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The Post (USA/India 2017) with a Q&A

Posted by keith1942 on February 4, 2018

This is the new film directed by Steven Spielberg. It recounts that actual events [not completely accurately] around the publication of a set of secret documents that detailed the history of the war by the Unites States against Vietnam up until 1966. These documents revealed that, among other failings, the US administration, including Presidents, had lied to the US people. The film presents the story of how The Washington Post, with limited acknowledgement of The New York Times who actually broke the story, published parts of The Papers and successfully defended this in the Supreme Court of the USA. The film’s focus is primarily on the owner of the publishing company, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep); a company that owned other media including television stations. The other key character is the then editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Less centrally we see Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who leaked the documents; Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), then Secretary of Defence, who commission The Papers; various journalists and,. briefly, workers at the paper, opponents of the Vietnam War and, in reverse shots through a window, President Nixon (Curzon Dobell).

On Sunday January 28th the Hyde Park screened the title followed by a Q&A led by Granville Williams. This rather made up for every screening bar one in that week [Jupiter’s Moon on Tuesday] on the cinema’s single screen was this drama. Granville Williams is an experienced writer and commentator on the Media and the Press. For a long time he was the editor of the FreePress of the Campaign for Freedom in the Press and Media. Over a hundred people turned up for the screening and about half of them stayed for the Q&A.

Granville introduced the discussion with some background on the events depicted in the film. He commented that there were a selection of films that portrayed journalist in an ‘honourable’ light. He mentioned All the President’s Men (1976), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and Spotlight (2015). Not in the same class but also recent was State of Play (2009), inferior to the original British television version. Of course, classic Hollywood had a whole cycle of films about conscientious, determined and ‘freedom loving’ journalists: think Frank Capra and Howard Hawks.

Granville made the point that The Post does not offer a proper focus on the role of The New York Times. Moreover, The Washington Post, as the film characters tell us, was not national paper in the same way as The Times at this point. But in addition The Post only joined the criticisms of the US war in Vietnam in 1969.

Granville was not convinced by the characterisation of Katharine Graham in the film. The portrayal shows her as frequently hesitant, which was not his sense of the actual person. When she took over the company after the death of her husband [a nasty-sounding type) and her son, she started to change the paper. It was she that recruited Ben Bradlee as editor. Granville also reckoned that the actual Bradlee was more motivated by competition with The New York Times than the liberal cause; a point only slightly proposed in the film. And Granville lamented that since then both The Times and The Post had sunk to supporting the US military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One of the aspects of the film that did impress him was the focus on the actual process of printing the paper. But later shareholder pressure, [the film shows the company going ‘public’ on Wall Street] led to the introduce of new technology. There was a long strike in 1975 through 1976 which Granville compared to the events at Wapping organised by the Murdoch Press. And he noted that late in her life Graham supported Ronald Reagan.

Granville got a well deserved round of applause for this introduction and then we had some questions and comments by members of the audience.

A woman commented on the decline of the US provincial press, papers which are briefly referenced in the film, and noted that critical journalism on the war in Afghanistan tended to be in books rather than the mainstream media.

Granville gave an example of books produced by journalists, remarking that because much of this reportage was not aired on television the journalist had to rely on book publishing to recount their stories. He gave an example of one involving the USA where missiles supposedly supplied to the Mujahidin ended up in other hands. Regarding the provincial press in the USA he noted that this was a pale shadow of it former self.

A man asked about The New York Times’ role and compared the press role then and the seemingly chaotic media coverage in the USA today.

Granville praised the high standards that operated in The Times at this period. He noted that issues like ‘fake news’ were part of the problems in the USA media. But he pointed out there were still alternative press and media.

Another audience member commented that the crisis in journalism was not just in the USA but globally. He opined that there was also a crisis in the recruitment of a new generation of journalists which exacerbated problems. Granville concurred with this and cited the developments in Russia.

An earlier questioner returned to the state of the US press and regretted the demise of what was an array of ‘afternoon papers’ in the USA. She did though, see a ‘ray of light’ in the British Financial Times’ exposé of the events at the Presidents’ Club.

Granville picked up on the issue of ‘good journalism’. He noted a US report which showed that the number of major media corporations in the USA had reduced from 50 in 1953 to only 5 in 2004. He also noted similar problems in Britain and cited the increasing monopoly in the regional press.

Another questioner asked about the issue of ‘fake news’ and how this related to the representation of social groups in the newspaper industry in the USA.

Granville responded that there was a class division in the contemporary readership. The press mainly catered for the rich and affluent classes, exemplified in the type of advertising which catered for the well-off. He felt that a good newspaper should be rooted in communities. He noted how The Washington Post, even in it heyday, catered for the Washington elite. He gave as an example in Britain the Daily Mirror. Though he did not approve of Piers Morgan it should be noted that when he was editor, the paper opposed the military aggression in Iraq. The only other papers to do so were The Independent and The Guardian. He reckoned this was very much to do with The Mirror’s relationship to its readership. It was a paper that addressed work and working people.

I raised three points here. One was the failure of the film to represent the workers at The Post in any meaningful way. There was the almost complete absence of any representation of the Vietnamese People against whom the illegal war was waged. And I also suggested that The Post and The Times did not oppose the war per se but only the misconduct and cover-up by administrations.

Granville broadly agreed. He told a story about a CBS reporter who intervened when US soldiers were threatening to ‘incinerate’ Vietnamese woman and children. His employer, CBS, agonized over whether to run the story or not. When they did run the story, in a telephone call that mirrored scenes in the film, a White House aide rang and complained the network had ‘shit on the American Flag’. Granville went on to point out how the draft was class divided: working class recruits, frequently black, went to die in Vietnam whilst more affluent youngsters were able to avoid this.

The session wrapped up then with an appreciation of Granville’s presentation and responses.

I found this session following the film very helpful in getting to grips with the issues involved. My impression after the screening, including comments by other members of the audience, was that the majority were impressed with the film. I was not. Even as cinema I had lots of reservations. The film struck me as extremely conventional. For example, after the main title there is the whir and thump of a helicopter on the sound track and then it is 1966 and we see ‘grunts’ [US soldiers] forming up at a camp in Vietnam. There follows a night ‘firefight’ with the Viet Cong, merely shadows among the trees firing at the US squad. There is a cut to daytime and there is Daniel Ellsberg siting in the open at a typewriter on a makeshift desk. Where have I seen and heard this before?

There follows a sequence on a US plane flying from Vietnam. Ellsberg is called by Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara to support his claim that the war is going badly. But when the plane lands McNamara tells the assembled Press that the conduct of the war ‘exceeds our expectations’.

By 1969 Ellsberg is working at the RAND Corporation and has access to the report that McNamara commissioned on the history of the war in Vietnam, i.e. ‘The Pentagon Papers’. We see him smuggling out parts of this voluminous report and then, with help, photocopying pages whilst another man cuts off the ‘Top Secret’ titling on each page. This is the point in the film when the audience are given a sense of what is in these papers. This is a typical Hollywood trope; shots of sections of pages and particular paragraphs. It is a sort of montage just giving viewers snippets. It reminded me of a similar sequence in Reds (1981) where a potentially interesting discussion between John Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) is reduced to a series of snippets devoid of serious political content.

Several people have remarked that one needs a sense of ‘The Pentagon Papers’ to follow the early part of the film, as it fails to give a thorough presentation. This rather glib approach re-appears later in the film. The Washington Post receives copies of those parts of the papers purloined by Ellsberg. The editor and a group of journalist sort through these, under a deadline pressure, sifting out information for a major report. In this scene the papers are all mixed up and the journalists have to try and sort them. I found this odd. Given the type of character Ellsberg was this seems rather unlikely. Moreover it works as a way of producing more snippets from the papers. Individual journalists call out sentences of note from the papers, other journalist respond and add to this. It is melee of quotes that damn different Presidents but do not really give the overall sense, apart from a the recurring sense of administration lies and cover-ups. They do point the finger at all the Presidents, and we see their images at one point on screen: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and, now Nixon.

A major problem in the film follows from the way that the story is scripted. The original script was by Liz Hannah. This was worked over by Josh Singer. Spielberg does not have a script credits but he appears to have had some input here. The story focuses on The Washington Post and in particular the owner at this period [it was a family owned company] Katherine Graham. This choice immediately side-lines the role of The New York Times. Ellsberg initially pass the copies of the papers to a Times journalist, It was the New York Times that broke the story and was taking to court by the administration. The Supreme Court decision in this case involved both The New York Times and The Washington post. In fact, The Times was the paper that won a Pulitzer prize for its reporting of the issue.

So the central character in the film is Katherine Graham, owner of the publishing company. In what seems to be the influence of current gender concerns in the industry the film presents Graham as a woman resisting masculine hegemony in a world dominated by men. So at Board meetings Graham, despite being officially in control, is side-lined and patronised by the suited male members. The characters is written as repressed by this dominance but gradually emerging and exercising authority. Granville used the term ‘hesitant’ to describe the character. He questioned whether this was accurate: characterising her as powerful and decisive. I was unconvinced by the characterisation in the course of the film, it did not seem to fit. Whilst Streep does give a fine performance it also seemed rather mannered; she does have that tendency. In some scenes it reminded me of her performance in Florence Foster Jenkins (2016).

Another point is interesting. Granville commented on her now dead husband. Apparently at one point he had a very public affair with another woman, which was a humiliating experience for Graham in the closed circles of the Washington elite. That seems an aspect that would have fitted current Academe concerns. As it is the film overdoes the issue of gender. After the Supreme Court hearing we see Graham wending her way through a crowd of young, smiling women: no men in sight. That might happen in 2017, it seems much less likely in 1973.The film spends quite a lot of time on the issue of The Post going public, i.e. opening up the company to investors beyond the family and selling these on the Wall Street Stock Exchange. Thus brings an added set of pressures on the paper and on Graham. We see several board meetings where Graham is patronised by the male members and where they also oppose the paper’s reporting of The Pentagon Papers as likely to undermine the business. The film takes this type of capitalist system for granted. There is not really a questioning of either family control of a media business and the question of financial control is not addressed. There is a sort irony here because the film is distributed by Fox Searchlight, part of a prime example of a family controlled media empire. I did wonder if I should boo when the Fox Searchlight logo appeared.

The film also spends time on the family life of Graham and of her editor Bradlee. Graham’s daughter is shown as supportive and there are references to the dead husband and son. In Bradlee’s case we see his young daughter, a budding entrepreneur who makes dollars selling lemonade to the working journalists; a missed opportunity for irony. None of the other characters enjoy this sort of personal background, certainly not Ellsberg, who we learn in dialogue has recently married.

I also had reservations about the characterisation of Ben Bradlee. In the early stages we get sense of how important is the competitive aspect with The New York Times for The Post editor. But in the later stages and by the climax the emphasis is on Press Freedom and the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The role does not effect the sharp edge that Newspaper editors need, brilliantly done by Jason Robards as the same character in All The Presidents’ Men and also well done by John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr. in Spotlight. Tom Hanks does a fair job with the role and I think the weakness is in the writing. There is a scene with Graham and Bradlee as they survey set of regional titles now carrying reports on The Papers. This is an example of collective defence but their main response is that it demonstrates that The Post has arrived as a ‘national newspaper’.

In fact the film does not develop journalistic practices as effectively as the other films mentioned. The only journalist/editor whose work we see in some detail is Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), who was the paper’s staff member who actually received The Papers from Ellsberg. But even here little space is giving to his journalistic work in reporting this. That is an aspect, as with journalist investigation that both All The President’s Men and Spotlight do very well. There is little of this in The Post. The scene that I mentioned earlier where Bradlee and a team sort through The Papers does not have much of a journalistic flavour and is more concerned with presenting notable snippets to viewers.

NOR_D14_061617_026541.raf

The same applies to the print workers at the paper. We get a series of close-ups of the machinery as the reports are printed. However, the shot of the print workers are mainly long-shots and only concerned with their actions, at the machinery or loading the printed papers onto lorries. There is one shot where the workers pick up the printed newspapers as they stream from the machinery, but there is no indication of their responses. A comparable sequence in the British political thriller Defence of the Realm (1986) does offer some characterisation of the print-workers on a British paper.

A similar problem applies to the other ordinary workers we see in the film. We do get a slight cameo from a secretary as Graham attends the Supreme Court for the hearings. But this scene seems mainly designed to reinforce the message re gender, as the secretary complains about her boss, a Senator,.

The ‘grunts’ in the opening sequence do a little better. We hear their dialogue, but this is so that we know that Daniel Ellsberg is going with them into the jungle. Here, in a night scene, we get our single look at the Vietnamese, shadows behind trees and foliage firing at the US soldiers. The peace groupings opposed to the war do little better. We see a protest where just about everyone is dressed like hippies and as a man takes up a microphone: we cut to another scene. I could not see any of the Vietnam veterans, already s significant force by this stage.

And we see only glimpses of the Supreme Court Justices, the event that the whole of the previous film has been leading up to. The decision is actually heard own a telephone as a breathless woman office worker calls out the result. President Nixon does somewhat better than these social groupings. We see and hear him several times, in a reverse shot as he stands by a White House window talking down the telephone; these lines seem some of the most accurate in the film and are presumably taken from the infamous tape recordings.

Individually, many of these decisions in the film could be justified. However, overall it renders the storytelling extremely conventional. The focus of gender is fine, but it denies space to equally important issues such as class and imperial xenophobia. It apparently also denies space to anti-racism. There were some black faces, including among the ‘grunts’. But they were not noticeable on The Post. Yet Granville pointed out that, due to the Civil Rights movement, by this stage the paper had recruited a number of young Afro-Americans. The treatment also undermines generic features,. Several critics describe the films as ‘political thriller’. But I found the story, even in the sequences meant to generate tension, lacking in this. Many of the audience will know from history that The Post [and the New York Times] won the battle. So the lengthy sequences where the editor and his journalists or Graham and her board members debate the issuer lacked tension over the outcome.

This is matter of style. Spotlight was a film where many of us knew the outcome but the film still generated tension in certain sequences. Spotlight also effectively gave voice to the victims of Church abuse. This, as I suggest, is missing in The Post. And it is missing in the treatment of Ellsberg. We only find out in the dialogue that he was recently married when these event occurred. He does not receive the family context awarded to Graham and Bradlee. Much of the film was predictable including the closing shots, the Watergate Building as the staff discover the burglars sent by the White House. This is an unfortunate choice. It reminds viewers of the fine political thriller, All the Presidents’ Men. That is a film that dramatises a parallel story, present journalist practice very effectively, ramps up the tension in many sequences, and is able to give viewers a clear sense of the crimes perpetrated.

The Post was put together when another Spielberg project fell through. Apparently it was made relativity fast. This may account for the main weak aspects of the film. It compares unfavourably with other treatments. A particularly good example is The Most Dangerous Man in America.: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers [the first part of the title is a quote by Henry Kissinger, [another participants never bought to justice]. This is a documentary partially narrated by Ellsberg himself. It was written by Lawrence Lerew & Rick Goldsmith & Judith Ehrlich & Michael Chandler. The film was directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith for Goldsmith’s company Kovno Communications. It premiered in the USA on Public Broadcast Television and has been seen at festivals and on national television networks. It won an Academy Award as Best Documentary.

The film covers a lot of matters left out in The Post. We learn much more about Ellsberg, his career and his motivations. The story of The New York Times is fully presented. And the events that follows between publication in the two papers and the Supreme Court hearings are filled in. Thus it becomes clear that Ellsberg passed The Pentagon Papers to other new outlets who also printed them. And we see a US Senator, Mike Gravel, who read extensive extracts from The Papers into the Congressional record.

Some of the scenes, like that between Ellsberg and McNamara flying back from Vietnam, are extremely similar: both part of the record. But Ellsberg experiences in Vietnam and researching the war is presented in an extensive fashion. Even here it is difficult give a comprehensive sense of the exposure but it is fuller than in the Hollywood version. And in a small but significant scene we see the print-workers at The Post congratulating each other as the newspapers, with the reports, stream off the machines.

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Granville also prepared some notes prior to the screening which include some of the books he mentioned:

The Post in an honourable addition to Hollywood films All The Presidents Men (1976), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Spotlight (2015)) which portray journalists and journalism in a positive way, as opposed to grubby hacks chasing squalid, sensational headlines .

When I see films like these I wonder why UK film directors haven’t tackled such subjects. Couldn’t the dogged work of Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, as he probed and finally exposed the industrial scale of phone-hacking at Murdoch’s News of the World, be a suitable subject?

The credits for The Post say it is ‘based on a true story’ and whilst I can quibble with the way the film modifies some of the facts about the way the Washington Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, finally came to back publication of the Pentagon Papers, I think the film captures perfectly how enmeshed she was in the Washington elite and the political and commercial pressures on her to take an easier route, and not publish the papers.

I will talk more about this in the Q&A session following the 5.00pm showing of the film on Sunday 28 January at the Hyde Park Picture House. Here I just want to develop a couple of points about two aspects of the film.

One is the way that Spielberg focuses on the old hot metal printing press scenes and the workings of the Linotype machines assembling the lines of type for the stories. It’s very evocative.

In 1975 after Watergate there was a ferocious strike by printers which set her and the newspaper on a conservative course. Graham devoted dozens of pages in her autobiography Personal History to vilifying Post press operators who went on strike in 1975. She stressed the damage done to printing equipment as the walkout began and “the unforgivable acts of violence throughout the strike.”

John Hanrahan, a Newspaper Guild member at the Post, wouldn’t cross the picket lines and never went back. He pointed out,

“The Washington Post under Katharine Graham pioneered the union-busting ‘replacement worker’ strategy that Ronald Reagan subsequently used against the air-traffic controllers and that corporate America — in the Caterpillar, Bridgestone/Firestone and other strikes — used to throw thousands of workers out of their jobs in the 1980s and the ’90s.”

The other point is on the role of Ben Bagdikian in the film – he’s the journalist who gets access to Daniel Ellsberg and persuades him to hand over 4000 pages for the Post to use. He was national editor on the Post, a man who the editor, Ben Bradlee, in his autobiography, ‘A Good Life’, describes as ‘thorny’. Bagdikian had a big influence on me, and others interested in media reform. He wrote a key book ‘The Media Monopoly’ (1983) which warned about the chilling effects of corporate ownership and mass advertising on US media. Fifty corporations owned most of the US media when he wrote the first edition. By the time he wrote ‘The New Media Monopoly’ (2004) it had dwindled to five.

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Granville made a mention of Ken Burns documentary series The Vietnam War (2017), which has been screened on BBC 4. However, it should be noted that the original was 18 hours of archive material and comment. The version transmitted by the BBC only ran a little over nine hours. Worse, at no point did the BBC publicity or announcements point out that this was a truncated version.

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Nineteen Eighty-Four: Adaptations and Reformulations of Orwell’s Novel

Posted by keith1942 on December 25, 2017

The grim futurist vision in Orwell’s famous novel would seem not to have come to pass. Even though, thirty years further on from the titular date, we still have not suffered the dystopia he envisaged, the book remains a potent and influential text. Orwell’s novel reflected a host of influences: his early life and preparatory school: his experience of the depression in the 1930s: his experience of sectarianism, the suppression of anarcho-syndicalist organisations in Barcelona in 1937: his experience of the destruction and scarcity of the war years: his time at the BBC and his experience of its bureaucracy: his readings and knowledge of events both in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, including Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’ (1940), and of the Fascist dictatorships in the 1920s and 1930s: and writing the novel in the post-war world of rationing and the ‘cold war’.

There is also the influence of the earlier novel by Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1931), though this book relies on hedonistic addiction rather than brutal surveillance. A stronger influence would be the Soviet novel We (Мы)  a dystopian story by Yevgeny Zamyatin completed in 1921. There are many plot cross-overs though Yevgeny’s novel is set farther in the future in an advanced technological society.

Orwell’s vision is bleak and pessimistic. He subscribes to the notion of a totalitarian state. And as is common with that concept he elides the political economy of his society. Whilst it offers some version of socialism it also appears to operate under a system of commodity production and exchange.

The book has been adapted into plays, radio plays [including ‘The Goons’], for television [including the trivial Room 101]; into an opera and even a ballet; the last impressed me more than I expected. Predictably there are also television and film feature length versions: some attempt a literal translation others involve influence or reformulation.

The BBC broadcast an adaption in 1954: CBS had already broadcast a US Network version in 1953. The BBC production was written by Nigel Kneale, a key figure in television science fiction. It was directed by Rudolph Cartier who was a seminal figure in early British television drama. The production was recorded in a studio with filmed inserts. The dominance of close-ups and fairly bare television sets works to generate a real sense of paranoia appropriate to the book. This version closely follows the book though some sections are elided, as for example with the exterior sequences in the ‘prole’ area. We do get the INGSOC slogans, examples of Newspeak and references to the critical work of Emmanuel Goldstein. However, the long analysis in Orwell’s book from this source is missing. The film does essay the brutal interrogations inflicted by O’Brien and the final defeatist sequence. Peter Cushing as Winston and André Morell as O’Brien stand out in a strong cast.

In 1956 Holiday Film Productions filmed the novel in the UK at the Elstree Studio, including using London locations. This is an inferior version to the BBC production. The translation to the screen cuts down on the novel, much of the plot is there but the discussions of the politics and values of Oceania are missing as is the analysis of Goldstein. One addition is Winston demonstrating to the Telescreen in his flat that he is not carrying any forbidden items. Names are changed, O’Brien becomes O’Connor and Goldstein becomes Kalador. The film was a tool in the Cold War. The United States Information Agency provided about a third of the budget. The emphasis of the film is the ‘Red Menace’. An introductory title tells us it is not science fiction but set ‘in the immediate future’. At the film’s end a voice over enjoins that this fate await our children if we ‘fail to preserve our heritage of freedom’. The film was shot in London and aims for a realistic narrative giving a contemporary feel. Some of this is very well done and evocative. There are two striking shots in particular. One, of feet ascending steps in Trafalgar Square, seems [wittingly or unwittingly] to invert the famous shots from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). And, near the end, there is a striking overhead shot of Winston as he stands before a large poster of Big Brother. In fact there were two endings. The one for the US market closely followed the book. However, for the UK,

“It seems that the BBC flap prompted Columbia Pictures, the distributors, to shoot two endings, one faithful to the novel and the other more hopeful.” (Tony Shaw, 2006).

1984 (1956)
Directed by Michael Anderson
Shown: Edmond O’Brien

Similar influences lay behind the 1954 adaptation of Orwell’s other dystopian fable, Animal Farm. The animation by Joy Batchelor and John Halas is excellent but the film strays from Orwell’s original in ways that parallel the Holiday Film 1984. There are also several television films of this novel. I did wonder if the CBS television version of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ had a similar provenance.

Then in the actual year of 1984 Virgin Cinema Films produced a version, set in London and filmed in the locations listed in the book and in the time-frame of the book (April to June) and adhering Orwell’s original title. It opens with an onscreen quotation from the book,

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

The film was scripted by Michael Radford with added material by Jonathan Gems and directed by Michael Radford. The two key characters are John Hurt as Winston and Richard Burton as O’Brien. Hurt is aptly cast, Burton never quite achieves O’Brien’s Machiavellian persona. But the major problem is the scripting. The film emphasizes the subjective viewpoint of Winston Smith. Some of this, like the diary with an internal voice, is very effective, as are flashbacks to Winston’s childhood. The book’s analysis is only briefly presented. At one point Winston reads to Julia from Goldstein’s book the passage about war, but little else. Oddly when Winston visits O’Brien [alone] the latter is not explicit about claiming to be part of the undergrounds. Even more oddly there are a series of ‘dream’ sequences which involve a door marked ‘101’ opening onto a green but artificial landscape bathed in sunlight. At various points the landscape includes Winston, Winston and Julia, Winston and O’Brien and all three: plus one shot where it is empty. Room 1001 is one of the memorable inventions in Orwell’s book, the site of the ultimate torture and mind-bending experience. But what exactly these ‘dream’ sequences’ were meant to suggest is not really resolved though they obviously provide an opposition to the actual Room 101 and stress Winston’s subjective stance. Perhaps they relate to the final ambiguous shot of Winston, face screwed up, mumbling ‘I love Big Brother’.

The sound and vision of the film is effective. The production design presents a sort of grunge war-time Britain. This is shot with great skill by Roger Deakins, director of photography and camera operator. And the Eastman film stock received special processing to achieve the desaturated look. But the story within this feels rather hollow and never achieves the grim dystopian feel of the book.

Released only a year later Brazil (UK 1985) is in many ways the most brilliant of  cinematic rendering of Orwell’s novel. It is directed by Terry Gilliam, combining his usual surrealist touches with sardonic often macabre humour and a wishful romanticism. The script, by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown is witty though the narrative does fly off at tangents at times. The design, cinematography and special effects are all excellent and contribute to making this bizarre dystopia believable. The basic modus operandi of the film is to invert just about every aspect of the Orwellian original. So whilst the literary Winston might seem to be driven by a search for father figures this protagonist, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), is mother fixated. In fact his romantic ideal, Jill Layton (Kim Greist), seems at times interchangeable with his mother Mrs Ida Lowry (Katherine Helmond): there is even a brief visual reference to Vertigo (1958). The dystopia is a world of bureaucratic ministries gone mad, driven by control freaks and obsessed with covering over errors. The war is replaced by faceless urban terrorists. The surveillance and policing is overbearing but also fails to achieve its objectives.  The buildings are grandiose but the technology is constantly breaking down and operating incorrectly. The slogans are less frequent, also inverted, but just as disturbing,

“Truth is Freedom.”

It is also a capitalist society based on commodity production.

This film has the familiar look of Gilliam’s style: I was especially taken with a automated surveillance machine that acted rather like an eager puppy. There is a brief visual reference to Potemkin, [playing with the 1956 version?] Like its immediate predecessor, and typical of Gilliam’s work, the film offers a series of fantasy/dreams. These offer alternative romantic and upbeat sequences to the dystopian world. And, unlike the preceding Ninety Eighty-Four, they come together at the conclusion to offer resolution between the subjective and objective worlds in the film. That conclusion plays intriguingly with that in Orwell’s novel. The film repeatedly offers sequences that are as brutal and downbeat as the novel. And, like Orwell, Gilliam and his team come up with original and distinctive images and motifs. Hapless victims are trussed in metal tagged sacks for torture. The site of this is Room 5001. But the ‘brainwashed’ or ‘unthinking populace’ are not central except in the brutally realistic terrorist acts.

A slightly earlier science fiction film is an example of influence rather than transposition, Blade Runner (1982). We have replicants instead of proles or perpetrators of ‘thought crime’. But we do have the intrusive surveillance in what is clearly another dystopia. And the impressive design of this film also harks back to Orwell.

“The Ministry of Truth … was startlingly different from other objects in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” (‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, Orwell).

Intriguingly the original release version also contained the much criticised flight by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young) from the city to a green landscape. This parallels the setting presented [dreamlike] at the end of Brazil and it is similar to the dreams of Hurt’s character, Winston, in his subjective version of Room 101. In the book green countryside is the site of Winston’s and Julia’s first tryst and initial sexual acts. Otherwise Orwell’s book is resolutely urban, conjuring up the traditional opposition between the urban and the rural that is a central trope in traditional melodrama.

That is also a trope in another dystopian film, Logan’s Run (1976): though that film seems to be more influenced by Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. That would also be true of the far better science fiction film Gattaca (1997). Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is probably influenced by both but the idea of firemen who burn books and an underground dedicated to memorising forbidden texts appears to be a riposte by the original author Ray Bradbury to Orwell.

There are indeed many other films that offer examples of the influence of Orwell’s classic. Dark City (1998) has another dystopia, somewhat removed from the world described by Orwell, but whose hero suffers the problem of rediscovering the actual past whilst an underworld power controls to a degree how people perceive. This is one among a number of suggestions on the Web by fans of the novel and its numerous re-interpretations. Robert Harris, the novelist, regards ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ as the most influential novel in modern writing. His books reflect this, as do film versions such as Fatherland (1994) and his screenplay for The Ghost Writer (2010).

And the cycle will probably continue, a

‘Romantic’ new version of 1984 planned with Kristen Stewart’ (Yahoo Movies in 2016).

seems to have fallen by the wayside. It is a sign of how Orwell’s nightmare vision has gripped the popular imagination that artists continually return to his classic novel. It seems that ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ will be with us for many years to come.

There are many articles and books and Web postings on Orwell and ‘1984’. Especially useful for Film Studies is Tony Shaw, 2006 – British Cinema and the Cold War The State, Propaganda and Consensus, I. B. Tauris, London and New York. This article was originally  written for the Media Education Journal, Issue 60, which celebrated the magazine which first appeared in 1984. It seemed a nice touch to write about Orwell’s now famous year.

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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.

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

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 »