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Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on screen

Posted by keith1942 on May 26, 2018

The The Young Karl Marx / Le jeune Karl Marx Der junge Karl Marx (France, Belgium, Germany 2017) is a must for genuine communists and recommended for anyone who is a fan of Karl Marx: the 200th anniversary of his birthday fell on May 5th 2018.  Now it is the 200th anniversary of the birth of his colleague Frederick/Friedrich Engels, the other key character in this title. 200 years on their ‘spectre’ still haunts the European [and now the world] bourgeoisie. You can celebrate this anniversary on November 28th.

The newly released film by Raoul Peck is centred on the friendship and collaboration between Marx and Friedrich Engels, the two intellectual giants of the modern era. Note, the play ‘Young Marx’ apparently commences where this dramatisation leaves off. The film covers the period from 1841 to 1848 when these youthful rebels were finding their feet and their intellectual ground. We follow Marx from Germany to Paris, to Brussels to London. We see and hear his wife Jenny and watch as he develops a relationship with Engels, already in the throes of an affair with Mary Burns.

Over this period Marx was writing for ‘Rheinische Zeitung’ (‘Rhineland News’); ‘Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher’ (‘German-French Annals’); ‘Vorwärts!’ (‘Forward!’), the last for the League of the Just. Engels had already published his famous ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844’. Marx and Engels jointly published ‘The Holy Family’ (1845). Marx followed up with ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ (1847). Then early in 1848 he and Engels wrote for The Communist League [previously The League of the Just] ‘The Communist Manifesto’. This was published in February 1848 as a wave of proletarian revolutions swept across Europe. At this point the modern Communist movement was born and Marx and Engels continued their political activities whilst developing the analysis of Capitalism, an analysis that is as accurate today as it was when ‘Das Kapital’ (Volume 1) was first published in 1867.

Marx and Engels dominate the film as do their political discussions. We do see both Jenny and Mary involved in political action and commenting on the political debates. A number of other famous activists and theorists of the period also appear in the film. We have Michael Bakunin briefly. More frequently we see and hear Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Among the people debated with and criticised by Marx is Wilhelm Weitling.

Only Marx and Engels are presented as rounded characters. But they and the supporting cast portray these revolutionaries in a convincing manner as they also do with their political debates and arguments. It is the strength of the acting that makes the film work.

In fact it is a fairly conventional treatment, an example of the modern film biopic which tends to dramatise a character through one aspect of their life and work. Essentially this film charts the friendship and the way that it leads up to the seminal manifesto. The narrative is linear; carefully structured to include action and drama. The basic plot, though using fictional elements, is broadly historically accurate. Where it less typical is in the amount of time that it allows for political statements and debates. Visually it is similar to many other costume dramas.

The film’s running time is 118 minutes. A more daring length, such as in Peter Watkins La Commune (Paris 1871) (2000) which runs for 345 minutes., would enable a fuller treatment of the politics. Whilst an audience will get a sense of the radical ideas and analysis what actually constitutes the contribution of Marx and Engels in this period will only be clear to people familiar with the written works. When we reach ‘The Communist Manifesto’ we hear the opening paragraphs but not the equally famous ending. The complete Manifesto would have been a better choice. Perhaps a more radical film-maker [Jean-Luc Godard?] might have essayed this.

A more serious omission in some ways is the absence of the voice of the proletariat. The film opens with a fine sequence as we watch rural proletarians hunted down as they attempt to gather kindling: and a commentative voice explains the relevance of the different meanings of theft to this situation When we reach the Manifesto there is an evening sequence as Marx, Engels, Jenny and Mary read the opening of the almost complete Manifesto. Then in a montage of stills we see groups of silent proletarians offering a direct gaze to the audience and the bourgeoisie. But their voice is mainly absent. There are some excellent scenes of of factory exploitation; street meetings; and a Communist League meeting where proletarians are present. But they are only supporting where as in the work of Marx and Engels they are both the object and the subject. The Manifesto would make more sense if the proletarian impact on Marx and Engels was made clear. The film does though make clear that these two are not just isolated intellectuals but are involved in practical political action, as are both Jenny and Mary.

Within the limits of the genre the production is well done. The design, editing and use of music is rather conventional but works well. The cinematography is generally well done. However, it does use the modern technique of filming characters standing before or beside windows. This reduces the clarity in the image of the character/s, and I suspect digital formats emphasise this. The DCP I saw was generally good but the contrast was lower than it might have been on 35mm. I think the film was probably shot in a digital format. The British version is in German, French and English with appropriate sub-titles. It uses both colour and black and white in a ratio of 2.35:1.

I enjoyed the film and I was genuinely moved at times. But after the sequence constructed around ‘The Communist Manifesto’ there are two end titles pointing forward to ‘Das Kapital’. Apparently , in an effort to emphasise the continuing relevance of the Manifesto there follows a second montage of well-known events and figures in the succeeding decades. These are not all well-chosen; several of the figures would have been roundly attacked by Marx and Engels if they were still around. Better would have been a montage illustrating the final and ringing declaration of the Manifesto, the working classes still have ‘nothing to lose but their chains!

Posted in European film, History on film | 2 Comments »

The Spirit of ’45, Britain 2013

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2020

I have recently read some comments on where ‘the left’ should go in Britain today. The comments were interesting and also claimed to be inspired by this Ken Loach documentary; distributed digitally. It has the subtitle of ‘The Labour Victory of 1945 – memories and reflections’. It is a historical investigation with a clear political message to the Britain of the Coalition’s policies of ‘austerity’. Loach has a long pedigree of political films, both fictional features and documentaries, that address contemporary and historical Britain from a left position. This cinema of Loach and his collaborators is a cinema of opposition. I however have reservations about this documentary and the interpretation of the politics of the late 1940s. Note though, there is a ‘spirit of ’45’ national day in August [apparently started in the USA]  which appears a completely uncritical celebration.

Like his earlier work this title relies  on the distribution system of mainstream cinema. But the films are not typically mainstream and whilst they are often placed in art and independent categories it  is fair to distinguish his work from that of the ‘auteurs using ‘non-standard language’ . The boundaries of categories are always slippery. Loach clearly is a distinctive film-maker in terms of style of content: but it is also the case that the films are the product of a collective: as Loach has often affirmed the script is the determining basis of his works. That definitely seems the case with this new title and as it relies on an amount of archive footage and of a number of interviews there are several voices peaking to us here.  with its overt political message directed at the current activities of the British bourgeoisie provides an interesting case study to assess his politics and their place in a movement of real opposition.

The Spirit of ’45 focuses on the five years, [1945 – 1950] of the post W.W.II Labour Government led by Clement Atlee. The Labour Party won a surprise landslide victory in June 1945. It then proceeded on possibly the most radical restructuring of British economic, political and civil society of the C20th. The coincidence of the death of Tory Leader Margaret Thatcher during this film’s current distribution provides a telling set of parallels. It also provides a contradictory position to the hype that has tried to elevate her to the top in UK Prime Minster ratings.

This contrast is deliberately presented in the film. It is constructed around to set of polarities. The first is between the 1930s, Auden’s ‘low decade’, and the late 1940s. The 1930s were the decade of the great depression and of the Tory dominated National Government. The levels of exploitation, poverty and deprivation are only now being matched in the current austerity.

Later the film sets up a second set of polarities, between the 1945 Labour Government and the 1979 Conservative Government. They are indeed polar opposites. And the 1980s saw the start of the destruction of the Welfare State created under Labour. It should be noted that the destruction has taken longer than the original construction, and that the obverse is usually the case. This speaks to the importance of the welfare institutions to Britain’s working classes.

The film is constructed mainly from archive footage. There should be a word of praise for archivist Jimmy Anderson, who has researched and supplied a rich and varied selection of film from the 1930s through to the 1980s. Interspersed with the archive footage are a series of interviews with people who lived through or have studied these different decades. Many of these are working people with direct experience of the 1940s and indeed the 1930s. There are several ‘experts’ and few representatives of the political classes. All are filmed in black and white by Stephen Standen, matching the predominately black and white archive footage.

The interviews are the strong centre of this film. The witnesses are clear and direct, often extremely eloquent. They provide both evidence and personal testimonies to support and enrich the archive material. They are also often moving, as for example the woman who recalls her grandfather carrying round in his wallet the letter informing him of his first council house. A doctor recalls calling on a working class family who, counting the pennies, only advised him of one sick son when there were two. He told the mother; ‘from today it’s free!’

There are also moments, of humour, some grim some satirical. A conservative MP reads out a letter from a constituent who fears that the British Army’s ‘Current Affairs Education Programme’, late in the war, is both subversive and in danger of creating demobbed soldiers ‘all pansy-pink.’

The style is recognisable from Loach’s other work. There is frequent use of overlapping sound. Parallel editing creates significant and signifying contrasts. The interviews are almost uniformly shot from a frontal viewpoint in mid-shot. However, on just two occasions the camera cuts to a side-angle and close-up: in both cases the witness is remembering a traumatic death. In the first instance Bert remembers realising that his mother has died from a miscarriage and the lack of proper medical provision. In the latter Ray remembers the death of a fellow miner due to the lack of pit props in the seam where they were working.

Unfortunately one technical weakness is that the 1930s and 1940s film footage has been re-framed to fit the 1.85:1 frame of the digital release. I was surprised at this act in a Loach film. I wondered if it is down to one of the funders, Film Four, who will sooner or later transmit the film on television. It does show a lack of respect for the footage so carefully selected. And it is quite obvious on occasion, as with newsreel footage where titles are often only partly visible.

A much more effective technique is colourisation, the first time I have approved of such manipulation. The film opens with celebrations by people on VE day 1945. We see them singing, dancing, cheering in the streets and in iconic setting such as Trafalgar Square. At the film’s end the footage re-appears, now in colour. The contrast achieves a fine, upbeat sense. And it fits with the thrust of the film, which is that the loss sense of community of the 1940s is actually re-achievable today.

In both the coverage of the 1940s and of the 1980s there is detailed film on the policies and actions of the two governments. As one might expect, this is a series of oppositions. The Labour’ Governments major achievements are dealt with in turn – nationalising the mines, transport, housing and centrally the National Health Service. And it is in this iconic achievement that the destruction of the later governments is most forcibly made apparent.

The film is not unalloyed praise for the great 1945 reforming Labour Party. In particular the experts offer some critical comments. These include Tony Benn, who was both a participant but who also looks back and examines. Two points in particular emerge as criticism of the Labour Governments implementation of their policies. One is the dominance of centralisation: the other is the lack of any sort of control by the working class. A particular example of this is the new National Coal Board. Its head was an ex-coal owner who had led the opposition to nationalisation.

But there are important aspects of the 1945 Labour Government that the documentary omits. One ‘elephant in the room’ is Finance Capital. In fact one of the early nationalisation in the 1940s was the Bank of England. But the Government went no further, though nationalising the top 100 companies including the banks was a policy supported by grass roots activists. This failure becomes more obvious when our gaze [which the films prompts] comes forward to the current crisis. It is worth noting that the reforming Labour Government was constrained in the same manner as the current Coalition Government. The need to placate the banks and the markets so that they would fund the debts to pay for government action. The UK was a substantial recipient of monies in the USA ‘s Marshall Plan, and pressure from across the Atlantic was clearly a powerful factor. One commentator in the film suggests that the USA aid was partly motivated by the fears of radical change or even revolution by the British working class.

There is the another ‘elephant in the room’; Britain’s membership of what became the Western Imperialist front [NATO], led by the USA. Nowhere in the film are the policies of imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism addressed. Among the important issues from the 1940s would be the suppression of the democracy in the Greek Civil War: the handing back of Vietnam to the French colonialist: covert support to suppress the movement for Independence in Indonesia: the creation of a settler Zionist State in Palestine: and the partition of the Indian sub-continent. Notable also was Bevin’s insistence on the development of a nuclear option. The government saw the empire / Commonwealth, particularly Africa, as a source of cheap resources: the groundnut scandal was not about economic independence for Africans but bailing out Britain’s own faltering economy.

These omissions may seem surprising. Ken Loach in earlier films has addressed the Republican war against fascism in Spain (Land and Freedom, 1995); though it omitted the issue of Spanish colonialism. Other films have addressed colonialism: the War of Independence in Eire (The Wind That Shakes the Barley): and resistance to US neo-colonialism in Nicaragua (Carla’s Song, 1996). However, only The Wind That Shakes the Barley actually addresses British colonialism and the central focus of that film is the Irish Civil War. The earlier film Hidden Agenda (190) actually focused on the abuses by the British state and the representation of the Republicans was problematic. The more recent Jimmy’s Hall (20140 is about the struggle in the new Irish free State. Loach clearly supports National Liberation Struggles, witness his defamation by Zionists, but it is not properly developed in his films or this documentary.

These lacunae carry over into the treatment of the UK class struggle. Loach’s film completely fails to deal with one of the most potent factors in the politics of the decade, the arrival of large numbers of black people from Britain’s colonies. This was underway during the 1940s, partly due to the need for additional labour. The Labour Home Secretary opined that ‘he would be happier if the intake could be limited to entrants from the Western countries.” Part of his motivations were questions of ‘tradition and social background’, partly the possible problems of deportation if needed. The Trade Unions were often hostile, as Bevan reported to the Cabinet in 1946. By 1949 there were occasional racist riots, but the Government ‘sat on its hands’. By 1950 a review was underway to “check immigrants into the country of colonial people from the British Colonial territories”. [See Race & Class 1984].

This would seem to be a broader issue that has never been squarely confronted in Loach’s output. His films do feature positive black characters, but only in subordinate roles. Given his output is almost entirely devoted to issue of the class struggle in Britain, the absence of a film that centrally deals with what is termed “race” is surprising. More generally whilst Loach’s film focuses on and supports the struggles of the working class it is debatable whether it fully confront ‘the system’. The continuing strand that runs through most of his films is the sense of ‘betrayal’. This is the message that appears at the end of the very fine series for BBC Days of Hope (1975). And it a feeling that figures in The Spirit of ’45. The film’s main analytical conclusion centres on the failure of working class control. This begs the question of what are the politics of that control.

A number of screenings of the film have featured a Live Satellite coverage of a Q&A following a screening at Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema. There was Ken Loach, Dot Gibson, Owen Jones and Jeremy Hardy. Dot is interesting because she recalled being expelled from the Labour Party in the 1950s for belonging to a group that promoted the policy of nationalising the banks! The central theme of this discussion was a new political movement, Left Unity. This offers the appearance of being a new, more democratic, more radical version of the Labour Party. This also begs the question of the political line required to effect actual, real change. Britain’s Empire was a factor in enabling the British capitalist class to make concessions to the working class. Certainly socialism is not compatible with imperialist power or imperialist ambitions.

The original post was on Third Cinema Revisited and also addressed the question of a distinction between films that address decolonization and films that address  class struggle.

Race & Class 1994, see ‘The Role Labour in the creation of a racist Britain’ by S Joshi and B Carter, Volume XXV, number 3.

Posted in British films, Documentary | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

‘From Méliès to New Media’: the problem of the facsimiles in the digital age.

Posted by keith1942 on August 17, 2020

Al in ‘Detour’

Detour (Producer Releasing Corporation, 1945 ) was directed Edgar Ulmer and is generally labelled a film noir though it is also in some sense a road movie. The basic plot offers us Al ( Tom Neal) who is hitch-hiking to California to join his girl-friend Sue (Claudia Drake). Along the way he first meets Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) who gives him a lift  and then Vera (Ann Savage), who turns out to be the femme fatale. He is also drawn into a world of chaos and criminality from which, as a ‘victim hero” he fails to emerge in safety. As is common in film noirs Al recounts this story in flashback and in the confessional mode.  The film has an excellent discussion in an analysis by Andrew Britton in ‘The Movie Book of Film Noir’, edited by Ian Cameron (Studio Vista 1992). There is also an excellent discussion of the genre in the Introduction by Michael Walker, including defining the ‘victim hero’.

Detour is one of the titles discussed in ’From Méliès to New Media’ by Wendy Haslem, published by Intellect 2019. I reviewed this book for the Media Education Journal and found it challenging. At times I felt like Al who, in his narration, constantly asks why this is happening in this way; why are his assumptions so frequently frustrated? I felt rather in that situation after struggling through this volume page by page. Finally I had figured out who had said or written what and, importantly, what I thought this signified. Signifiers are important here as this is a book informed by ‘signs’.

I did complete a review for MEJ but at just over a 1,000 words there was not the space to address in detail all the theory and analysis in the book. But by the end I was convinced that there was some misconstruction in the critical discussion. Hence this longer article where I wish to subject some of the assumptions and arguments made to detailed criticism.

This is an academic work replete with uncommon terms and concepts and with frequent references to authors who have a reputation for difficulty. Predominantly those quoted can be categorised as proposing THEORY; the upper case letters denote a particular emphasis on the theoretical. The author  relies on the discipline called semiotics. I have had earlier occasions to grapple with the discourse of this, notably in the pages of the journal ‘Screen’. I have a working  understanding of the language and concepts involved but since I do not use them in my criticism I frequently have to revisit sources of explanation.

The central concept that informs the book is a term from Semiotics.

“[film] has been understood to have a direct relationship to the concept of indexicality. To understand the index …we need to return to the literary origin of this concept. Writing on semiotics in 1931, Charles Sanders Pierce described the associative power of the index as, ‘like  a pronoun demonstrative or relative, [it] forces the attention to a particular object intended without describing it’.” (Pages 14 and 15).

This tricky passage does not quite give the sense of the index. The author uses  the index as a sign that does which points to or offers evidence of the intended object. One example in a quotation from Pierce offers;

“the pole star … to show us which way is north.” (page 15).

This demonstrates for me the limitation of the uses of index. You need to know the function of the pole star in order to realise that it gives evidence of the direction of north and this itself assumes some knowledge of astronomy. When we come to examples offered of the indexical in certain films I will point out such limitations.

The book uses a number of examples of 35mm film prints transferred to digital. The author raises the question as to whether the indexical characteristics of a film transfer to a digital version. The complication is that film is ‘material’ whilst digital is ‘immaterial’. This distinction offers a problematic usage of ‘material’. I can see that photo-chemical film is tangible in a way that digital images are not. But both forms rely on light and sound which are actually also material. They involved either radiation or waves which have material properties though they are not tangible to human senses.  From the audience point  of view both film and digital files would seem to be immaterial. What they present is a stream of light projected onto a screen where it forms  moving images and the sound is projected into the auditorium seemingly invisibly. This is part of the mainstream film industry presentations which seeks to avoid drawing the attention of viewers to the paraphernalia of presentation; just as film-makers in the mainstream avoid drawing attention to the techniques that present plot and character. Occasionally in the latter case  a technique is empathized for effect. And there have been infrequent attempts by  non-mainstream film workers to subvert the dominant mode, but with little impact.

One of my major problems with the author’s approach is that there is a tendency to downplay the distinction between photo-chemical film and digital files. This is fairly common in film writing and comment. The industry has tended to obfuscate the differences for commercial reasons. When the subject is addressed the hype tends to overstate the quality of digital in relation to film. The author does actually detail the differences between photo-chemical film’s random silver halide grains and digital uniform non-random pixels. But much of the book assumes a fair equivalence between the two median. At one point  digital versions are described as ‘spectral simulations’. There are a number of quotations from Paulo Cherchi Usai but not the argument in ‘Silent Cinema’, [Third edition, 2019] that digitized versions of photo-chemical films are not copies but facsimiles. Usai does recognise that digital versions provided a site for investigation but bearing in mind that the two are separate and distinct. For me photochemical film and digital moving images are incommensurable.

The Introduction Chapter 1 bears the title; ‘Cigarette Burns and Bullet Holes; Celluloid Cues in Digital Cinema’. This title follows on from a description of watching  Detour. The writer opens with

“Not so long ago whilst on the tram on my way home from work I began watching the 1945 celluloid print of Edgar G. Ulmer’s B film noir Detour downloaded and configured for my mobile screen.” [page 5].  Then adds,” I watched the chemical, celluloid material form of Detour on a tiny digital screen that was rotated so that it measured eleven centimetres in width and almost six centimetres in height.” [page 6}.

The writer does not specify the source format or the viewing equipment.  The writer does acknowledge differences quoting Thomas Elsaesser that this is

“doing the same thing with different means.” (page 6)

But such a comment does not really address the problem. The pixels [of what quality?] compressed into a small electronic display are somewhat removed from a large projected image composed of the random halide grains. An oddity is the description is that

“the original screen ratio of 1.37:1 was unfurled using an anamorphic lens in theatrical exhibition.” [page 6}.

Anamorphic lens were not in use in mainstream production or exhibition in the 1940s. They came into use with the advent of wide-screen processes like CinemaScope in the 1950s. The sentence seems confused; perhaps, given the dimensions of the screen, the version is not in academy but some other ratio? The term ‘anamorphic’ appears in descriptions of digital technology but the process varies from format to format and in many cases is an electronic as opposed to a lens process.

Al and Vera in ‘Detour’

A little further on there is a comment and quotation from Laura Mulvey; [see critique of her theorizing].

“The intersection of different historical moments and the illusion of oppositional contemporaneities is outlined by Laura\ Mulvey who writes, ‘[i]n this dialogue between old and new, past and present, the opposition between film and new technologies begins to break down and the new modes of spectator illuminate aspects of cinema that, like the still frame, have been hidden from view’.” [page 16].

I would query how a screen 11 centimetres by 6 centimetres relates to a theatrical space upwards of 4 by 6 meters. And just how this opposition breaks down is unclear. The author’s example for this development are the cue marks that appear at each reel change in a 35mm projection; [hence the chapter title]. Apparently these were visible whilst viewing the 11 by 6 centimetres screen; impressive eye sight. And, if using wide-screen FHA then the image was not in 1.37:1. If cropped , presumably the cue marks would be missing as they sit in the top left hand corner of the frame. But most people watching a small screen, even if they spot the cure marks, are unlikely to know their function. Audiences may well presume they are signs of the damaged condition of old films. And there is a problem with the supposition that using modern digital techniques, including stopping, winding or rewinding the moving image tells us about the linear projection  of 35mm film in its theatrical setting.

Later in the chapter the author discusses different responses to the question of the differences between film and digital files; returning to the issues of indexical and immaterial. Whilst maintaining the sense of these medium as indexical they are  both termed ‘ material’. The presentation is complex, and I thought, complicated. The writing uses the term ‘spectral’ to describe traces of original film in new digital files. These spectral traces are the basis, it is opined, for a new history of film through digital versions. I still find this argument fails to recognise just how different are the differences; and it is a matter of investigation whether the digital does indeed offer ‘new histories’.

The first section in the book is titled ‘Early Cinema: Colour and Spectrality’ with Chapter 2 on ‘Applied Colour: Chromatic Frankenstein’s Monster’; more on the ‘monster’ later. The text for study in this chapter is an early and seminal film, Le Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon, produced by a key pioneer in film history George Méliès . In fact, the author is discussing just one version of this much produced film; that created by the French company Lobster Films, This version was constructed using different materials, but the key source was print found in 1993 in the Filmoteca de Catalunya. Using modern digital technology the team produced a colour version. The original would have been hand-painted but most surviving version are in black and white, and do differ in the ‘cut‘ on offer. The author saw this version, at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2011. It was screened from a digital version with an added soundtrack of musical accompaniment. The author was both amazed and thrilled with this version.

I was also at the Festival but skipped the screening in the Piazza Maggiore because I always prioritize 35mm prints at the Festival. I did see the same version later at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto where we had separate screenings from digital files and from a 35mm print. The latter was copied from the digital version. I did prefer the latter, mainly because it had  a piano accompaniment. I was not happy about the visual sheen of the versions though the colour recreation was impressive. I thought the music on digital files was anachronistic. I was not amazed or thrilled. Whilst the techniques used are impressive it does feel exactly like a facsimile of the original. Because of the state of the source material traces of damage over time and use remain in the digital version. The author sees these as traces of the original and therefore indexical signs of that in the digital files. What is not discussed here are the additions not in the original or the source material. Because of the limitations of digital specifications most digital projectors do not project at a lower frame rate than 24 fps. But the Méliès  would have [on average as screening varied] projected at 14 fps. This means inserting extra frames, in this case probably 10 a second; the technique  is called step-printing. And even the 35mm print was copied from the digital master and projected at 24 fps. When I attended my early silent festivals in the 1990s frame rates, along with aspect ratios and colouring  were common topics of debates. Now one rarely hears discussion of frame rates. In addition, frame rates could vary in screenings for effect; this is not possible in digital projection though a dedicated projectionist could do so on 35mm. [A pleasure one can experience in some of the screening presented by Kevin Brownlow]. So of what are these frames an indexical sign of? Presumably digital techniques, though they re only occasionally visible to viewers with effects like ‘ghosting’, caused by the additional frames. This is not a topic seriously discussed in the book.

‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’

The author is right to be impressed with the project and result; which has been accompanied by a volume with many illustrations and information from Lobster Films. The work in producing this title is impressive and involves state-of-the art digital technology. But it remains a facsimile. And the book is curiously opaque on at least one aspect: the achievement of 24 fps is described as ‘time-converted’. Something I find like a mystification.

The author offers a long discussion on both the celluloid original and copies of the Méliès  title and the new digital version. The latter provides much technical information on the process of handling, reworking and transferring the frames of the 1998 film. As the chapter title suggests there is particular attention to the process involving colour; which is one of the aspects that the Lobster version offers. The writer concedes that this is a simulation rather than a copy. And it is in part a recreation, which is where the sense of a ‘Frankenstein monster’ appears.

One aside in a discussion of the famous argument by Walter Benjamin that ‘originals; have an aura lacking in reproductions. I have never really been convinced by this argument. It strikes me that the ;’aura’ [like beauty] is in the mind of the beholder. And John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972) critiqued some of the impositions on art works caused by ideas in the minds of beholders. Because the author sees the indexical working from the celluloid to the digital version we are offered quotations arguing that both the original mechanical reproduction’ and its transfer in digital files both retain such an ‘aura’.

There is much close reading and research apparent in this chapter but what escapes my eye is why a digital version should be seen as ‘forcing’ new readings. The chapter seems to merge the reading of the celluloid original and the digital transfer; as a facsimile I think that they remain separate.

With Chapter 3 we encounter ‘The Serpentine Dance Films: ‘Dream Visions that change ten thousand times a minute’. You might call the ‘serpentine dance’ a genre. The Edison company produced Annabelle’s Dance in 1895. It caught the public fancy  and innumerable short films, usually a single camera shot, were made of dancers, often in voluminous garments that waved over the screen. What made these dancers a particular experience was the use of colour which went though transformations as the dancer and her veils moved. The author provides extensive  information on the invention and development of this ‘international rage’ and its creator, Loie Fuller. The author, as with the Méliès , is especially interested in the use of colour. The chapter concludes with a discussion of music videos inspired by the early cinematic versions. This exploration is fascinating but, as with the Méliès , the celluloid and digital seem to remain distinct.

Section II commences with ‘Luminescence, Montage and frame ratios’ Within this Chapter 4 deals with Memory and Noir: Neon Contrasts’. The opening title discussed is Blade Runner: 2049 (2017), a production that originated not on photo-chemical film but on the digital codex format. So the issues here are different from those relating to the earlier study texts. We then get Memento (2000) which did originate on 35mm, produced in 2.39:1. In The Mood for Love  (2000) follows, also in 35mm but in the much narrower ratio of 1.66:1. Then Drive (2011), another digital wide screen title using the SXS Pro format. So the discussion is dealing with differing formats. This ends with ‘Fifth Night’ which is a gallery presentation where 35mm has been transferred to a digital format.

The author discusses how these titles inform understanding of earlier noir films including what are commonly seen as ‘classic noir’. I do think the inclusion of In the Mood for Love is problematic. The film does use some techniques common to the noir cycles, including chiaroscuro. But in other senses this sort of ‘Brief Encounter’ story is far removed from the criminality which is endemic in noir. People do endlessly debate what constitutes film noir; I think the opening chapter of the ‘The Movie Book of Film Noir’ is a model to follow.

The chapter is fairly dense, including quoting from Gilles Deleuze, an intellectual who comes only second to Jacques Lacan in the use of complicated language. On the interaction between memory and the noir experience:

“Taken more broadly as an approach to historical mapping, memory allows for a consideration of the influences and various iterations of noir, its presence and absence across time in a Deleuzian rhizomatic network rather than as an evolutionary teology.” (page 83)

Thankfully I was able to look up ‘rhizomatic’ on Wikipedia.

“theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.”

So this complicated sentence seems to opine that the genre of noir should be viewed not just in a linear fashion over time but as a toing and froing between films and film-makings and audiences. This treats the noir titles as texts rather than events. It also seems to suppose that a study in a linear form presupposes and defines end; which is not necessarily the case.  This complex arguments centre on the idea that the ‘indexicality’ of titles in a digital format evidence titles originally in 35mm. This leads to some interest research and discussion of film noir from its origins to the present. But this latter aspect does not seem to need to prompt of the digital; it could equally be prompted by 35mm, 16mm copies and analogue video facsimile of film noir.

Chapter five is titled ‘Cutting: Shock and Endurance.’ Here the writing addresses ‘montage, opening with a quotation from Sergei Eisenstein. The two key  titles discussed are Man With a Movie Camera and Eyes Without a Face. This makes the opening quotation from Eisenstein slightly odd because the former film was made by the ‘Factory of Facts’, convened by Dziga Vertov. Vertov had rather different ideas from Eisenstein on what constituted montage and they engaged [as was common in the Soviet art world] in fairly forceful argument. Equally the two titles are oddly chosen. The term montage has a range of meanings; referring to rather different formal strategies in Soviet or [for example] Surrealist film-making and in mainstream film production; and Un Chien Andalu (1929) does get a mention . You can describe the operating sequence in Eyes Without a Face as montage, but apart from fast editing, it bears little relationship to the montage used by Vertov and his comrades. The author opines that the most famous example of montage is the shower sequence in Psycho. But if you read Alfred Hitchcock discussing montage in comparison to Dziga Vertov discussing montage, differences are immediately apparent.

The chapter goes on to discuss work by the media artist Christian Marclay. He constructs ‘new films from old’. His use of film footage offers counterpoint to bring out new associations. Whilst this might seem to parallel in some sense the work of Vertov: the descriptions of his pieces suggests little political or social intent: something that is essential in the work of the’ Factory of Facts’.

Chapter 6 bears the title ‘Screens, Scale Ratio: Verticality celluloid in the Digital Age’. This chapter discusses the work of gallery artists using photo-chemical film and digital forms , notably Tacita Dean. One of her works, Film (2011) is discussed in detail. On this occasion the presentation is correctly described as using an anamorphic lens, that used in the CinemaScope format. One aspect of this presentation in the Tate Modern gallery was the ability of spectators to choose their position and standpoint and vary it; something that is far more difficult in a cinema. The author explores this as another aspect of indexicality; viewers reconsidering their viewing strategy. This is fair comment but seems to me of a different order to that repositioning that may occur with digital facsimile. The writer goes on to discuss parallel issues regarding another gallery artist, Christian Boltanski, whose work I have not seen.

Tacita dean’s ‘Film’ at the Tate Modern

Section 1211 opens with ‘Cinema Beyond the Frame’ and Chapter 7 ‘Haluucinatory Framing and Kaleidescopic Vision’. Here we read about an early film  series of genre, ‘The Phantom Ride’. Then the discussion movers on to more gallery presentations including the ‘24 hour Psycho’ and some other exhibitions which I have not seen.

With Chapter 8 we reach ‘Ephemeral Screens: The Muybridgizer’ which h is an on line digital version of the work of the early pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. All of these contain well conducted research and interesting discussion. But the author constantly returns to the key point, regarding indexicality. We have a quote from the well-known film scholar Thomas Elsaesser who asks regarding digital media:

“did it bring about  a rupture in the history of cinema that some critics have experienced as traumatic and terminal, or have we merely misunderstand the meaning of ‘index’. For those in the former camp, digitization quite literally means the end c cinema, so that there cannot possibly be a convergence. Instead in this light, an era of post-cinema has begun , with its own characteristics and certainty based on a different ontology.” (page 176)

The author then comments:

“The argument about the loss of indexicality in digital film imagines a coherent, formal evolutionary history, a dominant narrative that has framed  cinema for more than one hundred years. Such historical mapping according to a traditional understanding of indexicality and cinematic specificity reduces the definition  of films to its potential to a capture the ‘real’.” [page 176].

This is problematic in all sort of ways and demonstrates why focusing on the term ‘index’ does not address the full issue. For a start film and cinema are not synonymous, though often treated as so. Cinema is a particular forum for moving images; traditionally this has been 35mm film but it now theatrical DCPs. One has to add  the innovation of non-theatrical screenings in what are termed cinemas.

More importantly the assumption that film in cinema is accessing the real or evidencing the actual world is really dubious. Vertov and his comrades had to use montage in order for film to address the world of the spectators; Soviet citizens. Un Chien Andalu consciously drove a coach and horses through any illusions that cinema was delivering the actual world in which audiences lived. And Méliès offered this audiences fantasies, entertainment that escape, like the characters in Voyage to the Moon, from their early limitations.

This volume is full of interesting and well-researched material on aspects of film history, cinema history and the new digital technologies that are replacing the traditional. One of the overarching arguments of the book is that this work has been motivated by digital viewings. However, it appears that such research and discussion could have been motivated by viewing on different formats, or indeed, from readings. I did wonder if this was developed from a post-graduate thesis. The THEORY in the volume appears to overlay the research and discussion; something that follows from academic requirements to reference writers, views, research and recognised studies.

There is also a major lacunae which is an important feature of digital which is the necessity of compression. Essentially once a image enters the digital process it experiences a range of compression. This is the term used though it not strictly accurate. Compression implies that when uncompressed the object merges again as the image compressed in the anamorphic process emerges on screen in its full wide format. But digital compression actually removes pixels.  The sophisticated techniques involved in digital compensate when the screening or viewing commences. But it does not replace the pixels removed. The process uses algorithms which [apparently] remove redundant data; this might be information not considered essential to the image and data that is repeated and can be duplicated in projection. Because it is not as dense  in terms of data the sound does not require the same level of compression.

This is not a new issue. The 35mm system involved copies of the originals negative and masters take from this. The more times a title was copied the increased loss of quality in the image. Thus there were prints described as ‘dupes’ where the contrast and definition, even the colour palette, were noticeably reduced. But the original, unless lost, remained for preservation and restoration. A digital master has already suffered compression. And, I have not found comment on this; since digital requires transferring of data as systems become redundant, what happens to the compressed data?

It is also worth noting that the range of digital formats means that the levels of compression vary considerably; increasing as the format capacity reduces. A DVD can house 4.7 gigabytes: High Definition Television and streaming services exceed this standard: but Blue-Ray exceed the live transmission systems offering 25 gigabytes of storage. When we reach theatrical standards a 2K DCP offers between 70 and a 100 gigabytes: whilst a 4K DCP can reach 300 gigabytes. Added to this it is far simpler to copy highly compressed data to higher-quality systems; the final result is only as good as the original source. Unfortunately the volume does not provide what size or standard the digital versions of Detour offered.

And there is an important feature that is common to photo-chemical film and to analogue facsimiles and digital facsimiles; this that they are all commodities. What determines the production of these titles and audience access to these is their exchange value. This applies across cinema and the moving image industries. Even the Soviet film-makers, working in a phase of socialist transition, were caught up in commodity exchange. To a degree they relied on commodities for production and even if the audiences in the Worker Clubs were not paying  a price for such products, for the Soviet Un ion they were frequently a vehicle  outside the Union and earning much need foreign exchange. In the similar fashion surrealist film-makers may not have relied  on audiences paying a price for their work but he funding from the affluent relied on the profits that arose from commodity production.

In his volume ‘ Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking’ (2011)  David Bordwell, whilst not really engaging with commodity production as such, details how the production of digital cinema aims at restoring or increasing the profits [surplus value] from industry products and, moreover, how it has been used by the oligopoly  that dominate the industry. In the era of photo-chemical film and, now in the era of digital forms, what mainly determines the production, form and content of film and its facsimiles is the commodity form and the necessity of producing surplus value.

This is the capitalist world in which Al, Se and Vera struggle to find a place. As Andrew Britton comments;

“Ulmer’s road is not a refuge for exiles from a culture in which America’s ideals have been degraded, but a place where the real logic of advanced capitalist society is ac ted out by characters who have completely internalised its values, and whose interaction exemplifies the grotesque deformation of all human relationships by the principles of the market.”

This explains whilst it is increasingly difficult to see 35mm titles. In fact, whilst, as mentioned in Bordwell’s study, there is continuing presentation and restoration of photo-chemical film, it is increasingly the case that the archival product in digital rather than filmic. This is despite the fact that digital storage costs more than filmic storage and that the former’s shelf life is about only 10% of that of 35mm film, nitrate or safety. It also explains why the theatrical DCP, commonly in Britain, at what is termed 2K, is not an equivalent to 35mm prints. And it is debatable where the 4K  DCP, relatively rare, is equivalent either.

Usai’s use of ‘facsimile is a more accurate description of the digital version than copy and more useful than the term ‘simulation’; the latter might work better for gallery presentations or for a work like Hugo (2011) which renders version of Méliès titles into 3D. It is not always a matter of choice for viewers which they can see and hear. So digital facsimiles are of definite use for audiences and individuals. But it is not the same. A student can clearly write an essay of Leonardo da Vinci without visiting the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. And it will cheaper and easier; no crowds on a computer screen. But even if you do not subscribe to Benjamin’s ‘aura’, the texture of the image is not the same. This applies just as well to films and digital files. I have seen several hundred titles transferred from 35mm to digital files. In only a few cases does the viewing seem equivalent to the original. The Scandinavian archives have a very high standard. One title I have seen in both formats is the 1924 Kean. One notable difference is the tinting on the 35mm print, which has been carefully recreated on a restoration by the Cinémathèque with assistance from the Czech archive; whilst t on the digital version the tinting is over saturated.

The books offers interesting material and, at time, sharp comment. But the overarching values accept uncritically the transformation of cinematic film by theatrical [and indeed non-theatrical] digital formats. With a film shot digitally, like Blade Runner 2049, this is fine with its own aesthetic. But when the transfer is of works like those by Edward Ulmer and Georges Méliès I find the result problematic. I felt the author was, like Al, an ‘unreliable narrator’. It paralleled the way that Andrew Britton describes Al’s narration;

“Al’s commentary, however, though it is not hypocritical – he plainly believes every word of it – is profoundly self-deceived and systematically unreliable.

“The whole meaning of Detour depends on the fact that Al is incapable of providing the impartial account of the action which convention leads us to expect in first-person narrative, and when we examine the film’s detail, we discover that his commentary has a status quite different….”

In detour Haskell first offers a lift to Al: later, Al offers a lift to Vera: all three characters find their expectations frustrated by events. I often feel like that when I watch a digital facsimile of an earlier film. So, I borrow and reword with an acknowledgement to Groucho Marx;

‘Every time someone switches on a digital facsimile I can [hopefully] go into another auditorium and watch a 35mm print.’

 

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Middlemarch (1994) vs Days of Hope (1975)

Posted by keith1942 on August 9, 2020

The BBC’s Dorothea and Will

The BBC is currently broadcasting and adaptation  of Vikram Seth’s novel, ‘A Suitable Boy’. A post on ‘The Case for Global Film’, ‘A suitable writer for A Suitable Boy’,  includes the question as to whether Andrew Davies was the right choice to adapt this highly praised novel from the Indian sub-continent for television. This reminded me of an article I wrote in the 1990s when Andrew Davies adapted the seminal English novel ‘Middlemarch’ [by George Eliot) for BBC television in 1994. My argument then would raise questions about Davies suitability, not because of his ethnicity, but because of the political and aesthetic values that inform his work. He is clearly a skilled worker at adaptation but he also carries the baggage of the British class and colonial values. So I present my original article below, with some necessary amendments for the changes in time; hopefully it will prove interesting. The article compared the adaptations on BBC television of Eliot’s novel and a series written by Jim Allen and directed by Ken Loach, Days of Hope, that followed several working class characters through World War I up until the seismic General Strike of 1926.

Dorothea Brooke, heroine of George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, was an important icon for the women’s movement of the 1970s. In Andrew Davies’ 1994 adaptation, she takes a back seat to the less substantial pairing of Lydgate and Rosamund Vincy. A rather different treatment of gender, class and politics is found in the earlier four part series Days of Hope; which was seen as controversial at the time, both in the mainstream media and amongst academics. I have included production detail and the main sources in  notes at the end.

My starting point was some teaching with students on City & Guilds 7700. We were covering the critical analysis module using some Open University materials’ which compared, in terms of competing realisms, four 1970s television programmes; The Twenties Revisited, Nine Days in ’26, Upstairs Downstairs and Days of Hope . All the programmes dealt in some way with the 1926 General Strike, and the OU commentators compared the interests and values and the formal strategies employed by the programmes, and in doing so discussed some of the strands of a somewhat academic controversy surrounding the concept of realism and Ken Loach’s Days of Hope (also ‘authored’ by writer Jim Allen and producer Tony Garnett).

Filming ‘Days of Hope’

Loach was a filmmaker who figured prominently in our examples from film and television (e.g. Cathy Come Home, BBC 1966) and the students were familiar with his work. By chance, all this happened during transmission of BBC’s Middlemarch. So we were able to discuss the question of realism, style and content, the interests and values and their boundaries in British television, and some key developments within it over two decades.

I also re-read the series of articles, appearing mainly in the journal ‘Screen’ where the debate about realism and Days of Hope was published; re-confirming my earlier suspicion that the whole critique of Loach’s work and its realist approach was flawed with questionable assumptions. A useful antidote to this was an article by Colin Sparks  in the political journal ‘International Socialism’ which amplified a point made by Colin McArthur in the debate in ‘Screen’;  that there were so many different examples of realism and that the concept was general beyond belief. One example which showed some of the traits of a realist text was the Hollywood musical, but did anyone imagine that audiences read musicals as real? More seriously, the real world was more than a set of appearances, authentic scenery, accents, costumes etc.: it was a set of social relations, and even when the argument about realism was applied to the nineteenth century novel, it failed to account for the reality for the readers of the frequently dramatised and heightened relations of literary texts.

To take the two examples mentioned, George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ and Jim Allen’s Days of Hop‘; while both take great pains to represent the visual, aural and cultural surface of the region and time in which their stories are set, it is apparent to the reader that the narrative foreshortens the historical action, selecting from it and re-emphasising some events rather than others.

In fact, both works are retrospective, returning to a period about fifty years earlier that has become significant because of the replaying of particular social contradictions around class, but with Eliot this is the democratic movement of the 1830s and 1870s, with Allen it is the industrial movements of the 1920s and 1970s.

There are a number of similarities between the two stories: each centres on a woman who marries a man above herself in the social structure and whom she looks up to both culturally and politically. In the course of the narrative this man is discredited and the heroine has to break free from him. (Dorothea – Casaubon, Sarah – Philip). Crucial in this turnabout is another man, of lower class origins than the husband, and to begin with also seen as culturally or politically weak. His developing relationship with the heroine parallels her distancing from the husband figure. (Dorothea – Will, Sarah – Ben). By the end of the story, this new pairing is embarked on the political project which is privileged by the narrative. Despite Ben and Sarah being brother and sister, the other pair is not really more sexual. In fact, both stories restrict any reference to sexuality to the actual problem relationship between husband and wife.

The political strands of the stories also parallel. Eliot portrays the disruption in bourgeois Middlemarch’s lives of the agitation and conflict surrounding the 1832 Reform Act. Equally disruptive is the arrival of the railways, the manifestation of the new class power that was one of the most powerful contradictions fuelling reform. Nearly a century later, and from a working -class perspective, Allen (with Loach et al) portrays the disruptions consequent on revolutionary class politics, centring on contending class fractions for leadership of the new working-class movement, which in Britain came to a head around the General Strike. The other manifestation of economic and class struggle is the re-alignment of capital following the First World War and the increasing importance of imperialist exploitation. The ideological differences between the two narratives can be ascribed to both temporal and political changes; but it is interesting that there are such strong similarities in the narrative structures. This is partly due to the common political intentions of Eliot and Allen; Loach. Both works aim to arouse the sympathy of the reader for the representative characters and against the social oppression and exploitation they suffer. Both use facets of the melodrama of protest model, though the modern work is more centrally protest.

Of course, Eliot is writing a novel, Allen (with Loach and Garnett and the rest of the crew) are making a film. And the form used by the latter has much more in common with film and television drama, like the BBC version of Eliot’s novel. For this version, the key members of the production team all shared some notion of producing a realist work:

“. . . if you define realism as portraying life with all its warts rather than an idealised form of life as you would like it. Realism is the way we’ve done it.”

The OU articles examined questions of form and style by comparing Days of Hope with the episode of Upstairs Downstairs which dramatised the days in which the General Strike occurred. The latter shares the standard and traditional forms of television drama (itself very similar to the conventions of the Hollywood Cinema). The values of the drama are carefully embodied in the characters, the viewer is placed by both character and scene position and that of the camera to facilitate identification with the dominant character and message. The former appears less carefully structured, having the look and sound more associated with documentary. Characters and events seem to stumble into view rather than seamlessly unfold. One of my favourite such moments is in the last episode of Days of Hope, when Philip, fearful of the growing extremism of Ben and Sarah, arrives at a Council of Action meeting. While he (and we) can hear the discussion in the meeting, he and we (via the camera) have to struggle past children playing with a makeshift shying stall, featuring Churchill and Baldwin as cardboard cut-outs.

The household arranged by class

The Allen/ Loach work is doing more than just recreate the documentary mode, or mark itself off from traditional costume drama; it is providing a way of seeing/ hearing that attempts to articulate the way workers usually see and learn. Fliot’s novel, while constructed round a middle-class character, also includes working-class views and expressions. In an excellent analysis, Andrew Britton has exemplified such an instance while critiquing simplistic notions of realism. His points about Eliot’s authorial voice are very important:

“(she) emphatically alerts us to . ” . the experience, the dramatic world, the narrative voice, the reader. The foregrounding of narration has the effect of compelling us to reconsider our reading and perhaps criticise it’.”

Yet one of the main authors of the television version preferred to:

“‘let the tale tell itself . . . one thing I’ve always hated about George Eliot is the way she’ll write a brilliantly dramatic and moving scene and then spend the next few pages pointing out the subtleties, just in case we missed them”

It is Davies who misses the point. For me, the BBC version bears all the recognisable facets of a programme like Upstairs Downstairs. Visually, the programmes replicate the conventions of mainstream television and film dramas, asking the viewer to experience the story and identify with the characters, but not encouraging distancing and questioning. The drama centres on the several romances which are affected by the social movements, whereas Eliot’s novel seems to me to do the reverse. Most strongly this comes out in the fate of Eliot’s two great motifs, political reform and the economic imperative of railway development.

The adaptation opens with the arrival of a character on the new-fangled train which is to so disrupt Middlemarch society. Yet this early contradiction then slides out of the narrative for three episodes; as if the film-makers had detected Eliot’s mechanism, but failed to understand its import. Similarly, the question of reform, which never achieves the all-pervasive impact it establishes in the novel; Mr Brooke’s powerful failure at the hustings becomes an exercise in character by the actor Robert Hardy. Story takes precedence over narration.

Of course, to the modern viewer it might all seem quaint – democracy is passé and trains are on the way out. But to do justice to the political and artistic impact of the novel, the film-makers either needed to bring these contradictions to life or to re-visualise them. Days of Hope does just this, using the parallels available to the modern viewer to develop the impact of particular points. At a discussion after a Council of Action, the middle-class lawyer/ intellectual discourses on the lessons of the failed German Revolution, as a warning to England’s revolutionaries deliberately picking up ‘Socialism in one country’. Whilst this scene is not central to the course of the strike, it is making a definite political point – one that was a direct play to the contemporary audience and debates in the early 1970s.

But the naturalism of the BBC’s Middlemarch is of a different order. it reduces the feminist critique of 1870, so that, at the end, carrying a candle up a dark staircase, Dorothea has become the wise virgin who supports Will Ladislaw. Given her liberation, and the progressive political developments within the story, the image seems romantic rather than instructive. We do actually hear the narration of George Eliot in voice-over, but there is no counter-point, as all her earlier narrative comment has been removed. I find it difficult to believe that viewers really think that the General Strike was just like Days of Hope or that women’s oppression in nineteenth century England was just like Middlemarch. But, I do think they engage with both their personal lives and their wider social ones.

Ben and Sarah are representations for a class view of one important story in our past: Dorothea is one of the more powerful representations of women’s struggles in an earlier past. Yet the most common praise heaped on the BBC adaptation of Middlemarch is for the ‘quality’ of its acting. If that is what impresses the viewer/reader most, I find it disturbing. When I first read ‘Middlemarch’, whilst I fell in love with Dorothea, my final feeling about the novel was still its powerful critique of ,women’s oppression and its intricate relationship to the political and economic complexion of the times. My regard for Sarah and Ben in Days of Hope was equally tied to sympathy for their struggle and objections to their oppressors, but was also part of a real intellectual engagement with the argument of the films (with which I do not totally agree). The 1870s novel and 1970s film are both real for me because they dramatise the history of our society; the actions of the stories show society and individuals interacting, and history acting on both. The BBC has dramatised, I fear, only romance, costumes and nostalgia. In their adaptation of the novel, history does not act, only the characters.

I expected that the new drama would suffer from similar conventionality, [I have not watched it]. The last Andrew Davies adaptation that I watched was the BBC version of Charles Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ (2005): i gave up on it. Several commentators have suggested that if Dickens was writing today it would be for television soaps! This seems to me anachronistic. Dickens was a product of C19th Victorian Britain when he lived and worked. In ‘Bleak House’ the  central thematic is ‘muck’: Dickens responding to and criticising the ‘muck’ of the Victorian capital; the latter word in both senses. I did not really find this theme central in the several episodes of the BBC adaptation that I watched.

Notes:

The Open University material is not currently in use but was published for the now defunct OU Popular Culture Course and is partly available in ‘Popular Television and Film’, Bennett, Boyd-Bowman, Mercer & Woolacott eds.. BFI 1981. It includes a substantial part of an important article by Colin MacArthur.

Middlemarch BBC 1994 in seven episodes. Leading players: Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke: Douglas Hodge as Dr. Tertius Lydgate: Robert Hardy    as Arthur Brooke: Trevyn McDowell as Rosamond Vincy: Rufus Sewel as Will Ladislaw: Jonathan Firth as Fred Vincy: Rachel Power as Mary Garth.

Leading production people: Series Directed by Anthony Page: Series Produced by Louis Marks: Series Music by Christopher Gunning: Stanley Myers: Series Cinematography by Brian Tufano: Series Film Editing by Jerry Leon and Paul Tothill: Series Production Design by Gerry Scott: Series Art Direction by Mark Kebby: Series Costume Design by Anushia Nieradzik. The writer was Andrew Davies and he is quoted, along with production detail,  in ‘Screening Middlemarch C19th Novel to 90’s Television’, BBC and BFI.

Days of Hope (1975) is four separate films [shot on 16mm] covering the Great War and pacificism (1916: Joining Up), the British Army in Ireland and class conflict in mining communities (1921: Lockout), Labour Party ‘reformism’ and the British Communist Movement (1924: Labour Government) and 1926: General Strike. It was ( in now familiar fashion) the subject of both a Times editorial attack and a ‘balancing’ BBC discussion programme.

Leading players: Paul Copley as Ben Matthews: Pamela Brighton    Pamela Brighton as Sarah Hargreaves: Nikolas Simmonds as Philip Hargreaves.

Leading production people: Series Music by Marc Wilkinson: Series Cinematography by

John Else and Tony Pierce-Roberts: Series Film Editing by Roger Waugh: Series Production Design by Martin Johnson: Series Costume Design by Sally Nieper.

Upstairs Downstairs was a very successful videotaped drama from London Weekend Television which ran in five thirteen week series between 1971 and 1975, covering British social history from the Edwardian era until the early 1930s. The series was the subject of a long essay in ‘Movie’ No 21 Autumn 1975, in which Charles Barr, Jim Hillier and Victor Perkins compared it to the ‘quality British Cinema’ of the 1940s in terms of production techniques and audience appeal.

Colin Sparks, A Marxist Guide to Contemporary Film Theory in International Socialism 34 1987

Andrew Britton comments on ‘Middlemarch’ in ‘Metaphor and Mimesis: Madame de’ in ‘Movie’ 29/30.

The original article was in ‘in the picture’, issue 24, autumn 1994

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What will be cinema? An example, ‘Patricia Highsmith’s Fiction on Film’.

Posted by keith1942 on June 26, 2020

Patricia Highsmith can now rest easy; it would seem that we are less and less likely to see her works as movies from now on.

This article was originally posted in 2017 on ‘The Case for Global Film’ . But now, during the lock down with cinemas closed and Festival cancelled, large numbers of cineastes rely on streaming alternatives as well as video transfers and television programming. That is fine as far as it goes. What worries me is the absence of almost any discussion of how different this is from seeing the same titles in cinemas. Much of the publicity for these screenings implies or even claims that this is an equivalent to theatrical projection. I disagree strongly with that view. This article is interesting [I hope] in that it provided detail for a number of related titles and screenings and the basis for comparisons of the different formats..

‘Adapting Highsmith’ was a programme of adaptations based on novels by Highsmith and included 13 titles. It was organised by the Filmhouse, an independent cinema in Edinburgh, with support from the British Film Institute and Waterstones book chain. The programme was circulated as a package to independent exhibitors and there were screening around the UK, including at the Leeds Hyde Park Picture House. This was a really interesting idea, well put together and supported by a package of materials provided online.

However the programme was also extremely limited in terms of what audiences were able to see as the packages relied on digital formats, and just not theatricals DCPs but also digital video. This is a problem that is now endemic in British distribution and exhibition with few venues actually offering a distinction in their publicity between actual photo-chemical film, theatrical digital and what is essentially home based digital video. My comments are less a criticism of Filmhouse itself and more a critique of common practices in British ‘film’. I would add though that initially Filmhouse provided details of the transfer when I inquired, but replies stopped when I continued seeking information. The problem continues in the streaming facilities where the producers rarely provide information on how and from what the title has been sourced.

As far as I can establish all the titles were available to screen from DCPs. However, these were sourced from a variety of materials:

    “Other films in the season are a combination of materials already in electronic form, some being standard definition and some high def.” [Information from Filmhouse Cinema]

This variation first came to my attention when I saw a circular from Filmhouse to exhibitors regarding one of the titles:

” I’m just getting in touch about the DCP of ENOUGH ROPE.

It looks very good, but it is a straight scan from a print, not a restoration. This means that the image will have some scratches and dust, especially at reel ends. The sound is a bit crackly in parts.

The main reason I’m mentioning this, is that audiences nowadays are use to digital restorations and a clean image. This is the only material available to us. I just wanted to warn you in advance in case anyone comments on this.”

I think this is not just about ‘restorations’ and in fact few of the films in the programme appeared to have been restored. Moreover, the use of the term ‘restoration’ has become quite careless. I have seen publicity for digital versions of films which use this term when in fact what has occurred is the transfer of photo-chemical prints to digital with no use of the many techniques available for restoring film. Added to this is the question of the different characteristics of photo-chemical film and digital. The ‘random silver halide grain’ in film is of a different order from the pixels in digital. The industry has been working to achieve similar characteristics on digital, hence we get the surface grain added to digital versions. But in my experience in most digital packages the contrast, definition and colour palette is at least slightly different. This is less of an issue with 4K DCPs but all these titles appear to have circulated on 2K DCPs. In fact 4K DCPS are a rarity in British distribution. In 2019 I was able to see theatrically four titles on 4K; this was far less than the number of 35mm  prints I managed that year.

Filming ‘The Price of Salt’

The most recent titles in the programme, like Carol (UK, USA, Australia 2015) presumably did not appear noticeable in this regard as they had already been transferred to digital for the initial release; and most will have had digital techniques applied during the post-production process . Even so, in the case of Carol there was also a 35mm print which I found superior in colour and contrast. For this programme only the DCP version was available. In a similar fashion The American Friend / Der Amerikanische Freund (West Germany, France 1977) was on a DCP though the BFI have a reasonable 35mm print of the film.

I did not make much of an effort to see the films that I had seen recently in a theatrical format. When it came to the older films, some of which I had never seen, I was slightly wary. Apart from the differences between digital and photo-chemical formats I have discovered that there is a serious variability between digital versions of film. I remember watching a DCP of Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (USA 1959). The screen image was fuzzy and lacked good definition : the only explanation I could think of was that a video version had been uploaded onto a DCP.  I have since discovered from talking to projectionists that this indeed is quite technically easy and does indeed occur. So I now not only check the format for the screening but, as far as possible, what the source might be.

This proved to be an issue with some of the titles in the ‘Adapting Highsmith’ programme. Several of the European titles had no release dates recorded for the UK on IMDB and neither was there a record of a BBFC Certificate being issued on that website.

And there were serious problems with some of the older films which appear to have been transferred into some digital format for this programme. This meant I saw few of the titles. Fortunately my colleague Roy was exemplary in seeing them and reviewing them. And he included comments on the quality of the screenings.

Deep Water / Eaux profundes, France 1978. No UK release listed on IMDB and no BBFC record.

“The films in the season appear to be new DCPs. I found Eaux profondes to be very watchable with strong colours (Huppert wears scarlet or blindingly white outfits in several scenes). The weakest element of the presentation was the sound which seemed very loud and overly ‘bright’, lacking the subtlety of a stereo soundtrack.

The Glass Cell / Die gläserne Zelle (West Germany 1978) No record on IMDB for the UK or on BBFC.

“My second Patricia Highsmith adaptation in the touring film season was The Glass Cell at HOME in Manchester. This time it looked to be a DCP from an old video copy. The image was degraded but the subtitles were pristine digital and the sound was the same loud and ‘over bright’ mono as at the Hyde Park in Leeds in Deep Water (France 1981). The image didn’t really do justice to the work of cinematographer Robby Müller …”

Enough Rope / Le meurtrier (France, West Germany, Italy 1963).

I did go and see this film but it was not exactly as the Filmhouse note led me to expect. As Roy noted in his review:

“I understand that Keith Withall is going to write something about the overall technical aspects of the prints in this season. In this case, we had been ‘warned’ that the DCP had been created from a worn 35mm print and that we might expect scratches. These turned out to be very minor. There were two issues for me. The print was quite soft and faded – as if there was a lack of contrast in the black and white images. This meant that several interior scenes which appeared to have been lit/designed to create film noir images were instead simply grey or murky. The second issue was that the presentation was supposed to be 2.35:1 as the film was shot on ‘Franscope’. To my eye, although it looked like a ‘Scope shape, the image was squashed vertically so that the characters were slightly flattened and ‘fattened’. Gert Froebe became even more immense, but so did Maurice Ronet and Marina Vlady, the ‘glamorous couple’. I’m not sure how this could have happened and it could have been an issue about projector settings and the DCP as much as with the transfer from film. Finally, as with the two previous screenings, the mono sound seemed ‘bright’ and ‘harsh’.”

I did ask regarding this and the aspect ratio issue did not seem to be a projection problem so I assume that there was some problem with the transfer. Aspects ratios are a recurring problem in digital transfers. I frequently find that both academy ratio and the earlier 1.33:1 are cropped in digital versions. And something similar does happen with Scope images where the side edges are cropped; this occurs quite often with early CinemaScope and also with the Italian format, Techniscope.

This Sweet Sickness / Dites-lui que je l’aime (France 1977)

IMDB does not have a UK release listed for this film though it did receive an X Certificate from the BBFC in 1979. This would have been on 35mm film but it seems that no copy is now held in the UK. So it seems likely that some other source was used. Roy noted in his review:

“I must note (for Keith’s benefit) that the film was projected as 1.66:1, the standard European format for the period and that the digital copy we saw seemed to have been copied from a video source which hadn’t been properly ‘de-interlaced’ so that the image ‘feathered’ every now and again.”

Roy added that in these cases he was able to watch the film and basically overlook the flaws. This was mainly true for myself with Le meurtrier. But I also think that this affected my overall impression of the film. I certainly think that the craft people who worked on these films deserve to have their handiwork seen in the manner and format intended.  Of course, this is not a new problem with the advent of digital. In the days when 35mm was the norm there were frequent variations in the quality of the image and sound that audiences experienced in cinemas. Once video arrived the possibilities expanded. I remember in the 1980s going to see Mandingo (USA 1975) at a multi-screen. The quality was extremely poor and I discovered after the  screening that the source was a VHS video back-projected. Since then it has become  technically easier with digital.

There is an example of providing older films on digital where the standards offered were higher. This was ‘Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’, launched in 2014. Some of the titles were on film but the majority were on DCPs. I saw quite a number of these and the standard was uniformly high. Of course Scorsese is an important figure in restoring and circulating classic films. Moreover he had the assistance of The Film Foundation and Polish Film and Cultural Institutes. But how come this package was clearly superior to one involving the British film Institute? More recently the Hungarian Film Archive restored digitally a number of titles by Marta Meszaros. I saw a screening of her first feature, Adoption /  Örökbefogadás (1975) at the 2019 Berlinale. It was a 4K DCP and the quality was excellent.

A related example is by the Cinémathèque Française. A friend told me that they had declined to license a proposed public screening of one of their titles as the screening was being sourced from a  digital video. An example other archives should follow.

Apart from any objections to the loss of quality there are other reasons to question this practice. The specifications for DCP agreed internationally lay down quality criteria. But sourcing from video, analogue or digital, subverts these standards. Also it is likely to have a long-term detrimental effect on the exhibition sector. I have several friends now who for much of the time opt for home video viewing over visiting the cinema. One of these has a high-quality projector and Blu-Ray player: he claims there is not a lot of difference between that and seeing the film at the cinema. In the case of films sourced from video this is clearly correct. And the complication here is that the offenders are by and large distribution companies whose incomes include non-theatrical sales and rentals and who therefore are to a degree immune from the effects in the exhibition sector.

But exhibitors aggravate the problem by their failure to adequately inform the public. Two of the cinemas I visit regularly do include information about titles that are on digital or film and/or whether the DCP is 2K or 4K. But nether provides information on the use of other formats like DVD or Blu-Ray. And most exhibitors do not provide even this information. I know of several Film Festivals that do provide detailed information about formats, [one being The Leeds International Film Festival but no longer in 2019]: but there are many Festivals that do not. I think I am a little of a pain for some of these with my constant inquiries regarding the format for a particular screening.

This ambiguous treatment of film and digital formats is further complicated by ambiguous use of terms like ‘cinema’. It use to be that the alternative to the cinema was a film society, usually offering 16mm. Now many of these use digital video and quite a lot use the title of ‘pop-up cinema’. There is something of this ilk near where I live. It uses a non-theatrical Projector and either DVD or Blu-Ray sources: and publicizes itself as a ‘cinema’. I expect cinemas to follow theatrical standards but that often seems a vain hope.

There are many Web Pages regarding the comparison between 35mm film, D-Cinema and digital video. There does not seem to be a consensus but the archivists I have spoken too tend to think that good quality 35mm film has a higher resolution than 4K DCPs. There is less consensus regarding contrast but chromaticity diagrams show differences across the colour palette. One colleague argues the equivalence would be at about 7K. 35mm film prints varies due to lighting, movement, stock, and the transfer but I think there is no doubt that none of the digital video formats are in any way equivalent.

Currently many of the alternatives to the closed cinemas and cancelled festivals are streaming titles. And this seems as problematic as video. Amazon Prime’s standard is below Blu-Ray and Netflix’s standard is below Prime. Whilst You Tube standards depend on whoever if posting on the platform; some is viewable, some is not. A friend reckoned that the streaming platform MUBI was better quality. And industry professionals are already voicing concern about what the situation will be like after the lock down. Transitions in technology in the industry to tend to be both disruptive and subversive of quality. This was definitely the case with the advent of sound and this had parallels when wide screen cinema arrived. Several writers have used the phrase ‘the death of cinema’. This seems an unlikely extreme but I do wonder if quality will re-assert as was the case after the disruptions of sound and wide screen. The caution by Filmhouse that audiences would expect the ‘clean image’ of digital when viewing films from many decades earlier does worry me. And anecdotal evidence from comments after screenings suggest that this is true for possibly a sizeable part of the modern audience. Matters are not helped by the British flagship magazine Sight & Sound; their latest issues starts with Netflix titles and then runs Television reviews alongside those for theatrical screenings.

The essential reading is ‘FIAF Digital Projection Guide‘ by Torkell Sætervadet, 2012 – International Federation of Film Archive.

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Adoption / Örökbefogadás, Hungary 1975)

Posted by keith1942 on June 15, 2020

This title was screened in the Berlinale Classics programme and marked the return of a film that was the Golden Bear winner in 1975. It was also the film that established its director, Márta Mészáros, as a internationally recognised film-maker.

 “A widowed working woman in her early forties would like to escape the emptiness that surrounds her by having a child with her married lover, to whom she is attached only as a matter of habit. . . . One day, a girl who has run away from a home seeks shelter with her.”

The home is a state orphanage. The girl, Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), is in her late teens and already involved in a sexual relationship. The older woman, Kata (Katalin Berek), works in a factory but also has an interest in wood work, which she does in a small workshop at home. Her home is near a small town but separated from other houses and Kata is also separate from the other residents. The orphanage is very free in its control of the young people. This seems to be, in part, because it is under-resourced. But the manager does seem fairly sympathetic. This culture enables the young inmates to indulge in activities outside the home, so Anna regularly meets her boyfriend, Sanyi (Péter Fried) who lives and works in a nearby city and travels down to meet Anna.

The films gives a sense of these characters and the operation of the home when we see Kata, returning from work. Anna, in a group of teenage girls, teasingly confronting Kata begging cigarettes. And we also get a sense of Kara’s relationship with a married man Jóska (László Szabó) at a tryst, he is clearly less involved than Kata. In a later scene in a park he is definitely troubled when Kata raises the issue of children. Even later he takes Kata home on the pretext of her being a colleague from work. His wife seems unsuspecting whilst there is also a young child in the family. Jóska is obviously a male chauvinist and that is his role in the narrative. But the much younger Sanyi displays a strong affection and responsibility for Anna. Whilst the manager at the home is seen later showing both sympathy and practical assistance to Kata and Anna.

We only get a representation of the Hungarian state at this time at a remove, but the sense is of a rather underfunded and inadequate bureaucracy rather than the stereotypical representation found in western films at the period.

The film has fine black and white cinematography by Lajos Koltai. Mészáros uses frequent long takes, not just for action but also for contemplation. This is noticeable in the group sequences which have the feel of documentary. Several times we see Kata at her work table and the sense of her ruminations on her situation. The film editing by Éva Kármentõ carefully juxtaposes the several repeated settings; Kara’s house, the orphanage and the places where Kata and Jósha have their trysts. There is much location work but production design by Tamás Banovich marries studio set-ups with the natural settings. And by the end of the film we see a traditional celebration with a convincing sense of ordinary people enjoying an occasion. The film sound and music by György Kovács fits in with a general naturalistic feel.

Mészáros scripted the film with two colleagues, Ferenc Grunwalsky and Gyula Hernádi. The writing both presents characterisations that seem taken from life; that are unconventional in terms of the European cinema of the time; and which develop with a real sympathy for ordinary people and everyday life.

In 1975 the ‘Berliner Morgen post’ commented;

“The Hungarian director, a woman, has come up, not with a drama but a low-key reticent everyday story that is full of tenderness and hope. In a succession of filmed-to-the-life occasions, Kati Berek makes her mark as a sort of Budapest Annie Giradot. Quiet, strong and true.” (Giradot is a fine French actress who at this stage of her career had graced Rocco and his Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli, 1960) with an outstanding performance).”

The paper’s note of the director being a ‘woman’, picked up on the Mészáros being the first woman director to win a Golden Bear Award. And she and the film won a number of other awards as well. Márta Mészáros was there to introduce the film. She spoke with emotion of her memories of the visit to the Berlinale, she was then an unknown in western Europe and this her first experience of a major festival and major awards.

There was also a staff member of the Hungarian Film Fund Film Archive who have produced the digital restoration of the film onto a 4K DCP, with English subtitles. The restoration was based on the original camera negative and a magnetic tape of sound. This was supervised by the original cinematographer, Lajos Koltai. The restoration differs in an important manner from the original 35mm. Mészáros had wanted to shoot the film in a scope format but was unable to do so and the film used the academy ratio. This restored version has been produced in 1.85:1; closer to the desired scope format. In other ways it reproduces the original. The change of ratio is unusual. The Berlinale staff were unsure but thought the version at the Festival might have been in 1.85:1 as well. This presumably would have involved plates or masks in the projector. I think when I saw the film, long ago, it was in academy. I have to say that in 1.85:1 there was no obvious cropping of the image. We did not hear the technical description of how the re-framing was achieved.

The archive have actually restored ten other titles directed by Mészáros between 1969 and 1999, including the famous ‘Diary’ series. They have all been restored digitally at 4K and will be available this year and in 2020.

“Given Mészáros’ status, together with her contemporaries Agnès Varda, Larissa Shepitko and Vera Chytilova, she ranks as one of the most significant female authors in the world.” (Restored Films of Márta Mészáros, Hungarian Film Fund).

I expected this title and the other titles that follow to get a British release. In fact,  Adoption only circulated as part of a ‘touring’ programme by the Bristol Watershed. This would have involved special arrangements with the Hungarian Film Archive and exhibitors involved in the tour. It appeared to only be available eon a 2K DCP and I am uncertain how it was sourced. So far there has been neither a general release not have any of the other titles appeared. A colleague advised that Adoption was available on the MUBI streaming service and he thought the quality was good. This film was a deserved winner of the Golden Bear in 1975 and has maintained its quality and relevance; Mészáros’ other films equally offer both quality and satisfaction. If you can track down screenings then I recommend doing so.

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Entre les murs / The Class, France 2008) and It All Starts Today / Ça commence aujourd’hui, France, 1999,

Posted by keith1942 on May 24, 2020

I want to discuss a French film success The Class, along with an earlier and comparable film by Bertrand Tavernier, It All Starts Today. Both are really interesting films dealing with education and teaching. And they are part of a long-running cycle in French cinema, reaching back to Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933) and continuing to the recent documentary success directed by Nicolas Philibert, Etre et Avoir (2002). The latter features a rural primary school; a long way from the situation in The Class.

The Class presents the audience with a year in the life of a suburban Paris school, focusing on one teacher, François, and the class to whom he teaches French language. The film is based on a book by an actual teacher, François Marin. Marin himself plays the protagonist François. And the students are from a school in a Zone d’Education Prioritaire.

The Sight & Sound synopsis reads in part:

    ” He [François] and his colleagues are shown teaching inattentive yet opinionated adolescents, some of whom have significant behavioural and personal problems.

François attempts to engage his pupils critically, using every opportunity to make them reflect on themselves and the subjects being studied. However, his efforts to create a stimulating learning environment are continually undermined by the need to impose discipline on frequently unruly and insolent pupils.”

This is fine in terms of an ‘official’ plot. However, the mise en scène, especially the performance of a predominately non-professional cast, suggests a different ‘subplot’. The film appears to present a positive engagement of a liberal teaching approach with pupils from deprived situations. But this liberal ethos is undermined by the developments we see taking place in the classroom.

The French title, Entre les murs , translating as ‘within the walls’, offers a more accurate rendition of the film. For the students are clearly caught within the confines of this educational institution, deemed to be in their interests. I should say that they did appear fairly motivated in comparison with some actual British student groups I have encountered. The most dramatic and violent moment occurs when an African student from Mali, Souleymane, accidentally strikes a fellow pupil with his satchel.

The classroom in which these students sit increasingly becomes a ‘stage’ for their teacher, François. Good teaching navigates a fine line between display and engagement. What I noticed was that as the year progresses François becomes increasingly taken with the display he presents to these students. Despite his frequent questions and the usage of their cultural language, François is ‘presenting’. One notices that François’ interaction with students is limited to certain extrovert students. The point is emphasised when one black girl, often seen in shot but never speaking, confesses at the end of the year that ‘she does not know what she has learnt.’ Francois’ response is to demur and insist that she will discover that she has learnt something: but I incline to think the student was the more accurate. Ginette Vincendeau in Sight & Sound suggested that in both book and film it is “beur and black pupils [that] are the most disruptive (the white pupils are visually and orally marginalised) . . .” I am not certain this is completely so, but it does fit with the power relations that the film dissects.

The climax of the classroom interaction is the one occasion when François loses his ‘cool’ with his challenging charges. He calls two girl students pétasses (‘skanks’ according to the subtitles, I think ‘slags’ gives a sense of this). The incident escalates as Souleymane discovers that François has labelled him as ‘limited’ during a teacher assessment. Souleymane’s abrupt exit, with a girl struck by his satchel, leads to a disciplinary hearing. On one of the few occasions that we learn about situations beyond the school we are told that expulsion for Souleymane would mean him having to return to his home country of Mali. Despite this, the hearing leads to his expulsion. His mother, who has to have the French of the hearing translated for her by her son, sits and listens, displaying a clear awareness of the power relations being brought to bear on Souleymane.

There seemed to me a clear intent by the director, Laurent Cantet, to demonstrate the limitations of the liberal teaching ethos. The incident involving Souleymane was taken from another script written by Cantet. In an interview he suggests a rather ambiguous standpoint. “The film is utopian about the possibilities this kind of setting offers, but pessimistic about the school system in general.” Quite a few critics saw the film as endorsing the approach of François and regarded the climatic confrontation as demonstrating

“the fragility of a world in which a single word . . . can bring a year’s work, a lifetime investment in a career, and the modest hopes of a young man’s family, crashing down.” (Sight & Sound review).

My teaching friends tended to be much more critical of the teacher François. And for me, those positive reviews fail to pick up on the nature of interaction of teacher and students. This interaction is actually a manifestation of the social and economic relations that determine the situation of both teachers and students. However, I think the film fails to make this point that strongly, partly because of its enclosed representation of a school: by not going beyond its walls.

By comparison Bertrand Tavernier’s film, It All Starts Today has a very overt political discourse. The film focuses on Daniel, a head-teacher in an infant school in an-ex-mining area in Northern France. Like The Class, It All Starts Today is based on actual experience. In this case it is the memories described to Tavernier by Dominique Sampiero. However, Sampiero did not write a book and Tavernier himself developed his accounts into a scripted story. And unlike The Class, whilst there are clearly non-professional adult and child performers, there are also professional actors cast in the film. Presumably this was in part due to Tavernier writing in scenes of life away from the school, both within Daniel’s own family and within the families of some of the school students. The plotting of the story produces an uneven narrative: parts of the film parallel the documentary feel of The Class: other sequences are clearly dramatisations.

But this scripting also introduces a clear political and economic discourse. The mining town of Hernaing has seen pit closures. The mayor informs us that employment is at 34%. We see the poverty and deprivation when the children return from school. In one traumatic case unpaid electricity bills lead to a suicide and infanticide by a mother. Daniel, like François, is clearly on the sides of the students. But he is also clearly set off from the authorities and the establishment. Whilst François becomes a participant in the ‘trial’ of Souleymane, Daniel is shown repeatedly in conflict with his superiors and local agencies. One of his conflicts with authorities is over attempts to have the school designated as a ‘priority zone’. And the depiction of violence includes the complete trashing of the school by two local teenagers.

I found The Class created a fine sense of the school and the class, with impressive performances from the students. It All Starts Today achieves this only intermittently with its far younger students. But I felt that the latter film did have a more developed political discourse. Tavernier also directed an earlier film dealing with education; A Week’s Vacation / Une semaine de vacances (1980). Nathalie Baye plays Laurence Cuers, a school teacher, who takes a week off from teaching to re-assess her life.

Des [of the Media Education Journal] commented on another example:

“Another film in the long line of films about the French education system worth looking at is Truffaut’s 1976 film, L’argent de poche / Small Change or (pocket money). I’m never quite sure about Truffaut’s films about adults but he is on surer ground with children. Unlike many films about children, the film doesn’t make them overly precocious or sentimentalise their experiences. It’s a bit more optimistic than both Ca commence aujourdhui and Entre les murs (despite highlighting an individual tragedy) but avoids the overblown sentimentality of Les choristes (which, alas, is far more popular with French teachers than all of the above mentioned; a 2004 French film set in a boarding school). The teacher’s final address to the class who are about to move on (Jean-François Stevenin had a singular talent for representing ‘goodness’) should be shown to all student teachers.”

What is interesting about all these films is that they treat education as a concept and a practice. This is something that is much rarer in British cinema. A famous example, Kes (1969), from Ken Loach and his colleagues, is actually about a school student. It does include schooling in its damning indictment of Britain’s social and economic world. If…’ (1968) is actually about the reproduction of class though set in a public school. In a totally different tenor Tom Brown’s School Days [five versions between 1916 and 2005] treats the same topic. Other examples that I can think of are like The Browning Version (six versions between 1949 and 1994), a drama set in school. In fact, the majority of British films set in schools seem to be either about the public school ethos or universities; which speaks volumes about the class attitudes dominant in British cinema. Films that treat of schools with working class students tend to be about reform. This is where an enlightened teacher transforms an unruly class into a positive learning group. Spare the Rod (1961) and To Sir With Love  (1967) are examples of such films which cross over with the focus provided in The Class.  But even here the parallel is limited as outside social and political values hardly obtrude. Even when, as in To Sir With love, one issue  the Afro-Caribbean teacher, the racism outside school hardly figures.

I reckon the difference is down to French cinema having what we would term a viable independent/art cinema; something that has never quite managed to develop an autonomous space in Britain.

Both the French titles are well made and well worth viewing. Note also, both were filmed in anamorphic formats, (i.e. 2.35:1), so if you watch it away from the cinema screen, check it has not been cropped. You will miss quite a lot!

The interview with Laurent Cantet is in Sight & Sound November 2008 issue: the film review of the film and the article by Ginette Vincendeau are in the March 2009 issue. And there is a review of the Tavernier film in the August 1999 issue.

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May Day 2020

Posted by keith1942 on May 1, 2020

GREETINGS FOR THE DAY OF THE INTERNATIONAL

WORKING CLASS

 

 

Visit The Radical Film Network

Visit Reel News Updates

 

 

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The Bicycle / Das Fahrrad, Deutsche Demokratische Republik 1982

Posted by keith1942 on April 29, 2020

I saw this film at the 69th Berlinale as part of a programme “Self-determined. Perspectives of Women Filmmakers” with the sub-title ‘The Personal is Political’. This East German film offers what seems to be a frank and fairly realistic portrait of a working class woman. The protagonist is Susanne (Hiedemarie Schneider) divorced and caring for a young son. When we meet her she is working as a punch press operator; repetitious work in a dingy factory. Outside of work she cares for her son. Her main leisure activity appears to be drinking in a bar with her friend and dancing in its disco. Susanne and her friends are all marginalised people. They are in part outsiders in this society and far from the ‘all-round developed person’ which is the officially approved stereotype.

The film opens as Susanne leaves her apartment to take her son to the nursery on the titular red bicycle. The son’s bright yellow jackets stands out in the grey rush hour traffic. But when the rain starts they are splashed and then drenched by other traffic.

A the nursery Susanne is overdue with the money for her son’s lunches. It is clear that Susanne’s lives on the edge of penury, just about balancing her income and expenditure. Something of a ‘free spirit’, when she packs in her boring job her finances come apart. A friend explains how she can make some ‘illegitimate’ money; an escapade that comes back to haunt her later.

There is an interesting sequence when Susanna enters a factory celebration. The main hall is full of smartly dressed people and Susanne in her everyday wear stands out. This partly explains how she catches the eye of Thomas (Roman Kominski) a rising young engineer; endlessly congratulated at the social on being promoted to management. Susanne continues to her usual haunt, a bar beneath the hall, with lurid lighting and far less sedate music. It is like ‘hell’ beneath the official ‘socialist ‘heaven’ above. Thomas follows her. Thus starts a hesitant relationship which will finally lead to their becoming partners for a period.

The film catches the different aspects of working class life really well. Susanne’s apartment lies alongside an older woman, ‘granny’. Neither is especially integrated into the society of these buildings and they help and support each other. Susanne and her son have a strong relationship as well. Susanne’s regular bar is a marginal site, lacking all the prized virtues ascribed to the working class in a supposedly workers’ state.

Thomas’s work as a manager, including dealing with the ordinary workers, is closer to this. However, he is frustrated by the out-of-date techniques and management. This is a recurring sense in all the East German films; they are decades behind the western style seen in West Berlin; in factories, in streets, in homes and in social centres.

Susanne’s relationship leads to her obtaining a job in the factory managed by Thomas. But her scam now threatens both the relationship and her job. This segment of the film is interesting in terms of East German employment practice. Susanne works with a female group who are split in their sympathies when they learn of her earlier action. However, factory rules include ‘conflict resolution committees’ where Susanna’s fellow workers have an input. It seems that this mechanism will save her from the law.

The relationship with Thomas however does not survive this episode. And it is Susanne, ‘self-determining’, who makes the break. At the end she seems more confident in herself and her economic situation has improved. Her relationship with her son, finely represented in key scenes, remains positive and rewarding.

The film was shot in colour and widescreen by Roland Dressel and was scripted by Ernst Wenig. The film’s style is conventional but the use of locations offers a real sense of the environment. The editing takes us forward in a mainly linear fashion. There are two dream sequences when we get a sense of Susanne’s emotional state; she does become desperate at one point. The cast is convincing and Schneider, dominating the narrative, is excellent. She is at times refreshingly forthright but also capable of generating a sense of strong emotion.

The East German film system, like the western mainstream, preferred conventional characters.

 “Dismissed by critics and the studio heads as “confusing” and “flawed . . . ” (Retrospective Brochure).

The director Evelyn Schmidt was there to introduce the film. Because of the disfavour the film was refused invitations to International Festivals. [It was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in a retrospective in 2005]. In East Germany itself it was only screened for a few days. The problems included

   ” showing the working class divided”

In other words an accurate depiction of the disguised class structure in the state. It also affected Schmidt’s career. She made only seven features, three of them scripted by herself, including The Bicycle. And for much of the time she was reduced to working as an assistant director. She also gave us an enigmatic comment,

   ” watch for when the colour red is taken out.”

I did not actually spot this exactly but I think it was during the deterioration of the relationship between Susanne and Thomas. However, I was aware of red as a sign. The colour is prominent in the lower bar when Susanne and her friends relax. Whereas the staid social, like the factory spaces, has only an occasional red. There are a lot of exterior sequences which have a lively colour palette. As with ‘red’ the colour contrast contributes to the film’s representation. The bright yellow jacket and red bicycle are followed later by the drab, grey factory interior. When Susanne gets a new job later she works with a group of women in a workshop full of light from large windows. At another point we see Susanne in a cramped grey telephone box talking to her brusque ex-husband. But later, in a park with her son, the image is all sunshine with bright blues and greens. The grey alienation of East Germany was presumably registered by her censors. Not easily available but definitely a film to see. But can be streamed. MUBI have a copy but it is not playing at present; if you can use ‘Kanopy‘ it is available.

 

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I, Daniel Blake, Britain 2016

Posted by keith1942 on April 18, 2020

Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, this film attracted good audiences on release locally at both the Hyde Park Picture House and at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. All the people I spoke to after screenings had been impressed and moved by the film. The coverage in the media suggested that this was the film by Ken Loach and his colleagues that had attracted the most interest in recent years and one that had had a powerful affect on audiences.

I was able to see this film again in Montreal whilst visiting friends there; it was screened at a small local multi-screen, ‘Cinéma du Parc’. They have regular screenings on Monday nights of interesting films from outside the mainstream. About a 100 people turned up for a brief introduction, the film [with French sub-titles] and a Q&A, with commentary, afterwards. The film got a round of applause and most of the audience stated for the discussion.

I was interested in the responses to the film. Apparently Ken Loach and his colleagues have a high reputation in Montreal. The audience seemed to navigate the particular British context and language fairly easily. Quite a number of the comments offered exampled that paralleled events in the story in Canada itself: we heard about the mistreatment of disability; problems in regard to housing: the ubiquitous CCTV: and the horrors of automated telephone systems and call centres.

My friend Peter Rist, in an introduction, placed the film in the context of Loach’s work: especially in the parallels with Cathy Come Home. We also heard about parallels with the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night / Deux jours, une nuit and Stéphane Brizé’s The Measure of a Man / La loi du marché [The Law of the Market].

It was clear that this film travels well and whilst it offers a very British stance and setting, raises issues that are widely experienced. I had reservations about the politics in the film but I do find it a powerful indictment of ‘the condition of the English working class’ in 2016.

In October ‘The Guardian’ newspaper had a slew of letters motivated by seeing the film, ‘The punitive treatment of our Daniel Blakes’. We had four decrying the inequities of contemporary Britain and its treatment of the low paid, the unemployed and people outside the labour market. The fifth letter was refreshingly different:

“Am I the only person not to like I, Daniel Blake?”

The writer objected to the lack of a story: the characterisation of Daniel Blake as a ‘deserving benefits claimant’: and the portrayal of the ‘dole’ as one-dimensional’.

I did not agree with much of this criticism. The film is extremely well written by Paul Laverty and extremely well made by Ken Loach and his team. The two lead actors, David Johns as Daniel, and Hayley Squires as Katie, the single mother he befriends, are excellent. Both are ‘deserving’ but also convincing and  rounded characters. There is a story, but it is low-key and treated in the observational style that is Loach’s metier. And I do not think the representation of the Benefit System and staff is simplistic, though it does lack depth.

Other responses I saw included people recounting that they cried in emotional scenes and two people who described the treatment of Daniel and Katie, and her two children, as ‘cruel’. This is where the writer in ‘The Guardian’ seemed to be picking up on an important point. I, like many film fans, often cry during films, and I was intensely moved  in I, Daniel Blake. But this is an emotional response and does not necessarily involve a reflexive engagement with the characters and situation depicted. And reflexivity is an aspect that is rare in Loach films.

As for ‘cruelty’, this is valid comment but less than adequate. What the film depicts is serious exploitation and oppression. The situations in the film are part of a systematic attack on the working class, including its organisations. In the film Daniel, a victim of a heart attack, is denied income for which he has contributed throughout his working life. Katie and her children are forced to relocate from London to the unknown Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Alongside this we learn that Daniel’s neighbour, ‘China’ (Kema Sikazwe), appears to work on what is known as a ‘zero hours contract’ at below the minimum wage. One of the powerful sequences takes place in a local food bank where Daniel, Katie and the children join a long queue that involves hours of waiting.

So congratulations are on order to Loach and Laverty for addressing an issue that the mainstream media and film industry mainly ignore or caricature. But the representation they offer has severe limits. Community has always been an important strand in the films of Ken Loach, but there is no coherent community in this film. Katie has left family and friends behind in London, as have her children Daisy (Brianna Shann) and Dylan (Dylan Philip McKiernan). The only neighbours of Daniel that we see are China and his flatmate. Daniel’s only surviving community is his workplace and his workmates, from whom he is now separated by illness. The Benefit Office is certainly no community: the claimants are deliberately isolated and the staff are divided, apparently by whether or not they have any sympathy for the people they serve.

The nearest to a community that we see is the food bank, where the volunteers are both sympathetic and caring in their assistance. There is also a suggestion of community when Daniel finally makes a public protest, as passers-by cheer him and barrack the managers and police when they stop him. But these latter people are separated by the road, and do no more than express verbal solidarity. This would seem to express the fractured situation of the working class in modern Britain.

In other films Loach and Laverty have often included a sequence where the working class protagonists provide some analysis of their situation. Such sequences could be seen in the recent Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and in the earlier Looking for Eric (2009). But whilst this film refers to matters like re-housing, sanctioning benefits, low wages, the lack of jobs, malnutrition . . . we do not meet a character who offers some sort of critical discussion.

Our Guardian writer offered a parallel example, the 1978 TV drama, The Spongers, scripted by Loach’s earlier colleague Jim Allen (now sadly passed on), produced by another Loach colleague Tony Garnett, and directed by Roland Joffé for the BBC. The parallel is instructive. There are crossovers between the television and film dramas, including a single mother and children and an uncaring bureaucracy. But the earlier play also delved into the world of the local council and the council departments who administer the system that impacts so negatively on the characters. Some sort of rationale on their part is voiced. We do not get a similar ‘behind the scenes’ presentation in I, Daniel Blake. And there is only a brief reference to an ‘American company’ clearly offsetting the declining rate of profit through state assistance. I think such a sequence would have improved the politics. The French film The Measure of a Man offers another parallel. The French title La loi du marché’ translates as The Law of the Market. This provides an interesting contrast and it is also revealing that the title for distribution in Britain changes the original title so markedly.

This one of the bleakest of Ken Loach’s films and dramas. In some ways it harks back to the seminal Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966). There is the same downward spiral for the protagonists. I, Daniel Blake does end on a more positive note for Katie and her children, as Daniel’s caring assistance has help them start on a new life ‘up north’.

A friend who recommended the film to me referred to it as a ‘socialist’ film. To be honest I think a socialist film needs to offer articulation of the politics of the world it depicts. This seem to me a definite failing in what is still a very fine film. And thanks to our Liverpool-based letter writer who stimulated me to think on this. He also recommends an earlier Loach film, Riff-Raff (1991), which I think is one of the best films on the British working class by Loach and his team since the early television dramas.

Note, an earlier version of this post appeared on ‘The Case for Global Film’.

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I Clowns / The Clowns, Italy / France / West Germany, 1970

Posted by keith1942 on March 23, 2020

Directed by Federico Fellini, this is variously described as ‘docufiction’ or ‘film enquéte’ [investigation film’]. It was produced by Radiotelevisione italiana [RAI] but also enjoyed a cinema release. Fellini’s centenary fell in January but, unfortunately, some of the celebratory screenings have fallen foul of the restrictions during the pandemic. This film expresses Fellini lifelong fascination with both circuses and clowns; something seen in a number of his films that feature Giuletta Masini. It is also  a fascination that inspired the fine closing sequence of his master work Otto e mezzo / 8 1/2 (1963). And interesting aspect of Fellini’s reputation, and of his masterwork, is exemplified in the Sight & Sound 2012 poll of ‘The Greatest Films of All Time’. Critics place Fellini at 14 and the film at 10. The directors polled placed Fellini first and his film at 4. I certainly agree with them on the film and sympathise with them regarding the director.

The ‘fiction’ opens the film as incarnates Fellini childhood and his encounter with the art. A circus opens right outside the window of a young boy. In a lovely shot the circus tent rises in the night-time shadows outside his window. There follows a compressed circus performance arriving at the key moments, the clowns.

In a fictionalised following sequence we see a series of ‘natural’ clowns that struck his childhood imagination. This is the fascist era and the sequence reminded me of another fine Fellini film, Amarcord (1973). The sequences are both very funny and that in the circus captures the feel and sense of the entertainment that I remember from my childhood. A time when the circus was still vital. By the time of this film Fellini will mournfully acknowledge

“The world it belonged to no longer exists.”

The rest of the film is the investigation. Here, Fellini himself, with a motley and slightly oddball production crew, goes in search of clowns. Some of these are visits to Museums and archives. Some are discussion with both experts and old retired clowns and circus managers. Many of the respondents have clear and happy memories: some are less sanguine: and some no longer have clear recollections.

But what emerges from their reminiscences is a series of classic and famous clown characters. And these are presented in restagings of their work. Some of the clowns play themselves; many are played by contemporary clowns recreating the past.

Just as with the earlier acts from Fellini memories, these are very funny. The humour and jokes are familiar and have been replayed many times. But they are still great to watch and listen to; and the timing of these veterans is as good as in early film slapstick.

The ‘fictional’ sequences have fine cinematography and lighting. The ‘documentary’  sequences look more like conventional television. But they make an illuminating feature with good production values; even if there is often deliberately quaint presentation.

The British Film Institute have a 35mm print which is mute and not accessible; and in Britain as elsewhere there is no venue to screen this. The film is available in a digital version on Eureka’s Master of Cinema dual format, i.e. both a Blu-Ray and a DVD. The title is her presented in the correct aspect ratio of 1.37:1; [IMDB gives 1.33:1!]. And the version of the Technicolor print enjoys a good transfer following a digital restoration. The dialogue and commentaries, mainly in Italian but also with some French, German and English, are rendered in sub-titles in English.

The discs also include an audio-visual essay on the film running for 40 minutes. This offers some interesting detail and comments. In the early part there are illustrations of technical aspects of the production, including graphs on the film shots and editing. The later part gives more information on the clowns featured; however there are probably too many clips from the feature already on the discs. I suspect that this essay, produced in 20210, was made for a video in which a version of the original did not appear.

This is a cheering feature for bleak times and a fine film.

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