see the development on the barge, later in Berlin when she returns to her flat in the city. This meeting leads to disruption in the working friendship of Hendrik and Willy. As the audience expect, Hendrik is the more successful initially, assisted by his skilful accordion playing and singing. But he is also an apparently a less reliable prospect, with his ever roaming eye for woman. Matters come to partial head when the pair take a longer trip to Rotterdam and on they return to the capital city. Anna’s final choice is predictable but deftly handled.

There are some effective e sequences on the barge. The barge guard is Vera, a goose, who [unfortunately] suffers the fate of providing a celebratory dinner. Later Anna provides curtain for the cabin portholes, which also provide a cover for the home-made pin-ups on the walls. The barge also possesses living quarters in the main cabin and [on a lesser scale] in the bows. Where either of the friends is housed reflects on the progress of the ménage a trois.

There are also equally effective treatments during the land based courtships. Hendrik and Willy discover, to the chagrin’ that at one point Anna resorted to nude modelling for painter. Both surreptitiously visit an art gallery to observe nude paintings , a sequence of humour and delight.

Willy and Anna

Käutner scripted the film with Walter Ulbrich from a manuscript by Leo de Laforgue. The characters are well drawn and the three main actors, who occupy most of the screen time, are excellent. And the visual presentation of their story is finely done. The cinematography by Igor Oberberg has some fine location filming in Berlin. What also stands out are the shots of the rivers, canals and surrounding countryside as the barge wends its way. And the editing by Wolfgang Wehrum is precise and includes some notable montages, especially of the bridges that the barge passes under as it enters the cities of Potsdam and Berlin.

Möller refers to Neo-realism in his comments. Whilst the film does have some of the poetry of the earlier film by Jean Vigo it does, at the same time, capture the actual workings of the bargees life and work.

Il Cinema Ritrovato programme had seven titles directed by Käutner. I saw two of the other, also on 35mm prints. There was Ludwig 1. Glanz und ende eines Königs (Mad Emperor: Ludwig 11, 1955), in colour. The film treated Ludwig’s life and career in segments, with only a hint of a gay subtest: this treatment is overshadowed by the later version by Luchino Visconti. And there was A Glass of Water (Das Glas Wasser, 1960), also in colour and set in the England of Queen Anne. This was a very 1960s film and reminded me  a little of Moll Flanders (1975). However, I heard good reports of other titles and Käutner would look like a filmmaker who would repay seeking out.

 

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