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On film boycotts.

Posted by keith1942 on December 7, 2018

When the Leeds International Film Festival 2018 Brochure appeared in early October it included in the ‘Time frames’ programme The Knife in the Water / Nóz w wodzie (Poland 1962). There were to be two screenings from a 35mm print. The film was scripted by Roman Polanski with

Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski. It was the first feature film directed by Roman Polanski after he attended the National Film School in Łódź. The film over the years has garnered a reputation for quality, along with other films directed in later years by Polanski.

When I tried to book a ticket for a screening of the film I was advised that it had been cancelled. And when the Catalogue appeared on the opening night of the Festival this title was missing. Why it was missing was a mystery as there was no explanation from the Festival office. However, a little later I discovered a comment on the screening on a twitter account, one that had been copied in the USA. A social media site, ‘realwomenrealstories’ contained this tweet,

“BREAKING: Leeds International Film Festival (@leedsfilmfest) cancels screening of “Knife In The Water” by convicted child rapist Roman Polanski. This is an urgent time to say NO to #sexualabuse against women. Movie is removed: https://www.leedsfilmcity.com/film-year-round/knife-in-the-water/ … #timesup #metoo #speakup”

The pages contained a number of other tweets concerning Polanski’s sexual misconduct as well as reports of other allegations of sexual violence in media reports and especially by well-known public figures. The site is rendering a public service by exposing such crimes and offers a place for women to report this. However, as with most social media, you have to take the reports and claims on trust. In Polanski’s case it is a matter of legal record that he was found guilty of an offence in the USA. This was of ‘unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor’ for which Polanski was sentenced to a term of imprisonment. He fled the USA to avoid the jail term and has never served the sentence. In the 1990s he did conclude a settlement with the victim which involved a payment and confidentiality clauses. There have been two other accusations of sexual molestation but neither has been legally investigated or tried.

The text confirmed what had been suggested to me by a festival goer, that the film had been withdrawn because of complaints about screening a Polanski film because of his record of sexual molestation. I did ask the Festival organisers regarding withdrawal. They confirmed that the title had been dropped from the programme because of various issues; one being complaints regarding a film by Roman Polanski. They declined to discuss this further and also declined my offer of a comment which I could include in this posting.

The complainants seem to be agitating for a boycott of Polanski’s films.

“A boycott is an act of voluntary and intentional abstention from using, buying, or dealing with a person, organization, or country as an expression of protest, usually for moral, social, political, or environmental reasons. The purpose of a boycott is to inflict some economic loss on the target, or to indicate a moral outrage, to try to compel the target to alter an objectionable behaviour.”

The word derives from the actions of the Irish Land League in 1880 against the agent, one Captain Boycott, of an Anglo-Irish Peer, representative of the British occupation of Eire. Thus its original use was as part of a National Liberation struggle against a colonial power. A current example of parallel action would be the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction Movement against the Zionist occupation of Palestinian lands. However, it has also been used as part of campaigns against individuals deemed to inflicted unacceptable behaviour on people.

I have a number of reservations about this matter. Foremost is the dropping of a title without any public information nor an opportunity for film and festival goers to comment. The Festival is publicly funded – by the Council and the British Film Institute – as well as by other agencies. So public money is involved. I am not aware of a policy by national or local government of banning works by artists who have committed sexual molestations. Clearly though in the last couple of years it has become a much discussed issue with groups and individuals advocating such bans. However, there is not uniformity of opinion on this so I think public events should be prepared to have a debate when such actions are proposed. The organisers did make the point that the programming of the Festival involves choices, with some films being selected and some not. However, I would like such criteria to be matter of public knowledge and discussion. This is especially important when not just critical judgements are being made but when it is an issue of censorship; i.e. certain works are not permitted. Beyond this censorship is a thorny issue. I think there should be limited grounds which allow for this. And in the case of a film title of a particular film-maker I feel that there are a number of aspects that need to be put.

The proposal to not screen films directed or written and directed by Roman Polanski conflate his personal life with that of his profession. There are plenty of examples of artists whose personal lives and behaviour do not match up to the contemporary moral code but not many are banned. The contemporary is important because I think it is a problematic approach to judge art works, not by the standards of when they were produced, but by the later standards of some critical voice.

In fact Polanski’s films have a rather different treatment from sexual matters to his ways in personal life. Whilst sexuality is common an prominent theme in his films it is also one that is treated critically in terms of the mores operating when the film was produced. A prime example is a film produced in the USA in 1974, Chinatown. The main women character, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is certainly the victim of misogynistic treatment. To what degree one thinks that the protagonist J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a misogynist is dependant on interpretation but the film quite clearly treats the action perpetrated on her critically; I find her the most sympathetic character in the film. Similar points can be made regarding Polanski’s two earlier British films, Repulsion (1965) and Cul-De-sac (1966). And Knife in the Water treats the sole female character Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) better than the two men. It is their masculine pretensions that the film exposes.

Knife in the Water raises another important aspect. One of the appeals of the film is the acting and the characterisations. The three actors do a fine job of the people set out in the screenplay which is the combined work of three people, Jakub Goldberg (scenario), Roman Polanski (scenario), Jerzy Skolimowski (dialogue). And part of the pleasure of the film are the cinematography by Jerzy Lipman and the score by Krzysztof T. Komeda. The film as a whole is extremely well done and the credits [as usual with films] include a long list of skilled crafts people. All of these members of the production are barred by banning this film though I am not aware that any other of them have been accused of sexual misdemeanours.

And the film was produced by Zespol Filmowy “Kamera”, a Polish State Production Company which closed in 1968. In Britain the British Film Institute holds the distribution rights to the film.

I do not know who holds the rights for the film now; it would seem unlikely that is Polanski. So the economic impact of the proposed boycott falls not on the subject but on another agency and, of course, the BFI. The latter presumably have paid for the distribution rights. Apart from hitting the limited budgets of the BFI this is likely to discourage then Institute from trying to distribute other films, possibly not just titles by Polanski.

It strikes me that the intent and the effect of such restrictions is confused and for sure produces unintended consequences. Britain is not a hospitable environ for foreign language films and it is becoming more and more difficult to see such titles in theatrical settings; even more so to see them in their original format. I think people and groups that would like to prohibit films by Polanski [and other individuals who have committed offences] would do well to give serious consideration to what they propose and for what they organise agitation.

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Misogyny or Sexism

Posted by keith1942 on November 16, 2018

Jeannie and Peter in ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’

In my experience of reading material on film I have found that ‘misogyny’ is a term increasingly used whereas the term ‘sexism’ seems to be used less frequently. In some cases I think the former term is less appropriate than the latter term.

‘Misogyny’; some definitions use ‘hatred and contempt for women’, some use ‘dislike and hatred for women’. However, the word ‘misos’ [from the Greek] which combines in the term is given as ‘hatred’. ‘Sexism’; an online definition gives ‘prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.’ There is a clear distinction here and I tend to restrict misogyny to cases where there is a definite ‘hatred and/or contempt’, which infers both an identifiable standpoint and action. ‘Prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination’ suggest unquestioned values that people may or may not critically examine.

I was motivated to consider this recently by an online review of the British film The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). I had seen this film again in the last few years in a 35mm anamorphic print and including the yellow tinting at the opening and closing of the film that appeared in it original release. The review on ‘The Case for Global Film’ included the following;

“His [the protagonist Peter Stenning played by Edward Judd] developing relationship with Janet Munro’s Jeannie is almost equally important. Scriptwriters Val Guest (who directed) and Wolf Marcinkiewicz parallel Stenning’s alcoholic cynicism with the existential threat of the dying planet. By doing this the abstract idea of extinction can be more readily understood: it matters little whether he loves life or not if we are all doomed. Munro’s character, though politically naive, is wise to Stenning’s initially predatory motives and she shows herself entirely able to look after herself. As I.Q. Hunter says, in an excellent piece in British Science Fiction(which he also edited), her character is far less misogynist than many in the New Wave films of the time.”

I agreed with the characterisation of Jeannie but I questioned the claim of misogyny in New Wave Films and I assumed the reference was to the British variant. In a follow-up to my comment the reviewer responded:

“The broad reference to misogynistic ‘new wave’ films (yes, the British variety but I think the charge sticks to the French one too) isn’t simply about their objectification (which is itself misogynistic) but their role in the narratives (obviously not all of them). This reflected the mores of the time and it was refreshing to see Janet Munro’s character as more than a passive recipient of male attentions.”

‘Objectification’ has a number of definitions but that on Wikipedia is helpful in this case:

”Sexual objectification is the act of treating a person as a mere object of sexual desire. Objectification more broadly means treating a person as a commodity or an object without regard to their personality or dignity. Objectification is most commonly examined at the level of a society, but can also refer to the behaviour of individuals and is a type of dehumanization.”

It should be noted that treats the usage as a set of values. Treating someone as a commodity reflects the mode of production and is some way from activities including hatred and contempt. And it is difficult to consider films as ‘individual behaviour’ except in terms of the characters within this narrative; and only some films endorse some characters.

Then I went to the quoted volume, ‘British Science Fiction Cinema’, (Routledge 1999) and edited by I. Q. Hunter. The article quoted was on ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’ by I. Q. Hunter an included,

‘She [Jeannie] is stronger and more sexually aware than the hapless, misogynistically portrayed women in the New Wave films, of whom a surprising number fall into one of two grim stereotypes: older women who need sex and younger women who need abortions.”

I did add a further comment and asked for specific examples but none have been offered yet. I do wonder if Hunter has actually watched the New Wave films, British or French.

To address the British New Wave films first; I have appended a listing of titles at the end.

Alice and Joe in ‘Room at the Top’

The ‘older women who need sex’. This might refer to Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life. In Room at the Top the older woman is Alice Aisgill played by Simone Signoret. Alice certainly has a sexual relationship with the younger Joe Lampton (Lawrence Harvey) but the relationship is about much more than sex. The key sequence here is when Alice and Joe spends a few days together at a country cottage. This depicts a serious and loving relationship. One that leads Alice to effective commit suicide when Joe marries the younger Susan Brown (Heather Sears). A death that leaves Joe distraught with both loss and guilt.

In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Rachel Roberts plays the married Brenda who is having an affair with the protagonist Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney). Their relationship is primarily sexual but it is also notably friendly. Brenda does not just need sex, she wants a relationship with fun; this is more than the merely ‘need’ used by Hunter.

Rachel Roberts also plays the widowed Margaret Hammond who is wooed by her lodger Frank Machin (Richard Harris) in This Sporting Life. In this case it is because of her repressions that Margaret cannot consummate a sexual relationship with Frank and this is important in the tragic end of the relationship. There is Helen (Dora Bryan) in A Taste of Honey, the mother of protagonist Jo Rita Tushingham). But Helen wants sex and a good time, and she does not need younger men to enjoy this.

Hunters comments in this case seems simplistic and based on the plots of the films rather than the characters in the story. Simone Signoret and Rachael Roberts give fine performances in all three of their films and these are portraits that are complex not simplistic. It occurs to me that Hunter may have been thinking of a different film in this case; Alfie (1966) where the titular protagonist (played by Michael Caine] has a relationship with the older Ruby (Shelley Winters). Ruby does indeed dump Alfie for a younger and presumably more sexually active man. But Alfie is not a New Wave film, it is a ‘swinging London’ film.

Alfie and Ruby in ‘Alfie’

When we turn to ‘younger women who need an abortion’ this might include A Taste of Honey with the pregnant Jo. If Hunter thinks that this film includes misogyny I am [almost] lost for words. Jo is one of the finest portrayals of a young women in 1960s cinema And while her mother Helen is less sympathetic her portrayal is not misogynistic. She is feckless but she also has a vibrant feel for life. Moreover Jo decides to have her child. And she is assisted by Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), a breakthrough in the portrayal of homosexual characters.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning could feature again. Here it is Brenda, the older married woman, who needs the abortion. But this is not treated in a misogynistic manner. Brenda’s attempted abortion in the film is a harrowing experience and it is also a breakthrough in British cinema in the representation of this. A Kind of Loving does seem closer to his description. But when Ingrid Rothwell (June Ritchie) is made pregnant by ‘Vic’ Brown (Alan Bates) they actually marry and the film’s focus is the strains within the marriage because it was occasioned by an unintended pregnancy.

There is The L-shaped Room (1962) adapted from the novel by Lynne Reid Banks. But it is the male doctor who suggests an abortion and Jane (Leslie Caron, in an award winning performance) decides the have the child. It is her preparation for the birth and the relationships that she has that occupy the film.

Perhaps we have the same error repeated. In Alfie Gilda (Julia Foster) is made pregnant and Alfie tries to arrange an abortion. But Gilda finally has the child and marries an older but more sympathetic man. And Alfie is left ruefully wondering where his life is leading.

So if the comments regarding the British New Wave seem misjudged, what about the Nouvelle Vague. These were less specific, just a generalised comment by the reviewer. But having seen the French films on a number of occasions I am equally mystified.

Michel with Patricia in ‘A bout de souffle’

In À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) might seem a misogynist but the film does not endorse his behaviour, as indeed neither does Patricia (Jena Seberg). Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) has at least one male character who is a misogynist but the centre of the film are the four women, interesting and attractive characters. Lola (1960) has Anouk Aimée in the title role of a celebration of a woman pursued by three men who makes her own choice, even if the audience may not agree on its suitability. Jules et Jim (1962) may focus on two male friends, Jim (Henri Serre) Jules (Oskar Werner), but its real subject, treated as capricious but full of fascination, is Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). And there is Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1962), which I have just seen again at the Leeds International Film festival. This is more ‘Left Bank’ that Nouvelle Vague but it is a wonderful study of a young women treated as subject in her own right. One could continue with films by Jacques Rivette or Eric Rohmer.

I just have to object to the use of misogyny with regard to any of these films. Such films should in the first instance be judge in the world and culture for which they were made. And both the British New Wave and the French Nouvelle Vague are trailblazers in so many ways, including in the representation of women in mainstream and commercial cinema. Even in the world of art cinema they are notable. If the judgement is from later standpoint then the contemporary culture needs to be accounted for as well.

The use in the earlier comment of ‘objectification ‘ would seem to be of this type. But, as the Wikipedia definition makes clear, the term represents a separate discourse from that implied by misogyny. Films are distinct from the individuals who made them, even the more influential and powerful individuals involved. Objectification falls into the area of [another much abused word] ‘ideology’. But referring back to Marx, who uses the term with both intelligence and precision, then we have not just dominant ideas but ideas that represent the surface rather than the underlying social relations. But hatred and contempt besides being personal are separate from the underlying values, though they may be influenced by these.

The sort of comment in the ITP review and in Hunter’s article do a grave disservice to the study of film. The notable films of the 1960s deserve to be critically examined but with intelligence and care.

BFI and Wikipedia listings for British New Wave;

Room at the Top (1959; directed by Jack Clayton)

Look Back in Anger (1959; directed by Tony Richardson)

The Entertainer (1960; directed by Tony Richardson) [only in Wikipedia

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960; directed by Karel Reisz)

A Taste of Honey (1961; directed by Tony Richardson)

A Kind of Loving (1962; directed by John Schlesinger)

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962; directed by Tony Richardson)

The L-Shaped Room (1962; directed by Bryan Forbes)

This Sporting Life (1963; directed by Lindsay Anderson)

Billy Liar (1963; directed by John Schlesinger)

I would add,

Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966; directed by Karel Reisz).

 

NB. There is a section in ‘Behind the Scenes at the BBFC’, edited by Edward Lamberti (BFI 2012) dealing with the period; ‘The Trevelyan Years …’ and dealing with ‘Women and the New Wave’. I think the discussion of how these films were treated supports my argument regarding these titles.

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A Wasted Sunday / Squandered Sunday / Zabitá needle, Czechoslovakia 1969

Posted by keith1942 on November 5, 2018

This film was screened in the ‘Time Frames’ programme at the Leeds International Film Festival. I had never come across this title before and it seems little-known. The film, a first feature, was banned on completion. The production had halted for a time because of the arrival of Soviet tanks and it was completed after the Soviet-led forces forced a change in government. The film was only released in Czechoslovakia in 1990 and here in Britain in 2016. The director, Drahomíra Vihanová, had previously made one short film, Fugue on the Black Keys (Fuga na cerných klávesách, 1965), in black and white and running 34 minutes. After this feature she was banned and only able to make short documentaries in the late 1970s and 1980s. Her next feature was not produced until 1994, Pevost. She died in 2017 so this screening was posthumous.

The film has a commentary in voice-over and frequent on-screen titles which offer what at times appear to be quotations, some of which have a religious or moral tone. The protagonist, around whom the whole film revolves, is Arnošt (Ernest – Ivan Palúch), a commander of an army unit stationed in a small town and backwater. We follow Arnošt through the Sunday, from his awakening to the end of the same evening. We see him in his mess of a room and with a friend and fellow army companion Ivan (Petr Skarke). We see him at the local army barracks; pretty desolate. And we see him drinking and socialising in a bar, though he is nearly broke. At times we watch what are flashbacks motivated by Arnošt; but there are also fantasies or dream sequences motivated also by him.

Much of the flashbacks and dream sequences concern women and sexual activity. Arnošt seems to be fairly manipulative in his dealings with men . But his dealings with woman are of a different order. I think the term misogynist is often an overused term: some male prejudices are not of the same order as real hatred or contempt for women. But Arnošt struck me as a fully-paid-up misogynist. There is one regular female companion, I think this is Irene (Irena Boleslavská), who he treats with real contempt whilst exploiting her affection for him.

Panelstory aneb jak se rodí sídliště

There is also a separate sequence that opens the film. This is a funeral in a local cemetery, and it seems to have been Arnošt’s mother. I am not clear how much this might be an explanation for some of his behaviour and actions in the subsequent film. I do not think we ever have a further reference to the loss.

The film has English sub-titles but quite a few of the Czech on-screen titles filled the frame and it was difficult to read the sub-titles, so I am unsure how much I missed and what was its import.

I have to say that I did not fully engage with this film. Arnošt is the most objectionable protagonist I have seen for some time; [Marcello in Dogman is a victim by comparison). And stylistically I found the film somewhat of a melee. A friend remarked that he thought that the director

‘had scoured the history of cinema for techniques’.

There are expressionist scenes, partly surrealist scenes, but also many that seem mainly realist. And at time we get editing that is almost Soviet montage. I did find that I found the film more interesting towards the end, perhaps I found the disparate strands coming together. The ending is worthy of a noir film. We have earlier seen Arnošt playing with his revolver and several scenes on shooting range. Almost predictably he shoots himself, off-screen. But we then see Ivan in the role of local commander.

The Festival Catalogue commented on the film :

‘Squandered Sunday is an indelible portrait of a man overcome by the banality of his existence, and a powerful political allegory for Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring was crushed.”

I though any political allegory was weak, but this was 1979 so overt parallels or symbolism were probably not possible. But since the film was in production at the time of the Soviet-led invasion it would seem that the film is more likely a comment on the situation in remoter places and the persistence of a social order that the reforms led by Alexander Dubček were meant to change. It also struck me that the cemetery scene, which seems distinct from the rest of the film, might have been added later in the production as a veiled reference to the suppression of the reform movement. This would explain an unusual facet; both Arnošt and Ivan are credited [on IMDB] as having separate actors acting and voicing the characters. A sequence added later would be a possible reason for this.

I have not seen Drahomíra Vihanová’s other films. However, her early short, Fugue on the Black Keys, focusses on a black African musician performing in Prague. He encounters racism but the most affecting moment is when he hears that his family back home has perished, [the cause is not given]. To the extent that I was able to find out the content of her other films it seems they frequently deal with relationships, isolation or exclusion and alienation. That would certainly tie them to this title, A Wasted Sunday. Perhaps her films bring together her own particular concerns with the larger concerns in a Czechoslovakia oppressed by occupation.

The titles on the film translated the Czech as A Wasted Sunday but it seems that Squandered Sunday is the circulated title. We were fortunate in viewing a good 35mm print. Shot in black and white in academy ratio it has excellent cinematography by Zdenek Prchlík and Petr Volf. The editing was by Miroslav Hájek who presumably was fully occupied with the cutting of the film also well done. The music by Jirí Sust is often discordant, which fits the narrative. The screenplay was by Jirí Krenek from his own novel and involved the director in the writing. The film was screened at the 2017 Cinema Ritrovato which presumably gave it exposure. It is good that the Leeds Festival also gave an opportunity to see this little-known film.

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Dogman, Italy 2018

Posted by keith1942 on October 31, 2018

This is the new feature by Matteo Garrone, the director of the 2008 Gomorrah, a powerful drama about members of a crime organisation in the Naples area. This is also in a way a crime film but with a rather different type of plot; it shares the downbeat tone and resolution of the earlier film.

This new title is set in an outer suburb of Rome close to the River Tiber. This is a small run-down enclave with a plain square, a few shops and businesses and a number of high-rise flats. The central character is Marcello (Marcello Fonte), the ‘dogman’ of the title. He runs a small and basic dog parlour offering both grooming and shampoos with some boarding accommodation. The latter is very basic as is the exercising of the dogs which we see at one point.

The canine performers are only part of the setting for the film, though we see quite a lot of them. Marcello’s own dog is Jack, a cross-breed. He has slightly more to do then the varied breeds seen in the parlour but he is not a fully developed character.

This treatment is reserved for Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), a great hulk of man, an ex-boxer who appears to have suffered mentally from his occupation. Simon terrorizes the local community. It seems he is repeatedly jailed for minor offences but only for short periods; then returning to carry on his antisocial behaviour. Marcello is part of a business/friendship circle at a local bar where the men discuss ‘dealing’ with Simon, but go no further.

Because Marcello, as a side-line, provides Simon with cocaine he has more dealings with him. And it is this relationship that leads to the more and more problematic situation. Whilst Marcello vainly tries to avoid increasing involvement in crime he also cares for his daughter who lives with his separated wife. I assumed that the holidays they take together, underwater explorations , are fuelled by his drug dealing.

Marcello’s path is downhill all through the film. He struck me as the ‘biggest loser’ I have ever seen in a film, venturing into actions that screamed disaster, if not to him then certainly to the audience. The climax of the film comes when he has to confront his unequal relationship with Simon. This includes what can be seen as a ‘compulsory scene [one that the audience becomes increasingly impatient for].

The film is as bleak as the earlier Gomorrah. The flat landscape in and around the suburb, and also among the marshes where Marcello makes a brief visit, offers uninviting vistas. The underwater world visited by Marcello and his daughter provides a vivid and more exotic contrast. The cinematography by Nicolaj Brüel, using a digital format, uses the former to great effect, There is a noir feel to the evening sequences whilst daytime is flattened out to a grim but bright palette,

Michele Braga sparse music adds to this feeling of grim reality.

The screenplay is the work of a trio, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, who also wrote Gomorrah; and there are four other writers credited as collaborators. The way the story intertwines the characters and the places is excellent and the narrative works up to a powerful climax. This focuses totally on Marcello and Simoncino, leaving us little wiser about the daughter or the other in habitants, who remain predominately ciphers in the story.

The film offers a strong realist feel to place and characters though the plot tends more towards melodrama. This is a fine piece of film-making though it is as downbeat as a film can get. It has the tragic feel of some of the classics of earlier decades, including those from neorealism.

The film is in colour and in a ratio of 2.35:1 circulating in a 2K DCP. The print in Britain has English sub-titles. I saw the film at the Tyneside Cinema, my first visit. This is  a multi-screen independent. It is impressive how they have fitted all the facilities into the one building. And the venue offers a varied and interesting programme.

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1945, Hungary 2017

Posted by keith1942 on October 21, 2018

This is a fine Hungarian film that, so far, does not appear to have enjoyed a proper British release. I was fortunate to catch it at the Sheffield Showroom. It was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was popular with audiences, and it has screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Now Filmhouse, the Edinburgh based exhibitor have made it available. So far there is not a Sight & Sound review.

The film is set on August 12th 1945, commencing precisely at 1100 as a train arrives at the railway station in an unnamed village. The location seems to be south of Budapest not far from the Danube river.

The train deposits two figures dressed in black and accompanied by two large boxes. They have already arranged for a carter to collect the boxes and taken them into the village. Among the onlookers is a jeep containing three Soviet soldiers, signs of the Soviet occupation of Hungary following the defeat of the Nazi occupation. Whilst they are tangential to the plot the jeep constantly re-appears, reminding viewers of the state of Hungary at this moment in time.

The station master immediately identifies the two stranger as Jews. He races in panic to report this to the Town Clerk, Szentes István (Péter Rudolf). As the opening suggests this visit will bring up memories amongst the townspeople, and they turn out to be memories of apprehension, fear and guilt.

In the course of a couple of hours we watch as the two visitors follow the cart at a slow pace to the small town and to a disused Synagogue. Whilst this happens the town’s people are preparing to celebrate the wedding of Istvan’s son Szentes Árpád (Bence Tasnádi). But his bride-to-be finds that her former lover has returned after apparently serving in the Soviet forces; he is clearly characterised as leftist whilst István is a grasping entrepreneur. Árpád has a suppressed conflict with his father and relates strongly to his mother. But she, alienated in the marriage, appears to be addicted to ether sniffing.

István seems to have the strongest feeling of apprehension and guilt, shared by the town policeman and the local orthodox priest. As the film progresses viewers get a sense of what haunts these people from the past, though this is not fully explained until near the end of the film. Jewish inhabitants were taken away by the Nazi Gestapo in 1944. But prior to that István, the policeman and and the priest, were involved in a scam with the fascists to appropriate Jewishness property. The key property is a village store and pharmacy which is now run by István. The store sells perfume, an item which the station master believes may be in the visitor’s boxes; a use of props which is an example of the way the film uses signs to power the plot line.

What the inhabitants know and fear is only gradually revealed whilst the film never really gives us access to the feelings or motivations of the two Jewish men. Thus the viewer is caught up in the developing tensions in the town, whilst the characters wonder what the events signify. In the short space of time conflicts, suppressed emotions and, for some characters,, hysterical fears develop. There is illicit sex, a suicide and finally arson.

By the resolution both the inhabitants and the audiences find that their expectations have not been met, the outcome seems unexpected. But the internal conflicts of characters and town produces a dramatic resolution which is an apt punishment for the sins now exposed. With a fine formal logic the film ends as the two Jews and another character leave the station on another train, watched once more by the Soviet soldiers.

It is probably apparent that the film is influenced by classical Western. The obvious parallel would be Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) but there are also traces of High Noon (1952). This is empathised by the fine black and white cinematography by Elemér Ragályi. The flat Hungarian landscape, reminiscent at some points of the films of Miklós Jancsó, provides a suitable canvas for the varied journeys to the town. And the town itself, with its centre the village square where is sited the contentious shop, resembles a cauldron. The wedding preparations take place outside, on a hot summer day. But even with the interiors one senses the stifling atmosphere of a sultry day.

The director, Ferenc Török, is experienced but this is the first of his works I have seen. He displays an excellent control over the acting, the setting and such craft work as the editing. The script is by Ferenc Török, a writer of novels, stories and screenplays: this is an adaptation of one his own stories, ‘Homecoming’. The other contribution that struck me was the musical soundtrack by Tibor Szemző, a musician and composer with quite a few film titles to his credit. In the early stages of the film the music sounded rather slightly anachronistic but in the later stages the themes came together, suiting the revelations which the film had also withheld.

I think this film will take some effort to access at a cinema. But it will repay all such efforts.

Posted in East European Film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

‘Opium’ at the movies.

Posted by keith1942 on September 11, 2018

Perhaps it is my sensibilities but there seems to have been an awful lot of religion on film this summer. We had Apostasy, on which I have already posted. Here one had to sit through an amount of Jehovah Witness theology.

This turned up again in The Children’s Act (2017): another victim declining a blood transfusion. In fact I felt that this was not the prime focus of the film but rather the emotional cataclysm for the liberal judge. The film had the merit of treating the issue from the legal rather than the theological point of view.

Both had been preceded by First Reformed (2017) with another fundamentalist character. He is effectively a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, an organisation which tends towards Calvinism. Their lists of ‘do nots’ is not quite as extreme as the Jehovah Witnesses. This was a higher quality film, though I found the writing by Paul Schrader stronger than his direction. The film seemed to follow the style of a Robert Bresson film for much of its fairly long running time. But the climax suggested the masochism one finds in the Catholic Church; and it also reminded me of some of the themes in the writings of Ian McEwan.

Better than these was The Apparition (L’apparition, 2018). In this film a sceptical journalist is asked to investigate a claim of an apparition by the Virgin Mary. Parts of the film depicted the processes of the Roman Catholic Church in such instances. At times these sequences felt like they could have been written by John Le Carré. The actual investigation and the blessed recipient of the apparition were equally fascinating. And the film managed to effect a surprising climax and resolution, the latter rather indefinite.

Also an improvement, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018). A teenager caught in a Lesbian embrace after a school prom is packed off to ‘God’s promise’ by her conservative guardian. This religious camp supposedly is able to cure her ‘affliction’. The film is critical, funny and, at times, dramatic. As in Apostasy watching and listening to the fundamentalist characters was hard work, though the performers make these characters convincing. What intrigued me most is that the film seems to recycle the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). We have equivalents of Nurse Ratched, the Native American chief, excited viewing of television, a suicide and therapy sessions. And the ending has parallels though it is less dramatic. The film is adapted from a novel of the same name: I am unclear as to what degree the novel shares these parallels. The film certainly changes some things, Cameron is older in the film than the novel.

In Puzzle (2018) we get Roman Catholicism; but this is with irony and sly subversion. Agnes discovers she has a talent for puzzles and teams up with Robert for the National Championships. This enables her to assert herself in the patriarchal family set-up. This is small-town USA with regular church going. Intriguingly religion does not resolve the oppressive situation. Robert, a New Yorker, remarks that ‘life is chaos’ but that when completed puzzles offer a ‘perfect picture’. In fact we never see Agnes reading a bible though we do see her carrying the ‘ash cross’ that marks the beginning of Lent. By the film’s end she is emerging from this wintry fast.

And one I have not seen is Pope Francis: a Man of his Word. This is by Wim Wenders and I would rather see his excellent Buena Vista Social Club (1999) or the more recent Pina (2011), neither especially laden with religious tropes.

At least I was able to enjoy a snippet of Richard Dawkins puncturing the balloon of such superstitions. But only briefly at the opening of Ex Libris. And, of course, The Young Karl Marx offers the greatest modern hatchet job on religion.

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Oscar R.I.P.

Posted by keith1942 on August 22, 2018

Born 18 May 203; adopted 16 December 2015; passed on 22 August 2018.

A faithful companion through many ling walks, both in sunshine and inclement weather.

To be honest he slept through most of the films that I watched at home; they included digital and 16mm. He occasionally woke up, as in the climatic sequence of Lassie (2005).

He passé on in a manager similar to Marley & Me (2008).

He will be missed, especially  in my evening walk and on return, checking the sofa when I switch on the DVD Player.

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The Happy Prince, Germany, Belgium, Britain 2018

Posted by keith1942 on August 20, 2018

This is the new film about Oscar Wilde, titled from his famous short story. Oscar Wilde’s rise and fall is one of the most well-known and dramatic careers in C19th Britain. A popular writer and journalist, a successful playwright, raconteur and epigrammatist, the revelation of his homosexuality, the repressed and noir looking underground of Victorian society, led to disaster and early death. There have been numerous books about Wilde, and quite a few theatrical plays and television features and programmes. And there have been four English language features films, and French and German features, plus several documentarians. And his plays and his one novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’, have a number of film adaptations.

There is much material for the films. Apart from biographies and treatments in other media, memoirs of Wilde abound. There is his own ‘De Profundis’, though this and the recollections of people who knew him are not always reliable. And the famous trials were recorded in detail and all these film versions utilise the more notable contributions by Wilde. ‘The love that dare not speak its name’ [from an essay] has become a well used phrase in English.

Oscar Wilde (1960) was produced by Vantage Films and distributed by C20th Fox. It garnered an ‘X’ certificate from the British Board of Film Censors, a classification that seems bizarre fifty years on. It was shot in black and white and in the Academy ratio, quite a late example of the use of this ratio. The director was Gregory Ratoff, a Russian émigré who moved first to Paris and then Hollywood. The script was by Jo Eisinger and based on a play that included reminiscences by Wilde’s friend Frank Harris. Eisinger had earlier scripted the notable 1950 Night and the City.

The key members of the cast were Robert Morley as Oscar Wilde; Phyllis Calvert as his wife Constance; and John Neville as Lord Alfred Douglas,[Bosie], Wilde’s lover and the cause of his downfall. Morley is fine presenting Wilde as society wit and epigrammatist; the sexual side is much weaker. But the film itself is weak on this; apparently a scene involving Wilde soliciting a ‘rent boy’ was cut. Neville as Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) does not generate enough charm to justify the obsession that Wilde developed for him. Calvert’s Constance is under-written and her casting presumably followed from earlier roles where she was a put-upon wife, such as They Were Sisters (1945).

The film opens and closes ion Wilde’s grave in Paris at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. It then revisits Wilde’s infatuation and introduces his nemesis, Bosie ‘s father, The Marquis of Queensbury [spellings vary], played by Edmunds Chapman who never exhibits the manic qualities ascribed to the character. What stands out is the trial and the now famous cross-examination by Sir Edward Carson (Ralph Richardson). Richardson plays the character as steely and pitiless. The film also uses the trial transcripts and offers the fullest dramatisation of the court hearing. Following the trial we briefly see Wilde’s incarceration and then his decline in Paris.

The Monthly Film Bulletin (July 1960]] notes the circumstances of the film’s release.

“The film, by five days, of two neck and neck versions of the Wilde story to reach the screen, Oscar Wilde was still being edited up to a couple of hours before the press show. “

This partly accounts for the lack of life in the film and in the portrayals. Possibly responding to Richardson’s careful demolition Morley does give eloquence to the passage of the ‘Love that dare not speak its name’.

The competing version was The Trials of Oscar Wilde, with executive producers Irving Allan and Albert R. Broccoli. This film also received an ‘X’ certificate, with slightly more justification. The film was both scripted and directed by Ken Hughes,; he went on to direct the fine film version of Oliver Cromwell (1970). The film was based on a novel of the same name by Montgomery Hyde and a theatrical adaptation by John Furnell, ‘The Stringed Lute’. The film was shot in Technirama 70, with fine Technicolor and a ratio of 2.20:1 in the 70mm prints, [2.35:1 in the 35mm prints]. The film had a talented production crew, Ted Moore providing the cinematography : he worked on several Bond films. As also did the designer [along with Bill Constable] Ken Adams. And Ron Goodwin provided the music. The film looks and sounds much better than its rival.

The plot begins at the same point as Oscar Wilde, the opening of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. However the film fills in the preceding relationship between Wilde and ‘Bosie’. In fact the film portrays this relationship in much greater depth. One gets a sense of the involvement between the two men and their other relationships, wife and father. John Fraser is good as lord Douglas whilst Lionel Jefferies is excellent as the mad, manic and macho Marquis of Queensbury. Yvonne Mitchell plays Wilde’s wife Constance but the part is again underwritten. We meet their children briefly and at one point hear Oscar telling ‘The Happy Prince’ [incomplete]. At the centre of the film is Peter Finch’s portrayal of Wilde. He does not really catch the writer or the notorious public figure but invests great skill in his obsession with ‘Bosie’ and in the way his life collapses.

Given the title of the film the treatment of the criminal libel case is underdeveloped; ‘trials’ in the sense of the personal. James Mason is not as ruthless as the Richardson portrayal. The film does deal with the two subsequent prosecutions, one ending in a dead-locked jury the other in Wilde’s draconian and moralistic punishment. The film ends with Wilde’s release and does not follow him in his exile in Paris. The last shot is as he leaves London by train. This common trope offers the sight of Wilde spurning ‘Bosie’ as his train departs.

This is a pretty good portrait of Wilde but its primary concern is the in famous relationship and his personal suffering. London and theatre-land of the period is well drawn but seems slightly external to the characters. The powerful scenes are those where Wilde’s obsession increases at the same time as Bosie’s demands increasingly sap his artistry and his social position.

Thirty seven years on and with social attitudes to sexual orientation much changed came Wilde (1997). This biopic was produced in a period when films openly and explicitly addressing gay love were frequent. The film was credited as British and to three other territories; there are a number of production companies, including monies from British and European state agencies. The screenplay is by Julian Mitchell from the book ‘Oscar Wilde’ by Richard Ellmann. It is filmed in anamorphic 2.35:1 and in full Metrocolor. Martin Fuhrer cinematography makes good use of the production design by Maria Djurkovic and very fine costumes by Nic Ede. Oscar Wilde is played in the film by Christopher Fry whose personal and sexual orientation are closer to the subject than that of the earlier actors. He does capture the flamboyance of Wilde’s public image and [to a degree] the contradictory nature of his desires and attractions. The film sets this up in an inspired opening sequence. Prior to marriage the young Wilde, already a noted social figure, visits and entertains miners as he makes a trip to the USA and ‘out west’. This nicely sets up the public figure of Wilde and his ambiguous standing.

The film gives us Wilde’s married life and his two children. Jennifer Ehle has a better written part than her predecessors and offers more rounded portrait of the character. Michael Sheen plays Robert Ross, who both introduces Wilde to the pleasures of homosexuality and also remains a steadfast friend through the travails that will follow. But the film’s prime interest is in Wilde’s sexuality and his obsession with Lord Alfred Douglas, (Jude Law). Their sequences are the most extended in the film and the two actors give full rein to the obsession on one side and the self-centred conduct on the other. Some of the scenes, like Wilde’s sojourn in Brighton whilst ill, cross over with the earlier Trials. But this representation is more powerful and complex, thanks in part to the greater latitude allowed the subject in this period. Tom Wilkinson, as the Marquess of Queensbury, is good and allowed a more complex characterisation than the earlier films.

The film was classified ’15’, how times changed. And it contains a certain amount of explicit sexual conduct. However, I do not think there is any frontal nudity, and the film successfully avoided the ’18’ classification in Britain. The film does show us both Wilde and Bosie’s sexual relationship and their indulgence in what then [as more recently] were described as ‘rent boys’. But that focus takes the film away from the most famous aspect of the story, the notorious trials. The treatment of the libel case is fairly perfunctory in relation to the earlier versions. And the two cases of prosecution are past over.

There are some grim sequences of Wilde’s prison term. And we follow him to exile in France. However, the film ends when he and Bosie re-unite, [though in actuality this was a brief reunion].

The film, as in earlier versions, uses much of the recorded dialogue. Some of the stormier scenes are taken from the account Wilde himself gave in ‘De Profundis’. And there are a number of scenes where we hear Wilde’s famous short story, ‘The Selfish Giant’; suggesting a critical line in the narrative,.

Now, twenty years later, we have a new version of Oscar Wilde. ‘A passion project’ for writer and director Rupert Everett. Apparently it took Everett five years to bring the project to completion. It is credited to Belgium, Italy and Britain; the list of Production Companies runs to two columns in S&S, the main sources being the BBC, Tele München and Télevision belge. The film was shot digitally and in colour and 2.35:1. The main location for the project was Bavaria, with other sites in Belgium, France and Italy. The cinematography by John Conroy looks good as does the production design by Brian Morris. Both interiors and exteriors are convincing and full of interest. The locations partly reflect the film’s focus, the last years of Wilde’s life following his imprisonment and exile. The title of the film is taken from the famous short story by Oscar Wilde, which also figured briefly in the earlier Trials. But here the story becomes a metaphor for the downward spiral of Wilde’s life. The last line of that story suggests the posthumous upward spiral of his work and reputation.

The film opens in 1900 with Wilde already in exile. His life there is intercut with flashbacks to the earlier parts of the story. In a couple of places we get a montage of clips summoning up the past but also highlighting the parallels and oppositions in his career. In an early sequence he entertains a crowd in a low Paris bar with a rendition of a music hall favourite, he collapses and this is followed by a montage of clips including his sentencing for ‘immorality’, the vindictive Marquess of Queensbury and the deeply depressing Reading Gaol. In another sequence, that also appeared in Wilde, we see Oscar pursued by homophobic young Englishness in a Normandy town. There follows a montage of clips that present the opposition and parallels in Wilde life, including a grim sequence as he was baited on his way to prison counterposed with his triumph at the opening night of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. Right through the film Everett and his team counterpose the life in exile with memories and returns to both Wilde success and fame and his degradation after his fall. Nicolas Gaster editing is to be commended.

Everett’s Wilde dominates the film. Philip Kemp notes that

Rupert Everett, in his magisterial role as writer, director and star, catches the theatricality self-mocking aspect of the flamboyant littérateur almost from the start.” (Sight & Sound July 2018).

Everett also catches the rumbustious vitality which enabled Wilde to entertain people across the Victorian divide, from bourgeois to proletarians. This also brings out his sympathy, [though not very analytical] for the exploited and oppressed.

Everett dominates the screen so that other characters are not that fully developed. Both Edwin Thomas) Robbie Ross) and Colin Morgan (Lord Alfred Douglas are excellent as Oscar’s lovers. Emily Watson is fine but gets only limited screen time. The rest of the cast are those who Wilde encounters in exile with a key British character, like the Marquess of Queensbury’ seen only briefly and not credited.

The film offers a valedictory portrait of the artist, with all his flaws and vices. It also give insight into this destructive urges which explain how his great success was followed by such a precipitous fall. And it addresses directly and fully his homosexual activities. The BBFC gave the film a ’15’ certificate noting that

very strong language, strong nudity, drug misuse”.

We see Oscar recounting ‘The Happy Prince’ to two young French urchins, one of who he pays for sex. And in another fine transition we cut to the earlier Wilde recounting that story to his two sons. I think this story makes a better metaphor for Wilde himself that that of ‘The Selfish Giant’ used in Wilde. Everett subtly changes some of the tale to suit the film. Thus the ‘young man in as garret’ becomes

a broken man … He was a writer, but he was too cold to finish his play”.

Here the sentimentality in some of Wilde’s work, though not his famous plays, comes to the fore. And the part of the story [featured elsewhere in the film] where the Mayor decrees the fate of the statue of the ‘Happy Prince,’ cast aside and melted down, draws Wilde’s moral with emphasis to his own fate at the hands of the moralistic Victorian society.

The film has its flaws and the occasional longueur. But Everett’s characterisation, the vivid portrayal of Wilde’s treatment, and the moral valuation offered by the film, make this my favourite of the film adaptations. Given Wilde’s place in the Pantheon, the richness of his artistic work, and the key place he occupies in the history of ‘coming out’, I am sure that we will see more films on this subject in the future.

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Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on August 15, 2018

This is the most recent documentary from Frederick Wiseman. Since Titticut Follies in 1967 Wiseman has been a prolific and central figure in observational documentary: after all these years he is almost the definition of films that offer a dispassionate but detailed portrait, mainly of institutions. In this long film, 197 minutes, he examines both the famous landmark in Bryant Park on 5th Avenue [a key setting in the successful The Day After Tomorrow, 2004] and a number of the other libraries in the New York public network. I have been fortunate enough to visit the iconic central building and one of the pleasures of the film was how Wiseman explores both the parts I have seen and the less seen staff and machinery behind this.

The film opens with great style as we observe an event in the libraries main foyer; Richard Dawkins giving a lunch-time talk with all his eloquence and commitment. We see a number of such events, some like this less formal, and others in one of the library auditorium with a more formal presentation and a large audience. I particularly enjoyed the session of an interview with Elvis Costello. And we see smaller events, more open, at branch libraries. The most fascinating was a young black woman explaining the ‘southern ideology’ which criticised Northern capitalism from a right-wing standpoint; not quite as formidable as that by Karl Marx but an important component in the struggle over slavery. There are concert performance in auditorium but also less formal presentations and the odd amateur improvisation; not a part of the official library. Title cards identify performers and venues for the viewer.

Wiseman tends to wander around an institution and he records and presents his observations without comment. Seemingly these sequences are laid out in arbitrary manner. So along with the events we gets shots of the staff, both at the main library and at branches, occupied in their tasks, frequently involving library members and members of the public. One is a telephone enquiry service and we see and hear as an operator check the word ‘unicorn’ on a computer and answers questions by a caller. This is one of those moments of sympathetic humour found in Wiseman’s films. We see staff checking in and out books and other library resources. Behind the scenes we see a group of male works working on a conveyor belt to sort books for return to their branches.

Wiseman offers repetition of groups and settings and the most frequent in this film are a series of meetings involving the library management. We see and hear them discussing the library finances: after some years of reductions 2016 saw a welcome increase in the budget allocated by the city. We also hear how important is the role of private funding for the library. And they discuss some of the processes in running the library, developments at particular venues and some of their longer-term goals.

Their discussions and the sequence of library staff and activity demonstrate how much wider than printed books are the resources of a modern library. British users of libraries will recognise this and both the parallels and differences in the library system. Certainly the |New York Public Library network appears to have avoided the savage cutbacks experienced in Britain.

Whilst Wiseman presentation seems an ad hoc portrait of the public library the editing, in particular, provides a less formal and slightly ambiguous commentary. There are frequent touches of irony as Wiseman’s camera moves from one activity to another. One notable counterpoint follows a meeting of the management discussing [with liberalism] vagrancy and the problem of the libraries being used as a place of sleep rather than activity. Then we see a sleeping Afro-American user at a desk. This points up, [as do other parallels], that the management is also uniformly Caucasian.

As the film passes from branch library to branch library we get shots of New York streets and intersections. New Yorkers will probably place buildings in this way.: less likely for British viewers. For me these felt rather more like the ‘pillow shots’ that fill films by Ozu Yasujiro, though Wiseman only provides natural sound.

The film is long but absorbing. However, I did find the last twenty minutes or so palled. This was not so much due to the length but to the repetitions. At the end we visit another management meeting, I forget the topic. Then we see a meeting of Afro-American women at a branch [Queens I think]. They all talk volubly but briefly. The lengthy contribution comes from an Afro-American director of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. There follows a formal event in the main auditorium which fits into Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas regarding ‘aesthetic dispositions’.

There is clearly some irony intended here. But by this stage I felt we had had more of such events and of managers than of ordinary users and workers. I have not seen National Gallery (2014) again but my memory is that that film had more of such moments; it certainly emphasised the ironic contrasts between British and North American staff at that institution. . In fact we do not get a sequence where the ordinary workers in the public library discuss issues in the space offered repeatedly to managers. Nor do we see any Trade Union activity. I wondered if there as not an occasion where the workers of the conveyor belt seen earlier – the most repetitious and alienating activity in the film – had a gathering or talk. The management are very liberal but by the end I felt that their behaviours was affected by their consciousness of the camera. I did not feel this with the ordinary staff.

The Sight & Sound [August 2018] review offers,

“Lofty idealism informs conversations about what kind of society the library wants to help to build, giving a surprising urgency to scenes of people sitting in rooms talking.”

From one angle this is true but I did not get a sense of what the pressures of budgets, routines , public demand and the compulsion of wage labour exerted on the staff/workers in the network. I suspect that they are there. Certainly one gets a sense of this in some of the other Wiseman documentaries,.

Posted in Documentary, US films | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Apostasy, Britain 2017

Posted by keith1942 on August 5, 2018

This is a new release which has enjoyed a number of favourable reviews but for me the word that best describes the title is ‘glum’. This was due to a combination of factors, especially the subject, plot and the style.

The subject is a family who are members of the Jehovah Witnesses. There is an absent father [unexplained] the mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran ), the elder daughter Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and the younger daughter Alex (Molly Wright). The plot presents both their family and the local Kingdom Hall congregation of which they are members. As the narrative proceeds the faith of the family comes up against increasing contradictions which are fuelled by the authoritarian nature of the Witnesses, embodied by the all-male elders.

Ivanna is strong in her faith despite the problems she faces; she works in what seems to be a council office. Alex is also committed but she suffers from anaemia; she works in a gardening team.. This as a problem is raised right at the start of the story when we learn that as a child Alex had a blood transfusion, insisted on by a hospital despite this being contrary to the beliefs of the Witnesses. Luisa is the odd one out. She attends a local college and her encounters with people of other or of no faith has an effect. She becomes pregnant and it this this issue that drives a wedge between the family and incurs the restrained wrath of the elders.

As you might guess the film ends up with a critical perspective on the Jehovah Witnesses. The narrative is generally low-key and the presentation of the meetings and rituals of the Witnesses is matter-of-a fact and [it seems] very accurate. The drama, as much as there is, is partly presented through performance and partly through the use of ellipses in the plot.

The cast are good and they are convincing and [despite the low-key presentation] there are scenes of powerful emotion . The film aims to add to this through the style. The palette of the film is almost dismal and the framing concentrates on the interaction of the actors. At time though the settings [such as the family home] are important in setting the mood.

The problem with the style for me is that the title is shot on a digital format and not one of particularly high quality as far as I could tell. [I have not been able to find a listing that gives the technical information]. The title is in colour and the unusual aspect ratio of 1.5:1, [apparently the ratio used in photographs that were source for the production]. But especially in the interiors of the family home the image has low contrast and low definition: 35mm film would have improved both areas. The visual effect was, for me, best described as ‘muddy’.

I also found the narrative uneven. It seems to aim for a social realist presentation. Yet there are some lacunae in the plot. When Luisa is pregnant Ivanna has to bail her out as Luisa has not got a job and appears broke. Yet she drives round in a relatively new saloon car. I also wondered if other aspects of the Witnesses beliefs would not have created problems? We get their ‘shunning’ of apostates, their reliance on a particular version of the bible and their proselytizing. But they also reject quite a few obligations of citizenship and this seems to be missing.

The narrative is hard work, partly because we get so much of the Witnesses theology, which is fundamentalist and reactionary. I possibly could have managed the plot and characters if it were not for the poor image. As it was I found the title’s 95 minutes a real struggle. I saw it at local cinema where it seems the film has so far enjoyed good audiences, and quite a few of them thought it good. The writer/director Daniel Kokotajlo [who has direct experience of the Witnesses] clearly aims to subvert the fundamentalist religious values propagated by the Witnesses. But we have been here before. Michael Relph and Basil Dearden addressed the central topic, the objection to blood transfusions, in one of their social-problem films, Life For Ruth (1962). This was a film in black and white and in the 1.66:1 ratio. The Witnesses were not actually identified as the religious sect in this film, but it clearly dramatised the same issue. My memory of it is that it worked better as a drama that this new title.

Apart from the hardship of sitting through the film I am also unhappy about the vagaries of British distribution. So Apostasy is screening at a local cinema for seven night but not a single cinema in Leeds/Bradford has yet screened The Young Karl Marx which is both politically superior and far more entertaining.

Posted in British films | Tagged: | 1 Comment »