Talking Pictures

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Archive for the ‘auteurs’ Category

Films by directors and other filmmmakers who are indentified as having a distinctive style and presenting distinctive themes.

Divine, France 1935.

Posted by keith1942 on July 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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

The Edge of the World Britain 1937

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chantal Akerman, 1950 to 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on October 16, 2015

Ackerman

I was at the Pordenone Festival when I heard the sad news of the death of this major filmmaker. She has made impressive contributions to both political/art film and to feminist film. I have only a partial sense of her achievements because it has always proved difficult to see her films. There has been a major retrospective in London at the ICA over the last year, but few of the films have travelled outside of the metropolis and the one screening planned for West Yorkshire fell through. I am hoping I shall get to see her most recent film, No Home Movie (20125).

The last time I saw her work was when Leeds International Film Festival screened her early masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Belgium, France 1975). This feature was screened as part of a series of European Catalyst Films: one of the titles that actually measured up to the heading. This is what I wrote after a an exhilarating visit to the cinema.

Jeanne Dielman

This was the most impressive film for me personally at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is an almost flawless masterpiece. I write flawless because it seemed to me that the film perfectly captures the intent of its writer and director Chantal Akerman. It is a film where the distinction that we usually make between form and content is almost redundant, because they are in complete synchrony.

The film charts almost three days in the life of the widow Jeanne and her son Sylvain. That she is a widow is important: a photograph of her wedding day, with her husband, stands on her dressing room table. The critics quoted in the Catalogue uses the term ‘single mother’, but certainly in English ‘widow’ and single mother’ have very different connotations.

On the first day, Wednesday we join the routine of Jeanne as housewife and mother. Her day includes looking after a neighbour’s baby, shopping, domestic duties and preparing meals: and of a different order, servicing regular male clients whilst her son is out at school. Her activities are all performed with methodical care. And this is also true of the evenings when her son Sylvain returns home. There is a simple meal, followed by reading to help retain his French accent as he is attending a Flemish school: reading a letter from a married sister in Canada.  And there is a constitutional walk before bedtime. Of a slightly different character is the bedtime exchange when the son probes his mother’s past emotional life.

Thursday the second day seems very similar. But we notice small discords that intrude on Jeanne’s routines. Another male client attends, but the transaction seems little different from the preceding day. The son’s bedtime questions are more probing and personal, including emotional comments on the dead father.

On Friday, day three, the discords become much more apparent and Jeanne’s growing disquiet moves from subtle expression to clear disruptions. It is on day three that a dramatic event occurs. This completely breaks down Jeanne’s life of orderly routine but also shines a strong illumination on all that has gone before. The ending of the film leaves a number of conventional plot questions unresolved, but exposes the contradictions under which Jeanne has laboured.

Jeanne corridor

The film is shot predominantly in mid-shot with occasional long shots. The rhythm of the film is slow; whole sequences are often filmed in one take. And the sound track on the film is natural and diegetic. The audience is asked to watch and consider. Since the film runs for 201 minutes this is quite an ask. But I found, and other audience members concurred, that the film did not seem anywhere as long as that.

As the title suggests Jeanne’s labour as a prostitute is presented as an example of commodity exchange. And the routines that she follows when preparing for her clients emphasise this aspect. In fact we do not see the actual acts of intercourse on the Wednesday or Thursday. However we do enter the bedroom for the coitus on the Friday. This act is clearly of a different order from those of the preceding days. Essentially the use value and exchange value of Jeanne’s sexuality come into conflict at this point.

Whilst the events on the Friday are likely to take the audience by surprise, the film is careful to prepare the ground, though this is done in a low-key and fairly subtle manner. But the methodical behaviour that Jeanne follows, and the increasing discrepancies that become apparent, both lead up to the climax. Seeing the film again I noted the neon sign in the street creates a flashing reflection which is seen on the sitting room wall in the evenings Jeanne spends with her son. Now this seems like a premonition with a strong film noir flavour.

The Catalogue refers to the influence of two of the USA avant-garde filmmakers, Michael Snow and Andy Warhol. This is noticeable in the importance of space and time in the film. Ackerman herself has acknowledged the influence of Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard. The latter possibly influenced the way that the film uses repetition and ellipsis to present the routines of Jeanne. What struck me was the way that the film uses props in the mise en scène, also relying on the depth of field, and recalling the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. [I later read this was another acknowledged influence]. I found the similarity especially pronounced in the long shots along corridors.

If the film’s direction is beautifully modulated then this is also true of the central performance by Delphine Seyrig. Her Jeanne is some way removed from her character in Last Year in Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961). Indeed that film’s director Alain Resnais is another obvious influence. Whilst the two films are very different, what they share is a formal rigour.

The screening used a fairly good 35mm print, with only a few noticeably worn sections. So it showed off the production skills of Babette Mangolte’s cinematography, Patricia Canino’s editing and Alain Marchall’s sound editing. This is also a film that should be seen in a cinema.

ITP Festival Review.

Posted in auteurs, Films by women | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Michelangelo Antonioni – Poet of Alienation

Posted by keith1942 on September 18, 2015

Lecclisse

L'eclliseThe BFI have released a digitally restored version of one of the most famous films by this filmmaker – L’ecclisse / The Eclipse (1962). This is a welcome return of one of the most important directors of art cinema in the 1960s. I hope that this film will be follows by re-issues of L’avventura (1959) and La Notte (1961) 

Profile:

Antonioni was born in 1912. In the 1930s he experimented with 16-mm film and also contributed film criticism to a local newspaper. In 1940 he attended the Italian film school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. He then worked as a scriptwriter, including on one film for Roberto Rossellini. His first film as a director was a short documentary, Gente del Po, on which he worked from 1943 to 1947. In the 1950s he directed a number of features and continued as a scriptwriter, including contributing to Fellini’s The White Sheikh/Lo Sceicco Bianco (1952).

In 1960 L’avventura bought him international success. The film won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Festival. It formed a trilogy with his next two films La notte, winner of the Best Film Award at Berlin in 1961: and L’eclisse, which also won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, in 1962. All three films starred the actress Monica Vitti; almost as regular in Antonioni’s films as was Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s. Antonioni was clearly seen as an auteur. His dominant theme was the emotional barrenness of modern man – the futile search to assert him or herself in a technological world and their frustrating inability to communicate with others. Ephraim Katz comments “Long lingering shots follow his characters until their inner selves are revealed. By their leisurely immobility the shots suggest the overbearing pressure that times exerts upon human emotions. The surrounding physical world is also used to convey a state of mind and to express the strains of alienation and psychological agony. Antonioni’s films are almost plotless, their narrative vagueness almost bordering on mystery. “ [In the International Film Encyclopaedia, 1994].

Antonioni

Italian film context:

Antonioni grew up under Fascism and his early filmmaking career paralleled the development of Neo-realism. These films focussed on the lives of ordinary people. Neorealist used location shooting, non-professional actors and a somewhat unconventional style compared with mainstream studio films. In the 1950s Antonioni’s films moved away from the Neorealist aesthetic and began to display the visual and narrative ambiguities of his most famous films.

At the same time changes in cinema audiences and film exhibition impacted on Italian filmmakers. These were part of wider changes in international post-war cinema. Cinemas, especially in rural areas and small towns, frequently closed. City based cinemas survived but prices increased. Moreover there developed what we now call ‘niche’ audiences. There were the mainstream popular films, including imports from Hollywood, And there were ‘quality’ or art films. The latter often made a virtue of black and white cinematography, which generally cost less. But it also provided a distinctive style as colour became the norm in the mainstream . Antonioni only made a colour film, The Red Desert / Il Deserto Rosso in 1964. Along with the style went a distinctive approach to plot, character and the resolution of the film story.

Antonioni – The trilogy

lavventura12

L’avventura, La notte and L’ecclise form a thematic trilogy. Antonioni made them between 1960 and 1962. All won festival awards, and they established his reputation and his directorial persona. Monica Vitti appears in all the films. Antonioni together with Tonino Guerra wrote the scripts. Eraldo Da Roma was the editor on all three films; Gianni Da Venanzo was director of photography on La notte and L’eclisse; and Giovanni Fusco composed the music for both L’avventura and L’eclisse. In the same period, apart from Fellini’s La dolce vita, Igmar Bergman directed Winter Light; and Alain Resnais directed Last Year in Marienbad. All great modernist films.

In L’avventura “A young woman, Anna [Lea Massari], disappears while cruising near Sicily in the company of a group of rich Italians. Her lover, Sandro Gabriele Ferzetti], and her friend, Claudia [Monica Vitti], search unsuccessfully for her, developing a tenuous relationship in the process. There is no resolution of the conventional type. Anna’s disappearance is never explained and ceases to be of nay interest. At the end of the film Claudia and Sandro achieve a bleak sympathy, but hardly a consummation. Nor are we permitted any semblance of orthodox narrative involvement. The film is paced very slowly, much of its action is seen in real time. Its characters communicate little dialogue, and more often than not, are to be found looking away from each other into the bleak and arid Sicilian landscape.” [Andrew Tutor]. 

La notte “is about an artist’s life at the height of Italy’s economic miracle; it depicts several hours, including the whole night, in the life of Giovanni Pontano [Marcello Mastroianni], a novelist, on the day of the publication of his latest book. Jeanne Moreau plays his wife. And Monica Vitti plays the daughter of an industrialist whom Giovanni attempts but fails to seduce.

Antonioni manipulates entrances and exits and ambiguous shifts of scale, in order to shift regularly between his principal characters while maintaining the impression that their independent actions are linked together, almost as if they see each other in their privacy.” [P. Adam Sitney].

 

L’ECLISSE [The Eclipse].

leclisse3

L’ecclisse is set in Rome and the central relationship involves Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero (Alain Delon). The plot involves the city’s Stock Exchange whilst the settings are mainly in the upmarket and fashionable EUR area of Rome. The film is [for my money] the most abstract of the trilogy.

The film is set in two areas of Rome, though there is also a light aeroplane flight to Verona aerodrome. The prime focus is in the EUR district where Vittoria lives in a modern, smart apartment. EUR was a project of the 1930s Fascist regime. It was to be an architectural and planning monument constructed round a great expo Exhibition. The exhibition never took place and the area was developed post-war as both a residential and business area. So the district has a mixture of styles from pre-war and post-war. And, as is so often the case in Italian films, architecture caries a particular resonance from the past.

The film opens in the nearby apartment of Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) whose relationship with Vittoria is coming to an end. Later Vittoria returns to her own apartment. Riccardo vainly calls there. Later in the film Piero will call, more successfully. There is also a sequence in the flat of a neighbour visited by Vittoria and a friend. This is a somewhat oddball sequence. The hostess has lived in Kenya for a period and she is quietly racist about the black people there. The women actually play and dress up in her collection of African costumes. I find this sequence dates the film in a way that does not happen with L’avventura.

The second area is the old centre of the city. Here is sited the Stock Exchange, the apartment of Piero’s parents, and the office from which he works. Vittoria and Piero meet at the Stock Exchange, where Vittoria’s mother goes to check investments. This offers a bedlam of noise and frenetic activity. And in the first sequence there this is emphasised by a minute’s silence held for a departed stock broker. The Exchange is a centre of gambling fever, for me it recalled the shorter and stylistic different sequence in Fritz Lang’ Doctor Mabuse (1922). Piero is as afflicted as every other member of the exchange, at one point Vittoria says to him:

“you never stand still”.

The events at the Exchange feature a bubble and crash, reflecting actual economic events in Italy in 1961.

There is also a sequence at the Tiber. Piero’s sports car was stolen and the driven into the river. We see the car, and the dead driver, hauled from the river. But it is followed a by a sequence when Piero and Vittoria walk across a park together.

It is an exterior and a junction that dominates the last reels of the film. This is in the EUR district at a cross roads. There is an unfinished building with scaffolding and coverings: even a water running to a tank and leaking onto the road. We see this junction on several occasions. We see passerby, including a nurse pushing a pram. And at one point in the twilight a bus stops, passengers disembark and it drives on. It is here that we return at the end of the film. We see some of the passerby, including a man with a newspaper. Then the junction becomes deserted. We are waiting but never see what may happen. Visually this is a stunning sequence, with a series of shots of the junction, the building, and close-ups of detail. It also seems to be the most abstract sequence in an Antonioni film.

The film is constructed round dolly shots. The camera cuts frequently, often to oblique angles. They very much service the mise en scène. Characters are placed against objects, walls and buildings. There is a shot of Vittoria in Riccardo’s flat, on the extreme left of the frame, facing into the room and a mirror. Riccardo is separated by space, walls and furniture. When Vittoria and Piero first talk at the Exchange, they converse round a large pillar as the minute’s silence proceeds. Some of the shots, especially of Vitti, reminded me of those in La Notte. The shots are not especially long. There are a number of tracks in the film and they seemed mainly to occur when there is some sort of ending occurring.

We have both daytime and night-time sequences and a range of interiors and exteriors. What I had forgotten from a previous screenings was that a night-time sequence features a number of dogs. Vittoria chases these, in particular the pet of her neighbour. I cannot remember other dogs in Antonioni films?

Apart from dialogue and noise the soundtrack is sparse. There are two diegetic songs and a diegetic singer. Non-diegetic brief musical phrases occur early in the film. There are more of them in a sequence where Piero shows Vittoria his parent’s apartment. But the greatest amount of accompanying music is in the final lengthy, and also most empty of people, sequence.

Elclissee still

There is no doubt that Antonioni is an auteur in themes and style. However, this is a work [as his others] that relies on the team of filmmakers involved. The cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo is especially fine. And the production design and editing are also excellent. Whilst the sparse music by Giovanni Fusco is atmospheric.

Like all of Antonioni’s films there is a high degree of ambiguity, both in regard to the characters and the plot, but also in terms of the themes it expresses. But this is certainly a modernist and alienating environment. But whilst the old centre has far more life and action it also is fairly vacuous, when it is not merely exploitative. The visual quality of the film offers great pleasure, and the sound and music add to this. It is also stimulating because whilst some viewers may be bored, [I have heard this said] if the film involves one it seems very difficult not to ponder and question after the final ‘Fine’.

Italy / France 1962. Produced by Robert and Raymond Hakim.

Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, with Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri; cinematography: Gianni Di Venanzo; editor: Eraldo Da Roma; sound: Claudio Mailed and Mario Bramonti; production design: Piero Poletto; music: Giovanni Fusco.

Cast: Alain Delon (Piero); Monica Vitti (Vittoria); Francisco Rabal [Riccardo]; with Lilla Brignone, Rosanna Rory, Mirella Ricciardi, Louis Seignier.

Screening in a DCP, black and white with English subtitles: running 126 minutes.

Synopses from the Macmillan International Dictionary of Film.

Posted in auteurs, Italian Film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Polanski’s Ghosts

Posted by keith1942 on June 30, 2015

Polanski directing The Ghost.

Polanski directing The Ghost.

 

There is an off-quoted line in the Black Audio Film Collective’s documentary Handsworth Songs (1986):

“There are no stories [in the riots] only the ghosts of other stories.”

I remembered the line when I was mulling over Roman Polanski’s film The Ghost (2010). As with other directors honoured as auteurs his films often stimulate recollections of his own earlier films: ghostly traces or memories from the previous works. Thanks to Channel 4 (who screened the film more or less in the original aspect ratio) when I watched The Ghost again some of these ghostly references reminded me strongly of his classic Chinatown (1974) The S & S review also rightly suggested ‘ghosts’ from Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), Cul-de-sac (1966) and Frantic (1988) among others. The reviewer (Michael Brooke) makes the point that the film closely follows the original book by Robert Harris (who scripted the film with Polanski) but suggests that the plot and story world are in part what attracted Polanski to the property. Of course, both the book and the film use familiar generic elements, but the parallels seem to be to be stronger than that. Much of the film does adhere closely to the plot found in the book, as indeed does the dialogue. However, there are two significant changes, which I comment on below.

Filming Chinatown

Filming Chinatown

In Chinatown a private eye investigates first an affair with and then the death of a prominent Los Angeles citizen Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Swerling). The private eye becomes involved with the widow and her father, a corporate baron. His investigations lead him to discover fraud and corruption in the L.A. Water and Power Company. In The Ghost a writer who polishes and re-writes autobiographies for prominent people is hired to  ‘ghost-write’ the memoirs of ex-British prime minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). His predecessor, Mike McAra, has died in a drowning at sea. When Adam Lang is publicly pilloried for aiding secret CIA rendition of suspects, political secrets surface and become threatening.

The parallels with Chinatown are there most obviously in the two male protagonists of these films. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), the private eye in Chinatown, thinks he knows his trade, but by the film’s finale he is clearly out in depth in the world of criminality symbolised by the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. Ewan McGregor’s Ghost appears to be a smart member of a little-publicised authorial profession; but he also is soon out of his depth in the murky world of power politics. Both men appear in a scene where they look at evidence but fail to unravel the meaning of a word at the time. Jake talks to the Japanese gardener by the Mulwray pool, and only later realises the possible meaning of ‘glass’. The ghostwriter reads the opening chapter of Adam Lang’s memoir without realising the significance of ‘beginnings’. In the end Jake survives, unlike the ghostwriter, but he is equally destroyed by a world that is far more sinister and complex than any he has previously experienced.

Both men are victims of a woman who is essentially a femme fatale, alluring but dangerous. The women are deceptive and it is unclear to what degree they are responding to the hero or merely manipulating him. Ruth Lang [Olivia Williams] of The Ghost survives unlike Evelyn Mulwray née Cross (Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown, but both are equally the puppets of powerful men: men whose public persona is far removed from their actual ruthless real selves. John Huston’s corporate baron Noah Cross is prepared to go to any lengths to profit from the exploitation of L.A.’s dependence on water: and he is equally determined in pursuing his personal power. Tom Wilkinson’s Professor Paul Emmett pursues political power and profit with an equivalent ruthlessness, though we learn far less about his personal pursuits. Noah Cross is an actual father who literally embodies a classic myth of incest and the sexual exploitation of the child: Paul Emmett is a father figure rather than literal parent: but indirectly he controls Ruth’s sexuality through the arranged marriage to Adam Lang.

The secret in Chinatown is the manipulation of water whilst in The Ghost it is the identity of a CIA agent. However, in both films it is the search to crack the secret than impels the narrative. Moreover, that basic element water is key in the mise en scène of both films. We see water in Chinatown in the reservoirs, in the ocean, in a boating lake and in the pool of the Mulwray mansion. In The Ghost it surrounds the main action, on Martha’s Vineyard Island on the US eastern seaboard, and characters constantly cross over it or walk alongside it. And in both films the action that starts to crack open the secret is the drowning of an innocent man, Evelyn Mulwray’s husband in Chinatown, previous ghostwriter Mike McAra in The Ghost. Both are made to look like suicides but in reality they are the victims of a secret conspiracy. Moreover, a female witness in the case also dies, literally in Chinatown, comatosed in The Ghost. The first significant change from the plot of the book is related to the death in The Ghost. Late in the book the writer, fearing the close attentions of the CIA, meets an ex-colleague of Adam Lang, the politician Robert Rycart (Robert Pugh). He travels to New York City for the meeting. In the film they meet at the motel alongside the mainland ferry terminus for the Island. The sequence includes the writer joining and leaving the ferry, as he fears a repeat of the death of his predecessor Mike McAra. The change immediately conjures up both the plot and the symbolism of the earlier Chinatown.

There are crossovers elsewhere in the mise en scène. Both protagonists wander in desolate places like beaches and dried-up riverbeds. The framing and blocking in particular scenes offers hints as to the way the mystery will unravel. This is particularly true of the Asian servants in both households. One intriguing plot piece is that in Chinatown it is the Japanese gardener (Jerry Fujikawa) who inadvertently reveals to Gittes the key information around a man’s death by the pool in the Mulwray garden. In The Ghost, as in Chinatown, house servants are Asian, Dep and Duc. And it is the Vietnamese gardener (Hong Thay Lee) who offers the use of the car to our ghostwriter, and it is the car, which leads him to Paul Emmett and the secret behind the death of Mike McAra.

In both films photographs provide key evidence for the investigation. In particular a photograph of long ago that reveals an important but unknown relationship: Adam Lang with Paul Emmett in The Ghost and Noah Cross with Hollis Mulwray in Chinatown. The more recent film also uses technologies not available when Chinatown was produced or set. But in both cases the investigation depends partly on information provided by individuals and partly by commercial or state institutions: public records in Chinatown and the Internet in The Ghost. Both the L.A. Water and Power Company and the Central Intelligence Agency appear as large, secretive and corrupt institutions, balefully exploiting rather than protecting the citizenry they are supposed to serve.

Chinatown

Chinatown

In particular it is the final scenes of the films that have so many common elements. Both Jake Gittes and the ghostwriter are bought down by hubris. Jake meets the chief villain Noah Cross to expose his crimes, only to be overpowered by his henchman. The ghostwriter presents his discovery of the secret to Rachel Lang, who tells Emmett and death follows. In the final sequence of Chinatown shots are fired as a car drives away, the car halts, horn sounds and a girl screams. A crowd gathers, and then we see the dead woman. As Jake is led away into the darkened and emptying street, newspapers blow across the desolate space. In The Ghost a car speeds towards the writer and us. We hear a car bump, and see concerned or shocked pedestrians run towards an ‘accident’. As the light fades the pages of a manuscript blow across the desolate space. The latter is the second major change from Harris’ book and is similar to the way that Polanski altered the original script for Chinatown by Robert Towne.

The Ghost

The Ghost

Viewers are likely to take away a similar feeling from both movies, a tragic end in failure. The powerful remain unscathed and unexposed: the innocent have died: and the well-meaning but ineffectual hero has failed in his quest. There is a telling line in Chinatown spoken by Lieutenant Escobar (Perry Lopez) to Jake Gittes, “it takes a while for a man to find himself’. The tragedy of both of these films is that the man in question fails to find himself, or at least finds himself too late.

Originally posted on ITP World.

Posted in auteurs, Film noir, Hollywood, Literature on Film | Leave a Comment »

Cathedrals of Culture, Denmark 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on November 30, 2014

The Salk Institute one of the impressive shots that recur in this film.

The Salk Institute one of the impressive shots that recur in this film.

This is a portmanteau documentary comprising six films that offer a study of a classic modern buildings.

If buildings could talk, what would they say about us?

This appears to be the brief given to the directors. What they have produced are six films that offer a portrait of a building and to a degree a study of the place of the human users within them. I found the films interesting but there was a lack of variety in the different works. The brief did seem to encourage a very similar approach even though the buildings are fairly different.

Some of them use a voice over that offers a possible impersonation of the ‘soul’ of the building. There seem to be only limited variations available for this approach. This also applied to the style – all the films rely to a degree on the moving camera, using a Steadicam. The cinematography though is frequently impressive. And the music in four of them also lacked variation. Several films used older archive footage. This was cropped to the 1.85:1 format of the film. This seems to be an unfortunate standard approach in contemporary documentary. It was less noticeable here because of the techniques employed – even so, given that architecture is about space, the cropping seemed misconstrued. The film was made for 3D but I saw it in a 2D digital version: it appears from IMDB that the project started as a sequence of short film for television. I am not sure how much difference the 2D format may make: the film was designed, at least in part, for the 3D format.

The ones I enjoyed most were art buildings – a concert hall and an opera house – the aspect of performance provided greater variation and the music was also more varied. The prison film was in some ways the most interesting, but I found the voice-over less than compelling.

The Berlin Philharmonic – directed and written by Wim Wenders [also Executive Producer for the whole film].                                                       This is the film I enjoyed most, perhaps because it was first and therefore had a sense of freshness. The film presented the modern concert hall built in the early 1960s in Berlin: close for a time to the separation wall erected by the DDR. The building is impressive and when built was a new style of concert auditorium. There were both rehearsals and performances. The film also used archive footage and interviews which provided variety and it took in the care and maintenance of the building. The theme was the relationship between architecture and culture: there were also comments relating the film to the social – less convincing.

The National Library of Russia – written and directed by Michael Glawogger.                                                                                                  This film took a rather different approach: a voice in Russian, which for the most of the film was replaced by dubbed English, read a selection of extracts from writers whose books are housed in the library. Meanwhile the camera prowled round the building from morning to dusk, picking out the staff and occasionally the users. The camera work was fine but I found the commentary rather uniform. This seemed to be the case for both the Russian and English voices: rather ironic. The range of authors whose work we heard seemed fairly varied and the unchanging tone of the reader really obscured this.

Halden Prison – written and directed by Michael Madsen.                       This modern and carefully designed prison was presented set in the snowy wastes of Norway. The film opened with a quotation from Michael Foucault where he drew the parallels between prisons and schools. Disappointingly the commentary did not really develop this angle. The film did show the situation and treatment of the prisoners, and there were some stark shots which offered an unsettlingly contrast between the consciously liberal regime and the fact of removal from society. The film did achieve a certain haunting ambience, but the commentary [spoken by the prison psychotherapist] was quite pat at times.

Salk Institute, San Diego – directed by Robert Redford, written by Anthony Lappé.                                                                                         This was one of only two films with discrete direction and writing and it had the most distinctive form among the films. Rather than a voice over commentary we had archive material interspersed with interviews of the workers at this prestigious scientific institution. The early part of the film presented the buildings, standing out in the somewhat desolate landscape. The archive material took us back to pioneering work of the founder and media responses at that time. The interviewees included two scientists and a maintenance worker. The archive material broke up the film of the building itself, though in the latter stages it did tend to the moving camera treatment seen in every one of these films.

The Oslo Opera House, written and directed by Margreth Oil.               This was the only film in which the writer/director also read out the commentary. The Opera House was an imposing building all in white. Olin commenced with shot which counterposed the celebrated structure with some of the derelict people and places found nearby. But the film failed to return to these. We still saw the familiar moving camera: and there were sequences of rehearsal for both opera and ballet. Some of the counterposing of shots suggested wry humour: something in short supply in the portmanteau film overall. And the film closed with some whimsical overlapping shots.

Céntre Pompidou, directed by Karim Ainouz and written by Deyan Sudjit.                                                                                                          This was the other film with discrete direction and writing. It also used the steadicam shots but these were more frequently cut to standing shots. We saw various aspects of the Céntre over a day, from dawn till late evening. There were performances, cinemas, concerts, exhibitions and a library. This is the only one of the buildings that I have actually visited, so I was intrigued to see parts that I recognised and parts that I had missed.

Overall I found the film somewhat repetitions: especially the recurring sequence shots and the personalised voice over. It held my interest and did provide a sense of the buildings. Not all the films provided a focus on the history of a building: something that I thought added interest. And in fact I had little sense of the Russian Library’s provenance.

One aspect that was almost completely absent was the economic. The closest we came was when Dr Salk, in an interview, replied to a question that the vaccine he developed ‘belonged to the people’.

As the film progressed I longed for a completely different and less reverent approach. I wondered what for example, we might have seen and heard if Jean-Luc Godard or in a different manner, John Akomfrah, had been included in the commission.

One moment I did enjoy was when I discovered that it appears possible to take a dog [not apparently accompanying a blind person] into the Céntre Pompidou – something the British ‘dog loving’ culture fails to allow.

 

Posted in auteurs, Documentary | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

My Darling Clementine, USA 1946.

Posted by keith1942 on November 27, 2014

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE-008-(1000003974)My Darling Clementine-008

This classic western directed by John Ford was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014. The screening used a 4K DCP, which offered excellent visual quality. The film had been digitally scanned at 4K from the Museum of Modern Art’s 35mm nitrate fine grain master. Then it was restored at 4K at Cineric Inc. with the audio track restored from a source element at Audio Mechanics. This was a demonstration of how good digital can be when the technology is set at the right level of quality and used well. A discussion on digital restorations and screenings produced the comment that 4K should be the minimum for digital cinema: something my experience of viewing confirms.

This great western, filmed in Ford’s favourite Monument Valley, makes excellent use of the landscape and vistas. This provides the setting for one of the finest performances by Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp. The Catalogue quoted Tag Gallagher; “Wyatt combines the godhead of Lincoln, the passion of Tom Joad, the directness of the Ringo Kid.” Somewhat over the top, as indeed is the film, but it aspires to and achieves mythic status. It is worth noting that two of the performances quoted are indeed by Fonda, but the third is by John Wayne. Much of the strength of the film arises from this combination of two artists, Ford and Fonda.

But it also arises from the writing – Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller: the superb cinematography by Joe Macdonald; and fine production design by James Basevi and Lyle Wheeler. The music also aspired to mythic status, and the use of the traditional song, ‘We’ll gather at the river’, is memorable.

And the quality also stems from the fine supporting cast. Walter Brennan as the Clanton patriarch is splendid. And Victor Mature as Doc Holiday has a memorable sequence in which he quotes Shakespeare: far better than the ham he is sometimes thought to be. As you might expect for the genre the women characters are less developed, but Cathy Downs is excellent as Clementine and Linda Darnell makes Chihuahua memorable.

This was one of the great pleasures of the Ritrovato week, and unsurprisingly the Arlecchino cinema was packed. The film looked great on the large screen, wide enough for scope but masked to 1.37:1. Undoubtedly this restoration will circulate in the UK in the not too distant future. My fear is that we will only get a 2K DCP. Despite there being quite a number of 4K projectors around – we have three cinemas in Leeds and at least one in nearby Bradford with this technology – the UK distributors rarely expend the effort of resources to provide this quality. Several exhibitors have told me that one requires a minimum screen size for 4K projection: 10 metres in quoted. However, Torkell Sætervadet in the FIAF Digital Projection Guide (2012) provides several pages of refutation. One aspect that gets overlooked is that digital is not just about the number of pixels – 4K offers a greater degree of dynamic contrast: and My Darling Clementine is a film with magnificent dynamic contrasts. Let us wait and hope.

 

Posted in auteurs, Festivals, Hollywood, Hollywood stars, Westerns | Leave a Comment »

Rage, Uk / USA 2009.

Posted by keith1942 on April 17, 2014

Rage 1

This is an innovative and experimental film by Sally Potter. It struck me as the most unconventional of her films since Thriller (1979), screened at the beginning of the retrospective at the Bradford International Film Festival.

A young male student, Michelangelo, conducts a series of interviews with people involved in a New York Fashion Show. He uses a digital camera and films them against a backdrop of bold changing colours. We never see the young student, we just hear the comments that the interviewees make to him and the responses to his occasional questions. We are made aware, partly by explanations from the interviewees and partly by off-screen sounds, of developments in the venue and outside.

The Fashion Show does not run according to plan. A series of deaths disrupt proceedings. They also involve a police investigation and feed into demonstrations outside the venue. As the plot develops it becomes clear that some machinations are going on. What at first seems to be an ironic take on a fashion documentary gradually assumes the guise of full-blown melodrama. The film reminded me of Mike Figgis’s Timecode (2000) in its combination of the unconventional and the melodramatic. However, this film uses a rather different set of techniques.

What strikes one most of all is the skill of the acting ensemble: though they are not really an ensemble, never appearing onscreen together. They combine relatively naturalistic characterisations with a gradual racheting up of emotion as the complications in the plotline develop.

The fairly basic camerawork and sound is extremely effective. The more so as the audience start to realise that the story is going in completely unexpected directions.

The Museum also has an exhibition of Potter portraits – shot on her digital phone – of the cat in character.

 

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

Yes, USA / UK 2004.

Posted by keith1942 on April 15, 2014

Yes USA

After the ‘diversion’ of The Man Who Cried Sally Potter returns to more familiar territory in terms of both production and content. The production companies include her regular support Adventure Pictures, other apparently independent producers and the UK Film Council. I had seen the film before, but second time round it seemed to me the best feature in the Potter retrospective at the Bradford International Film Festival.

Like Potter’s best films it is unconventional in a fairly distinctive way. The dialogue is delivered in iambic pentameters, sometimes rhyming sometimes not. Critical opinions were divided on this technique: however, I not only thought it worked well but that it bought an added dimension to characterisation and story.

Essentially the plot centres on an affair between ‘he’, a Lebanese doctor now working as a chef in London, ands ‘She’, a scientist of Irish American extraction. [Note the difference in upper and lower case!] The plot also involves She’s husband, an Ambassador played by Sam Neill. The couple share a god-daughter Grace (Stephanie Leonidas). And he has family in Beirut whilst She has a surviving aunt in Belfast (Sheila Hancock). Added into this is a cleaner (Shirley Henderson) who, in a typical Potter trope, addresses ironic comments direct to the camera. These comments both open and close the film. Commentary between the characters, at She’s home, in the kitchen where he works,  hint at wider political issues. These include Ant-Arab prejudice, anti-Irish prejudice, the explosive events in 2001, and the way that an amalgam of British culture and British based religion feed into values and attitudes.

As is common in Potter films one is aware of references to other films, other artworks and other cultures. Given the central plot device one instinctively thinks of William Shakespeare’s Othello. And indeed, some lines of dialogue reminded me strongly of that play. The resonances work because the cast deliver the verse with real brio. Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian are superb in this, as they are in the more physical scenes. There is one sequence, late in the film, set in an underground car park. One can imagine Shakespeare seizing such a setting with relish. This is an immensely powerful and moving sequence.

Potter is well served by her collaborators on the film – Alexei Rodionov on cinematography, Carlos Conti with Production Design, and Fred Frith working with Potter on the music. In fact, it was the visual and sound design that I remembered most vividly from the first screening.

The film also fits the Potter template with its resolution. One is waiting for a denouement that several times seems just around the next scene. But when it comes it works well, with a suitably ambiguous resolution.

Leslie Felperin gave the film a very positive review in Sight & Sound (August 2005). However, he also included the following comment: ‘Despite her occasional faults as a director (self-indulgence, humourless), feminist film-making icon Potter has always shown rare taste.’ The ‘self-indulgence’ is true to a degree – but what filmmaker elevated to the ranks of auteur is not? Certain one could apply the term to the winner of the most recent Sight & Sound poll. Alfred Hitchcock. The ‘humourlessness’ puzzled me more, I looked it up in a dictionary: not a lot of help. So I checked the Thesaurus: the alternatives on offer were ‘serious’ and ‘dull’. Potter’s films are full of wit an irony so I cannot imagine any experienced critics calling them dull. Serious, yes, but is that not a welcome alternative when so many ‘serious artists’ end up relying on mainstream finance? I do think that if critics watch too large a diet of mainstream films then it is likely to blunt their critical acumen.

 

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

The Man Who Cried 2000.

Posted by keith1942 on April 12, 2014

The-Man-Who-Cried-2000-

This film scripted and directed by Sally Potter seems an unintentional and ironic revisiting to a sub-plot in her previous film The Tango Lesson. In that film we see the lead character [played by Potter] negotiating with Hollywood types over a film project – she finally abandons the unequal struggle.

Unfortunately she has not followed the lesson of that film. The majority of the films in the Bradford International Film Festival’s retrospective have been fine, even brilliant. This one rather lets the side down. Whilst it is a |UK/French co-production the presence of a number of Hollywood stars firmly places the film.

I had a bad feeling about this film early on. An onscreen title read ‘Russia 1927’. Now the bourgeoisie have finished celebrating the failure of the socialist revolution in the Soviet Union it seems that they want to pretend that it never happened. As far as I could make out from the limited plot and dialogue information the setting is actually in the borderlands between the young Soviet State and the new Polish State.

The main narrative follows a young Jewish girl who, after her Cantor father emigrates to the USA, is forced to flee a pogrom. She ends up in London. In the late 1930s she moves to Paris and works as a dancer. When the Nazis arrive and start rounding up Jews she flees again. This time it is to the USA where she finally finds her lost father, the man who cries at the end of the film.

The plot and characters are fairly clichéd, with occasional fanciful touches. The young Jewess Suzie is played by Christina Ricci who seemed to me out of her depth with this character. John Turturro plays an Italian opera singer Dante and Johnny Depp plays a gypsy César: both perform creditably with fairly clichéd characters. All three are outshone by Cate Blanchett as dancer and ‘gold-digger’ Lola. Harry Dean Stanton as the father Felix was probably grateful for only having two brief onscreen appearances.

The film does have high production values. And Potter displays her skills in the use of mise en scène and music. In fact the film works best as an operatic telling. Potter is also well served by the cinematographer Sacha Vierny and Production Designer Carlo Conti. Generically it falls into a cycle of films that dramatise the European holocaust. But this is an area where I think a director like Stephen Spielberg is better equipped to present in mainstream conventions. Moreover, the film lacks the edge of a feminist critique that is usually found in Potters’ work.

I hope Sally Potter, after this experience, will remain in independent productions. She is definitely skilled at narrative features, but it is in the less conventional and even unconventional telling that I feel she is most effective. Some directors, like Steve McQueen or Jane Campion, move fairly easily between the independent and mainstream worlds of the film industry. Other artists with a very distinctive approach suffer from such a movement. One thinks of filmmakers, for example Euzhan Palcy, who made striking independent films and then found their distintive voices muzzled in the mainstream.

 

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