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Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on August 15, 2018

This is the most recent documentary from Frederick Wiseman. Since Titticut Follies in 1967 Wiseman has been a prolific and central figure in observational documentary: after all these years he is almost the definition of films that offer a dispassionate but detailed portrait, mainly of institutions. In this long film, 197 minutes, he examines both the famous landmark in Bryant Park on 5th Avenue [a key setting in the successful The Day After Tomorrow, 2004] and a number of the other libraries in the New York public network. I have been fortunate enough to visit the iconic central building and one of the pleasures of the film was how Wiseman explores both the parts I have seen and the less seen staff and machinery behind this.

The film opens with great style as we observe an event in the libraries main foyer; Richard Dawkins giving a lunch-time talk with all his eloquence and commitment. We see a number of such events, some like this less formal, and others in one of the library auditorium with a more formal presentation and a large audience. I particularly enjoyed the session of an interview with Elvis Costello. And we see smaller events, more open, at branch libraries. The most fascinating was a young black woman explaining the ‘southern ideology’ which criticised Northern capitalism from a right-wing standpoint; not quite as formidable as that by Karl Marx but an important component in the struggle over slavery. There are concert performance in auditorium but also less formal presentations and the odd amateur improvisation; not a part of the official library. Title cards identify performers and venues for the viewer.

Wiseman tends to wander around an institution and he records and presents his observations without comment. Seemingly these sequences are laid out in arbitrary manner. So along with the events we gets shots of the staff, both at the main library and at branches, occupied in their tasks, frequently involving library members and members of the public. One is a telephone enquiry service and we see and hear as an operator check the word ‘unicorn’ on a computer and answers questions by a caller. This is one of those moments of sympathetic humour found in Wiseman’s films. We see staff checking in and out books and other library resources. Behind the scenes we see a group of male works working on a conveyor belt to sort books for return to their branches.

Wiseman offers repetition of groups and settings and the most frequent in this film are a series of meetings involving the library management. We see and hear them discussing the library finances: after some years of reductions 2016 saw a welcome increase in the budget allocated by the city. We also hear how important is the role of private funding for the library. And they discuss some of the processes in running the library, developments at particular venues and some of their longer-term goals.

Their discussions and the sequence of library staff and activity demonstrate how much wider than printed books are the resources of a modern library. British users of libraries will recognise this and both the parallels and differences in the library system. Certainly the |New York Public Library network appears to have avoided the savage cutbacks experienced in Britain.

Whilst Wiseman presentation seems an ad hoc portrait of the public library the editing, in particular, provides a less formal and slightly ambiguous commentary. There are frequent touches of irony as Wiseman’s camera moves from one activity to another. One notable counterpoint follows a meeting of the management discussing [with liberalism] vagrancy and the problem of the libraries being used as a place of sleep rather than activity. Then we see a sleeping Afro-American user at a desk. This points up, [as do other parallels], that the management is also uniformly Caucasian.

As the film passes from branch library to branch library we get shots of New York streets and intersections. New Yorkers will probably place buildings in this way.: less likely for British viewers. For me these felt rather more like the ‘pillow shots’ that fill films by Ozu Yasujiro, though Wiseman only provides natural sound.

The film is long but absorbing. However, I did find the last twenty minutes or so palled. This was not so much due to the length but to the repetitions. At the end we visit another management meeting, I forget the topic. Then we see a meeting of Afro-American women at a branch [Queens I think]. They all talk volubly but briefly. The lengthy contribution comes from an Afro-American director of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. There follows a formal event in the main auditorium which fits into Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas regarding ‘aesthetic dispositions’.

There is clearly some irony intended here. But by this stage I felt we had had more of such events and of managers than of ordinary users and workers. I have not seen National Gallery (2014) again but my memory is that that film had more of such moments; it certainly emphasised the ironic contrasts between British and North American staff at that institution. . In fact we do not get a sequence where the ordinary workers in the public library discuss issues in the space offered repeatedly to managers. Nor do we see any Trade Union activity. I wondered if there as not an occasion where the workers of the conveyor belt seen earlier – the most repetitious and alienating activity in the film – had a gathering or talk. The management are very liberal but by the end I felt that their behaviours was affected by their consciousness of the camera. I did not feel this with the ordinary staff.

The Sight & Sound [August 2018] review offers,

“Lofty idealism informs conversations about what kind of society the library wants to help to build, giving a surprising urgency to scenes of people sitting in rooms talking.”

From one angle this is true but I did not get a sense of what the pressures of budgets, routines , public demand and the compulsion of wage labour exerted on the staff/workers in the network. I suspect that they are there. Certainly one gets a sense of this in some of the other Wiseman documentaries,.

Posted in Documentary, US films | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Retrieval USA 2013

Posted by keith1942 on July 19, 2018

This film appears to have only had screenings at film festivals. I saw this US Indie at the Leeds International Film Festival in 2013 [a UK première] and it was attended by the director Chris Eska. Since then it has not surfaced anywhere in my range. This is a shame. It is both an excellent film and an interesting variation on a major genre: the US Civil War movie.

The film is set in the later stages of the US Civil War, 1864. The Union armies are into the Confederate territories and we see both a violent skirmish and the aftermath of some battle. However, what makes the film distinctive is that it focuses on black slaves, runaways and freed slaves caught up in this great conflict. For much of the film we are alone with a small trio of black men. There is thirteen year old Negro boy, Will [a fine performance by Ashton Sanders]. His mentor is Marcus (John Keston) who has trained him to work alongside as they assist a gang of white mercenaries who are hunting down runaway slaves for the bounty on their heads.

Marcus with Will is sent north into Union-held territory to bring back fellow Negro Nate (Tishuan Scott). He is not a runaway but a freed slave. However, six years earlier, in resisting an attempt to capture and enslave him, he shot a white gang member. So the journey involves both revenge and a bounty. Marcus and Will use a tale of a sick brother to entice Nate back close enough to the gang’s camp to enable his capture. As readers can imagine, this is the point at which the contradictions of the war and the period come to a climax.

Most of the film is taken up with the journey and the changing relationships between the three men. On the way they encounter both a live battle and the strewn corpses of the aftermath of another. A civil war film that spends most of its time with three black men is distinctive. However the story in which they are embedded is fairly conventional. I could reckon many of the developments before they arrived and the resolution of the film became more clearly predictable over the course of the film’s 92 minutes.

The writer and director Chris Eska also wrote the screenplay and edited the film. He is quoted in the Festival Catalogue:

“I start with the emotions first, then I tend to work backwards to find the setting of the characters that are going to highlight those emotions and themes.”

Using a civil war setting seems to have been the third possibility considered. This explains why there are so many familiar tropes in the film. In fact the emotions are the strongest aspect of the film. The characters interactions and developments are engaging. There is one very fine sequence when Nate and Will visit the homestead Nate left six years earlier. And they meet his former wife and her ‘new man’. It is sensitively filmed and acted.

The visual aspects of the film are also very good. The film was shot by Yasu Tanida in the 4K digital format. And the landscape along the journey looks great. The ratio seems to be 1.78:1. This is not a a cinematic ratio. I wondered if this was down to using digital or the hope that it would get screenings on television.. Whether that happened I am uncertain but it has been available on online streaming. Eska does not seem to have been able to make any subsequent features.

But there is also a serious weakness to the film. This is the music score by Matthew Wiedemann and the Yellow 6 band. Wiedemann seems to have provided the primary input, with ‘sixteen tracks’. The majority of the score accompanies the sequences of the journey. The music accompanies the changing landscape and also signals dramatic development. But at times it did not seem to have a discernible function. I thought the film was over-scored. This is a shame, because the natural sounds on the track when they appear are extremely well done.

I assume the music was worked out with Eska as he remarked that he and Wiedemann had worked together before. Eska participated in a Q&A after the screening. I, unfortunately, had to leave to catch a bus. A friend told me about some of the discussion. Eska remarked that finding funding for an independent film in the USA was hard: harder than a decade ago. I had found the final closing sequence of the film the most conventional. Eska explained that this was added because one of the producers would not accept the original ending. He talked about the editing which he found was essential in creating the structure that he wanted. He also talked about working with the Afro-American actors, for whom these were the first opportunities to play a leading role.

The film clearly failed to find a British distributor or elsewhere, even in the USA. Independent film distribution has decline din recent years but this would also seem to be an example of the neglect of the Afro-American experience in US cinema. At the time that it was exhibited at the Leeds International Film Festival that famous epic Gone With the Wind (193) was enjoying yet another re-release. This film is, among other matters, an eloquent rebuff to that film. I wonder how long I will have to wait to see it again at the cinema?

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

The Rape of Recy Taylor, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on June 22, 2018

The film recounts the rape of a young Afro-American woman and mother in 1944 in Alabama by a gang of white men and her struggle for justice. This was before the period of activism known for ‘The Civil Rights Movement’. Rape of black women, like the lynching of black people, was common in the period dominated by the racist culture called ‘Jim Crow’. Recy’s struggle for justice was supported by National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP] and by one of its field officers, Rosa Parks. Parks is famous for her role in the ‘Bus Boycotts’ in the 1950s. But this case was equally important is the development of black resistance to the racism endemic in the USA. The NAACP, committed to constitutional action, was for decades the lead organisation in the struggle for equality for Afro-Americans.

The central event in the film, an assault and rape on the 24 year-old black woman on a Sunday evening as she returned from a church service, is told through the filmed testimony of her family members and audio recordings of Recy herself. The perpetrators were six white teenagers. Though identified the local sheriff contrived to avoid any action. And Recy’s family home was terrorised and there were death threats when she pursued her claim for justice. These testimonies are intercut with contemporary footage, tending to impressionistic, of the settings, in darkness and with travelling shots that suggest a noir, even horror, feel. Alongside this are extracts from documentary film of the period and archive photographs. And as a distinctive addition clips from the ‘race cinema’ of the period and earlier.

The ‘race cinema’ operated from about 1910 to the end of the 1940s. It was a segregated cinema, in its production, distribution and exhibition, not just in the South but across the USA. Whilst it suffered from low production values due the poor economics of the business the films provided a potent experience for black audiences. The films presented black culture in its own estimation, valorised black heroes and heroines, vilified the lumpen proletarian elements in black communities and the racist white communities from which Afro-Americans had suffered. The films dramatised the brutalities and inequalities of US culture in the period, including explicit representation of rapes and lynchings and the real violent face of organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

These clips provides a dramatic tapestry into which Recy’s story is implanted. And the film uses virtuoso techniques to increase the drama. There are fine superimpositions of archival footage over the contemporary film. There are montage sequences which interweave, factual and fictionalised renderings. And there is added to this a powerful musical accompaniment of sombre orchestral music and well chosen songs from the Africo-American culture. Some of the characters in the events are now deceased and are voiced by actors. So the film is partly a drama-documentary and shares some formal aspects with the film of Ken Burns and his colleagues.

The film is directed by Nancy Buirski whose previous films include a documentary The Loving Story (2011) and a dramatised treatment Loving (2016) of an inter-racial couple prosecuted for breaking laws against ‘miscegenation’. This new feature falls somewhere in between, a documentary approach but dramatised by particular material and techniques. Buirski scripted the film and skilfully orchestrates the various components. There is excellent contribution in the cinematography by Rex Miller and the film uses drone cinematography to great effect. Also deserving praise is the film editing by Anthony Ripoli; the visual effects by Aaron Hodgins Davis; and the work of the eight crafts-people in the sound department. To this the credits add a long list of researchers who must have combed all sorts of archives and collections as well as tracking down people to be interviewed. The film respects the archive film and materials using their original aspect ratios.

Recy’s family member comment on the issues as well as recounting the events. In the latter stages of the film two contemporary voices add to this analysis: Daniel L. McGuire whose book ‘At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power’ details the whole violent culture which was inflicted on Afro-American women over decades [Published in 2011 the book’s title is taken from a 1960’s song].. And there is Afro-American historian Crystal Feimster. Their contributions place this story in the wider culture of racist violence and black resistance. In particular the film draws out the role of Rosa Parks, a NAACP field officer who took up Recy’s case and worked to develop a widespread protest that reached beyond the black communities. Rosa Parks is more famous for her role in the Montgomery ‘Bus Boycott’, The commentators emphasise how the campaign of support for Recy was an equally important in the development of resistance by black people. They also emphasise how important was the role of black women in the movement, both in the 1940s and the 1950s despite the sometime over-emphasis on iconic male leaders. This argument is convincing but I would have liked more on the struggle in the 1940s. The film refers to one other campaign by another black women who suffered rape but the film implies more.

One difference between the 1940s and 1950s was, that whilst the bus boycott led on toe increase action and results, in Recy’s case despite widespread campaigning she was not able to get a fair trail of her assailants. The first trial was a mockery and subsequently an all-white jury refused indictments. The film does note that in 2011 the Alabama State Legislature passed the following:

“BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, that we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we express our deepest sympathies and solemn regrets to Recy Taylor and her family and friends.”

Apart from the long and insulting delay the film, at this point, also includes interviews with white residents from Abbeville. They are aware of the events but are not really prepared to condemn them or offer praise for Recy’s struggle for justice. But we do see her, old and infirm, [in a residential home I think}, and she remains as resolute as she must have been in 1944. She died late in 2017. It seems unlikely that she would have seen this film’ tribute to her courage and resilience.

This films uses a complex mixture of personal film and audio testimonies, commentary and archive material. The latter includes a clip from the films of Oscar Micheaux whose work was a central component of the ‘race cinema’, segregated film production and exhibition in the USA from the 1910s to the 1940s.

This promises to be a powerful and stimulating documentary on issues that, as the news constantly reminds us, remains a central problematic in US culture. What would be good would be if we could have a follow-up of a screening of one of Oscar Micheaux’s powerful film dramas: Within Our Gates (1920) is a classic that addresses both rape and lynchings of black people.

Posted in Documentary, History on film, US films | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Four films by Larry Gottheim

Posted by keith1942 on June 6, 2017

A US presentation on Larry Gottheim

Larry Gottheim is part of the USA avant-garde film movement. His approach is experimental but also fairly subjective. He started on 16mm films in the late 1960s and most of his work has been in this format. His work has been predominantly carried out in New York State. Apart from his film making Larry is also important in US film as the co-founder of the Cinema Department at Binghamton University situated near Ithaca in up-state New York, a pioneer in developing cinema as a form of personal art.

The programme of four films organised by the Pavilion together with the Hyde Park Picture House offered two early films and two films from his later career. Larry himself was there: part of an extended tour in Britain and continental Europe. In his introduction Larry suggested that the tour was providing an opportunity for reflection on his whole body of work which he now saw as an ongoing project.

“not ghosts of the past but very present ..”

He referred to his most recent film, Chants and Dances for Hands (1991 – 2016) produced on digital rather than his usual 16mm, which he felt had given him a fresh perspective on the earlier work,. He expressed a strong interest in time and duration and increasingly on the relationship between image and sound. The Cinema Department at Binghamton University was the first regular undergraduate program in the USA that dealt with cinema as a personal art. Larry maintained his professorship for a time there, teaching film making and aesthetics.

The first film was Corn (1970)in colour and running for eleven minutes and silent. [The projectionist ran the whir of the camera through the sound system].

“Bright green leaves stripped from ears of corn, and later, the vibrant yellow ears placed steaming in the waiting bowl. Each of these actions inaugurates a period in which one contemplates an image whose steady transformation is barely perceptible – the delicate slow movement of light and shadow, the evolution of subtle steam into the film grain.”

This was a static camera shot with the hues and shadows changing as the sunlight imperceptibly diminished. Larry commented about the viewpoint,

“Then the unforeseen reality of lenses and other physical elements entered. Each film resulted from a fusion of what was taking place in front of the camera and the camera’s own contribution. When everything was right I just looked through the viewfinder to see moving images unfold “by themselves,”

There followed Doorway in black and white and running for seven and a half minutes [again with projector whir on the sound system].l

This was a single camera shot, but a pan over a winter landscape. The title seemed to be a metaphor as the shot looked like it was taken through a large window. The bleak landscape was still apart from slight movements by two cows. The image was full of vertical lines, uprights like fences and gnarled like trees and branches. Larry felt this film included several viewpoints, including the landscape and cows who were

“wanting us to see it [and them].”

Larry also referred to the technical aspects, shooting this on a floating-head tripod with decisions about lens and focal length.

The final two films were from later in Larry’s career and exhibited a distinct change in the form and style of his work. In fact they were screened out of sequence, with the earlier film last, presumably because it was the longest. Their dominant features were the preoccupation with sound and vision and the use of montage techniques.

Mnemosyne Mother Of Muses

1986, colour and black and white , 16 minutes.

“A mirrored form in counter-movement, dense with emotion-charged memory – a rapidly sparking dynamism of image and afterimage, swirling resonant words/music, juxtaposing loss, my father’s stroke, Toscanini, Siodmak’s The Killers, the Red Robin Diner… I seem to be quickening.”

The film combines found footage with sequences filmed by Larry. The soundtrack is mainly found audio, though there is possibly some actual audio recordings as well. This is a fairly subjective mix and at times it is tricky to assign meaning. However, overall, apart from the themes identified by Larry, the film seems pre-occupied with experiences of Afro-Americans; their voices appear in the sound footage and their figures can be glimpsed in the very fast montage.

The final film was the final part of a series ‘Elective Affinities’ that Larry started in the 1970s but finished in the 1980s. This was a long film, with forms of montage techniques but at a slower pace than in Mnemosyne. There was a clear preoccupation with the relationship between sound and image. And part of the focus was

“the conflict between the intellectual and the experiential …”

Tree of Knowledge (Elective Affinities, Part IV)

1980, colour and black and white, 16mm, 60 minutes.

“It started with filming the tree. Something was released in that manner of filming seemingly farthest removed from the procedure of the early films. I first thought a simple ordering of this rich material might be enough, something related to Barn Rushes. … But the film only came into its form-life with the idea of linking this deep-rooted and far-outreaching tree material with that film on paranoia that had fascinated me for many years.”

The film opened with a colour sequence filmed in a bar, followed by a very slow dissolve of a black and white image of a tree; the films ended with the reversal of these sequences. In between the film consisted of found footage; a 1950s US documentary for school students and a 1940s documentary about the treatment of paranoiac patients; these were intercut with footage filmed by Larry of scenes of nature but with a hand-held camera using very jerky camera movements. The film at times accompanied the moving images with soundtracks from other sequences.

I liked the opening and closure, and some of the counterpoint between sound and image was interesting. However, Larry constantly replayed sequences from the two documentaries which I thought became tiresome. And the actual footage in the film was difficult to watch as the jerky camera movements were rather like watching a strobe effect. At sixty minutes in length this became something of an ordeal.

It also subverted the presentation as by the end the film we had overrun the timed schedule. So Larry was only able to say thank you and suggest we could follow up informally. There was no time for questions. Given the running time of the combined films was 95 minutes I think that the presentation should have been longer: at least two and half hours. Apart from my different responses to the four films I felt that the selection and order limited our chance to take an overview of Larry’ film work. There is clearly a significant change in his approach to film and in the preoccupations therein at some point in the 1970s. And I am still unclear how this developed.

There are comments by Larry online and notes on interviews he has given. And there are commentaries about his films, though the one’s that I looked at did not address questions of form and style in sufficient depth.

It is important to note that\t Larry Gottheim considers that his recent digital film, still to be seen, proposes a new perspective on his work overall. The Pavilion are hoping to make this available in some form. The aspects of his films that I most enjoyed are precisely those that are best served by the silver halides in actual film. For example, the operation of light in Corn and Doorway, and also to some degree in Mnemosyne. But I should be interested to see how Larry Gottheim works with digital formats.

NB The films are listed as 1.33:1, but I am pretty sure they were all shot on sound stock and on this occasion were masked to 1.371. The 16mm projection was fine. The projectors were actually sited in the cinema balcony and the sound run through a separate sound system and out from the central loudspeaker behind the screen.

All quotations by Larry Gottheim in the presentation or online.

Posted in Avant-garde film, Non-narrative film, Short films, US films | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Capitalism: A Love Story USA 2009

Posted by keith1942 on January 21, 2016


Written, directed and co-produced by Michael Moore. Now an established and famous voice on screen Moore tilts at his largest target yet. In fact, the title is somewhat grandiose: rather than deconstructing the contemporary mode of production, Moore is mainly concerned with the Financial Sector, especially the Banks. The film has all the familiar ingredients: the director’s caustic commentary and stunts, ordinary people coping in extraordinary situations, the revealing but till now unseen [or at least unnoticed] stories, background and leaks in the media. Regular fans may well experience a feeling of déjà vu. There is a hint of this in the closing comments by Moore himself, [over the end credits] as he pleads with his audience to join him in ‘action’. Reports of the film’s performance suggest this has not activated hordes of ordinary people. Yet, like some of his more vacuous fellow celebrities, Moore has winning charm. He also has a newsman’s nose for the scoop and the overlooked exposé. So, much of the film is absorbing, at times entertaining, and to a degree shocking.

Moore’s ‘capitalism’ does not start in the 13th century or with the rise of the Protestant Ethic. His villain is Ronald Reagan. Here Moore places the blame for deregulation, the rise of short-term profits, and the regressive changes in taxation. Certainty he provides ample evidence for the greed of the financial barons, and also for their myopic fall into chaos, ably abetted by Government Regulators. The most poignant sections are when Moore visits victims of this legalised robbery. As always, Moore can both facilitate the voice of the oppressed and exploited, and construct a powerful mosaic of anger at injustice and malfeasance. He also manages to find more reassuring groups who have organised resistance: a worker’s occupation in Chicago fighting for their wages: a community that rehouses an evicted family. So the audience are shown both the exploitation and the resistance.

But Moore’s virtues are partly undermined by his limitations. His films lack a full historical context and even more a rigorous analysis. The current crisis, which he examines, is only the latest in a cycle which goes back at least two centuries. And the majority of US citizens have suffered the expropriation of their surplus value since they arrived in the United States, either soon after birth or immediately on immigration. This matters since the direction that resistance takes will determine its success. One can find similar stories of both poverty and deprivation as well as of resistance and fight-back in the Great Depression. But eighty years on another remarkably similar financial bubble has wreaked havoc on the ordinary working people.

Like other liberals (for example, Naomi Klein) Franklin Delano Roosevelt appears to be one of Moore’s heroes. Near the end of his film Moore screens a long and (seemingly) forgotten newsreel by FDR calling for basic rights for ordinary people: rights that should include health care, a home, employment, pensions . . . As Moore points out these rights have never be legalised in the USA. The problem with this argument is that there have been existing rights in law, including those against arbitrary arrest, false imprisonment, secret surveillance, and torture. As in the UK the state has been able to tear up the paper on which such laws were written. Moore’s film also seems slightly opportunistic. His treatment of Barrack Obama is rather ambiguous, and he dwells once more on the joy that greeted Obama’s election rather than the policies since then. But Obama does not appear to be about to change that part of the capitalist system that is Moore’s target. In the film at one point the commentary refers to the coalition that pressurised Congress to agree to the Bailout of the Banks: despite the vocal opposition of a majority of the electorate. This included both the President and President-Elect, the aforesaid Obama. And the commentary also identifies a number of the latter’s advisers who earlier belonged to the most successful finance house, Goldman Sachs. As Balzac observed,

“behind every great fortune there is a great crime.”

Despite these limitations Moore’s new film is an entertaining two hours which also contains many nuggets of useful information. One is an interview with the chairperson of a Senate Committee charged with Oversight of the Banks, woefully confessing that she could not even force the banks to explain how they spent the monies received in the bailout. And of course there are his inimitable stunts. At the end of the film Moore unwinds a roll of police tape marked ‘crime scene’ round the Wall Street Financial buildings. That anti-social clique that controls the nation’s economy watches him from inside the buildings. They are clearly discomfited and embarrassed. Unfortunately I don’t feel that Michael Moore’s film will take us any farther. We need something more drastic. But we also need at least this level of assault on the equivalent nefarious activities in the UK.


Originally posted  on the film’s release.

Posted in Documentary, Political film, US films | Leave a Comment »

Finding Vivian Maier, USA 2014

Posted by keith1942 on August 11, 2014

finding vivian maier poster

This film was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a programme titled The Female Gaze. The screening accompanied an exhibition of the work of female photographers at the Village Bookstore and Gallery, ending with a Round Table Discussion, including ‘the effectiveness of the ‘female only’ curatorial approach. The screening at the Hyde Park was introduced by Helen Grant from the College of Art & Design: briefly as there was a large audience turnout and we started a little late. There was also a post-screen discussion, again unfortunately cut short by limitations of time.

Vivian Maier was a New Yorker, of French parentage, born 1926 and died 2009. She worked most of her adult life as Nanny with various families in New York and Chicago. However, she has achieved posthumous fame because of the quality of her photographic work, unknown and little seen in her lifetime. Essentially her work falls into ‘street photography’. It is now exhibited in prestige galleries, sells as relatively expensive artwork and is compared to the work of major male and female professional photographers.

Finding Vivian Maier is written and directed by John Maloof with Charlie Siskel. Maloof also narrates the film. In 2007 Maloof, a regular at auction houses and car boot sales, bought a box of negative film for $380. Maier was still alive at this point, but possibly unaware of the sale. The items were auctioned off to cover unpaid storage costs. Maloof’s trove included thousands of photographic negatives, undeveloped rolls of black and white and colour film, and Super 8 mm and 16mm films. In the course of the film we learn that for much of her work Maier’s favoured camera was a Rolleiflex. Some of her work was developed and printed and this seems to be true of most of the 8mm and 16mm film. She does not seem to have worked at processing and developing: though one throwaway line notes that she was not good at ‘printing up photographs’.

The structure of the film is important. It opens with a series of excerpts from interviews with the families for whom Maier worked as a Nanny. It reminded me faintly of the use of interviewees in Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981): that is another film where a conventional treatment dilutes the substance of the portrait.  Maloof then recounts how he started working through his archive and researching Maier. When he commenced posting some of her photographs on the Internet he realised that her work was both of professional standard and deemed to be of quality and value. This led to exhibitions of her work in galleries and the film includes brief comments on and comparisons of the quality of Maier’s photographs.

The middle section of the film is essentially an investigation of Maier’s personal life. The combination of employment as a children’s Nanny whilst producing work that is valued as art is intriguing. Moreover, Maier was an extremely private person, even secretive. This comes out in comments by the families and from Maloof’s researches. She sometimes changed the spelling of her name – Meyer rather than Maier. She would use the pseudonym Smith quite frequently. And her personal space in the homes of the families where she worked was inviolate for her. She was also an assiduous collector, of artefacts and newspapers. In some of her moves from one employment to another she took several trunks, and numerous cases and boxes. Maloof’s trove was enlarged when one family allowed him to pick through another storage facility of items left by Maier.

As the portrait develops the film emphasises the sense of Maier as a distinctive and unusual character – the work ‘eccentric’ pops up several times, and later in the film ‘crazy’. The emphasis is on the unravelling of the ‘mystery’ of Vivian Maier. This the film fails to do, but at one point interviewees speculate that there may have been abuse, either when she was a child or an adult. The reminiscences of her performance as a carer of children are actually varied, at times almost contradictory.

We do learn about several trips that she made in the 1950s and 1960s. There were at least two visits to her ancestral village in the Champsaur Valley in the French Alps. There are photographs both of family members and of the village and its surround. This is the only occasion of which there is a record of Maier photographic work be printed and displayed. In fact she arranged for some of the photographs to be printed up as post cards and entertained the idea of some of sort of commercial activity. The other trip was a world tour in which she visited Latin America, Europe and Asia. But we did not learn much about this.

Towards the end the film returns to the issue of the status of Maier’s photographic work. She has enjoyed major and popular exhibitions in a number of cities in the USA and Europe. Her prints are now collected, selling [we are told] for about $12,000. However, it is suggested that the major art institutions are still resisting including her in the canon of photographic work.


Following the film there was a short postscript, with some comments from Helen Clark and responses from the audience. I have to say that some of the contributions got rather lost in the auditorium and I was not always completely clear about the point being made.

Helen Clark returned to a question she posed before the screening, ‘who was finding Vivian Maier’? Her comments on the film pointed up that what we were presented with was John Maloof’s search: it was his story rather than Vivian’s. She added that she had two particular worries regarding the film that disturbed her. One was the financial. Maloof was now selling Vivian’s photograph, effectively making money out of her work. This was work for which she was never paid, and in fact she was still alive when Maloof began his enterprise, though he was unaware of that.

Her second concern was the sequences where respondents in the film suggested the possibility of Vivian being abused, presumably sexually, at some time in her life. The BBFC certified the film as 12A with the note ‘infrequent child abuse references‘. As Helen pointed out these comments were all speculation, there being no evidence. In fact in the film it provides a possible explanation for her behaviour which is seen as somewhat abnormal. Helen’s final point was on the way that the film represents Vivian and her work. She felt that this personalised her work in a way that was not the norm for studies of artists, and that this was to some degree explained by Vivian being an unmarried woman.

At this point we started to get people from the audience pitching in. Several disagreed with the points about Maloof’s exploitation of the archive, proposing that he bought it and he researched it and so the entitlement followed. Someone also commented how the film dramatised the ‘dream’ of people who frequent car boots sales, uncovering a treasure trove. I think there were also some disagreements with Helen’s comment on the representation of ‘an unmarried woman, though I did not catch all of this. Given the short space of time available I did not get a sense of how the audience overall responded to the argument. I suspect we heard from more vocal members, [I confess I chipped in]. But there was certainly a section that accepted the way that the film presented its subject.

I think there are serious problems with the presentation in the film. The structure that I described above certainly provides a dominating focus on Vivian Maier in terms of personality and as something of an ‘oddball’. In fact, the factors which have propelled her into the limelight, that have made her photographs valuable artefacts, and which enabled the funding of the film are all to do with her status as a photographer and artist. But the film spends relatively little time on the aesthetics of her photographic work. There are some brief comments at the beginning and again towards the end of the film, but these are outweighed by people’s memories of her person.

The film is weak not only on the aesthetics of her work but on the technicalities. The only cameras that are specifically mentioned are the Rolleiflex and a Kodak Brownie that belonged to her mother. But I reckoned those there ware three or four different cameras that she was using over her career. There was also very little about the production side of photography. There was the one comment regarding her weakness in printing. The sense is that she did not work at the developing side of photography: which given her low income throughout her life probably explained the unprocessed negatives and undeveloped film.

The film gives only a limited sense of Maier’s work. She clearly had a gift for composition and for catching the moment. There are photographs of the families for whom she worked and of the village from which her family hailed. But the bulk of her work is what is called street photography. She tended to take pictures in working class and deprived areas. The dominant feature of her work is people, but often with an equally strong sense of their environment. She is interested in the ordinary, the everyday, the dispossessed and those who are to degree outsiders.

One senses a strong feel of empathy for her subjects; there is no sense of condescension. At the same time there is also a strong sense of reflexivity. She is very fond of shots reflecting windows and mirrors, producing classic artist’s self-portraits. The photographs are also historical records and cultural artefacts. When positioned alongside her collection of cultural objects and newspaper stories she emerges as a chronicler of the times and of the urban spaces. The films we saw did not have the same qualities. They seem much more like home movies. Maier’s forte seems to have been in ‘capturing the moment’.

1953, New York, NY

It is worth adding that she was not only an unmarred woman but also economically working class – ‘in service’. There is a strong affinity between the content of her major photographic work and her class position. That can also be seen as a factor that has led to the film and certain institutions treating her as an exception rather than as a member a member of an artistic pantheon.

With praiseworthy consideration the BBC took the opportunity to re-screen on the same evening another film on this topic – Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures? transmitted in the BBC 1 Imagine series. This provides a welcome alternative treatment of the photographer. The emphasis is very much on her work and its aesthetic and social qualities. Partly because of what material the film could access the focus is on her activity in New York and Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. John Maloof declined to participate, as he was already involved in his own film. The BBC film uses other collections of her work. There are some familiar faces from the Maloof film, but also some new ones. The treatment of the bidding and buying up of Maier collections suggests a world of cut-throat competition with a whiff of the unseemly. It is worth noting that the prices paid at the auctions were probably a lot less than the thousands of dollars that Maier had probably spent over the years on storage.

The BBC film does provide a biography, but again of a different tyre and tone. The key researcher is photography lecturer, Pamela Bannof, who has carefully researched Maier and her life. It seems that Maier’s family lived on the margins like many of her subjects. Both her mother and grandmother were in service. Her photographic career seems to have taken off when she made her first visit to the Champsaur valley: she had lived there for a few years as a child and she had some sort of fluency in French. Later when she return to New York she started serious photographic activity – early shots are cityscapes but then she homes in are what became the major theme of her work – the urban environs and people on the margins.

The film fills out some of her personal and work life. And a rather different portrait emerges. The different language used offers a sense of this – ‘recluse’, ‘very private’, and ‘rootless’. There is her work as a Nanny in New York and later in Chicago; some families called her ‘Mary Poppins with a camera’.

Bannof and other photographers comment on examples of her work. There is a greater variety than in the Maloof film. Apart from the street photography and the self-portraits there are pictures that experiment and play with pattern and form. At times there are touches with a surreal quality. We saw some brief examples of her 8mm work, which here has more social content than the examples used by Maloof. And the children in her care also turn up as subjects. She has a fine sense of portraiture, but nearly always secured in an environment that adds to the character. The use of objects and pattern is noticeable in both her self-portraits and portraits taken on the streets.

We get some technical explanations on her photographic work, including of her favourite Rolleiflex camera: one that only used 12 exposure rolls. There is an example in a gallery of a whole roll of picture, as taken in sequence. One gets a sense of how she moved from work to leisure and from the suburbs to the city downtown. It seems that she did do some processing herself, but she had to do it in her room at her workplace. It is possible that the restrictions of this and her low income preventing her developing this side of her work. We hear from a staff member at one of the camera shops that she frequented for processing. Also from a manager at a Chicago cinema where she went ‘three of four times a month’ to watch movies.

Bannof argues that whilst Maier was self-taught as a photographer she consciously studied and developed her art. There is a short from 1952 of Salvador Dali outside MOMA: at the same time as an exhibition of ‘Five French Photographers’. Presumably Maier visited this: and it seems she visited Paris and the Louvre when she made her second visit to her home village.  We also get to see more of the photographs Maier took on her year-long trip, including India, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia. As Bannof comments, this is an epic piece of travelling for a single woman in the 1950s.


Other snippets emerge. One of the adults once in her care recognises a picture that she took – of Maier. Presumably questions of provenance may begin to haunt collectors and archivists. At one point we are told that Maier prints fetch about $2,000: whilst original prints from her hand fetch about $8,000. Still a tidy sum.

The film also gives a sense of the changing nature of her photographic work. One comment is that as the 1960s pass there is a growing amount if urban detritus in the pictures, less of the earlier alternative patterns. This, it is suggested, reflects the changing and deteriorating conditions of her personal life: her later employment as a Nanny was in shorter term posts: finally she was a carer for an old, disabled person. It also may reflect the social crises of the 1960s; she apparently went downtime during the Chicago riots. These changes may well relate to her apparent loss of interest in actually displaying or marketing her work.

The Round-Table Discussion at the Village Gallery offered four female speakers, an exhibition of contemporary female photographers and a discussion. The audience was overwhelmingly female and I think was also totally white. The four speakers discussed the discourse of female photography from the angles of work, exhibition and curating. Helen Clark added some comments on ‘feminist theory’ and women in visual media. Overall it was more general that just the specific films on Vivian Maier. However, Pippa Oldfield from the Impressions Gallery noted other female photographers whose work only became public after their death. One example would be Lee Miller, some of whose work went unnoticed in her lifetime, and whose legacy has been established by her son. Questions and comments bought up some other issues. This included the recent phenomenon of the ‘selfie’: I was with Helen Clark that Maier’s self-portraits are much more in line with examples in classical art than the new Internet-style pics.

In terms of the overall programme it is worth considering again the key concept, ‘The female gaze’. Helen Clark has provided some comments on a flier and on a Website. She refers to discussions around ‘the Gaze’ and specifically mentions Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). Mulvey’s article basically employs a psychoanalytical argument, “demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.” Mulvey sees women as ‘caught within the language of patriarchy’, effectively complicit in the treatment of female characters on screen. Mulvey’s treatment is rather different from another writer referred to, John Berger. However, Berger offers a materialist analysis of representations, including those of women (Ways of Seeing, 1972 – as was pointed out in the discussion it predates Mulvey’s work). Art, including cinema and photography, tends to work within the limits of the dominant social mores. Thus part of women’s subordination in class society includes being the object of male action. Thus the tendency, not total, for female characters to be objectified in art and the media. I think that it is not necessary to go into the complicated and linguistically obscure arguments offered by Mulvey: Berger’s analysis shows us how representations express and re-inforce class and gender relations.

In that sense Finding Vivian Maier is ideological. That is, it gives expression to the dominant values, and even prejudices, of US capitalist society. These are values and prejudices regarding women, unmarried women, women employed as Nanny’s, and women whose behaviour is outside the accepted norms. But the film is ideological in another sense, that it fails to address the underlying social relations. Maier’s position in society is determined by her class and gender, and indeed by the cultural factors consequent on these. And her story of non-recognition followed by her growing star status refracts the relationships of intellectuals and artists to that society. Pierre Bourdieu’s offers ideas about the class-based competencies and dispositions that operate in cultural and artistic discourses (Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, 1986).

One comment in the BBC film saw Maier as possessing qualities that distinguish the amateur from the professional’: clearly a reference to competencies and dispositions. And Bannof suggested one could see the influence of profressional phtographers [Diane Arbus] in her early work.

Maier clearly failed to fit within such ‘competencies and dispositions’ in her lifetime, which makes her work subversive. Now, through the assistance of people who appear to be familiar with the said competencies and dispositions, her work has accessed the photographic discourse. There are innumerable instances of female and working class artists who have been censured by such discourses. Posthumously, and to a degree benefiting from modern media like the Internet, Maier has been elevated into the discourse.

At the same time there has been a limited change in the use value of her work. From being undisplayed photographs and unprocessed photographs they have become art objects with a particular cachet. Even more remarkable though is the change in their exchange value. Maloof bought the box of film for $380 dollars. We are told that one print sells for between $2,000 and $12,000. Even allowing for the process of bringing them to market this is a large surplus. Presumably in her lifetime Maier’s labour as a Nanny resulted in pay that was less than its actual value, though this has not been calculated. Since her death her unpaid labour has produced expropriation on a substantial degree. One of the contradictions of the system is that the collectors, who bought her work at auctions, likely unbeknown to her, acquired the copyright and therefore the increasing exchange value.

Appropriation runs right through this herstory. It applies to Maier’s work as a Nanny, to her activity as a photographer: not just economic appropriation but social and cultural. However, appropriation also applies to the profession of which Maier technically never became a part. From their earliest developments, both photography and cinema have appropriated the images of ordinary people. Street photography goes back to Victorian times. Both Edison and Lumière relied on filming their workers, their customers and the ordinary citizens for their products. But these ‘performances’ are not considered labour with exchange value in the way that the professional performances are. Peoples unfamiliar with these new technologies often expressed the fear at their first encounter that these machines would ‘steal their souls’. This is not just in a religion sense, but that it created alternatives forms of themselves. Photography’s apparent realism and cinematography’s addition of motion represented people in a way that was distinct from earlier art forms such as painting, sculpture and ceramics. Models for painters are as a norm paid: few subjects of photographic portraits receive payment, except in the fashion industry.

Maier’s failure or even unwillingness to display most of her work subverted this process. This does not seem to have been a wilful act on her part: she dabbled in attempts to deploy the work. But it did follow up from her working outside the artistic dispositions that dominated both mediums. Her photographs are fine example of the modern medium. But they, and the life story that now accompanies them, present intriguing critical questions about the medium itself.


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The Grand Budapest Hotel, USA / Germany 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on March 27, 2014


This is the eighth film directed by Wes Anderson and it appears to have enjoyed the most lavish marketing campaign of any of his productions. I saw the trailer [about six times] at every cinema I visited over several weeks. This appears to have paid off. I have seen the film twice. Even at afternoon performances there were reasonable audiences. I saw it once at the Hyde Park Picture House and they had had over 200 in for the previous evening’s performance. I saw it a second time at the National Media Museum and they were also enjoying good audiences. On both occasions that I saw the film the audience appeared to have enjoyed the 100 minutes of entertainment. And people I spoke to afterwards were very positive about the film.

The film is An American Empirical Picture, Anderson’s own production company. It is partly funded by the Independent Indian Paintbrush, which has a long-term relationship with Anderson. And it is distributed by Fox Searchlight, which has had the rights to several of Anderson’s recent films.

This is a recognisable Anderson film. The main setting is in a created world, Mittel-Europe in the 1930s.  Appropriately the film’s production was based at the Babelsburg Studio. This created world is presented in a mainly naturalistic manner but it is no no way a realistic world. It is much closer to the Hollywood worlds of screwball comedy and the melodramas of a director like Ernest Lubitsch. The credits include a dedication to the writer Stefan Zweig. And the world in the film is as artificial as that in the adaptation by Max Ophuls of Letter from an Unknown Woman (USA 1948). But Anderson’s ironic picture is much more playful and less melodramatic that that of Ophuls.

Most reviews draw parallels with the films of Lubitsch. Whilst intriguingly a review by Edward Lawrenson (Reprinted in The Big Issue in the North) draws a parallel with the 1930s adventure films of Alfred Hitchcock, especially The Lady Vanishes (UK 1935). Anderson, like many of his contemporary filmmakers, loves to include film references and homage in his work. I was reminded at one point of the UK films, Crooks Anonymous (1962) and then of Where Eagles Dare (1969).

There are cameos by well-known actors like Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton and Harvey Keitel. And the new faces, like Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, are equally good at the deadpan tendency in performance elicited by Anderson.

The film style, with the emphasis on artifice and the quirky, is instantly familiar. Much of this is engineered with traditional film effects, though there is also an amount of CGI, especially in the climatic sequence. The film has the longest set of digital effect credits that I have seen in a film by Anderson. One less successful innovation is the introduction of changing aspect ratios. The contemporary opening of the film is in 1.85:1. The following introduction to the fictional Author (the older version, Tom Wilkinson) of the fictional book is 1.85:1 letter-boxed within the larger frame. The flashback when the Author (the younger version, Jude Law) has the main story recounted by Mr Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) is in 2.39:1. Whilst the actual central story is presented in 1.37:1. Some reviews give 1.33:1, but this was the main ratio of the silent era. Perhaps that accounts for a couple of reviews that erroneously suggest that the main story takes place in the 1920s. There is a clear on screen title, ‘1932’. I did not think that the variable ratios were very effective. Both projectionists I spoke to had used the 1.85:1 screen. So for much of the time the matting on the full screen surrounded the actual framed image. Indeed in some sequences with a softer focus the divide between image and matte was unclear.

I also felt that whilst the film had more outright humour than in other Anderson films, that this was at the expense of substance. My favourite film by Wes Anderson is Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Whilst I enjoyed the ironic portrayals that make up much of that film I also developed a keen interest in the fate of the characters. At one point in The Grand Budapest Hotel the anonymous Author observes a patron in the lobby suffering a stroke. As he turns to the lift he remarks that ‘it did not concern me’. I had a rather similar sense by the film‘s resolution. However, the film is vastly entertaining, it has some impressive visual and aural sequences and the cast perform with great aplomb.


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Posted by keith1942 on June 12, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by keith1942 on February 21, 2013

The advance

Stephen Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln [released in the UK February 2013] opens with brutal hand-to-hand fighting between Union and Confederate troops in a Civil War battle.  What makes the sequence distinctive that these are black Union Soldiers fighting white Confederate soldiers. In the age of Afro-American President Obama this is not a common image in Hollywood films. So the 1989 Civil War drama Glory was a real trailblazer, dramatising the story of one of the earliest Negro {Afro-American] regiments recruited to fight in the war to end the Southern secession and slavery. 

Glory is a 1989 US film which retells the story of a regiment of black soldiers in the Civil War between the Northern and Southern United States in the last century.  Apart from the film itself and the usual reviews there was also a free schools booklet on the film produced by Film Education, a body sponsored by the Film Industry to promote the use of film in schools.  Even better, there were three A3 pages of comment and analysis in a newspaper called The Revolutionary Worker, a US revolutionary communist publication.  I want to use the film and the two different commentaries to argue some ideas about how popular cinema uses the history of society and class struggle to generate a consensus of values, and the traps for the unwary who take such propaganda at face value.

Glory starts by telling the audience in a title that its story is based on the real life letters of Robert Gould Shaw, the Colonel and commander of this real life black regiment the Massachusetts 54th, [Shaw is played in the film by Matthew Broderick).  Shaw is white, as are all the officers, and the film’s early scenes are full of the irony of this “all-black” regiment run by whites. This is the historical record, as the Northern ruling class were less agitated about black slavery than retaining the union, and there was a groundswell of real racism amongst the northern whites.  The film, by highlighting this aspect, is immediately critical of white racism, most strongly punched home in a scene where Shaw orders a black soldier whipped for desertion.  The whip falls on a brutally scarred back, scarred from slave plantation whippings, while the eyes of the black soldier look squarely into those of the guilt ridden Shaw.

The first part of the film shows the training of the newly enrolled regiment, with the black soldiers inexperienced and naive about war.  However, once trained, they are shunted round at military labouring, their racist military hierarchy unable to bring themselves to let black people fight for them.  Once again the film combines historically recorded facts with criticism, as Shaw and his white officer and friend, Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes)), pressurise their superiors into letting the black regiment see battle.  The point of pressure is the plundering, looting and criminal activities being carried out on the side by high-ranking northern white officers.

Southern black boys and Rawlins

Southern black boys and Sergeant-Major Rawlings

In the final part of the film the regiment enters the field of battle and the ‘pantheon of Glory’.  Shaw volunteers the regiment to lead the assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner heavily defended and over a beach exposed to murderous and concentrated fire.  Here both officers and black soldiers prove their fighting ability, their courage and their heroism.  Half the regiment, including all the figures  who have already become identified by the audience, die or are injured in this battle.  At the end black and white are buried by the Confederates in a common grave.

I hope this brief outline will make clear that Glory was different from the ordinary Hollywood movie of the period, and even now seems more radical than many.  The story it tells is both a celebration of the black contribution to US history and a criticism of the response of white society to that contribution.  It is ably produced, with powerful widescreen colour visuals, emotive and dramatic music.  In one scene the newly trained regiment of black soldiers march, finally dressed in Union uniforms and carrying real rifles, march through the streets of their home city, to the acclaim and joy of their families and communities.  The close-ups of proud wives, children and friends are both moving and touching. We also see the noted Afro-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass on the podium with other dignataries, though he is only allowed one line of dialogue in the film. Moreover, the historical record is that one of Douglass’ sons was an NCO in the regiment, which hewas key in effecting. In the film version the key NCO is an Irish-American, i.e. white!

The film also contains strong performances from black stars and actors.  Denzel Washington, carving out a career in the liberal anti-racist cinema, plays Trip, a rebel and spokesperson for oppressed blacks.  He figures in key scenes in the structure of the film, it is he who is whipped at Shaw’s orders, and who faces him defiantly through the ordeal.

The film’s producer, Freddie Fields, stated, “It is the story of how a black regiment and its white officers challenged history, racism and the fortunes of war.”  So the film offers not only entertainment, but history and politics to the audience.

It is to the credit of Film Education’s Study Guide that it attempted to grapple seriously with these aspects.  The book provides questions, discussion material and extracts from historical sources.  It is clear that the film has taken liberties with the record, both in some of its characters and in the telling of certain events. The Study Guide questions the myth of a Civil War fought to abolish slavery, and points out the central cause, preserving the Union of States.  [Lincoln tells the story of how, late in the war, President Lincoln managed to pressurise and manipulate a bitterly divided House of representatives in Congress to pas the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the abolition of slavery]. The Film Education Study Guide sources provide some of the historical record of racism in that period.  It also provides some of the historical background and detail to the real life regiment missing in the film version.  On two illustrated pages it asks the reader to consider the use of key individuals to carry the story forward.  Then it raises the questions of what benefits war may have bought to black people.  The emphasis throughout the booklet is on the question of this film and the history it purports to tell.

But there are important issues that it misses out, the very ones discussed at length in The Revolutionary Worker article.  This article is concerned to address the film in terms of current racist oppression in the USA.  It starts with:

“Just telling this story is a blow to the oppressors’ version of history………GLORY brings home that oppression is still very much alive and needs to be cut down by “that terrible swift sword”.

It concentrates its attention on a few key scenes, the whipping already mentioned, the opening and closing of the movie; and two scenes that involve the character Trip and the flag of the USA. In the first of these scenes Shaw offers Trip the ‘honour’ of carrying the Stars and Stripes into battle for the regiment.  Trip refuses saying that the war will not liberate the black people.  Later in the assault of Fort Wagner, Shaw dies leading an assault, the flag falls to the ground and Trip picks it up, dying as the assault continues.  The article argues this is a limitation in the film, as black people have no interest in a flag, which represents modern US imperialism both at home and abroad.  The Revolutionary Worker was extensively involved in agitation round the burning of the Yankee flag, and attempts in the US to criminalise this act. Thus their article attempts to site the film in this continuing class struggle over racism and chauvinism.  They raise a dimension that {not surprisingly] is totally absent from the Study Guide.

However, they still see the film as generally positive [as they did Cry Freedom, 1987]. The article makes the point that “The most that could be done in 1863 was to destroy slavery and create the conditions for a future revolution…” However they do not discuss the cinematic representation of these acts. I believe this fails to grapple with what the entertainment format does to historical and political issues, a facet which the Study Guide at least asks the students to discuss.  Entertainment stories generate emotional responses in audiences, partly by the continuing thrust of the story, and partly by emotional responses to individual characters, scenes, music, colour and so on.  Any specific scene or incident is to be responded to in the context of the whole.  One character may say ‘I won’t die for imperialism’, but s/he is then either discredited or reformed by the ongoing narrative.

Trip and flag

The flag and the dying Trip

So what I think is key about the flag incidents is that at the height of the battle Trip picks up the flag at the cost of his own life, even if earlier he had refused.  His one line “I ain’t fighting the war for you”, is easily outweighed by the emotional impact of the rebel who at first refuses but then is swayed into allegiance – an extremely common motif in entertainment films.  And as the events of 2011 demonstrated, the emotional power vested by many US citizens in their flag would make this act extremely powerful. Such a message is reinforced by the final shot of the battle, this is a freeze frame shot [shades of Butch Cassidy] of a hopeless charge by the remaining soldiers led by Cabot and Sergeant Rawlings (Morgan Freeman). In The Revolutionary Worker article, Rawlings is a reformist black, “okay a hundred years ago, but whose time has passed’.  Yet for the film he is the leader finally imprinted on the audiences’ retina. And the casting of both white and black characters is important here. Broderick’s youthful looks fit the liberal notions imparted to him by his father. Elwes seems older and more cynical. And their authority is implemented by John Finn as Sergeant Mulcahy, an Irish-American veteran invented for the film. Meanwhile Denzel Washington at this stage of his career is a heroic rebel: another feature in which he starred in this year was Crimson Tide. Morgan Freeman, of course, has the gravitas of age and his voice: which later in his career enabled him to be cast in the role of US President.

The opening and closing sequences of the film confirm the limits of its criticism in its message about racism in the US and at the hands of the US.  The start of the film shows Shaw before the raising of the black regiment in a battle with white soldiers who turn and run from the confederates.  Thus his leading of the heroic charge at the end of the film is an overcoming of the earlier failure. There follows a scene of the Confederates burying the bodies of both black and white soldiers in a mass grave: Trip lies alongside Shaw with a choir heard on the soundtrack. Hollywood films nearly always centre on a heroic individual, usually white, rarely proletarian, female or gay, whose deeds and/or regeneration embody the emotional power of the film. This is exactly the strategy of the reactionary Born on the 4th of July (1989) movie, where the nation’s failure is whisked away in the failure and subsequent success of one representative individual.  While the final shot of a common grave for black and white can be see as positive, this common sacrifice is for the sake of a state built on oppression both at home and all over the world.

Shaw and Trip buried side-by-side

Shaw and Trip buried side-by-side

Glory is positive in its depiction of a little known history and its critical stance on racism in US history.  But all this is set squarely in the context of a chauvinist upholding of reactionary US patriotism, and the message that black people interests can be served by earning (through death) a place in the system of exploitation.  As The Revolutionary Worker points out black troops have been used against the peoples of Mexico, the Philipines, Cuba, Vietnam, Grenada and Panama [and many more, just look at Vietnam movies].  While people who hate racism may get an emotional frisson from the powerful scenes of black achievement and heroism in the film, they will also get a large dose of reformist and reactionary values.

This is an area bypassed the Study Guide which considers the entertainment format, but not the politics of imperialism.  It is also an aspect that is only partially by The Revolutionary Worker, which treat the film as a political text to be read off and agreed or disagreed with.   Critical responses to this (and other movies) must engage with the powerful emotional devices and images created by cinema.  Images that have been developed over the years, to which audiences are finely attuned, and which carry messages without the obviousness of the printed page, but often with greater power and effectively.

Produced by Tri-Star Pictures. Director Edward Zwick. Screenplay Kevin Jarre, based on the book Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Kirsten, and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard.

Cinematography Freddie Francis. Production designer Norman Garwood. Music James Horner. Sound Design Lon E. Bender. Editor Steven Rosenblum.

In Technicolor, 133 minutes, Certificate 15 in UK. 


The above article was written shortly after the original release of the film. Recently I came across a book that deals with some of these issues in relation to Glory and other films set during the Civil War. It is however a fairly academic tome, including using the specialised language of the discipline.

American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film, Trevor B, McCrisjen and Andrew Pepper, Edinburgh University Press 2005, Chapter 3 Hollywood’s Civil War dilemma: to imagine or unravel the nation? Gettysburg: Glory: Ride With the Devil: Cold Mountain.


Posted in History on film, Hollywood, US films | 3 Comments »


Posted by keith1942 on November 28, 2011

In an age of action thrillers, Spike Lee’s controversial 2000 film Bamboozled is unusual, an ideas movie. This explains both why it has generated controversy, and also why it is not an easy film to get to see.

“(In the USA) Bamboozled had a very limited theatrical run. At the time of its release in October 2000, the film seemed to play in a few select theaters only, mostly in New York and Los Angeles. In my hometown of San Diego, it took at least three weeks after the initial release before Bamboozled arrived, and it was virtually buried in theaters that most black audiences and other Spike Lee fans would not normally attend.” (Zeinabu irene David 2001).

In Leeds, where I saw it one and half times at the council funded Hyde Park Cinema, the audiences were very small. I’ve had problems finding people who have seen it and this was a blow because I would have liked more opportunities to discuss the ideas the film explores. But despite its low profile in cinemas, Bamboozled is a film that addresses an important issue, little discussed. At least the DVD release in the UK means it is possible to give it wider exhibition. Apart from the pleasures of good cinema, the film makes an excellent study text.

Narrative concerns

The narrative centres on television writer Pierre Delacroix, his secretary Sloan Hopkins, (both African-­Americans), and their white boss at the network, Dunwitty. Dunwitty regards himself as hip and an expert on black culture. He ruthlessly manages and patronises Pierre. So Pierre decides to expose his, and the Network’s, disguised racism by dreaming up a spoof minstrel show. This is based on the premise of African-Americans in ‘blackface’ makeup to recreate the appearance of the original Jim Crow shows. (Jim Crow refers to a character created by a nineteenth century white ‘minstrel’. The name was later applied to the racist laws that appeared in the southern states after the Civil War and which lasted until the 1960s.)

The new show is constructed around two street buskers, Manray and Womack. Their respective characters in the show are Mantan and ‘Sleep ‘n’ Eat’, supported by the Alabama Porch Monkees. At the pilot performance the audience includes both white and black viewers.

“The first time the performers come out in blackface, the white people look around them to see if black people are laughing, because if they are, then it’s sanctioned, and it’s OK for them to laugh, too.” (Lee 2001)

This is the prelude to the show’s rating and critical success for the network. ‘Political’ African-Americans, including a gangster-rap group Mau Mau, are incensed and attack the show. The contradictions of this situation for the black characters lead eventually to a tragic and violent conclusion. 


The film directly confronts the long history of demeaning representations of black people across the US mainstream media. This is no easy task. Lee recounts the responses of some of the cast; “It took away part of their soul”. And reviews included comments like ‘scattershot’ and ‘rabble-rousing’. Lee’s response is to point to the history of blackface in film and television.

“I mean, we all know what D. W. Griffith did, but when you see Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Bing Crosby putting on blackface … well, the critics didn’t want to deal with that. (Lee 2001).

This challenge to racism is carefully integrated with questions of gender and class. Lee describes the main female character, Sloan: “So it was a definite choice to have Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character, Sloan, be the most sympathetic and the most intelligent. At the same time, her hands are bloodied too, but she knows there is blood on her hands, whereas most of the other characters are in denial or just too stupid to know it.” (Lee 2001)

A critical sub-plot refers to Pierre’s own family situation as an educated, middle-class African-American. At one point he visits his father, a stand-up comedian performing in small black clubs with a very ‘strong’ and racially aware routine.

“Yes, I wanted to reveal the fact that they’re disappointed in each other. The father, Junebug, feels his son has no integrity, and at this point Pierre feels that his father is a great talent but that he’s wasting it.” (Lee 2001)

This is partly a class divide, with Pierre, the aspiring executive, separated from his roots. The same divide exists for most of the other characters. Her brother Julius, leader of the Mau Mau rap group, confronts Sloan, the successful assistant to Pierre. Most tellingly, Manray is propelled from penniless street entertainer to a successful and affluent TV star. And these class relations, along with the racialised situation and gender positions, feed into the characters’ final fates.

Pierre, as if fetishising these concerns, begins to collect ‘Black Americana’ – pot and metal figurines of stereotypical characters like the ‘Mama’ and the ‘Piccaninny’. (Many of these objects are from Spike Lee’s own collection). The film ends with a videotape compilation of such types along with clips from a variety of well-known Hollywood movies and US Television shows from the studio period up to the 1960s. (Many of these historical images and others are available in Marlon Riggs’ videotapes, Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment, see http://www.nitrateonline). This is the most notable flaw in the film; not because of the content but because of the tecniques used. Nearly all the material on the videotape should be in 1.33 or 1.37:1 but it is ‘reframed’ to fit the 1.85:1 ratio of the film. This is odd because the sequnce is motivated by Pierre placing a VHS video tape in a player; and we briefly see the opening clips on a ‘4X3’ television screen. This is fitting into the anachronistic treatment of old film footage in the media, especially television. Some of the images show signs of ‘stretch’ but not all. So Ithink the problem is also what the production can access and in which format. But the result is that the work of the original artists and craft people is distorted.


There is a range of resources to use in studying the film including an official website and a number of review or interview sites. The official site has details on the production and cast, and brief but informative pages on ‘Minstrelsy’ and ‘Blacking Up’ [Some of this appears as extras on the DVD]. Also available is a Symposium on the film in the US journal Cineaste and a special feature in bfm, Black Filmmaker. (Sight & Sound seems to have failed on this count). Cineaste is especially helpful as it has articles by both pros and antis.

A key article by Armand White, ‘Post­Art Minstrelsy’, challenges the contradictions in Lee’s own situation. Whilst Bamboozled is a scathing critique of Hollywood and mainstream US television, this is also where Lee earns his bread. Many of his practices are very similar to the practices of the mainstream media. Witness the merchandising associated with the film of Malcolm X. However, the contradictions of Lee’s situation do not, necessarily, negate the film and its arguments. He retorts, “No examples, no back-up, no nothing.” (Lee 2001)

I too found Armand White and the other antis somewhat lacking in specifics. Some of the arguments refer to issues and debates in the USA African-American communities, and are difficult to judge from across the Atlantic. But there is a sense that these articles are treating the film both as a political tract and as a realist text. Political tracts need to be written. Popular films can dramatise ideas, but are much less successful at analysing them. And whilst the film shares the naturalistic conventions of Hollywood, it is clearly both a fantasy (Greg Tate suggests that it is science fiction?) and is carefully constructed on a Brechtian model. Brecht advocated distancing techniques in order to encourage the audience’s intellectual engagement. Bamboozled is doing this from the opening printed definition of satire, and with the continuing disruptions to narrative flow. Such techniques aim to create a theatre for ‘changing the world’. Lee comments:

“I want people to think about the power of images, not just in terms of race, but how the imagery is used and what sort of social impact it has.” (Lee 2001)

The article by Zeinabu irene Davis, (‘Beautiful-Ugly’ Blackface: An Esthetic Appreciation of Bamboozled) is pro. She discusses the technical and stylistic aspects of the film. It is shot on digital video (Sony VX1000 – Pal) and Super 16 film. The former is used for ‘actual scenes’, the latter for the television productions, an ironic comment on television ‘realism’. One point she makes is on the use of blue in the film’s colour scheme,

“This was a resourceful choice on the part of the filmmakers, since current film technology makes it very difficult to ‘lose’ the blue tint of video as it is transferred to film”.

There is praise for the scenes “in which we see the application of blackface makeup … displaying a rich palette of film color.” These are scenes that are visually pleasurable, but increasingly painful. She also discusses the excellent and evocative score by Terence Blanchard. Be warned this is apparently missing from the soundtrack CD. There are two aspects of the film about which there is more consensus – that the narrative is uneven and flawed: and that the violent ending ducks out on the problems the film raises. Greg Tate in Cineaste (‘Bamboozled: White Supremacy and a Black Way of Being Human’) counters the first:

“Much has been made of Bamboozled’s narrative and filmic lapses, but in retrospect, they seem only to intensify the nightmarish stereotypical grind Lee sees as the lot of African Americans, as both performers and producers in the Hollywood system.”

And for me the ending powerfully dramatised the desires and fate of the characters caught up in this social conflict. The montage of racist images from US TV and Cinema is instructive for UK audiences who may have only seen occasional examples of the ‘minstrel’ heritage.

Finally I want to make a more general point. Spike Lee, in the interview in Cineaste, refers to earlier critiques of the media, including A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Network (1976). One might add Mad City (1997). All three are satires, as defined in the opening credits of Bamboozled. What all the four films also have in common is the combination of a quite detailed recreation of the world and practices of television with a plot that borders on the incredible. Perhaps television, so self-referential a medium, is resistant to satire. For me it was the qualities of ironic and epic drama in the film (à la Brecht), which most powerfully confronted the continuing racism promulgated in the mainstream media. Bamboozled is both melodramatic and contains quite blatant stereotypes. But the form of the film positions the audience not just to laugh or cry, but to puzzle and argue over these. It is apparent from all the responses that even people who disagree with the movie are stimulated by it. 


Cineaste vol. XXVl No 2, 2001. Includes the interview with Spike Lee, Armand White, Greg Tate, Zeibabu irene Davis and others.

Bfm black filmmaker, Volume 4, issue 11. Review and discussion. bamboozled.shtml 200104frbamboo.html fbambooz.html 2001_05ibamboozled.html

Spike Lee also mentions a documentary by Melvin Van Peebles, Classified X.

DVD available from Entertainment Video (includes a Spike Lee audio commentary).

NB – The article originally appeared in In the Picture.


Posted in Political film, US films | 1 Comment »