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Sorry We Missed You, Britain 2019

Posted by keith1942 on November 22, 2019

This is the new title from Ken Loach and his regular scriptwriter Paul Laverty. As with the last title, I, Daniel Blake (2016), the production offers a bleak view of another burden falling on the working class. This title also is set in Newcastle upon Tyne, but this time it is a family rather than a single individual that provides the focus.

Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) and his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) live in rented accommodation with their two children, Seb (Rhys Stone) and Lisa Jane (Katie Proctor). Abby works for a sub-contractor to the NHS as a carer to a number of home-bound patients: two senior citizens, a young man with learning difficulties, and a middle-aged woman with a disability. There are likely others we do not see,

Ricky has been out of work for some time though he claims that he has not signed on. He is desperate to work but also he also wants to improve the family situation: specifically by finding the money to obtain their own house. Seb is in the last year at school but alienated from both education and adult society. He hangs round with a group of friends who are on the edge of legality in their activities. Lisa is the youngest; she takes after her mother and is more stable than Seb.

The film opens with a blank screen and the sound of two voices. The image appears and Ricky is being interviewed by a manager at a Delivery firm depot. As the latter explains the terms of the work, labelled self-employment, there is already an ominous sense of where this may lead. Ricky is neither the type of character nor in a situation where he is able to be properly critical of the contract on offer.

It is the merit of Paul Laverty’s screenplay that the premonitions this engenders for an audience do not materialise in a conventional manner.. The narrative not only presents the extremely exploitative nature of the work Ricky performs but also relates this to the problems and tensions within the family. To start with Ricky has to provide a van and he pressurises Abby to sell her car to provide a deposit. This means that she has to use public transport to visit a number of clients who seem to be some way apart, lengthening her working day.

Whilst Ricky owns the van the working arrangements mean that he is tied to a long day, with electronic supervision through the gadget that he must carry at all times. This is a relentless work schedule, with time of delivery set, lots of driving, and often unhelpful or absent recipients.. One occasion when Ricky tries to outmaneuvre a parking warden so he can make a quick delivery offers an example of this brutal work timetable. On another occasion, when Lisa accompanies him for the day, they have a charming moment of rest, sitting looking out over a pleasant landscape. Then the timer on the gadget calls Ricky back to the cab and work.

So both Ricky and Abby are working long hours and therefore absent from their children. We see Lisa and Seb on a number of occasions at home alone, with Lisa making their meals and coping without parents. It is a sign of Lisa’s greater stability that she is seen rousing the unwilling Seb so he is not late for school.

The downward spiral suggested at the opening does result. However, it does so in unexpected ways and with a sense of naturalism that is always one of the strengths of Ken Loach’s film-making. And his cast of characters are convincing and more complex than is the norm in British realist cinema. Chris Hitchen conveys well the driven desperation of Ricky. Debbie Hollywood has the more empathetic role, as the mainstay of the family and as a sympathetic carer. She delivers this with warmth and commitment. Katie Proctor is good as Lisa, seemingly mature beyond her years. Rhys Stone catches the volatile and sometimes erratic behaviour of the teenage Seb. However, this character does not convince in the same way. The changes from his warmth in the family at a meal-time does not quite fit with his later volatile and erratic behaviour. When a rare family meal occurs he is a warm member of the event. But this seems a long way from his malicious prank when his phone is threatened.

There are few characters outside side the family and none of them are fully developed. Their main function is to provide the plot development that impact on the family. The manager at the depot is convincing as a manipulator who must keep the workforce on track and on time. He seems approachable but when the rules require he is completely ruthless. Ricky’s only apparent friend is a colleague at the Depot who appears to fit into the requirements easily. We do see, briefly, another driver, who violently confronts the manager when the ruthless regime is imposed. But this passes with little seeming impact.

We see Abby’s clients’ on several occasion. They provide the needs which demonstrate her caring warmth and devotion. An audience is likely to wonder about other clients whose carers are less dedicated. We do see a school friend of Lisa and we see Seb together with his group, but in neither case are characters developed.

This tight focus leads to a number of limitations in the narrative. In ‘I, Daniel Blake’ a viewer encountered different examples of the state bureaucracy. Here the exploiting class has only one representative, the Depot manager. At one point he explains to Ricky the rationale of his management. He claims that the ‘depot’ is a golden example in the chain, with high rates of accuracy in deliveries. Unsaid is the cost to the workforce of his regime. In that sense the viewer is left to draw conclusions about the profitability of Ricky’s stressful job. One reviewer remarked how this film does not have one of the Loachian tropes; a sequence where the politics of the situation are discussed. In the famous BBC production, Days of Hope (1975), the role of capital and the state were clearly describe and analysed. I doubt that a substantial part of the audience will consider that relationship during this film. One can be appalled at the exploitation but think this is an aspect of particularly exploitative company or ‘the gig economy. In a similar fashion ‘I, Daniel Blake’ could suggest an uncaring bureaucracy without pointing to the role of state agencies in disciplining labour for capital.

The tight focus on the family means that we do not see a working class community. This is similar to the presentation of I, Daniel Blake where a constructed family is centre.  It is generally accepted that the traditional working class communities have, to a degree, fragmented. But they do still exist and there are newer ethnic communities in today’s Britain. The recent Loach films have privileged northern settings where identifiable working class communities can still be seen, always a tendency in the output. The early Laverty scripts had a sense of community. But this has not been maintained in recent films. The strongest communities were is period films like Jimmy’s Hall (2014), set in Eire in the 1930s.

In one way we are back to Ken Loach’s initial features like Cathy Come Home (1966) or Kes (1969), with a couple or individual alienated from a community by circumstance. But there are other films where the community is central to the narrative. Riff-Raff (1991)has a working community.

The latter film also exemplifies another absence, the organised working class; in that film autonomous. This too has suffered decline in recent decades but it remains a force in Britain. The gig economy represented in the film suffers from an absence of organisation for the workers; but the case of Uber drivers demonstrates that this can change. And an earlier title like Looking for Eric (2009)demonstrated the use of both community and working class organisation.

One factor in these absences is Loach choice of pitching his films in the mainstream mode, even if at its peripheries. Thus the films offer a limited number of key characters. Their story is centred around their actions and the actions upon them. The narrative tends to the linear and actions are clearly motivated. Loach rarely uses flashbacks or include reflexive sequences. His films are didactic; a point that repeatedly annoys bourgeois critics. The features are melodramas of protest, usually ending not in victory but at least in the torch of resistance being passed on. But a number are more properly described as melodramas of defeat, and the ending of Sorry We Missed You, while not closure, does suggest defeat.

It is instructive to remember the input by the sadly deceased Jim Allen. His Land and Freedom (1995) is a period piece to which The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) can be favourably compared. But the earlier Hidden Agenda (1990)treats of the colonial issue, in the north of Eire, from a contemporary point of view. And Days of Hope has an overt political dimension that is more potent than in any other Loach work. It was also a period drama but it relevance was clear from the attacks in the series, including the dubious honour a Times editorial. Along with other Allen scripts, such as for ‘The Wednesday Play’ like ‘The Lump’ (1967) and ‘The Big Flame’ (1969), it now seems that the early television work was more radical than the recent feature films; ironic in that Loach gave up on television because of censorship.

Ken Loach and his colleagues do produce films that provide and accurate and authentic representation of a common working class experience in the C21st. They do so with passion, warmth and attention to detail: whilst never mentioned in the dialogue the Turner house suffers [among other problems] from damp, the patches clearly visible on the walls in the large screen. And in a contrasting touch the stairwell is decorated with the family photographs taken mainly by Abby. In a complex plotting these same photographs dramatise the family tensions which clearly arise from their economic position. Whilst the political presentation is limited in a number of ways this film, like others by the company, are the powerful representations of contemporary working class life.

The film was shot by Loach’s now regular and excellent cinematographer Robbie Ryan. In is filmed in the typical Loach manner with much use of a long lens; sometimes producing a rather flat canvas but with a good depth of field. It is also shot on 35mm/super 16 but disappointing is only circulated in a digital transfer. But the quality of the chromatography shows through as does the attention to setting, editing and sound design. This is another remarkable milestone in a career now stretching back over fifty years. And it is a title that repays seeing it in a theatrical setting.

 

 

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Rosa Luxembourg / Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg, Germany 1986

Posted by keith1942 on January 22, 2019

This is one of four films directed by Margarethe von Trotta being distributed in Britain by the Independent Cinema Office. The programme is titled ‘The Personal is Political – the films of Margarethe von Trotta’. The standpoint presented in this title has some justification. In her films von Trotta most frequently focuses on a female protagonist and presents their life [or part of it] by intertwining personal experiences with social and political events. However, I would counter to this a stance of ‘the political is personal’. I do this because whilst the films portray personal relationships the stories von Trotta uses are [to varying degrees] taken from historical events. In this way the social contradictions which made these stories prominent enough to justify a commercial film structure both the public and personal events involving the characters. This film, both a biography and a celebration of one of the outstanding revolutionaries of the early C20th, seems to me clearly to demonstrate such a relationship between the political and the personal.

The film, written and directed by von Trotta, has a complex and non-linear structure. On its release critics noted [and often complained about] the difficulties of making sense of such a narrative. I think this was more noted outside of Germany. One audience member at a recent screening was seeing the film for a second time and remarked that he followed it more easily this time as he had greater knowledge of the context and background of the film’s story. Indeed when the film was released in Britain,

“The Press handout implicitly recognises this by including a helpful chronology of Rosa’s life and substantial historical background.” (Pam Cook’s review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1986).

For the same reason I set out here the chronology of the film.

It opens in 1916 with Rosa in a German prison.

Following the opening credits the film cuts a Polish prison in Warsaw in 1906.

There follows a flashback showing Rosa, and her lover Leo, arriving in Poland a year earlier; with the 1905 Revolution in Russia under way.

The film cuts to 1899 as Leo joins Rosa in Berlin.

We then witness a New Year celebration at the dawn of 1900 by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands – SPD).

The film returns to 1906, still in Berlin, and Rosa’s relationship with the leaders of the SPD and her personal relationship with Leo.

By 1907 Rosa has moved to the left of many of the SPD leaders, including her former mentor Karl Kautsky. And her relationship with Leo changes after she learns of his affair with another communist woman.

By 1913 Rosa has become a leader of a ‘left fraction’ in the SPD. Opposing ‘revolution’ to ‘reformism’. She has begun a relationship with, Kostja, the son of her friend Clara Zetkin. And she meets Paul Levi, a lawyer and to become another lover. She is tried by the German Authorities for ‘inflammatory behaviour’ in her opposition to the coming European war.

In 1914 she is working with Karl Liebknecht, another anti-imperialist war revolutionary. But the SPD supports the 1914 war by voting credits in the German parliament.

In 1916 Rosa is arrested and imprisoned. On release she and Liebknecht found The Spartacist League (Spartakusbund).

By 1916 she is back in prison where she remains till the end of the war. We see her visited by friends, in particular Liebknecht’s partner Sonya.

On release in 1918 she and Liebknecht, supported by Leo and others, return to revolutionary activity. Revolutionary actions by the German working class force an end to the war and the declaration of a republic with the SPD taking power. At this point the film interweaves it fictionalised portrayal [in colour] with black and white archive film from the period.

An uprising, led by the Spartacists, [who at the start of 1919 became the Communist Party of Germany / Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands] is suppressed by the Government using right-wing volunteer militia, the Freikorps, [proto-fascist organisation]. Rosa and Liebknecht are murdered. Rosa body is thrown in a Berlin canal.

The film ends though Rosa ‘s body was later recovered and given a proper burial.

This cutting back and forth can be followed but the actual period and characters have to be either recognised or surmised. It is only after several scenes in which she appears that Clara Zetkin is identified by her full name. Other characters like Karl Kautsky or August Bebel are identified by name and the dialogue gives a sense of their relevance to the events. But organisations such as the Second International, which Rosa attends at one point, probably need the viewer to already understand where they fit in events and political contest.

Rosa Luxemburg in 1918

An important point to note about the narrative is what of Rosa’s life and activism is left out. Thus the narrative presents Rosa when she is already involved in the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (Socjaldemokracja Królestwa Polskiego i Litwy – both under Czarist rule) and the SPD. We only see her early years in two brief flashbacks, one with her studying a flower with her mother, and the other teaching reading to her nanny. The cause of her lifelong limp [a hip ailment in childhood] is unexplained as is the point that the family was Jewish. The latter occasioned epithets directed at her by enemies just as was the case with Leon Trotsky. One important facet that is missing is that Rosa became active in revolutionary politics whilst she was till a school student. And her sojourn and studies in Zurich is only noted in the dialogue. Another important point that is missing is her marriage [of convenience] in 1897 in order to obtain German citizenship. And whilst the film identifies her relationships with Leo and Kostja, that with Paul Levi has to be surmised from his behaviour. The oddest omission for me was almost no reference to Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. The former is named once by Paul Levi. The latter do not get a single mention. Given both the common standpoints on imperialist wart and the impact of the Russian revolution on The Spartacist League, this is a serious omission. Rosa actually met Lenin in London in 1907 at a Russian Social Democrats Party Conference. Whilst this is mentioned in the dialogue, neither the title nor an explanation is provided.

This serious overlooking of people and influences of central importance to Rosa seems to be part of a deliberate playing down of the Marxism which was her political ;philosophy. In her struggles with the SPD there are references to her emphasis on the importance of organisation and of the General Strike; also of the need for the proletarians to control and push forward the Party leadership. But the content of this, set out noticeably in her 1900 article, ‘Reform or Revolution’ is missing. From 1913 the emphasis shifts to her opposition to the war. This is presented as capitalist but also militarist, so that the way that Rosa, along with Lenin, held to the prescriptions of Marx and Engels is not clearly set out. This seemed to me to result from a strategy of emphasizing Rosa Luxembourg as a feminist icon and pioneer. This is clearly problematic and the film has to recognise [in a comment to Clara Zetkin] that Rosa saw the struggle around gender as subordinate to that of class. But the emphasis in the plotting and characters continually emphasises Rosa’ work and friendship with other women, especially Clara and Sonja. Within the SPD her opponents are all men. Whilst Leon, Karl and Paul are all men who support her political standpoint; Leo is partially discredited by his affair and Karl by the film presenting his initiating of the Spartacist uprising as opportunist. The latter misrepresents both the events and Rosa’s standpoint. We do see French socialist, Jean Jaurès, making an anti-war speech but he is not actually identified. And, as noted, the most important revolutionary figure of the period, Lenin, is absent.

Pam Cook, in a very good review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, comments on the relationship between the political and personal;

“In effect, von Trotta has fictionalised Rosa Luxemburg, creating from real events of her life an idealised figure. This is particularly evident in the many sequences devoted to Rosa’s brilliantly evocative public speeches, which stand as spectacular ‘performances’ in their own right, almost like set-pieces in a musical bio-pic; and in the way Rosa’s actual words, painstakingly culled from her many letters and other writings, are abstracted from context and translated into intimate scenes with her cat, her woman friends, her family or her lovers.”

But Pam Cook also notes how the contradictions in this film and in its subject ‘strain’ the fictionalising process. This is apparent if we compare the film with a more conventional biopic of a revolutionary, Warren Beatty’s’ John Reed in ‘Reds’ (1981). The witnesses in that film are unidentified and their political viewpoint abstracted. In a scene where John Reed explains his politics to Louise Bryant he fails to finish a single complete sentence as several hours are transformed with ellipses into about five minutes, And, at the film’s end, this revolutionary internationalist is depicted as another homesick ‘American’. Rose Luxemburg avoids such failures. And the complexities of what is essentially an ‘art film’ treatment of the political bio-pic renders the narrative tapestry reflexive in a way that encourages viewers to notice those contradictions emerging in the fissures of the text. So the non-linear narrative produces a complex story telling. Whilst the political standpoints in the film are limited they are explicit, something that is fairly rare in commercial cinema.

One of the aspects that the film presents is the contradiction between the relative bourgeois life style of the leadership in the SPD and the proletarian situation of the mass of their members. In fact we only see proletarians in the prisons, as an audience in the public meetings where Rosa and others speechify, and at the end in the combat as the Spartacists battle the representatives of the German state. The film does not explicitly draw attention to the gulf that exists, but it is evident in the mise en scêne. The household of Bebel and Kautsky appear fairly affluent and they both have servants. The apartments that are used by Rosa and Leo and by Rosa and Kostja are also very comfortably furnished and ample in size. Rosa too has a maid and, later, a secretary. But the latter is called to participate in a political meeting by Rosa. This is an aspect of the film that demonstrates the importance of the contributions of the craft colleagues of von Trotta.

Music by Nicolas Economou

Cinematography by Franz Rath

Film Editing by Dagmar Hirtz, Galip Iyitanir

Set Decoration by Stepan Exner, Bernd Lepel

Costume Design by Monika Hasse

Make-up Department Bernd-Rüdiger Knoll

plus their colleagues working with them.

The film recreates the period with what seems to be great accuracy and detail. Sets range from the dark forbidding prisons to the comfortable households of the leaders to public halls where events are held and, at the film’s end, both the streets and the offices where the Spartacist organise and fight.

The cinematography is excellent. Varying from the noirish gloom of the prions to the bright, colourful public spectacles and, finally, the dark and dank resting place of Rosa’s corpse.

The visual detail in the film is impressive. There is one fine long shot of Rosa framed and dwarfed by the monumental Reichstag building as she leaves after the the SPD has betrayed the revolution and voted in the Reichstag for war credits. But the shots are not only dramatic but also ironic and even slightly humorous. The pre-credit sequence shows Rosa walking back and forth in a German prison with snow on the ground. She is first followed and then accompanied by a blackbird, who hops along in the snow.

The brutality and sadism of the reactionary state forces is clearly presented in the film. At the start we watch as women revolutionaries are distraught at the execution of male revolutionaries by the Polish military. This is followed by a mock execution of Rosa before an interrogation. At the film’s climax Liebknecht and Rosa are taken by the Freikorps, knocked unconscious and then shot. The reactionary hatred displayed to the revolutionaries by the right-wing militia and their supporters is clear.

In the closing sequences the film uses archive film to presents the revolutionary ferment that forced an end to the German war actions and then set the scene for a German revolution, which unfortunately failed. This is is well cut into the fictionalised representation and bring an elan to the drama. It is slightly unfortunate that this archive film has been reframed to fit the film ‘s own ratio, 1.66:1.

Rosa Luxemburg is a flawed and in some ways contradictory film. It shows the limitations of von Trotta political approach to film drama but also the way that the stories that she tells break free from some of the limitations of her approach. But I do not know of nay other filmic treatment of Luxemburg. She is both influential and frequently portrayed in literature, drama, painting, and music. It is a real credit that von Trotta has essayed this treatment. The screenings organised by the Independent Cinema Office included a short introduction by von Trotta herself. She explained that a fellow German film-maker and radical, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, originally planned a film treatment on Luxemburg and wrote a script. This was titled ‘Rosa L’ and was, apparently, found by his body after his death. One source suggests that he wanted Romy Schneider to play Rosa, another Jane Fonda; either suggesting a very different approach for that in von Trotta’s film. Von Trotta herself worked out her own script after a lengthy study of the sources on Luxemburg.

The British release [though limited] is opportune. 1919 sees the centenary of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. A memorial demonstration was held in Berlin on the anniversary, January 14th. Luxemburg remains an iconic presence in revolutionary history. Her writings are still published and republished. Her ‘Reform or Revolution’ is major text; read it with the capitalist crisis of 208 in min d, and see its relevance. Both Lenin and Trotsky, both of whom disagreed with some of her work, were full of praise for her.

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Films by Margarethe von Trotta

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2019

This is a package of films from the important German film-maker distributed round Britain at the start of 2019 by the Independent Cinema Office with support from the Goethe-Institut London and German Screen Studies Network. This is a welcome initiative. Some of the titles, such as Rosa Luxembourg (1986), are rarely seen. Some, like The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981), have not been available theatrically for years. The films are circulated in new digital versions; but German digital transfer are usually very good. What I find less happy is the title of the programme, ‘the personal is political’. This seems to me back-to-front; von Trotta’s films actually suggest that the ‘political is personal’.

 

 

In The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1975, co-directed with Volker Schlöndorf) the titular character becomes a victim of tabloid journalism. Whilst this results from a personal relationship what fuels her persecution by the media and the authorities is her supposed political connections. The focus of the film these reactionary aspects of West German culture.

 

 

One can see this in von Trotta’s first solo feature, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages / Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (1978). The protagonist Christa is a young mother involved in running a free nursery. It is the problems of the nursery that lead to her actions, some of these being criminal. The film certainly addresses motherhood but this is in a social context. At one point in the film Christa and her friend hide out in Portugal where they work in an agricultural commune. It is this type of political and social context that dominates the film.

 

 

The political and social context is just as prominent tin her next film, one of my favourites, The German Sisters. Dramatizing in fictional form aspects of the famous/infamous Red Army Faction. One sister, Juliane, is a feminist journalist; the other, Marianne, is a member of a revolutionary faction committed to armed action. Their relationship, the travails and disputes that arise, all follow from their political rather than their personal positions. The film indeed dramatizes female relationships and [again] motherhood but this is within the political discourses in which the two sisters reside.

 

 

The fourth film is Rosa Luxemburg. This is a biopic of one of the outstanding revolutionaries of the early twentieth century. Luxemburg is a feminist icon and she fought against the patriarchal tendencies within the revolutionary movement. But her driving force was the class struggle and proletarian revolution. The way that she utilised bourgeois marriage is indicative of a stance that prioritises the political over the personal. The characterisation of Luxemburg emphasises the revolutionary standpoint, that the political informs the personal rather than the other way round. Luxembourg prioritised the class struggle over the struggle round gender. Whereas ‘the personal is political’ often tends to prioritise gender over class.

I am looking forward to revisiting these fine films by von Trotta. Apart from her undoubted cinematic and narrative skills this film director is unusual [in contrast to the majority of male and female film directors] in skilfully integrating fine film-making and story telling with the central political issues of our time.

Rosa Luxemburg is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House on January 15th.

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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).

 

Posted in British films, Documentary, Film Directors, UK filmmakers | 1 Comment »

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, Belgium, France 1975

Posted by keith1942 on April 14, 2016

Son and mother

Son and mother

Over the last year A Nos Amours have made available several films by Chantal Ackerman who died in 2015. None of these reached Leeds unfortunately. However in 2013 this film was screened at the Leeds International Film Festival on a 35mm print. It is an almost flawless masterpiece. I write flawless because it seemed to me that the film perfectly captures the intent of its writer and director Chantal Ackerman. It is a film where the distinction that we usually make between form and content is almost redundant, because they are in complete synchrony.

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

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

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

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

Domestic labour

Domestic labour

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

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

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

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

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

The screening used a fairly good 35mm print, with only a few noticeably worn sections. So it showed off the production skills of Babette Mangolte’s cinematography, Patricia Canino’s editing and Alain Marchall’s sound editing.

Along with the films A Nos Amours arranged an exhibition of Ackerman’s Installations.

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A Taste of Honey Britain 1961

Posted by keith1942 on April 2, 2016

Taste of poster

This screening of the film was part of the work and research of a project at University College London – Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s. It was a real pleasure to revisit this film, which now looks like one of the finest features of the New British Cinema. This was a good 35mm print: neither dupe nor dark. The film does rely on extensive locations, and some of these – on dismal days or at night – are grey or shadowy.

The film was adapted by Tony Richardson, the director, and Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the original and very fine play. The film follows the play fairly closely, but fills out the story with sequences that are ‘off-stage’ in the theatre. So the film opens with a pre-credit sequence which introduces the protagonist Jo (Rita Tushingham) at her school, where she is in her final year. Then we meet her mother Helen (Dora Bryan) at their bedsit as she prepares for a ‘moonlight flit’. The scenes set up the central characters of the film. There is then a sequence behind the credits travelling across central Manchester, with a number of the city’s landmarks visible.

The film returns to central Manchester later when we see Jo, and her prospective friend Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin) watching the annual city Roman Catholic Parade. There are also scenes at the Blackpool resort; at the shoe shop where Jo works for a period; in Public Houses where Helen is in her element; at the car dealers where her boyfriend Peter Smith (Robert Stephens) works: and in a ballroom, that recurring setting in British films of this and earlier decades. And there are distinctive sequences set on and around the Manchester Ship Canal. Most of the urban centres are in Salford, where Jo and Geoffrey live.

Jo, Geoffrey and the Manchester Ship Canal

Jo, Geoffrey and the Manchester Ship Canal

What stands out at a viewing are the performances. 18 year old Rita Tushingham is a delight to behold. In the pre-credit sequence we see her in a class at the school and her behaviour and actions set up the character for the subsequent story. She is the centre of the film, and there are innumerable scenes with memorable delivery of dialogue or of carefully nuanced movement and expressions. She has a great smile but she also offers evocative stances and positioning. So in the class room, as she regales her fellow students, the use of her body, arms and stance all contribute to the personality. And the supporting cast is excellent. Dora Bryan turns in a performance as Helen which is full of panache and exuberance, her bubbly persona reminiscence of the music hall. Murray Melvin as Geoffrey is excellent, suggesting the fine line around sexual orientation which was almost completely absent from British film at this time. He is slightly camp but is also able to introduce the note of both anger and pathos. And Robert Stephens’ performance as the rather callow boyfriend was better than I remembered, the class is not quite right but the seediness is apt. There is also Paul Danquah in a minor role as the sailor-cum-cook who has a brief relationship with Jo. His blackness is another distinctive feature for the period. Frequently surrounding these are a group of children who play and sing in many of the exteriors. Presumably local Salford children they are completely convincing. Which reminds one of what a good director of actors was Tony Richardson.

The production overall is excellent. The structure of the film combines the freshness of the original drama with definitive cinematic quality. This seems the most assured of the film that Richardson directed in this period. Visually the film is a delight to watch. Much of the film was shot on location. The cinematographer, Walter Lassally, at the same time captures the state of the run-down Salford area with beautifully composed shots of the urban landscape. There is one memorable series of shots near a viaduct which is not only visually impressive but captures the élan of Jo and Geoffrey as they discuss their place in this world.

Taste of Honey

The film also has a very good soundtrack, full of interesting location noise. The music by Richard Addinsell is evocative and often lyrical Inserted are a series of children’s songs and rhymes, like ‘The Big Ship Sails on the Ally Ally o’ at the film’s opening. My memory of the film was that it softened slightly the original play. However, I have revisited this in a BBC Radio production. And now I feel that the film does capture the play’s lyrical qualities but also its rather more downbeat ruminations. The film ends with a fine visual addition; we see Geoffrey in the shadows, Helen having retuned to Jo’s rather ramshackle room; and Jo herself watching a Guy Fawkes fire whilst the children sing. This ambiguous closure is as good as any other sequence in the film.

After the screening there was Q&A cum discussion as the project team encouraged the audience to remember aspect of cinema-going in the 1960s. We got dating, smoking and its effect [not on health but the screen], refreshments like Kia-Ora and the general plush interiors of the cinemas, especially chains like ABC or Odeon. The project team are looking for more reminiscences so if interested visit their website: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/cinemamemories

 Review for a screening at the National Media Musuem.

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Victim Britain 1961

Posted by keith1942 on March 9, 2016

63 'Victim', 1961

I was able to revisit this film when the Hyde Park Picture House screened it in a fine 35mm print. The film stands up well. It has a strong cast and is generally well filmed if in a rather conventional style. It is a seminal film of the early 1960s, basically because it addresses explicitly the question of sexual orientation and homosexuality. Homosexual practice was illegal in the UK in this period though the 1958 Wolfenden Report had recommended liberalisation. Gay people had suffered from police harassment and prosecutions. By 1961 the police were generally more laid back, partly because the law was seen as a ‘blackmailer’s charter’ and gay men as easy but innocent victims. The film reflects these aspects in its plot and characters. It is worth noting that the moral panics around paedophilia are much more recent. There are slight references to ‘corruption’ in the film but modern films on the issue would likely be more pronounced. In fact I saw the film in the same week as Spotlight (USA 2015) and that film is centrally constructed around the issue of abuse.

Dirk Bogarde plays Melvin Farr, a successful lawyer who has had a relationship with a younger man, ‘Boy’ Barrett (Peter McInery). Farr is married to Laura (Sylvia Syms) though they have no children. He had had a previous same sex relationship at University and Laura knew about this before they were married. Barrett is being blackmailed and because he loves/is besotted with Farr he steals at work to pay off the blackmailers. So the police enter the picture. Barrett commits suicide in custody. Farr, who initially refused contact with Barrett, is now struck by guilt and determines to hunt down the blackmailers. This involves him in seeking out gay men being blackmailed: some of whom turn out to be his own friends and professional colleagues.

The police question Barrett

The police question Barrett

The thriller format allows the film to appear primarily as a genre piece. It even has a rather heavy handed red herring. But it is a noir thriller, full of chiaroscuro lighting.  Characters are constantly presented in shadow. There is one intriguing scene early in the film when Melville returns home late and finds Laura still up: she has risen to answer the telephone. It was Barrett but Laura is still unaware of the implications. As they ascend the stairs Melville tells her he loves her and they embrace. Yet both are in deep shadow and the clinch is hardly visible. At other times full illumination falls on a character: one such point is at the moment that Farr realises that Barrett’s death is a sacrifice for his interests.

The cinematography is fairly typical of mainstream films of the period, moving from long shots to mid-shots and then close-ups, especially at moments of intense drama. There are frequent dollies and tracks, and less often crane shots and high and low angle camera settings for particular emphasis. The editing uses frequent parallel cuts, to draw links between characters and events. So in the opening section of the film we first see Barrett on the building site where he works as a wages clerk. There is a crane shot with high angle camera as the police arrive. The following sequences cut between Barrett as he desperately seeks help from his friends and gay acquaintances: the police as they close in on Barrett: and Farr, who refuses to engage with Barrett’s phone calls. As these sequences progress we move from daylight to night and to an increasing noir sensibility.

The film uses quite a number of scenes shot on actual location. Four of these are exteriors of the Farr house. On the second occasion Melville returns in his car and parks. A tilt and pan follow him as he looks to his right. A cut with an eye-line match shows a disconsolate Laura standing by the river. However, the locations do not match. The first shot shows railing and shrubs on the offside, the reverse shot shows a low wall with the river and a panorama beyond. The reverse shot is presumably to emphasise the desolation felt by Laura, but most locations seem mainly to present a particular sense of place.

The gay character are an interesting cross-section: including an actor Calloway (Dennis Price): a photographer Paul Mandrake (Peter Copley) : a prominent lawyer Lord Fullbrook (Anthony Nicholls): a car salesman Phip (Nigel Stock):a hairdresser Harold Doe (Norman Bird) and a bookshop owner Henry (Charles Lloyd Pack). These characters are presented in a relatively sympathetic fashion. Interestingly the main villain, Sandy (Derren Nesbit) has a rather homoerotic air to his flat: including a punch ball and an illustration of a  classical nude male sculpture. In fact the most stereotypical characterisation is a police plain clothes officer (John Bennett), who is presumably straight. The key straight character appears to be Barrett’s friend Eddy (Donald Churchill) who assist Barrett at the beginning and then Farr in his investigation.

Harold with Sandy

Harold with Sandy

There are other straight characters, and frequently they express distaste for homosexuals. At an early stage Barrett seeks help from his friend Frank (Alan Howard): and Frank’s girlfriends Sylvie (Dawn Beret) is adamant that

“I wouldn’t have him at home. … Why can’t he stay with his own kind?”

A little later as they embrace at bedtime Frank remarks to Sylvie that Barrett

“hasn’t got what you and I’ve got.”

The two key policeman are Detective Inspector Harris (John Barrie) – relatively liberal in his attitude – and his aide Bridie (John Cairney) who clearly finds homosexuals distasteful. The barman (Frank Petitt) at a regular haunt for Barrett and friends is amicable in their presence but scathing about them when they are gone. And Sandy’s assistant in the blackmail, Miss Benham (Margaret Diamond) is [according to Sandy]

‘a cross between an avenging angel and a peeping Tom’

with regard to homosexuals. It is her who comes up with the idea of daubing Farr’s garage with

“Farr is Queer”.

Another character who finds homosexuality problematic is Laura’s brother Scott (Alan MacNaughton), also a lawyer. At one point, when he realises about Melville’s orientation, Scott questions Laura about her marriage, asking ‘have you been satisfied’. To this Laura responds that Melville has been ‘kind and understanding’ adding the rider ‘it’s all I’ve known’.

It is pointed that Melville and Laura have no children. In fact, Laura has taken on a day-time teaching job even though she does not need to work for money. It is a ‘working with difficult kids’. We see the children several times in the film. At one potent point Laura is observing a problem child who is, at this moment, painting in a relaxed manner. She peruses a newspaper and then starts as she reads the report of Barrett’s suicide; matters start to fall into place. Immediately the child, in a spasm, daubs his picture of a woman’s head with striking crosses.

In fact, little is made of the question of adult homosexuals and younger males. Barrett clearly has had a relationship prior to Melville with Harold, the older book shop owner. In a scene where Melville meets three gay men and realises their orientation one remarks that ‘ he has never corrupted the normal’. Scott, who is a widower, tells Laura that he fears that his son Ronnie could come to ‘hero worship’ Melville.

The most powerful scene in which the film addresses the issue of gay sex is when Laura, having realised that there is some sort of relationship between Melville and Barrett, questions him. Melville insists that the relationship was platonic. But he goes on to admit that

‘I wanted him’.

This powerful moment was not in the original script but was added at Bogarde’s insistence and with him proposing the dialogue. For the period it is a moment of dramatic and unconventional intensity.

Laura questions Melville

Laura questions Melville

But Farr has clearly repressed his desires. When Mandrake refers to the young man with whom Melville had a relationship at University and who later committed suicide [again!] Melville strikes him. In an early version of the film the script had Melville telling Laura that

“Only religion can help any man who falls in love with those of his own sex but knows that he should deny himself in the interests of society.”

The change is a definite improvement. However there is a short sequence, after Melville’s ‘confession’, when he is seen leaving a churchyard: it is as if he has been to religious confession.

The script had been written by Janet Green and John McCormick. They were a wife and husband team with Green obviously the key writer. She had worked on a number of films produced by Michael Relph and directed by Basil Dearden. Interestingly a little earlier all three were involved with Sapphire (1959). This was also a film with a thriller format. In this case the central focus was racism, dramatised by an investigation of a young woman who was of ‘mixed race’. In that film also there was distinction between a liberal police inspector and his more obviously prejudiced subordinate. As with Victim and homosexuality, the treatment of “race” was problematic. In fact that film has less apparent sympathy for the black characters than Victim displays for its gay ones.

Relph and Dearden were an important team in 1950s and early 1960s British cinema. Among their output were a number of social problem films. Cage of Gold {1950) is set in the then new National Health Service. I Believe in You (1952) deals with parole officers and delinquency. And there is Pool of London (1951). This film demonstrates equally how their social consciousness is limited by the attitudes of the time. A subplot allows a tentative romance to develop between Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron – a frequent black face in British films of the period including Sapphire) and Pat (Susan Shaw, blonde and white). But it cannot be realised. There is a key scene where as Pat leaves on a bus Johnny leans forward to kiss her, and the bus starts off with a jolt!

This sort of inhibition is apparent in Victim. So we never see any actual physical contact between any of the men. In fact, the blackmail is constructed round a photograph taken of Melville and Barrett in the former’s car through a telephoto lens. But the audience never see the photograph, though it is shown to several characters. And the final moment of the film shows Melville burns the photo. Odd, as it would presumably be evidence in the prosecution that the films’ plot proposed in the resolution though the police do have the negative.

There are more subtle hints to audiences. Early in the film Barrett visits Harold in his bookshop. As they enter his study, in the foreground of the image, a kettle is about to boil. This would seem a steal/homage from Crossfire (USA 1947) in which there is a similar shot of a bubbling coffee pot. Harold runs his own hairdressing salon: indeed one of his customers is Calloway. As Farr travels in Lord Fulbrook’s car at night they pass the building site where Barrett worked. The building is topped by the sign ‘Trollope and Colls’. Spelt as ‘trollop’ the term applies to promiscuous women: here, is it coincidence or comment?

Melville’s home is primarily of the professional class, with a housekeeper. But in the lounge, lined up on the mantelpiece are a line of C19th military toys. All in the flamboyant and skin tight uniform of the early part of the century. They are most visible in a close-up of Melville as he leans over the fire and confesses to Laura.

Even with what may now appear extreme reticence the film encountered problems with the British Board of Film Censors. There is a detailed discussion of this in James C. Robertson key study, The Hidden Cinema British Film censorship in action, 1913 – 1975 (Routledge 1989). Predictably the Boards censors had problems with the film. The fairly long-serving Audrey Field commented:

The synopsis reads perfectly all right: it is a sympathetic, perceptive, moral and responsible discussion of a problem…. But the film may well be a bit of a problem: it is very oppressive … to be confronted with a world peopled with practically no one but `queers’; and there are precious few other characters in this synopsis. Great tact and discretion will be needed if this project is to come off, and the `queerness’ must not be laid on with a trowel.

However, John Trevelyan was the recently appointed secretary and he was more sympathetic to the project. But he also had his reservation,

It is, I think, most important that the division of public opinion should be reflected in this, or any other film dealing with the subject, and I think it would be wise to treat the subject with the greatest discretion. Furthermore, I think it is really important that a film of this subject should be one of serious purpose and should not include any material which might lead to sensationalism and would lessen its claim to seriousness.

Dearden revised the script and the final film involved this response:

“Their reaction was largely favour­able, but four dialogue objections emerged. In the scene between Mel and his wife when he first divulges to her his homosexual urges, she says, `You were attracted to that boy as a man would be to a girl?’ and he replies, `Because I wanted him. Do you understand? Because I wanted him.’ The BBFC sought the deletion of the underlined words, and the report on the film continued:

Reel 8 We don’t like the scene between Mel and the three men in Mandrake’s studios, where we feel that the case for homosexual practices between consenting adults is too plausibly put and not sufficiently countered. (There was more from Mel about self-control in the last script we read.) We think that this scene should be shortened. Reel 9 We think that the statement `there’s a moment of choice for almost every adolescent boy’ is too sweeping and not a good idea to put into the minds of adolescents in the audience.

Reel 11 … vindictive outburst against homosexuals is likely to give a spurious justification for the kind of blackmail shown in the film; and some reduction would be desirable.

These issues were taken up with Relph, and Trevelyan subsequently met him and Basil Dearden. Evidently they put up a strong fight against the proposed cuts for an `X’ certificate award, for in the event the BBFC insisted upon only the deletion in the ninth reel of the dialogue about adolescent boys. This represented a cut of merely a few feet, on which basis the BBFC allowed Victim on 1 June 1961.

So little was cut but Dearden his team had bought the screenplay closer to the wishes of the Board. There is a slight oddity here as there is apparently a ninety minute cut of the film, which would mean ten minutes deleted from the producers version. But from Robertson’s research it would appear that only a very light cut was demanded. Even so, the film received an X Certificate. Nearly all of the really interesting British films of this period suffered the X certificate, including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). However, times change and over the years the certification had reduced, first to 15 under the new categories, then 12 and finally PG.

Trevelyan, in What the Censor Saw (Michael Joseph 1973) recorded the rather different response that film received in the USA.

“As an example of this I remember being surprised that a Code Seal (a seal of approval) was given to Suddenly Last Summer in 1959, a film that included almost all known sexual perversions, but refused in 1961 to a British film called Victim which was a thriller with a background of homosexual blackmail: when I asked the reason for this I was told that the former film did not violate Section III (6) of the Code -‘Sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden’ – because the perversions were never specified, whereas the later film violated it because homosexuality was specifically referred to.”

What a difference several decades makes!

Posted in British film stars, British films, British noir, Film censorship, Film Directors, Movies with messages, UK filmmakers | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Third Man, Britain 1949

Posted by keith1942 on July 29, 2015

Third man ferris wheel

This classic film is being re-issued as part of the Orson Welles Centenary celebrations. Certainly Welles, oozing both his onscreen charm but also his shadowy otherness, dominates the film as Harry Lime. It contains some of his most memorable dialogue: his aside on the cuckoo clock is one of the most oft-quoted lines in English-language cinema.

But the film is also a tribute to the talents of a number of fine, mainly British, filmmakers. The director was Carol Reed is often dismissed by the appellation ‘metteur en scène’: a phrase that stresses reliance on collaborators as opposed to the supposed dominating talent of the ‘auteur’. In fact many of the great films depend exactly on such a constellation of talents, and this is especially true of British cinema where many a final film is much more than just the sum of its parts.

The film has a fine script by Graham Greene, adapted from his own short story. Certainly Reed’s direction benefits from the magisterial black and white cinematography of Robert Krasker. And his work depends to a degree on Vincent Korda’s atmospheric art direction. Both are ably served by the editing of Oswald Haffenrichter. And there is the inspired choice of Anton Karas’ music: his zither is as famous as dialogue of Orson Welles.

The cast, both leading and supporting players, is ‘pitch perfect’. Alongside Welles Joseph Cotton turns in one of his finest performances as Holly Martin. And Alida Valli is hauntingly beautiful and tragic as Anna Then there are Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee with brief but memorable appearances from Ernst Deutsch and Paul Hoerbiger among others. It is the combination of all these talents that makes the occupied and divided post-war Vienna so believable. This is a perfect gem of a movie.

the-third-man holly and anna

Reviewing it I enjoyed the witty and ironic early sequences in the film. This is very much down to Greene’s skilful script. But the players give just the right emphasis to the lines or placement: as with the recurring comments on Holly Martin’s literary output. I assume that the seminar with the Cultural Re-education Section’s ‘little meeting’ allowed Greene to air a few prejudices.

The noir landscape of the city is brilliant. Light and shadow not only advance the plot: as with the first appearance of Harry Lime. They create this world of chaos, corruption and criminality, which threaten the nominal hero and heroine.

The last stages of the film are more sombre but have even greater resonance. The underground sewer system provides the labyrinth, which is a recurring metaphor in film noir. Here Holly [the prince] hunts down the monster [Lime]. But as so often in the noir world, the death of the monster provides little relief or release.

Third Man lime

Then we have the cemetery. In the original Cretan version the princess [Anna] provides the means for the hero’s safe entry and exit from the labyrinth. But here Anna resolutely refuses to aid Holly. Thus the long take as she passes by the passive Holly leaving the audience to speculate on the fate or either character. This makes Holly a passive character in comparison to Lime. Another aspect of the irony that suffuses this film.

I revisited the film on a 2k DCP screening; both the dynamic contrast and the definition, especially in longer shots for the latter, seemed inferior to 35mm prints. There is a useful article on this version at:

http://uk.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/1184436/why-does-the-restoration-of-the-third-man-look-weird

 

 

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Films by Vĕra Chytilová

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2015

vera-chytilova

Chytilová was one of the important filmmakers in the Czech New Wave and one of the outstanding women filmmakers in Europe at that time: fortunately less of a rarity now than then. Her most famous film is Daisies (Sedmikrásky. 1966). The film is a collage of colour, editing and avant-garde techniques: it follows the adventures of two young women. The film appears anarchic and Chytilová ’s work is often described as ‘Dadaist’. Certainly this was the most radical of the films to emerge in 1960s Czechoslovakia: the authorities tried to prevent its release. It subverted the prevailing cultural and gender politics, though Chytilová resisted the label of ‘feminist’. The film was screened at an earlier Leeds International Film Festival: unfortunately this used a DVD rather than film or DCP, and one of the screenings had a live musical accompaniment! But Chytilová ’s use of sound is equally important as her play with images.

So it was a pleasure when the Hyde Park Picture House screened two of her earlier student films, courtesy of the Czech Centre London and the Czech National Film Archive. The films have been restored from the original camera negatives by the Imagine Ritrovato in Bologna; fast becoming the foremost European laboratory for the production of such work. The result looked and sounded good and the two films [both from 1962] were an absorbing but also entertaining 85 minutes.

The first film was A Bagful of Fleas (Pytel blech). This was set among a group of young women working in a cotton-spinning factory and housed together in a women’s dormitory. The film opens with the arrival of a new worker [‘fresher} Eva. And she is the narrative voice of the film, whilst the focus is a young and unruly worker, Jana. The film takes in the highly organised ‘socialist’ culture and working environment. There is a disciplinary meeting involving not just manager and foremen, but other workers. The title of the film comes from a disparaging comment by an older man, some sort of supervisor, on the group of girls. We see the girls at work, in their leisure and with their interests in popular song and [predictably] men.

What gives the films its distinctive quality is the form and style. Much of the film has that fresh, observational use of the camera, which was one of the hallmarks of the Czech New Wave. But the film also has a mainly subjective viewpoint. We see characters and events from Eva’s point-of-view: her voice provides an intermittent commentary on the soundtrack and sequences are often shown through a subjective camera. In fact, only at the end of the film do we see Eva herself. One can see here already some of the tropes and motifs that were to appear in Chytilová ‘s mature films.

This cinematic approach was even more apparent in Ceiling (Strop). This film follows approximately 24 hours in the life of a medical student also working as a model, Martha. We see her modelling and on the cat walk: at mealtimes and with friends, and at parties. The film in some ways parallels Agnes Varda’s very fine Cleo From 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 À 7, 1961). However, the Czech film differs in two important respects: Cleo, and the audience, learn of the problem that preoccupies her throughout the film right at the outset: whilst with Martha it is over halfway through the film that we learn of her pre-occupation. In addition Cleo encounters a sympathetic young soldier: all of the man in Ceiling struck me as unsympathetic.

The style with both films is also very different. Ceiling uses the elliptical editing that was also apparent in A Bagful of Fleas and which is the hallmark of Chytilová ‘s later films. Whilst Ceiling still has an observational feel there is a greater use of camera and sound techniques which typify avant-garde film. There is a restless camera, jump cuts and a range of angles and distances. The sound ranges through the diegetic and non-diegetic, both with noise and music. And some of the film has a strongly subjective feel and some a more distant presentation. Some critics have made comparisons with the films of Michelangelo Antonioni: what I was most reminded of was L’Eclisse, which itself only came out in 1962. And there is an impressive night-time scene as Martha wanders the urban spaces, which reminded me forcibly of Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes  (1960). This is not necessarily a question of a direct influence. There are common stylistic and thematic tropes across the European New Waves, as they responded to often common and dominant cinematic conventions and common cultural restrictions.

Dina Iordanova (2003) suggests that the Czech New Wave, whilst often quite divergent, did share certain common traits;

The specific manifestations of the Czechoslovak New Wave style can be reduced to an idiosyncratic combination of several characteristics. These include the interest in contemporary topics (often tackled with documentary authenticity), the subtle humour (often bordering on the absurd), the use of avant-garde and editing techniques (often deployed with astonishing persistence) and the attention to psychological detail (often better revealed in the exploration of interactions within a group rather stand in studies of individual protagonists).

Of course, Iordanova is writing about more than style here, but much of her description can be seen in these two films by Chytilová. The one point to emphasise is that A Bagful of Fleas is very much about group interaction whilst Ceiling is a study of an individual protagonist.

Fruits

Someone remarked after the screening that it was ‘worth turning out on a Sunday to see these films’. Absolutely. The Hyde Park, a month of so later, also screened one of Chytilová ‘s major features, Fruits of Paradise (Ovoce stromu rajských jíme,1970) on April 30th. Possibly her most avant-garde work, the film uses an extraordinary mix of unconventional imagery and sound: whilst the ‘plot’ offers a symbolic treatment of gender issues. The title is variously translated to include either ‘Paradise’ or ‘Garden’. The former makes more sense because the wealth of illusions include quite a few with biblical resonances. We are in a garden with a central focus on a tree, referencing the book of Genesis. The film spends a lot of time focusing on fruit and vegetables and is reminiscent in style of the Czech Mannerist movement. There are a cat and an owl and mirrors, stones and bikes. At times it as if we are in Alice in Wonderland and then Through the Looking Glass. In this tale one protagonist is a serial killer: the dark centre of so much of modern cinema. There is a shadowy noir mansion. As with her earlier films Chytilová offers impressive visual and musical tropes, which fill out the settings and symbolism. The colour palette is dominated by reds and whites. And finally we find characters buried on a beach recalling Un Chien Andalu. This is appropriate because this film feels more Surrealist than Dadaist. Whilst at times it seems to delve into dreams it is also constructed very much around desire. The excellent Time Out concludes on this film with:

It is both of its times and outside the clock in its intent.

It did not go down well with the establishment of the time: Chytilová was banned from filmmaking for six years.

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The Tales of Hoffman, Britain 1951

Posted by keith1942 on April 4, 2015

Hoffman title

This was a Michael Powell and Emeric Production. It is an adaptation of the opera by Jacques Offenbach and was filmed in Technicolor and includes both operatic and ballet sequences. Both in terms of the Production team and the casting the film followed on from the success of one of the finest Powell and Pressburger collaborations, The Red Shoes (1948). The original opera was based on stories written by E. T. A. Hoffman who is also the key protagonist in the drama. The opera consists of a prologue, three acts and an epilogue. Offenbach died before completing the work and this was done by Ernest Guiraud. His contribution included recitatives, which are not always used: Offenbach preferring speech to recitative. The opera was first performed in Paris in 1881 and has remained a popular favourite: especially the bacarolle from Act 3.

Hoffman was part of the German Gothic literary movement, writing in the transition from the C18th to C19th. Michael Powell himself noted that he used techniques from German expressionism, which he had encountered first hand in the early part of his career. He writes extensively about the production in the second volume of his autobiography ‘Million Dollar Movie’ (1992).

This opera was one of several suggestions for film adaptations made by Sir Thomas Beecham. He was heavily involved in the production. At an early stage he played through the entire opera score for Michael and Emeric who busily made notes and decisions about their inclusion and treatment in the film. There are minor changes for the film, which does use recitative: the most significant change is that Act 2 and Act 3 are reversed so the film ends with Antonia, a more tragic event.

Beecham conducted the performance of the opera that provides the soundtrack and which was used in the filming for the ‘playback mode’. He also selected two singers who were part of the onscreen cast, though most of the players had their singing dubbed. And he appeared conducting the The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the final frames of the film. The final frame has ‘The End’ followed by a stamped ‘Made in England’ – a nice touch for the premiere in New York, USA.

Hoffman observed by Lindorf

Hoffman observed by Lindorf

The prologue is set in a Nuremberg beer-cellar where we met Hoffman and his friend Niklaus: we also encounter another character Lindorf and learn of a lover figure Stella. Hoffman recounts three love affairs to a group of students: each love affair occupies one act and involves in sequence Olympia, Giuletta and Antonia. The final epilogue returns to the beer-cellar and Hoffman and his friend. A conflict which has underlain the actions and stories of the opera now come to ahead and resolution.

One of Offenbach’s intentions was that all the women should be performed by the same singer. And he also wanted the four ‘villains’ sung by the same male singer. The film follows the latter option but not the former. This is partly that the film makes greater use of ballet, with Michael and Emeric wanting to repeat their success with The Red Shoes.

The film is a sumptuous treat. The settings of the opera provide splendid opportunities for the Production Designer Hein Heckroth and his colleagues. The sets are beautifully constructed, decorated and coloured. The cinematography by Christopher Challis, who had worked on earlier films with Jack Cardiff, is very fine and at times reminiscent of the work of the great Technicolor master. [There is though one oddly inverted shot in this version?] The film is obviously a studio production, mainly shot at Shepperton. And it uses quite a few technical tricks for effect. Pressburger, who was always, quite rightly, credited as co-director with Powell, devised one of these, a lovely transition from Act 1 to Act 2.

Moira Shearer as Olympia

Moira Shearer as Olympia

Moira Shearer dances the main ballet presentation, in Act I with Olympia and she does this with great skill and elan. The embodiment of trickery and deception right through the film is Robert Helpmann, and who performs his own singing. Another performer who appears in all the three acts or stories is Leonide Massine. He, along with Ludmilla Tchérina appeared in The Red Shoes. In Act 2 of this film Tcherina plays Giuletta. The supportering dancers for both acts are also very well done.

The central problem in the film is the two actual opera singers: as I mentioned both were selected by Beecham. Whilst he was clearly an important and influential member of the production I don’t think he had a great cinematic sense. The character of Hoffman is sung and performed by Robert Rounseville. He is extremely wooden, lacking either intensity or mobility. Powell makes light of this in the book, but Rounseville does dampen what in many cases should be vital and passionate scenes. The other singer is Ann Ayars who performs Antonia in Act 3. I am afraid she is rather similar to Rounseville in her performance style. Alongside Hoffman is his friend Niklaus played by Pamela Brown. She was normally a fine actress and was also a redhead – a predilection of Powell. But she is as lacking in passion as Rounseville. She may have restrained he performance because of his: but there is also a strong homosexual strand in the relationship, which may also have been a factor.

The music, of course, is very fine. I am not that skilled in opera and I have never seen The Tales of Hoffman. But I was not that struck with the singing: especially of Rounseville and Ayars. In fact the most compelling singing for me were two duets: one from Act 2 and one from Act 3 and both including Owen Brannigan.

So the best aspects of this film are the visual and the ballet. And the bfi having bought out a DCP have made a good transfer from 35mm. Note though the opening logo is in 1.85:1 whilst the actual film is in 1.37:1. This may explain whilst the screening I attended did not have the masking set in.

Ludmilla Tchérina as Giuletta

Ludmilla Tchérina as Giuletta

I have seen The Tales of Hoffman in the past. I always thought that it was a less than successful follow-up to The Red Shoes and lacked that film’s intense drama. I still think that the latter film is definitely superior, both in performance and in drama. However, this time I felt that the two central performances I mention were the major problem, I think a more intense centre would improve the film immeasurably.

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