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The Divide Britain 2015

Posted by keith1942 on April 22, 2016

Framing Keith

Framing Keith

This documentary was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House and followed by a Q&A with the director, Katherine Round. The film is ‘inspired’ by the best-selling The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009). There was an audience of around 200 for the event. This is probably partly due to the topicality of the central issue in the film: inequality. But also Katherine Round studied at Leeds University.

This is a powerful documentary with telling effects and arguments. But I felt that it also had severe limitations. To start with the virtues. The core of the film is the presentation of the part-stories and situations of seven people living in either the USA or UK.

Alden, a New York psychologist whose clients include Wall Street Bankers. He is affluent but works long hours and so has a diminished family life.

Leah is an Afro-American single mother in Virginia and she works in a Kentucky Fried Chicken diner.

Jen and her husband live in a gated’ community. They seem less affluent than their neighbours and appear isolated. Their income is unclear.

Janet and her husband ran a video store which failed. She now works for Al-Mart in Louisiana.

Rochelle is a care worker in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Her pay is low and her hours demanding. She has difficulty feeding and clothing her children.

Darren lives on an estate in Glasgow where poverty and unemployment are endemic. He has problems with addictions.

Keith is in a California Penitentiary. he fell foul of the ‘three strikes’ rule.

We meet and hear the seven several times and learn something of their situation and their lives. We also occasionally hear the interviewer Katherine Round. Alden and Jen seem somewhat dissatisfied with their lives. Leah is more buoyant about life and Janet is active in the union. Rochelle is hard-pressed to cope. Darren’s life is very problematic but he has some hopes. Whilst Keith, after seventeen years in jail, is extremely oppressed.

The interviews and film of these subjects is intercut with comments by professionals and academics. Among these we see and hear well known names such as the author Richard Wilkinson, Noam Chomsky and Ha-Joon Chang. There are clips of political leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and [briefly] Tony Blair at his most fatuous.

These are accompanied by archive films and television footage. They come from key years between 1979 [UK] and 1981 [USA] and the present. This is part of an argument regarding changes in the way these modern capitalist societies are organised, in particular the growing disparity between the bulk of the population and an extremely rich elite. The now familiar argument is made about how the elite, through their influence on political power, are able to not only defend but to aggrandize their share of the national cake.

The film is well shot by cinematographer Woody James. there are some excellent framing of subjects, especially Keith in the penitentiary. The editing by John Mister is extremely effective as it crosses time, the USA and the Atlantic. And the team of sound recordists have blended a variety of voices, noises and effects to good purpose, with much of the accompanying music offering a blues tone.

There were however for me serious limitation in this film. Katherine Round has worked on many documentaries for Television and I found the films’ form somewhat conventional. The film of and interviews with the subjects work very well, though the subjects do not get an equal amount of time. And the commentative voices do seem a little like ‘talking heads’. Noam Chomsky, for example, appears a couple of times with only one or two sentences: and he is not known for his brevity. Some of the illustrative material, like the adverts, feel like the visual spots in the news, filling space rather than informing. And the identification of voices or footage is not consistent. I thought that some film of the subjects could have been older footage, but this was not clear.

In terms of the inspiration by The Spirit Level, the film does not follow the book, which was very much a presentation of research. This is a more poetic vision. However, I think this approach does not present all of the book’s view. In the Q&A one audience member remarked on the absence from the film of the ‘top one percent’. Round suggested that all of the subjects were in some sense disadvantaged and therefore dissatisfied. I thought that was in the film but the sense of the oppressiveness of lives for the most exploited was much clearer. And the idea behind this ignores the way that economic impacts are more fundamental than psychological ones.

Part of the problem is that the film does not have a clear sense of class. There is a lack of economic data on the subjects. We learn that Alden gets 1500 dollars for treating clients, but we do not learn about the income of the others. In Jen’s case it is not clear where her family income comes from. Rochelle confesses to having to buy food and clothes on her credit card as she waits for payday. Leah and Janet have their own houses apparently, whilst Rochelle and Darren appear to live in council hosing. But otherwise we are left in the dark.

In fact the film spends more time on housing than income or wealth. There is more material on ‘gated communities’ than other aspects. This seems to relate to the role of ‘sub-prime mortgages’ in the 2008 crash. The geography of the film is problematic. We have widely scattered abodes across the USA: and the film does not really address the way that the different settings vary. Even more problematic is the cross-over between the USA and UK. I am not really sure I you compare the Southern USA with northern Britain. The settings are as varied as the class position of the subjects.

The analysis in the film is limited in other ways. The main argument concerns changes in the advanced capitalist economies since the 1980s. An argument that has moved centre stage since the 2008 crash. But there appears to be an unexpressed acceptance of the capitalist mode of production. A venture capitalist defends his ‘wealth making’ without challenge. Several speakers talk of how things have ‘got out of hand’. And a couple, including Chomsky, refer to the ‘unregulated market’ and that we no longer all ‘play by the same set of rules’. The anarchy of the market is at the centre of capitalism but the fundamental aspect of this mode of production is the commodity and the way that the value created in it by labour power is expropriated by the capitalist class. On the platform with Katherine Round was an equality campaigner [whose name I did not catch]. He referred to the minimum wage: a valid defensive tactic but not one that changes the fundamentals. There was no sense of the arguments by Marx and Engels that the basic mechanism of this society leads to expropriation and so inequality.

Moreover the historical view in the film is extremely limited. So it fails to draw any parallels with the 1929 crash and The Great Depression. One could tell seven stories from the 1930s that parallel those in The Divide and here we are again. [CBS documentary Meltdown: The Global Financial Collapse series draws the comparison]. And the realisation that it is a fundamental issue predates Marx and Engels. A hundred years earlier Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract, or Of the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique; 1762) that what was required was that

“no citizen is rich enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.”

Even so the film is worth seeing, because there is not that much critical material around. It screens again at the Hyde Park on April 27th and it will screen at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum on May 31st.

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Hollywood’s ‘Un-American activities committee’.

Posted by keith1942 on March 23, 2016

huac_title

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

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

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

Trumbo and Hopper

Trumbo and Hopper

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

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

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

Kidnapped Baird Whitlock

Kidnapped Baird Whitlock

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

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

Way we were

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

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

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

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

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Victim Britain 1961

Posted by keith1942 on March 9, 2016

63 'Victim', 1961

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

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

The police question Barrett

The police question Barrett

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

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

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

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

Harold with Sandy

Harold with Sandy

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

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

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

“hasn’t got what you and I’ve got.”

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

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

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

“Farr is Queer”.

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

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

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

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

‘I wanted him’.

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

Laura questions Melville

Laura questions Melville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a difference several decades makes!

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

A Japanese Tragedy / Nihon no higeki Japan 1953

Posted by keith1942 on February 26, 2016

Tagasugi and Harako

Tagasugi and Harako

This was one of the films in the Japanese Film Season from the Japan Foundation screened at the Sheffield Showroom. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case, West Yorkshire missed out. However it was worth the trek to Sheffield to see this very fine post-war melodrama. There was also a helpful introduction by Dr Kate E Taylor-Jones from the University of Sheffield.

The film was both written and directed by Kinoshita Keisuke. He was a popular filmmaker from the 1940s to the 1980s. As was often the case in the Japanese film industry he started out as an assistant, in his case to the very fine director Shimazu Yazujirō. He developed his skills writing scripts in the 1930s and directed his first film in 1943, The Blossoming Port / Hana saku minato. The earliest of his films that I have seen is Carmen Comes Home / Karumen kokyōni kaer, a comedy with a fine lead performance by one of my favourite actresses Takamine Hideko.

The central characters and plot of this film are a widow Inoue Haruko (Mochizuki Yuko) and her two grown-up children, her daughter Utako (Katsuragi Yuko) and her son Seiichi (Taura Masami). Haruko works as a barmaid in the seaside resort of Atami. But such work shades over into entertaining male customers and prostitution. Haruko has also dabbled in the black market of the times and [unsuccessfully] in the stock market. The family suffered notable deprivation in the years immediately after the end of the war, presented as typical of the times. Because of her work in bars the children were raised for much of the time by Haruko’s brother-in-law [the husband died during the war] and his wife. They have denigrated Haruko and her work and the children have developed a contempt for their mother.

In the present of the film Seiichi is a medical student in Tokyo. He is also trying to have himself adopted by an aged wealthy couple who lost their son in the war. This seems to have been a frequent event at this time, demonstrating the importance of the son and heir in the culture. Also typical of the films is Seiichi’s dependence on his sister, [a trope in many of the films of Mizoguchi). Utako is studying dressmaking in order to gain independence: she is also studying English, a useful skill in the period. Unbeknown to her mother she is having an affair with the English teacher, Akazawa Masayuki (Uehara Ken). It is these relationships that dominate film and their downward spiral that leads to the tragic conclusion.

Seiichi and Utako

Seiichi and Utako

Whilst the centre of the film is the present and the family triangle there is much more for the viewer to take in. I felt that I really want to see this film again in order to master all is complexities. There are frequent flashbacks, but not signalled in a conventional manner and in some cases apparently not motivated by a particular character. Thus we see the family deprivation in the immediate post-war period as Haruko’s scrimps, saves and even steals to feed her children. We see how Utako and Seiichi are embarrassed, including at school, by the social contempt directed by others at Haruko’s means of supporting her family.

At least two of the flashbacks are character motivated. One, repeated, shows us Haruko’s struggles to obtain food for her children. The other, also repeated and motivated by Utako, concerns a rape. In the traditional manner of Japanese mainstream drama this is not depicted at all but symbolised by the camera shots of stones and broken glass followed by an ellipsis.

But the flashbacks also include actual footage [some of it newsreel, other shots of newspapers] of Japan at this time. The film cuts from present and past to the ‘actual’ without conventional signals. Thus it operates in the manner of montage in the Soviet usage. I felt, but was not sure, that these montages also proffered thematic comment. Certainly we saw post-war deprivation and poverty. criminality and prostitution, including provision for the occupying G.I.s. Another segment addressed corruption in government and business. There were demonstrations and strikes. Much of this was accompanied by non-diegetic music, including at one point a variant on The Red Flag. And another sequence, repeated, appeared to show homeless people, pursued by police or security forces: this footage was silent.

There is an amount of commentative techniques in the film: on the lines often associated with Brecht but equally set out for the Soviet filmmakers by Vsevolod Meyerhold, There are a number of musical numbers in the film and the most important is Resort Town Elegy. This is sung for Haruko by Takasugi (Sada Keiji), an itinerant street musician. It is he that provides the final obituary for Haruko in the company of  the cook at the bar who enjoys a friendship,  but also running verbal battles, with Haruko.

Stylistically the film is dominated by static mid-shots and plan américains. The accompanying close-ups seemed to be to be slightly fewer than was common in popular narrative film. This was also true of dollies and tracks and of low and high angle shots, though all these were used as well, often for emphasis. Much of the film was in deep focus, but there was little deep staging. The exception was a long take late in the film with Haruko at Yugowara Railway Station, [on the way back from Tokyo). She stands still and we gradually discern the approaching train in the distance: followed by three mid-shots and then a close-up of a discarded sandal.

The film was produced by Shochiku, who had a tradition in the ‘shomin geki’ film [lower middle-class dramas]: though this is closer to the lumpen proletarian situation found in some of the films by Naruse Mikio. Essentially this film is a ‘mother picture’ or haha-mono, and this genre frequently depicts unsympathetic children.  It is certainly a melodrama whilst at the same time it offers the sort of social critique more commonly associated with social realism. Kinoshita worked with a number of regular film actors and crafts people on this film: and the production values are very good. Apart from the montage sequence the style is generally straightforward, more akin to Naruse than Ozu: though the latter’s Tokyo Story (1953) also features the Atami resort. There are also parallels with the films of Kinoshita’s mentor, Shimazu Yasujiro:. I was especially struck by a couple of low-angle shots up stairwells and staircases which reminded me of Children of the Beehive (1948 Hachi no su no kodomotachi ), director Shimizu Hiroshi.

The films are still touring the UK and worth looking out for. A Japanese Tragedy was screened in 35mm. It was a fair print though it was a dupe. The definition was pretty good but the contrast was not brilliant, especially in night scenes.

 

 

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

Posted by keith1942 on January 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irish dimension

A Republican 'flying column'.

A Republican ‘flying column’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Form and Style

The Wind That Shakes the Barley 6

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

“is absolutely a group activity”.

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

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

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

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

Republican traditions

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

Box Office

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

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

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

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

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

“England would still rule you”.

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

Value judgments

A warm reception on the Continent

A warm reception on the Continent

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

‘politics inform your aesthetics.’

British critics also tend to dislike didactic cinema,

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

Originally published in ITP in the picture November 2006.

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

Suffragette, UK 2015

Posted by keith1942 on November 6, 2015

suffragette 2014

This film has received generally good reviews and quite a few friends, especially women, have been impressed with the film. It certainly has good production values and an impressive set of performances, notably by Cary Mulligan in the central role of Maud. But I found the film problematic, partly because of weaknesses in the script but even more because of the superficial treatment of an important political movement in the early C20th.

The film opens with a set of introductory titles, one of which states that the films deals with a ‘group of working women’. This is a something of a misnomer. Maud and Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) are both clearly working class. Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), with her husband, runs a pharmacy. The employment of the other members of this group is unclear. Moreover, apart from Maud the other women characters are undeveloped. The film fits into a type of historical drama beloved by Richard Attenborough [e.g. Gandhi (1982) and Cry Freedom (1987)]. In this type of films the personal dramas outweigh the social: the plot is constructed around action sequences: and the characters are filled out by star cameos. So, unlike the excellent Selma (2014), we never meet a character who spells out the political line of the Women’s Social and Political Union. The film’s choice of specific years in the period appears to have been chosen so that the plot could include the famous/infamous action at the 1913 Derby. But the film’s production  is not really up to this; the ‘dummies’ and the CGI are rather obvious. And then we have Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, addressing her followers, from a  balcony no less. Yet this is her solitary appearance in the film.

Much of the film’s drama revolves around the activities of the police and state surveillance. The key character here is Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a character who appears to liaise between the political class and the police. He is of Irish origin. And there is one line where he refers to both the Republican struggle against British colonialism and to working class agitation in Liverpool: but that is it. What the film focuses on is the personal confrontation between him and Maud. It even has him expressing distaste when the film arrives at the force-feeding. A change of heart that I find unconvincing.

From a political point-of-view the film is beset with problems. For a start we never get a clear explanation of the politics of the WSPU. There is the famous dictum, ‘deeds not words’ and the emphasis by the organisation on women’s suffrage at the expense of other issues. What the film appears not to notice is that the WSPU demand was for limited suffrage for women based on property right: that right already enjoyed by men. This means that Maud’s struggles in the film, even is successful, would not win her the vote. For that she would need the universal suffrage advocated by alternative organisations. But as the film does make clear the WSPU refused to work with other organisations unless they made the women suffrage demand their primary demand: a line that led to extremely sectarian conduct.

The film does also suggest, though not strongly, the autocratic control of the organisation exerted by Emmeline Pankhurst and her elder daughter Christabel. Opposition to this behaviour led to a split and the formation of the Women’s Freedom league in 1907. In fact there was a larger Woman’s Suffrage Movement of which the film gives little sense and one that predated the WSPU.

Emmeline and Christabel were not really interested in working class members. In the years in which the film is set there were a number of branches in the East End of London but these were closed down by the leading duo. This was a factor in the split with the younger daughter Sylvia. Sylvia’s only mention in the film is a line ‘Sylvia won’t like that’ with reference to militant actions. This is a real distortion. It is true that Sylvia became increasingly critical of the militant line pursued by Emmeline and Christabel. But the disagreements were larger and more political. In fact Sylvia was, in the years in which the film is set, the most active member of the Pankhurst family. In total she was sent to jail over thirty times and suffered force-feeding at least fifteen times. She organised great demonstrations in and from the East End. And she publically addressed Parliament and political leaders. Despite this she was expelled from the WSPU for, among other errors, organising in the East End, speaking on a joint platform with the ILP and George Lansbury, and for speaking in support of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, led by James Larkin, in the great Dublin lockout.

Sylvia arrested in 1911

Sylvia arrested in 1911

The real disagreements between Sylvia and her mother and elder sister were to do the wider political struggle, almost totally absent from the film. It is difficult to grasp from the film that this period was one of intense political struggle, by women, by trade unions and the working class, by the young socialist organisations and by the Irish freedom fighters. Both the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation officially supported women’s suffrage, though there were dissenters in both organisations. In 1911 George Lansbury [also missing from the film] stood in a Parliamentary by-election on a platform of Women’s Suffrage.

Sylvia’s response to expulsion was to lead the formation of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which in 1914 launched the marvellously titled Women’s Dreadnought. 1914 also bought the imperialist war. The political differences among the women came down to a fundamental line: Emmeline and Christabel suspended the struggle by the WSPU for the duration of the war. Sylvia became an important leader in the anti-war struggle: leadership that won her the praise of Lenin. Emmeline later developed into an anti-Bolshevik and joined the Conservative party, though in her earlier years she had staunchly  supported the young socialist organisations.

It does seem unlikely that Maud, working class, living in the East End, and working in a laundry was more likely to meet middle class WSPU agitators in central London rather than the organised socialist and suffrage women in her own East End. If she had she would not only have campaigned for a suffrage policy that embraced herself but she could also have fought against the exploitation and oppression vividly dramatised in the film’s sequences.

That she does not is down to a plot coincidence, a frequent plot device in melodramas. The rationale for this is that the film dramatises that ‘the personal is political’, where as in the early teens of the C19th social and political struggles, including in the WSPU, were premised on the ‘political is personal’.

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HUAC – PARANOIA – FILM NOIR

Posted by keith1942 on June 19, 2015

Paranoia

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

HUAC

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

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

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

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

Committee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten demo

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

Film Noir

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur

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

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

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

Named

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

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

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

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The Angry Silence, UK 1960

Posted by keith1942 on January 29, 2015

Angry silence

I wrote this piece to accompany a viewing for students. The focus on the film was in terms of Identification and Positioning. It was fairly clear that all of the viewers identified quite strongly with the Tom Curtis character (Richard Attenborough), who in this narrative appears to embody the message of the film – the individual against the group. Here I just wanted to note some of the ways that I felt the film attempted to ‘position’ the audience.

The film is set in a northern factory. Tom Curtis (Richard Attenborough) is a worker there. His close friend, also working at the factory, is Joe (Michael Craig): he lodges with Tom and his family. Tom is married to Anna (Pier Angeli); an Italian migrant and they have two young children. A dispute erupts at the factory and the workers, led by the shop steward, Connolly (Bernard Lee), come out on strike. However, Connolly is ‘guided’ by a visiting agitator, Travers (Alfred Burke): dialogue suggests that he is a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, but this is never explicitly stated. During the strike some of the workers carry on working, including Tom, and become targets of abuse and violence as ‘scabs’. The film’s climax involves violence against Tom himself [the culprits include Mick played by the young Oliver Reed]..

Firstly, the narrative is centred on Tom and his family; it is their lives and emotions that we see at close quarters. The film’s structure emphasises this, while there are a lot of quite short scenes (e.g. between Connolly and the manager, Davis – Geoffrey Keen) there are a number of lengthier scenes which portray the traumas of Tom, Anna and their children.

Characterisation is also important, I think the film fairly successfully creates a picture of working class life, and the script cleverly uses moments of inarticulateness to make its points. The casting of an Italian actress as the wife allows space for more emotional scenes than is usual in British films of that period. Note the first time we meet Anna she is listening to an Italian tune on the radio. And there is the way her hair (normally up) is let down for her most dramatic scene, the confrontation with Joe.  Joe is the character who changes his mind and sides in the confrontation: the film rewards him for this.  Earlier we had seen Joe unsuccessfully trying to date Pat (Penelope Horner), a clerk in the factory office: but we see her follow him as he leaves the final union meeting.

The camerawork and montage is very effective for a British film, there are a lot of close-ups, always more emotive and with greater impact. The camera is also used for point-of-view shots (when we see a character or scene as a film character would see this). One noticeable one it the point-of-view shot as Joe sees Anna in their quarrel, with the camera looking down on the distraught and anguished Anna.

The mise en scène or settings reinforces the story, characters and use of camera. The use of large spaces to place the characters in a threatening and lonely situation, as for example Anna lost in the great school playground as she desperately seeks her son Brian. Or Tom in the factory, shown with a depth of field, which places him in relation to his work-mates: after the strike he is cut off by space and obstacles.

A combination of camera and setting is exemplified in the opening sequence, which accompanies the titles – the arrival of Travers The train sounds and the station are unsettling, places of passage rather than rest. As Travers crosses the station he is shown at one point behind a metal barrier, a frequent device for setting people apart. In the station car park waits Connolly, and the manner in which he flips away his cigarette and starts the car reminds me irresistibly of Hollywood gangster movies, a comment on both him and Travers.

The music is very interesting. There are only nine pieces of music spread through the film and one of those just a drum roll. Apart from the titles music signals and accompanies the key dramatic moments of the film, like the closing down of the factory. At this point a theme accompanies the little group who are working on, a theme that recurs later and is noticeable for the trumpet playing in a high register. This theme returns with other factory scenes, and when we hear it for the last time, accompanying the crane shot that gives us a bird-eye view of the final meeting, it has become a wishful, dying tone reminiscent of the Last Post.

The film also makes effective us of soundtrack, note the brief shot that signals the attack on Tom – night-time, a dog barks, running steps, a whisp of wind – cut to the next scene.

There are lots of other devices (or use of film language) in this film, many of which not only develop the story but also seem to aim at affecting the responses of the audience to the story and the characters. If, as I argue, the story carries the side in an argument, then these devices can be seen as trying to place or position the audience vis-à-vis that argument or message.

The film was produced by Beaver; a company set up by Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes in one of a number of attempts to develop a successful independent British production facility. Bryan Forbes produced the film that was directed by Guy Green with the story co-written by Michael Craig and Richard Gregson. The film was nominated for both an Academy Award and a BAFTA.  Critics were generally positive: Dilys Powell commented “A film made by people who care about the screen and care what they are saying on it.” Like the majority of the British critics she appeared to endorse the values embodied in the film. The early 1960s saw another of the recurring media attacks on working class militancy. In this case there was frequent publicity about people who ‘scabbed’ [worked during a strike) being disciplined, often informally – the most quoted examples were being sent to Coventry, i.e. none of the work-mates would talk to the culprit.

The British media tended, as they still do, to support the values of the capitalist class and working class actions were perceived as ‘rocking the boat’. The film certainly seems to reflect this set of values.

Black and white, 94 minutes, 1960.

Posted in British films, Movies with messages, Political film | 1 Comment »

The Commune La Commune, France 1999.

Posted by keith1942 on December 9, 2014

Commune

 

 

 

 

 

Black and white, 345 minutes: directed and scripted by Peter Watkins.

Sight & Sound ’s annual ‘top twenty for the year’ is not exactly a compelling recommendation – how did The Wolf of Wall Street make it in. As is often the case, individual listings are more interesting. Kim Newman included this film in his recommendations, noting that it came out in 2000 but that he had only just seen it.

Watkins is probably best known for the BBC’s vérité-style historical reconstructions, Culloden (1964), and the famously banned The War Game (1964). Since falling foul of the establishment for both the style and content of his films, Watkins has worked mainly abroad. The Commune, his ninth and possibly last film, was shot in Paris. It recreates that overlooked but seminal event, the uprising of the Parisian proletarians in 1871. This was the first truly revolutionary outburst of the new Socialist movement that included both Marx and the Anarchists Proudhon and Blanqui. Watkins recruited a cast from the areas of Paris where the Commune occurred and from migrant Communities such as Africans. Such an approach mirrors the internationalism of the original Commune. The film was shot on 16mm in a  hot-house production process lasting only 13 days. This has contributed to the dynamic and passionate immediacy of the performances. The film includes TV-style reportage, documentary and vérité techniques and docu-drama reconstructions. These are structured by use of reflexive and analytical inserts, e.g. the Commune is presented in the film by two journalists who both talk on-camera and interview participants. This device replays the techniques Watkins developed in his first film Culloden. The final film is committed, compelling and [I believe] likely to become a seminal work in the field. But it will be difficult to see. Watkins struggled to find media support and resources for the project. It has had a single screening in Paris and a single outing on a French Television channel. A London Film Festival screening was on video as they had not been able to strike a celluloid distribution print. It is a sad reflection on the censorship of the market that it is going to be so difficult actually to see this masterpiece. For London viewers there was a screening planned at the French Institute early in 2001. It has not appeared on television as far as I know but is now available on DVD. I would suggest that, like other great but demanding documentaries, Shoah, The Sorrow and the Pity, …, it is essential viewing. Watkins’ final film, like the best of his earlier work, demonstrates how the innovations of Vérité, when sited within an analytical and committed standpoint, can offer a distinctive and enthralling take on our world, past and present.

 

 

 

 

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Miners on Film

Posted by keith1942 on September 26, 2014

Mitchell&Kenyon13CreswellAndL

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coal Face title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which side title

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

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

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

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

Brassed collapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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