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Archive for the ‘Literature on Film’ Category

adaptations from novels, plays, short stories and poems.

Divine, France 1935.

Posted by keith1942 on July 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Cousin Rachel, Britain, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on June 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Their Finest, Britain, Sweden 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

An American Tragedy, the novel and the films.

Posted by keith1942 on April 20, 2017

One of my potent memories from my early film going days is of Montgomery Cliff and Elizabeth Taylor entwined in a kiss in A Place in the Sun (1951). For years the sequence remained the embodiment of romantic desire for me. I was not familiar with the literary version from which the film was adapted [via a play], Theodore Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy’ [published in 1925]. Then more recently I saw the 1931 version of the novel [with the original title] directed by Josef von Sternberg. By this time I was also aware that a version of the novel had been planned as part of Sergei Eisenstein’s abortive attempts to make a film in Hollywood. So I read the book: I also read ‘Sister Carrie’, another  Dreiser novel adapted by Hollywood, Carrie (1952), with fine direction by William Wyler and fine performances by Jenifer Jones and Lawrence Olivier.

An early 20th century novel, which judging by the library copy I borrowed is now little read, and two adaptations made in Hollywood more than fifty years ago sounds a little esoteric. But in its day the book was a best seller and very influential. Many critics and commentators also saw it as a compelling commentary on US society. Theodore Dreiser used a real-life murder as the basis for his plot of a young man who loves both a working girl and a rich socialite. Faced by the former’s pregnancy, he first tries abortion then killing. Dreiser maintained

“it could not happen in any other country in the world”.

That claim was illuminated by another book, Mandy Merck’s study of the novel and film versions [2007]. She comments

“the novel and its adaptations both constitute and are constituted by the convulsions of the nation state that is its protagonist and its theme”.

The book is concerned with the sociology of the protagonist’s fate, not the drama.

Merck discusses in detail the origins of Dreiser’s novel, (written whilst he worked in Hollywood), and the three film versions: one by Sergei Eisenstein, unrealised; one by Josef Von Sternberg for Paramount in 1931: and the most famous, directed by George Stevens for Paramount in 1951, A Place in the Sun. Merck points out in her introduction that she studies the authors, who include Dreiser, the directors who worked on the adaptations, and the economic authors, the Hollywood studios. She does this in an exemplary fashion, having clearly engaged in very detailed research.

So we get the development of Dreiser’s mammoth novel, running to 800 pages. Dreiser was an important contributor to a movement for realist fiction. He himself had researched the real-life love and affairs and subsequent murders that are the prime focus. He always carefully researched the places and people who fill his novels. H. L. Mencken commented,

“When he sent some character into an eating-house for a meal it was always some eating-house that he had been to himself, and the meal he described in such relentless detail was one he had eaten, digested and remembered.” (Introduction to the 1948 edition).

Another writer quoted in Merck’s volume opined,

“No one else confronted so directly the sheer intractability of American social life and institutions, or … the difficulty of breaking free from social law.” (D. Denby in 2003).

The length and complexity of this novel made for a daunting adaptation. It was one of the projects worked on by Sergei Eisenstein when he sojourned briefly in Hollywood in 1929. Dreiser’s depiction of class divisions and his sociological standpoint clearly appealed to Eisenstein. He worked up a script for a 14-reel version. Merck studies this in detail, and it promised to be an intelligent and cinematic version of the novel. Dreiser certainly gave his approval. However, it did not get past the studio bosses, presumably made nervous by moral and red-baiting would-be censors. The author’s discussion is interesting in terms of Eisenstein’s career, though I always wonder how either he or his companions seriously imagined they could make a film in Hollywood.

The Sternberg version seems mainly to have been an attempt to recoup some of the costs by the studio. Sternberg was interested in illusion and artifice rather than realism. A quote by Selznick runs,

“I don’t think he has the basic honesty, the tolerance, the understanding this subject absolutely requires, . . .”

Moreover, the imminent arrival of Hollywood system of censorship, the Hays Code, made the explicit subject of the novel difficult. On completion, Dreiser was appalled at what his original had become, and undertook legal action, but he lost.

The post-war version that was very much Stevens’ own project. But Ivan Moffat complained,

“Stevens was a romantic, so the bleak social picture painted by Dreiser took second place to the steamy love-affair between George and Angela” (the protagonist and his privileged amour).

Certainly the film’s centre was the on- (and off-) screen romance: which I vividly remember. It does also have the put-upon workmate/victim of George; a fine performance by Shelley Winters as Alice.

All four versions of the story suffered from censorship and social outrage, since the original plot contained seduction, attempted abortion, murder and official corruption. Some of those involved in the 1950s version were also caught up in the HUAC’s attack on the Industry’s ‘liberals’. Merck spends time on these various social angles and their impact on the succeeding projects, and the overall discourse of book and films.

The book develops into a compelling and informative study of Hollywood and its relationship to US society and the wider world. At the end of the book Merck notes that 2005 saw a version of the original novel at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House: and a faintly disguised borrowing in Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005, inferior). Even Jean-Luc Godard joined the act with a brief reference in Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989 – 1999)..

I certainly recommend Mandy Merck’s authoritative study. I also recommend Dreiser’s original ‘An American Tragedy’. The 800 pages do not seem so many when you get involved in the novel. Coincidentally, I have also recently re-read novels by Dreiser’s fellow realist, Upton Sinclair. So I am now resolved to read that other doyen of North American realism, Frank Norris. Hollywood famously filmed his ‘McTeague’ as Greed (1923), with equally problematic results. The director was Erich Von Stroheim, who, along with Eisenstein, was one of the filmmakers preferred by Dreiser for his own epic work.

‘Hollywood’s American Tragedies: Dreiser, Eisenstein, Sternberg, Stevens’ by Mandy Merck, Berg 2007.

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Elle, France, Germany, Belgium 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2017

This film has received much critical praise. In particular Isabelle Hubert in the lead role has been uniformly lauded, winning the Best Actress Award at the Golden Globes. At the same time there has been discussion and argument regarding the film’s subject, a woman’s reaction to rape. So this is a very effective title but also one which is somewhat controversial.

The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven, a filmmaker with a reputation for shocking audiences and tending to a degree of exploitation, especially of sex and violence. The best known example would be Basic Instincts (1992). However, I think that there is some difference in content and tone between his films made in Hollywood [the majority] and films made in Europe. In particular Black Book (Netherlands, Germany, UK, Belgium, 2006) struck me as less than conventional with its study of a Jewish women who is caught between the Dutch resistance and the German occupiers during World War II. More generally Verhoeven has the ability to take genre films in unconventional and unexpected directions. His Hollywood film Total Recoil (1990) is one of the more distinctive contributions to the science fiction genre. This likely depends in part on his collaborators. Total Recall was adapted from a work by Philip K. Dick whilst Black Book was scripted by the writer of the original novel Gerard Soeteman.

Elle opens on an assault of Michéle Le Blanc (Isabelle Hubert) by a masked man in her own home. This is violent and kinetic action. The rest of the film studies her responses which include her relations with an ex-husband and son, her woman friend and partner, a lover, and two neighbours. There are two flashbacks to the initial rape, a further assault and a sequence of what is termed ‘rough sex’. There are two important strands. One if Michéle’s response to the experience. The other, which interacts, is the unmasking of the perpetrator.

The rape sequences are treated in a typical visceral fashion by Verhoeven. And we return to these several times. The violence in the film is added to by a family connection to a series of brutal killings. And both are reinforced by the video game company that Michéle runs with her friend Anna (Anne Consigny); in fact the video game aspect is part of a series of false leads that the film exploits. All of these lends credence to the argument by Ginette Vincendeau in Sight & Sound (April 2017) that the film ‘crosses the line’.

However, the character of Michelle as presented by Hubert is far more complex. We see her interactions with her friends, her management at work, and her solitude [importantly with a cat].. Her comments to other characters and the more ambiguous allusions lend weight to the argument by Erika Balsom in S&S that the film ‘explores’ rather than crosses the line.

I found myself being partially convinced by both sets of arguments. My feeling is that the film is on the borderline between a serious study and a piece of exploitation. Borderlines are a common feature of Verhoeven’s work. And indeed they are also familiar in the screen work of Isabelle Hubert.

The generis of the film is interesting. It is based on a French novel which was translated in order to provide a basis for an English-language script pitched to US majors. That failed and seeing the film one can understand why. When Hubert expressed interest the film the script then had to be translated into French. This is a intriguing comment on international film production. But it seems to me that this process, and especially the presence of Hubert, accounts for the ambiguous status of the film. One aspect of the plot which I suspect was left over from the US version of the script is the video game company. I found this the weakest aspect of the film: in the book Michéle and Anna run a team of scriptwriters. The latter is much more in keeping with the characters we see in the film.

Of course, Verhoeven has a tendency to want to ‘have his cake and eat it to’. Inflammatory material for the box office, intriguing thematic angles for critics. But I am finally more impressed than disturbed by the film. It is the best of the Verhoeven films that I have seen. And Isabelle Hubert’s performance is riveting, and that of an actor whose work over a number of decades stands out triumphantly.

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Arrival – Philosophy on Film

Posted by keith1942 on January 14, 2017

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It seems to me that there has been an increase in writing on film that addresses philosophical issues. However, the content does not always match up to the traditional sense of this concept:

“the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence”

It is even less common for films to address such issues. But this science fiction film (USA 2016) seems to do this to a greater degree than is common, certainly with mainstream films. It is a complex film and I watched it twice before I was satisfied that I have completely grasped the plot. But a second viewing also made me consider some of the existential and moral issues that it raises.

The film is adapted from a short story by a US-based writer Ted Chiang. I have not read the original: our local library has not got a copy. But I have checked out some reviews which has given me a sense of how the film differs from the story. The story, and to a degree the film, address theories regarding language, perception, what we call time, and even cause and effect. Some of these theories are matters of debate among scholars. Some are certainly complex and I did not understand some of the more intricate aspects of some theories. What seemed clear to me was that certain concepts or phrases are treated ambiguously in the film. So I have noted this by using ‘…’ as for ‘present’, ‘past’ and ‘future’, all aspects in the story whose meaning needs to be tested.

The film centres on the character of Doctor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a linguistic scholar. When Alien spaceships arrive on earth Louise is recruited to assist in establishing communications with the Aliens. She works alongside a physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Both are under the control of a Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Agent Halpern (Michael Stulbarg). Most of the action takes place at a temporary military base at the site occupied by the Alien space craft. We learn that there are eleven other such space crafts at various sites round the world. Whilst the Doctors Banks and Donnelly pursue their research there is an interchange via video links with teams in other countries also attempting to communicate with the aliens.

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The concept and visualisation of the Aliens is brilliant. They are seven-limbed and christened ‘Heptapods’. Their spoken and written [graphic] language appear incomprehensible. At the same time they appear more interested in observing than [say] threatening earth. Donnelly christens the two that he and Louise [and we] meet ‘Abbott and Costello’.

Some of the most fascinating sequences are as Louise takes a lead in working out how to communicate with the Aliens. We are told that their spoken language bears no relationship with their written language. The latter appears more like graphic/symbolic displays than writing. And the symbols shoot out from one of the limbs of the Alien and are displayed on the glass screen between the Aliens and the scientists. As Louise develops her understanding of their communication she explains that each symbol is known completely before being presented: she uses the example of writing a sentence with both hands starting on opposite sides of  page. The writer would need to know the whole communication exactly in advance, even the space between letters.

Donnelly contributes to the understanding by identifying and explaining that the Aliens do not relate to what we call time in the same way as humans. Essentially he claims that they are aware of all parts of a series in a timeline at once. This seems not to be the same aspect as involved in time travel but is a mode of perception, even existence.

Since this is a mainstream release it also has an amount of action and suspense. Both are created by tensions and suspicions between the different countries working with/against the Aliens. It falls to Louise to prevent armed conflict at the moment of crisis and climax. She does this by conducting the Commander (General Shang / Tzi Ma)in charge of the Chinese effort and using knowledge she has gained from the Heptapods, defuses the situation. It is worth noting that the representation of the Chinese does not go beyond the Shang character and this presents an autocratic and militaristic regime.

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Interwoven with the somewhat conventional sci-fi plot are a series of sequences with Louise and her daughter Hannah (four actresses of different ages). These both open and close the film and appear frequently in between. At first they seem to be flashbacks: then they seem to possibly be flash-forwards. It is apparent that they are connected in some way with Louise’s contact with the Heptapods.

Another point that develops with the film is the assumption that the use of language affects the way of thinking. In Louise’s case this means as she develops her grasp of the Alien language she also acquires their perception of time. This only falls into place for the viewer towards the end of the film. At this point it becomes apparent that in terms of human perception of time the Alien arrival occurs at the beginning of the narrative that we witness: and that the birth, upbringing and early death of Hannah occur later. The sequences in which we see/hear what seem to be Louise’s perception of Hannah’s life are examples of seeing events across a whole timeline and not as human being usually experience this: in a linear fashion.

The interaction of the two plot lines presents a different manner of regarding time. This is a familiar trope in science fiction but treated in an atypical manner. It raises issues about philosophical questions and also about the film’s plot line itself. Apparently the conflict that develops between the different states engaging with the Aliens and the resolution of this have been added to the original story. I found this not completely convincing. Even at my first viewing the manner in which Louise ‘converts’ General Shang seemed rather pat. Moreover the film implies that the way the conflict and resolution is plotted follows a design by the Aliens. Their visit to earth is motivated by the fact that in several thousand years in the future they will need assistance from earth. So this plotting supposedly produces a unified earth community that will still be round when needed. This was not only pat but given human history [with which the Aliens are presumably conversant] seriously unconvincing.

A second plot problem relates to the personal. In the alternative time sequence we learn that Louise and Ian, now married and parents of Hannah, have separated. The reason is that Louise told Ian something and he could not accept this. What she told him is that she knew when they conceived Hannah that she would die young: he thinks she made the wrong decision. However, if Louise can see across the timeline she would know what Ian’s response would be in advance.

Some reviews suggest that Louise chooses to conceive Louise despite knowing the outcome. This could be applied to Louise telling Ian. I do not find that totally convincing. In both cases one could interpret the events and choices as fated, rather like a Greek tragedy. Another aspect would be other comments in reviews to the purpose that one can know the ‘future’ but not change it. This is intriguing because it separates the treatment of time in this work from that of time travel. It appears that not even the Aliens in ‘Arrival’ time travel. But they see across time, a skill that Louise develops. This aspect raises questions about the relationship between cause and effect.

Arrival appears to have been influenced by Chris Marker’s science fiction classic La Jetée (1962). That film appears to be about time travel as the protagonists goes forward in time and then backwards in time. However, the plot is really about his life story and centrally about memory. At the conclusion the viewer realises that his experience in what seems to be the ‘past’ has characterised all his other experiences. So something similar can be seen in the presentation of Louise and Hannah’s stories. The film and story seems to be playing with philosophical concepts of time. There is Immanuel Kant’s position that this is a ‘systematic mental framework’ and also Eisenstein’s argument in relativity that different observers see events in time differently.

It is worth noting how Louise appears to view across the timeline: the film does not give any idea of how the Heptapods do this. When she has been in close proximity to the Heptapods we see insert shots, as if she has been stimulated by the Aliens. Elsewhere she works at it rather in the way that people work at recovering memories: there is no sense that she has an overview of all elements or events at once. So in one scene she ‘remembers’ a concept taught her by Ian to solve a question by Hannah. The key example is her call to General Shang on a mobile, as she talks on the phone she ‘remembers’ the conversation she will have with the General after the crisis is over. In this case what is in the ‘future’ informs her actions at an earlier point in time. This is the paradox associated with time travel and which also appears in La Jetée  and numerous other science fiction works.

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Louise’s development of the ability to see across the timeline follows from an assumption that language affects the way that humans think. The alternative position is that the way humans think affects language. The film does not follow this through. In the film Louise publishes a book on the Alien language: it is visible at the reception where she meets General Shang and the logo on the book is seen several times in the ‘future sequences’. Are other humans learning the language? Is that the object of the Alien visit so that when the need arises humans will see across the timeline in relation to the Alien situation? Why does Ian not learn the language? He does not seem to display much interest in this. Perhaps he has picked up a smattering and that is the reason that Louise feels impelled to tell him about Hannah.

The aspect of the story that the film does emphasise is gender. Science fiction remains a predominately masculine genre, even after the appearance of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien (1979): and the same problem bedevils Passengers (USA 2016) despite the presence of Jennifer Lawrence. In Arrival Louise is more or less the lone woman in a man’s world. The leading  characters in the ‘present’ are all men. The only other important character is Hannah. Even when we see other research teams round the world on the video-call I do not remember any women members. The most notable females are the presenters on the Television News Broadcasts.

Moreover the male characters in the film display the stereotypical attitudes of men: prone to expect conflict and aggression. So Louis provides an alternative in terms of rationality but also emotional stability. However, it is not clear whether the Heptapods have different genders. Ian christens them as men, but that appears to be his unthinking gesture rather than based on any evidence. The film uses tropes relating to feminine characters repeatedly. The most interesting is Louise’s hair. There is a long tradition in film regarding a woman’s hair. Tied back in some fashion is represents restraint even repression. Hanging loose it represents openness and sexuality. Markedly women frequently cut their hair after moments of trauma, so the Jodie Foster character cuts her hair after the rape in The Accused (1988).

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In Arrival’s present Louise has her hair tied back for most of the time, we see her tying it back after the ‘shower’ on returning from the Alien craft. In the ‘other time;’ sequences with Hannah it is usually hanging loose, and we also see it loose in sequences with Ian from ‘the future’ but not in the ‘present’. The most notable differentiation from this in the film is a solitary visit that Louise makes to the Alien craft. This is approaching the film’s climax, conflict seems imminent. The Alien craft is hovering above the ground and when Louise runs towards it a pod descends and takes her up into the craft. Once in her hair flies free and is at its most unrestricted in the whole film. She is enveloped in mist and floating in the air. The sequence reminded me forcibly of a scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) where the David Bowie character (Thomas Jerome Newton) has coitus with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). Whilst this film is not noticeable sexual this is a moment of real sensuousness. It is also the point that Louise realises she can understand the Alien language.

However, the aspect of Louise’s femininity that the film emphasises is as a mother. The sequences with Hannah all give expression to a strong maternal instinct. And her life after the Alien visit, whilst it involves marriage with Ian, is most concerned with her as mother. Ian really is a plot necessity, he has to impregnate Louise, but at some point in Hannah’s childhood he leaves, so we have a single mother and child.

Ted Chiang’s original story was titled ‘Story of Your Life’. It presumably refers to the life of Hannah. In the film Hannah’s story is seen through the perspective of Louise, hence ‘your life’. So this is emphatically a mother’s point of view. The film clearly makes play with supposed gender differences between men and women. It would be interesting if the written story explores this in terms of the Heptapods. The handling of concepts of language, time, perception and related scientific concepts clearly makes this ‘hard’ science fiction’. The mother/daughter story falls into the realm of melodrama. Part of the effectiveness and success of the film results from the interaction of these two generic strands. As I write I see that Arrival has done well in the BAFTA nominations, better than in the USA Award Festivals. Is that a reflection of different attitudes to science fiction among audiences?

Directed by Denis Villeneuve: Produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levinem Aaron Ryder, David Linde: Screenplay by Eric Heisserer,  Based on “Story of Your Life”  by Ted Chiang: Music by Jóhann Jóhannsson:  Cinematography Bradford Young: Edited by Joe Young. The film was produced in Montréal and Québec in Canada.

It was filmed in colour and in anamorphic widescreen. The version I saw was masked to 2.35:1.

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Jane Eyre on film

Posted by keith1942 on July 21, 2016

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I was able to revisit C20th Fox’s classic film version of this story in a good quality 35mm print at the National Media Museum. There was also a panel discussion before the film. This is an adaptation from one of the most potent novels in English literature written by Charlotte Brontë  and published in 1847. I first encountered it at the start of my teens, and read it twelve times in the space of a couple of years. Jane Eyre’s passionate, tenacious and truculent resistance to being put down and patronised struck a strong chord with me.  I have since seen at least six official translations to the screen and a number of other films clearly influenced by the novel.

This 1943 version is one of the most famous and was preceded only by four fairly short silent versions [varying in length from one to seven reels] and a relatively short feature length version in 1934. The latter is stagey and suffers from the limitations of early sound. It also rewrites the plot in a way that diminishes the story. So we get quite  a lot of the book, but extremely condensed. Unlike some later versions we meet [St] John Rivers (Desmond Roberts), but only in one short scene. Jane is played by Jean Darling as a child and Virginia Bruce as an adult. In both cases she is too attractive and too stylishly dressed. Both Adele (Edith Fellows) and Blanche (Aileen Pringle) describe her as ‘pretty’. Colin Clive as Rochester is miscast. He completely lacks the dark mystery of the novel’s characterisation. And the film also lacks any Gothic trappings. The house is affluent and cosy: indeed the staircase to the attic where Bertha (Claire Du Brey, who hardly seems mad at all) resides looks like any ground to first floor stairs. And to cap this Rochester is daily expecting his marriage to be annulled. We do get the fire and subsequent blindness.

The 1943 version does to a great degree dramatise the book and has become one of is the most influential film versions. It was filmed at the C20th studio at Century City and runs for 97 minutes in crisp, black and white Academy ratio. It has a crew of stellar names, both in front of and behind the camera and microphone.

It is worth restating one of the models frequently used in analysing adaptations of literature to film. There is the adaptation that aims at relative fidelity to the source novel. Then there are the versions that reinterprets or even deconstructs the novel. And the third approach is one that re-imagines the novel, using selectively whatever fits. The 1943 Jane Eyre is clearly a film that aims at a degree of fidelity, allowing for both the stylistic conventions and dominant values of the studio film. Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ could be seen as a novel that deconstructs the original, and the film (1940) follows suit. While Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ would seem to re-imagine the original: a filmic equivalent would be Val Lewton’s production of I Walked with a Zombie (1943). All of these later works offer interesting illuminations on the novel and on the film adaptations.

The screenplay for the film is credited to Aldous Huxley, the film’s director Robert Stevenson and John Houseman. The latter was a key associate with one of the stars of the film, Orson Welles. Welles’ The Mercury Theatre on Air had broadcast a radio adaptation in 1938 of the work with John Houseman collaborating in the writing. This film, to some degree, was developed from the that version. Welles also produced ‘Rebecca’ for his later radio series The Campbell Playhouse. Bernard Hermann, composer for the film, provided music for that broadcast.

Lowood school in the 1943 version

Lowood school in the 1943 version

The screenplay deftly cuts the novel to fit the reduced space in a 97 minute running time. So scenes are cut or abbreviated. A good example is right near the opening of the film. We see a candle [repeatedly used with low key lighting throughout the film] held by Bessie (Sara Allgood) accompanied by a manservant as he opens the door to let Jane [Peggy Ann Garner] out of what is [in the book the red-room] some sort of or cellar store room.. This follows the altercations with her cousin John which is elided though referred to in the subsequent dialogue. Far more drastic changes occur later in the film. The characters of Miss Temple at the Lowood School and St John Rivers, who with his sisters provides shelter for Jane late in the film, are both missing. However, they are in a way substituted by an additional character, Doctor Rivers (John Sutton) who is seen several times in the sequences at Lowood School. He stands in for Miss Temple, especially in relation to the illness and death of Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor). He is also given some of the maxims that St John Rivers opined in the book. After the death and burial of Helen he tells Jane, with reference to ‘duty, that she needs,

“to do God’s work…” and that this requires “an educated woman”.

Much of the dialogue is taken from the novel or is fairly close to that. Moreover the film uses literary devices common in Hollywood adaptation of classic literature. The film credits present first the embossed cover of the novel and subsequent pages setting out the title and production credits. Then we see the opening page of the opening chapter. A voice [that of Joan Fontaine] reads out the opening paragraph. This device is repeated five more times in the film. On each occasion we are shown the page and particular paragraph in the novel, read out by a voice-over. However, at the end of the film Jane’s voice reprises the end of the novel without any use of page or book.

St John Rivers is a character that is frequently missing in film adaptations, though he gets fully developed characterisation in the 2011 version. Another character, but minor, also frequently missing in film adaptations is the gypsy fortune teller, who turns out to be Edward Rochester in disguise. In this adaptation the plot information that was presented in this way is covered by an additional scene, differently scripted, between Edward Rochester (Orson Welles) and Blanche Ingram (Hilary Brooks). This is one of at least two sequences where the narrative departs from what Jane herself can know. The other is a sequence between Rochester and Mason (John Abbott), the brother of Rochester’s actual wife Bertha. Note, the actress or extra playing Bertha does not appear in the credits, probably because she is only glimpsed briefly through a doorway.

Through the use of the voice-over the film attempts to provide the personal narrative voice which is one of the real successes of the original novel. But, apart from the scenes mentioned, this device is not consistently used in the film. Whilst Jane’s voice is a constant in the book, not only explaining the plot but commentating both on the characters and her own feeling and responses, in this film I counted seven such sequences, all only a paragraph from the book. We get leaving Gateshead, arriving at Lowood, Jane’s early thoughts on Rochester, her first awareness of the ‘mystery in the tower’, her thoughts after Rochester has proposed marriage, her return to Gateshead, and the final summing up for the conclusion. Key sequences, as that involving the actual Bertha or Jane’s subsequent flight from Thornfield, offer no such comment. Moreover, despite the presentation these are not the words that Brontë wrote. The opening page and voice-over offers,

“My name is Jane Eyre …. I was born in 1820, a harsh time in England.”

After more on social conditions and attitudes we get a reference to Gateshead and to Aunt Reed. But the original novel opens with,

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. “

It goes on to describe the events that led to Jane’s incarnation in the red-room. It is only half-way through chapter two that Bronte allows Jane her comments on Mrs Reed. The same is true of the later ‘extracts’ and only the final un-illustrated voice-over comes close to the novel with the details of Edward Rochester’s recovering sight and his first-born. The novel though goes on toe inform the reader about the sojourn of St John Rivers whose religious commitment closes the book. I incline to think that these passages are taken from the earlier radio version and are designed to help the audience into the story and to follow its plot.

Peggy Ann Garner as the young Jane catches her rebellious spirit. In both the Reed household and at Lowood, she resists the impositions on her by adults. The film’s emphasises the power of this world by using low angle shots from Jane’s point of view of both her aunt Mrs Reed (Agnes Moorehead) and of Mr Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell) . Agnes Moorehead is suitably icy as the uncaring Aunt. Daniell is a little overbearing as the sadistic head of the Orphanage. The film emphatically stresses this aspect with an additional scene which shows Jane and Helen burns forced to perambulate in the rain with signs bearing the label ‘rebellious’ and ‘vain’. The latter notice refers to Burns’ ringlets. The punishment exacerbates Burns illness and it is after her funeral that we hear the religious strictures from Doctor Rivers.

The rebellious spirit is more muted when the Jane transforms to the adult woman played by Joan Fontaine. However, she still displays a firm determination, especially in the exchanges with Edward Rochester. This is a much more confident and determined young woman than the unnamed heroine of Rebecca. However, the film leaves out all the plot and discussion about her paintings, an aspect of the story that brings out Jane’s imaginative world. So the film lacks the intellectual relationship between Jane and Edward described in the book..

Kate Ellis and Ann Kaplan commented on both this film and the 1970 TV film version directed by Delbert Mann:

“[this] is a story of a woman who understands instinctively the inequities of patriarchal structures but who cannot, finally, move entirely beyond them. … Jane’s strength comes to the reader through the clear, strong voice of the first person narrative . . . Neither film version (1944, 1970) is ultimately able to retain the centrality of Jane’s point of view. (The English Novel and the Movies, 1981).

Fontaine does have a problem in the overbearing presence of Orson Wells as Rochester. Once he appears he dominates the film and even after tragedy strikes he is till the most potent presence on screen. Referring to the finale of the novel and film Ellis and Kaplan ask,

“(could Welles ever appear chastened?) . . . “

And it is worth noting that at their first meeting, when in an unexpected encounter Rochester is thrown from his horse, he does not need Jane’s assistance to remount as he does in the book.

Adele (Margaret O’Brien) is pleasant but clearly cannot achieve the French quality which is important tin the book. Blanche Ingram is suitably arch. Mason is underdeveloped and, as noted, we do not really see Bertha at all. The film does essay presenting Jane’s point of view, but not consistently. Two shots stand out, as the camera, sited behind Jane, includes her in a shot of Rochester with Blanche in deep staging. In fact the film uses deep focus/staging and chiaroscuro for much of its length. In that and other ways it resembles Citizen Kane. Here though we have cinematographer George Barnes. He had worked on the earlier Rebecca, where equally there was a frequent use of chiaroscuro sand a gothic feel.

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This gothic feel is emphasised by the Production Design of William Pereira, who also acted a second unit director. Together with the Art Designs by James Basevi (who worked on Wuthering Heights) and Ward Ihnen and also the set decoration of Thomas Little the film seems to come from some C18th Gothic novel rather than the C19th Brontë. Thornfield is like a castle and most rooms have bare stone walls. There are battlements and a tower where Bertha resides. And there are frequent shots of the battlements as the plot darkens. Thornfield is a building full of shadows. The film was shot in a studio but through back projections, matte shots and the use of models it generates a feel of a Yorkshire landscape, wild and turbulent. There are frequent dissolves as transitions between scenes, the work of special effects specialist Fred Sersen. Another trope is the use of staircases, a conventional Hollywood setting for moment so drama and transition. There are at least nine sequences set on a staircase, more than a in any other version of the novel that I have seen. They appear when Jane leaves Gateshead, when we meet Helen Burns for the first time, in several scenes involving Jane with Rochester and, of course, as a spiral, in the tower where Bertha is hidden.

The director of the film was Robert Stevenson, who had worked in the British film industry and then moved to Hollywood. But this gothic-style film is unlike his other films of the periods. However, it is very like the work directed by Orson Welles, and seems at times to borrow from the style of Citizen Kane (1941). Welles, when negotiating the film, asked for a producer credit, but was only contracted as an actor. However, it is clear from reminiscences that he also ‘assisted’ in some of the direction. Citizen Kane, of  course, had an immense influence among the Hollywood craft community. The expressionist style and atmosphere can be seen in numerous examples across the studio films. But Welles was also assisted in this case by the number of his associates working on the film. John Houseman worked with Welles in the theatre and radio in New York. Welles apparently picked a member of the Mercury Theatre, Agnes Moorehead, for the role of Mrs Reed. The Jane Eyre film also crosses over in at least one way with I Walked with a Zombie. This was filmed at RKO , Welles old studio, where he was still working when not acting, on re-cutting his It’s All True [only to see the light of day in 1993]. And the score for Jane Eyre by Bernard Herrmann at times seems to recall that in Citizen Kane: in fact, it appears that Herrmann used orchestrations and themes in this film from the score he composed for the earlier Rebecca.

Rochester and Jane in the 1943 version

Rochester and Jane in the 1943 version

Welles, like the dominant studio model of the time, was not strong on independent women. And the film does not generate the sense of female autonomy for which Jane struggles throughout the novel. There is no mention of the inheritance which gives her economic independence in the novel. When Rochester and Jane meet again in the ruins of Thornfield, it is almost as if the former is the savaged persona of Kane. There is a brief but passionate kiss between the couple, dominated by Rochester. Then Jane’s final comment tells the audience that Edward recovered enough sight to see his first-born son.

There have been several film versions of the book since the C20th Fox feature. Ellis and Kaplan note that a later film of Jane Eyre, a UK/USA TV film production in 1971, came after the period of Hollywood’s flirtation with film noir and when values around the representation of women had changed:

“But Mann’s [The director Delbert Mann) version made in the period when the new wave of feminism was at its most exuberant, optimistic phase, humanizes Rochester and Bertha …”

The film is in Eastmancolor, with George C. Scott as Rochester and Susannah York as Jane. In some ways the film returns to the 1934 version, with a more obviously attractive Jane and Thornfield as an elegant mansion, though more in keeping with the period of the novel. Bertha is a catatonic character, rather than the violent person of novel and the earlier film. This version omits the opening in the Reed household but does include St. John Rivers (Ian Bannen, excellent) and his sisters. There is no mention of an inheritance for Jane. And when she returns to Thornfield her meeting with the now blind Rochester is in a wooded walk where he first proposed to her. She tells him “I’ve  come home, Edward, to stay.” ‘Coming home’ is one of the classic endings in Hollywood films. The film did have a theatrical release in the UK but was shot for television. It does have some odd ellipsis which may be due to this, cuts where one feels that material is omitted. And the Eastmancolor does not serve the drama as well as black and white film.

Rochester and Jane in the 1970 version

Rochester and Jane in the 1970 version

There was another TV film version for London Weekend Television in 1997. This has Samantha Morton as Jane and Ciarán Hinds as Rochester. The film opens as young Jane (Laura Harling) is bundled into the red-room after the incident with John Reed. There is quite an amount of play with the effect of this on  Jane. This leads to her moving to the Lowood School, Miss Temple (Emily Joyce) does appear here but is an undeveloped character as is Helen Burns (Gemma Eglinton). Eight years pass and she takes up employment as the Governess at Thornfield. It is at this point that we get the first of the occasional voice-overs with Jane’s comments. Rochester and Jane are well presented, and include the responses to Jane’s paintings. When we come to the climatic revelation of Bertha she is vividly portrayed and with quite a lot of sympathy. The film does address how much or how little knowledge Mrs Fairfax (Gemma Jones) has of Bertha, something the novel is slightly ambiguous about. Jane’s journey from Thornfield is detailed and we meet St John Rivers (Rupert Penry-Jones), but with only one sister, Diana ((Elizabeth Garvie). Again there is no reference to an inheritance and when Jane returns to Rochester the emphasis is on the union and subsequent children. The film makes quite a lot of play with landscapes, though shot in Cumbria rather than Yorkshire. This version also uses less of the dialogue from the book than other versions but with the most distinctive Pilot, a Newfoundland / Landseer.

A family ending in the 1997 version

A family ending in the 1997 version

The 1996 film version is produced by Miramax and involved several European film companies. It was directed by Franco Zeffirelli. For much of its 112 minutes it has a high degree of fidelity to the book, but takes bizarre turn late in the film. There is a strong cast, led by William Hurt playing Rochester in a low key and Charlotte Gainsborough as an admirably determined Jane. There are also some Yorkshire landscapes. The film opens with a powerful rendering of the red-room incident. When Jane moves to Lowood we have a recognisable Miss Temple and Helen Burns, with the original religious emphasis. And an interesting detail, we see Helen and Jane’s locks loose before Mr Brocklehurst as he wields the scissors. This is the only time in the film that Jane’s hair is completely loose. When we arrive at Thornfield the building has the recognisable battlements, and the interiors are affluent but also limited in the C19th style. Rochester and Jane study and discuss her paintings. Later she makes the trip to the dying Mrs Reed. At this point St John Rivers appears as the local vicar and with only one sister. Also at this point we learn about the inheritance that waits Jane. Here as with Bertha the film brings in the West Indian connection. After the interrupted wedding and the revelation of Bertha Jane leaves Thornfield. Immediately Bertha starts the fire that kills her, and Grace Poole and maims Rochester. Jane meanwhile receives a perfunctory proposal from Rivers but returns to Thornfield. Now the couple are united. In this final scene it is Jane who is passionate in the kisses and embraces. So the film offers an effective representation of the original, marred by some careless plotting.

Jane kisses the blind Rochester in the 1996 version

Jane kisses the blind Rochester in the 1996 version

The most recent version on film was produced by Focus Features and BBC Films in 2011. It was scripted by Moira Buffini, whose earlier Byzantium (2012) was impressive in its treatment of a pair of vampiric sisters. The director was Cary Joji Fukunaga whose earlier Beasts of the No Nation (2015), set among child soldiers in Africa,  was good, though I thought the plotting was slightly problematic. This colour film retains much of the plot and dialogue of the novel but changes the structure. So the film opens with the adult Jane standing in a doorway. She leave Thornfield [following the attempted wedding ceremony] and endures a difficult and distraught journey to the door of the River’s household. As she convalesces Jane has a series of flashbacks, first to the red-room incident at Gateshead and then [briefly] to Lowood school and her friendship with Helen Burns. Now follows her taking up the post of governess to Adele at Thornfield. For this we  have one long and uninterrupted flashback. She meets Rochester as he falls from his startled horse. Note, this is the most undeveloped Pilot in the whole cycle. At Thornfield Rochester discusses her painting with Jane: their conversation brings out the imaginative side of Jane’s character. The film uses a series of visual motifs and tropes to illuminate the developing relationship. One example is picture that Jane examines twice, a nude woman reclining on a sofa. This is a film where the sexual aspect of the relationship is acknowledged. The other, possibly a subtle point, is a brief glimpse of a black coachman when Jane arrives at Thornfield. When Blanche Ingram appears we also see Jane’s journey back to Gateshead and Mrs Reed’s confession of Jane’s relative John Eyre. The only voice-over in the film gives us the wording of a letter that Jane writes to him.

Back at Thornfield we hear Rochester’s proposal, see the interrupted wedding and the mad Bertha. This flashback includes part of the journey already seen at the film’s opening. There are two differences: one is a shot of a distraught Rochester calling after Jane at a window: the other a dramatic overhead shot of a distraught Jane lying in the heather. Back into the film’s present, we see Jane working at the school and then St John River’s proposal. Now she also learns of her inheritance. In an open-air encounter Rivers questions her continuing passion for Rochester. At the sound of his name Jane runs off into the surrounding moors. We then see her in a carriage journeying to Thornfield. Finding Rochester, in the spot where he originally proposed to her, the couple are re-united. There is no dialogue about wedding or children,. just a long shot of the entwined couple.

The interrupted wedding in the 2011 version.

The interrupted wedding in the 2011 version.

The organisation of the flashback is slightly odd. The series of flashbacks at the River’s house of Lowood draw a parallel between the two settings: places where Jane’s education, formal and informal, occurs. However, the later shot as she runs towards the moors does raise a question as to whether the final sequence is actual or imagined?

The panel discussion that accompanied the screening of the 1943 film version was chaired by Samira Ahmed with Lauren Livesey, Amber Regis and Michael Jackson. They were all interesting but none of them was a film specialist. This was an aspect that was not fully explored.

The three panellist talked about aspects of the novel and the various adaptations, both on film and on television. There are also several foreign language versions. The television versions, they suggested, offered much more detailed versions of the novel. It also appears that there have been a number of pornographic film versions based on the novel and that Fifty Shades of Gray is an example.  Laura suggested that this related to the master/servant relationship in the novel. This aspect is one that varies considerably in the film versions, though more recent films treat this with greater complexity.

They noted how the films tended to project a ‘brooding Byronic hero’ with Jane the ‘right kind of woman to tame him’. This is especially true of the 1943 and 1970 film versions. The more recent films tend to a less strident characterisation. But as Amber pointed out all the films in some way present ‘a damaged English character [who] needs saving’. They also noted how certain characters or events, Gateshead – the Rivers family, the Madeira inheritance – are not always included. And the sequence that is uniformly missing is Rochester’s impersonation of a gypsy and his fortune telling trick. It is worth adding that the characterisation of Bertha varies considerably. From a violent and malevolent hag to a damaged and catatonic woman.

Bertha raises the point that is dramatised in Jean Rhys novel, the West Indian connection. There is a hint of this in the 1943 version, which intriguingly in places has a similar feel to that of I Walked with a Zombie: filmed in the same year at RKO. Both film’s have the heroine walking in mist, and with an oppressive silence. The RKO film has a plot that includes voodoo, which is where it crosses over with the Rhys novel. It also brings out the horror aspect that is a sub-text in the Bronte novel. Whilst recent versions have shown the influence of feminism in treating the novel, the colonial subtext has yet to be exploited. This is present in the Rhys novel through Rochester’s first marriage in Jamaica and also through Jane’s inheritance of estates in Madeira, where the Portuguese operated a slave system.

There is a 1993 film version of the Rhys novel produced in Australia and a BBC TV film made in 2006. The 1993 film is the more faithful to the novel: it received an 18 certificate in the UK for sex, nudity, violence and profanity. The novel and the films chart Edwards Rochetster’s [but not named as such] relationship with Bertha, originally Antoinette and renamed by her husband. Antoinette is Creole and comes from a slave owning family. Her mother was mentally unstable and the same malady blights her marriage. However, in this version Rochester is not the victim and already in the early days of wedlock he has had sex with a servant. The novel takes in Antoinette’s childhood right up to her incarceration at Thornfield and the subsequent fire which will lead to her death. The novel has multiple voices, including Antoinette and Rochester. In this and in other ways the Rhys version picks up on the form, motifs and tropes in the Bronte original. The use of narrative voices is present in the 1993 film, as are a number of the motifs. The 2006 versions lacks most of these, certainly the narrative voices.

There was only time for one question, which raised the issue of female consciousness. All the panellists agreed that the narrative voice of the book is crucial to this. The films vary in their use of this. Only the 1943 and 1996 version use this extensively, though the 2011 version does essay a subjective viewpoint through the camerawork. What is interesting is the choice of dialogue. Jane’s intelligent response to Brocklehurst’s vision of sin and hell,

‘I must keep well and not die’

seems the most favoured. The missing line in most that strikes me is the rhetorical,

‘Reader, I married him’.

This decisive statement undercuts the seemingly conventional ending to the work, the bonding of heroine to hero. The closest to this is Charlotte Gainsborough’s Jane who ends with

“And so I married him.”

Judging by these adaptations even a work aiming at fidelity only offers a partial rendering. Condensing a book that can take many hours to read into the space of two hours has its impact. Television can offer a more leisurely perusal. And writing a story is rather different than rendering it in images and sound. Having noted that I found it odd that there is so little use of the voice-over in the film versions. Then there are the changing mores of the times. the original Jane Eyre has a concentration on religious values that do not speak to effectively to a more secular time. Likewise child rearing has changed in immeasurable ways in English/British society: even more true of the English-speaking society in North America. However the films do bring out aspect of the work. This is especially true of the gothic atmosphere of the novel and the implied horror. Jane actually uses the word ‘vampire’ when describing Bertha in the novel. In the sequence after Bertha attacks Richard Mason he claims,

“She  sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my hear,” ..

The 1943 version has “sank her teeth into me..”, the 1970 “she bit me..”, 1996 “drain my heart …”, the 1997 “bit and clawed me … like  a vampire..” whilst the 2011 version has a silent Mason. The later colour versions offer a more graphic depiction of the actual wounds, peaking in the 2011 version with exposed and bloody flesh.

From that point of view I prefer to have read the novel prior to seeing the film as this illuminates Bronte’s masterpiece: a status |i feel none of the films achieve.

 

 

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Whistle Down the Wind Britain 1961.

Posted by keith1942 on February 10, 2016

whistle down wind

The film was screened in a fine 35mm print at the Hebden Bridge Picture House. The visual quality was very good. The soundtrack was slightly problematic because the mono original did not fit the modern system for surround sound: so the dialogue in particular was occasionally rather loud or rather soft. Also there was some cropping of the 1.66:1 image, presumably due to the masking. Even so, it was a real pleasure to revisit this classic from the 1960s.

The film was produced by Beaver Films, whose other work included The Angry Silence (1960) and Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). Beaver Films worked with Allied Filmmakers, whose other films included Victim (1961)  The key players in this production were Richard Attenborough [Producer] and Bryan Forbes [Director]. The film was adapted from a novel by Mary Hayley Mills [her daughter Hailey Mills was the star] with the screenplay produced by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. So the film involved a number of key members of the British film industry in this period.

Hayley Mills, a rising star at this point, plays Kathy, one of the three Bostock children. Her younger sister is Nan (Diane Holgate) and her brother, the youngest, is Charlie (Alan Barnes). They live with their widowed father (Bernard Lee) and his sister [their aunt] Dorothy (Elsie Wagstaff). The setting is a hillside farm near Clitheroe in Lancashire: set in the Ribble Valley and lying in hilly moorlands.  And the other farm member is Eddie (Norman Bird) who does little work but spends time trying to trap local wildlife. Nearby locations included a quarry and a railway line and the local town, Burnley [?], with a church and Sunday school attended by the children. We meet other local people but the important part of the supporting cast are the local children with whom the trio play and study.

The drama gets under way when the children discover a man asleep in one of the barns: Blakey (Alan Bates in his film debut). He is injured and clearly hiding. The audience learn that he is in fact a wanted murderer on the run. However the children [mistakenly] accept him as a Jesus, who has figured in their lessons at the local church. Thus whilst the police and locals are on the lookout for the wanted man the children visit and assist the fugitive. The resolution of the film is predictable in terms of the fugitive but the children are able to maintain their belief in the special status of the man. There is a fine final shot as Kathy tells a pair of latecomers that ‘he will return’.

The performances are generally convincing and those of the children are impressive. The film achieves a sense of naturalism that makes the story, rather fey in some ways, entirely convincing. Waterhouse and Willis have produced a well structured story that develops the drama but also offers the pleasures of character, place and time. There are many references to the New Testament: these include a shot of Blakey in a crucifix stance and a young boy who repeats the triple denial by Peter of Jesus.

The film relies extensively on location filming. The settings and the landscapes are well used. The cinematography of Arthur Ibbetson is especially fine. He worked on other Beaver Productions and also on a fine example of colour cinematography, Tunes of Glory (1960). The film uses what seemed to me an usually high ratio of long shots. The characters are constantly placed in the landscape, and at times there is a lyrical quality to the image. There is a particular fine long shot of the children dancing away under trees. Rather like the work of Tony Richardson I felt that the director and cinematographer had watched some of the early nouvelle vague films. My friend Jake thought there were crossovers with Luis Malle’s very fine [and later] Au revoir les Enfants (1987).

The lyricism is re-enforced by the fine score for the film by Malcolm Arnold. There is a distinctive musical theme which accompanies the children in the film. And Arnold also uses traditional songs in his score, including ‘We Thee Kings’.. The film was a success on its original release and it remains a fine example of 1960s British film. It seems to have been the most profitable of the Beaver Productions. The film received a U Certificate at the time from the BBFC and now is rated PG,

“Contains one use of mild language.”

I am trying to remember what that was?

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Polanski’s Ghosts

Posted by keith1942 on June 30, 2015

Polanski directing The Ghost.

Polanski directing The Ghost.

 

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

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

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

Filming Chinatown

Filming Chinatown

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinatown

Chinatown

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

The Ghost

The Ghost

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

Originally posted on ITP World.

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Far From the Madding Crowd, UK 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on May 11, 2015

far_from_the_madding_crowd_matthias_schoenaerts_carey_mulligan_1

When I saw the trailer for this film I was afraid that this was going to be an extremely conventional and clichéd heritage film. In fact, it is better than that, though given that there is already an excellent earlier version – from 1967 – at times it feels redundant. I have not yet been able to revisit John Schlesinger adaptation, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp. Since it is available I wait in hope that some adventurous exhibitor will screen it. I don’t really want to attempt it on video, for [like the new version] it is in colour and wide screen., I did feel that someone involved in the new version had watched the earlier, likely several times. This film is full of sequences which remind one of the former. This does not just apply to the opening sequence that introduces the characters of Gabriel and Bathsheba. There are later scenes that look so familiar: Troy’s furtive meeting with Fanny at the Fair: the announcement to Bathsheba of her husband’s suicide; and Boldwood’s final fateful scene in prison.

The film has distinctive aspects, one of the best being Carey Mulligan’s characterisation of Bathsheba; it is different from that offered by Christie and seemed to me closer to the heroine in Hardy’s original novel. Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel is passable, Michael Sheen as Farmer Boldwood is good, but I think neither characterisation matches that of Bates or Finch. Some of the minor characters are excellent; I especially liked Liddy (Jessica Barden). However, Tom Sturridge is not up to the Troy presented by Stamp,

The direction is fair, but seems inhibited by the script. Some sequences, both between the film’s Gabriel and Bathsheba and Bathsheba and Troy, are well done. The use of landscape is excellent. The sequence where Troy demonstrates his swordsmanship to Bathsheba is now set in woodland and looks splendid. And the change from the towering cliff line to the arable farmland is effective. But there are also odd close-ups of props and shots of vacant sets – in one case flowers, in another the Everdene mansion – that suggest rather than deliver some intended metaphor.

My sense is that part of the problem is in the script.  It seems to be attempting to be faithful to the novel, frequently quoting dialogue from the book.  But it strains at transferring to the more literal medium of mainstream film. There are several sequences where Gabriel is added to a scene involving Bathsheba and one or other of her suitors. Early in the film the separate meetings of Gabriel with Fanny and Fanny with Troy are combined, presumably to tie the plot together. And then there are odd ellipses which actually hinder one’s sense of characterisation. Gabriel’s flute, an important prop and skill, is also missing.

The initial accident that besets Gabriel’s farm and Bathsheba’s good fortune are reversed in the chronology. It would appear that the writer could not envisage a visual means of imparting Gabriel’s discovery. The important scene in terms of Bathsheba’s fortitude, when she rescues Gabriel from a smoke filled cabin, is missing. The sequence when Fanny calls to Troy in the barracks is gone: a scene that fills out his character. The swordplay display by Troy looks good, but again the 1967 version captures the description in the book: this does not. There is an important scene with a meeting between Troy and Boldwood missing and weakening the characterisation of both men. Towards the climax of the story Troy’s whereabouts becomes important. The 1967 version had a variation on that in the book, to good effect. This version settles for fleeting shots of Troy, again odd rather than effective.

The film opens with Bathsheba’s voice-over sketching in her life: and there is a single voice-over by her later in the film. However, there is little sense otherwise of Bathsheba’s subjectivity. We get one shot as she responds to the presence of Troy and later there is a shot of her view of Boldwood with different emotional tone. But for most of the film we share the point-of-view of the narrator, exemplified by the conventional shot/reverse shot technique. Similar conventional shots and moments occur frequently in the film. When Bathsheba leaves her aunt to take up the farm she has been left she is wearing a bright red coat. Fanny arrives at the wrong church for her wedding to Troy, opening the door on someone else’s wedding. Preparing to slip out and meet Troy, Bathsheba unwinds the plait in her hair. And the film is very fond of sequences where Bathsheba bestrides a galloping horse: thus when her sheep are stricken rather than sending a note to Gabriel she rides there herself.

01-far-from-the-madding-crowd_w1200_h630

The other inhibitor is the score for the film: I assume that royalties are being paid to Vaughan Williams executors. It is frequently over the top and swamps some of the subtleties that the script does offer. There is a key example in the opening and closing of the film. The opening sequence, as in the book, shows Bathsheba out riding in a leather jacket and trousers [the latter seems anachronistic]. As she lies back on her horse to pass under hanging branches she is observed by Gabriel, standing in a field. Then at the end of the film Gabriel has announced his intentions to emigrate to the Americas. After agonising over this Bathsheba sets out after him on horseback wearing the leather jacket but this time a skirt rather than trousers. . Catching Gabriel on a track Bathsheba dismounts: the dialogue is very close to the penultimate chapter in the novel. Prompted by Bathsheba Gabriel kisses her passionately and she responds [miles away from Hardy’s description]. The couple then turn and start to walk home with Gabriel leading the horse.  This sequence inverts the opening in a subtle comment on the relationship: but it is accompanied by a full orchestral score and rim lighting of the couple in close-up provided by the sun. The subtlety seems completely lost.

In fact the Hardy narrative offers a strong proviso on the apparently happy ending. And the 1967 film managed to suggest his with a scene of the couple sitting in the parlour, followed by a close-up of a model soldier on the mantelpiece. A touch of irony missing in the remake.

One improvement in the new film is the treatment of dogs. Both old George and young George [unnamed in the novel] are here. However, the film still treats this conventionally. young George’s presence is cut short. And instead of arriving at Everdene farm with Gabriel old George re-appears near the end. In fact, he is an important presence as Bathsheba wrestles with the choices that have arisen over the story. However, what we have here is another conventional trope, this time regarding endings.

Part of the pleasure of Hardy’s novel is the description of the background and the story’s community. Neither film really attempts to include this, though I felt that the earlier version did have a better sense of its ambience. At one point a schoolboy passes rehearsing a lesson to himself; Schlesinger’s team capture this moment, the new team miss it out. Both films fail to include the fact that both the Everdene and Boldwood farms are tenancies: an important class and economic aspect. The films are clearly intended as adaptations of the novel, rather than transformations or inspirations for a new style work. The credits of this new film include Fox Searchlight and the BBC. Clearly the producers wanted a recognisable genre film for audiences. If one has never read the novel the film could work fairly well, though even here I think the characters motivations will appear undeveloped.

Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd doe offer a series of pleasures that neither film essays and it is well worth reading and re-reading. If you do, then it is worth looking at Amy Jenkins; ‘Bathsheba and Me’ in The Guardian Review (11 October 2014).

 

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