Talking Pictures

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Archive for the ‘History on film’ Category

Hollywood’s ‘Un-American activities committee’.

Posted by keith1942 on March 23, 2016

huac_title

This committee did not really exist but there were plenty of possible contenders for membership. If it hadexisted, two definite members would have been John Wayne and Hedda Hopper. Both are characters in two recent films that include the infamous Congressional Committee hearings and the studio ‘blacklist’.

First up was Trumbo (2015), directed by Jay Roach and adapted by John McNamara from a book by  Bruce Cook, with a star turn in the title role by Bryan Cranston. The film starts in the late 1940s and follows the development of the HUAC witch-hunt, the craven appeasement by the heads of the studios and then the struggle by the famed Hollywood Ten [mainly writers] to continue working and finally end the blacklisting. The film works as a sort of biopic of Dalton Trumbo and over emphasises his role in the story. To give one example. The film includes the  dramatisation of Trumbo, along with the other nine ‘unfriendly witnesses’, being jailed for contempt of Congress. In a scene in jail he meets ex-Congressman Parnell Thomas, one-time Chair of HUAC, now in prison for misuse of his office payroll. In actual fact it was two other members of the Ten who were at the same prison as Thomas, Ring Lardner and Lester Cole. And it was Cole who exchanged the lines with Thomas [mis] quoted in the film.

But in other ways the film has merits. It seems to be the best treatment of the notorious era coming out of a mainstream US feature film. Early in the film there is space for the radical activities of the members of the Communist Party USA working in Hollywood, including supporting strikes and opposing victimisation of migrant workers. The political tensions between the various writers is also apparent; in a couple of scenes Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), another writers, draws attention to the contradictions between Trumbo’s radical sympathies and his privileged life style. Moreover the film treats the film footage, or recreations of the same, with proper respect and correct aspect ratios.

Trumbo and Hopper

Trumbo and Hopper

As you might expect the film has little sense of the actual politics of the Communist Party USA, or indeed of the International Communist Movement of which it was a member. Neither does it delve deeply into the politics that lay behind phenomenon like HUAC; for example the wartime alliance with the USSR and the question of the legacy of F.D. Roosevelt. It does though characterise the Hollywood conservatives, especially the aforesaid John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). The latter piece of casting would seem to continue the Hollywood convention of casting British actors as villains.

There is more British casting in the second film, Hail, Caesar! (USA 2015) with a Hedda Hopper style character played this time by Tilda Swinton. The film was by Ethan and Joel Coen. This is a pastiche of Hollywood at the start of the 1950s, revisiting the Capital Pictures studio of their earlier movie Barton Fink (1991). This is not serious drama like Trumbo. In fact it is pretty over the top. Despite being set in 1951 at one point a film is using Vista Vision, which only arrived in 1954: and the aspect ratios are all over the place. In the filming of a musical sequence Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum)  is aping not just Gene Kelly but also Fred Astaire.

Where HUAC and the blacklist make their entrance is when the Studio chief and fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) finds that his biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped and he is faced with a ransom demand. What the audience already know is that Whitlock has been kidnapped by a not very secretive group of blacklisted writers. They are assisted by Professor Marcuse (John Bluthall – I wrote that it is over the top). Of course, Trumbo is a political treatise compared with this film. I thought the plotline bizarre. However, on reflection it occurs to me that if you recognise that the paranoia of HUAC and the associated campaigns affected not just it proponents but many ordinary US citizens then the fantasy of the kidnapping might have been believed. In fact we have a sequence where the main communist subversive, Gurney, attempts to decamp to the Soviet Union with the ransom money.

Kidnapped Baird Whitlock

Kidnapped Baird Whitlock

Over the years Hollywood has ventured into the territory of what was popularly termed McCarthyism. During the actual period there were a number of films that supported the investigations, persecutions and reactionary rhetoric. John Wayne persuaded Warner Bros. to produce Big Jim McLain (1952), a supposed police procedural which used actual footage of the hearings edited [fairly obviously] into the studio-based sequences.

But there have also been critical forays into the territory. Trumbo details the way in which its protagonist and his follow writers survived by working under pseudonyms and ‘fronts’. This is the strategy highlighted for comic effect in Woody Allen’s The Front (1976). Howard Prince in  that film is a typical Allen creation. And there is little exploration of the actual HUAC and its activities. The film does also include the effects on the new medium of Television. A writer is also the focus in another film from the same studio, Columbia Pictures, The Way We Were (1973). In fact we have two writers, Katie (Barbra Streisand) and Hubbell (Robert Redford): though it is Hubbell who works as a screenwriter in Hollywood. There is an interesting sequence in which Katie and Hubbell return from the demonstration by Hollywood luminaries in support of the Hollywood Ten. However, the film was actually edited before release with a couple of scenes from this point in the film removed. It seems that the end product was more in line with Hubbell/Redford’s views than Katie/Streisand’s. She was clearly, like Katie, the more  radical. The film also suggests that the apolitical Hubbell has the greater writing talent. This is in line with Hollywood’s convictions that commitment and screenwriting are best separated.

Way we were

Guilty by Suspicion (1991) from C20th Fox was originally planned from a script by Abraham Polonsky, a writer and director whose best work [e.g. Force of Evil 1948) possibly came closest to a Hollywood critique of capitalism. However, Polonsky’s pitch for a filmmaker who was indeed a communist, was too close to history. The final film has a liberal filmmaker who finally testifies before the HUAC committee.

The Majestic (2001) from Castle Rock Entertainment has Jim Carey as Peter Appleton, a Hollyood writer accused of being a communist. The plot has Peter involved in an accident, suffering amnesia and turning up in a Californian town where he is believed to be missing war hero. Cleary the film sublimates the terrors of HUAC and allows the protagonist to indulge in a dream-like wish fulfilment. This continues when he recovers and appears before a Congressional Committee. An impassioned speech, relayed on television, sways the audience in his favour. Art least the film avoids a completely saccharine resolution as he finds he can no longer work within the required conventions of Hollywood.

Cradle Will Rock (1999) is set in the 1930s, when the HUAC predecessor, the Dies Committee, was investigating the Federal Theatre Programme: part of the New Deal. The film is based on actual events around the production of a theatrical musical The Cradle Will Rock. The film is very political by US mainstream film standards, [produced by Tocustone Pictures and distributed by Buebna Vista]. It uses what are usually described as ‘Brechtian techniques’ to present a radical representation of the events, issues and period..

There are also a number of US documentaries about HUAC and the blacklist. However, the radical screenwriters and other communist members or ‘fellow travellers’ in Hollywood were not greatly interested in the documentary. But after the blacklist at least three, Herbert J Biberman, Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico, were inspired to work in social realism – that memorable feature based on the real-life struggles of ‘Chicanos’ in New Mexico, Salt of the Earth (1954).

Advertisements

Posted in History on film, Hollywood, Movies with messages | Leave a Comment »

The Assassin/Nie yin niang, France – Taiwan – China – Hong Kong 2015

Posted by keith1942 on March 3, 2016

Yinniang

Nie Yinniang

The film was screened several times in the Official Section at Leeds International Film Festival and is now on release in the UK. The director, Hsiao-hsien Hou won the Best Director Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. This is a stunningly beautiful film. Note it opens in black and white and then changes to colour. And whilst the bulk of the film is in Academy ratio 1.37:1], there two sequences [of only one or two shots] in standard widescreen [1.85:1]. Unfortunately not all presentations allow for this, I attended one screening where the widescreen was masked by blacking.

If you know the earlier films of Hsiao-hsien Hou, Three Times (2005) Zui hao de shi guang or The Puppetmaster (1993) Xi meng ren sheng, you will know what to expect. Some of the audience in Leeds were presumably excepting a typical martial arts films: they left early. The UK marketing uses the martial art genre in the publicity, which is a mistake. Apparently similar marketing and responses took place when the film received a mainstream release in China. This is a slow, artful film with a fairly opaque plotline: it has parallels in terms of plot with Hero (Ying xiong 2002). Moreover, for a western audience, I think it takes some time to identify the separate characters, especially when for much of the time they wear the formal clothing of the period. In addition the film moves around in space and time, often without clear indications.

How well you manage depends on the manner in which you view films. One friend managed most of the characters and plot at his first screening: impressive. I managed the basic characters and plot at my first screening but it was only the second time round that I followed the whole coherently. Another friend was a neither informed or impressed: and his complaint was about the paucity of subtitle information in English and the difficulties produced by so many long shots.

Rather than describe the plot, the main point of which is relatively simple, it may help to describe those I believe to be the main characters: [based on the descriptions on Wikipedia].

Shu Qi as Nie Yinniang, the eponymous assassin: she appears in the pre-credit sequence dressed in black . [One release version is titled The Assassin in Black].

Chang Chen as Tian Ji’an, cousin to Nie Yinniang, formerly betrothed to her, and military governor (Jiedushi), ruling Weibo Circuit.

Zhou Yun as Lady Tian, Tian Ji’an’s wife. She belongs to family of a separate Provincial ruler and this was a marriage to cement an alliance.

Satoshi Tsumabuki as the Mirror Polisher. [Unidentified by name, the character’s title action is easy to miss: he appears late in the film, first by a rushing river, then when he comes to the rescue during an ambush in woods.

Ethan Juan as Xia Jing, Tian Ji’an’s bodyguard

Hsieh Hsin-Ying as Huji ( her name means “orchid”), Tian Ji’an’s concubine and a dancer

Ni Dahong as Nie Feng, Nie Yinniang’s father and Tian Ji’an’s provost

Yong Mei as Nie Tian

Fang-Yi Sheu as Princess Jiacheng and her twin sister, the Princess Jiaxin turned Taoist nun. Jiaxin appears in the opening sequence with Yinniang. Jiacheng appears in the widescreen sequences, the only flashback. This sequence offers a metaphor for part if not of the tale.

Lei Zhenyu as Tian Xing, the uncle of Yinniang. First seen ill in bed, he is the centre of an ambush in a forest and is rescued by the Mirror Polisher and Yinniang.

And there is an older whiskered character who I believe is Jacques Picoux as Lady Tian’s teacher: he appears twice sitting in his study.

Tian Ji'an

Tian Ji’an

The opening segment of the film is in black and white and precedes the credits. This is a prelude to the main story and we meet two key characters; Yinniang and Jiaxin. Then the film changes to Academy colour. After a several scenes we move to the main setting in Weibo and the key characters here are carefully introduced. Whilst the plot deals mainly with a series of actions involving these characters, the context is tensions between the Imperial Court and provinces on the periphery, like Weibo, and who will exercise power. But there is also personal conflict, partly motivated by personal experiences from the past, and partly motivated by the power conflicts at the court and, from a distance, Imperial / provincial relations. The two sequences in New Academy seem to be a suggestion on a central metaphor of the film. We see a zither, an instrument that recurs the last time that we see Jiaxin, perhaps a confirmation of this.

For me the film holds ones attention completely: it was a pleasure to watch it twice [and now a third time]. It has an immaculate mise en scène and a distinctive sound track. There are few of the action sequences beloved in martial art films. But the are many formal settings where what is left unsaid seems as potent as what is said. And there are also informal settings of personal interaction, but never really informal. The film uses decor, mirrors, light and shadow, gauzes and even smoke to offer settings with subtle variations. If the interiors tend to the strictly formal, there is something of the same sense in the exteriors, which are also beautifully captured.

One must pay great compliments to the production team working under the director.

Music by Giong Lim

Cinematography by Ping Bin Lee

Film Editing by Chih-Chia Huang and Ching-Song Liao

Production Design by Wen-Ying Huang

Costume Design by Wen-Ying Huang

Sound Department Shih Yi Chu, Duu-Chih Tu and Shu-yao Wu

Special Effects by Ardi Lee

The camera work relies to a degree on long shots and fairly long takes. In both interiors and exteriors there is both deep focus and deep staging: there are lovely moments when an outline or a shadow emerges in deep field. The camera movements are varied but the most common are slow and slight dollies, with slow pans and tilts in interiors. And there are some fine tracking shots in the exteriors.

Lady Tian in mask

Lady Tian in mask

The editing is often elliptical, which can make for difficulties in following the developments, but this enables the film to draw the parallels between the complex interactions among characters. The soundtrack is also a treat. The music is sparse but very evocative. There is the frequent slow playing of drums and percussion. There is zither music. And, over the end credits, some exhilarating music from flutes or bagpipes. But for much of the time we enjoy natural sound, including bird songs and cicadas.

And the production design is truly impressive. One review thought the film was ‘too pretty’. In fact, it is ornate, as it would seem were the Chinese courts of the period. The settings, especially the interiors, provide a great canvas for the cinematography.

Hsiao-hsien Hou immersed himself in reading and research for the film. In quotes in the Festival Catalogue he notes the subtlety and complexity of the period.

“For example, there were different ways of taking a bath, depending on whether you were a wealthy merchant, a high official or a peasant. I also looked into the story’s political context in some detail. It was a chaotic period when the omnipotence of the Tang Court was threatened by provincial governors who challenged the authority of the Tang Emperor: some provinces even tried to secede from the Empire by force.”

We actually see the preparations for a royal bath. Reviews have tended to praise the style of the film, but some also express reservations about the plotting of the story and even the sheer physical attraction of the settings right through them film. The film though, focuses on a particular social segment, one with great wealth and privilege. And we only see the peasants mentioned by Hsiao-hsien briefly, though in an important sequence.

The film was shot on Kodak 35mm and has been transferred to DCP via 4K. However, I think most audiences in the UK will only be able to see it in 2K. Even so it does look and sound good. IMDB gives the exhibition ratio as 1.41:1, I have never come across this before? It runs for 107 minutes and crams a lot into that space. There are apparently more than one version. The Japanese release has extra scenes involving the Mirror Polisher, played by a Japanese film star. But reviews of the film also differ on plot detail: this may be confusion or it may be that they enjoyed extra scenes or suffered missing some scenes.

Originally a Festival review

Posted in Chinese film, History on film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Wind That Shakes the Barley Eire / Britain / Germany / Italy / Spain / France / Belgium / Switzerland 2006

Posted by keith1942 on January 27, 2016

THWTSTBThe Wind That Shakes the Barley received a very hostile reaction from right-wing political commentators in British newspapers on its release, being called a

“poisonously anti-British corruption of the history of the war of Irish independence” (Tim Luckhurst in The Times) or a “portrayal of the British as sadists and the Irish as romantic, idealistic resistance fighters who take to violence only because there is no other self-respecting course” (Ruth Dudley Edwards in the Daily Mail).

However, the reaction from film critics – as opposed to political commentators (some of whom, like Simon Heffer, attacked the film before even seeing it) – has been generally extremely positive. The right­wing Daily Telegraph‘s film critic described it as a

“brave, gripping drama” and said that Loach was “part of a noble and very English tradition of dissent”.

The film critic of The Times said that the film showed Loach “at his creative and inflammatory best”.” (www.wikepedia.org).

The response summarised above is not unusual for a film directed by Ken Loach. His 1966 television film, Cathy Come Home, was followed by one of the earliest television ‘balancing’ programmes. His films about organised labour, Questions of Leadership (1983) and Which Side Are You On? (1984), were effectively banned. When the subject was Ireland, as in Hidden

Agenda (1990) on the ‘shoot to kill’ policy, the campaign became almost hysterical. And so the BBC series, Days of Hope (1975) which included labour and Ireland, provoked leaders in both The Times and The Daily Telegraph.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley compounds its sympathy for Irish republicanism by drawing parallels:

“I think what happened in Ireland is such a classic story of a fight for independence, to establish a democratic mandate and to resist an occupying army. Yet it was also a fight for a country with a new social structure. The British army in Ireland during 1920-21 did what armies of occupation do the world over – adopt a racist attitude towards the people they are attacking and occupying. They destroy people’s houses, engage in acts of brutality and generally oppress the people -and in Iraq that’s exactly what the British army is doing.” (Loach interview http://www.socialistworker.co.uk).

The Irish dimension

A Republican 'flying column'.

A Republican ‘flying column’.

Few of the reviews have actually explored these parallels in detail, focusing mainly on the Irish dimension. Quite often such comment include odd asides. Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian:

“To be fair, there is surely a bigger market for anti-Brit diatribes across the Channel”

And Edward Lawrenson in Sight & Sound comments re the anti-Treaty hero

“is his implication that any deviation from Damien’s principles is perfidy and his distaste for the very idea of compromise appropriate in these post-Good Friday Agreement times?”

Lawrenson goes on to make a point common to a number of reviewers:

“This coarsening of Loach’s artistry is most evident in the director’s depiction of the English and Scottish soldiers as either pantomime toffs or brutish squaddies.”

He believes that Loach is using stereotypes, a technique not peculiar to this director.

In the same issue of Sight & Sound there is a review of United 93 (US 2006). This is also a historical reconstruction on film. The characterisation of the hijackers gets no mention in that review. What the film offers is a stereotypical group who

“pray, read the Koran, bow to Mecca, perform ablutions, and hug goodbye-the rites of religious cleansing before a holy war.” (Cineaste, Fall 2006).

Moreover, the only other foreign accent in this film belongs to the one dissenting voice among the passengers. It would seem that stereotypes are at least partly in the mind of the beholder.

Form and Style

The Wind That Shakes the Barley 6

What receives less attention than the political standpoint of the film is its form and style. As Loach remarked film

“is absolutely a group activity”.

Some sense of the production team and their use of film techniques is presented in a Channel Four documentary Carry on Ken. The title reflects Ken Loach’s liking for the oft­ reviled Carry On films. The programme includes examples of the improvisation techniques of actors, and points out the way that a long lens is used.

One comment on the staging is by Lawrenson who refers to the farmhouse where several acts of violence by the British occur. He comments:

“It comes across on the screen as an implausible and heavy-handed bit of symbolism.”

This is to ignore the way that place can function to enrich stories. This is another aspect of the film accorded little attention, in that it builds on the iconography and generic elements of the cycle of films dealing with Irish Republicanism. The majority of such films have tended to stereotype the liberation fighters. Typical are two portrayals, James Cagney in Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) and Miranda Richardson in The Crying Game (1992). Both are psychotic killers. More sympathetic films romanticise the republicans, as doomed victim in Odd Man Out (1947) or as heroic leader in Michael Collins (1996). In neither case is there much involvement with the politics of the Republican movement, or of the occupying power, Britain.

Republican traditions

This is exactly what The Wind That Shakes the Barley does do. And it does so by tapping into Irish academic and popular traditions of Republicanism. So the film not only relied on Irish locations and casting, but the narrative features actual figures and events from the period. It also uses the iconography of Irish films. Little is seen of these in the UK but they go back to the early years of the Irish Free State. Channel Four screened The Dawn (1936) in the 1990s. This film centres on two brothers with different responses to the war, and it features scenes of marching volunteers and ambushes of the Black and Tans. But it does not address the post Treaty Civil war.

Box Office

Despite or because of all the publicity, good and bad, The Wind That Shakes the Barley has done very well – for a Loach film (£3.7 million and on initial release). The UK release was planned to be only thirty prints, but with 300 touted for France, the UK figure was upped to 105. On the first weekend the film posted £390,000,

“nearly three times that of his previous biggest opening Sweet Sixteen” (an 18 rather than a 15 Certificate film). ‘

The Numbers’ column in Sight & Sound went on to point out that:

“The Irish territories accounted for 73% of the … box office total.”

The Irish territories apparently include the North and the South; both lumped in with the UK. This is a poetic confirmation of the argument put by Dan (Liam Cunningham) against the Treaty,

“England would still rule you”.

(In France the film has made over £3 million.)

Value judgments

A warm reception on the Continent

A warm reception on the Continent

Two aspects of the critical responses strike me especially in relation to The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Whilst critics do not claim to be objective, there is a sense in which they claim to be judging films on identified technical and aesthetic standards. Yet the revealing asides in so many reviews indicate that value judgments are often just as important. As with Loach himself,

‘politics inform your aesthetics.’

British critics also tend to dislike didactic cinema,

‘film with a message.’ Jeffries comments: “but there is a deeper problem: we are always sure whose side Loach is on and the dramatic journeys he take us on are ultimately not engaging because we know where they are headed.”

The reviewer’s comments on United 93’s message reckons that it:

“terrifyingly conveys the nature of the threat facing the world today and poignantly conveys onscreen the decision by a few brave individuals to fight back”.

Both films clearly embrace and present a set of value judgements about the world of their story. The differing comments are revealing. Ken Loach was quoted on one occasion:

“I’ve spent as much time defending my films as I have making them.”

Does he mind that much? Just because his films are not mere entertainment but social and political interventions, they spark discussion and debate. I think it is highly likely that the arguments in the review columns are endlessly repeated and developed long after audiences have left the cinemas.

References

Sight & Sound reviews of the two films are July 2006. ‘The Numbers’ is August 2006.

Carry on Ken, A Feasible Film for Channel Four tx More 4 on 17 June 2006.

Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill (1987) Cinema and Ireland, Routledge

Originally published in ITP in the picture November 2006.

Posted in History on film, Movies with messages, Political film, UK filmmakers | 2 Comments »

Of Presidents and Pistols

Posted by keith1942 on January 3, 2016

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

  This article was originally written shortly after the release of The American President (Columbia / Castle Rock, 1995). I have not updated the main article [except for one brief reference] but provided this introduction and an after-thought on the intervening years. The American President was directed by Rob Reiner and scripted by Aaron Sorkin: who subsequently went on to work on the enormously successful television series of The West Wing. My sense is that though we have seen a few ‘bad apple’ presidents onscreen (for example Primary Colours (Universal, 1998) and Absolute Power (Columbia / Castle Rock, 1997), the mainstream movie still privileges the supreme post in the USA. Of course, we now have Barack Obama in the White House – so the sacred office is no longer the preserve of the white male; we may even see a female president soon. There have already been screen female Presidents: Wikipedia has lists of the films and of the actors who played in them, it is very long. And Obama was preceded by several black screen Presidents, with Morgan Freeman establishing a special hold on the office. The Presidential Myth.

“Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it history evaporates. It is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from…” Myths today, Roland Barthes.

Barthes’ comment describes the way that stories often maximise our pleasure whilst minimising the content we have to grapple with. It would certainly seem an apt reflection on Hollywood films, which have in so many areas produced great entertainment which avoids unsettling the audience with the harsher realities of either the recorded or imagined events. The west, the U.S. family, the civil war, the space programme… the myth presented is wrapped up so that the memories we take out the auditorium are not too disquieting. One of the most powerful myths among the many generated by Hollywood is the presidential myth. One example is appropriately entitled The American President, with President Andy Shephard [Michael Douglas] generating real comedy as he battles to enjoy an ordinary romance with career woman, Sydney Wade [Annette Bening]. These are obviously not ‘ordinary people’, but the film works hard to make them seem so, even sharing a meat-loaf dinner. It knows the Presidential Office is serious, and injects serious matters into the narrative; crime, environment, policing the world. However, the seriousness is strictly controlled, so that the only issue to get extended attention is the environmental one. Crime is just rhetoric and policing the world, with Shephard authorising a military strike against a Gaddaffi-style figure, allows the President to display decisive leadership whilst expressing human feelings but at the same time it is safely tucked away from the dramatic crisis and climax of the movie, so that viewers don’t have to worry over it. president shepard speaks with staff the american president 1995 movie micheal douglas martin sheen micheal j fox The American President bears a fairly obvious political agenda. Andy Shephard has no military record, a musical daughter and courts a successful woman, who is so liberal she even helped burn the flag in her youth – predictably the production received strong co-operation from the Clinton White House. In fact, Clinton’s State of the Union tribute to Hilary suggests he was powerfully influenced by one scene in the film. The film most likely did not get help from republican Bob Dole [Clinton’s Republican opponent at the time for the Presidential Office], who also has his shadow – as the villain. With Oliver Stone’s Nixon (Entertainment, 1995) also released over here, the democrats had a filmic edge on republicans at this point in time. But many Hollywood films have serviced one or other party. Frank Capra, the subject of one of the best jokes in The American President, was the great polemicist for the New Deal. Intriguingly, several of the films I discuss were produced by Warner Bros., strong supporters of Roosevelt in the 1930s. The Wind and the Lion (Herb Jaffe, 1975), created by the right-wing libertarian John Milius, was homage to Theodore Roosevelt. Whilst the two parties might argue over the merits of particular movies, both are tied into the myths they create. The opening titles of The American President are a montage of images – portraits and photographs of past presidents intertwined with art objects and artefacts from the White House, home and symbol of the President. They all seem to be there, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, up to Kennedy and Johnson; [thus avoiding the more contemporary dilemmas like Nixon, Ford and Carter]. When Andy and Sydney first get together, they discuss and then tour this national treasury. Sydney’s problem is how to have romance with a man who she has to call Mr President – a living exhibit in this treasury. The tentative relationship between the two encapsulates the view of the President as shared by much of the American audience. The President must be at the same time the ‘boy next door’ and the most powerful man in the world – to span the log cabin and the white house. Anyone can make it to the White House, … Poster%20-%20Young%20Mr_%20Lincoln_02 In one of the classic renderings of the myth, Young Mr Lincoln (C20th Fox, 1939), we are presented with homespun Abe, a man of the people, who has to rise to become the figurehead of the people.  This film closes with the famous memorial statue on Capital Hill, accompanied by the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic‘. His passage from the backwoods to the White House is the clear expression of the US’s claim to be the open society. The associations around emancipation address a mythic moral nation which conveniently forgets the ambiguities in the practices of this Republican President and his party. A rather more contradictory view is espoused in Spielberg’s Lincoln (Dreamworks / C20th Fox, 2012), which film dwells on the manipulative and corrupt politics that were required to bring the 13th Amendment [abolishing slavery] to the Stature Book. But even here the film leaves the audience with the celebrations by liberals and Afro-Americans at the passage of the Bill and then the death of the US’s ‘greatest’ president. The ordinary side of the Presidential myth has been expressed in a myriad ways. Lincoln’s chopping wood; Teddy Roosevelt’s sporting prowess; Kennedy humping ammunition in PT109 (Warner Bros., 1963), the film about his war service – the marks of difference are carefully deleted. Andy Shephard remarks that Franklin D Roosevelt would not have been elected as President in the age of television because of his wheelchair. At the time, newsreels appear to have avoided shots of Roosevelt in his chair (in the famous Yalta photograph a rug  covers his legs and chair), and in PT109 Kennedy’s chronic back problem gets no mention. These are all examples of the ‘evaporation of history’ described by Barthes. Sydney’s problem with Andy is one that all the films have to negotiate – the audience needs to both identify with the filmic hero, and stand in awe of the super-ordinary figure. The Cahiers du Cinéma article on Young Mr Lincoln discusses how that film dramatises the Lincoln figure above mere politics.

“the first scene of the film already shows Lincoln as a political candidate without providing any information either on what may have brought him to this stage….or on the results of this electoral campaign [his first – he lost]…..Lincoln’s character makes all politics appear trivial.”

The American President uses a similar approach, Andy spends much of the film wheeling and dealing for Senate votes for bills watered down to avoid offending interest groups. At the movies’ end, Andy drops his worries about image, re-election, and opinion polls and stands up for what matters, the well-being of the nation. His reward is a standing ovation in Congress, and presumably a silent one from the cinema audience. nixon_monument But the films also have to deal with the dark side of the myth – misdeeds, corruption and death. Oliver Stone’s Nixon (Cinergi Pictures / Hollywood Pictures 1995) presented one part of this darker side. Oliver Stone has already delved into villainy with J.F.K. (Warner, 1991). Much of that film has a noirish look as Jim Garrison [Kevin Costner] investigates the hidden worlds of intelligence, contras, right-wing militias and political manipulation, seeking the truth about the Kennedy assassination. The film, not too convincingly, posits a political-military conspiracy stemming from Kennedy’s supposed preparedness to exit the Vietnam conflict. What is interesting is not how accurate Stone might be, but how the film’s twinning of these two great national disasters struck so powerfully into the US psyche, drawing strong responses, for and against, in reviews. Thirty years on the loss of the Arthurian style president (there were frequent allusions to Camelot in the Kennedy era) and the US’s only major military defeat still rankles. In-the-Line-of-Fire-1993 The problem of the loss of this mythic president has also been worked out in several movies about the presidential bodyguard. In the Line of Fire (Columbia, 1993) has Tom Horrigan [Clint Eastwood] relive the failure of Dallas in 1963 as he attempts to ward off a contemporary Presidential assassin [John Malcovich]. The film reworks past Eastwood characters, [especially Dirty Harry, Warner, 1971] as Horrigan returns to the presidential bodyguard after years on other work. Like Jim Garrison, his search parallels a psychological rerun for the US public. In an early scene the re-called Horrigan puffs and pants during escort duty for the presidential cavalcade. Through the film he returns to fitness and successfully wards off the assassin, thus seeming to symbolise the way that the US has overcome its traumas about the loss of the presidential hero. In The Bodyguard (Kasdan Pictures / Warner Bros., 1992) Frank Farmer [Costner again] failed to protect Ronald Reagan, but the film reads just as well if Kennedy is substituted, especially as it was first written in the 1960’s (thanks to Michael Johns for this insight). In one scene Farmer rescues Fletcher, fatherless son of black entertainer Rachel Marron [Whitney Huston]. This would seen to twin concerns about fatherhood and racism – powerful motifs in the Kennedy myth. The father figure returns at the end of the film as the camera tracks in on Farmer whilst a minister addresses god – somewhat over the top, but US presidents, including Nixon, have happily used the portrait of the all-time patriarch that graces the dollar. In both these films and others which feature assassins, the favoured weapon is the gun. Historically this fits the record of attempts on Lincoln, Mckinley, Kennedy and Reagan. Even so, it is hard to resist a psychological response. Uniformly male, usually [in the terms of the contemporary culture] young, they seem to offer youthful rebellion against the father. Lincoln’s memorial is the perfect embodiment of patriarchy, as lesser mortals stand beneath and peer up at the personification of the law. But in a further contradiction, these patriarchal victims can also be young in years and ‘outside’ in terms of traditional values. Writing about the two Kennedys, Martin Luther King and Malcom X, Philip Slater perceptively remarked:

“It is probably not accidental that these recent figures were all rather young men – not conservative father figures trying to retain power and preserve old ways, but young liberals or radicals trying to effect social change. If we make the rather safe assumption that the potential assassin has conflicts about authority, the assassination of such men satisfies both their rebellious and submissive tendencies; the assassin does not really kill authority, he kills in the name of authority.” [Slater, 1970).

The scenario works exactly in J.F.K., and also in Anthony Man’s  The Tall Target  (MGM, 1951). There, the attempt on Lincoln’s life portrayed in the film is organised by pro-slavery southerners, and there is a real sense of Lincoln as outsider and disrupter. In one scene passengers on a train argue strongly for and against Abe. The potential assassin is a young man with a rifle, but his mentor (Adolphe Menjou – a crucial casting choice) is both older and more established. At the closure Lincoln expresses his contradictory position with the metaphor of himself `stealing into the White House like a thief`. the-tall-target Yet the film is aware of the need to maintain Lincoln’s stature, dramatized by the attitude of the detective who saves him, not a supporter but impressed with Lincoln as the man. So another recent foray, Dave (Warner, 1991), has an undesirable president replaced by his look-alike, innocent, but honest in the mould of the classic Capra hero. All The Presidents’ Men (Warner, 1976) essays a similar task as the journalist heroes, in the gleaming White Washington Post offices, uncover the dark deeds of White House, FBI and Republican activists. Interestingly, we only see Nixon at one remove – on a Television monitor. Regardless of party politics or federal/state antagonisms, the presidential figure rises above ordinary political concerns.  This elevation correspondingly demands the vilification of the assassin. They are beyond ordinary evil in a world of psychosis or underhand and subversive forces. The Manchurian Candidate (United Artists, 1962 and Paramount, 2004) uses malevolent communist brain washing to produce its assassin [and a corporate/military conspiracy in the remake]: the earlier film has some parallels with The Tall Target secessionists. In the Line of Fire uses dissident CIA operative, as does J.F.K., where the world of the assassins is a disturbing noir world both threatening and sleazy. Given Slater’s comments, the national guilt over Lincoln, Kennedy, King and Malcom could be working out both admiration and resentment. Thus the extremity of the narrative motivations for the assassins would seem to be a displacement for these ambiguous emotions. Not all filmic Presidents are quite as patriarchal, not all assassins so demonised. In Twilight’s Last Gleamings (Lorimar, 1977 – originally released in a shortened version] the well-meaning President dies, shot by his own men, as they attempt to silence dissident military bent on exposing the partial truth about the Vietnam war. This film by the consistently liberal Robert Aldrich was savagely cut on release and is still hardly ever seen. It is possible to argue that the equally liberal Oliver Stone, despite ostensibly addressing the Vietnam War in both JFK and the Vietnam trilogy (Platoon, Hemdale, 1986; 4th of July and …Heaven & Earth, Warner 1993), avoids seriously addressing the issue. JFK does attack the Washington/Pentagon establishment, but the presidency is rescued in the person of Kennedy, who retains his position above politics. The American President travels this same territory when, at the film’s closure, Andy Shephard embraces unpopular environment and gun controls because it is his responsibility as leader of the nation.  The father knows best, the law is right even if sometimes misapplied. After-thought: abraham-lincoln-wallpaper It seems to me that not a lot has changed since the 1990s. There is the film with the occasional ‘rotten apple’: Absolute Power  is a good example. But the norm is the films that valorise the President. Thus in Independence Day (C20th Fox 1996) President ‘Pullman’ leads the sorties against he alien space ships, having first stolen a rousing speech to his men stolen from William Shakespeare’s Henry V. Harrison Ford has to lecture a misbehaving Present in Clear and Present danger (Paramount, 1994) but then represents a President who can outwit and outfight Kazakhstani terrorist in Air Force One (Columbia, 1997). The Vice-President in The Day After Tomorrow (C20th Fox, 2004) has a closed mind, but ‘the office maketh the man’ and he redeems himself when the President’s death elevates him to the supreme office. Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln manages the tricky feat of valorising the most famous President whilst exposing the political manipulations that he indulged in. The sort of satirical exposure typified in Oliver Stone’s Nixon remains rare. W. (Lionsgate 2008) is in some ways an inferior remake, but Stone is a Hollywood Maverick, possibly the exception that proves the rule. Sources: There doesn’t seem to be much writing specifically on Presidential films. A famous analysis of Young Mr Lincoln, was done by Cahiers de Cinema, reprinted in Movies and Methods, Vol. 1 Ed Bill Nichols, Univ. California 1976. J.F.K. has an accompanying book and was also debated in Cineaste, 1992 vol.19, no 1. Sight and Sound has discussed The American President, and Dave in September 1993 issue; and JFK, in February 1992. Presidential movies get a mention in From Personality Cult to Apotheosis in Politics and Film, Furhammar and Isaksson, 1968.  

Thanks to Michael Walker for suggesting The Tall Target.

Posted in History on film, Hollywood | Leave a Comment »

HUAC – PARANOIA – FILM NOIR

Posted by keith1942 on June 19, 2015

Paranoia

The House of Representative Committee on Un-American Activities was most prominent in the late 1940s and early 19150s, at the same time as the genre of classic  film noir was at its peak. Whilst HUAC or its members or agents rarely get literal representation in these films, the subtexts seem to be full of them. The one notable example is not a film noir:  the pro-Committee Big Jim McLain (1952) has John Wayne  hunting down communists and includes actual film of the Committee hearings with studio inserts. Both the actual Committee and the fictional film world of noir have common qualities, notably a strong sense of paranoia.

HUAC

The discussions of the Committee are primarily of the 1940s and the 1950s but the roots of what has become known as ‘McCarthyism’ goes back several decades. There was anti-working class USA state action in the years prior to World War I, primarily directed against the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World). 1917 saw the Socialist Revolution in Russia and 1918 the official end of the W. W. I. However, a joint military expedition by the UK, USA, France and Japan involved an invasion of the new socialist state in an attempt to suppress the revolution.

The 1920s saw heavy oppression and repression in the USA against working class militancy and the young socialist movement. Edgar Hoover’s new Federal Bureau of Investigation was in the front line here. Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil gives a dramatic representation of these events; [representations completely excised from the film adaptation There Will be Blood, USA 2007].

1929 saw the great financial crash and in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated the National Recovery Programmes with radical economic policies. The conservative elements in the political establishment, notably in the Republican Party, regarded this as ‘socialist’: their common language reflected what can be described as ‘political illiteracy’. It in this period that the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities [also known as the Dies Committee, from its chair Martin Dies Jr.] was set up, to expose ‘communists and subversives’. One of their targets was the Federal Theatre Programme, which provided employment for theatre professionals and theatrical presentations for ordinary people across the states. It included many radical elements, among them members of the Communist Party USA. It is worth noting that many of the people who joined the Party in this period were motivated by anti-fascism; their grasp of the analysis of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was often limited.

One important factor in the conflicts were strikes by Hollywood workers, notably by members of the Screenwriters’ Guild. Walt Disney, whose autocratic style occasioned one strike, blamed it on ‘communist subversives’. In 1938 Dies conducted an early investigation of Hollywood including questioning actors and film crafts people. One actor, Lionel Stander, was fired from the Republic Studio: in No Time to Marry (USA, 1938) the film, [scripted by John Howard Lawson, another blacklisted writer]  has him whistling the Internationale.

Committee

Cradle Will Rock (USA, 1999) presents a picture of some of the work of the Dies Committee in relation to the Federal Theatre Programme. John Houseman and Orson Welles produced the show of the title, which was a sort of Brechtian musical exposing the exploitation and oppression rife in the USA. The play’s opening night coincided with the shutting down of the Federal Theatre funding. In the film [written and directed by Tim Robbins] there are several sequences that show the Dies Committee in action  One sequence [80 minutes into the film] has the Committee grilling a Federal Employee re this ‘subversion’: humorous but frightening. The exchanges with the Committee in the film are based on actual records.

The agitation around left politics continued at the end of the Second World War. This period was characterised by Winston Churchill [and George Orwell] as the ‘cold war’: with the Soviet Union and its allies. It is worth noting that there was wholesale repression of National Liberation Movements in the colonised countries and a rapid expansion of US neo-colonialism. Racism, including what is termed anti-Semitism, and homophobia were also rife. And there was a strong strand of misogyny in the culture. In this atmosphere HUAC pursued the phantom of communist infiltration across a host of US institutions, including the media.

Between March and September 1947 HUAC, under the chairmanship of Parnell Thomas, launched an investigation of Hollywood. It is clear that this was partly motivated by the desire for publicity: at the later hearings Arthur Miller was advised he could be excused a hearing if his wife, then Marilyn Monroe, would agree to have her photograph taken with members of the Committee. The initial response of the Industry was strong resistance. But as the investigations continued, with public hearings, the producers buckled. When the Committee cited ten ‘unfriendly witnesses’ for ‘contempt of Congress’, with subsequent jail terms, the Motion Picture Producers Association of America responded with the ‘blacklist’.

The Hollywood Ten – Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole, Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz.  Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott.

The ‘Ten’ can be seen in the film produced to defend them in 1950 when they were fighting their sentences for ‘contempt of Congress’ in The Supreme Court, The Hollywood Ten written and directed by John Berry.

Red Hollywood (1995) is a documentary that studies the influence of radical filmmakers on Hollywood’s output in the period: a contentious area. It uses an opening clip from Johnny Guitar (1954) as an example: there are numerous references to ‘naming names’ in Hollywood films of this time. But the opening of this documentary also briefly displays the operation of the Committee with clips from films of the period. The film does not really address of the post-war politics of ‘the left’ and the Communist Party USA. The subservience of  the CPUSA to the interests of the Soviet Union meant that revolution in the USA was no longer on its agenda.

When HUAC returned with a fresh investigation between 1951 and 1953 the industry and its members generally collapsed before this attack. Actors and craftspeople who had been friends and/or colleagues of the ‘Ten’ now confessed their activities and even named names. Apart from The Ten many other people in the industry suffered blacklisting and there were similar purges in Television, the media and institutions like the State Department. One result was refugees working in the UK and Europe – Joseph Losey’s career in British film was a direct result of HUAC.

Ten demo

The Way We Were (1973) has a sequence from 1947 presenting a fictionalised version of one attempt by Hollywood stars and filmmakers to support the ‘Ten’. This is followed by a sequence with a conversation between Hubble (Robert Redford) and Katie (Barbara Streisand) that shows some of the attitudes and arguments circulating in Hollywood at the time. Some of the filmmakers involved in the project [like writer Arthur Laurents] had suffered during the blacklist:  it is worth noting that the film was cut of several important scenes for general release.

Film Noir

This Hollywood genre has its roots in German expressionism and many of the filmmakers involved were either émigrés or refugees from Europe, especially Germany. It was also influenced by the French poetic realism of the 1930s. The genre’s title was only applied in retrospect: at the time most of the films fell into crime genres or similar.

The most common and basic plot involved a hero [nearly always male] who is drawn by an attraction, commonly a femme fatale or dangerous woman, into a world of criminality and chaos. The main focus of the plot is whether the hero wills survive – the seeker hero; or whether he will perish – the victim hero.

Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1944) has a victim hero: Murder My Sweet / Farewell My Lovely (RKO, 1944) has a seeker hero. The latter film also has filmmakers involved who suffered under HUAC and the blacklist: Adrian Scot and Edward Dmytryk. A number of the radical and noir films were made at the RKO Studio: Orson Welles worked there. When Howard Hughes acquired the studio in 1948 he closed it down for six months whilst he carried out a check [witch-hunt] of the studio personnel; followed by a number of sackings.

Both of the above  films above demonstrate the stylistic tropes of the genre, which make it rather distinctive for the time. Extensive use of chiaroscuro or light and shadow: notable camera angles: the voice-over and confessional mode. And overall the films frequently project an atmosphere, of cynicism, fear and paranoia.

Critics have offered many suggestions for the rise and influence of this genre in the 1940s particularly. There were the dislocations and uncertainties in the post-war world. An air of cynicism was common. The changing roles of women with changes in the mores of sexuality produced a reaction and often misogyny. Despite the horror at the excesses of the Third Reich there was frequent public anti-Semitism, racism especially directed at Negroes or Afro-Americans, and pronounced though not usually explicitly articulated homophobia. But undoubtedly the activities directed at so-called Un-Americanism also had a powerful effect, especially on the workforce in Hollywood.

Arthur

Lady from Shanghai (Columbia, 1947, written and directed by Orson Welles) offers an example of coded language which could be seen as anti-capitalist [the dominant value system in the USA] or anti-USA  values, with subtle allusion to US racism. The scenes with an argument between Michael (Orson Welles) and Arthur (Everett Sloan), with Elsa (Rita Hayworth) and George  (Glenn Anders ) looking on, is a good example.

Red Menace (Republic, 1949) shows some of the attributes of noir being used to attack ‘anti-Americanism’ and communist ‘subversion’ with a portrayal of a villainous Communist Party USA akin to the mafia.

Another critical example  is Body and Soul (Enterprise, 1947) which was written by Abraham Polonsky, later one of the Hollywood Ten. The film demonstrates how crime organised crime is effectively ‘business’ and capitalist business.  The film stars John Garfield, whose treatment by HUAC was possibly a factor in his early death. Both men were involved in a number of film noirs or films with liberal values and both had Jewish heritage. Polonsky would go on to write and direct Force of Evil (MGM, 1948).  This is the great ‘political’ film noir. The drama is set in the numbers racket, [organised gambling controlled by a criminal ‘mob’]. During the story a take-over is organised by a larger combine: the parallels with a critical observation of the operation of capitalism run throughout the film. The film includes wire-taps, surveillance, the ‘naming of names’, betrayal and tragedy. And in the personal dramas, interweaved with this corporate action, there is a frequently a strong sense of paranoia.

Named

The above is taken from the notes for a Study Day at the Swarthmore Centre in Leeds.

Wikipedia has detailed pages on ‘The Hollywood Blacklist’ with links to other Webpages.

The Inquisition in Hollywood Politics in the film community, 1930 – 1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, University of California Press, 1983 is the best study of HUAC in Hollywood that I have read.

Posted in History on film, Hollywood, Movies with messages, Political film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Tin Drum / Die Blechtrommel, West Germany 1979

Posted by keith1942 on April 17, 2015

tin_drum20

Gunther Grass died in the last week. A towering figure in recent world literature, his most famous work also became a famous film. I have read the novel twice: the second time to prepare for a screening of the film version [in 35mm] as part of a series at York City Screen of European Classic on Film. The other three screenings were The Lady With a Dog from Chekhov: La Bête Humaine from Emile Zola: and That Obscure Object of Desire from Pierre Louys’ The Woman and the Puppet. The Tin Drum was the fourth and final screening. On the way to York that morning I read [as usual] the Saturday Guardian: the best section being the Review. That issue opened with a long article by Salmon Rushdie on adapting literature into film: and he ended by singling out the film version of the Günther Grass novel as a fine example of this art. One could list other adaptation of the same calibre and, as I suggest below, the adaptation has limitations: still it is a great example of the craft and a worthy addition to memorials to the novelist.

Günther Grass’s book, first published in 1959, is reckoned to be the finest novel published in Germany since the end of World War II. [Both the Penguin and Vintage editions are translated by Ralph Manheim]. It is also a key work, dramatising Germany’s pre-occupation with its past, especially the period of the Third Reich: the extreme nationalism, the wars and the European Holocaust. These remain potent themes, witness the success of the recent fictional work, The Reader / Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink.

Grass’s story is focused on Oskar, a unique individual who stopped growing at the age of three years, and refuses to grow to adult size. He is also gifted with an unusually piercing scream, which punctuates the story of his life. And he plays with, to great effect, the instrument in the title. Oskar narrates his tale from a mental institution, where he has been committed, in the 1950s.

The narration is unusual. Oskar switches from first to third person and back again repeatedly. The book is structured around flashbacks, so the reader constantly returns to Oskar in the then present. The style of the book is far from the naturalism of Zola. The narrative is full of bizarre events, presented alongside detailed descriptions of actual places and of re-created historical actions. Oskar commences his tale in 1899 with the meeting of his grandparents: then takes us through the birth of his mother, her marriage and his own conception in 1924. Thus most of Oskar’s childhood and adulthood are passed under the shadow of the rise of Fascism and of the Third Reich.

Grass sets the novel in his hometown of Danzig. This is a potent spot in modern German history. Danzig was part of Prussia and therefore acceded to the new German Empire in 1871. After World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the creation of a Polish State dramatically moved the borders in this region. Much of Prussia was ceded to Poland. In addition East Prussia was separated from the main mass of Germany. As an important and strategic port for the area Danzig was declared a ‘Free City’ under the protection of the League of Nations, [in January 1920]. It had its own administration, currency and so on. Poland, which surrounded this small territory, had a military presence on the Westerplatte and a Polish Post Office. According to the census taken in 1934, Danzig had 383,955 inhabitants, 96 % Germans, 3 % Poles, Kashubians; 60 % Lutherans, 35 % Catholics. Predictably the separation from the ‘German fatherland’ caused outrage among German–speakers in Danzig and in Germany itself.

In the 1930s the National Socialist Party increased its representation in the city. There was also an increasing emigration from the small Jewish population. In November 1938 the city introduced the Nuremberg Race Laws. In 1939 Hitler demanded a ‘korridor’ between Germany and its province of East Prussia. In August the Danzig Gauleiter staged a coup d’etat. Then on September 1st a German warship opened fire on the Westerplatte. The invasion of Poland and the European war had commenced. The Polish Post Office became a battleground. Danzig was annexed to the Third Reich.

Early in 1945 the Red Army conquered the city which it placed under Polish administration. This was followed by large-scale migration from the city by German-speakers. After the war the port remained in Poland and became known as Gdansk. As the latter city it was to have further dynamic and influential conflicts.

THE FILMMAKERS.

Volker Schlöndorff was an appropriate person to transpose the novel to the screen. There had been several earlier attempts, which came to nought. Schlöndorff had already directed several screen adaptations from literature. His first film, which was very well received, was Der Junge Törless (Young Torless, 1966, from the novel by Robert Musil). The film was set in the turn-of-the-century German boarding school, critically examining its cruelties. [This has been a theme in a number of German films: there are parallels with Michael Haneke’s recent The White Ribbon / Das Weise Band Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte, 2009].

Schlöndorff was equally apt because he was a member of a group which was to become the New German Cinema. Junger Deutcher Film was inaugurated in 1962 with the issuing of the Oberhausen Manifesto. This was a group of 26 writers and filmmakers who demanded freedom from industry conventions and commercial strictures. They were able to make their way at this time through government grants, support by a new Film Institute in Berlin, and with financial support by German Television. The group included [besides Schlöndorff], Edgar Reich and Jean-Marie Straub. To these were added directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Hertzog and Wim Wenders. The films had disparate styles but the common bond was a critical approach, both to the question of Germany’s past, and to the ‘bourgeois complacency’ of contemporary Germany. This did not always translate into success at the domestic box office, but many of the films were critical successes and fared well on the International Art Circuit.

Schlöndorff Young Torless fitted in with this critical approach, as the film could be read as a metaphorical indictment of German complicity in the crimes of Nazism. His wife, Margarethe von Trotta, who started as an actress, also took up film direction. Her Die Bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters, 1979) examined the impact of such movements as the Red Army Faction or Baader-Meinhoff Group.

The Tin Drum / Die Blechtrommel, 1979. West Germany / France.

Bioskop Films Artemis Films & Argos Films.

Director: Volker Schlöndorff. Screenplay: Jean Claude Carrière [familiar from Bunuel’s films], Volker Schlöndorff, Franz Seit, and Günter Grass [who is credited with dialogue].

Cinematography: Igor Luther. Editor: Suzanne Baron. Production Design: Nicos Perakis. Music Maurice Jarre. The film is in colour and European widescreen. Running time 142 minutes. German with English subtitles.

Cast: Mario Adorf – Alfred Matzerath. Angela Winkler – Agnes Matzerath. Katharina Thalbach – Maria Matzerath. David Bennent – Oskar Matzerath. Daniel Olbrychski – Jan Bronski. Tina Engel – Anna Koljaiczek (young). Berta Drews – Anna Koljaiczek (old). Charles Aznavour – Sigismund Markus. Roland Teubner – Joseph Koljaiczek. Tadeusz Kunikowski – Uncle Vinzenz. Andréa Ferréol – Lina Greff. Heinz Bennent – Greff. Ilse Pagé – Gretchen Scheffler. Werner Rehm – Scheffler. Käte Jaenicke – Mother Truczinski. Helmut Brasch – Old Heilandt.

The Tin Drum was one of the most financially successful German films of the 1970s. It won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and was jointly awarded the 1979 Palme d’Or at Cannes, along with Apocalypse Now.

Predictably the film both compresses and shortens the novel, which itself ran to 580 pages. For example, the opening sequence concerning Oskar’s grandparents leaves out quite a lot of writing and plot. Similarly, in the course of the novel certain sequences are eliminated. But many of the most powerful, like the Nazi rally in Danzig or the battle at the Polish Post Office, remain.

The film also alters the narrative voice. We still have Oskar’s commentary, but the flashback structure has been replaced with a linear form. More drastically, the film ends in 1945 as Oskar and his family joined the evacuation of the German-speaking citizens. This leaves out Part Three of the novel, about 150 pages. The written story carries on until 1954 and contains ironic developments in Oskar life, which comment obliquely on post-war Germany.

Another important change stems from the casting. Oskar is played by the 12 year old David Bennent, [brilliantly]. However, in the novel Grass insistently tells the reader that Oskar develops: though he remains in a child size body.

The film did suffer some attempted censorship in the USA. This was mainly due to objections to the explicit sex scenes, and [I suspect] the outrage was exacerbated by the child-like central protagonist.

The-Tin-Drum-1979

About his preference for screen adaptations Schlöndorff has said:

“A great part of my experience in life is reading. A filmmaker translates an experience into cinema. And I consider it legitimate to translate my reading experience into film to try to recall what moved me.”

And regarding the narrative stance of the film:

“It will not always work to stay in Oskar’s skin. Just as he speaks sometimes in the first person and sometimes, alienatingly child-like, in the third, so must the film narrative at times be quite subjective and at times show his shock from outside.”

[Quoted in Nazi-Retro Film How German Narrative Cinema Remembers the Past by Robert C. Reimer and Carol J. Reimer, 1992].

POSTSCRIPT.

Re-watching these films and listening to the discussion caused me to think again about the films and the categories of ‘film adaptation’ suggested by Geoffrey Wagner. Transposition – Commentary – Analogy. These categories were used each week as an analytical tool in relating the individual films to a more general ‘Literature on Film approach’.

Transposition, ‘in which a novel is given directly on the screen with a minimum of apparent interference.’

Commentary, ‘where an original is taken and with purposively or inadvertently altered in some respect … when there has been a different intention on the part of the filmmaker, rather than infidelity or outright violence.’

Analogy, ‘which must represent a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art.’

 

Lady with the Dog / Dama s Sobachkoi, 19159 – The stultifying social atmosphere in Chekhov’s writings is a symptom of the decadent Tsarist Society. Perhaps there is a subtle reading to be made of the film’s relevance to 1960s Russia. It was then part of a moribund Soviet Union, which had lost the revolutionary political and cultural impulse of earlier Bolshevik periods. One can imagine apparatchiks aping the ennui of Dimitry’s acquaintances.

La Bête Humaine, 1938 – Zola’s novel provides a scathing critique of the political culture of 1860s France. This is most notable in the final careering train with its troops off to the Franco-Prussian war; [none of the three versions that I have seen actually uses Zola’s amazing descriptive and symbolic conclusion]. That was a war that caused the political establishment to collapse. This is clearly a strand in the Renoir adaptation, but it is less overt than in the novel. In the following year, in 1939, Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu [The Rules of the Game] does provide a quite ruthless demolition of ruling class values.

So both the above films could be seen as using the novel’s narrative to provide a commentary on their own times.

That Obscure Object of Desire / Cet Obscur Objet du Désir 1977  – Louy’s novel seems to satirise C19th bourgeois sexual mores, through the stereotypes of Spanish machismo. These were popular stereotypes in literature. Bunuel’s adaptation retains that satire, but crosses it with themes of social and political violence, social ritual, voyeurism and tourism. Thus the film appears to draw analogies between the novel and contemporary society, but also between social, political and cultural contradictions. Thus I find the film much more subversive than the original book, [and two earlier film versions – a silent ‘porn’ version from 192 and the famous 1939 adaptation with Marlene Dietrich, The Devil is a Woman]. Also, whilst the film’s staging bears the recognisable signs of the 1970s, thematically it seems to me a powerful parable for the new C21st.

To a degree Renoir’s film version is an analogy. Undoubtedly, Buñuel’s work falls under analogy: in his case for the sake of art and of turning art upside down.

The Tin Drum – Before the discussion I remarked on how revisiting the book and novel had sharpened my sense of how the film curtails the narrative of the novel. It seems that Schlöndorff closes down Grass’s critique to a focus on the Third Reich and Nazism. This possibly makes the film more pointed, but it produces a slightly restricted ‘commentary’. The emphasis is on Germany’s ‘past’: an approach that ties in with the New German Cinema approach. The film is very much ‘adaptation’, for which Rushdie rightly praises it. The ‘commentary’ aspect relates to the ‘commentary’ in Grass’ novel, but in a restricted manner.

So the major problem with the film’s adaptation is that Grass critique of the post-Third Reich Germany is largely missing. This is a crucial theme across Grass’s work, culminating in his unfashionable opposition to the form taken for reunification. Moreover, Grass, especially in later works, addresses the problems of the ‘Soviet Liberation’ and the issue of the DDR. But in its treatment of the fascist period the film remains one of the most biting and powerful dissections of that period of German history. I still find The Tin Drum more politically powerful than recent parallel films like The Reader (2008) or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008).

I have recently seen the film adaptation of The Book Thief, a novel that I enjoyed immensely and which seems to be influence by Grass’s use of fantasy alongside realism. This later film just emphasises the quality of the Schlondorf film. If, as Rushdie argues, The Tin Drum is a great example of how to translate literature to film then The Book Thief is a text book example of how not to do so.

After the screenings, as at every session, we had a 20 to 25 minute questions and comments by the audience, composed of about 65 people. The final comment was by a young women who had attended all the screening and who usually had something interesting to say. I thanked everyone and said I hoped they had enjoyed the film and the morning. She sharply questioned my use of the word ‘enjoy’ and remarked on the grimness of the film. She was, of course, quite right. But I think she also agreed that enjoyment is only one aspect of cinema: there are other equally rewarding responses, and The Tin Drum feeds into a number of these.

Taken from the notes prepared for the York screening. Quotes by Grass in Nazi-Retro Film How German Narrative Cinema Remembers the Past by Robert C. Reimer and Carol J. Reimer, 1992. Adaptive categories in Geoffrey Wagner, The Novel and the Cinema, 1975.

Posted in German film, History on film, Literature on Film | Leave a Comment »

To the Commissioners of To the Editor of Amateur Photography

Posted by keith1942 on January 22, 2015

credit%20Pavilion%20feminist%20archive%20north

The film in question was commissioned by the Hyde Park Picture House and the Pavilion Visual Arts Commissioning Organisation in Leeds. The film was premiered at the Hyde Park in November 2014. There have been a number of screenings since and on Saturday 10th January 2015 there was a screening followed by a discussion involving the filmmakers, the participants and audience members.

The film is a study of the first period of the Pavilion Art Project in the 1980s, using archive documents, photographs, interviews with women involved in the project at that time and filming carried out during the production. The Pavilion started out as a project around women’s photography but over the years, partly due to funding pressures, the project has changed and developed and it is now an art commissioning project. The original venue of the project was a disused one storey building in the Hyde Park, alongside the Leeds University campus. I remember it chiefly for interesting exhibitions in the 1980s, though there were also seminars and other events

The basic form of the film uses montage, which can probably be considered an avant-garde form. Re-watching it I noted more aspects and gained a clearer sense of the content. It struck me that the photographs are organised both around themes but also around tropes: the latter offering a sense of the practical work of the project. I noted that the photographs are accompanied by recorded sound whilst the archive documents [minutes, letters, leaflets, pamphlets,…) are accompanied by electronic music: the latter increases in complexity as the film develops. The interviews are separated in presentation between visual and sound: the latter plays as voice-overs alongside discrete footage. The participants discuss chosen photographs that are not necessarily seen at that point: but I realised that all of them do figure in the montages of photographs through the film. Whilst the contemporary footage seems all to be of or about the actual film production. I also noted that from the early interviews there are questions raised about the form of the production itself.

The overall form of the film seems to be a ‘work in progress’: in a sense that the film foregrounds its own construction. This is definitely a form that might be considered avant-garde or at least modernist in its approach. It also relates to the body of film that follows the use of montage as it was developed in the pioneer Soviet cinema: The Factory of Facts collective would seem to be an important influence, either directly or mediated through filmmakers who follow their practice.

This presentation was via a DCP version, slightly different from the premiere. Visually this made little difference: black and white and colour images in a 1.37:1 frame. However the soundtrack was also embedded on the digital folders, and I thought there was less variation within the auditorium than with the direct sound at the premier.

Gill Park outside an earlier commissioned event at the old Majestic Cinema.

Gill Park outside an earlier commissioned event at the old Majestic Cinema.

The discussion that followed was very full and very interesting. There was a panel of speakers at the front of the auditorium:

Gill Park the current Director of the Pavilion: Will Rose, Associate Producer of the film: Luke Fowler and Mark Fell, the filmmakers: Griselda Pollock and Diana Clark, founders member of the Pavilion: and Irene  Revell, who acted as a sort of chair. There were also couple of the participants from the film in the audience.

What follows are my notes on the discussion, which lasted for an hour and a half. So these are partial, and, of course, my interpretation is based on notes taken during the discussion.

Gill opened up explaining some of the rationale and emphasising the stance of the Pavilion, which includes addressing the problematic of images and of their reproduction.

Will talked about setting up the production, which grew out of conversations with the two filmmakers. Also he explained how the Pavilion set about raising the funding: and pointing out that the film meshed with the 30th anniversary of the Pavilion and the centenary of the Hyde Park Picture House.

Irene then moved to the two filmmakers, Mark Fell and Luke. Mark explained how they had approached the project and the three major strands in the film – photographs, archive material, interviews.

Luke explained that the archive material was important, though it was incomplete: Mark added, ‘stuff left behind’ rather than being systematically’ collected and collated, [the archive material is housed in Feminist Archive North in the Special Collections at Leeds University]. The photographs were found as a collection of negatives, with no known provenance. The selection of photos used in the film was made at different points by Mark, Luke, Will and Gill.

Irene raised the question that one contentious issue was gender. Some of the interviews question why the film was made by two men. This also led on to comments about the interviews and the use of discrete image and sound. Points made included that of the context for photographs, which can be thought of as ‘mute documents’. There was also the point of bringing in what is ‘outside the frame’ of any photograph.

It seems that the interviews all followed the same format, though they do seem rather different. Each interviewee was asked to select a single photograph from the collection. They were all given the same four questions. And the interview was recorded aurally and subsequently, with suggestions from the interviewee, they were filmed and these images accompanied the sound recording.

Mark emphasised that he and Luke were the ‘authors of the film’ and took that responsibility’. He added that authorship can ‘take many forms’. Irene asked about the title, which was partly improvised but also reflected the view of Amateur Photography as a ‘bastion of male hegemony’.

Image

Before we heard from other panel members there were some comments/questions from members of the audience.

One young woman raised the point of the non-synchronised sound and suggested that this made ‘problematic the voice of the subject’.

Luke responded that they wanted to get away from the dominance of ‘talking heads’. He and Mark talked about filming the interviews and creating the music for the film, which was improvised.

Another woman referred to the collection of photograph in the film and expressed the view that many of them deserved to be highlighted as particular images. Luke responded that they wanted to place less emphasis on their qualities as photographic images and treat them as interesting images.

Another woman bought up the occasional appearances of the filmmakers: and Luke responded that they thought there was a problem when ’producers were presented as anonymous’. He also made the point that they were not making documentaries in the form followed by Nick Broomfield.

Points was made that the film only partially explained how the Pavilion developed/

Griselda Pollock now contributed to the discussion. She made some comments about the formal structures in documentary. One aspect, going back to John Grierson, treated film as ‘someone goes and looks at someone else’. She contrasted this with the work of one of the photographers featured in the film, Sirkka-LiisaKonttinen.  She worked for seven years in an area in Newcastle-on-Tyne, building up relationships with mothers and children involved in dance classes. Her work was not just about recording but also about ‘changing access’, and using ‘informal photography’ she also raised questions about how the recorded interviews were treated – there was a slight dispute about what editing left out from the interviewees comments.

Dinah Clarke also now contributed. She talked about her days in the initial work to develop the Pavilion project. One aspect of the context was that these were the years when the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper was taking place. Thus a place like the park ‘or moor’ was not necessarily a safe place for women. She also talked about how funding issues changed the nature of the project. The Art Council was only prepared to fund what it regarded as ‘quality photography’: ‘informal photography’ was seen as ‘community work’ rather than ‘art work’. The emphasis on exhibitions in the early years of the project resulted from this emphasis.

Griselda added some points about her personal experience. She also commented on the use of the archive material. As a historian she felt they could have made the material ‘more vivid’: there was a sense in which they were merely illustrative rather than informative.

Sue Ball, in the audience, added to these. She also raised the distinction between authorship and ownership. She pointed out that one important aspect of the project took place in the dark room: both for them professional photographers and for the users. She thought that there was this aspect of the project’s own production process which the film omitted.

As the discussion came to an end people returned to points about the filmmakers being men: to the changes that had occurred in the project since the period the film covered: and a suggestion that the matter needed to be related to different views of the Pavilion in the different generations who were involved.
Irene thanked everyone and then event came to an end, after an hour and half for discussion. This was an extensive discussion, even so there was clearly more to be said and there were individual discussion taking place in the foyer and outside the cinema.

I asked a question at one point. After a woman made the point about how the photographs were treated I asked whether the filmmakers had thought about using some of the modern technologies to produce a version that audiences or viewers could construct themselves. Mark responded that he was not interested in ‘a viewer’s narrative’. I can understand this standpoint. The filmmakers have produced a version that critiques conventional treatments, but viewers might choose to follow just those conventional approaches.

However, some of the participants in the Pavilion in the period studied felt that the film did not sufficiently reflect the role of people in constructing images and their meanings: one comment added that the film should include the users of the project, often involved in informal photography. This is a recurring contradiction between authorship in films and participation. I remember that Jean Rouch, who was partly responsible for the renewed interest in the Factory of Facts and the writings of Dziga Vertov, included in his seminal Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un Eté, 1960) a sequence where the participants viewed and commented on an early cut of the film. This appears to have happened to a degree with Letter, but only with those being interviewed and their segment sin the film. It would be interesting to take this further with others of the participants in the project, including ordinary women who were users of the centre.

This is a consideration of the film and its relationship to the Pavilion rather than a specific criticism. I remain impressed by the film. Someone near the end commented that one function of the film was to ‘galvanize people to do more work’ on the Pavilion and its history. That would be good, though given the ‘privatisation’ of Universities, I think the Feminist Archive North collection is probably less accessible than in the past. Mark and Luke talked about the time and labour they had to spend on this.

Those interviewed for the film were:

Dinah Clark. Angela Kingston. Caroline Taylor. Griselda Pollock. Sirkka-LiisaKonttinen. Quinn. Rosy Martin. Sutapa Biswas. Al Garthwaite. Deborah Best. Jenifer Carter Ramson. Sue Ball. Maggie Murray.

TO THE EDITOR OF AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHER
A Pavilion film by Mark Fell & Luke Fowler
Commissioned by Hyde Park Picture House & Pavilion
Kindly supported by: Arts Council England  Leeds City Council  Leeds Inspired
Hamilton Corporate Finance  Feminist Review Trust  Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society

Camera: Margaret Salmon
Second camera: Luke Fowler
Producer: Will Rose
Music: Mark Fell, Luke Fowler
Rostrum: Jo Dunn, Leeds Animation Workshop
Grading: Ben Mullen at Serious
Sound Mix: Iain Anderson at Savalas
Music mastering: Andreas [LUPO] Lubich at Calyx
Telecine colourist: Paul Dean at Cinelab
Lab: Cinelab London
Film stock: Kodak
Pavilion: Gill Park, Anna Reid, Will Rose, Linzi Stauvers, Miriam Thorpe

Posted in Documentary, History on film | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Miners on Film

Posted by keith1942 on September 26, 2014

Mitchell&Kenyon13CreswellAndL

The working class tends suffer a subordinate role in mainstream films under capitalism: the unfortunately short-lived socialist cinemas offered an alternative as did Labour Movement films. Organised labour, in the presence of miners and mining communities is one frequent representative.

In 1933 Joris Ivens and Henri Storck made Borinage, focusing on a miners’ strike in Belgium. The Lad from the Taiga (Paren’ iz Tajgi, 1941) is a Soviet drama directed by Ol’ga Preobraženskaja and Ivan Pravov, the film follows the conflict between individualism and co-operation among gold miners in a remote area. In 1953 a group of filmmakers blacklisted by the Hollywood Studios, dramatised events from a strike in New Mexico. Barbara Kopple in 1976 made the independent Harlan County, USA depicting the violence directed against striking miners in Kentucky. The last film deservedly received a high rating from the Sight & Sound critics poll of ‘great documentaries. Grupo Ukamau produced The Clandestine Nation (La Nación Clandestina, 1976) which portrayed the struggles of miners in the Bolivian Andean plateau.

Mining and miners is one area, which has enjoyed some space and prominence for working class characters and communities in the mainstream. Examples can be found in most film industries. Hollywood’s Daryl F. Zanuck produced an adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s classic novel, How Green was My Valley, in 1941. One of the early classics of European cinema is Kameradschaft (The Tragedy of the Mine, 1931) which celebrates working class solidarity across borders. And there are at least six film versions of Emile Zola’s classic novel, Germinal: though the most radical is also one of the earliest, in 1914. From farther afield comes The Human Condition (Ningen no jôken, Japan 1959 – 1961) in which the protagonists supervises forced Korean labour working in mines. There is also Blind Shaft (Mang Jing, 2003) which deals with exploitation in open cast mining in China.

As one would expect mining and miners have been a recurring feature in British cinema as well. The conditions and dangers of mining make for dramatic situations. The fact that there are often whole mining communities involved, not just a group of workers, offers strong characterisations. And, in Britain especially, for much our industrial history, mining has been a core industry and the miners have been in the vanguard of the organised working class.

So miners turn up in the early days of British cinema. Mitchell & Kenyon were a regional film company, based in Blackburn and filming and distributing both actuality films and short fictional films. There are several short films on mining in the surviving archive, including a Miners Demonstration at Wakefield in 1908. This expression of solidarity, involving miners, women and children, was seen as rather threatening by the political establishment: a press report described it as ‘organised rowdyism’.

More substantial is A Day in the Life of a Miner filmed by Keystone in 1911 for the London & North Western Railway: the colliery featured was Alexandra Colliery of Wigan Coal & Iron Co Ltd. There are clearly staged scenes, actual footage in the mine workings and shots of women workers hauling away on the surface. But, apart from Newsreels, there do not seem to be any contemporary film reports or dramas of the 1926 General Strike, in which the miners were key players.

Coal Face title

Sound cinema bought new presentation to the industry and its workers. Coal Face (1935) was produced for the GPO Film Unit and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti. Cavalcanti had a background in European avant-garde cinema. The eleven-minute film enjoyed contributions from composer Benjamin Britton and poet W H Auden. Predominately the film used ‘found footage’ from other work by the Unit, which was then edited into a very distinctive montage.

It is worth noting that in the 1930s the Regional Committees of The Miners Welfare Fund were able to organise leisure facilities. These were especially extensive in Wales and a number included cinemas equipped with 35mm sound film projection.

The strength and centrality of coal mining and the political issues around the industry can be seen in The Stars Look Down (1939). Produced by the small Grafton Production Company, it was filmed at the Denham Studio with location work at mining pits in Cumberland. The story was adapted from the novel of the same name by A. J. Cronin, and adapted by J. B. Williams and Cronin himself. The film was directed by Carol Reed and starred Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood and Emlyn Williams. The film develops its story to a serious accident at the mine, a staple of mining films. But the disaster and the victims are tied to a message of nationalisation, already becoming a key industrial battleground before the war. A year earlier, in 1938, the British arm of MGM had produced another adaptation of a novel by Cronin, The Citadel. The follows the travails of a young doctor, played by Robert Donat, working in the slums of a Welsh mining village. Again in 1939 Ealing Studios produced The Proud Valley. A wandering black stoker joins the Welsh village choir and the pit workforce. Almost predictably he sacrifices his life in a mining disaster. The stoker David Goliath is played by the charismatic Paul Robeson, who enjoyed better roles in British sound films than those in his native USA.

The focus on disaster is found again in a post-war film, The Brave Don’t Cry (1952). Philip Leacock directed an almost documentary recreation of the 1950 mining disaster in Knockshinnock in Scotland, though using some conventional melodrama and stars like John Gregson.

40-years-on-1977-001-national-coal-board-management_0

However, by now the mining industry had been nationalised. The National Coal Board produced a whole series of films about the mines, mining and miners, including between 1947 and 1983 a Mining Review newsreel. But the new management in 1947 included some of the representatives of old and discredited owners. This is an issue addressed in Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ‘45

The contradictions of this strategy came to a head in the famous conflict of 1974. The independent film collective Cinema Action made a 16mm black and white documentary [with a grant from the British Film Institute] presenting the point of view of the miners during the 1974 dispute. The film took a social and historical view, including reflecting back to the 1926 General Strike. This sense of the relevance of that earlier event was also seen in Robert Vas’s documentary Nine Days in ’26 (1973): in an episode of the TV series Upstairs Downstairs in the same year: and most famously in the final episode of Ken Loach’s Days of Hope (BBC 1975).

The historical references were to be again potent in the great miners’ strike of 1984.

Ken Loach’s Which Side Are You On? (London Weekend Television, 1985) is a beautifully crafted montage of miners, mining communities, organisers, activists, singers and poets. It was originally commissioned for the South Bank Show. Melvyn Bragg found the film ‘too political’, but worked with Loach to achieve an ‘acceptable final cut.’ But then the LWT management banned the film. It was later screened by Chanel 4. This sort of censorship was going on right through the strike and for a considerable time afterwards. A detailed study can by found in the research by the Glasgow Media Group and The Campaign for Freedom in the Press and Media.

Which side title

Since 1984 there have been several documentaries and features focusing on these events. Two important films are Mike Figgis’ The Battle of Orgreave (C4 2002): and this year’s Still the Enemy Within (2014).

Features include Billy Elliot  (2000) which follows the story of an eleven-year old boy, the son of a miner involved in the struggle. But the focus of the film is the son’s interest in ballet, with the strike featuring as background and context. The earlier Brassed Off  (1994) also relies on personalised drama. Produced by Film Four and Miramax, it was written and directed by Mark Herman. The cast is led by Pete Postlethwaite, and includes Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald and a host of familiar faces from both film and television. The film directly addressed the aftermath of the 1984 strike through the programme of pit closures that followed over the next decade. If Billy Elliot offers an unlikley combination of ‘Swan Lake’ and coal hewing, Brassed Off has the brilliant marriage of the coal miners and the Brass Band culture, so strong in the mining regions. This film does also actually show some working miners, actual labour power not being a common sight in British films.

Both films aspire to provide an entertaining story and feel-good resolution. Empire commented on Billy Elliot “The first genuinely exhilarating Brit Flick of the new millennium…”. Time Out commented that Brassed Off  “pulls off a popular proletarian comedy which might actually appeal to the people its about … [but which also is] not shy at laying the blame”.

The success of both films suggests that they did manage to combine comedy, drama and notable historical events to effect. What is interesting is both leave [or attempt to leave] the audience with an upbeat ending, despite the miners actually suffering defeat. It struck me that there are not any major dramas on film recording the victory in 1984. Is this the [supposed] sympathy of the British public for the underdog? Certainly in political life there is much less sign of sympathy for organised labour.

Brassed collapse

These films about miners are part of a larger cycle of British films about ordinary working people; for instance The Full Monty (1997). They don’t actually suggest social or economic change, they celebrate survival. The film that actually ends in a real-life victory is Made in Dagenham (2010), celebrating the working women at the Ford Motor plant. However, the latter film is more about women’s rights than industrial conflict: part of the problem is male trade unionists. Women are important figures in a number of the mining films, despite the stereotypical image of the male miner. The Lad from Taiga has a woman engineer as a central character. In Salt of the Earth the women take over the picket when the men are barred by a court injunction. Days of Hope and Which Side Are You On?, in different ways, both rely on the women participants to progress the struggle.

However Brassed Off, whilst it has emotional scenes involving wives, fails to provide a close focus of the ‘Women Against Pit Closures’. And in Billy Elliot the one notable women character comes from outside the mining community. Indeed Brassed off and Billy Elliot both fail to develop a strong sense of the miming communities. Whereas Which Side Are You On? is centrally about those communities.

It is difficult to find a film that exposes the interests of the capital class directly. The film that come closest to this is Ken Loach’s Days of Hope, where the final words following the end of the 1926 General Strike are given to two members of the Communist Party of Great Britain [and a caretaker]. But this series received some of the most apoplectic criticism seen in recent years in the mainstream media.

Pride (2014), like some of the earlier films, is based on actual events. The scriptwriter Stephen Beresford hawked the idea around for years without success. Then David Livingstone, the producer, became interested. He obtained some development money from Working Title. The film was eventually produced by Pathé with financial support from BBC Films and the British Film Institute.  The pre-release publicity suggested that it combined personal drama and comedy and was likely to end with some sort of feel-good resolution. It certainly relies on certain British generic conventions and a cast of recognisable British character actors. Beresford and the film’s director Mathew Warchus main experience is in theatre and the film relies on acting and character. The film’s distinctive contribution, very much of the C21st, is ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’: in the guise of a Welsh mining village.

The film is stronger on the role of women and has a greater sense of community than most of the other films in the cycle. The depiction of Gays and Lesbian’s in the film is somewhat stereotypical, and issues like sexuality and Aids are shied away from. The latter presumably down to the inhibitions of the BBFC. Fundamentally though the film follows the cycle in its concentration on the personal rather than the political or the economic. What lies under the surface of this famous conflict is not unearthed. The economic imperatives of the 1980s, including the weakening of the power of organised Labour, is absent from the film. Certainly, like Brassed Off, the film develops sympathy for the miners. For an understanding of what the events actually signify one still needs to return to a film like Which Side Are You On?

Developed from Notes for an Introduction to a screening of Pride at the National Media Museum.

Posted in British films, History on film, Movies with messages, Union films | Leave a Comment »

Belle, USA / UK 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on July 16, 2014

Portrait of Dido and Elizabeth

Portrait of Dido and Elizabeth

This is a period costume drama, which retells in a somewhat fictional form the story of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She was the illegitimate daughter of a successful C18th English sea captain and a former black slave, Maria Belle. Her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) puts her, in the care of the Mansfield family at their Kenwood mansion. There she is bought up a lady of the landed gentry, though without the full rights accorded her white cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) is the Lord Chief Justice of the English legal system. And the familial crosses over with the social when he has to decide on an appeal concerning the slave ship Zong – a notorious incident where African slaves were thrown overboard on the pretext of a shortage of water. The film takes us up to the resolution of this seminal legal case and to Dido’s entry into an autonomous adult world.

This is a fairly conventional period film, what gives it distinction is the black heroine at the centre of the story. It has been directed by Amma Asante. Her previous and first feature was A Way of Life (UK 2004), a contemporary drama about working class young people, including a pregnant teenager, in South Wales. This film was notable both for its social realist style and its sympathetic and empathetic depiction of its protagonist world. Asante’s other work has been on television. Belle has a very different feel. The film project stems from the script by Misan Sagay, with whose work I am unfamiliar. It is partly funded by the British Film Institute but also be C20th Fox, and I suspect the latter has influenced the stronger generic feel in the film.

Whilst the film is an excellent production, with fine technical values and acting, I felt there were a number of problems with the way it treated this historical story. Foremost was the question of the Appeal Trial regarding the slaver Zong. The Insurers had refused to pay the claims by the ships owners for the loss of cargo. Taken to court the insurers lost and then appealed. The case was a seminal one in terms of black people, slaves and ex-slaves under British law. It also was extremely important in the developing financial capital of the City whilst the slave trade was the basis of British profitability and the developing industrial base. Alongside these key economic imperatives the case became an important opportunity for the developing antislavery movement. There was a welter of pamphlets and immense public interest.

Even at the time there were those who suggested that having a black ward in his house could affect the decision by Lord Mansfield. This is a point picked up and developed in the film.

Neither Dido’s own history or the records of English law cases in this period appear to be complete and detailed. However, it is clear that the filmmakers have taken some liberties with the historical record for dramatic purpose. This is always a tricky area in which to make judgements, but I do feel that the uses made have actually been very conventionalised.

These points emerged when I consulted Lord Mansfield A Biography of William Murray 1st earl of Mansfield 1705 – 1793 Lord Chief Justice for 32 years by Edmund Heward (Barry Rose 1979). One point concerns evidence regarding the ship Zong and the issue of water. In the film Dido, who is taking a strong interest in the case, surreptitiously finds evidence amongst Lord Mansfield’s papers and passes this to an anti-slavery campaigner, John Davinier (Sam Reid). Heward quotes Mansfield’s ruling agreeing to a new trial on appeal, which specifically mentions this evidence, thus already in the public domain.

Then we arrive at the day of the Appeal Decision. Lord Mansfield appears alone to read his decision to a packed courtroom. Did appears, cloaked but clearly recognisable as a woman and apparently the only one present! But Heward’s account notes that three judges were involved in the appeal case. It was at a hearing for the application by the insurers for a new trial that Mansfield read out his comments. Heward also notes that there is no report of an actual trial, and that the owners ‘appear to have had second thoughts’. He then comments that the publicity and public interest in the case led to later statutes prohibiting the insurance of slaves in this manner.

These are to a degree minor changes for greater dramatic effect. However, they also provide Dido with a role and influence in an important historical milestone in the anti-slavery movement. I do wonder a little at that. The film does offer scenes where Lord Mansfield airs some of the issues and contradictions in the case. But overall the film is privileging the personal over the political.

Other aspects of the film make me wonder at the accuracy of the film’s depiction of Dido’s life at Kenwood House. The film’s most noted point is that it uses a surviving painting of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray held in Scone Palace in Scotland. We see the portrait of these two young and privileged women as it is being painted in the film. To be accurate we see them sit for the painter: at one point together and at another Dido is seated alone. Meanwhile the film points up the representations of Africans in art of the period as we see [with Dido] a series of traditional portraits where a black African is typically at the feet of a white master. However, when at the film’s conclusion we come to see the actual painting, or a reproduction, the two women are not seated side by side. Lady Elizabeth is seated and very much the traditional young woman of C18th portraiture. Dido stands alongside Lady Elizabeth, pointing to her cheek and arraigned in a far more exotic garb. Apparently this is ‘one of the first portraits to show a black person on an equal eye-line with a white aristocrat’.  However, they do not seem equal. The first time I saw this painting, unaware of its significance, I assumed the black woman was a servant. The publicity material for the film suggests that Dido ‘appears vivacious and intriguing next to her cousin’s formal pose’. That seems to me to still carry the sense of the exotic and the other. The film does show the way that Dido suffers discrimination in a family that apparently cares and supports her because of her skin colour  [‘a mulatto’] and her illegitimacy. I did feel that the film never quite decided to what extent Dido was ‘integrated’ in that society. Perhaps the film’s producers were over-awed by the subject matter, or maybe the screenplay overemphasised the decorous aspect of C18th elite society. The nastier aspects of this society are all dramatised in one family, the Ashfords. Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) is obsessed with finding rich marital prospects for her sons: Oliver (James Norton) who proposes to Dido because she has a fortune: and James (Tom Felton) who is both racist and misogynistic. This treatment is just as dramatically conventional

Another oddity of the release in the UK was the BBFC notes on the Certification. First it warned of a ‘brief sexual assault’ which is technically accurate but over emphasises the incident in question. Then it noted ‘a discrimination theme’! As far as I can remember I don’t think that 12 Years a Slave carried such a clause. What was its purpose?

My mind goes back to Philadelphia (USA 1993) an early Hollywood foray into gay relationships. Extremely dramatic and well done but never achieving a full-blooded grasp of the subject. Belle is well worth seeing and is a fascinating exploration of an often-overlooked area. I think it would have generated more power if it did not feel so much part of the heritage film cycle. This is especially strong for the resolution, where the orchestral score [by Rachel Portman] rises and increases on the soundtrack. And that, of course, was also the problem with an earlier film set in the same period and addressing the same subject, Amazing Grace (2006).

 

Posted in British films, History on film, UK filmmakers | Leave a Comment »

Gettysburg

Posted by keith1942 on June 12, 2013

gettysburg-movie-poster-1020309869

This was the final screening at the National Media Museum’s Widescreen Weekend in April. It was presented in a 70mm print; this was the original UK print in 1.85:1. There was an introduction by Sheldon Hall who placed this epic reconstruction of the major battle of the US Civil War in the cinematic context. He noted some of the predecessors on film and for television. This version started out as a mini-series for Turner Television, directed by Ronald F Maxwell, and was then given a limited theatrical release. The filming depended on the contribution of over 3,000 volunteers from the historical re-enactment societies, all of whom performed for free. And the film was shot on the original location, now a Nationals Park. This theatrical version runs for 254 minutes, though that is shorter than the actual battle.

The recreation is impressive. Thousands of men toil across fields, through woods, up rocky inclines, while shot and shell fall among them. One can see why Gettysburg, and indeed the US Cilia War in its entirety, was such a bloody conflict. It was also, as Sheldon noted a great conflict for beards and moustaches, which grace nearly all the main characters.

The approach if Gettysburg is to focus on key individuals, mainly generals and officers. On the Union side the key individual is Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a liberal teacher enrolled in the army. By his side is a somewhat stereotypical Irish sergeant major to whom he explains the morality of the war. The character enables the film to present moments of ‘progressive’ Union rhetoric [one of the subjects at the college where Chamberlain worked]. However, the film overall fails to project the moral and political superiority of the Union. This is an example that two US academic call the ‘curiously blame-free experience’ which is seen as the Civil War. A course that Hollywood, aiming at audiences in both the North and the South, has tended to follow.

It seemed to me that the film actually spends more time and feeling on the Confederacy than on the Union: their characters appear first in the ‘cast list’. [This is also true of Maxwell’s prequel Gods and Generals, 2002]. The key Confederate character is General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen). For me one puzzle was his reputation, both at the end of the film when he is cheered by the Confederate survivors and historically, at least in the South. The Confederate battle seems poorly managed. The Calvary under J.E.B. Stuart is out of control. The early engagements lack initiative. And the central event is ‘Pickett’s charge’ personally ordered by Lee. We watch several thousand confederate soldiers march up a long slope as the Union artillery and troops mow them down. Equally puzzling is that it looks just like one of the inane attacks ordered by British Generals in World War I. One would have thought that those military professionals would have studied the US Civil War and learned some lessons.

The most interesting character on the Confederate side is Brigadier-General Lewis Amistead (Richard Jordan). We see him in several times in conversations among the officers: on every occasion he worries that a close friend {Major-General Hancock) is present in the Union army. Even as he approaches death this is his main concern. Jordan seems deliberately to play this as a suppressed gay attraction: an aspect that stands out from the military characterisations of the film generally.

One aspect that made the film interesting to see again was the recent release of Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). That film focuses on the Union and on the politics behind the battles. It also addresses with more [if limited] emphasis the question of colour and of slavery.

See American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film by Trevor McCrisken and Andrew Peter, Edinburgh University Press 2005.

Posted in History on film, Hollywood stars, US films | Leave a Comment »