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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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Divine, France 1935.

Posted by keith1942 on July 19, 2017

Screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2017 as part of a programme constructed around the work of the French writer Collette. The Festival Catalogue introduced the film:

“According to the opening credits, Divine, directed by Max Ophūls, is the “first screenplay written specifically for the cinema with dialogue by … Colette  [of the sound era],” The film is based  on one of her literary works. ‘L’Envers du music-hall’ (1913), a moving choral fresco about the music hall comprised of sequences detailing numerous individual stories provides the frame. The novella ‘Divine’ supplied the film with its protagonist who has the body of both a Goddess and a peasant and who is played by Simone Barriau [as Ludivine ‘Divine’ Jaris] (who also acted as producer and who made her country estate available for the exteriors).” (Paolo Palme).

The film opens in the country [on this estate] where young Ludivine is persuaded to move to Paris and work in the music hall by her friend Roberte (Yvette Lebon). Once working at the Paris music-hall in the chorus Ludivine is soon christened ‘Divine’. She starts to ascent the stairway to stardom: an early lead role involves her being draped with a live snake in a exotic and orientalist number.

‘Divine’ is the centre of the narrative. We see her pursued and fending off the various offensives by male admirers. She also acquires a non- music hall boyfriend, the local milkman, Antonin (Georges Rigaud).. With him she shares the love of the rural world from which she comes. Other stories are also followed, including the use of drugs by the performers. Much of the film displays with great detail and a sense of the authentic, the world of the backstage, with which both Colette and Ophüls were familiar.

Whilst the theatrical world and the characters are very much Colette the presentation is very much Ophüls. As a filmmaker he was noted for the mobility of the camerawork and the smooth but complex style of editing. By this stage of his career Ophüls had already directed Liebelei (1933 in Germany)  and La Signora Di Tutti (1934 in Italy). Both display the skills that grace his cinema, they also reflect the peripatetic nature of his filmmaking life. In this French film he is ably served by the craftsmen: set design by Jacques Gotko and Robert Gys, cinematography by Roger Hubert, editing by Léonide Moguy.

The distinctive and effective style of the film is demonstrated in the opening sequence where Roberte comes to visit her childhood friend in her expensive motor car. Ludivine is helping her mother (Catherine Fonteney) plough a field on their farm. The trio of women return to the farmhouse where, over the evening, Roberte explains to Ludivine the attractions of music hall stardom.

[The following is from my notes at the screening so I may have not noted all the shots].

Opening on a close up of a plough, a mid-shot shows the two women with the plough and the farm horse. A dissolve leads to close ups of  the plough, a wheel, a mirror and then a mid-shot of the motor car to which they belong. A track follows a young blonde woman (Roberte) as she runs to greet mother and daughter. A further reverse track shows the three women, with the horse, returning to the farmhouse.

A dissolve shows us the interior and soup on the stove. A reverse track fills out the room and the family dog. A skilful pan shows Roberte with Ludivine as they remove their wet stockings. There is a cut to a long shot of the room and the women framed through the old fashioned fire place. Another dissolve takes us to Ludivine’s bedroom where the girls change in shadows. A dolly follows as both girls sit together on the bed. A pan follows Roberte as she demonstrates a theatrical walk moving from the bed to the window. A further pan moves us back to Ludivine as he then copies Roberte’s walk. [A tolling bell sounds in the distance]. The camera tilts up the wall to a picture of Angels. A cut moves from Roberte [to the accompaniment of music including drums on the soundtrack) to the exterior of Folie Bergeres. A further cuts takes us backs stage to where a dance troupe is preparing for an act. A combined track and crane shot travels around backstage as we see various theatrical individuals and then climb up towards the back stage dressing rooms. Thus Ludivine arrives in the world of the music hall.

There are several equally stylish sequences in the film, mainly set in the back state of the theatre as we see the working lives of the thespians. At one point a complete 360% camera movement presents the whole of the set of one of the revue numbers. And there are a number of beautifully executed track and crane shots. The style embellishes the film beyond its often conventional narrative.

The characters are familiar from other dramas set in music halls and back stage. Barriau as ‘Divine’ is impressive and provides a strong centre to the film. The plotting exhibits the qualities often associated with the writings of Collette. Much time is spent in the dressing rooms of the chorus where there are frequently scantily clad females. There are explicit suggestions of the sexual merry-go-round back stage. And there is a central theme about drug taking in the theatre. In contrast the film’s closure is marked by the wedding of ‘Ludivine and Antonin, however, as is noted in the Catalogue;

Divine concludes with an extremely ambiguous happy-ending that highlights the understanding that existed between screenwriter and director. Collette and Ophūls both conceive of the union of man and woman as a loss. Neither see marriage as a real solution. The director underlines this visually by placing the final nuptials behind a grate, …”

All together it makes for a memorable 74 minutes. The original release ran at 82 minutes, but whatever is missing did not seem noticeable. The 35mm print was reasonably good: the film was restored from the original nitrate in 1997.  The soundtrack, from the mid-1930s,  was tinny at times but pretty good for the period. .

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Humanity and Paper Balloons/Ninjo Kamifusen, Japan 1937

Posted by keith1942 on July 15, 2017

This was a title that I had frequently heard or read about with recommendation but this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato offered me the first chance to actually watch and enjoy the film. It was the first screening in a retrospective ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’. The ‘valley of darkness’ was the 1930s when Japan became increasingly dominated by the Military and embarked on wars in China, Korea and right across the Pacific. The programme was curated by Alexander Jacoby and John Nordström, who have already provided several excellent retrospectives of Japanese cinema.

They explained in their introduction that the selection offered films from the 1930s when

“Under the militarist regime of the late 1930s, the Japanese period film (jidai-geki), became a refuge for liberal filmmakers. The Narutaki-gumi, an informal group of filmmakers pledged to modernise Japanese cinema, were at the heart of a new breed of jidai-geki which opted for realism instead of stylization and for ironic pessimism rather than heroic optimism.” (Festival Catalogue).

This group usually worked the Zenshin-za progressive theatre troupe.

Alex explained that the films were to a degree subversive, exploring

“how to present the past'”

In the late 1930s

“the past was a set of contested values… “

and these films contested Samurai values, central to the value system of the militarist regime.

This film, directed by Yamanaka Sadao set the tone. Yamanaka was an important and creative filmmaker in the period. However, the majority of his films, both silent and sound, are lost. Only three full-length features and a number of extracts survive. As a director Yamanaka was noted for his style and his ability to work with complex plots and numerous characters. He died young when conscripted to the army for the war against China.

“Yamanaka produces a disenchanted study of a society in which the values of bushido celebrated in the more traditional jidai-geki are abandoned or betrayed , and in which people cannot progress.” (Festival catalogue).

In this film space was an important element of style and metaphor.

” Film offers a ‘safe space’ in a poor district, opposed to the lack of humanity and rigidity in the social structure.”

The film opens and closes with suicides. That at the beginning is of a Samurai/Ronin, i.e. a master less samurai, in this case reduced to poverty. This event takes place in a tightly packed tenement in C18th Edo. We hear the tenants discussing the suicide and learn that the Samurai hanged himself. It transpires that he did not, in traditional fashion, commit seppuku [the ritual suicide] as he no longer had a proper samurai sword but a bamboo replica. This has become a frequent trope in Japanese samurai films with characters selling their metal swords because of poverty and hard times. I do not know if this is the earliest example but it is likely that this is an influential device.

The suicide results in a squad of Samurai visiting the tenement to investigate. This sets up the division in the film between the traditional authorities and the poor and relatively powerless people who live in the tenement.

This tenement is controlled by the landlord Chobei (Suketakaya Sukezo) , a unsympathetic character who only visits to the tenement to collect rent or when the authorities take an interest. There are a number of tenants who we see and hear. A key character is Shinza the barber (Nakamura Kan’emon). We hardly ever see him practising his trade and he is involved in a petty gambling ring. The original property for the film was a Kabuki play ‘Kamiyui Shinza’ (Shinza the Barber} adapted by Mimura Shintaro. It seems the film is more downbeat than the play. In the film Shinza is a trickster, rather like the monkey in some Japanese tales, equivalent of Reynard the Fox in European tales.

Hi neighbour is Unno Matajuro (Kawarasaki Chojuro), another master less Ronin. Unno’s wife Otaki (Yamagishi Shizue) raises income by making the paper balloons of the film title. Unno spends much of the film trying to gain an interview with a local pawnbroker who rebuffs his efforts. Unno’s father, another Samurai, had done service for the house of the pawnbroker and Unno wishes to present a letter setting this out.

Two other important characters in the tenement are a blind masseur who, despite his disability, has a keen sense of what transpires. He also keeps a ‘close eye’ on Genko (Nakamura Tsuruzo) who lives by selling gold fish but also by petty pilfering: in a couple of sequences this involves the blind man’s pipe. The pawnbroker’s house also houses his daughter Okoma for whom he is trying to arrange in marriage to a Samurai, a proposal that needs to assistance to bridge the class divide. However, the film subtly suggests that there is an attraction between Okoma and one of the house servants, Chushichi (Segawa Kukunojo).

Acting in some ways as a connections between the tenements and the business sector is Yatagoro, who heads a gang involved in gambling but also acting as enforcers for businesses such as the pawnbroker. The Samurai, who are the city authorities, only appear when they leave their privileged space to police the tenement or to collaborate with businessmen like the pawnbroker.

The drama comes to a climax when Shinza and Unno are involved in a kidnap plot to raise money. At first apparently successful the repercussions are fatal for both men. Whilst the tenement occupants celebrate at a party where the sake is provided by Shinza the two men meet their fates. Shinza is summoned to a local bridge where he is confronted by Yatagoro and his men. Meanwhile Otaki, bought to her wits ends by their situation, first murders Unno and then commits suicide. The film ends bleakly in the aftermath of this tragedy.

The commentary in the Catalogue notes

“The film highlights Yamanaka’s skill at pictorial composition and deep focus, and his use of editing.”

These qualities are also due to the excellent cinematography by Mimura Akira, editing by Iwashita Koichi and the art direction by Kubo Kazuo. The tenement set is a tightly packed warren of rooms that open onto a central street. The camera explores these as the plot develops. When we move to the main street and to the house of the pawnbroker the settings open up, providing an expansive space that contrasts to the repressive and enclosing tenement. The deeps staging and deep focus is especially noticeable in the tenement sequences, drawing attention not just to the main action but to the teeming aspects of life that carry on.

The editing emphasises the parallels and contrasts in the story and between characters. Especially impressive is the final sequence where the camera shots cut between the tenement party, Shinza at the bridge and Unno and his wife, and her increasing despair. Then in what is one of the finest ending in cinema an exterior shot follows a bouncing and rolling paper balloon as it rolls into a drainage channel alongside the tenement. The sound, full of effective noises throughout, here offers the off-screen voices of children playing.

If the ending offers a visual symbol that operates as a striking metaphor then the film continually offers motifs that reflect on the characters. There is the letter that Unno carries back and forth as he vainly seeks an audience with the pawnbroker. Finally it is drop in the mud [following heavy rain] where it lies unnoticed. Paralleling this is a flowered hairpin that is dropped by Okoma, [apparently at the same spot]. It lies there, is picked up but then dropped back in the m mud by Shinza.

The print quality was not great. In particular the contrast was limited so the full effect of deep focus was not always that apparent. But the 35mm print was sufficient to demonstrate just why this is one of the most celebrated of Japanese films. The film clearly subverts the Samurai code of the bushido, values central to the militaristic regime of the period and which had for nearly a century offered resistance to the modernisation process in Japan.

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My Cousin Rachel, Britain, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on June 15, 2017

Daphne Du Maurier published this novel in 1951. It offered a romantic and mysterious story with many of her familiar features. The novel is set in the C19th, but offers no particular dates. The setting is Cornwall, and the book includes descriptions of the Cornish countryside and, importantly, the coastline and the sea. There is a Gothic feel to the novel and there are traces of the influence of the Brontë sisters. The obvious reference is Du Maurier’s earlier classic, ‘Rebecca’. It shares the setting and the mystery from the past. However, instead of a young and naïve female narrator, we have a young, naïve and male narrator.

This is Philip Ashley who has been bought by up an older landowning relative Ambrose. Early on Ambrose’s death takes Philip to Florence and later leads to his meeting Ambrose’s widow Rachel.

Rather as with ‘Rebecca’ the book offers an investigation of a woman; in the earlier novel this was the dead wife of Maxim de Winter: this later novel investigates Philip’s cousin Rachel. However, the final resolution of this story holds ambiguities whereas in ‘Rebecca’ the mystery is fully explained. Just as Rebecca is aided by the intimidating Mrs Danvers Rachel is aided by the more slippery Rainaldi: [slippery perhaps because he is Italian]. Both films offer aspects of the Gothic. One genre that frequently has a Gothic feel are the ‘threatened wife’ scenarios. In these two works we have the ‘threatened husband’.

The ‘mystery’ offered by the novel is less deliberately ambiguous. However, I felt that this is not completely convincing. In ‘Rebecca’ the final conflagration of the house, with Rebecca working through the medium of Mrs Danvers, strikes down Maxim and is powerful and effective. In ‘My Cousin Rachel’ we have a death and then Philip’s anguished questioning, ‘Rachel my torment’. This ties in the narrative to the subjective narrator, often an unreliable source. Philip’s judgements are partially backed up by what he reads in the letters from Ambrose: but Ambrose was sick and could have been mentally unstable. What Philip recounts is partial and contradictory. A key element are the herbal drinks [tisanes] that Rachel makes. These may indeed be poisonous but in which case, if they did cause Philip’s illness, why does she nurse him so assiduously. Covering her tracks does not seem quite sufficient. The investigation of ‘cousin Rachel’ is carried out by Philip and in his mind the jury is still out. For the reader the problem is not just Philip’s subjective viewpoint but his failure to analyse what he has seen and heard fully. The written portrait of Rachel manages to present her as apparently quixotic which makes Philip’s uncertainty convincing. However, it is likely to be a problem when Rachel, as in a film, is literalised in a character that is both seen and heard.

The first film adaptation of the book was produced by Twentieth Century Fox in 1952. In black and white and running 98 minutes the film was helmed by Hollywood professionals: script by Nunnally Johnson who also produced and direction by Henry Koster. The filmed starred Richard Burton as Philip and Olivia de Havilland as ‘my cousin Rachel’. This was Burton’s first film in Hollywood. Du Maurier was not keen on the initial screenplay and later unimpressed with de Havilland’s characterisation. She did, though, enjoy Burton’s Philip and some sequences actually filmed in Cornwall. An important change is that the key setting of an Italianate garden is replaced by a rocky seaside cove. The cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is finely done. And the visual chiaroscuro emphasises the Gothic feel more than the novel. There is a romantic and dramatic score by Franz Waxman. The screenplay is highly compressed: 98 minutes is really insufficient for the plot and characters. The setting of the film is the 1830s: information gained from Ambrose’s tombstone visited by Philip, something he avoids in the novel. Burton has Philip’s intensity and impetuosity but lacks the naivety in relation to women. De Havilland lacks the complexity of Rachel, but this is at least partly due to the scriptwriting. The film does retain some of the ambiguity of the novel, but the relationships do not convincingly prepare for the final questions. On a happier note Don, the Labrador, survives avoiding his accidental death in the novel.

Now, in 2017, comes a new adaptation. The main production company is Fox Searchlight, who presumably retain the copyright to Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. It is a company project and writer and director Roger Mitchell was recruited to this. The film has received quite a few favourable reviews. It is in colour, with a ratio of 2.35:1 and runs ten minutes longer than the 1952 version. It has also enjoyed location filming in both England and Italy, so the film should offer settings that would meet the wishes of Du Maurier.

The production offers some unknowns and some promising possibilities. This is Mitchell’s first screenwriting credit. His previous directorial record does not offer a lot of relevance to this type of property. He did direct Hyde Park on the Hudson (2012) which I enjoyed and which has some slight parallels with this story: an older man has a relationship with a younger cousin and visitors play important parts in the plotting. Rachel Weisz is cast as ‘cousin Rachel’. This would seem to be ideal. She has starred in some rather run-of-the mill genre films but also some fine dramas: of particular relevance here is her role as Hester Collyer in  Terence Davies’ beautifully judged version of The Deep Blue Sea (2012). Sam Claflin plays Philip. Rather like the director how appropriate he will be is hard to judge. The ‘Pirates’ film and the ‘Hunger’ series’ have little in common with Du Maurier’s romantic mystery. I thought he was good in Their Finest (2017) as Tom Buckley, but that character is far removed from Phillip Ashley.

Rachel Weisz is indeed fine as ‘cousin Rachel’. She offers real attraction, changeable behaviour and a certain ambiguity about her aims and motivation. Sam Claflin is very good as Philip. He achieves the gaucheness around woman which is important, however he does not really make the character naive. The supporting cast are good. Holliday Grainger gives Louise both her desires for Philip but also a much more down-to-earth understanding. Rainaldi is a much changed character in the film but Pierfrancesco Favino carries the part well. I should add that the numerous dogs are now only two unnamed Irish Wolf Hounds. As in 1952 we are spared a canine death, but only because [typical Hollywood] they disappear from the film about half-way through: [and Philip is wilfully responsible for the death of a horse]. Rainaldi also disappears abruptly from the plot for a time, unexplained.

The film has fine cinematography by Mike Eley. It uses locations in Italy [Florence looking fine in long shot] and Cornwall to good effect. The scope image is very effective for these landscapes. The cinematography in particular effects a Gothic feel. There are scenes heavily laden with chiaroscuro and we frequently see characters through framings such as doors, windows and banisters. There is fine period design, sets and costumes by Alice Normington, Barbara Herman-Skelding and Dinah Collin respectively. The editing rhythm at the hands of  Kristina Hetherington takes the film forward in many places at a fast pace, using ellipsis after ellipsis to drive the story on.

In fact I think this is often overdone. There are several places where the actions and/or motivations are not totally clear. Thus Rainaldi leaves Philip’s house after his first visit but it is only later in dialogue that we discover where and why. And I suspect that if one does not know the book the status and contents of the different wills will remain unclear; again only a later piece of dialogue fully explains about the marriage restriction that will limit Rachel’s inheritance.

The designs certainly achieve the period setting, as do the costumes. Note though, that following the book, the specific period in the C19th is not presented. There are some exaggerated differences. One is the state of Philip’s mansion. Early on Louise helps Philip prepare the house for Rachel’s visit. it is a dishevelled and grungy mess. Only a few months later, as Philip in an usually smart attire, waits for Rachel and the Christmas presents, the room is transformed, even with new and expensive wall paper.

The film takes much of the plot at a fast pace. But it also takes the time to dwell on particular cinematic moments. One is the Christmas party for the workers and tenants on the estate. During the revelling and carousing there is slow track along the seated labourers which achieves a fine feel.

At the point of Philips 25th birthday when he comes into his inheritance we follow the consequences of his gift of jewels to Rachel. This leads to a sexual act, quite clearly implied in the novel. Here the scene ends with a defocusing as Philip and Rachel lie back on the bed followed by a dissolve. This achieves the effect set out in the book. However, a little later there is a second sexual act in the woods: this I felt was a misjudgement, though Rachel’s stony face as Philip grunts on top of her spoke volumes.

Alongside this there is a important revelation late in the film when Louise translates an Italian letter for Philip. Enlarging on the book Louise comments that

‘Enrico [Rainaldi] is more Greek than Italian …”,

that is he prefers boys! I suspect this is part of an attempt to give the book a modern sensibility regarding gender and sexuality. However, like the editing, I find this overdone.

One of the most important sequences is Philip’s serious illness late in the film. The length of this is cut from weeks to days: an example of how the film speeds up the plot. This is still very effective. At one point we have a montage of what appear to be both flashbacks and hallucinations. The scenes show the manner in which Rachel tends Philip. It also prepares the ground for the shock that Philip receives on regaining some sort of health.

One space that this new version retains from the 1952 film is the replacement of the gardens by the seashore and cliff-tops as key settings. The accident on the cliff top sets up the later fatality effectively. In fact there are far more beach sequences in this film than either in the earlier film or indeed in the original novel;. Philip’s final remorseful voice-over as he sits on the beach uses this richly mythic setting to full effect.

 

The film opens and closes, as does the book, with Philip’s voice-over. The opening offers series of brief flashbacks that provide a helpful ‘back story’ to the main narrative. The ending here, with a carriage bowling along in the countryside, is possibly a little too pat. The novel seems to suggest that life after the events will be much darker. In this film Philip, [as did Richard Burton’s Philip] asks ‘why?, ‘did she?’. This is where the novel ends. However events in the film, for example the careful nursing of Philip [who may or may not have been poisoned] suggest that motivations are relatively uncomplicated. I did find that the novel failed to completely motivate this ambiguity. A weakness which the earlier ‘Rebecca’ does not share. Of course, the film does not need to strictly follow all the ins and outs of the novel. But I felt that ‘cousin Rachel’, despite Weisz’s fine performance’, is a less ambiguous figure. And therefore Philip’s tortured musings seem not properly motivated. As I noted I think there are unintentional ambiguities in the plot, partly because the film has such pace, presumably because it comes in at under two hours. Along the way it looks and sounds good and the characters are always interesting. But just as the novel of ‘Rebecca’, remains a superior work by Du Maurier I think the Daryl Zanuck production of that novel [directed by Alfred Hitchcock] remains the best film adaptation of her pen.

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Four films by Larry Gottheim

Posted by keith1942 on June 6, 2017

A US presentation on Larry Gottheim

Larry Gottheim is part of the USA avant-garde film movement. His approach is experimental but also fairly subjective. He started on 16mm films in the late 1960s and most of his work has been in this format. His work has been predominantly carried out in New York State. Apart from his film making Larry is also important in US film as the co-founder of the Cinema Department at Binghamton University situated near Ithaca in up-state New York, a pioneer in developing cinema as a form of personal art.

The programme of four films organised by the Pavilion together with the Hyde Park Picture House offered two early films and two films from his later career. Larry himself was there: part of an extended tour in Britain and continental Europe. In his introduction Larry suggested that the tour was providing an opportunity for reflection on his whole body of work which he now saw as an ongoing project.

“not ghosts of the past but very present ..”

He referred to his most recent film, Chants and Dances for Hands (1991 – 2016) produced on digital rather than his usual 16mm, which he felt had given him a fresh perspective on the earlier work,. He expressed a strong interest in time and duration and increasingly on the relationship between image and sound. The Cinema Department at Binghamton University was the first regular undergraduate program in the USA that dealt with cinema as a personal art. Larry maintained his professorship for a time there, teaching film making and aesthetics.

The first film was Corn (1970)in colour and running for eleven minutes and silent. [The projectionist ran the whir of the camera through the sound system].

“Bright green leaves stripped from ears of corn, and later, the vibrant yellow ears placed steaming in the waiting bowl. Each of these actions inaugurates a period in which one contemplates an image whose steady transformation is barely perceptible – the delicate slow movement of light and shadow, the evolution of subtle steam into the film grain.”

This was a static camera shot with the hues and shadows changing as the sunlight imperceptibly diminished. Larry commented about the viewpoint,

“Then the unforeseen reality of lenses and other physical elements entered. Each film resulted from a fusion of what was taking place in front of the camera and the camera’s own contribution. When everything was right I just looked through the viewfinder to see moving images unfold “by themselves,”

There followed Doorway in black and white and running for seven and a half minutes [again with projector whir on the sound system].l

This was a single camera shot, but a pan over a winter landscape. The title seemed to be a metaphor as the shot looked like it was taken through a large window. The bleak landscape was still apart from slight movements by two cows. The image was full of vertical lines, uprights like fences and gnarled like trees and branches. Larry felt this film included several viewpoints, including the landscape and cows who were

“wanting us to see it [and them].”

Larry also referred to the technical aspects, shooting this on a floating-head tripod with decisions about lens and focal length.

The final two films were from later in Larry’s career and exhibited a distinct change in the form and style of his work. In fact they were screened out of sequence, with the earlier film last, presumably because it was the longest. Their dominant features were the preoccupation with sound and vision and the use of montage techniques.

Mnemosyne Mother Of Muses

1986, colour and black and white , 16 minutes.

“A mirrored form in counter-movement, dense with emotion-charged memory – a rapidly sparking dynamism of image and afterimage, swirling resonant words/music, juxtaposing loss, my father’s stroke, Toscanini, Siodmak’s The Killers, the Red Robin Diner… I seem to be quickening.”

The film combines found footage with sequences filmed by Larry. The soundtrack is mainly found audio, though there is possibly some actual audio recordings as well. This is a fairly subjective mix and at times it is tricky to assign meaning. However, overall, apart from the themes identified by Larry, the film seems pre-occupied with experiences of Afro-Americans; their voices appear in the sound footage and their figures can be glimpsed in the very fast montage.

The final film was the final part of a series ‘Elective Affinities’ that Larry started in the 1970s but finished in the 1980s. This was a long film, with forms of montage techniques but at a slower pace than in Mnemosyne. There was a clear preoccupation with the relationship between sound and image. And part of the focus was

“the conflict between the intellectual and the experiential …”

Tree of Knowledge (Elective Affinities, Part IV)

1980, colour and black and white, 16mm, 60 minutes.

“It started with filming the tree. Something was released in that manner of filming seemingly farthest removed from the procedure of the early films. I first thought a simple ordering of this rich material might be enough, something related to Barn Rushes. … But the film only came into its form-life with the idea of linking this deep-rooted and far-outreaching tree material with that film on paranoia that had fascinated me for many years.”

The film opened with a colour sequence filmed in a bar, followed by a very slow dissolve of a black and white image of a tree; the films ended with the reversal of these sequences. In between the film consisted of found footage; a 1950s US documentary for school students and a 1940s documentary about the treatment of paranoiac patients; these were intercut with footage filmed by Larry of scenes of nature but with a hand-held camera using very jerky camera movements. The film at times accompanied the moving images with soundtracks from other sequences.

I liked the opening and closure, and some of the counterpoint between sound and image was interesting. However, Larry constantly replayed sequences from the two documentaries which I thought became tiresome. And the actual footage in the film was difficult to watch as the jerky camera movements were rather like watching a strobe effect. At sixty minutes in length this became something of an ordeal.

It also subverted the presentation as by the end the film we had overrun the timed schedule. So Larry was only able to say thank you and suggest we could follow up informally. There was no time for questions. Given the running time of the combined films was 95 minutes I think that the presentation should have been longer: at least two and half hours. Apart from my different responses to the four films I felt that the selection and order limited our chance to take an overview of Larry’ film work. There is clearly a significant change in his approach to film and in the preoccupations therein at some point in the 1970s. And I am still unclear how this developed.

There are comments by Larry online and notes on interviews he has given. And there are commentaries about his films, though the one’s that I looked at did not address questions of form and style in sufficient depth.

It is important to note that\t Larry Gottheim considers that his recent digital film, still to be seen, proposes a new perspective on his work overall. The Pavilion are hoping to make this available in some form. The aspects of his films that I most enjoyed are precisely those that are best served by the silver halides in actual film. For example, the operation of light in Corn and Doorway, and also to some degree in Mnemosyne. But I should be interested to see how Larry Gottheim works with digital formats.

NB The films are listed as 1.33:1, but I am pretty sure they were all shot on sound stock and on this occasion were masked to 1.371. The 16mm projection was fine. The projectors were actually sited in the cinema balcony and the sound run through a separate sound system and out from the central loudspeaker behind the screen.

All quotations by Larry Gottheim in the presentation or online.

Posted in Avant-garde film, Non-narrative film, Short films, US films | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Edge of the World Britain 1937

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2017

The film was screened from a 35mm print at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the AGM for the Friends of the Hyde Park Picture.

The 1930s is often seen as a ‘low decade’ for British films. But, apart from many of the ‘Quota Quickies’ [made on the cheap to take advantage of state subsidies] there were some fine and well made movies. This title is one of those. It was directed by Michael Powell, shortly before he began his famous partnership with Emeric Pressburger.

The film is a melodrama set in a traditional community where modern influences are threatening the established way of life. Tensions within communities are accentuated by conflicts over tradition versus the new. The central problem is the impact of modern life and new technologies on a traditional community in decline. One example in the film is that the Islands fishing work has been taken over by trawlers operating from the Scottish mainland. This conflict is personified in the persons of the sons of the Manson and Gray families. Ironically the conflict is played out in a traditional ritual: a contest on the steep Island cliffs.

Powell’s story was inspired by reports in 1930 of the evacuation of St. Kilda [in the Hebrides]. In fact he had to shoot the film on Foula in the Shetlands. Given the story that was the source the film’s resolution is pre-ordained. The drama is developed by the conflict, which to a degree is a generational conflict. But there is also a romance, itself tragically affected by the larger conflict.

The film makes impressive use of Island rituals. Early on we see the Sabbath morning and the inhabitants gathering at the Kirk for a service and a traditional sermon running over an hour. Later we see the Islanders herding sheep for traditional hand-picking of the wool. There is an open-air ceilidh. A major event is a funeral and wake for a victim. And finally, we watch as the Inhabitants file onto a trawler, leaving their home for the mainland.

These characters are well played by familiar actors like John Laurie (Peter Manson), Finlay Currie (James Gray) and Niall MacGinnis (Andrew Gray) with lesser known performers like Belle Chrystall (Ruth Manson) and Kitty Kirwan (Jean Manson – seen in other classic films like I Know

Where I’m Going (1945) and Odd Man Out (1947)]. They were supported by actual islanders living on the location, the Isle of Fulva: and [rather Hitchcockian] Michael Powell as a Yachtsman.

The film opens as the yacht, with Andrew Gray, on-board as it sails into the small harbour. On a tour of the Island the trio come on a stone slab, marked ‘Gone Over’; marking the spot where Peter Manson fell. Then as Andrew wanders pass a croft and then the Kirk we enter a flashback to ten years earlier. Finally the film returns to the trio after detailing the mains story.

Three cinematographers worked on the film but the key lighting cameraman was Ernest Palmer [H.E.]who captured the beauty of the wild terrains and massive cliffs of the island. Nearly the whole of the film was shot on location with a few linking shots added at the studio. There is extensive use of superimpositions and these tie together the present and the past in the film. Presumably the experience of location filming stood him in good stead on a later film,  San Demetrio London (1943). The soundtrack was  by W. H. Sweeney and L. K. Tregellas, also excellent and combining actual sounds and music. The music includes three songs by the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. Music is mostly used for sequences that offer drama and heightened emotion.

The production team had to live on the island for several months from June till October, a long way from the studios which were the normal home of film crews. The latter stages saw them battling wind and rain. Michael Powell wrote the story: the script seems to have developed during the shoot, taking in rituals that were part of the actual Island life. The film was produced by a US émigré, Joe Rock, who ran a small independent studio near Elstree. Most of the technical crew had worked with Powell before. He had established himself with a number of ‘quota quickies’, including a recent success for the Rock Production Company The Man Behind the Mask (1936). The film’s pre-release was in the summer of 1937. Michael Powell recalled [in his autobiographical ‘A Life in the Movies’  (1986)]:

“The film opened at the New Gallery Cinema in Regent Street, now the London headquarters of the Seventh day Adventists, but then a rather classy movie theatre. [It is now a Burberry store, but the auditorium and its screen can still be seen and are used for promotional videos]. The critics gave it a cautious reviews. But my old admirer, C. A. Lejeune, writing in The Observer knew the difference between a lyric drama and a documentary, and said: “I hope everyone who can will make a point of seeing The Edge of the World. In some obscure judgement day, when these things are measured, I have a feeling it will come up somewhere near the top of English classics.”

And Basil Wright [of the British Documentary Movement] trumpeted in the Cinema: “If The Edge of the World achieves the success it so well deserves, it will be yet another reminder that vast production costs, exotic casts, and cosmopolitan scenarios are perhaps not the ultimate plan for the British Cinema.”

The film opened at the New Gallery Cinema in Regent Street, now the London headquarters of the Seventh day Adventists, but then a rather classy movie theatre. [It is now a Burberry store, but the auditorium and its screen can still be seen and are used for promotional videos]. The critics gave it a cautious reviews. But my old admirer, C. A. Lejeune, writing in The Observer knew the difference between a lyric drama and a documentary, and said: “I hope everyone who can will make a point of seeing The Edge of the World. In some obscure judgement day, when these things are measured, I have a feeling it will come up somewhere near the top of English classics.”

[Later] Joe Rock, who was fighting for the film, had sent a copy to New York to a small distributor, who submitted it to the National Board of Review film critics, and they chose it as one of the best foreign films of the year, which gave me a wonderful lift.”

This was well before British films won the occasional Academy Award. It was also seen and liked by film impresario Alexander Korda, And it was at his Denham Studio that Powell and Pressburger commenced the most memorable partnership in British Cinema.

The film was restored by the National Film Archive in 1990, though the present 35mm print is slightly shorter than the original release. The film was re-issued in cut version in 1940, running 62 minutes. The restoration runs 74 minutes. The print is good, though the is some variation on the  image, presumably due to different source material. And since 1990 it has suffered a few minor cuts, so we get what seem like ‘jump cuts’.

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Their Finest, Britain, Sweden 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 27, 2017

This was a BBC project which enjoyed Stephen Woolley as a key producer and recruited Lone Scherfig as director. It was adapted from the novel by Lissa Evans, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, by Gabby Chiape. Stephen Woolley has written on the background to the film in Sight & Sound (May 2017) and there is also an interview with Lone Scherfig in this issue. All of them bring their particular talents to the film. This bears the hall marks of the BBC, both in the reconstruction of wartime Britain and in its particular sense of British values, from the 1940s and the C21st. Stephen Woolley appears to have spearheaded the research into the British film industry of the 1940s, which is the setting for this comedy/drama. Lone Scherfig shows the skill with actors that she demonstrated in An Education (2009) and the combination of comedy and drama that graced the earlier Italian for Beginners (2000). Gabby Chiape has previously written for television, [including ‘East Enders’] and whilst this is a big-screen film the  interactions have a familiar tone found in a certain area of television. The production values are excellent, notably some fine cinematography.

Set in 1940 the film follows the career of Catrin Cole (Gemma Atherton) when she is recruited to provide ‘women’s’ dialogue’ for feature films. She is recruited by the Ministry of Information and then placed in a commercial film company charged with producing ‘propaganda’ that offers ‘authenticity and optimism to inspire a nation’. The brief is also to feature stories about ordinary people including women. Catrin interviews two sisters whose exploit [exaggerated] provides the pitch for a drama around the Dunkirk Evacuation.

Catrin works with two experienced writers in a small office near Wardour Street. Their impresario is clearly modelled on Alexander Korda. The lead writer, Tom Buckley (Sam Caflin), is worldly wise in the ways of the industry. Their narrative becomes a ‘film within a film’, The Nancy Starling.

The cast are filled out with the members of the film production and Whitehall mandarins who are overseeing the project. There is a substantial role for Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard [‘Uncle Frank’ in the film within]. Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons both have sequences where they deliver the rhetoric of the period with aplomb. And the latter adds a ‘yank’ to the film, Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy) seconded from the RAF where he has volunteered as a fighter pilot. Carl has to be given acting lessons by ‘Uncle Frank’ but his presence means that the film will receive US distribution and is shot in Technicolor.

The pre-production sequences where the script emerges and the writers are embroiled in the departmental wartime politics work well. The productions sequences, with a film directed by a documentary filmmaker, capture the technical and conventional aspects of 1940s filming. And the ‘film within a film’ nicely parallels the developments in the actual feature.

The emphasis in the feature is on the writing aspects of film. The film production within this feature uses some settings with visual interest and also with humour. So there is a wry joke regarding ‘Uncle Frank’ and special effects: and a later one whilst shooting a scene in the studio water tank. As well as the ‘ham’ US actor there is [predictably] the rescue of a cute dog. However, there is much less attention paid to the film crafts people than to the writers. Thus the film is supposed directed by someone from the documentary film movement, but we never get any sense of this character. And this applies to the technical people such as cinematographer or sound engineer. And there is no real focus on the editing of the film.

What we do see is a visit by Catrin to a cinema where she watches [in a series of brief clips] the finished and distributed film. The audience at the screening are clearly both involved and entertained by the feature. We watch, in particular, the climax and ending of the film. By this stage we know that finally Catrin has been able to write in a sequence in which one of the sister performs a ‘heroic’ act. And we know that she has written the ending for the film after US distributors thought the original ending to ‘tame’.

This is the only part of the film that we see that has a documentary flavour. With a voice over by one of the characters, intoning the message of continued struggle and US support, there is a long shot of a couple seated on the harbour wall in a small port in Devon. [Actually shot in Pembrokeshire]. We have seen this shot earlier; it is in reality a test shot before the actual filming and is of two of the key characters in the feature itself. This precedes a final sequence where we see that Catrin has succeeded in becoming part of the established film writing team.

This ending takes on a special emotional feel because of development among the key characters in the feature’s story. Whilst the ending of a ‘film within a film’ provides a suitable war-time feel of ‘authenticity’, with ‘optimism’ in the commentary, the knowledge we have about this couple adds a real poignancy to the feature film’s ending.

The shooting of the film within a film in Technicolor is well done and enables the film to be predominantly in colour. Less happily we see extracts from 1940s films, [including the production in this feature] projected for viewers in Academy ratio and then [as clips] in reframed in the 2.35:1 ratio. I find this distracting and unnecessary; presumably the BBC was looking forward to television screenings. But I was also undecided just how well presented is the supposed 1940 film. In his article Stephen Woolley lists a number of British productions from the period that he and colleagues studied in order to gauge style and content. Most of these are familiar titles such as The Foreman Went to France (1940) or ‘Pimpernel’ Smith (1941): but there are also lesser known features such as Tomorrow We Live’(1944). This feature is placed in a period of transition from the 1930s style, frequently relying on conventional techniques and lacking authenticity, certainly in terms of working class characters, to the wartime ‘documentary influenced’ approach epitomised in a film like Love on the Dole (also 1941)..

The Technicolor films that spring to mind are those of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, later and a long way from either the feature or its film within. And there is an uneven tone, notably in the acting. Bill Nighy has been critically commended but I found his ‘Uncle Frank’ stagy for any sense of authenticity. This may be deliberate by the filmmakers,, but it left me unconvinced by the audience response in the cinema to this film within.

 

Posted in British films, Films by women, Literature on Film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

An American Tragedy, the novel and the films.

Posted by keith1942 on April 20, 2017

One of my potent memories from my early film going days is of Montgomery Cliff and Elizabeth Taylor entwined in a kiss in A Place in the Sun (1951). For years the sequence remained the embodiment of romantic desire for me. I was not familiar with the literary version from which the film was adapted [via a play], Theodore Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy’ [published in 1925]. Then more recently I saw the 1931 version of the novel [with the original title] directed by Josef von Sternberg. By this time I was also aware that a version of the novel had been planned as part of Sergei Eisenstein’s abortive attempts to make a film in Hollywood. So I read the book: I also read ‘Sister Carrie’, another  Dreiser novel adapted by Hollywood, Carrie (1952), with fine direction by William Wyler and fine performances by Jenifer Jones and Lawrence Olivier.

An early 20th century novel, which judging by the library copy I borrowed is now little read, and two adaptations made in Hollywood more than fifty years ago sounds a little esoteric. But in its day the book was a best seller and very influential. Many critics and commentators also saw it as a compelling commentary on US society. Theodore Dreiser used a real-life murder as the basis for his plot of a young man who loves both a working girl and a rich socialite. Faced by the former’s pregnancy, he first tries abortion then killing. Dreiser maintained

“it could not happen in any other country in the world”.

That claim was illuminated by another book, Mandy Merck’s study of the novel and film versions [2007]. She comments

“the novel and its adaptations both constitute and are constituted by the convulsions of the nation state that is its protagonist and its theme”.

The book is concerned with the sociology of the protagonist’s fate, not the drama.

Merck discusses in detail the origins of Dreiser’s novel, (written whilst he worked in Hollywood), and the three film versions: one by Sergei Eisenstein, unrealised; one by Josef Von Sternberg for Paramount in 1931: and the most famous, directed by George Stevens for Paramount in 1951, A Place in the Sun. Merck points out in her introduction that she studies the authors, who include Dreiser, the directors who worked on the adaptations, and the economic authors, the Hollywood studios. She does this in an exemplary fashion, having clearly engaged in very detailed research.

So we get the development of Dreiser’s mammoth novel, running to 800 pages. Dreiser was an important contributor to a movement for realist fiction. He himself had researched the real-life love and affairs and subsequent murders that are the prime focus. He always carefully researched the places and people who fill his novels. H. L. Mencken commented,

“When he sent some character into an eating-house for a meal it was always some eating-house that he had been to himself, and the meal he described in such relentless detail was one he had eaten, digested and remembered.” (Introduction to the 1948 edition).

Another writer quoted in Merck’s volume opined,

“No one else confronted so directly the sheer intractability of American social life and institutions, or … the difficulty of breaking free from social law.” (D. Denby in 2003).

The length and complexity of this novel made for a daunting adaptation. It was one of the projects worked on by Sergei Eisenstein when he sojourned briefly in Hollywood in 1929. Dreiser’s depiction of class divisions and his sociological standpoint clearly appealed to Eisenstein. He worked up a script for a 14-reel version. Merck studies this in detail, and it promised to be an intelligent and cinematic version of the novel. Dreiser certainly gave his approval. However, it did not get past the studio bosses, presumably made nervous by moral and red-baiting would-be censors. The author’s discussion is interesting in terms of Eisenstein’s career, though I always wonder how either he or his companions seriously imagined they could make a film in Hollywood.

The Sternberg version seems mainly to have been an attempt to recoup some of the costs by the studio. Sternberg was interested in illusion and artifice rather than realism. A quote by Selznick runs,

“I don’t think he has the basic honesty, the tolerance, the understanding this subject absolutely requires, . . .”

Moreover, the imminent arrival of Hollywood system of censorship, the Hays Code, made the explicit subject of the novel difficult. On completion, Dreiser was appalled at what his original had become, and undertook legal action, but he lost.

The post-war version that was very much Stevens’ own project. But Ivan Moffat complained,

“Stevens was a romantic, so the bleak social picture painted by Dreiser took second place to the steamy love-affair between George and Angela” (the protagonist and his privileged amour).

Certainly the film’s centre was the on- (and off-) screen romance: which I vividly remember. It does also have the put-upon workmate/victim of George; a fine performance by Shelley Winters as Alice.

All four versions of the story suffered from censorship and social outrage, since the original plot contained seduction, attempted abortion, murder and official corruption. Some of those involved in the 1950s version were also caught up in the HUAC’s attack on the Industry’s ‘liberals’. Merck spends time on these various social angles and their impact on the succeeding projects, and the overall discourse of book and films.

The book develops into a compelling and informative study of Hollywood and its relationship to US society and the wider world. At the end of the book Merck notes that 2005 saw a version of the original novel at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House: and a faintly disguised borrowing in Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005, inferior). Even Jean-Luc Godard joined the act with a brief reference in Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989 – 1999)..

I certainly recommend Mandy Merck’s authoritative study. I also recommend Dreiser’s original ‘An American Tragedy’. The 800 pages do not seem so many when you get involved in the novel. Coincidentally, I have also recently re-read novels by Dreiser’s fellow realist, Upton Sinclair. So I am now resolved to read that other doyen of North American realism, Frank Norris. Hollywood famously filmed his ‘McTeague’ as Greed (1923), with equally problematic results. The director was Erich Von Stroheim, who, along with Eisenstein, was one of the filmmakers preferred by Dreiser for his own epic work.

‘Hollywood’s American Tragedies: Dreiser, Eisenstein, Sternberg, Stevens’ by Mandy Merck, Berg 2007.

Posted in Book reviews, Hollywood, Literature on Film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Elle, France, Germany, Belgium 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2017

This film has received much critical praise. In particular Isabelle Hubert in the lead role has been uniformly lauded, winning the Best Actress Award at the Golden Globes. At the same time there has been discussion and argument regarding the film’s subject, a woman’s reaction to rape. So this is a very effective title but also one which is somewhat controversial.

The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven, a filmmaker with a reputation for shocking audiences and tending to a degree of exploitation, especially of sex and violence. The best known example would be Basic Instincts (1992). However, I think that there is some difference in content and tone between his films made in Hollywood [the majority] and films made in Europe. In particular Black Book (Netherlands, Germany, UK, Belgium, 2006) struck me as less than conventional with its study of a Jewish women who is caught between the Dutch resistance and the German occupiers during World War II. More generally Verhoeven has the ability to take genre films in unconventional and unexpected directions. His Hollywood film Total Recoil (1990) is one of the more distinctive contributions to the science fiction genre. This likely depends in part on his collaborators. Total Recall was adapted from a work by Philip K. Dick whilst Black Book was scripted by the writer of the original novel Gerard Soeteman.

Elle opens on an assault of Michéle Le Blanc (Isabelle Hubert) by a masked man in her own home. This is violent and kinetic action. The rest of the film studies her responses which include her relations with an ex-husband and son, her woman friend and partner, a lover, and two neighbours. There are two flashbacks to the initial rape, a further assault and a sequence of what is termed ‘rough sex’. There are two important strands. One if Michéle’s response to the experience. The other, which interacts, is the unmasking of the perpetrator.

The rape sequences are treated in a typical visceral fashion by Verhoeven. And we return to these several times. The violence in the film is added to by a family connection to a series of brutal killings. And both are reinforced by the video game company that Michéle runs with her friend Anna (Anne Consigny); in fact the video game aspect is part of a series of false leads that the film exploits. All of these lends credence to the argument by Ginette Vincendeau in Sight & Sound (April 2017) that the film ‘crosses the line’.

However, the character of Michelle as presented by Hubert is far more complex. We see her interactions with her friends, her management at work, and her solitude [importantly with a cat].. Her comments to other characters and the more ambiguous allusions lend weight to the argument by Erika Balsom in S&S that the film ‘explores’ rather than crosses the line.

I found myself being partially convinced by both sets of arguments. My feeling is that the film is on the borderline between a serious study and a piece of exploitation. Borderlines are a common feature of Verhoeven’s work. And indeed they are also familiar in the screen work of Isabelle Hubert.

The generis of the film is interesting. It is based on a French novel which was translated in order to provide a basis for an English-language script pitched to US majors. That failed and seeing the film one can understand why. When Hubert expressed interest the film the script then had to be translated into French. This is a intriguing comment on international film production. But it seems to me that this process, and especially the presence of Hubert, accounts for the ambiguous status of the film. One aspect of the plot which I suspect was left over from the US version of the script is the video game company. I found this the weakest aspect of the film: in the book Michéle and Anna run a team of scriptwriters. The latter is much more in keeping with the characters we see in the film.

Of course, Verhoeven has a tendency to want to ‘have his cake and eat it to’. Inflammatory material for the box office, intriguing thematic angles for critics. But I am finally more impressed than disturbed by the film. It is the best of the Verhoeven films that I have seen. And Isabelle Hubert’s performance is riveting, and that of an actor whose work over a number of decades stands out triumphantly.

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Derek Jarman – 1942 to 1994.

Posted by keith1942 on April 7, 2017

ARTIST, FILMMAKER, DESIGNER, WRITER, POET, GARDENER, ACTIVIST.

 

The Hebden Bridge Picture House recently screened Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) from a 35mm print in their ‘reel’ film series. The print was rather worn with quite a few scratches but the definition and contrast were fine and the colour palette was great. Running for 93 minutes the film was originally by the BBFC classified at 18 and is now reclassified at 15. It was funded by the BFI / Channel 4. The script by Derek Jarman was developed from an idea by Nicholas Ward Jackson who was also associate producer.

The cinematography was by Gabriel Beristain, using Fuji film processed by Technicolor. This was excellent photography; the colours were vibrant and evocative of the artists’ work, especially in the sequences as he created his paintings. The Production Design was Christopher Hobbs who recreated the Italian settings in a London studio. As with all of Jarman’s films the design combined period recreation with anachronistic contemporary styles. The editing by George Akers worked up a complex series of flashbacks across Caravaggio’s life.  Simon Fisher Turner’s music, as with the design and narrative, combined period style with the contemporary. .

Nigel Terry played the adult Caravaggio and Dexter Fletcher the young artist. Sean Bean, early in his career and looking beautifully muscular, played Ranuccio. Michael Gough was at his urbane and ironic best as Cardinal del Monte. Tilda Swinton played Lena; Nigel Davenport Gustiani; and , and Robbie Coltrane in an unusual role was Scipione Borghese. The budget of about £500,000 was extremely well spent and the film looked more expensive.. The film was awarded a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The larger than usual budget [for Jarman] accounts for the number of well-known actors in the cast list. This was the first film on which Jarman worked with Tilda Swinton, who was to become a close friend and colleague. The film traces episodes in the life of the C16th painter, presented as the flashbacks of the dying artist. The film has a stronger plot than is usual in a Jarman film, but its overall effect is one of a series of tableaux. The film displays homoerotic imagery but also explores the social and economic side of the artist’s life. And the film explores the labyrinthine recesses of church and church patronage in the period.

Derek Jarman’s parents married at the beginning of World War II and his father went off to serve as an officer. The family moved around in his childhood and his father was part of the post-war reconstruction in Europe. Derek had a traditional boarding school education. So his formative years were in a post-war England where cultural changes lagged behind major economic and social changes. The cultural changes became noticeable in the 1960s with political activism, the development of Gay Liberation and of the Feminist movements. There were associated developments in the world of film. In both the USA and the UK avant-garde filmmakers, in an Underground Cinema, experimented with alternative formats like Super 8 mm and 16 mm whilst working way outside the conventions of mainstream cinema.

Derek Jarman studied at King’s College and then the Slade School of Fine Art. Here he developed his artistic skills and interests. But he also ‘came out’ as a homosexual. Along with Fine Art he also studied Theatrical Design. It was in the latter field that he first achieved notice and paid employment: for a production at the Royal Opera House.

He and a friend occupied a glorified squat and it was at a party held there that he met Ken Russell. Whilst they were rather different artists there are intriguing overlaps between these two ‘enfant terrible’ of British culture. Russell invited Jarman to work on the set designs for his infamous The Devils (1971). The film has still not had a cinematic release in a full uncut version. Jarman’s sets were notable and one of the critically praised aspects of the production. Jarman also worked on Russell’s subsequent film Savage Messiah (1972).

It was in the early 1970s that Jarman started experimenting with Super 8 mm film. He went on to produce a large number of experimental Super 8 films and also what were effectively Super 8 ‘pop videos’, especially of Punk Rock bands. Jarman continue to work on Super 8 after he progressed to 16 mm and 35 mm filmmaking. So two later feature length films, The Angelic Conversation (1985) and The Last of England (1987) were originated on Super 8. Derek recalled being influenced by Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger and also Stan Brakeage.

He entered cinematic filmmaking with Sebastiane (1976) shot on 16mm in colour and running for 85 minutes. It had Latin dialogue with English subtitles. The film was originally given an X certificate and is now classified at 18. Megalovision, James Whalley and Howard Malin. Co-directors Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress. Script: James Whalley and Derek Jarman. Cinematography Peter Middleton. Production Design Derek Jarman. Editing Paul Humfress. Music Brian Eno. Cast: Leonardo Treviglio, Barney James, Neil Kennedy, Richard Warwick, Ken Hicks, Gerald Incandela, Christopher Hobbs. Budget £35,000.

The film is set in the 4th Century and presents the story of a Roman soldier Sebastiane, later canonised by the Catholic Church as a martyr. The film was an impromptu affair. It was filmed in four weeks on the Island of Sardinia and the production crew was very much a gay circle of friends. The film is self-consciously homoerotic and remarkably explicit for the period. The use of Latin dialogue is almost unique. It achieved a certain cult status, especially in Italy and Spain. Jarman recalled that in the USA it circulated on the porn cinema circuit. He also reckoned that there was quite a box-office return for exploitation distributors. The film already displays qualities one associates with Jarman: a painterly visual sense, less concern with narrative and sometimes anachronistic depictions of period and settings.

His next feature was Jubilee (1978). Shot on 16mm in colour and running 103 minutes. The film was originally certified as an X and later reclassified – first at 18 then at 15. A Whalley-Malin Production. Scripted by Derek Jarman. Assistant director Guy Ford. Cinematography Peter Middleton. Production Design Kenny Morris and John Maybury. Costumes Christopher Hobbs. Editors Nick Barnard and Tom Priestley. Music Brian Eno. Cast: Jenny Runacre, Little Nell, Jordan, Toyah Wilcox, Wayne County, Adam Ant, Ian Charleson, Karl Johnson, Neil Kennedy, Richard O’Brien, Jack Birkett. Budget £70.000.

The film envisages a time travel journey by Elisabeth 1st forward to England in the 1970s. The film is provocatively iconoclastic, really inventive and often feels completely improvised. The crew was a mixture of gay activists and performers and members of the punk rock world.

The film appeared when the British Board of Film Censors, developing a relatively liberal treatment for films deemed ‘adult’, was coming under increasing fire from conservative moralists, including the Festival of Light. Jarman recalled meeting with a censor from the Board, whose concern was less with the film film’s content than the likely response of moral critics. It seems that they agreed a five-second cut from one sequence. The current release runs for just on 106 minutes, three minutes less than the original 109 minutes. However, it is listed by the BBFC as ‘uncut’?

In 1979 Jarman filmed a version of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This was also shot on 16mm but had a larger budget, £150,000. The film was mainly funded by producer and director Don Boyd: who also supported the later The Last of England and War Requiem (1989). The film was made in an old country house and involved a number of familiar colleagues of Jarman. Apart from a rather camp finale the film was relatively traditional in its treatment of Shakespeare’s classic play.

Jarman continued to work on Super 8 and also experimented with the relatively new VHS video format. His The Angelic Conversation, originated on Super 8, was supported by the BFI onto a 35mm format and given an airing by Channel 4. A gay affair was accompanied by readings from Shakespearean sonnets by Judi Dench.

The next full feature film only appeared in 1986. This was partly due to the furore around explicit films created by moral critics. The MP Winston Churchill moved an Obscenity Bill in Parliament and claimed that Sebastiane and Jubilee were films

‘‘that the British public should not be allowed to see’!

Jarman response was to comment that if Rainer Werner Fassbinder was working in Britain he would probably be forced to still rely on Super 8.

In 1990 Jarman was diagnosed with Aids and this became a theme in his film The Garden. For part of the filming Jarman was in hospital and relied on his collaborators to work on the film, which he oversaw from his bed. The film is set in his home and garden near the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. Gardening had been an interest since his childhood. The film offers a very subjective viewpoint, combining memories and creations. However Jarman still take issue with homophobic moralist, in particular the campaign around Section 28 in relation to education and the debates with the established church regarding homosexuality.

‘The Garden’ Dungeness

Despite his illness Jarman went on to make three more feature films. In 1991 he directed an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play, Edward II. This was a modern dress adaptation with a number of familiar colleagues both in front of and behind the camera. The film is about gay and class relationships in hierarchical society. Crucially Jarman changed the ending from one of violence to one of union.

In 1993 Jarman directed a film about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. This started as a TV programme but thanks to BFI support it developed into a feature film. As usual there were number of familiar collaborators in the production team. Also, somewhat bizarrely, the producer was the 1960s radical activist Tariq Ali and the script was by Marxist-leaning academic Terry Eagleton. The film opted for minimal sets but with notable costumes and lighting.

Jarman’s final film was Blue (1993). This was a return to his experimental film work. Accompanying a continuously blue screen, a cast of the voices of his frequent collaborators read from his poetry and diaries and trace the progress of Jarman’s illness. There is an evocative soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner.

Derek Jarman remains one of the most distinctive voices in recent British cinema. The films are full of memorable images and increasingly these enjoy evocative sounds and music. There is a substantial library of Super 8 work, experimental but extremely varied. The features have enjoyed a life at the cinema and on video and television [mainly Channel 4]. Jarman is probably most noted as an angry voice and an iconoclast – somewhat in the vein of his early mentor Ken Russell. However, whilst these films [like Russell’s] present themselves as narratives, offering some sort of story, they frequently feel like a series of episodes and tableaux. Jarman’s roots in Fine Art and Design are apparent, the strongest impressions left are usually a particular sequence or a particular example of mise en scène.

The films depend strongly on collaboration. Asked about the ‘co-operative nature of film-making’ Jarman responded

“You should try and create an environment where people can be creative with people coming up with ideas. The chance for people to come together to make something wonderful.”

One gets a strong sense of this collaborative process from his films. Derek Jarman clearly had the skills and affinities to draw people out and to enable a pooling of resources.

Jarman also claimed that he had little grasp of film technology, though he must have developed a sense of film design work in his early forays. And his work with video and Super 8 made intriguing use of film speeds and camera effects. He recorded that

“I think that it was fortunate that I was not actually trained in cinema.”

suggesting that such training bought with it a host of conventions that he wished to avoid.

“But then why should I have to be a director (in the ordinary sense of the word)? I’m not.”

Yet his films still bear a distinctive imprint, Jarman would be accorded the status of auteur – recognisable style and themes. This is partly apparent in the controversial aspect of his films, their explicit ‘queerness’ and their challenging of establishments. Jarman’s experience as a homosexual in what was until recently a very repressive society is voiced in all his films. And he offers a particular antipathy to many of the organised religions with their attempts to control sexuality. It is noteworthy than in Sebastiane this Christian saint is presented as a sun worshipper.

Yet the films often have a strong sense of tradition. Wikipedia lists his nationality as ‘English’ rather than British. And his upbringing proceeded the shocks and changes of the 1960s and his world was established before the multicultural changes of the 1970s and 1980s. Jarman himself admitted that his experience shaped and limited his work and there were aspects of modern Britain that were only reflected marginally.

Apart from the Underground filmmakers already mentioned Jarman recorded the impact of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and La Dolce Vita (1960). At other times he praised Jean Cocteau and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Intriguingly he recalled just missing the opportunity of being an extra on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) when that director was working in London.

Jarman was a very accessible artist. There are numerous interviews in which he was always open, courteous and slightly self-deprecating.

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Developed from the notes written for a series of screenings at Bradford’s National Media Museum. Films with production details were screened then.

Resources:

Derek Jarman: A Portrait Artist. Film-maker. Designer. This includes a series of articles to coincide with a major exhibition at the Barbican in London. The book is beautifully illustrated, though the chapters on the films are not that detailed. Take 10 Contemporary British Film Directors by Jonathan Hacker and David Price includes a more detailed study of Jarman’s films up until 1990. Isaac Julien’s film profile Derek (2008) includes on the DVD version includes a substantial interview with Derek Jarman by Colin McCabe from 1992 and some examples of his Super 8 work.  

 

 

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