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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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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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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.

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

Posted by keith1942 on December 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Truth is Freedom.”

It is also a capitalist society based on commodity production.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the cycle will probably continue, a

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

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

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

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My Cousin Rachel, Britain, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on June 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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The Edge of the World Britain 1937

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Their Finest, Britain, Sweden 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Derek Jarman – 1942 to 1994.

Posted by keith1942 on April 7, 2017

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Garden’ Dungeness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources:

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

 

 

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Savage Messiah Britain 1972

Posted by keith1942 on August 10, 2016

Savage Messiah

This screening at the Hyde Park Picture was part of celebration of the film’s artistic protagonist, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in 2011. The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds was hosting an exhibition ‘Savage Messiah: The Creation of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’. We had been hoping then to hear Ken Russell introduce his film. However, he was unfortunately in hospital after suffering a ‘little’ stroke; he sadly succumbed and later died. So his friend and long-time editor Michael Bradsell introduced the film, reading out a letter from Ken’s sick- bed. He told us this was the favourite among his many fine films. It was understandable that British films foremost maverick should love a film about an early C20th artistic maverick.

The film primarily focuses on the stormy and unconventional relationship between Gaudier [Scot Antony) and Polish writer Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin). The joined surname is a symbol of their union, and Russell described one facet of it as ‘solitudes join up’, [quoting the German poet Rilke].

Michael Bradsell suggested that film had not been seen in a public screening for forty years, [the original West End release only ran five days: it was screened on television in the 1980s]. My memory of the film was that it was uneven, brilliant, but not completely so. The new screening fitted that memory. The film does depend on the central characterisation of Gaudier. Scot Antony seemed to me a one-note performance. He captures the restless and exuberant energy of youth, but not the complexity and angst that I certainly sense in Gaudier’s artistic work. But opposite him as Sophie Dorothy Tutin is magnificent. Her Sophie is contradictory, emotional, passionate, critical and obsessive. I felt that the best scenes in the film were when she was fully involved.

savage_messiah_sophie

Henri and Sophie are [I believe] the only historical characters in the film. Gaudier was involved with British Vorticism, a movement also enjoying renewed interest at that moment. Russell and his screenwriter Christopher Logue created a set of fictional characters embodying some [but not all] of the characteristics of this artistic group. Their particular brand of experimentalism provided a grand opportunity for the sort of camp display that Russell so enjoyed. These included two visits to The Vortex club where their unconventional behaviour and performance were gloriously dramatised. This group also included an early film outing for Helen Mirren (‘Gosh’ Smith-Boyle], outlandish but performed with great assurance.

The screenplay was developed from a biography of Gaudier by H. S. Ede. This provided the title of the film: it also used the many letters between Henri and Sophie to develop their story. This effectively provided continuing and illuminating dialogue on the up and downs of their relationship and of his art.

The film offers two major settings, Paris and London. I found the Paris sequence fairly unconvincing; [the locations all appear to be English]. However, when the poverty-stricken couple cross the channel the film improves immeasurably. The focus in London is Gaudier’s Putney studio, a basement where a grill at eye-level, running the entirety of this long room, looks out on the street. Russell uses this as a canvas on which past the rapidly developing social events of the day. This is a rather theatrical device, but one which Russell [as in other films] delivers in beautiful cinematic form. The camera work is extremely good: apparently shot mostly in natural light by Dick Bush. The dark and shadowy basement is frequently illuminated by the wider world of the street. And there is the memorable design work of Derek Jarman.

It is in the basement that we see most of Gaudier’s artistic endeavour, especially the sculptures for which he is famous. Russell captures the effort and the energy that produced his work. There is less sense of his artistic purpose and philosophy, though there are a couple of monologues where he does expound his ideas. So the film captures the visual rather than the mental state of this artist.

Apparently Russell and his collaborators reworked Gaudier’s biography fairly freely in their dramatisation. He arrived in London in 1911. By 1915 he went off to the trenches of World War I where was he killed. The film presents this as a contradictory response to the devastation of the war: apparently the actual Gaudier was quite gung-ho about supporting the war, certainly in keeping with Vorticism and its major influence Futurism. His death is followed by a posthumous exhibition of his works, with the camera focusing on the many, varied and innovative sculptures. This sequence is intercut with the grieving Sophie. And the final shot shows her standing by a massive, unfinished sculpture in the studio. It is a beautiful visual image to close to a powerful film.

Savage_Messiah_sculpting

Whilst it is a film of light and shadows, it is not all doom and gloom. There is a delightful scene where Sophie serenades a dinner party with a pseudo-folk song. In another sequence Henri and Sophie explore and romance among the piles of stones at Portland. A night scene in a cemetery shows Gaudier and his friends purloining a marble for a sculpture: a scene, which takes us back to Russell much earlier work on the Pre-Raphaelites. And at the start of the film Gaudier drapes himself round a stature to the consternation of Parisians and the police. This last reminded me of the opening of Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), not the sort of reference I usually associate with Russell.

The qualities of the film certainly outshine its limitations. And the print, restored with assistance from the Institute, looked really good and showed up well on the big screen. Hopefully, its availability would temp more exhibitors to offer screenings of this important film. And then we might also get to see again Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971). In fact I have seen both the latter films again since 2011 but there has been no further sign of Savage Messiah.

Producer and director: Ken Russell. Screenplay: Christopher Logue from the book by H. S. Ede. Photography: Dick Bush. Editor: Michael Bradsell. Production designer: Derek Jarman. Music: Michael Garratt. UK 1972, 100 minutes. In Metrocolor.

Originally posted on ITP World.

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Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach Britain 2016

Posted by keith1942 on June 10, 2016

ken-loach-001-with-camera-1920x1080-00m-ors

The film was produced by Sweet Sixteen films and funded by the BBC. It involved Loach’s regular collaborators producer Rebecca O’Brien and writer Paul Laverty. For a change Ken Loach appears in front of the camera rather than behind it. One strong features of the film is Ken’s explanations and comments, always interesting, often provocative. There are also a number of excerpts from a long interview with Tony Garnett, Ken’s collaborator and a major influence on the filmmaker. Garnett is given the space to talk at some length on Loach and his work and his comments are interesting and pertinent. Much of the film was shot during the filming of Ken’s new film, the winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, I, Daniel Blake. There is a certain amount of biography but the film’s main focus is the television and film work directed [and occasionally produced] by Loach. The coverage is fairly comprehensive, from Ken’s early days in BBC television to the recent series of films that have appeared almost annually in this century.

Whilst Ken Loach shoots his film chronologically, this study uses a varied time frame. There are also edits from filmed material like interviews to location footage. Some of this works well, as with the cut from the account of the suppression of Perdition to fog shrouded streets. However, some of it slightly puzzled me. Why do the team feature Ken’s early work as an theatre actor when we had reach the films of the late 1990s?

The film does address the controversial aspects of Ken’s films. There are extended discussions of a number of cause celebre’s. There is Cathy Come Home (1966) and, interestingly, there are excerpts from a television ‘balancing’ discussion chaired by Cliff Michelmore. There is discussion of Up the Junction and Nell Dunn is one of the interesting voices at this point. There are also features on the television films Rank and File and [particularly] The Big Flame (1969). One does get a sense of both the radicalism of these films and the controversy that they sparked. However, Days of Hope [equally important] is only treated briefly. There is also time spent on Ken’s early film work, especially Kes and Poor Cow. The problems in the early 1980s with television censorship over Questions of Leadership and Which Side are you On? get proper space. And it was refreshing to hear Melvyn Bragg owning up to the actual factors in the suppression of the latter, rather than the euphemisms that were trotted out at the time. There is a particular focus on the suppression of the stage production Perdition (1987) at the Royal Court. The abuse of the term anti-semitic at the time shows that not everything has changed over the intervening years. There is a well judged set of comments on this by Gabriel Byrne. Also welcome at this point in the film are several short clips of Jim Allen, such an important collaborator with Loach and a major writing voice for film and television of the period.

There are quite a lot of other voices in the film. There are only brief comments included from Rebecca O’Brien and Paul Laverty, without whom Ken’s recent output would not have appeared. At times some of these voices felt rather like the ‘talking heads’ found on television. There are some interviews with Loach’s family members, but they are cut with film extracts and do not get the attention they deserve. I felt that the television style was apparent in other ways, so that there is a tendency to have voices overlapping film extracts, but not always with any clear connection. And when we come to the chain of films, starting with Hidden Agenda in 1991, there is not the same depth of discussion. Some of the films sequences felt more like trailers than studies: this is true of the really important Land and Freedom (1995).

Land and Freedom

Land and Freedom

The latter relates to an omission in the film. Derek Malcolm appears briefly at one point and comments how Ken Loach enjoys a greater appreciation in continental Europe than in the UK. But this is not explored. There are several passages where the film includes footage of political events, such as the accession of Maggie Thatcher as Prime Minister. But there is not really an equivalent treatment of the European dimension, with the exception of the events in Paris in May 1968. Whilst Ken’s films are distinctly British there is also an important European dimension, witness that his major Cannes Awards have been for films with that focus.

We do see/hear a mention of the Czech ‘new wave’, when Chris Menges is interviewed. There are also clips from A Blonde in Love / Lásky jedné plavovlásky (1965). The distinctive style of this film is well versed as is the influence on Loach. He selected a clip from the above film as his contribution to the BBC’s celebration of the centenary year of 1995. However, there are other influences which are overlooked. Notable would be the influence of a long tradition for social realism and actuality filming in the British Film Industry. Apart from the documentary influence there are filmmaker like the Boulting Brothers or Alberto Cavalcanti in the 1940s and 1950s. These had an influence on British television. Garnett and Loach do comment on the ‘new wave’ in television in the 1960s, but there was much and varied experimentation at the BBC and at ITV in that decade. There is an interesting contrast to be drawn between Loach and  another filmmakers at the BBC [for a very short time]  Peter Watkins.

Equally this film is low on the form and style of Loach’s work. There is the reference to his working chronologically, and a number of actors/performers comment on his approach to their work. The film is scripted by Paul Laverty, though it is not clear how much his work has been changed. Certainly his screenplays allow for lengthy and often discursive sequences, where as this film is long on editing, montages and cross-cutting. And there is no mention of the emphasis that Loach places on the script, a point he has made in several earlier interviews. Then there are the cinematic techniques, the tendency to the long shot and the long take: the tendency to linger on a character or setting after the overt plot significance has passed.

In fact one oddity is that this film is shot in 2.39:1 [some screens will show 2.35:1]. No Loach film has used this ratio. His early films were in television’s 4:3, i.e. 1.37:1. Some of are in 1.66:1 and more recently in 1.85:1. A friend thought that the production picked 2.35:1 because it seemed more cinematic. This however, does not apply to the sequences from Loach ‘s own films. They are uniformly cropped. Sometimes this is more noticeable than others: heads only half seen and similar problems. There is one ironic moment when Garnett comments about some television footage and a grandiose ministerial room, which cannot be seen because the top of the frame is gone. Apart from the mistreatment of film footage this is a grave disservice to the many talented cinematographer who have worked with Ken Loach: Tony Imi, Chris Menges, Barry Ackroyd, to name only those who worked with him a on number of films. Roger Chapman’s cinematography for Versus:… is very good, with some striking shots at times, but the widescreen frame seems anomalous.

ken-loach_420

This documentary is actually weak on the whole collaborative form of Loach’s filmmaking. The approach is to treat Ken as an ‘auteur’. I feel this is a misnomer. He is really a metteur en scène, though unfortunately that word has acquired a value judgement since its use by Cahier du cinéma. But it applies in the sense that whilst there are recognisable themes and a familiar style in his films, this develops out of the collaboration. Jim Allen and Paul Laverty in particular have an immense input through their writing. Tony Garnett was mentor, both in terms of drama and in terms of politics. And cinematographers, in particular Chris Menges, contributed to the style that has become a hall mark. There is little from Rebecca O’Brien, his long-time producer. We only see her in the footage of the production of I, Daniel Blake: and most of this looks more like a ‘making of…’ than contributing to a profile.

The BBFC have given the film a 12A with a note regarding ‘infrequent strong language’. My sensitivities may be weakened but all I noted was a final ‘bastards’ from Ken. Given the illegitimacy of the whole political class this seems to me an apt comment. Another slight oddity is a short interview with Alan Parker in which he seems to confuse The Wild One (1953) with Rebel Without a Cause (1955). You would have expected the filmmakers to give him a repeat take. And one publicity listing gave Robert Carlyle as ‘himself’ when he only appears in a clips from Riff Raff (19921) and Carla’s Song (1996).

 

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