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Agnès Varda 1928 to 2019

Posted by keith1942 on March 31, 2019

Mandatory Credit: Photo by NIVIERE/VILLARD/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock (8825150f)
Agnes Varda
‘Visages, Villages’ photocall, 70th Cannes Film Festival, France – 19 May 2017

So, aged ninety, the grand and lovable film-maker has left us. One always feels a sense of loss when an important film-makers leaves the industry and world of film. For me there was a particular personal feeling because Agnès was not only one of the outstanding film-makers in European cinema, she was a real character and humanist who radiated both sympathy and empathy for the ordinary people who so often took centre screen in her films.

My first film by Agnès Varda was Cleo from 5 to 7 (Clèo de 5 à 7, 1962) which I saw in a 16mm screening at a local film society. We were in a period when we enjoyed the trail-breaking features of the nouvelle vague, but even then Varda’s film offered a distinctive take on life and France. The later films that I enjoyed all offered both quality and her own individual take on life and cinema. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t / L’une chante l’autre pas (1977) dramatised her own commitment to the struggle to legalise women’s access to abortion. Most recently Faces Places / Visages villages (2017) showed her love of the idiosyncratic and her warm embrace of people and places.

In keeping with her renaissance standpoint and her recent habit of revisiting her life and work the final film, Varda by Agnès / Varda par Agnès – Causerie (2019) offers a testament to the rich and compelling variety of her work. This film was screened in the Berlinale (Out of Competition) at the Berlinale Palast. The Brochure commented,

“Agnes Varda takes a seat on a theatre stage. The professional photographer, installation artist and pioneer of the Nouvelle Vague is an institution of French cinema but a fierce opponent of any kind of institutional thinking.”

What is offered is a journey through Varda artistic career, primarily that of film. The approach is partly chronological, partly thematic. Taking account of the changes in the medium the first part treats

“’her analogue period’ from 1954 to 2000 in which the director is in the foreground…… In the second part, Agnes focusses on the years from 2000 to 2018, [it] shows how she uses digital technology to look at the world in her own unique way.”

She has included her work on installations, and an aside on her photographic work.

The film combines a series of illustrated talks by Varda. The opening one is in a palatial opera house remarked on by Varda. Another is a seminar for Higher Education students. In the latter Varda is reading from notes; I do not think this was the case in her talks for the general public. In either case she is articulate, informative, at time ironic, always charming and engaging. And her points are constantly illustrated by extracts from her films, extracts that are well chosen and make the point she is presenting. This is far better done than in some recent television programmes on cinema; and one intelligent head is better than a constant series of ‘talking heads’.

One film that receives attention is the first of her features to make a real mark, Cleo from 5 to 7 / Clèo de 5 à 7 (1962). She talks about the making of the film, its star Corinne Marchand and the way in which the film presents ‘real time’. She added an amusing comment, that Andy Warhol remarked that he would have carried on filming to 7 p.m.; [the film ends just after 6.30 p.m.). The film was innovative in a number of ways and it is worth noting that here Varda is really part of the Left Bank Group rather than the better-known film-makers of the Nouvelle Vague, In fact Alain Resnais was the editor for her first film La Pointe Courte (1955).

Another film is Vagabond / Sans toit ni loi, (1985). I think this is one of Varda’s finest films and has at its centre a marvellous performance by Sandrine Bonnaire. Her character’s, Mona, final weeks are reconstructed in the film in a collage of flashbacks and interviews. Varda talked about working with the actress and her contribution. She also talked about the style of the film where repeated tracking shots emphasize Mona’s travels across the countryside. This is a bleak film but one that demonstrates the humanist values that are embodied in all of Varda’s work.

In the digital works one discussed is The Gleaners & I / Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000). The original French title makes the point of the commonality between the film-maker and her subjects. Varda films and interviews many people who ‘glean’ their existence, both in urban areas such as Paris and in rural areas. Varda’s ability to pick up on fresh and unconventional subjects as well as her skill in constructing visual and aural tapestries is exemplified in this film. It is both a moving and fascinating set of portraits.

The Beaches of Agnès / Les plages d’Agnès (2008) presents recurring settings, images and motifs that appear across her work. Besides the beach we have innumerable mirrors, references and homages to visual art and, a favourite with Varda, cats. She also revisits her first film, La Pointe Courte. In one of those inspired and totally unconventional tropes we watch as people originally involved in the film revisit it as it is projected on a cart that they push through the village.

This was one of Varda’s homes in her younger years and autobiography runs through her talks and the film examples. This includes the films about her one-time partner and fellow film-maker Jacques Demy, as in Jacquot de Nantes (1991).

Towards the end of this film Varda talks about recent work on installations, including the now famous potato [referencing The Gleaners and I] at the Venice Film Festival. There is a section on her work as a photographer, which goes right back to her youth before she took up film. One can see in these examples her fine visual sense.

This is a fine two hour self-portrait full of humour, intelligence and revelations. Born in 1928 in Brussels, Varda was one of those long-lived European film-makers. She was also one of the most important. She had 54 credits as a director, plus those as writer, producer, editor and more. About a third of these are illustrated here. Her reputation has risen, fallen and risen again. Some of the films presented, such as Black Panthers (1968) have [unfortunately] not been successful. But Varda continued to work in her own idiosyncratic way. In the last years she became an established and revered artistic voice. One aspect of this means that this new film should certainly get a proper British release. I am sure, when it comes, that it will be one of the outstanding experiences in cinemas at that time and a worthy memorial of one of the most distinguished film careers in modern times.

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Dawn, Britain 1928

Posted by keith1942 on March 19, 2019

bfi-Dawn

This is an early film about Edith Cavell, a British nurse shot by the Germans during World War I for spying. Her case became a cause celebre at the time and she has remained a fairly iconic figure since. This is the centenary of her death and Park Circus has re-issued a 1939 film, Nurse Edith Cavell. The Hyde Park Picture House has gone one better and recently screened the earlier film in a 35mm print and with a set of interesting introductions. The film previously has only been screened at the Imperial War Museum and the British Silent Film Festival.

The essential record. Cavell was a British Nurse working in Belgium when the war broke out. She became involved in a network helping escaped POW’s make their way home. The network was betrayed and 35 members captured by the Germans. 30 of the members were sentenced to hard labour, five, including Cavell, were sentenced to be executed. Three of these had their sentences commuted to hard labour, but Cavell and a colleague were shot. There were protests both by the Allied enemies and by ‘neutral’ nations, especially by the US Legation in Belgium.

Herbert Wilcox was one of the more successful producers and directors in British film in the 1920s. He specialised in historical dramas, and he also produced and directed the 1939 version, which starred Anna Eagle. There had been some short films about Cavell, in which the Germans were portrayed as brutes and Cavell as an innocent victim. But by the late 1920s the British Government was concerned to maintain good relations as Germany was shepherded back into the ‘democratic fold’. The German Government raised objections when Wilcox’s production got underway. The British Government evaded the issue with reference to the British Board of Film Censors [set up in 1912] as an independent censorship body: somewhat economical with the facts. Wilcox did in fact make changes to the film including the ending, but it does not seem that there is a record of these.

In fact when the film was completed the BBFC refused it a certificate. However, the BBFC’s remit was only partial in this period, as the Local Authorities actually held the legal right of licensing. Wilcox was successful in getting the film licensed by the London County Council and it received a general exhibition. It was also screened in Germany, without much apparent incidents.

The film was shot in black and white and is six reels – running about 85 minutes at 22fps. The original release was 7,300 feet: now it is 6,510 feet which suggests cuts due to wear and tear. The Writing Credits (in alphabetical order) Reginald Berkeley   … (story),  Robert Cullen   … (scenario) , Herbert Wilcox   … (adaptation). Cullen also directed and one of his films is Every Mother’s Son (1926) a wartime drama. It is possible that Wilcox’s adaptation is to do with the changes: what these all were is not clear, though it definitely included the ending. My thoughts on re-watching the film was that some of the title cards were likely the result of this change in approach.

The film opens with a series of title cards. They first laud Cavell’s ‘heroic life and death’. Then they offer a sort of generalised anti-war message, ‘Rulers of Europe, puppets of carnage ..enslaved by war.’

The film then moves into its story, and we see the Belgium Institute where Cavell worked. Inside we are presented with a children’s ward, the use of children is a recurring trope in the film. One boy puts on a Prussian style helmet, ‘I am an Uhlan’ [light cavalry in Poland, Russia, and Prussia]. Another boy puts on a different cap, ‘I am a chasseur’ [French light infantry’. The ‘Uhlan’ chases the ‘Chasseur’ who runs and shelters behind Cavell in her office. Briefly and directly the film sets up the drama’s plot and values.

The war arrives, Europe ‘blazed into flames’. Then we see a man on the run (Jacques – Mickey Brantford ) and Germans searching. His mother, Madame Rappard (Marie Ault) attempts to hide him and when Cavell arrives she arranges to take the man to the Institute. There she burns his uniform: right through the film, with one other exception, escaping soldiers are seen in civilian clothes. Later Cavell and Madame Rappard hide Jacques in a part of the basement and move a large wardrobe to hide the entrance.

So Cavell is drawn into helping escapees: a flashback shows Jacques telling her that there are ‘hundreds like me’. In most cases the men are taken through the streets at dark and secreted on a barge which travels along a canal across the frontier. The group appears to consists of Cavell, Rappard and two other women (Madame Ada Bodart – herself and Madame Pitou – Mary Brough) and a Bodart’s young son Philippe (Gordon Craig): rather different from the actual network. This is a woman’s group. One man, the bargee (Richard Worth) , hesitates to assist the prisoners and is roundly ordered to do so by his wife, Madame Pitou. Later it is a man who betrays the network. The only positive m male member is Philippe, a teenage boy and an unnamed man who guides the prisoners from the Institute..

The actions of the group are intercut regularly with the German military. At times this is quite stereotypical: the communication system is a post card mailed at the frontier. After a fruitless search one German soldier willingly agrees to post the card for the Madame Pitou. We also see the German high command, including the Military Governor, General von Zauberzweig (Frank Perfitt) . As they start to realise that there is an escape network investigations and searches are instigated. At one point it appears that escaped prisoners are being found among the allied dead after battles on the front line: clearly having rejoined the allies and their war effort.

The investigating officer is presented as quite intelligent. He remembers a conversation with Cavell which arouses his suspicions. His first search is fruitless, but after the betrayal he returns and discovers the hidden door behind the wardrobe. This is a moment of high drama in the film. Cavell is assisting a wounded and wanted RAF officer: the only other escapee seen in uniform. The search takes place as Cavell and an assistant attempt to smuggle him out of the Institute. This is done successfully: another rather conventional plot device. Meanwhile Cavell is incriminated by a discovered network document.

We then get Cavell’s trial and execution. ‘Trial between women and war machine’. Her women companions are also charged but the trial is predominately about Cavell. We do see the young Philippe who is a compulsory witness and who is committed for perjury. Cavell is found guilty and sentenced to be executed. A title tells us that the others are sentenced to hard labour: so unlike in actuality Cavell is to die alone.

Following the sentence the film includes the efforts of the US Ambassador to stop the execution. There are letters and visits by his aide, but the Commander cites ‘duty’. This section of the plot emphasises the ‘brutality’ of the sentence: the film does not raise the issue of spying by the actual network. It does provide sympathetic Germans who themselves sympathise with Cavell, undermining the German position. So an officer visits the Institute and sees the wounded airman, but ‘clicking’ his heels’ and saluting Cavell he leaves without reporting what he has seen.

Even more notably we see dissent among a member of the firing squad. This is Private Rambler, who demurs when he is selected for the squad. At the actual execution he hesitates when the order to ‘raise arms’ is given and then refuses. The officer commanding berates him. And there is an exchange of glances between Rambler and Cavell. This sequence is clearly cut, likely due to the changes made to placate the Germans. It would seem that there was originally more than one exchange of glances between Cavell and the soldier, and the suggestion of Cavell’s nod that he should ‘do his duty’. Note, ‘a legend long generally accepted’.

The execution took place at the Tire National, on the edge of a field behind the building. We see the preparations including an English Chaplain ministering to Cavell. She is them marched down stairs, through a basement to the yard. There is the business with Private Rambler but we do not see Cavell actually shot. What we do then get is a title showing the words that Cavell spoke to the Chaplin,

“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

These are famous and off-quoted words.

The film has a very restrained feel. Partly this is down to the performance of Sybil Thorndike as Cavell: she is magisterial and even her emotional displays are restrained. There is some difference between her and other cast members’ performances: Madam Pitou and Rappard are quite a bit more expressive. This restraint is emphasised by the film’s direction. Wilcox is a fairly static director, his films concentrate on performance and mise ne scène. So the film is shot predominately in long and mid-shots. And even when there are close-ups they are not large, but almost themselves mid-shots. There is very little moving camera: though already Graham Cutts, Maurice Elvey and Alfred Hitchcock were using these techniques in their films. All I noted were several pans, especially during the court sequence.

The cinematography by Bernard Knowles is well done and there is some expressive lighting in certain sequences. The art direction is by Clifford Pember and would seem mainly to relate to interiors,. Much of the exteriors were shot in Belgium, frequently using actual locations from the events recorded. Note, the 35m print we watched was a composite, one could discern changes in lighting and definition within sequences. It appears this BFI print combines four reels from its own archive copy and two reels from a copy in New Zealand.

The film had a musical accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla on the piano. Darius gave a short explanation before the screening. His performance was partially prepared, partly improvised. He explained that in the 1920s there was a range of musical accompaniments: some using prepared musical sequences, some composed or arranged. The latter had at one extreme the Wagnerian romantic approach, The sort of music that Korngold bought to Hollywood in the 1930s. Some of it was closer to neo-classical, for example Kurt Weill. Darius’ accompaniment for this film was closer to the latter, re-enforcing the style of the film. Much of it was low-key and often with sparse notation, but he also bought in martial chords at certain points in the film,. I thought it set of the film exceptionally well. though it of course re-enforced the values the film offered.

Dawn poster 01

The pre-screening talks were also informative. Dr Emma Cavell was related to Edith Cavell through an Australian connection. She filled out some of the family history. But her project around Cavell also bought her into contact with the Cavell heritage events. It is worth noting that Cavell was given a state funeral in the UK and there is a statue to her in Trafalgar Square where there is an annual memorial event. She was also added to the Anglican Church listing of ‘saints’.

Professor E talked about the history of Cavell and the network in which she was involved. There is evidence that the network not only assisting escaping soldiers but that they also passed on information concerned with the war effort – i.e. spying. She also pointed out that Cavell was not tried alone, nor was she executed alone but along with Philippe Baucq who was a key member of the network.

The disparities between the film and the record made sense when Professor Claudia talked about the representations of Cavell , including on film. Early illustration showed Cavell with long, streaming hair, younger than her actual 49 years and in some suggestions of rape. One newspaper illustration depicted the Germans as pigs or ‘swine’. One film of 1915 was entitled Nurse Martyr. She also talked about the depiction of Cavell as a lone victim in illustrations of the execution and the use of nurse uniforms rather than civilian clothes. She went on to fill in the context of the Wilcox film  and suggested that this was a transitional work, with ‘civilian society’ portrayed as ‘subordinate to the military’.

The talks filled out the film and enabled a fuller appreciation of the representation and its relationship to the historical person and events. My main reservations were two-fold.

The suggestion was that the changes made by the film after the German objections gave the film a more general anti-war tone. I thought there was a discrepancy between the title cards and the visual representation in the film. The opening title cards in particular were quite strident and appeared to put together European powers on both sides of the conflict as war-mongers. However the actual narrative was much closer to conventional war films. Cavell and the network were portrayed sympathetically and shown as non-military. The fact that the key member were women seemed more about this type of discourse than any feminist rendering, though they did come across as strong characters. The Germans were portrayed through the film in conventional militaristic terms, re-enforced by the dissensions by individual Germans and the depiction of the US Legation. I incline to think that one of the ways that German objections were responded to was to change title cards rather than the actual imagery, a not uncommon way of ‘sanitising’ silent film.

The key changes to the visual imagery were the execution. Here there are clear cuts, at one point there is a shot of Cavell facing the squad and then a reverse shot, and we discover a field behind her. It is a disruptive moment. Presumably this cut was seen as diminishing the literal visual violence in the film, but all the business with the dissenting soldier remains.

I also had reservations about the idea of a transitional film. I can see that it has some of these aspects in terms of British film. But the anti-war tone had already appeared much earlier in the 1920s. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921) has a powerful anti-war drive and in this film civil society is clearly subordinate to the military. And in British film the jingoistic support of the allied war effort continued, a good example being The W Plan from 1930. Here Brian Aherne plays an British Officer and spy who outwits the stereotypical Germans.

It also need to be pointed out that ‘anti-war’ has a limited connotation in such films as Dawn. As  pointed out by Andrew Britton such films rarely address the actual politics of an actual war. This is centrally true of World War I. This was an imperialist war between European colonial powers and ‘plucky little Belgium’ had one of the worse records for colonial atrocities in the Congo.

But a great opportunity, so felicitations to the Hyde Park Picture House and to the contributors to the event.

There is more material in Rachel Low’s the History of the British Film 1918 – 1929, Allen and Unwin 1971.

The Belgium archive also have a print which is being restored.

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Of Presidents and Academy Awards

Posted by keith1942 on March 4, 2017

ap-inauguration-day1-mem-170112_12x5_1600-800x445

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” (Karl Marx in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’, 1852).

One can, if one so wishes, apply this to less than historical events and people. An interesting example is the closeness in many years of the inauguration of a new President of the United States and that great ‘American’ shindig, The Academy Awards.

The first example was the inauguration of Herbert Hoover on March 4th 1929 as 31st President of the United States. The first Academy Awards Ceremony [a private dinner] followed on May 16th and the first ever Best Picture/Production was Wings (Paramount Famous Lasky).  A slightly ironic pairing as Hoover looked backwards to a financial world about to disappear whilst Wings, with its recorded musical soundtrack, looked forward to the new sound era.

1st-academy-awards

Franklin D Roosevelt enjoyed his first inauguration on March 4th 1933. The Academy Awards followed a year later [missing the inaugural year], March 16th 1934, choosing as Best Picture/Outstanding Production Cavalcade (Fox). Rather than addressing the issues that fuelled the New Deal the film exemplified the escapist and backward-looking aspect of 1930s Hollywood. There was a faux pas at this ceremony, but it concerned Best Director rather than Best Picture. F.D.R.’s second inauguration took place on January 20th 1937: and this more or less remained the date in the decades that followed. The Academy Awards also settled into a routine, usually late February or early March, occasionally in April; in this year the 4th of March. The Best Picture continued the escapist tradition far removed from Roosevelt’s New Deal, The Great Ziegfeld (M-G-M). FDR’s third inauguration was followed by a similar Academy Award choice in 1941 with Rebecca (Selznick International pictures). However, the film did contain themes that presaged the personal disruptions of the forthcoming war.

FDR enjoyed a fourth inauguration in 1945 but little of the Presidency. Harry Truman was inaugurated in a private ceremony in April. The Academy Awards had already taken place on March 15th, but there choice seemed more appropriate to Truman than Roosevelt, Going My Way (Paramount).  Harry Truman’s public inauguration took place in 1949. The Academy Award that year for Best Picture went to Hamlet (J. Arthur Rank Two Cities Films): presumably cementing the ‘special relationship’  opined by Winston Churchill.

Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated in 1953. The Academy came up with The Greatest Show on Earth (Cecil B. de Mille); more appropriate for the illusions of the 1950s than the actual President. For Eisenhower’s second inauguration in 1957 the Academy came up with Around the World in Eighty Days (Michael Todd) which somehow fitted the expanding US ’empire’.

John F. Kennedy enjoyed his inauguration in 1961. In keeping with his new,  liberal values the Academy, meeting in April, selected The Apartment (Billy Wilder). With its critique of nepotism and graft the film fitted the rhetoric [if not the actuality] of the new President.

J.F.K did not see a second inauguration and Lyndon B. Johnson had his first in private, November 22nd 1963. His first public inauguration was in January 1965. The Academy responded with My Fair Lady (Jack L. Warner): the Academy members recognised a peremptory tone?

The next inauguration, in 1969, was for Richard Milhous Nixon. The Academy’s choice of Oliver (John Woolf) with its musical Fagin suggested a flair for criminality that the new president lacked. But the 1973 Academy choice seemed more apt, perhaps with a touch of irony, The Godfather (Albert S. Ruddy).

Gerald Foird only had a private inauguration: August 1974. But had he seen that year’s Academy Awards Best Picture, The Sting (Tony Bill, Michael Phillips, Julia Phillips)?

1977 saw Jimmy Carter’s only inauguration ceremony. He probably wished that he shared the ‘come back skill’ of the Academy’s choice for Best Picture, Rocky (Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff).

Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration in 1981 was followed by the Academy’s Award to Ordinary People (Ronald L. Schwary). His second in 1985 by Amadeus ( Saul Zaentz). Neither really represented the sort of Hollywood seen in Reagan’s own film career.

George Bush Senior was another President who enjoyed only one inauguration in 1989. The Best Picture at the Academy ceremony, Rain Man (Mark Johnson) possibly contained a subtle hint to him.

Bill Clinton enjoyed two inaugurations, the first in 1993. But the Academy’s Best Picture choice offered a possible omen for this future, Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood). His second inauguration in 1997 saw the academy choice, The English Patient (Saul Zaentz, a second time), offering in its plot line a sort of metaphor for his travails.

Barrack Obama was inaugurated first in 2009. Slumdog Millionaire (Christian Colson) seemed completely appropriate for this new era, though [like the Nobel Peace Prize] not really realised. His 2013 inauguration saw an Academy choice for Argo (Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney) a film that misrepresented Iran in similar fashion to the administration.

However it fell to Donald Trump in 2017 to achieve an inaugural first: a complete fiasco at the ceremony around Best Picture. This seems totally appropriate, a ‘false award’. The actual winner, Moonlight (Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleinerdouble-dagger) seemed like a deliberate rebuke by the Academy: offering more aspects likely to offend Trump than any other nominee.

 

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21st Century classic films?

Posted by keith1942 on September 4, 2016

classic

I am planning a film study course this autumn which will discuss ‘C21st classics’. Do we have memorable films to compare with [for example among English language films] Brighton Rock (1947), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial(1982) or the original Mad Max (1979)? This will involve myself and students deciding what is a classic film. The online dictionary offers the following:

ADJECTIVE

  1. judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind:
  2. very typical of its kind:

NOUN

  1. a work of art of recognized and established value:

“his books have become classics”

There are, as you might except numerous definitions, comments, explanations and listings on this topic on the Internet. One entry asks:

“What’s your definition of “classic”? Record-breaking? Precedent-setting? Influential? Enduring? How soon can such a status be determined? (Films have to be at least 25 years old to qualify for the National Film Registry; acts don’t become eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 25 years after the release of their first record.) Are their films from the 1990s and 2000s that you would already consider worthy of classic status? Have at it.”

A filmmaker opines:

“I am fondly reminded that I, along with countless others, was asked-to-answer this very question by the Director’s Guild of America for their February 1992 issue of their monthly magazine featuring this topic. Pick up a copy if you can because you’ll enjoy getting a breadth of answers from many of the industry’s then-luminaries.

That being said, I believe my answer then still holds:

“A film that captures a past generation’s heart, challenges a present generation’s mind, and nourishes a future generation’s soul.”

An anonymous film buff offers:

“When it pushes the boundaries of filmmaking techniques (e.g. visual effects, storytelling, thematic exploration, etc.) and filmmaking itself (e.g. scale of production.) Being a trendsetter (i.e. a lot of movies that follow copy one or more of the original movie’s aspects) helps as well.”

We also, to my surprise, have numerous listings of the best films [i.e. potential classics] since the start of the century, 2000. Some opt for ten titles, one opted for a hundred. Among the titles chosen as number one we find:

Mulholland Drive (USA 20011)

Hunger (UK 2008)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The Master (USA 2012)

Carol (USA 2015)

They are all relatively mainstream, though quite varied collection of films. Moreover, the more recent films seem to stick in the memory. They are all English-language. Hollywood does still dominate the international market, but other cinemas might offer different titles. This is certainly true of 20th films: in Japan one classic is Carmen Comes Home / Karumen kokyô ni kaeru (1951) whilst in India one undoubted classic is Sholay (1975).

There is a question to what degree classic status varies according to audiences. Mainstream classic presumably have the largest audience, but national and regional cinemas may offer variations. Then we have the art film audience, audiences for foreign language films, documentaries, animation, independents, avant-garde … To which we might add, are we discussing films that screen in cinemas or are viewed on some of the contemporary alternatives.

audience-in-movie-theater-1935-archive-holdings-inc

My inclination is to look at possible classics in a range of varied film industries. Every year now I pick the top five new releases that I have seen: there are some I miss but also some that do not get either a distribution or an adequate UK release. I attempted to reduce the 75 titles to 15. I managed 20 features [with some difficulty]: time will probably reduce this list a little. I include the title, country of origin and arrange them in date of release. Some of the films are clearly by distinctive filmmakers, but the idea of ‘auteur’ is a problematic one. In nearly every case the quality of the film cannot be reduced to one person. That in itself makes for interesting points of discussion on the films.

Bamboozled (USA 2000)

Set in a fictional Television company this is satire of the highest order. The film is constructed around the idea of blackface, with a powerful and moving montage to close.

In the Mood for Love / Faa yeung nin wa (Hong Kong, China 2000)

Slow. elegant and with minimal sex, romance to die for.

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (India 2001)

Set at the end of the C19th in rural India this is both a great cricketing film and a critique of British colonialism.

Belleville Rendez-vous / Les triplettes de Belleville, (France, Belgium, Canada, UK, Latvia 2003)

This is a brilliant animation, quirky, witty and with a distinctive palette.

Dogville (Denmark, Sweden, UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Italy 2003)

The film is presented on a series of minimal theatrical sets: the drama is down to the characters, lighting, camerawork and editing. Brilliantly successful.

Moolaadé (Senegal, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon, France 2004)

A fine drama about oppressive traditional practices and women’s resistance to them. 

Flags of Our Fathers (USA 2006)

This is a Hollywood film with a difference. The construction of the film takes in aspects that most war films do not even envisage.

The Lives of Others Germany / Das Leben der Anderen (Germany 2006)

There has been a number of films about the repressive security system in the DDR: this is a particularly fine example with echoes of Victor Hugo.

Let the Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (Sweden 2008)

A stand-out vampire film. Essaying a brilliant variation on the genre.

35 Rhum (France 2009)

Essentially a family dram, low-key and sometimes slow but powerful in its evocation of life.

The Secret in Their Eyes / El secreto de sus ojos (Argentina 2009)

The main character revisits past events which finally reveal the ‘secret’, part of which is the past of Argentina itself.

Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) / Prezít svuj zivot (teorie a praxe) (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Japan 2010)

This is genuine surrealism and both very witty and technically brilliant.

Nader and Simin a separation / Jodaí-e Nadér az Simín (Iran 2010)

The film follows a family break-up but actually reflects on contemporary Iranian society.

Once upon a Time in Anatolia / Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da (Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina 2011)

I saw this film three times. It retained its luminous images and sounds but increased in complexity at every viewing.

Turin Horse / A torinói ló (Hungary, France, Germany, Switzerland, USA 2011)

Probably the ultimate in ‘slow cinema’. It also enjoyed the model trailer, at least in the UK.

Amour (France, Germany, Austria 2012)

The film has fine direction, but what most impresses are the performances.

The Great Beauty / La grande bellezza (Italy, France 2013)

The most stylish film I have seen that year: the final track along the Tiber is magnificent.

Selma (USA 2014)

A model of what a biopic should be, combining intelligence with mainstream production values.

45 Years (UK 2015)

Slow, elegant and very complex: the acting performances of the year.

Carol (USA 2015)

What other praise than this is as good as the Patricia Highsmith original novel.

Our younger sister / Umimachi Diary (Japan 2015)

A study of four sisters, little drama but a completely satisfying study.

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A Matter of Life and Death,

Posted by keith1942 on April 23, 2015

Title

This film recently, screened in the Leeds Young Film Festival, is one of the finest of the collaborations between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It has a well-written script, the assemblage of conventional and unconventional film techniques, and an oddly quirky but romantic sense of British/English culture. Moreover the film includes contributions by one of the best production teams that Powell and Pressburger worked with. There is Jack Cardiff, possibly the finest cinematographer to work in the Technicolor format. Alfred Junge and Hein Heckwith’s Production Design are both stylish and apt. The editing by Reginald Mills offers the necessary continuity but at other points introduces contrast and counterpoint. And Allan Gray, who had already worked on I Know Where I’m Going, provides music that is both apt and offers well grounded motifs.

There is also a very fine cast. David Niven combines feeling with a sharp edge in the character of Squadron leader Peter Cartwright:

”We also saw, for the first time, the real David Niven: shrewd, kind, quick-witted and full of fantasy, the image of our hero Peter …”

Kim Hunter achieves a genuine sense of emotional feeling as June:

“When she acted, imagination and intelligence showed in every line she spoke.”

Between them Roger Livesey manages the character of Dr. Frank Reeves as on one hand a bluff Englishman, on the other hand one with a strain of committed idealism. And Marius Goring is a sheer delight as the French aristocrat reduced to heavenly work as Conductor 71. There is a Powell regular Kathleen Byron, unfortunately, apart from one fleeting Technicolor close-up, only seen in the monochrome sequences of the film. Robert Coote is the cheery, but now dead, radio operator [sparks] Bob. And then there are visiting stars like Raymond Massey (as Abraham Farlan) bringing the requisite ‘American’ touch to the film.

The plot of the film involves earth and ‘the other world’; though the word ‘heaven’ pops up in the dialogue. And the odyssey of the hero, crossing from life to death, would seem to address for many in the contemporary audience a sense of an after life, which still retained religious connotations. The film certainly speaks to the loss and grief, which was the experience of so many who themselves survived the war.

Revisiting the film for the umpteenth time I was struck by the complexity of tropes, motifs and generic facets that combine in this film. The Red Shoes offers a greater intensity: Black Narcissus offers more exotic and sensuous settings: but this film seems to explore the philosophical predilections of the duo in great depth. The complexity can be illustrated to a degree by looking at the generic aspects of the film.

War Movie:

Lancaster

This is the obvious aspect of the plot: a love affair threatened by the exigencies of armed conflict. After the introduction the film offers a splendid sequence as a crippled Lancaster bomber attempts to return to its base and England. The military personnel and institutions dominate both the earthly sequences and the heavenly sequences of the film. Whilst the film does not dwell on sadness and loss, we are constantly reminded by characters who have paid the ultimate price in armed conflict.

Romance:

This offers the emotional heart of the film and viewers are likely to identify with and root for the young lovers. In classic generic mould love is threatened by forced separation. Whilst familiarly this has a religious aspect the film manages to find a daring alternative to the norm. The technique of monochrome and Technicolor alternation reaches a climax when ‘the other world’ finally enters its rich palette. And in terms of that film study favourite Propp we have – a villain – Farlan: a donor – Reeves: a helper – Bob: a princess – June: a dispatcher – Conductor 71: a hero/victim – Peter. All we are missing is a false hero.

Peter June

An Atlanticist paean:

This particular type of film is especially strong in the war years and early post-war years. Powell and Pressburger’s earlier films touch on the topic of the ‘special relationship’ between Great Britain [as it then liked to term itself] and the United States. The 49th Parallel is set in Canada but clearly wishes to draw political parallels between the culture of Britain and the culture of North America. The presence of Raymond Massey in both films is intriguing. In A Matter of Life and Death the script deftly resolves past tensions and cements the new alliance in the union of ‘British boy’ and ‘American girl’.

Science fiction:

Not an immediately obvious genre for the film but the opening sequence takes us on a brief trawl across the universe and then arrive on earth. Early in the film Conductor 71 is able to make ‘time stand still’ or as he explains

“We are talking in space not time.”

This is a staple of the genre: one can imagine that G. K. Dick enjoyed or would have enjoyed this film. Moreover in the heavenly sequences we have that familiar pre-occupation of the science fiction film, the form of a future society. Sci-fi’s preoccupation with technology is there with the military hardware and with the Camera Obscure: and one shot of the ‘heavenly records’ looked from above like a modern computer board.

Records

Psychological drama:

Peter is suffering from a mental illness, but aspects of it can be seen as a form of psychosis. The title tell us that one world

“… exists only in the mind …”

The film, unlike Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), is not that interested in the psychoanalytical. However it share with the Hollywood film psychological states presented in dream sequences and a very distinctive mise en scène for these.

Medical drama:

The central conflict of the film resolves around the illness suffered by Peter and the treatment of this by the several doctors. And the climatic sequences of the film cut between heaven and the operating theatre. Indeed to the resolution of the film is at once both medical and judicial.

Courtroom drama:

The climax and resolution of the film occur in the heavenly court. And in earlier sequences we have briefings between prosecutors and between the defendant and his counsel. Very cleverly the film crosses over between its two worlds in these characters. The final witty touch is that one and the same actor plays surgeon and judge.

Political film:

This type of film is not that common in British cinema. But a sense of wider political culture informs a number of Powell and Pressburger’s films: especially The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Canterbury Tale. But this film addresses such values in the most direct manner and takes these issues farther. Especially in the declamations to the court by Prosecutor Farlan and Defence Council Dr Reeves we hear aired both contemporary political debates and past debates that still inform the presence.

A film about literature:

Stairway

Peter Cartwright is a poet and he is inclined to frequently quote other poets including Andrew Marvell and refers to the classics, as with Plato. We have witty rehearsal of a scene from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Dr Reeves has published in medical journals: Conductor 71 ‘borrows’ a book on chess from Peter: and literary figures loom large on the impressive staircase running from earth to heaven. At the resolution the Judge makes a witty remark about Sir Walter Scot.

A film about cinema:

The obvious point here is Dr Reeves’ Camera Obscura. And there is the use of both monochrome and Technicolor cinematography. Conductor 71, on the first visit to this world [earth], remarks,

“One if starved for Technicolor up there.”

Numerous critics have discussed the striking techniques involved in a monochrome ‘heaven’ and a Technicolor earth. But the eyelids that close at the start of the operation also have a cinematic feel.

Canine friendly:

Obscura

The film starts well. Peter walks along a beach, under the misapprehension he is in the ‘other world’, heaven? A black Labrador barks at him and as he walks over to pat the dog he remarks,

“Oh, I always hoped there would be dogs.”

A little later, as Dr. Reeves unveils his new lens on his Camera Obscura: his view of the village is shared by two cocker spaniels [belonging to Michael Powell. But then the cut that introduces June also removes the dogs and they never ere-appear. A mainstream convention that Powell and Pressburger often avoid.

This rich tapestry of motifs and references is one factor which enables the film to work for an audience seventy years on from its initial release. The film’s sense of Englishness and of ‘American’ culture have now past on, in the manner of Farlan and even Reeves, in the film’s plot. But the cultural sensibilities the two filmmakers and their colleagues bought to the work continue to effect a rewarding 104 minutes of proper cinematic pleasures.

 

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The BFI Governors – ‘like watching old movies’.

Posted by keith1942 on September 5, 2014

 

In Establishment clutches!

In Establishment clutches!

I have, with difficulty, been following the work of the British Film Institute’s Board of Governors. That made me feel a little like a character in an Alexander MacKendrick film: especially The Man in the White Suit (1951). You can read elsewhere details the additions of unelected members to the Board of Governors. And I have posted on its move to diminish elected representation. What this means is that the ordinary people who pay for the funding of the bfi, through taxation and the Lottery [an alternative tax] have even less say in how that money is spent. As Roy points out we have a Board dominated by people who live in London and so, unsurprisingly, London gets the lion’s share of attention and resources.

The move through election quotas to the removal of representation to the increase of unelected members hardly seems coincidental. Rather like Winston Smith (Edmund O’Brien) in the 1955 1984 the ordinary member seems caged by a bureaucratic labyrinth.

The Board seems entirely composed of members of the Establishment. This particular British many-headed hydra was declared defunct in the 1960s – a decade of great cinema and great politics. But just like the monsters in Hammer Horror [e.g. Dracula, drinking our blood or taxes] the beast returns in ever more-frightening forms.

Keeping abreast of these moves requires the brusque persistence of Inspector Halloran (John Mills) in Town on Trial (1959) as he fights a local establishment in a murder hunt. The only fairly full records are the Board minutes, though even here ‘confidentiality’ leads to redaction.  It takes three months for them to appear in public. The information on the Southbank notice board or on the members WebPages is sparse and intermittent.

The Member’s representatives [with the honourable exception of Cy Grant] appear to come from the same mould as the Peter Finch character in No Love for Johnnie (UK 1960). To be fair to Johnnie he did actually turn up and listen to the complaints of his constituents late in that film. The current remaining representative does not appear to have made any response to changes or informed his constituents on matters.

There is one possible course of response which might induce a change of direction. This is to follow the example of Mr and Mrs Lord, their children and relatives in The Happy Family (UK 1951) when faced with unresponsive bureauracrats vis-a-vis the Festival of Britain site. A chorus of ‘no’ might just occasion a rethink.

Note the next meeting of the Board of Governors is on September 24th.

Note you can contact the Board by writing to the Board of Governors and also by email. The contact should be the Board Secretary Iain Thomson. Iain Thomson@bfi.org.uk

Alternatively you, could, as I have done, write to the Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport who oversees the BFI and the Board of Governors: i.e. The Rt. Hon. Sajid Javid, M.P.

 

 

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Hello Dolly!

Posted by keith1942 on May 25, 2013

 Hello dolly

This classic musical from 1969 was screened at the National Media Museum’s Widescreen Weekend in 70mm, on a curved screen and with a six-track soundtrack. The print was one of the original Roadshow versions running 148 minutes, [shorter version only run for 118 or a 129 minutes]. We also enjoyed an introduction from film critic Wolfram Hanneman. He reminded us that the 2008 Pixar animation Wall-E features an old VHS version of the film, which has given the musical something of a second life. Produced at C20th Fox, it was really almost the last in a 1960s cycle of big-budget adaptations of Broadway successes. The stage version had an immensely successful first run and has been frequently revived.

Wolfram talked about the casting, with the Dolly Levi character at one point or another planned for Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, Shirley MacLaine and Julie Andrews [Halliwell notes Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, all of whom performed in the stage version]. In the end Barbra Streisand played opposite Walter Matthau. Wolfram also recounted some of the feuding between these two stars during g the production, with at one point the camera angle having to be oblique as Matthau refused to kiss Streisand. Other aspects of the production worked better with Harry Stradling’s cinematography standing out, as well as Michael Kidd’s and Gene Kelly’ choreography and supervision of the dance sequences.

Watching a good quality print on the large screen was a treat and the film does look and sounds great. However, Hanneman’s tales of the production problems are borne out watching the film. This is a production compromised by casting. Walter Matthau is believable as the grasping capitalist (Horace Vandergelder), but his transformation late in the film is not. Streisand (Dolly Levi) belts out her show stopping numbers with real panache, but she is not believable as a marriage broker and neither is her fixation on marrying Matthau. Of the other possibles I thought Carol Channing [the original star on stage] would probably have been the best bet.

Visually the film is at times impressive. The opening shot, which uses a special effect to change from a colour still to a moving 1890’s New York Street, is masterly [and a nice touch for a turn-of-the century story]. The colour in the 70mm print looked good throughout and there are fine camera set-up and tracking and crane shots. At times the camera work recalled Vincente Minnelli: Stradling had worked with him on The Pirate (1948) and was to again with On A Clear Day You Can See For Ever (1970). And of course the director Gene Kelly had done some of his best work with Minnelli.

What marks it out from the other musicals of the 1960s is the dancing. From Gigi (1958) onwards the Hollywood musicals focussed on the songs, and often there were no proper dance sequences at all. But Hello Dolly! has some very fine dance sequences. They recall the earlier work of Michael Kidd [choreographer] and Gene Kelly. A number take place in exterior locations such as streets or parks; also a preference in Kelly musicals. There are several actual location used for musical numbers [another Kelly trope) though most of the New York scenes are studio based. Similarly the sequences often use everyday objects as props for the dancing: hats in one catchy sequence. The outstanding sequence in the film is the evening spent by the star protagonists at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. The glittering and vital mise en scène is again reminiscent of Minnelli. And there are series of eye-catching dance and musical numbers.

The plotting of the film is a lot weaker. Developments rely on contrivance and the motivations of character are not always convincing. The original musical was a popular success on Broadway but the onstage story seemed to have creaked a little. Thornton Wilder, from whose play it was adapted [itself an adaptation of earlier works], tends to gentle irony whilst theirs version seems heavily satirical. And whilst the supporting performers, especially Michael Crawford (Cornelius Hackl), are convincing the comedy seems rather forced. And there are more casting changes, Marianne McAndrew as Irene Molloy is no longer a widow, which again weakens the plot.

The film does fit into the cycle of musicals from the late 1950s onwards where the classical utopian drive of Hollywood seems diluted or lost. The increasing tendency to rely on period settings and actions would seem to indicate a loss of faith in possible utopias of the future. And Hello Dolly! performs unevenly when placed against Richard Dyer’s utopian sensibilities.  There is energy aplenty, especially in the dancing and at the Harmonia Gardens. The Gardens also have abundance, something that is found across the film, except in Vandergelder’s store. The best of the dancing has intensity, and as in all her work Streisand has remarkable intensity.

Transparency is much more problematic. Neither Vandergelder nor Levi [at least in this version] offer this virtue, in fact they are deliberate opaque and misleading in relation to other characters. And the supporting cast follows their lead, at least to a degree. The most problematic sensibility is community: the Harmonia Gardens is completely fractured by the class divide, which the plot vainly tries to paper over. And the finale of the wedding is unconvincing, certainly in relation to its supposed community.

It strikes me that transparency and community are the sensibilities that are most frequently problematic in musicals of the late 1950s onwards. The key film here is It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). On the Town (1949) has a dynamism that drives on its characters and their day in New York. The ‘tomorrow’ of the end seems a certain prospect. But by 1955 the happy ending is unconvincing and relies on quite obvious plot manipulation. I had the same feel in the closing moments of Hell Dolly!

Academy Awards for Music Direction, Art Direction, Set Decoration.

Academy Award Nominations for Best Picture, Best Photography.

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Innocent Crimes

Posted by keith1942 on March 22, 2011

UK 2010 Carpathian Films Ltd. Black and white, 98 minutes.

Written and Directed by Jonathan Green.

 

This is a first-time feature presented in the Northern Showcase section of the Festival.

It was filmed digitally in and around York: the city walls can be seen in some of the street scenes.

The brochure suggested a ‘low-budget noir’. It certainly has a lot of the characteristics of the genre, though I thought it was low on a sense of paranoia.

Farley (Michael Longhi) lives at home with his overprotective mother and works for an accountancy firm. His boss Ernest spends much time airing his [fanciful] exploits during the Falklands war. Farley is not allowed to smoke or drink and there is no sign of sex. Then oddball and criminal Charles Wells (George Telfer) literally drops into his life one night. Charles brings excitement, criminality, and promises of ill-gotten rewards and of sex. He also brings his own desires and fantasies.

Their relationship and activities develop in a downward spiral, and a plain-clothes policeman suggests that punishment may follow crime. Farley’s new-found freedoms and confidence seem heading for a bleak ending.

The film plays with ambiguities, which will probably leave an audience guessing. The production is crisply filmed with some intriguing settings. The pace is slightly slow – a walk down a corridor takes an awful long time. It has a number of hallmarks of the short film expanded into a feature, so that it did not quite sustain itself for the full 98 minutes. The changing dynamic between Farley and Charles does maintain the interest and a question as to how the film will reach a resolution.

 

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Jacques Tati

Posted by keith1942 on September 25, 2010

He was born Jacques Tatischeff on October 9th 1908 in France, but in a family that included Russian, Italian, French and Dutch ancestors. His father ran an art restoration and picture framing business. Tat entered the family firm after schooling and military service. He also took up sport and became a player with the Racing Club rugby team. His main contribution here was off the pitch, as he developed a series of sporting impressions with which he entertained fellow players. This led to amateur and then professional engagements. He entered the cabaret and music hall industry in the early thirties, and after several lean years developed into a popular attraction. This career continued through the war and the immediate post-war years.

Some of Tati’s standard routines were incorporated in semi-amateur short films in the 1930s. He entered professional filmmaking as an actor in 1946 and as a director in 1947 with a short film, L’Ecole des Facteurs. This film was a comedy built round the postal service. It provided the basis for Tati’s first feature-length Film Jour de fête (1949). This film, after a slow start, became both a commercial and critical success. It also won the award for Best Script at the Venice Film Festival.

Tati’s second feature did not appear until 1953. This was due to a combination of financial restrictions and Tati’s own perfectionism. Tati was involved in the setting up of the Production Company for his films, Cady-films. He was also involved in raising the capital for these productions. Over the years he increased his control over production but also increased his exposure to financial problems. In later life he was involved in several legal battles over both profits and debts and had to surrender the rights to his films.

He also went to great lengths in the preparation and filming of the features. The cost and size of his features escalated over the years. However, as elsewhere in Europe the French film box office was dominated by Hollywood releases. Even though the French government enacted legislation to provide some protection for indigenous production only lower budget films tended to recoup their costs in the domestic market. Tati’s films were successful internationally but as his budgets increased the US market became more important to their success.
Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr Hulot’s Holiday, 1953] introduced the screen persona with whom Tati has become most closely associated. Making use of Tati’s large figure, but also his grace and mobility, Hulot is a figure that works mainly thorough visual comedy. In his first feature Monsieur Hulot joins a group of predominantly middle class holidaymakers at a small Breton resort. Amiable but less than sensitive to social protocol, Hulot is the source of comic disruption to the routines of the seaside holiday.

The film was shot in black and white, and is presented mainly in mid-shot and long shot [similar to the style of early film comedy]. It also shares with them a preponderance of the visual over the aural elements. Les Vacances has a soundtrack, but it pays as much interest to noise and music as it does to dialogue. Quite often spoken lines are irrelevant or indistinct: the English subtitling does undermine this emphasis a little. Tati’s invention, Monsieur Hulot, was a commercial success, including in the large US market.

His next feature, Mon Oncle (My Uncle, 1958) was filmed in colour. It set Hulot opposite his relatives the Arpel family. It also counterpoised the old Parisian quarter where Hulot lives against the gadget laden, fashionable modern establishments of the Arpel home and factory.

Important aspects of this film are the packs of children and dogs that roam the streets. Hulot always enjoyed positive relationship with both. Both offer the kind of instinctive behaviour that typifies Hulot himself. Mon Oncle is the film that bears the closest relationship to Jour de fête, since the old quarter posses a stable community that parallels that in the first feature. However, the ending of Mon Oncle poses a question over the likely continuance of the latter. And the film does devote more time to the modernism of the Arpel than to the traditions of the old quarter.

Tati’s next film, Playtime, took ten years to appear, in 1968. This was partly due to financial pressures but mainly to the perfectionism of Tati himself. A brand new studio setting was created for the film [nicknames Tativille] and vast and expensive sets constructed. The film was shot in Eastmancolor and the 70mm format. The latter offered a very high quality of screen image, but required equally high quality settings, which cost more money than those needed for standard 35mm. The actual filming alone took two years and the final cut ran to 150 minutes. On release the film was clearly too long for the popular audience and was progressively cut to 120 minutes, 108 minutes and finally 97 minutes. Even then it was a failure and left Tati saddled with large debts.

He made two more features: Trafic (Traffic, 1971), which was filmed in Belgium and focussed on a road jam, again with Monsieur Hulot involved. His last film, Parade (1974) was made for Swedish television and is basically a record of a circus performance in which Tati performs his lifelong sporting routines. Neither film was commercially successful.

Tati died in 1982. However, there is one addition to his film oeuvre. In the 1950s he wrote a script for an unrealised film, L’illusioniste. The animator Sylvain Chomet has now filmed this, English title The Illusionist UK/France 2010). The story follows the declining career of a music hall magician, Tatischeff. Obviously the original script was strongly autobiographical. Chomet’s interpretation captures the period detail both of the music halls and of Edinburgh, [which replaced the Prague of the original script]. The film provides an affectionate portrait of Tati as a mime artists.

Mime is one of the central qualities to be enjoyed in Tati’s films. The mime tradition was especially strong in France, going back to the C19th. One of the classic films of French Cinema, Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) has a mime artists as a central character in the story. And, of course, mime was part of the artistry of the great silent comics, who Tati admired and who clearly influenced his film work.

Two important influences are Max Linder and Buster Keaton. Linder was probably the first great comic star of the new film entertainment world. He started out at the Pathé Studios in 1905. As his career developed Linder wrote, directed and starred in his own films. He was immensely influential: including on the even more successful Charlie Chaplin. Keaton is better known and is one of the greats of Hollywood silent film. He was meticulous in the preparation and delivery of gags: he had great grace on screen, even when performing stunts and mishaps: and his films make great use of realistic settings, notably The General (1926). David Thomson commented that “Hulot is, in outline, very close to Buster Keaton – a romantic bewildered by the vagaries of the world.”

That quality is apparent in Tati’s work. His misadventures in all sort of situations mirror many of those experienced by Keaton. His gags are worked out, often at great length and in meticulous manner. Moreover, despite the often fantastic direction of the plot, the settings in which events occur capture a recognisably real place. Jour de fête’s Follainville is a lovely portrait of a 1940s French village: and Mon Oncle’s old quarter is a warm portrait of a Paris that was then already disappearing. And whilst Playtime offers world of artifice the film also offers detailed and beautifully realised settings.

This contrast between the traditional and the modern is at the heart of Tati’s world. However, it seems more complex than nostalgia for the traditional versus an antipathy for the modern. Even Tati’s modernist settings are beautifully realised. What appears to attract his satire most is the taste for the technological, as in the gadgets of Mon Oncle. And for the regimentation of the fashionably modern, as in Playtime.

Moreover, whilst the style of his films harks back to the silent era, it also appears to share some tropes with the modernist cinema of, for example, Jean-Luc Godard. Tati’s film use distance in presenting the comic worlds that they survey. In Playtime the film not only uses the long shot [distance] and the long take [duration], but the 70mm format enables the use of what is called deep focus and deep staging. This means that objects and events that appear to be at the back of the frame can be seen clearly and may attract the viewers attention as much as the foreground. This is rather different from the mainstream’s tendency to have important action in the centre and foreground of the screen. In fact, Playtime really needs to be seen in 70mm in order to appreciate all the actions that Tati includes in the film.

Tati’s films all share tendencies with modernist film in regard to the soundtrack and the narrative. The former does not privilege the dialogue of the key characters over another sounds, often the dialogue we hear [or read in the subtitles] is less important than the noises that accompany this. And whilst Tati’s films follow a linear form, they are not presented as stories in the conventional sense. There is a sense of time and place, but within that characters and actions are presented thematically rather than in terms of continuity.

However the function of this approach seems rather different from that in films by someone like Godard: different from a form of political modernism. My sense is that the style adopted by Tati stems in part from two pre-occupations, both connected with his early career in Music Hall. First and foremost, he is a mime artist. The film Parade includes a performance of the sort of sporting impressions [of footballers, of tennis players, …] that Tati developed at the start of his career. While they are humorous and gently mocking they are not strictly satirical. What struck me was how much effort and skill Tati put into recreating the activity. He was reconstructing [more or less] behaviour he observed on the actual playing fields. Right through his films one can see this gentle but humorous recreation of physical behaviour. And apparently Tati was also very strict in directing his co-performers: he frequently used non-professionals and he was recorded as demonstrating in detailed fashion the way that he wanted them to move and perform.

This approach relies on close observation and one see an observational approach developing as his films progress. It is there in Jour de fête, but reaches and it becomes the overarching focus of Playtime.

The film style that Tati favours places the audience in a similar position to that of an audience watching his mime acts in a music hall: across the distance created by the proscenium. This is another parallel with early film comics, especially Chaplin, who maintained this viewpoint through most of his film career.

Thematically Tati’s films are tinged with certain nostalgia. Even in Playtime it is the absence of the old-fashioned, free and easy community that sharpens the satire. This seemed to me the main pre-occupation of L’illusioniste. If anything, the contrast between the traditional and modern fashion seems even more pointed. And the resolution of the film is elegiac, with the decline of the Music Hall and the loss of a sense of magic that was part of that culture. Intriguingly Tati wrote the script but never made the film. Perhaps this was in part a superstitious gesture: do not tempt the fates.

Jacques Tati was an extremely distinctive filmmaker. One can chart influences both on and by him. However, strict comparisons with other filmmakers, including other film comics, are difficult. Apart from the pleasure of his films and his comedy, this makes him an almost unique figure in his era of cinema.

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Mon Oncle

Posted by keith1942 on September 18, 2010

France 1958. In colour, 116 minutes. French language version with subtitles: English language version My Uncle.

The film won the Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 1958 and The Special Jury Prize at Cannes 1958.

Note, Tati was involved in a car accident in 1955 and he no longer had quite the same fluidity and versatility in his body movements.

Mon Oncle is almost like a combination of Jour de fête and Les Vacances de M. Hulot. For it includes both a traditional community on the lines of the rural village in Film Tati No. 1 and, in opposition, the sterile arbitrary setting of the seaside resort that lacks a true sense of community. In the case of “Film Tati No 3” we have an old-fashioned Parisian quarter [Saint-Maur] versus the modernist, gadget-laden Arpel household and M. Arpel’s plastics factory. The dichotomy between the two worlds is much more emphatic than in the earlier features.

The Credits are presented over the scene of a construction site, an omen for later in the film.

Then there is a cut to a traditional city quarter and a pack of roaming and scavenging dogs. Canine characters occur in the earlier films but in Mon Oncle they provide a central plot and thematic discourses. Appropriately dogs share some of the characteristics of M. Hulot himself. They are part of the social scene but wilfully follow their own inclinations and ways. Humans may think that dogs are fitting into their lives, but in many cases the humans actually fit into the lives of their dogs.

In the next sequence dogs then follow a refuge cart, which leaves the old quarter, as do the dogs through a broken stone wall. The latter recurs throughout the film as a barrier between the two worlds with a skyline of tall tower blocks visible above the wall. The dogs then arrive at the Arpel house, and we discover that the dashound in the pack is the Arpel pet. A hint of subversion that will return. The Arpel house is all gleaming surfaces and excessive order. The garden is dominated by a monstrous fish fountain. And Madame Arpel appears obsessed with cleaning and maintaining order. We follow M Arpel as he drives to drops his son Gérard off at school. And then on to his factory, where the refuge cart reappears. It seems that the plastic piping, which the factory produces, is made from such waste products. The cart now returns to the traditional quarter and we encounter M Hulot and his flat at the top of a ramshackled house that is in stark contrast to the Arpel mansion.

Hulot collects Gérard after school. We then encounter a gang of boys who spend much time playing pranks on adults. A particular favourite is whistling to distract the adult so that they inadvertently walk smack into a lamppost. Their favoured territory for games is a wasteland, between the quarter and the modern district. And there a ramshackled old food stand dispenses hot, spicy [and presumably extremely unhealthy] snacks. The gang of boys, like the pack of dogs and Hulot himself, provide a stream of disruptions to the Arpel neighbourhood.

Mon Oncle has a stronger narrative than found in either of the earlier films. Part of the plot is built round the effort of M. Arpel to find a suitable job for his brother-in-law. This includes two attempts at his factory: both of which cause disruption to the processes there. Hulot is equally disruptive at the Arpel’s party, designed to show off their house to their friends and neighbours. The main gag is this sequence concerns the malfunctioning of the fountain.

But whilst Hulot is disruptive in the modern bourgeois environment, he is at ease and at home in the traditional quarter. He enjoys relaxed and familiar relations with his neighbours and the locals. As in the earlier films Hulot enjoys strong relationships with both the children and the dogs. The quarter provides an old fashioned friendly contrast to the Arpel’s high-tech modernist environment. It also provides a ‘sweet disorder’ in contrast to the alienating enforced order in the mansion and the factory.

In fact the bourgeois order represented by the Arpel home and factory is shown to be facing subversion from within. Gérard clearly prefers the company of his uncle and the gang of boys to the sterile activities in his home. And the subversive element in the factory is shown when M Arpel arrives at work with his dog. Running in front, the dashund acts as a warning to the workers, from operators, to engineers, to office secretaries who immediately cease what appears to be socialising and time wasting to present a momentary picture of work and efficiency as M Arpel passes by.

The subversion fully enters the family at the film’s closure. Arpel has persuaded Hulot to take a country post as a representative. After seeing him off at the airport father and son are involved in the whistling prank seen earlier in the film and laughingly enjoy the discomfiture of the victim together. However, this is only partially positive. As the car has passed through the old quarter a demolition team [connected to the development we saw earlier] are demolishing a building. If and when Hulot returns from the provinces his world is likely to be drastically alter. And the viewer is left with the canine pack once more wandering through the old quarter.

France 1958. In colour, 116 minutes. French language version with subtitles: English language version My Uncle.

The film won the Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 1958 and The Special Jury Prize at Cannes 1958.

Note, Tati was involved in a car accident in 1955 and he no longer had quite the same fluidity and versatility in his body movements.

Mon Oncle is almost like a combination of Jour de fête and Les Vacances de M. Hulot. For it includes both a traditional community on the lines of the rural village in Film Tati No. 1 and, in opposition, the sterile arbitrary setting of the seaside resort that lacks a true sense of community. In the case of “Film Tati No 3” we have an old-fashioned Parisian quarter [Saint-Maur] versus the modernist, gadget-laden Arpel household and M. Arpel’s plastics factory. The dichotomy between the two worlds is much more emphatic than in the earlier features.

The Credits are presented over the scene of a construction site, an omen for later in the film.

Then there is a cut to a traditional city quarter and a pack of roaming and scavenging dogs. Canine characters occur in the earlier films but in Mon Oncle they provide a central plot and thematic discourses. Appropriately dogs share some of the characteristics of M. Hulot himself. They are part of the social scene but wilfully follow their own inclinations and ways. Humans may think that dogs are fitting into their lives, but in many cases the humans actually fit into the lives of their dogs.

In the next sequence dogs then follow a refuge cart, which leaves the old quarter, as do the dogs through a broken stone wall. The latter recurs throughout the film as a barrier between the two worlds with a skyline of tall tower blocks visible above the wall. The dogs then arrive at the Arpel house, and we discover that the dashound in the pack is the Arpel pet. A hint of subversion that will return. The Arpel house is all gleaming surfaces and excessive order. The garden is dominated by a monstrous fish fountain. And Madame Arpel appears obsessed with cleaning and maintaining order. We follow M Arpel as he drives to drops his son Gérard off at school. And then on to his factory, where the refuge cart reappears. It seems that the plastic piping, which the factory produces, is made from such waste products. The cart now returns to the traditional quarter and we encounter M Hulot and his flat at the top of a ramshackled house that is in stark contrast to the Arpel mansion.

Hulot collects Gérard after school. We then encounter a gang of boys who spend much time playing pranks on adults. A particular favourite is whistling to distract the adult so that they inadvertently walk smack into a lamppost. Their favoured territory for games is a wasteland, between the quarter and the modern district. And there a ramshackled old food stand dispenses hot, spicy [and presumably extremely unhealthy] snacks. The gang of boys, like the pack of dogs and Hulot himself, provide a stream of disruptions to the Arpel neighbourhood.

Mon Oncle has a stronger narrative than found in either of the earlier films. Part of the plot is built round the effort of M. Arpel to find a suitable job for his brother-in-law. This includes two attempts at his factory: both of which cause disruption to the processes there. Hulot is equally disruptive at the Arpel’s party, designed to show off their house to their friends and neighbours. The main gag is this sequence concerns the malfunctioning of the fountain.

But whilst Hulot is disruptive in the modern bourgeois environment, he is at ease and at home in the traditional quarter. He enjoys relaxed and familiar relations with his neighbours and the locals. As in the earlier films Hulot enjoys strong relationships with both the children and the dogs. The quarter provides an old fashioned friendly contrast to the Arpel’s high-tech modernist environment. It also provides a ‘sweet disorder’ in contrast to the alienating enforced order in the mansion and the factory.

In fact the bourgeois order represented by the Arpel home and factory is shown to be facing subversion from within. Gérard clearly prefers the company of his uncle and the gang of boys to the sterile activities in his home. And the subversive element in the factory is shown when M Arpel arrives at work with his dog. Running in front, the dashund acts as a warning to the workers, from operators, to engineers, to office secretaries who immediately cease what appears to be socialising and time wasting to present a momentary picture of work and efficiency as M Arpel passes by.

The subversion fully enters the family at the film’s closure. Arpel has persuaded Hulot to take a country post as a representative. After seeing him off at the airport father and son are involved in the whistling prank seen earlier in the film and laughingly enjoy the discomfiture of the victim together. However, this is only partially positive. As the car has passed through the old quarter a demolition team [connected to the development we saw earlier] are demolishing a building. If and when Hulot returns from the provinces his world is likely to be drastically alter. And the viewer is left with the canine pack once more wandering through the old quarter.

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