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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 | Leave a 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.

Posted in British film stars, British films, Film and Theatre, Film Directors, UK filmmakers | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

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, UK 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

 

 

Posted in British films, British noir, Film Directors, Film noir, UK filmmakers | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in East European Film, Film Directors, Films by women, Surrealist films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Tales of Hoffman, UK

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.

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

Jean Vigo

Posted by keith1942 on March 7, 2012

 

Jean Vigo on the set of L'Atalante

Jean Vigo was the son of a famous, even notorious French anarchist and journalist who went by the name of Almereyda [an anagram of  ‘‘its all shit’’]. Almereyda died in a French prison cell in 1917, probably at the hands of the authorities. Jean had a troubled childhood, being bought up under an assumed name [Salles] and being educated in several boarding schools, which he hated. There was a rift with his mother in his teens when he learnt more about his father’s travails and death. He suffered from tuberculosis and had to spend time in a sanatorium. Here he met and married Lydou [Elisabeth Lozinska]. They settled near Nice because of the warm and beneficial climate. Vigo’s great ambition was to make films and he used a gift of 10,00 francs from his father-in-law to buy a second-hand Debrie 35mm camera.

Whilst gaining experience as an assistant on a current film production Vigo met Boris Kaufman, an experienced cameraman. Kaufman claimed to be the brother of Soviet filmmakers Mikhail and Denis Kaufman [the latter is better known as Dziga Vertov]. Kaufman acted as cinematographer on all of Vigo’s films. Vigo’s circle of friends and supporters was very important for his career. They supported him through illness, encouraged his work and actively sought out backers. A number later developed their own careers in film; Kaufman went to Hollywood and won an Oscar for On the Waterfront (1954).

Vigo’s first film was a documentary about the town where he lived, À propos de Nice (1930). It used Soviet style montage [editing] to draw surprising contrasts across society and to offer unusual even shocking images. The film had a strong satirical quality, caustically depicting the leisured classes and the Casino attraction. Its climax was the annual carnival, which the camera explored with real joie de vivre [ebullience]. Water was and continued to remain a central motif in most of Vigo’s film work. The film was screened a few times in Paris, including at the Vieux-Colombier: the regular venue for the avant-garde works of the times. It was well received by a partly young audience interested in the new and the experimental. However, the film did not garner great attention elsewhere nor did it generate any profits for further work.

The Carnival sequence from A propos de Nice.

Back in Nice Vigo launched a member-only film club, Amis du Cinéma, with friends. It specialised in films that had suffered from censorship or banning, including the Soviet masterpieces like The Battleship Potemkin (1925). In 1930 he also attended the “Deuxième Congrès du Cinéma Indépendant” in Brussels. Other filmmakers there included Sergei Eisenstein, Germaine Dulac, and younger artists like Joris Ivens and Henri Storck. The last-named was to become a particular friend of Vigo and to work on his films.

The support of colleagues like Dulac also obtained Vigo a commission from the Gaumont Company to direct a short sport documentary. This was a film a sort of lesson in swimming techniques by the national champion Jean Taris. Filmed mainly in the Automobile Club de France pool, this was sound film with a spoken commentary. Sound recording on film was still in its infancy and the techniques for ‘mixing’ different sound sources were undeveloped. One can hear the cuts on the soundtrack of the film as they change. Vigo himself expressed most interest in the relationship of the swimmer’s body to water. There are some typical edits to produce surprise effects and the use of variable camera speeds

Vigo failed to find more film work and had to sell his Debrie camera. And in 1931 Lydou and he had a daughter Luce. That year he also met Chaplin who visited Nice, but neither was unable to speak the other’s language. Meanwhile he and his family partly survived on money from the in-laws. He started work on a further film documentary, but it was never made. Meanwhile he was active in the French film-club movement.

In 1932 friends introduced him to Jacques-Louis Nounez, a businessman and horse breeder. Nounez had little knowledge of the film industry but he was a keen admirer of filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, René Clair and Jean Renoir. He thought there was an opening for medium-length features, about 4,000 feet: that is a running time of about 45 minutes for sound film.  Nounez was also friendly with an established actor René Lefèvre. Several possible scenarios were considered till a story about children and schooling was agreed. Nounez made a deal to use the Gaumont Studios and provided a budget of 200,000 francs. In fact, Vigo performed most of the producer functions, in which he was fairly inexperienced. The crew was predominantly Vigo’s friends and close colleagues; the cast locally recruited amateurs, including school students, with a few professional actors like Lefèvre and Jean Dasté.

The film, Zéro de Conduite, had a week’s accommodation at the Gaumont studio. Vigo’s ill-health intervened, and they were able to get an extension but even so had to rush the latter stages, filming as the studio clock marched towards the expiry of their time. There was also location filming at an actual school. During the editing stages the young composer Maurice Jaubert provided a musical score. Sound on film was still fairly primitive as was the equipment available to the production, and this is one of the technical weaknesses of the film. The finished film was clearly low budget, but it combined scenes with a strong realist feel, moment of genuine surrealist wonder and magic, and a strong anarchic critique of the oppression common in schooling and the adult domination of the childhood world.

Zero de Conduite features many aspects of the boarding school regime that Vigo would have suffered in his own youth. The staff are by and large authoritarian, crass in terms of real education and completely lacking in sympathy or empathy for the world of their young charges. The one exception is a new and young master, Huguet, who shows some affinity with the boys in the school. The finished film clearly suffers from the low budget. However, it develops a strong engagement with the schoolboys. The film’s last reel are justly famous. There is a lyrical sequence in the dormitory where the antics of the boys are shot in slow motion. This is followed by a rebellion due the school’s speech day, when a quartet of rebels disrupts proceedings from the roof. The initial screening included a sizeable presence by distributors and exhibitors, who generally disliked the film. Very shortly after the film was banned by the official censors and remained so in France until after the war. It did receive a few screening abroad. When it re-appeared it was extremely influential: François Truffaut’s Le quatre cents coups (1959) and Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) are two film clearly influenced by the earlier work of Vigo.

The dormitory sequence - Zero de Conduite

Despite the fate of Zéro de Conduite Nounez continued supporting Vigo. He had a number of possible projects, however to avoid further problems with the authorities and industry, Nounez selected a script for a feature length film. This was an original script, L’Atalante, by R. de Guichen [pen name Jean Guinée]. This was a romantic story about a young couple, Jean and Juliette, on the barge L’Atalante. There was a small cycle of stories involving barges and canals in French cinema in the 1920s and 1930s: Jean Renoir’s initial foray on film involved one. Vigo adapted the screenplay with his friend Albert Riéra. Nounez put up one million francs and found two fairly well known stars for the film, Michel Simon and Dita Parlo. Once again the production arrangements were with Gaumont, who would also control distribution. The crew was similar to Zéro, but enlarged to handle the larger production and budget. An important addition was the editor Louis Chavance, who was experienced in sound film. The filming involved both studio work and location work on an actual barge and canals. The winter conditions aggravated Vigo’s ill health. By the time came to post-production he was bedridden. Chavance produced a final cut, which Vigo approved; though it seems he intended to make minor changes after a company preview.

Vigo’s version of the story follows the early months of a marriage, between barge captain and Jean and a young village girl Juliette. Following their marriage they immediately set off on the barge to make a delivery. A cabin boy and Père Jules, an eccentric, larger than life character, accompany them. He keeps a bevy of cats on the barge: changed by Vigo from the original dog in the script. The story is linear and strongly plotted. The strains of the marriage, constrained on the confined space of the barge, are accentuated by a charming, roguish peddler they meet on a night out. Juliette leaves for a time and visits the city, where she is lost in the vast urban machine. She is rescued by Jules who returns her to the barge and Jean.

Jean, Juliette and the Peddler

The tale is simple but what makes it telling memorable is the poetry and lyricism of the film. Much of the production was filmed in location and there are magical shots in the mist and at night-time. The evening ashore and a number of sequences in Jules cabin would have delighted the surrealists with their unconventionality and use of ‘found objects’. Most notable is an underwater sequence when Jean ‘sees’ Juliette, a confirmation of her prophetic maxim earlier in the film. Seventy years on it retains all the freshness and vitality that impressed earlier critics. It is a film that seems particularly popular with other filmmakers, and has become a major influence, especially for independent filmmakers.

L’Atalante does, though, lack the overt political resolution of Zéro de Conduite. To a degree Nounez’s decision to use a pre-existing script did, in some measure, restrict Vigo’s filmmaking. The film does contain political points besides the unconventional. During Juliette’s sojourn in Paris she [and we] are introduced to the problems of unemployment and poverty. But this is not central to the film. And the resolution does resolve away the contradiction of the marriage, which in reality would surely have resurfaced. L’Atalante is in its own way a prefect creation and certainly superior to Zéro de Conduite in aesthetics terms. However, it is more about Vigo’s poetry than his anarchism: the latter film seems to me to have a unique quality in its depiction of youthful rebellion. I do rather feel that the elevation of L’Atalante in Vigo’s output is similar to the way that so many critics prefer Kes in Ken Loach’s output. Both are political films but a viewer can focus on the central story and pay less attention to the critical aspects.

In fact, in the 1930s this was a comparison that audiences did not have any chance to make. Gaumont proposed substantial changes to the final cut, and a further screening for distributors received a cold reception. Vigo was now seriously ill. Nounez caved in and agreed to changes.

These were drastic. About 25 minutes were cut from the finished film. Part of Jaubert’s music was excised and replaced with a current poplar tune ‘Le Chaland qui passe’ (The Passing Barge]. The cut film was now re-titled with that of the new song. Released into cinemas it was not a success. Jean Vigo died of septicaemia on October 5th 1934.

His final feature L’Atalante was re-released in 1940 in a cut version, but with its original title and Jaubert’s music restored. After the war the film became popular in the Fédération Française des Ciné-Clubs. This, and Vigo’s other films, won the admiration of both filmmakers and critics involved in the Nouvelle Vague. In 1962 the film achieved 10th placed in the Sight & Sound second poll of film critics for the ‘greatest films of all time’.

In 1985 Gaumont bought up the Franfilmdis Company, which retained the production materials left from L’Atalante in 1934. In 1989 Gaumont set about a restoration of the film, which was assisted by the discovery of a 1934 pre-release print in the bfi archives. Lobster Films, who specialise in restoration work, were bought in to restore the soundtrack. With both vision and sound the restorers had to make judgements about shots, lengths and cuts. They talked to surviving member of the original production to try and get a clear picture of the director’s intention. And in 1990 the restored print appeared: a complete version, though further restoration work was made on the soundtrack in 2001. This is the 35mm print available from the bfi, as close as we can get to Vigo’s dream and with vastly improved image and sound.

Now Jean Vigo has been elevated to the pantheon of filmmakers in World Cinema. This is on the basis of one of the shortest film careers, which produced less than three hours of screening time. However, these are poetic stories, filmed with lyricism and still exercising an important influence nearly eighty years on.

 

Filmography:

À propos de Nice. (1930). Black and white, silent film.

Producer, director, scriptwriter, editor – Jean Vigo. Director of Photography: Boris Kaufman.

Filmed on location in Nice. First screened Paris, May 28, 1930.  

Taris (1931 Jean Taris, champion de natation; Taris, roi de l’eau.). 8 minutes, black and white, sound film.

Production Company – Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert. Executive Producer – C. Morskoï. Producer, director, scriptwriter, editor – Jean Vigo. Assistant director – Ary Sadoul. Director of Photography – Boris Kaufman.

Filmed in the swimming pool of the Automobile Club de France, and at the G.F.F.A. Studios in Paris. 

 

Zéro de Conduite (1933). 44 minutes, black and white, sound film.

Production Company – Argui-Films. Executive producer – Jacques-Louis Nounez. Producer, director, scriptwriter, editor – Jean Vigo. Assistant directors – Albert Riéra, Henri Storck, Pierre Merle. Director of Photography – Boris Kaufman. Camera assistant – Louis Berger. Art directors – Jean Vigo, Henri Storck, Boris Kaufman. Music – Maurice Jaubert. Songs – Maurice Jaubert, Charles Goldblatt. Sound – Royne, Bocquel.

Cast: Louis Lefëvre (Caussat), Gilbert Pluchon (Colin), Gérard de Bédarieux (Tabard), Constantin Goldstein-Kehler (Bruel), Jean Dasté (Huguet), Robert le Flon (M. Parrain, known as Dry-Fart). Delphin (The Principal).

Filmed at G.F.F.A. Studios in Paris, and on location at Saint-Cloud and at Belleville-la-Villette railway station, December 24 1932 – January 22, 1933. First screened in Paris, April 7 1933; banned in France; first public performance in Paris, November 1945.

L’Atalante (1934). 89 minutes, black and white sound.

Production Company – Argui-Films. Executive producer – Jacques-Louis Nounez.

Producer and director – Jean Vigo. Assistant directors – Albert Riéra, Charles Goldblatt, Pierre Merle. Written by Jean Vigo, Albert Riéra. Based on an original scenario by Jean Guinée. Director of Photography – Boris Kaufman. Camera assistants – Louis Berger, Jean-Paul Alphen. Editor – Louis Chavance. Music – Maurice Jaubert. Songs – Maurice Jaubert.

 

Filmed at G.F.F.A. Studios in Paris, and on location at Conglans-Saint-Honorine, Maurecourt, Paris, and on various canals, November 15 1933 – end of February 1934. First shown in Paris, April 25, 1934. First public performance (as Le Chaland qui passe) September 13, 1934; first public performance of L’Atalante in Paris, October 30, 1940.

 

Cast: Michel Simon — Le père Jules ; Dita Parlo — Juliette; Jean Dasté — Jean; Gilles Margaritis — Le camelot; Louis Lefèvre — Le gosse; Maurice Gilles — Le chef de bureau; Raphaël Diligent — Raspoutine, le batelier (as Rafa Diligent)

 Adapted from notes for a screening of L’Atalante at the National Media Museum. A biopic, Vigo Passion for life (1998) was directed by Julian temple.

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Ken Russell

Posted by keith1942 on February 18, 2012

Ken Russell died on November 27th last year and now the critical re-appraisal has begun.

Linda Ruth Williams and Mark Kermode [the duo with an expertise on cinematic sexuality and violence] have a piece in February’s Sight & Sound, Mythomania Ken Russell 1927 – 1911. Williams had an earlier article, Sweet Smell of Excess, in S & S July 2008. She commented: “It may seem sacrilegious to compare Russell whom some now consider an unbankable joke to the canonised Michael Powell, but Powell’s visual energy and sense of fun and fantasy were also once sensed as an affront to British cinematic proprietary …”. Both directors loved to explore the world of imagination and provided a stark contrast to the far less exotic works of British realism.

In an accompanying article in that issue David Thompson discussed Russell’s television Portraits of artists. He commented on the boss at Monitor, Huw Wheldon, “The crucial and often fractious relationship between obsessive director and rule-book-wielding producer still lives on in television, but Russell was lucky to find a mentor who both tamed and nurtured him.” This offers another parallel with Powell, as his career took a qualitative leap when he joined up with writer Emeric Pressburger. One should not over-emphasise the parallels but there is an intriguing similarity in their careers.

Michael Powell started in the 1930s ‘quota quickies, Ken Russell in the critically disparaged 1960s television. Both had a period of commercial success whilst at the same time critics were frequently much less enthusiastic. Powell suffered comments about his idiosyncratic ‘glue man’ in A Canterbury Tale (1944) and over the scarcely suppressed sexual feelings in Black Narcissus (1946). Russell experienced numerous critical blasts, including over the nude wrestling scene in Women in Love (1969) and the varied examples of religious violence in The Devils (1971). Finally both overreached themselves, or at least the accepted limits of the contemporary cinema: Powell with his Peeping Tom  (1960), Russell with several features but most notably Altered States (1980) with Hollywood: and Lair of the White Worm (1988) for the British film establishment. Powell ending up directing films in Australia, Russell went back to Television. Here his films for the South Bank Show benefited from the support of friend and admirer Melvyn Bragg: only somewhat dissimilar to the support that Martin Scorsese provided for the later Michael Powell. Russell himself was an admirer of Powell and remembered going to the opening of the classic The Red Shoes (1948).

Of course, Ken Russell is more extreme than Michael Powell was in his work. This is partly a matter of character, temperament and upbringing but it is also due to their circumstances. Russell began his career in the 1960s when the mores of film had changed radically from the 1940s and 1950s, and when the limits set by censorship had shifted radically,

Russell showed an early interest in film, screening amateur shows for friends in the family garage. The films that he noted and remembered from that period where those of German Expressionism and of Fritz Lang. The influence of the expressionist style can be clearly seen in his later features. Whilst Lang’s rigorous moral gaze is something that is paralleled in Russell’s films.

He had a varied early job portfolio and in the late 1950s worked as a freelance photojournalist with some of his work appearing in the iconic Picture Post. The photos already display Russell’s distinctive flair with composition and often-unconventional approach. In his later film work Russell always worked on camera set-ups and the composition of the film image.

He made a couple of amateur films. He had also become a Roman Catholic, and the second short feature, Amelia and the Angel offers both the style and moral concerns that will re-appear later.

He was then successful in impressing Huw Wheldon and joining his Monitor team. These arts programmes were at the cutting edge of British television programming: Russell actually succeeded another talented British director, John Schlesinger. Russell recalls that Wheldon taught him to handle language and how to work on the construction of the programmes. He comments that only Eisenstein or Welles could have been better teachers. The choice is interesting. Eisenstein was the master of montage or discontinuous editing, and Russell’s work makes frequent use of cuts that combine surprising and even shocking images and scenes. Welles was the master of the sequence shot [a travelling shot of long duration], and such camera movements grace many of Russell’s films. Both feature in his early television work.

Two masterworks from these days were screened recently on BBC, 100 Elgar (1962) and Song of Summer  [Delius, 1968}. The Elgar was a seminal television event: in what was thought of a documentary programme slot Russell used actors to recreate the characters of Catholic composer Elgar, his family and friends. Russell also made extensive use of location filming in the Malvern Hills and of Elgar’s music. There is a commentary read by Huw Wheldon, but what strikes one now is the combination of great images and striking musical accompaniment. The subversive rendering of the post W.W.I use of Land of Hope and Glory is achieved partly by a series off discontinuous sequences of the composer. And the film has a number of striking sequence shots of the composer in his beloved Malvern Hills. The final five-minute montage of the film is reminiscent of the earlier film work of Humphrey Jennings. Whilst the Elgar had no dialogue and was mainly composed in long shot, [at Wheldon’s insistence] the feature on Delius has dialogue and character; whilst the music is strongly embedded in the narrative of the relationship between Eric Fenby and the composer. Russell suggested in later years that this was his best work and it is indeed a striking film and a powerful portrait of a particular type of artist.

Portraits of artists figure largely in Russell’s work, especially musicians and painters. One of the other memorable features for Monitor was Dante’s Inferno, which dramatised the lives and work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This, like Russell’s feature on Debussy, featured the actor Oliver Reed, who was to become almost an alter ego for the director. Both were excessive characters in their personal lives and in their professional work. When controlled they were impressive, when uncontrolled they could end up as ‘calculated to outrage’ and taking ‘no prisoners’.

Russell managed this with what was to be his last Monitor feature Dance of the Seven Veils (1970). This portrait of the composer Richard Straus included ‘a bear-skinned superman, rampant nuns and goose-stepping military officers.’ The outraged Strauss family removed the rights to the composers music from the BBC and the film was [and remains until 2019] effectively banned. This also effectively terminated Russell’s career in television.

He had in fact received offers to work in feature film production. His first two essays were rather mediocre: French Dressing (1963) was a comedy and commercial failure. Billion Dollar Brain (1967) performed better at the box office, though the combination of Ken Russell and Len Deighton’s spy Harry Palmer now seems bizarre. Women in Love was the film that established Russell, and for a period it seemed he could do no wrong. This film deserves fuller treatment, but there is a strong correspondence between the filmmaker and the writer. Russell remembers that until then he had not read Lawrence. But the screen adaptation renders much of Lawrence’s novel, including the unconventional sexuality, the importance of landscape and the composers pre-occupation with death. Lawrence’s political comments are less overt, but can still be discerned in the mise en scène.

Women in Love - the Alpine sequence

The Devils provided a serious headache for the British Board of Film Censors and a cause célèbre for Mary Whitehouse and The Festival of Light campaigners. The film was cut in the UK, and cut even more in the USA. It featured graphic sex and violence as it depicted the suppression of a C17th religious ‘cult’. But it also had a strong emotional feel for the side of rebels and the anti-authoritarian. Russell commented that it was his only political film, which is true in the sense of it having overt political themes. The film was a box office success.

He followed this with a series of films centred on music and art. The Music Lovers (1970) offers a portrait of the Russian composer Tchaikovsky, perfomred with as much melodrama and excess as is found in the original music.  The Boy Friend (1971), an unlikley subject, was a light musical comedy, which tended into pastiche, especially of one of Russell’s hero, the choreographer Busby Berkeley. Savage Messiah (1972) is one of Russell’s best works, with some splendid visual sequences. It is graced by a tremendous performance by Dorothy Tutin as the Polish artist Sophie Brzeska, but is let down by Scot Antony in the lead part of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the sometime Vorticist and sculptor. Mahler (1974) saw Robert Powell cast as the composer. The film included a number of fantasy sequences; reminiscent in some ways of the sequences Russell had created in his earlier Strauss film.  Tommy (1975) had Roger Daltrey play the lead in rock opera composed by The Who. At times over the top, it contains some of the most vivid sequences in British cinema.  Lisztomania (1975) starred Roger Daltrey again, this time as the C19th composer. It clearly aimed to cash in on the success of Tommy.

Valentino (197) was a Hollywood biopic of the famed silent era star. The dancer Rudolf Nureyev was hopelessly miscast as the star. Russell writes of trying to reduce the star’s dialogue whilst Nureyev responded by trying to increase it. It had some success in the UK, but not in the USA, where Russell’s films generally performed less well.

His 1980 film Altered States was a failure, but acquired a cult following for the sequences featuring hallucinogenic experiences. And Crimes of Passion (1984) saw Russell working well with the star Kathleen Turner, but the dark satire of the film did not appeal to audiences.

In Britain Russell directed Gothic (1988) about Mary Shelley’s telling of the Frankenstein tale: and in a similar vein an adaptation from Bram Stoker, Lair of the White Worm. Neither made a great impression. Russell then returned to D. H Lawrence with an adaptation of The Rainbow, the novel that precedes Women in Love. This time Russell adapted only part of the novel, that which deals with the coming of age of Ursula, a central character in the subsequent novel. Once again Russell focussed on Lawrence’s sense of earthiness and nature and on his overt sexuality: but the film lacked the boldness of the earlier foray. By now Russell had run out of opportunities in British cinema, in his own words he had become ‘unbankable’. He returned to work for television, especially the South Bank Show. And in 1999 he directed a four-part version of D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The series again featured Russell’s ability to capture the pre-occupation with nature and sexual explicitness: the series performed well with an audience of about 12 million. However, by this time Lawrence’s breaking of conventions had been overtaken by the cultural changes.

In the last few years Russell almost returned to the start of his career, setting up independent productions, located in an outhouse at his cottage, using video technology, and a range of pros, amateurs and friends for characters.

Generally there is praise for Russell’s visual sense in his films. The films are often poetic and musical visions. The style he favoured was to become the bedrock of the later format of pop videos, though Russell’s works run to hours not minutes. As Williams’s points out one’s most vivid memories are particular sequences: the final montage of the Elgar, with the composer musing over his life. Elton John, in his vast shoes, pounding rhythmically as Roger Daltrey ‘plays a mean pinball’. And an image of Ann-Margaret swims into view every time I see a tin of baked beans. Tchaikovsky’s performances have bizarre additions and there are the memorable passages in Mahler (1974) accompanying the fantasies of the composer.

Other comments criticise his lack of consistency, his tendency to excess, parody, pastiche and even kitsch. This is clearly the case in some of his films. Thomson’s comments on his relationship with Huw Wheldon are important. Russell also worked successfully several times with Melvyn Bragg as his scriptwriter. I think when he was not restrained he could be carried away. The clips from his later independent films, where he was in complete control, suggest this.

And I also wonder how good he was with actors. With certain actors, Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, Robert Powell, the performances are impressive. However, this is a cast that has the benefits of the rigorous training found in British theatre. Russell also used non-professionals on a number of occasions, with varied success.  On Valentino, the comment was made that the ‘acting is hopelessly under-directed’ and this also applies to Savage Messiah.

In a sense, one must take Russell as he was, with both strengths and weaknesses. What is undeniable is that he was a key innovator for British film in the 1960s and 1970s.

What is acknowledged in the appraisals is how important and influential Russell has been in British Cinema and Television.  Right back in his early work for television Russell was trail blazing. It is difficult to realise now how innovative were the programmes he made for Monitor, because the style and approach has been so copied since. And he repeated this when he moved onto the big screen. One remembers the shock that films like Women in Love and The Devils produced. But at the same time they extended the themes, situations and character actions treated on film. And the mise en scène and the camera work were often astonishing. Equally notable was the way that Russell used music, bringing an emotional intensity and panache into the sound experienced by audiences.   Russell was, for a period, immensely successful. He topped the British box office several times in the 1970s: all the more impressive as this was a low decade for British film and film going.

His work also depends on frequent collaborators. His first wife Shirley Kingdon [Russell] was Costume Designer on his best and his best-looking films [her other work includes Yanks (1979) and Enigma (2001)]. He was especially well served by Billy Williams on Women in Love (1969) and David Watkin on The Devils. The latter film also benefited from the designs of Derek Jarman, getting a start in British film. And there is Russell’s long-time editor and friend Michael Bradsell.

Unfortunately it is quite difficult to see Russell’s best work, or to see it as it was made. The BFI are bringing out a DVD with the UK cut of The Devils in March. 35mm prints of this and other masterworks seem in short supply. The fine Savage Messiah (1972) did receive a restoration and new print last year. Bradford’s National Media Museum screened Women in Love in a pretty good 35 mm print recently and their TV Heaven facility have the 100 Elgar and Song of Summer on their hard drive, as well as the South Bank Show profile of the director.

 

Ken Russell’s A British Picture An Autobiography 1989 [revised 2008] is mainly about his personal life with some discussion of his film career. Directing Film From Pitch to Premiere, 2000, has a certain amount of reminiscences about the making of his films.

Ken Russell by Thomas R. Atkins, 1976, offers sympathetic discussions of his early films.

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