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Tanaka Kinuyo retrospectives

Posted by keith1942 on March 4, 2021

One the promising highlights for 2020 was the Locarno Film Festival’s intention to screen a retrospective of the work of Japanese actor and director Tanaka Kinuyo. I have long been a fan of this talented and pioneering film-maker so I was working on plans to be able to attend. The arrival of the pandemic torpedoed this prospect. However, the Locarno Festival postponed the retrospective to 2021. Now, whilst only a possibility, there was a prospect of being able to enjoy this programme of films in the summer; 35 titles including a large number in 35mm prints.

“Locarno to fete Japan’s Kinuyo Tanaka in first retrospective devoted to female film-maker.

The Locarno Film Festival will celebrate the work of Japanese director and actress Kinuyo Tanaka at its upcoming 73rd edition (August 5-15), in its first ever retrospective dedicated to a female artist.

Tanaka (1909 –1977) was a pioneering figure in Japanese cinema throughout her 50-year career, appearing in the films of legendary directors Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi before striking off to direct her own films.

This is the first time that the festival will be dedicating its retrospective to a female director, after 73 years,” said Locarno Film Festival artistic director Lili Hinstin, who is embarking on her second edition at the helm.

At the same time, she added, it also raised the question of how an artist like Tanaka – with such “an original and exciting filmography” had been overlooked for so long.

Tanaka first rose to fame in the 1920s, initially working under contract for the Shochiku Film Company, the film department of which is celebrating its centenary this year. There, she collaborated with Japan’s best-known “modernist” directors such as Heinosuke Gosho, Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu.

In the years immediately after World War Two and the 1950s, her striking screen presence became a hallmark of some of the best work by directors of the golden age of Japanese cinema, including Keisuke Kinoshita, Mikio Naruse and Kaneto Shindo.

She also renewed her collaboration with Ozu but her most important artistic partnership was with Mizoguchi, with whom she made 14 films, including the 1952 drama The Life Of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna), which premièred at the Venice Film Festival, winning Best International Film.

Around this time, Tanaka also started going behind the camera to direct a number of films of her own with various studios. At the time, she was only the second women in the history of Japanese cinema to direct after Tazuko Sakane.

Locarno described her six features films as “innovative portraits of women’s roles and conditions in the changing social environment of modern Japan”. The retrospective will screen Tanaka’s complete filmography as a director as well as a selection of 250-odd films in which she appeared..” (Melanie Goodfellow, 23rd January 2020).

Then a friend informed me of the bad news; set about in a report in ‘Screen Daily’:

“The Locarno Film Festival will turn the spotlight on the work of late Italian director Alberto Lattuada for the retrospective of its 74th edition, scheduled to run from August 4- 14 this year.

The programme is the first element of Locarno’s 74th edition to be unveiled by the festival’s newly appointed artistic director Giona A. Nazzaro.

Plans have been dropped for a retrospective celebrating the work of Japanese director and actress Kinuyo Tanaka, which was announced by Nazzaro’s predecessor Lili Hinstin for last year’s cancelled edition as the festival’s first-ever retrospective dedicated to a female artist.

Regarding the decision to cancel the Kinuyo Tanaka retrospective, a spokesperson for the festival said: “The programme was a personal choice of [former artistic director] Lili Hinstin. Therefore, in respect to her work and despite it is a great programme, we have decided to propose another author to our audience for the next edition of the festival.”

My thoughts are best summed up by a borrowing from Oscar Wilde:

“To lose one female artist, dear festival, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.”

I also realised how fortunate I was that in 2012 we had a small but very fine retrospective at the Leeds International Film Festival of the work of Tanaka Kinuyo both as an actor and as a film director; the majority on 35mm film. So I am revisiting my reports from that Festival. Note, there is much plot detail on the individual films; whilst quotations are taken from the English sub-titles in the prints.

“Retrospective of legendary Japanese actress and filmmaker Kinuyo Tanaka

Retrospectives has an especially strong selection this year. The ‘special focus’ is a profile of the Japanese actress and filmmaker Tanaka Kinuyo. She worked through several different periods of Japanese film and with three of its greatest masters, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu. Her scene at the end of Sansho Dayu (1954) is one of the most sublime endings in World Cinema.  She was also a pioneer woman direction in the Industry. There are five of her films, all in either 35 or 16mm, in the retrospective. And there is a workshop on November 3rd at the Centre for World Cinemas at the University of Leeds.

“Our second film retrospective announced for LIFF 26 is dedicated to legendary Japanese actress, and filmmaker, Kinuyo Tanaka (1909-77). While Kinuyo Tanaka is widely recognised as one of the greatest actresses in the history of her nation’s cinema, a lesser known fact is that she was also the first Japanese woman to build a body of work as a filmmaker in her own right. The retrospective aims to remedy this by screening The Eternal Breasts and Girls of Dark, two of Kinuyo Tanaka’s rarely-screened directorial works, both presented on archive 35mm prints imported from Japan. These two films will be accompanied by a selection of her finest performances in films by three of the masters of Japanese cinema: Kenji Mizoguchi (Sansho the Bailiff, 35mm print), Yasujiro Ozu (A Hen in the Wind, imported 16mm print) and Mikio Naruse (Mother, imported 35mm print). The retrospective, to be screened at the Hyde Park Picture House, will both celebrate and shed new light on the career of a figure of significant importance to world cinema history. The retrospective is curated by Michael Smith and is supported by the Japan Foundation and the Mixed Cinema Network/Centre for World Cinemas, University of Leeds.”

I wanted to record some overall comments on the retrospective of this Japanese actress and filmmaker at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival. I had been fortunate enough to see a few of the films in which she starred at Festivals and in other retrospective. But the five films featured in Leeds showed her working as an actress with three of the finest filmmakers in Japanese cinema, and then working in her right behind the camera.

Early on in the Festival there was a workshop on Kinuyo Tanaka at Leeds University. Co-incidentally [or perhaps not as the writer delivered a talk at the workshop} the December 2012 issue of Sight & Sound contained an article by Alex Jacoby on one of her greatest roles, Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954). The workshop provided a context and an overview of Tanaka’s career and pointed up some aspects of her work to look out for.

There was one slight misnomer, as one academic [male] suggested that she was not beautiful in the conventional sense of film stars. I suspect that can be said of a number of my favourite actresses. But when Kinuyo is on screen a sense of beauty is irrelevant. She has a great screen presence. In particular she makes impressive use of her body and her movements. Her positions in scenes and in relation to set and props often accentuate the emotion of a sequence. In her later career, when she often played somewhat tragic roles, one trope was kneeling and leaning slightly askew: displaying the weight of oppression or of the emotional demands on her character.

A Hen in the Wind (Kaze no naka no mendori, 1948)

This first Leeds Film Festival Retrospective screening was a real pleasure. A fine performance from the lead actress Tanaka Kinuyo: a rare masterwork from director Ozu Yasujiro: and viewed in the fine old auditorium of the Hyde Park cinema. The slight drawback was an old 16mm print, somewhat worn with the image quality rather dark, leading to loss of the film’s definition and its play with the nuances of light and shadow. But it is a remarkable and distinctive melodrama showing Ozu’s mature style in its early days.

The film centres on the wife and mother Tokiko (Tanaka Kinuyo) with her son Hiroshi. Tokiko’s husband has been away at war and is among the last of the Japanese soldiers to be repatriated. Tokiko and her son are boarders in the household of the Sakai family. She is hard up and post-war prices are high. Then her son is taken ill with a catarrh of the colon. The distraught Tokiko has to find a doctor and then pay for the subsequent hospital care. This leads her into unseemly action in order to raise the money. When her husband returns and he learns of her actions a marital crisis ensues.

Off-screen Tokiko makes money in a brothel. We only learn of this indirectly; however, from the comments and settings we can infer quite explicit aspects of the incident. Tokiko describes it as ‘foolish’ whilst her husband uses the word ‘mistake’.

Tanaka’s performance is the centre of the film. And she plays the changing responses and emotions of the wife with an emotional flair, whilst avoiding melodramatic excess. In the latter part of the film the focus shifts to the returned husband Shuichi (Sano Shuji) whose conflicting emotions are played out as he grapples with and then comes to terms with his wife’s tragic ‘mistake’. The strong supporting cast include Tokiko’s friend and confidante Chieko, the Sakai family father (Sakamoto Takeshi) and his wife Tsune (Takamatsu Eiko), a colleague of Shuichi, Satake (the familiar Ryu Chishu) and the most negative character Orie (Mizukami Rieko ).

Tanaka presents Tokiko as much through her movement and position as through her delivery and facial expressions. One particular trope in her performance sees her leaning, usually against a set of drawers in her room, displaying at various points the sense of weariness, worry and concern and at potent moments – despair. Shuji, as the husband Shuichi, is at times is tellingly still and passive, as he works through his anger. At other times he is active and even violent. The contrast in styles is very effective.

Ozu’s direction offers many familiar tropes found in his later classic films. The low-angle camera: the sequences between scenes of building and objects: the cutting between shot and reverse right down the 180% line. However, the film makes less use of the long takes and long shots that increased in his later years. And there are two exterior tracking shots which stand out in the film.  In fact at times there are many relatively short camera shots and relatively rapid cutting. Several times he focuses on a character, mainly Tokiko, in a series of reverse shots. The most powerful is a scene where the now shamed Tokiko regards herself in the mirror, a set of images that vividly convey her feelings. A later scene has a similar set of shots and cuts as she regards a portrait of her absent husband.

The film has more dramatic moments that are found in later Ozu. In the climatic moments of the film Shuichi throws his wife down and she falls headlong down the stairs. She lies passive, and then obviously in severe pain rises and climbs painfully back up the stairs. She finds her husband once more in a position of angry passivity. As so often in the film he is shot and framed from behind, emphasising the emotional gulf in the scene.

Alex Jacoby commented on this sequence in his presentation at the Workshop’ drawing attention to the rarity of action on staircases in Ozu film but presenting comparisons with staircases in film that Yanak made with other directors.

The stairs are one of the settings that Ozu returns to with great frequency. Earlier at a moment of anger Shuichi kicks a can and it rolls down the stairs, a premonition of what will follow later.

{Alex Jacoby in his talk at the Workshop presented some sequences from other films starring Tanaka not directed by Ozu. There seems to be an association between Tanaka and stars across these films; whereas seeing someone on a staircase as distinct from at the top or bottom is rare in Ozu.]

Equally Ozu’s frequent exteriors positioned between scenes both place the action but also comment upon the changing story. It may be I missed some relevance in the later films, but these seem to me to carry greater meaning than in those later works. The Sakai house is set near some tanks or gas tanks, which loom large over the streets. At times characters traverse places beyond their small neighbourhood. Tokiko and Chieko share a picnic with Hiroshi on the banks of the river and reminisce about their youth and their dreams for the future. Later Shuichi sits on the bank of the same river and converses with a girl from the brothel – a point at which he can be seen to be coming to terms with his situation and that of his wife. Shuichi had visited the brothel earlier in his driven attempt to discover his wife’s actions. On the way he passes along a dilapidated street and crosses a wasteland covered with industrial piping. And close-up draws attention to a shattered pipe on the ground: a potent symbol of his situation.

Music is used frequently in the film, but with care and deliberate attention. In one scene Shuichi and Tokiko watch their son play with pleasure, and there is light cheerful music on the soundtrack. In a later scene as Shoichi relentless questions his wife the music is darker with a clearer bass sound. This precedes a scene of marital rape. When Shuichi visits the brothel, which is situated behind a school, we hear the children singing, reminding the girl with whom he converses that she once studied there. At work, where he has returned, he discusses his situation indirectly with his colleague Satake. Next door is a dance studio, or even a brothel. Shuichi finds the ‘jazz’ ‘sad’ whilst his colleagues correctly identifies it as ‘merry’.

Ozu also shows his customary attention to objects. A bottle of saké given Tokiko by Tsune is shown several times, once in close-up and then in different positions in the frame. It again speaks volumes regarding the husband. And shortly before the rape (which occurs partly off-screen and in partly implied) a large ball falls to the floor. In the shot following the rape Shuichi sits in a hunched position and the ball is clear in the lower right of the frame.

In the final moments of the film husband and wife embrace and Tokiko tightens her arms around her husband and her hands lock in an attitude of prayer. David Bordwell comments on this moment, “as in the 1930s films [of Ozu], the male falters, scraping by on good intentions and the strength of his woman . . . ”. This seems a fair assessment of the film’s resolution. It also points up what I find to be a major difference between Ozu and his contemporary Naruse Mikio. In Ozu’s films despite their strength, women continue in their predominately subservient role. In many of Naruse’s films women are unable to continue in such roles, and what is striking is their resilience and determination to soldier on, providing them with a flawed independence. Whilst both directors’ films are frequently referred to as belonging to the genre of shomin geki [stories of the little people] Ozu tends to focus on the strata between the working classes and the bourgeoisie, including the petit bourgeoisie: Naruse’s films are more determinably concerned with the working classes and often the lumpen proletariat. However, A Hen in the Wind shows Ozu working much more closely to the territory occupied by Naruse. This might account for the fact that this is a film which is somewhat, neglected on the Ozu oeuvre. I thought it the equal of his famous films from the 1950s.

One last point that struck me was there seemed to be little sense of the US occupation, under which this film was produced. There are a few visual references to US popular culture in the flat of Orie, whose manipulation of Tokiko leads to her situation. She comments at one point that there is ‘an easier life’. There are also western references in some of the music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, though the use of western music in common in films of this period. And the workplace of Shuichi and Satake has a large ‘Time Life’ sign emblazoned on it. But there is little else. However, Bordwell refers to a Japanese critic who sees the film as part of a cycle which comments both on the war and the post-war world. With the plight of Tokiko providing metaphors for the pre-war and post-war codes in Japanese society. This seems an apt reading, the best melodramas comment not just on the personal but on the social as well.

Note:- The Japanese title of the film translated into English does not obviously relate to the narrative. I have looked at a number of reviews and commentaries but I found no-one who addressed the issue. Some on-line fans of the film have made their own attempts.

The first thing the heroin Tokiko did was to sell her wardrobe one by one — she had to pluck her feathers like a hen. Then she had to be plucky and strong in the cold wind.

Literally, it means “If the hen sings, the home will perish.” Figuratively, it means that if the wife gains more power than the husband, their home will be ruined. – l’électeur Feb 9 ’15 at 14:06

It is possible that the title was selected by the studio as indicating a generic story; though the title makes more sense in terms of the first  comment rather than the second translation..

Mother (Okasan, 1952)

The second screening in the Leeds International Film Festival tribute to Japanese actress Tanaka Kinuyo  is a film directed in 1952 by Naruse Mikio. Naruse is one of the outstanding masters of what is often referred to as the ‘golden age’ of Japanese cinema. The film belongs to a popular genre of haha-mono, a ‘mother picture’ which usually deal with the relationships between a mother and her children. Tanaka plays Fukuhara Masako with Misaim Masao as her husband Ryosuke. Her eldest daughter is Toshiko played by Kagawa Kyoto, who can also be seen as the daughter in Sansho Dayu, and who plays the youngest daughter in Ozu Yasujiro’s celebrated Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari, 1953)

. There is an elder son Susumu (Katayama Akihito), a younger daughter Chako (Enonami Keiko) and Tetsu the son of Masako’s widowed sister Noriko (Nakakita Chieko). The other important characters are Uncle Kimura, a family friend (Kato Daisuke, one of the ‘magnificent seven’ in Kurosawa’s famous samurai film) and Shinjiro (Okada Eiji) a friend of Toshiko and son of a local bakery family.

At one time the Fukuhara family ran a laundry business, destroyed in a fire. Now the father works as a factory guard, but he is also converting the front of the house and plans to re-launch the laundry with help of Kimura. Two bereavements strike down the men of the family. Masako struggles with the laundry, helped by Kimura. Toshiko works at a street food stall, pancakes in winter, popsicle in summer. The economic hardships finally compel Masako to accept help from relatives who adopt Chaco. She continues to care for her sister’s son whilst Noriko works to train and succeed as a hairdresser.

Tanaka brings the same reticence but also emotional power that she displayed in A Hen in the Wind. She is able to communicate powerfully with her face, her body and her gestures. At the Festival / University workshop on the actress attention was drawn to her use of gestures before her face: and I noted one striking moment as she faintly touches her shoulder in a moment of reflection. We also learnt about her early career when she as a major young star noted for her ‘pert smile’. In a flashback in this film she recreates that character as she remembers her youthful marriage. And her mature smile at moments in the film recalled the younger attractive smile.

Kagawa is also impressive as the young daughter. She is a ‘modern miss’, frequently seen in jacket and slacks: a contrast to the garb of her more traditional mother. It is Toshiko who narrates the story of the film, looking back at the travails and devotion that her mother gave to her family. The voice-over is particularly potent in the introduction of the film as Toshiko sets the scene and in the final prayer for her mother, full of sentiment but very effective.

Toshiko’s relationship with Shinjiro provides the romantic strand in the film: though it is an essentially chaste romance, but enlivened by Toshiko’s own pert responses. This relationship also introduces one of the complications into family life. Shinjiro recounts gossip locally about Masako and Kimura to Toshiko. And for a time this produces a tension in the relationships, only resolved when Kimura (probably unwillingly) moves away to a new job.

Naruse is a filmmaker who concentrates on character and performance. The settings outside the family home in the local streets, on a river trip and a day at an amusement park, are mainly plot directed. The focus of the film is the family relationships and the home in which these develop. Whilst Naruse has a fairly conventional camera style and shot length, he carefully places characters in the mise en scène. There are any number of framings that allow the setting to relate to the characters. There is a recurring framing that places several characters in a proscenium as we view them. Likewise he only occasionally focuses closely on objects and props: one powerful image being a drawing of her mother by the youngest daughter Chato. And he frequently uses head-on close-ups of individual characters, relying on the performer to communicate the emotion of the scene. The most dramatic events, like the deaths, take place off-screen and it is the characters that tell us of what has occurred and of their responses.

There is plentiful music in the film, ranging from bright and light music at times of happiness or pleasure, and lower bass-like music for the monument of darkness and concern. One of the lighter moments in the film is a traditional music festival. Toshiko performs a traditional song whilst Chato performs a traditional dance. Later Shinjiro sings a popular imported song, ‘O Sole Mio’: and this theme recurs frequently through the film from then on.

Set in 1950 the film notes without emphasis the travails of the period. Besides Noriko there are other war widows among the characters. Kimura has only recently returned from a Soviet prison camp. And Masako’s difficulties with customers and the work by Toshiko point up the economic hardships. However, I noticed no sense of the occupation or indeed little sign of the authorities of the period. There are however, signs of the ravages of war in the settings around the family house.

The film also presents the contrast between the traditional cultural codes and the new codes of post-war Japan. Whilst Shinjiro sings his imported song at the Festival his parents turn, slightly sadly, and leave: clearly out of tune with the new music. And the only time we see Toshiko in traditional garb is when she models for her aunt Noriko: an event that is completely misread by Shinjiro.

This is a lower key film than A Hen in the Wind but it has beautiful pacing and the force of the performances is completely engrossing. The script is by a female writer. Mizuki Yoko, who worked on several Naruse films in this period, and who adapted the story from a prize-winning school essay. Tanaka provides another fine central lead and the film is a masterful depiction of Naruse’s world of lower class life and of a woman’s resilience in the face of adversity. The film won the Silver Lion at the 1952 Venice Film Festival.

Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, 1954).

This was the third of the films featuring Tanaka Kinuyo screened in 2012. This was a film that I had seen before on 35mm, unlike the other titles. It is one of the great films by Mizoguchi Kenji with whom Tanaka worked on a number of occasions.

The film opens with a set of titles on-screen, setting out the story:

“This story dates from medieval Japan when there was a form of feudal society. The majority of the people were considered less than human. This legend has been told since those days.”

In the manner of legends the exact times and places are not spelt out. It is apparently set in the 11th century. This was a period of imperial rule with the capital in Kyoto though the military class exercised effective power. In is mainly from the dialogue that ages and places can be discerned. The film falls into three segments separated by time and space; again only discernible in the dialogue. The titular character, the bailiff of a mansion of a high official, only appears in the second segment, forty minutes into the film.

After the initial titles the film presents a family on a journey. There is the mother Tamaki (Tanaka Kinuyo): her son Zushiô (Hanayagi Yoshiaki) now about 13 years: her daughter Anju, (Kagawa Kyôko) aged about seven: and a woman servant, Ubatake (Naniwa Chieko). As they walk through the Japanese countryside there are several flashbacks, not obviously motivated’ but apparently the memories of Tamaki; mainly opened and closed by lap dissolves. These are set six years earlier when her husband Mausaji Taira no (Shimizu Masao), the father of the children, was the Governor of a province, Mutsu. Provinces were the basic level of administration in Feudal Japan; and this large province was in the North East alongside the sea.

The Governor had fallen foul of military leaders by opposing increased conscription of the peasants. His humanity had made him popular with the ordinary people but not with officials. As a punishment he is sent into exile to the province of Tsukushi, far away in the south of Japan. We see his support amongst the poor. And we see the farewells to his family who are to stay with Tamaki’s brother. When he parts from Zushiô the father recites his philosophy to his son and gives him an amulet, the Goddess of Mercy.

“”Without mercy, a man is like a beast. Be sympathetic to others. Men are created equal. No one should be denied happiness.”

These mantras will be repeated at key stages of the subsequent narrative and the amulet becomes an important icon in the story.

On their journey the family are misled by a woman claiming to be a priestess. The result is the death of Ubatake, Tamaki being sold into prostitution and the children sold into slave labour.

We now encounter the mansion of which Sansho is the Bailiff ((Shindo Eitaro). He is a brutal and exploitative master; illustrated by the branding of an inmate who attempts escape. However his son Taro (Kono Akitake) is critical of his father’s brutality and attempts to ease the plight of the labourers; then leaving the mansion for Kyoto. The children do not reveal their names for fear of the consequences, [the possibility of ransom demands?]. For their time at the mansion they are known as Mutsu and Shinobu.

There is an ellipsis of ten tears and now Zushiô/Mutsu is 23 and Anju/Shinobu is 17, Zushiô has been brutalised over time and has become an overseer. The illustration is when he brands another would-be escapee. Anju remains committed to the teachings of their father. In an important sequence she hears a new girl worker sing a song;

“How I long for you, Zushiô, Anju”

On Sado Island [in the Sea of Japan] Tamaki {now called Nakayama] desperately tries to flee and find her lost children. As a punishment she is hamstrung and disabled. We see her singing her sad refrain. Anju realises this is their mother pining for her children. She tells Zushiô but he is immured in their situation.

An opportunity now arises for Zushiô and Anju to escape when they have to carry an aged woman, no longer able to work, to a place to die alone. . But to prevent her brother’s recapture Anju remains and commits suicide rather than betray Zushiô. He gains sanctuary in an Imperial Monastery where he meets Taro again; now a Buddhist monk.

In the final section Zushiô journeys to the capital Kyoto. His father has died recently and it is too late to reinstate him. However, the injustice suffered is recognised and Zushiô is appointed Governor of the province of Tango, which contains the Mansion overseen by Sansho.. Once there Zushiô goes even farther than his father and confronts Sansho and the system of forced labour. He then journeys to Sado Island and after some travails find his mother in a hovel on a beach, now blind as well as crippled. He has to tell her of the death of both her husband and her daughter. Whilst they comfort each other he shows his mother the amulet of the Goddess of Mercy that he still carries.

His mother responds,

“I do know that you followed your father’s words. That is … that is why we can meet here now.”

The scene and the film end with a crane shot which pans across the beach and rests two small islets: offering what critics have called a transcendental conclusion to the film: reinforcing the humanist values which are embodied in the film. The ending uses as music woodblocks, flutes and a harp, adds an appropriate emotional tone. The whole films show the command of Mizoguchi and his craft team, especially cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo, of visual style: there are frequent graceful tracking shot and the mise en scene uses the landscape to great effect: physically beautiful on occasions, grimly realistic on others. The contrasting vistas add to the dramatisation of the story. When we first encounter the family the landscape is beautifully set; at one point they traverse a bed of flowered reeds. One spot is where Zushiô and Anju collect wood and reeds for a night time shelter. This scene has a parallel in the woody spot just before Zushiô’s escape, offering a motivation for his change of heart. Later the open and large seascape when the family are seized has an appropriately desolate feel. The mansion of Sansho is a grim setting as is the hovel on Sado island. These contrast with the opulent and highly formal setting of Kyoto, the Governor’s palace and the reception offered by Sansho to an emissary of the owner. And the monastery presents a solemn silent space rudely disrupted by Sansho armed retainers; and Taro’s care a contrast to the brutal treatment of the serfs in the mansion. The music, led by the woodblocks, flutes and harp has occasional orchestral backing but is minimal only accompanying key scenes. The harp dominates in the sequence as Anju slowly walks into the lake in a sacrificial suicide. Parallel music accompanies the scene as Zushiô stands by the lake mourning his sister. And the song we hear in the sequence showing Tamaki prostituted on Sado island re-appears in the final sequence but now the crippled Tamaki can hardly sing the words and mostly she is just humming theme.

The cast are excellent. Tanaka Kinuyo has an important presence in the opening section ; following this she appears in shorter sequences in the middle and concluding sections. In the course of the film she is changed from a formally attired aristocratic lady to a crippled and poverty stricken old woman. Her use of her body emphasises the changes from the formal characterisation of her early appearances to the wasted and stricken character at the finale. This is a part of the powerful and tragic development in the film.

The critical sense in the narrative also develops. Mausaji Taira opposes the ruling of the military elite but accepts the punishment laid down. But when Zushiô becomes a governor he is warned not to overstep the bounds but deliberately does this and confronts the unjust laws. Immediately he resigns knowing that this will lead to his punishment. So his conduct is more radical than that of his father thought the oppressive system remains. An audience may wonder what happens to the protagonist after mother and son are reunited. But they should also wonder if the oppressive serf system will not be re-imposed when a new Governor takes office.

Mizoguchi was one of the directors in the 1950s who bought Japanese cinema to the attention of western critics and audiences. A number of the films were winners of prestigious awards at European film festivals; Sansho dayu won the Silver Lion Award at the 1954 Venice Film Festival, alongside Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai.

The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare, 1955)

This was the first film directed by Tanaka Kinuyo in the Leeds International Film Festival retrospective. I found the film impressive. It deals with a topic that even today that filmmakers find difficult to address directly, a woman who suffers a mastectomy. Tanaka, and her scriptwriter Tanaka Sumie [not related], have taken the story of an actual character, Tanaka Fumiko. She was a tanka poet [an important short poem form] who suffered a cancer, which led to the removal of her breasts. As the catalogue comments this is developed into “an unflinching account of a modern-minded woman afflicted with breast cancer’. Fumiko  (Tsukioka Yurneji) is married to a taciturn and unsympathetic husband and has two children, Noboru and Aiko. She seems like a devoted and dutiful wife, but is dissatisfied with her situation. Her husband has an extra-marital affair that leads to a divorce, with her son residing with the father whilst she remains with custody of her daughter. Her family pressurises her to consider remarriage. Then she is diagnosed with breast cancer. After the operation Fumiko is partly distraught by the effects on her body but also show signs of an awakening as a new woman. This is signed visually by her changed and stylish hair cut, [a sign in Japan of a woman’s change and in wider cinema often a sign of a woman’s trauma].

Fumiko has also been involved in a local poetry circle. The publication of some of her poems leads to interest by the Press, mainly it seems because of her tragic situation. This leads to her meeting a reporter from the Tokyo Daily News, Ōtsuki. At first part of the cynical exploitation of her, a relationship develops between them, but it is cut short by her death.

The basic plot suggests a fairly melodramatic story and a large dose of sentiment. In fact this is avoided, partly by the emphasis on her personal development and by an astringent depiction of the travails of her situation. It is only in the last scenes of the film that sentiment becomes unrestrained, as Ōtsuki and her children in a traditional gesture cast flowers into the water. This is presumably to provide a more upbeat tone to a tragic tale.

What impressed me was that the film mainly avoids the sense of tragedy. The focus in this tale is on the change in Fumiko, in her developing strength and in her unsentimental response to her situation. The catalogue describes her as follows: “ Fumiko is instead refreshingly presented as an imperfect, often selfish character and Tanaka’s handling of the film as a whole is tinged with the same even-handed humanity as she projected in the best of her own performances.” This is in part due to the fine performance of Tsukioka Yurneji in the lead role. After her operation she is transformed, not just visually with her new hairstyle, but in her behaviour. She becomes obviously sexy in a way that was absent when she was seen as the dutiful wife.

Looking back the signs were there even in her married times. Her poetry acts as an outlet for her frustrations. She writes poems that are critical of her husband: which occasions catty comments from other women in the poetry circle. At the same time, after her operation, she remains a loving mother, caring and concerned for her children. She leaves them a final poem as a recollection of herself for her two children.

The style of the film is also impressive. Just as Fumiko changes after her operation, so does the film. The early scenes are fairly conventional. The family live in a rural location surrounded by farmland, sheep and cows. The camera positions are straightforward, as is the editing though occasional shots suggest the darker side of the situation. At the moment when Fumiko discovers her husband’s infidelity there is a close-up as hand reaches back to collect a forgotten handbag. Another close-up shows a pair of white gloves, which Fumiko flings at her husband’s head.

Following the operation the film has a much more urban feel [set in the city of Hokkaido], we spend much of the time in a hospital. Outside visits are to streets, the railway station and a local school. The camera seems more mobile and there are very effective shots set in corridors and stairways: the latter settings for moments of great intensity. Noticeable the amount of close-ups increases: often of Fumiko but also of the characters that surround her.

There are several powerful scenes placing Fumiko behind frames and bars. As Ōtsuki leaves her to return to Tokyo Fumiko stands behind the bars of a window and the camera very slowly tracks in on her. Another especially effective sequence has a camera tracking Fumiko as she follows a corpse and grieving relatives to the hospital morgue. This group is framed in a long corridor and the sequence ends with Fumiko stopped by the bars of the door into the morgue. This is also an example of how effectively the film uses repetition: after her death Ōtsuki and her children follow her body to the morgue. But the gate into the receptacle of death again bars the children.

Alex Jacoby offers comments in his excellent ‘Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors on Tanaka’. He suggests she lacks the individual style that marks out the auteur. This is the old chestnut of auteur versus metteur en scéne. What Tanaka does is to extremely effectively bring to visual and aural life the story provided by from actual life and adapted her scriptwriter. It is true that Tanaka’s films shows the influence of the directors with whom she worked as an actress. Apparently her earliest film followed the style of Yasujiro Ozu, with whom he worked several times. There are occasional signs of his style in this film. There are low-angle camera shots: exteriors that occur before or after an interior scene, though much shorter than those found in Ozu.  And there is the frequent continuation of a sequence when the main plot interest has ended. However, a more marked influence in Mikio Naruse, with whom she also worked on a number of films. Much of the framing recalls Naruse, as do the frequent powerful close-ups relying on the performer for impact. Like him the exteriors seem mainly about setting, the drama is almost completely played out in the interiors. Like both Naruse and Ozu Tanaka also frequently uses very effective deep staging to place the characters and their relationships. Costumes and sets reinforce this angle. In the course of the film Yoshio marries. However at the ceremony Fumiko remains preparing food and avoids wearing the traditional kimono required for such ceremonies. The music, by Kojun Saitó, recalls Naruse, with varied combinations from orchestral string, through a recurring accordion and the occasional combination of vibraphone and piano. And in the dramatic operation scene there is an insistent bass drum. There is a parallel with an earlier film: in the scene where Fumiko bathes she is heard humming ‘O solo mio’ – a song that featured in Naruse’s film Mother, starring Tanaka.

The influence is probably due in part to the writer Tanaka Sumie, who wrote several of Naruse’s fine 1950s films, also addressing women’s issues. One influence that is missing is that of the director with whom Tanaka worked most frequently, Mizoguchi Kenji. The record of Mizoguchi opposing her move into direction could explain this, whereas Ozu was very supportive, letting her film one of his scripts. But it is probably also due to Mizoguchi’s contradictory treatment of women characters. In his films women tend to remain dutiful, and are often the victims of sacrifice for the men.

This is definitely not the case with Tanaka. Fumiko is a rounded character with contradictory emotions and responses. But she shows remarkable resilience as she faces the crises in her life. Here she is closer to both Ozu, whose women are strong but usually dutiful, and even more to Naruse, whose women stolidly face up to the oppression of life. Tanaka goes further however in detailing the actual experience of women and how they learn to live with these travails.

The operation includes close-up of her breast as the nurse prepares for the surgeon’s knife and then there is a close-up of the scalpel that will cut away the flesh. Equally the film openly addresses women’s desires. In an early scene Fumiko visits the home of her friend Hori and his wife Kinuko. At the start of the sequence Kinuko heats the stove whilst her husband takes a bath. At one point she slides back the small window looking into the bathroom, as her husband relaxes in the hot water. After Fumiko’s arrival Kinuko leaves for a teachers’ meeting and in the course of the evening Fumiko expresses her love for Hori, though this remains unconsummated. Hori dies and in a later scene, after her operation, Fumiko uses the same bath and Kinuko heats the water. Kinuko slides open the window but is shocked when Fumiko happily displays her disfigured chest, [not though to the audience]. After this incident Fumiko admits her love for Hori and says that she wanted to once bathe in the same place that he had done. The later apparently sexual relationship between Fumiko and Ōtsuki is handled with much greater discretion.

In introducing the film Michael Smith suggested that Fumiko is not a ‘likeable character’, a different emphasis from his description in the catalogue. And after the film a young woman said that she really liked the film but that ‘the men were terrible’. This is partly true but it is a larger issue in the film. The husband is discredited and the reporter also, at least in his early appearances. But Fumiko suffers a great amount of unsympathetic treatment from other characters. I have already mentioned the poetry circle and the Press exploitation. At another point in the film she tells her mother [grandma] that it was her insistence that led to Fumiko’s marriage. And her friend Kinuko is seen as hidebound by social attitudes and is unable to face her new condition. It is in this context that I find Fumiko shows great strength of character.

It should be noted that she is strongly supported in her illness by her mother and by her brother Yoshio. And Kinuko visits her and gives her a music box that belonged to her husband Hori. In a parallel between her loves, later in the film Fumiko gives the music box to Ōtsuki.

There is possibly an autobiographical theme in the film. In the early 1950s Tanaka, a popular star, returned from the USA and arrived back in western style clothes. She received many complaints from fans and criticism in the press for this ‘lapse’. Whilst in her many film roles she is often strong and also stoical, I have not seen a film in which she was able to play a character that represents the liberation of the ‘modern miss’. But this is the battle that Fumiko is fighting in this film.

Alex Jacoby, whilst praising the film and the performances, criticised the emphasis on the personal rather than on a women making her own life and career in place of marriage. This is a fair point; in fact Tanaka’s own career followed that pattern, she never married but she made her way as a star and then as a filmmaker. However, the film is dealing with a particular oppressive aspect of life for women: not just in terms of their sexual roles but in their ability to determine their own relationships. I think the film remains an early and powerful expression of a woman’s struggle. And it seems that Tanaka remains a rare example of a successful and really interesting woman filmmaker in Japanese cinema.

Girls of Dark ( Onna bakari no yoru, 1961)

This film was the last screening in the Tanaka Kinuyo retrospective at the Leeds International Film Festival. It was her fifth film and was released in 1961. The scriptwriter was once again Tanaka Sumie together with Masaka Yana. The film deals with the rehabilitation of prostitutes. Prostitution was a common theme in Japanese films in this period. In 1956 the Government passed an anti-prostitution law which came into effect in 1958. The book from which the film was adapted came out in this period. There were also a cycle of films dealing with prostitution, a famous example was Mizoguchi Kenji’s Street of Shame (1956). However, Tanaka’s film is atypical in dealing with the question of the rehabilitation of these ‘fallen women’. The film seems to have differed from the book in a number of respects. The scriptwriters changed some of the story, including explicit references to lesbianism. However, it seems that the director re-introduced at least aspects of the last theme, and that topic is explicit in the finished film.

The opening of the film features a series of short newspaper articles, and sequences in the red light district, including raids by the police. After the credits the action opens in the Chiragiku Home for Women [a rehabilitation centre]: it is worth noting that the more recidivist offenders were sent to reformatories. We meet the staff, including the directress Nogami and a group of new inmates. The centre is toured along with a group from a Ladies Club, and includes a young married woman, Mrs Shima (Kyoko Kagawa who had already appeared alongside Tanaka Kinuyo in Mother and Sansho Dayu). I found the opening scenes not easy to follow as we meet a large number of characters and I found it difficult to catch all their names.

One couple that stood out were two older inmates, Kameju asnd Yoshimi. Kameju constantly makes advances to Yoshimi, who is fairly unrepentant about her trade. And at one point Kameju snuggles down besides Yoshimi under a coverlet telling her that ‘‘woman are better than men’. Yoshima makes frequent attempts to escape and this finally leads to a tragic end for the smitten Kameju.

Then the narrative narrows to focus on Kuniko (Hara Hisako) and to a lesser extent on her friend Chi-chan. Having obtained a good record in the Home Kuniko is allowed to leave and to attempt to re-establish herself in society and work. We follow her as she makes her way through three different jobs. Occasional voice-overs give us access to her thoughts and feelings. And she writes letters to Nogami, which the director reads out to the inmates.

In the first job Kuniko is a paid help for a married couple with a shop. The work is hard and the wages low, 2,500 yen a month: apparently not a living wage. [It is worth noting that in the Home the inmates receive anything from a 62 to 15 yen rate for their work]. Embittered Kinuko wreaks her revenge on the husband and momentarily considers returning to her previous life. However, she is picked up by the police.

Back in the home Kuniko is now placed in a factory. She is set apart from the other girls there, and when she tells them about her past she is subjected to bullying and a sadistic attack by a group of fellow workers. She returns to the home painfully injured.

Her third job is in a ‘rose nursery’ owned by the husband of Mrs Shima. The husband is a lecturer. The young wife is very supportive of Kuniko, and there has already been a hint of attraction on her part when she visited the Home. Kuniko shares a room with her friend Chi-Chan, who has a job in a local cafeteria. The rule of the Home is to avoid entanglements with men, however Kuniko develops a relationship with the young worker in the nursery, Tsugasa. She is also visited by an old flame and pimp from her past. The social antagonisms around prostitution follow her here as she attempts to make a new life.

Michael Smith in his introduction remarked that the film showed more of a distinctive style than Tanaka’s earlier films. This was apparent and one of the visual pleasures was the use of the Tohoscope format in black and white. This is a fine film format and there are some striking compositions, especially in the several dramatic exteriors. I noted that more of the drama of this film was played out in the exterior settings. But there was also the use of framing and the drama on staircases and corridors that we saw in her earlier film, The Eternal Breasts. In many scenes Tanaka used the widescreen format to place characters in the setting and to place significant objects in the frame. There are placements and close-ups of roses in the nursery sequences which comments upon the situation. The filming of groups in especially well handled, and there are several stark tableaux-like shots at moments of intense drama.

I found the action and characters more conventional than in the earlier The Eternal Breasts. For example there are fights among the women in the factory section, a staple of such films. The red light scenes seemed very familiar.  However, my colleague at the screening thought the film the less conventional of the two. My feelings were that whilst the relationships between the women were very interesting, the treatment of rehabilitation and of prostitution was familiar from other film treatments.

I was though, struck by the final sequence of the film. Kuniko is once more working, this time with woman collecting marine food in the waters along a beach. Her voice-over speaks of her wish to achieve stability and purity. The final shot shows her in a line of women returning with their heavy baskets along the sands. Then we have a great camera crane above the women, tilting up to show the sea and surrounding vista. The shot seems like a reverse image of the famous shot that ends Mizoguchi Kenji’s Sansho Dayu and conjures up a similar feeling of calm and perseverance. Perhaps it was homage to a master. In the Mizoguchi film the final shot shows two humped-back islets. In Tanaka’s film the equivalence are two rock pillars: Freudians would be able to make great play with this.

The whole series of films has been remarkably absorbing and extremely enjoyable. Michael Smith summed up the week with thanks to the Leeds International Film Festival, The Centre for World Cinema, The Japan Film Foundation and the Hyde Park Cinema Picture House. The applause from the audience was also a well-deserved thank-you to him from the audience for his labours in bringing these rare films to Leeds and introducing us to a little known but clearly very fine actress and outstanding woman filmmaker.

Posted in Films by women, Japanese film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Satyajit Ray, born May 2nd 1921

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2021

So as 2021 opens we can hopefully envisage seeing films in theatrical settings and no longer suffering the inferior facsimiles of video, television and streaming. Optimists can plan for screenings to celebrate the centenary of one of the truly great film-makers in world cinema. From his pioneering neo-realist films in the 1950s, through his more modernist and critical studies of his home culture, Satyajit Ray has been a dominant force, both in his home cinema and in the wider world of art and foreign language distribution.

It seems unfortunately likely that many fans will have to settle for digital versions; whereas Ray’s impressive and poetic films deserve their original and proper format; 35mm prints. So it is worth checking national or even local film archives and badgering exhibitors to provide the ‘reel’ thing.

Happily the National Film Archive in Britain has a number of Ray’s finest films available in 35 mm prints. The condition of some of them is not great and it may be that not all are accessible for screenings. And the British Film Institution, which controls access to the archive, is not that diligent in enabling access. I have been denied requests for known prints in the archive: seen the lesser of two or several prints sent out to the provinces: and its published face of film, Sight & Sound, displays a cavalier attitude to works of art that originated on photo-chemical film.

Still the quality that comes from the 35mm print world, even with scratches and jump cuts, make the effort worthwhile. So these are the titles currently listed as held in the archive.

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) is a 1955 Bengali film produced by the Government of West Bengal. It was based on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s 1929 Bengali novel of the same name and was Ray’s directorial debut. The first film in ‘The Apu Trilogy’, Pather Panchali depicts the childhood of the protagonist Apu and his elder sister Durga and the harsh village life of their poor family.

I first saw this film in my early film society years on 16mm. It was a wonderful eye-opener to a very different cinema. One impressive sequence shows a first sight of a train thundering and smoking across the landscape; a trope that I have seen again many times in Indian films.

Aparajito (The Unvanquished) is a 1956 Bengali film and is the second part of ‘The Apu Trilogy’. It was adapted from Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee’s novels ‘Pather Panchali’ and its sequel ‘Aparajito’ (1932). It starts off where the previous film ended, with Apu’s family moving to Varanasi, and chronicles Apu’s life from childhood to adolescence in college, right up to his mother’s death, when he is left all alone.

The World of Apu (Apur Sansar) is a 1959 Bengali film and.the third part of ‘The Apu Trilogy’. The film is based on the later part of the novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. Released in 1959, The World of Apu focuses on Apu’s adult life. Happily I was able to see this title in 35mm. This final part of the trilogy has wonderful sequences as Apu enters married life. There is a tonga ride back from an entertainment: a scene of domesticity of Apu and his young wife: and finally a sequence of father and son which is a fine expression of the humanist values that inform Ray’s films.

Jalsaghar ( The Music Room) is a 1958 Bengali film based on a popular short story by Bengali writer Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay. The fourth of Ray’s feature films, it was filmed in a village in West Bengal.. Jalsaghar depicts the end days of a decadent zamindar (landlord) in Bengal and his efforts to uphold his family prestige while facing economic adversity. The landlord, Biswambhar Roy, is a just but otherworldly man who loves to spend time listening to music and putting up spectacles rather than managing his properties ravaged by floods and the government’s abolition of the zamindari system.

Devi (The Goddess) is a 1960 Bengali film based on a short story by Provatkumar Mukhopadhyay. ‘Devi’ focuses on a young woman who is deemed a goddess when her father-in-law, a rich feudal land-lord, has a dream envisioning her as an avatar of Kali.

Rabindranath Tagore is a 1961 documentary film produced by Films Division of India in English about the life and works of noted Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore. Shot in black-and-white, the finished film was released during the birth centenary year of Rabindranath Tagore.

Teen Kanya is a 1961 Indian Bengali anthology film based upon short stories by Rabindranath Tagore. The title means “Three Girls”, and the film’s original Indian release contained three stories. However, the international release of the film contained only two stories, missing the second (“Monihara: The Lost Jewels”).

Kanchenjungha (Kanchonjônggha) is a 1962 Bengali film. It is about an upper class Bengali family on vacation in Darjeeling, a popular hill station and resort, near Kanchenjunga.

Abhijan (The Expedition) is a 1962 Bengali film. When a corrupt cop takes away Narsingh’s taxi license after an illegal car race, Narsingh finds himself reduced to poverty living in the outskirts of Kolkata. A practicing Sikh, he finds himself having to accept work from a dubious business man, Sukhanram, who employs Narsingh in dope smuggling.

Mahanagar (The Big City) is a 1963 Bengali film based on the short story ‘Abataranika’ by Narendranath Mitra, it tells the story of a housewife who disconcerts her traditionalist family by getting a job as a saleswoman. Shot in the first half of 1963 in Kolkata, this was also the first film directed by Ray set entirely in his native Kolkata, reflecting contemporary realities of the urban middle-class, where women going to work is no longer merely driven by ideas of emancipation but has become an economic reality.

The Lonely Wife ( Charulata) is a 1964 Bengali film. Charu lives a lonely and idle life in 1870s India. Although her husband Bhupati devotes more time to his newspaper than to their marriage, he sees her loneliness and asks his brother-in-law, Umapada to keep her company. At the same time Bhupati’s own cousin, Amal, a would-be writer comes home finishing his college education.

Chiriakhana or Chiriyakhana (The Zoo) is a 1967 Bengali crime thriller, based on the story of the same name by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. Byomkesh Bakshi, a detective, is hired by a rich man to investigate the name of an actress appeared in a movie decades ago, who has eloped ever since. The case became complicated when the rich man is murdered by someone for that.

Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) is a Bengali film released in 1970, based upon the Bengali novel of the same name by Sunil Gangopadhyay. The film uses humour to undercut the main narrative. A group of Kolkata city slickers, including the well-off Asim, the meek Sanjoy and the brutish Hari, head out for a weekend in the wilderness.

Jana Aranya is a 1976 Bengali film, based on the novel of the same name by Mani Shankar Mukherjee. It is the last among Ray’s Kolkata trilogy series, the previous two being, Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970) and Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971). The film portrays the economic difficulties faced by middle-class, educated, urban youth in 1970s India.

Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) is a 1977 Indian film based on Munshi Premchand’s short story of the same name. Wajid Ali Shah, King of Awadh, is subverted by General James Outram, aided by the king’s obsession with chess..

Sadgati ( Salvation [or] Deliverance) is an 1981 Hindi television film directed by Satyajit Ray, based on a short story of same name by Munshi Premchand. Ray called this drama of a poor Dalit “a deeply angry film […] not the anger of an exploding bomb but of a bow stretched taut and quivering.”

There are many other fine film written and directed by Satyajit Ray and graced by fine performers and craft people. Maybe some will turn up in Britain [or in other places] to be enjoyed.

Posted in Film Directors, Indian film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

What will be cinema? An example, ‘Patricia Highsmith’s Fiction on Film’.

Posted by keith1942 on June 26, 2020

Patricia Highsmith can now rest easy; it would seem that we are less and less likely to see her works as movies from now on.

This article was originally posted in 2017 on ‘The Case for Global Film’ . But now, during the lock down with cinemas closed and Festival cancelled, large numbers of cineastes rely on streaming alternatives as well as video transfers and television programming. That is fine as far as it goes. What worries me is the absence of almost any discussion of how different this is from seeing the same titles in cinemas. Much of the publicity for these screenings implies or even claims that this is an equivalent to theatrical projection. I disagree strongly with that view. This article is interesting [I hope] in that it provided detail for a number of related titles and screenings and the basis for comparisons of the different formats..

‘Adapting Highsmith’ was a programme of adaptations based on novels by Highsmith and included 13 titles. It was organised by the Filmhouse, an independent cinema in Edinburgh, with support from the British Film Institute and Waterstones book chain. The programme was circulated as a package to independent exhibitors and there were screening around the UK, including at the Leeds Hyde Park Picture House. This was a really interesting idea, well put together and supported by a package of materials provided online.

However the programme was also extremely limited in terms of what audiences were able to see as the packages relied on digital formats, and just not theatricals DCPs but also digital video. This is a problem that is now endemic in British distribution and exhibition with few venues actually offering a distinction in their publicity between actual photo-chemical film, theatrical digital and what is essentially home based digital video. My comments are less a criticism of Filmhouse itself and more a critique of common practices in British ‘film’. I would add though that initially Filmhouse provided details of the transfer when I inquired, but replies stopped when I continued seeking information. The problem continues in the streaming facilities where the producers rarely provide information on how and from what the title has been sourced.

As far as I can establish all the titles were available to screen from DCPs. However, these were sourced from a variety of materials:

    “Other films in the season are a combination of materials already in electronic form, some being standard definition and some high def.” [Information from Filmhouse Cinema]

This variation first came to my attention when I saw a circular from Filmhouse to exhibitors regarding one of the titles:

” I’m just getting in touch about the DCP of ENOUGH ROPE.

It looks very good, but it is a straight scan from a print, not a restoration. This means that the image will have some scratches and dust, especially at reel ends. The sound is a bit crackly in parts.

The main reason I’m mentioning this, is that audiences nowadays are use to digital restorations and a clean image. This is the only material available to us. I just wanted to warn you in advance in case anyone comments on this.”

I think this is not just about ‘restorations’ and in fact few of the films in the programme appeared to have been restored. Moreover, the use of the term ‘restoration’ has become quite careless. I have seen publicity for digital versions of films which use this term when in fact what has occurred is the transfer of photo-chemical prints to digital with no use of the many techniques available for restoring film. Added to this is the question of the different characteristics of photo-chemical film and digital. The ‘random silver halide grain’ in film is of a different order from the pixels in digital. The industry has been working to achieve similar characteristics on digital, hence we get the surface grain added to digital versions. But in my experience in most digital packages the contrast, definition and colour palette is at least slightly different. This is less of an issue with 4K DCPs but all these titles appear to have circulated on 2K DCPs. In fact 4K DCPS are a rarity in British distribution. In 2019 I was able to see theatrically four titles on 4K; this was far less than the number of 35mm  prints I managed that year.

Filming ‘The Price of Salt’

The most recent titles in the programme, like Carol (UK, USA, Australia 2015) presumably did not appear noticeable in this regard as they had already been transferred to digital for the initial release; and most will have had digital techniques applied during the post-production process . Even so, in the case of Carol there was also a 35mm print which I found superior in colour and contrast. For this programme only the DCP version was available. In a similar fashion The American Friend / Der Amerikanische Freund (West Germany, France 1977) was on a DCP though the BFI have a reasonable 35mm print of the film.

I did not make much of an effort to see the films that I had seen recently in a theatrical format. When it came to the older films, some of which I had never seen, I was slightly wary. Apart from the differences between digital and photo-chemical formats I have discovered that there is a serious variability between digital versions of film. I remember watching a DCP of Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (USA 1959). The screen image was fuzzy and lacked good definition : the only explanation I could think of was that a video version had been uploaded onto a DCP.  I have since discovered from talking to projectionists that this indeed is quite technically easy and does indeed occur. So I now not only check the format for the screening but, as far as possible, what the source might be.

This proved to be an issue with some of the titles in the ‘Adapting Highsmith’ programme. Several of the European titles had no release dates recorded for the UK on IMDB and neither was there a record of a BBFC Certificate being issued on that website.

And there were serious problems with some of the older films which appear to have been transferred into some digital format for this programme. This meant I saw few of the titles. Fortunately my colleague Roy was exemplary in seeing them and reviewing them. And he included comments on the quality of the screenings.

Deep Water / Eaux profundes, France 1978. No UK release listed on IMDB and no BBFC record.

“The films in the season appear to be new DCPs. I found Eaux profondes to be very watchable with strong colours (Huppert wears scarlet or blindingly white outfits in several scenes). The weakest element of the presentation was the sound which seemed very loud and overly ‘bright’, lacking the subtlety of a stereo soundtrack.

The Glass Cell / Die gläserne Zelle (West Germany 1978) No record on IMDB for the UK or on BBFC.

“My second Patricia Highsmith adaptation in the touring film season was The Glass Cell at HOME in Manchester. This time it looked to be a DCP from an old video copy. The image was degraded but the subtitles were pristine digital and the sound was the same loud and ‘over bright’ mono as at the Hyde Park in Leeds in Deep Water (France 1981). The image didn’t really do justice to the work of cinematographer Robby Müller …”

Enough Rope / Le meurtrier (France, West Germany, Italy 1963).

I did go and see this film but it was not exactly as the Filmhouse note led me to expect. As Roy noted in his review:

“I understand that Keith Withall is going to write something about the overall technical aspects of the prints in this season. In this case, we had been ‘warned’ that the DCP had been created from a worn 35mm print and that we might expect scratches. These turned out to be very minor. There were two issues for me. The print was quite soft and faded – as if there was a lack of contrast in the black and white images. This meant that several interior scenes which appeared to have been lit/designed to create film noir images were instead simply grey or murky. The second issue was that the presentation was supposed to be 2.35:1 as the film was shot on ‘Franscope’. To my eye, although it looked like a ‘Scope shape, the image was squashed vertically so that the characters were slightly flattened and ‘fattened’. Gert Froebe became even more immense, but so did Maurice Ronet and Marina Vlady, the ‘glamorous couple’. I’m not sure how this could have happened and it could have been an issue about projector settings and the DCP as much as with the transfer from film. Finally, as with the two previous screenings, the mono sound seemed ‘bright’ and ‘harsh’.”

I did ask regarding this and the aspect ratio issue did not seem to be a projection problem so I assume that there was some problem with the transfer. Aspects ratios are a recurring problem in digital transfers. I frequently find that both academy ratio and the earlier 1.33:1 are cropped in digital versions. And something similar does happen with Scope images where the side edges are cropped; this occurs quite often with early CinemaScope and also with the Italian format, Techniscope.

This Sweet Sickness / Dites-lui que je l’aime (France 1977)

IMDB does not have a UK release listed for this film though it did receive an X Certificate from the BBFC in 1979. This would have been on 35mm film but it seems that no copy is now held in the UK. So it seems likely that some other source was used. Roy noted in his review:

“I must note (for Keith’s benefit) that the film was projected as 1.66:1, the standard European format for the period and that the digital copy we saw seemed to have been copied from a video source which hadn’t been properly ‘de-interlaced’ so that the image ‘feathered’ every now and again.”

Roy added that in these cases he was able to watch the film and basically overlook the flaws. This was mainly true for myself with Le meurtrier. But I also think that this affected my overall impression of the film. I certainly think that the craft people who worked on these films deserve to have their handiwork seen in the manner and format intended.  Of course, this is not a new problem with the advent of digital. In the days when 35mm was the norm there were frequent variations in the quality of the image and sound that audiences experienced in cinemas. Once video arrived the possibilities expanded. I remember in the 1980s going to see Mandingo (USA 1975) at a multi-screen. The quality was extremely poor and I discovered after the  screening that the source was a VHS video back-projected. Since then it has become  technically easier with digital.

There is an example of providing older films on digital where the standards offered were higher. This was ‘Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’, launched in 2014. Some of the titles were on film but the majority were on DCPs. I saw quite a number of these and the standard was uniformly high. Of course Scorsese is an important figure in restoring and circulating classic films. Moreover he had the assistance of The Film Foundation and Polish Film and Cultural Institutes. But how come this package was clearly superior to one involving the British film Institute? More recently the Hungarian Film Archive restored digitally a number of titles by Marta Meszaros. I saw a screening of her first feature, Adoption /  Örökbefogadás (1975) at the 2019 Berlinale. It was a 4K DCP and the quality was excellent.

A related example is by the Cinémathèque Française. A friend told me that they had declined to license a proposed public screening of one of their titles as the screening was being sourced from a  digital video. An example other archives should follow.

Apart from any objections to the loss of quality there are other reasons to question this practice. The specifications for DCP agreed internationally lay down quality criteria. But sourcing from video, analogue or digital, subverts these standards. Also it is likely to have a long-term detrimental effect on the exhibition sector. I have several friends now who for much of the time opt for home video viewing over visiting the cinema. One of these has a high-quality projector and Blu-Ray player: he claims there is not a lot of difference between that and seeing the film at the cinema. In the case of films sourced from video this is clearly correct. And the complication here is that the offenders are by and large distribution companies whose incomes include non-theatrical sales and rentals and who therefore are to a degree immune from the effects in the exhibition sector.

But exhibitors aggravate the problem by their failure to adequately inform the public. Two of the cinemas I visit regularly do include information about titles that are on digital or film and/or whether the DCP is 2K or 4K. But nether provides information on the use of other formats like DVD or Blu-Ray. And most exhibitors do not provide even this information. I know of several Film Festivals that do provide detailed information about formats, [one being The Leeds International Film Festival but no longer in 2019]: but there are many Festivals that do not. I think I am a little of a pain for some of these with my constant inquiries regarding the format for a particular screening.

This ambiguous treatment of film and digital formats is further complicated by ambiguous use of terms like ‘cinema’. It use to be that the alternative to the cinema was a film society, usually offering 16mm. Now many of these use digital video and quite a lot use the title of ‘pop-up cinema’. There is something of this ilk near where I live. It uses a non-theatrical Projector and either DVD or Blu-Ray sources: and publicizes itself as a ‘cinema’. I expect cinemas to follow theatrical standards but that often seems a vain hope.

There are many Web Pages regarding the comparison between 35mm film, D-Cinema and digital video. There does not seem to be a consensus but the archivists I have spoken too tend to think that good quality 35mm film has a higher resolution than 4K DCPs. There is less consensus regarding contrast but chromaticity diagrams show differences across the colour palette. One colleague argues the equivalence would be at about 7K. 35mm film prints varies due to lighting, movement, stock, and the transfer but I think there is no doubt that none of the digital video formats are in any way equivalent.

Currently many of the alternatives to the closed cinemas and cancelled festivals are streaming titles. And this seems as problematic as video. Amazon Prime’s standard is below Blu-Ray and Netflix’s standard is below Prime. Whilst You Tube standards depend on whoever if posting on the platform; some is viewable, some is not. A friend reckoned that the streaming platform MUBI was better quality. And industry professionals are already voicing concern about what the situation will be like after the lock down. Transitions in technology in the industry to tend to be both disruptive and subversive of quality. This was definitely the case with the advent of sound and this had parallels when wide screen cinema arrived. Several writers have used the phrase ‘the death of cinema’. This seems an unlikely extreme but I do wonder if quality will re-assert as was the case after the disruptions of sound and wide screen. The caution by Filmhouse that audiences would expect the ‘clean image’ of digital when viewing films from many decades earlier does worry me. And anecdotal evidence from comments after screenings suggest that this is true for possibly a sizeable part of the modern audience. Matters are not helped by the British flagship magazine Sight & Sound; their latest issues starts with Netflix titles and then runs Television reviews alongside those for theatrical screenings.

The essential reading is ‘FIAF Digital Projection Guide‘ by Torkell Sætervadet, 2012 – International Federation of Film Archive.

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Seven Journeys / In Jenen Tagen, West Germany 1947.

Posted by keith1942 on August 2, 2019

Steffen and Sybille in 1933

This film was part of a programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019, “We Are Natives of Trizonia” Inventing West German Cinema, 1945 – 1949. Trizone was the overall term for those parts of Germany occupied by the western Allies; Britain, France and the USA. The Catalogue refers to a popular song of the period, ‘We Are the natives of Trizonia’ / ‘Weir sind die ingeborenen von Trizonesien’. This was a song performed at the Cologne Carnival in 1948 by Karl Berbuer.

“It’s nothing short of a national anthem, a declaration of independence by an occupied people sensing that freedom and new statehood are near.” (Olaf Möller in the Festival Catalogue).

This was  a period when there was a short-lived genre of Trümmerfilme (‘Rubble Films’). The actual devastation, most notably in Berlin, remains an iconic visual image in both German and foreign films. Seven Journeys is not strictly speaking a ‘rubble film’ but the stark and massive ruins of Berlin are a recurring image in the film. The writer [with Ernst Schnabel) and director was Helmut Käutner. We enjoyed a programme of his films at the 2018 Festival. I was impressed with the 1940s and 1950s titles by Käutner, so I was keen not to miss this film.

The film opens in 1945, shortly after the end of the war. Amid the Berlin ruins and rubble we find two men working on an old car. This uses poetic license as the car is 1936 Opel Olympia though the plot goes back to 1933. One of the distinctive features of the film is that it is narrated by the car, [voiced by Käutner himself]. The story offers seven owners of the vehicle over a twelve-year period in flashbacks from the present. The little stories of the people’s experiences provide a commentary on the Third Reich.

The two men working on the car are Karl (Erich Schellow) and Willi (Erich Schellow). Their painstaking labour to make the car serviceable again mirror the parallel efforts of Berliners to salvage what they can among the ruins. As they work they find objects and mementos in the car; each triggering a flashback to one of the stories.

 

  1. The men notice a date carved into the glass of the windscreen. So we meet Sybille (Winnie Markus) who is loved by two men, both of whom propose to her. Steffen (Werner Hinz) is leaving by ship for a post in Mexico. In the evening she goes with Peter (Karl John) into Berlin where they witness a large demonstration. Peter writes the date on the car window with a diamond ring; 30th  January 1933; Hitler becomes Chancellor.

 

  1. The men find a comb in the car. We now meet the family of Wolfgang Buschhagen (Franz Schafheitlin), his wife Elizabeth (Alice Treff) and their daughter Angela (Gisela Tantau). Wolfgang works in a Museum. His friend Wolfgang Grunelius (Hans Nielsen) is a modernist composer. Different people drive in the car and then, Angela, finds her mother’s missing comb in the car. She suspects this is the sign of an affair between Elizabeth and Grunelius.

 

  1. The men notice a clip on the dashboard. We see that this used by Wilhelm Bienert (Willy Maertens) and his wife Sally (Ida Ehre) to hold papers. They own a small shop but the notice on the clip is the notification of the ‘Oath of Disclosure’ which prevents them now owning a business. After the ‘Brown shirts’ smash their shop and others owned by Jews the husband commits suicide.

 

  1. The men find an old horse shoe. We then see it fixed to the dashboard as Dorothea (Erica Balqué) drives round Berlin looking for friends. The man, Jochen (Hermann Schomberg), is leaving to seek safety as the war begins. Both Dorothea and her sister Ruth are involved with Jochen. Dorothea has to decide on her course of action. At one point she is stopped by a soldier. He recognizes the car, it is Peter from 1933, now in the army.

 

  1. The men now notice bullet holes in the chassis. We now see the car on the Soviet front where a driver, August (Hermann Speelmans) is collecting a new lieutenant (Fritz Wagner). Despite August’s fears of partisans the lieutenant insists on driving to the military station through the night. After some hours the moon appears, all is like daylight.

 

  1. The men find some old papers. Now we see the car, back in Berlin, in an underground garage. It is the later stages of the war. Erna (Isa Vermehre) borrows the car as she wants to drive an old friend from the city to the countryside, Her passenger is a Baroness (Margarete Haagen) whose husband has been arrested following the attempted assassination of Hitler. But the journey is interrupted when a policeman demands to see their papers, incriminating papers.

 

  1. When the men inspect the boot they find straw there. The straw is from a barn where the dilapidated cart is seen. A motor-bike dispatch rider takes shelter in the barn, as does a young women with a baby. Marie (Bettina Moissi) and Josef (Carl Raddatz) spends a couple of days sheltering in the barn. Refugees pass during the day and at night bombers pass overhead. Josef gets the car working and he makes a detour from his assignment to drop Marie near Hamburg. He now has to face questioning by roadside patrols.

The narrator, the car, now tries to remember what happened after that, but

“I don’t remember’.

A montage of spinning car wheels has the faces of the characters from the ‘Seven Journeys’ superimposed. And we leave the car and the two mechanics among the Berlin ruins, but flowers are growing in the rubble.

The stories work well and the characters are carefully drawn in relatively brief plot lines. The film makes good use of locations in these stories. This was also the case in an earlier film by Käutner, Under the Bridges / Unter den Brücken (1946). Here he was again working with several of the same crafts people. The cinematography, finely done, is by Igor Oberberg. And the editing, which cuts within and between stories and the film’s present, is by Wolfgang Wehrun.

This film was cut on release by about 20 minutes. What was cut is not clear to me but it seems likely that the censorship was done by the Occupying Powers who remained in control in West Germany; one key component of their policies was the ‘denazification’ campaign. It may be that the lack of conscious guilt in the film was a factor.

The film covers the twelve years of the Third Reich. The characters’ stories are spread across this period leading to the cataclysmic situation as Germany suffered defeat. The Catalogue points out that the stories presented do not offer representation across the population.

In Jenen Tagen is a among the very first productions ventured in the future Trizone. Käutner offers a historical panorama in seven anecdotes, detailing German sorrow, suffering and unexpected benevolence during the Nazi regime, ……. how could Germans not see themselves as the guilty party at that points in time?”

The writer goes on to comment the film

“never suggests that this terror regime functioned only because almost everybody made their compromise-laden peace with it …..”

but also makes the point that

“the good deeds he shows were the exceptions to the rule.”

The film has a little more than thus credits. Thus at the opening the car tells us that,

“when I was young [I thought that] I would last a thousand years … [but] it was only twelve.”

And in an interesting line of dialogue we learn from Peter in the 1933 story that the parade they pass are the Spartacists [Spartakusaufstand, by then The Communist Party of Germany / Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) And in several stories, as that of the Biernerts, one senses the a malignant and dominant force under which people quality or perish. Moreover, the German population had already had a ‘denazification’ programme enforced on them, which included being forced to watch some of the films of the now opening and horrific concentration camps. My sense is at this time that the occupation powers paid as little attention to German resistance as the German population paid to any national culpability. Films made under mainstream conventions are usually inadequate for such complex situations.

We had a 35mm print in German with English sub-titles. the image and sound were fine so we were able to appreciate the full original version of the film.

 

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Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai (Japan 1954)

Posted by keith1942 on April 15, 2019

This is one of the undoubted classics of World Cinema. BBC Culture produced a list of 100 ‘Best foreign language films’ voted for by critics around the world and from over 40 different language backgrounds. It placed Seven Samurai at No 1. It is worth noting that the best viewing would be from the 1991 re-issue This version was almost as the original issue and runs for 190 minutes and can be found on 35mm. Note there seem to be at least nine other versions of different lengths. This is the sort of film that you can never see too many times; it always stands up to another revisiting.

The story is set in the C16th during the Momoyama Period of Japanese history [‘warring states’]. A band of rōnin (masterless samurai) are recruited to defend a village from marauding bandits. The prime focus of the film are the samurai warriors, each carefully delineated and offering a particular aspect of the code and skills of this warrior class. Just a few of the villagers are delineated in an equal fashion but the contrasts between these two usually very separate classes is presented with great skill and clarity.

“[Its] universal appeal is partly because of the humaneness of the film’s characters. Each of the seven samurai is a distinct individual but never a caricature, about whom we come to care a great deal. It is a period in which the samurai class is declining. The rōnin samurai roam the countryside looking for work, but some have also become bandits. Because working for farmers would be below them, they kick aside the villagers seeking their help. What makes these seven samurai honourable is their continued adherence to the spirit of the samurai’s code of Bushido which allows them to reach past the class consciousness that normally separates knights from peasants.” (Beverley Bare Buehrer, 1990).

The early stages of the film depict the setting and the recruitment of the band and then their preparations for the defence of the village. Then in a long and detailed and dramatic section we watch as the battle ensues. This is one of the great presentations of samurai action but equally it is one of the great representations of armed conflict.

The film contains innumerable famous sequences spread across the narrative. Early on we watch as the samurai leader Kambei (Shimura Takashi) rescues a kidnapped child and then a demonstration of Samurai swordsmanship by Kyūzō (Miyaguchi Seiji). This varied group includes characters who are not traditional samurai; notably Kikuchiyo (Mifune Toshiro ) who later in the film give voice to the conflicting values of peasants and samurai. The final battle, which takes place in torrential rain, is a marvel of design, staging, cinematography and editing. And there is traditional musical accompaniment, not always the case in Japanese films.

The whole film is one of the finest productions directed by the master Kurosawa Akira. This is an outstanding example of his use of landscape within which are to be found fascinating and very human protagonists. The use of the telephoto lens and multi-camera techniques for much of the action gives distinct and very effective visualisation.

Seven Samurai is as famous as a model for Hollywood. The most well-known copy is The Magnificent Seven (1960, itself remade in 2016). The recent version is not up to the 1960 original: the latter is a good western but no substitute for the Japanese original. For me, the three hours fly by.

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Kino International, Berlin

Posted by keith1942 on March 1, 2019

This prestige cinema is sited seven minutes from Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. It was at one time the premier cinema of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. In 1958 one of the pioneer urban planning and construction projects was started along the Karl – Marx – Allee. The International was a part of a number of buildings placed around the Schillingstraße U-Bahn station. The cinema opened in 1963 as the prime site of DEFA [Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft]. The occasion presented the screening of Optimistic Tragedy (Optimisticheskaya tragediya, USSR 1963). This film was set during the 1917 revolution and its lead character was a female commissar; a handy choice given that DEFA already had more female directors than the industry in the Bundesrepublik Deutschland.

As a prestige project the International was graced with special care and style on both its exterior and interior. As well as an impressive glass frontage the building had a series of sculptures specially designed to illustrate scenes from ‘everyday socialist life’.

Entry to the cinema is through a ground floor vestibule with stairs leading to spacious and stylish lounges and bars. The entrance to the auditorium is through large and high wood panelled doors. The actual auditorium, which seats 551, has a gentle incline down to the proscenium. There is a large central block of seats and separate blocks on the left and right. The large screen, 17 metres by 9.2 metres, is behind two sets of drapes. Standard blue and when these part they reveal pail-studded white curtains; I assume the latter are the originals.

The projection box at the rear of the auditorium has 35mm, 70mm and 4K digital projection with Dolby Digital sound. Unfortunately there were not any 70mm screenings during my stay. A friend told me that the favoured seat of one-time leader Erik Honecker has a little plaque. In a crowded auditorium I was unable to check.

It is a splendid venue in which to watch a film. On this occasion we had a new release in the Berlinale Out of Competition, The Operative (Germany, Israel, USA, ). This title did not match its setting but the production values were good so I did get sense of the quality of the digital projection and sound system.

This is a recommended call on any trip to Berlin. There is the Schillingstraße or the Alexanderplatz, both on the excellent U-Bahn and the latter also enjoys the city bus services. I am sure the great prophet would be happy to have his street graced by this temple to an art form that hopefully will survive until the point at which socialism replaces capitalism.

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On film boycotts.

Posted by keith1942 on December 7, 2018

When the Leeds International Film Festival 2018 Brochure appeared in early October it included in the ‘Time frames’ programme The Knife in the Water / Nóz w wodzie (Poland 1962). There were to be two screenings from a 35mm print. The film was scripted by Roman Polanski with

Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski. It was the first feature film directed by Roman Polanski after he attended the National Film School in Łódź. The film over the years has garnered a reputation for quality, along with other films directed in later years by Polanski.

When I tried to book a ticket for a screening of the film I was advised that it had been cancelled. And when the Catalogue appeared on the opening night of the Festival this title was missing. Why it was missing was a mystery as there was no explanation from the Festival office. However, a little later I discovered a comment on the screening on a twitter account, one that had been copied in the USA. A social media site, ‘realwomenrealstories’ contained this tweet,

“BREAKING: Leeds International Film Festival (@leedsfilmfest) cancels screening of “Knife In The Water” by convicted child rapist Roman Polanski. This is an urgent time to say NO to #sexualabuse against women. Movie is removed: https://www.leedsfilmcity.com/film-year-round/knife-in-the-water/ … #timesup #metoo #speakup”

The pages contained a number of other tweets concerning Polanski’s sexual misconduct as well as reports of other allegations of sexual violence in media reports and especially by well-known public figures. The site is rendering a public service by exposing such crimes and offers a place for women to report this. However, as with most social media, you have to take the reports and claims on trust. In Polanski’s case it is a matter of legal record that he was found guilty of an offence in the USA. This was of ‘unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor’ for which Polanski was sentenced to a term of imprisonment. He fled the USA to avoid the jail term and has never served the sentence. In the 1990s he did conclude a settlement with the victim which involved a payment and confidentiality clauses. There have been two other accusations of sexual molestation but neither has been legally investigated or tried.

The text confirmed what had been suggested to me by a festival goer, that the film had been withdrawn because of complaints about screening a Polanski film because of his record of sexual molestation. I did ask the Festival organisers regarding withdrawal. They confirmed that the title had been dropped from the programme because of various issues; one being complaints regarding a film by Roman Polanski. They declined to discuss this further and also declined my offer of a comment which I could include in this posting.

The complainants seem to be agitating for a boycott of Polanski’s films.

“A boycott is an act of voluntary and intentional abstention from using, buying, or dealing with a person, organization, or country as an expression of protest, usually for moral, social, political, or environmental reasons. The purpose of a boycott is to inflict some economic loss on the target, or to indicate a moral outrage, to try to compel the target to alter an objectionable behaviour.”

The word derives from the actions of the Irish Land League in 1880 against the agent, one Captain Boycott, of an Anglo-Irish Peer, representative of the British occupation of Eire. Thus its original use was as part of a National Liberation struggle against a colonial power. A current example of parallel action would be the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction Movement against the Zionist occupation of Palestinian lands. However, it has also been used as part of campaigns against individuals deemed to inflicted unacceptable behaviour on people.

I have a number of reservations about this matter. Foremost is the dropping of a title without any public information nor an opportunity for film and festival goers to comment. The Festival is publicly funded – by the Council and the British Film Institute – as well as by other agencies. So public money is involved. I am not aware of a policy by national or local government of banning works by artists who have committed sexual molestations. Clearly though in the last couple of years it has become a much discussed issue with groups and individuals advocating such bans. However, there is not uniformity of opinion on this so I think public events should be prepared to have a debate when such actions are proposed. The organisers did make the point that the programming of the Festival involves choices, with some films being selected and some not. However, I would like such criteria to be matter of public knowledge and discussion. This is especially important when not just critical judgements are being made but when it is an issue of censorship; i.e. certain works are not permitted. Beyond this censorship is a thorny issue. I think there should be limited grounds which allow for this. And in the case of a film title of a particular film-maker I feel that there are a number of aspects that need to be put.

The proposal to not screen films directed or written and directed by Roman Polanski conflate his personal life with that of his profession. There are plenty of examples of artists whose personal lives and behaviour do not match up to the contemporary moral code but not many are banned. The contemporary is important because I think it is a problematic approach to judge art works, not by the standards of when they were produced, but by the later standards of some critical voice.

In fact Polanski’s films have a rather different treatment from sexual matters to his ways in personal life. Whilst sexuality is common an prominent theme in his films it is also one that is treated critically in terms of the mores operating when the film was produced. A prime example is a film produced in the USA in 1974, Chinatown. The main women character, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is certainly the victim of misogynistic treatment. To what degree one thinks that the protagonist J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a misogynist is dependant on interpretation but the film quite clearly treats the action perpetrated on her critically; I find her the most sympathetic character in the film. Similar points can be made regarding Polanski’s two earlier British films, Repulsion (1965) and Cul-De-sac (1966). And Knife in the Water treats the sole female character Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) better than the two men. It is their masculine pretensions that the film exposes.

Knife in the Water raises another important aspect. One of the appeals of the film is the acting and the characterisations. The three actors do a fine job of the people set out in the screenplay which is the combined work of three people, Jakub Goldberg (scenario), Roman Polanski (scenario), Jerzy Skolimowski (dialogue). And part of the pleasure of the film are the cinematography by Jerzy Lipman and the score by Krzysztof T. Komeda. The film as a whole is extremely well done and the credits [as usual with films] include a long list of skilled crafts people. All of these members of the production are barred by banning this film though I am not aware that any other of them have been accused of sexual misdemeanours.

And the film was produced by Zespol Filmowy “Kamera”, a Polish State Production Company which closed in 1968. In Britain the British Film Institute holds the distribution rights to the film.

I do not know who holds the rights for the film now; it would seem unlikely that is Polanski. So the economic impact of the proposed boycott falls not on the subject but on another agency and, of course, the BFI. The latter presumably have paid for the distribution rights. Apart from hitting the limited budgets of the BFI this is likely to discourage then Institute from trying to distribute other films, possibly not just titles by Polanski.

It strikes me that the intent and the effect of such restrictions is confused and for sure produces unintended consequences. Britain is not a hospitable environ for foreign language films and it is becoming more and more difficult to see such titles in theatrical settings; even more so to see them in their original format. I think people and groups that would like to prohibit films by Polanski [and other individuals who have committed offences] would do well to give serious consideration to what they propose and for what they organise agitation.

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A Wasted Sunday / Squandered Sunday / Zabitá needle, Czechoslovakia 1969

Posted by keith1942 on November 5, 2018

This film was screened in the ‘Time Frames’ programme at the Leeds International Film Festival. I had never come across this title before and it seems little-known. The film, a first feature, was banned on completion. The production had halted for a time because of the arrival of Soviet tanks and it was completed after the Soviet-led forces forced a change in government. The film was only released in Czechoslovakia in 1990 and here in Britain in 2016. The director, Drahomíra Vihanová, had previously made one short film, Fugue on the Black Keys (Fuga na cerných klávesách, 1965), in black and white and running 34 minutes. After this feature she was banned and only able to make short documentaries in the late 1970s and 1980s. Her next feature was not produced until 1994, Pevost. She died in 2017 so this screening was posthumous.

The film has a commentary in voice-over and frequent on-screen titles which offer what at times appear to be quotations, some of which have a religious or moral tone. The protagonist, around whom the whole film revolves, is Arnošt (Ernest – Ivan Palúch), a commander of an army unit stationed in a small town and backwater. We follow Arnošt through the Sunday, from his awakening to the end of the same evening. We see him in his mess of a room and with a friend and fellow army companion Ivan (Petr Skarke). We see him at the local army barracks; pretty desolate. And we see him drinking and socialising in a bar, though he is nearly broke. At times we watch what are flashbacks motivated by Arnošt; but there are also fantasies or dream sequences motivated also by him.

Much of the flashbacks and dream sequences concern women and sexual activity. Arnošt seems to be fairly manipulative in his dealings with men . But his dealings with woman are of a different order. I think the term misogynist is often an overused term: some male prejudices are not of the same order as real hatred or contempt for women. But Arnošt struck me as a fully-paid-up misogynist. There is one regular female companion, I think this is Irene (Irena Boleslavská), who he treats with real contempt whilst exploiting her affection for him.

Panelstory aneb jak se rodí sídliště

There is also a separate sequence that opens the film. This is a funeral in a local cemetery, and it seems to have been Arnošt’s mother. I am not clear how much this might be an explanation for some of his behaviour and actions in the subsequent film. I do not think we ever have a further reference to the loss.

The film has English sub-titles but quite a few of the Czech on-screen titles filled the frame and it was difficult to read the sub-titles, so I am unsure how much I missed and what was its import.

I have to say that I did not fully engage with this film. Arnošt is the most objectionable protagonist I have seen for some time; [Marcello in Dogman is a victim by comparison). And stylistically I found the film somewhat of a melee. A friend remarked that he thought that the director

‘had scoured the history of cinema for techniques’.

There are expressionist scenes, partly surrealist scenes, but also many that seem mainly realist. And at time we get editing that is almost Soviet montage. I did find that I found the film more interesting towards the end, perhaps I found the disparate strands coming together. The ending is worthy of a noir film. We have earlier seen Arnošt playing with his revolver and several scenes on shooting range. Almost predictably he shoots himself, off-screen. But we then see Ivan in the role of local commander.

The Festival Catalogue commented on the film :

‘Squandered Sunday is an indelible portrait of a man overcome by the banality of his existence, and a powerful political allegory for Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring was crushed.”

I though any political allegory was weak, but this was 1979 so overt parallels or symbolism were probably not possible. But since the film was in production at the time of the Soviet-led invasion it would seem that the film is more likely a comment on the situation in remoter places and the persistence of a social order that the reforms led by Alexander Dubček were meant to change. It also struck me that the cemetery scene, which seems distinct from the rest of the film, might have been added later in the production as a veiled reference to the suppression of the reform movement. This would explain an unusual facet; both Arnošt and Ivan are credited [on IMDB] as having separate actors acting and voicing the characters. A sequence added later would be a possible reason for this.

I have not seen Drahomíra Vihanová’s other films. However, her early short, Fugue on the Black Keys, focusses on a black African musician performing in Prague. He encounters racism but the most affecting moment is when he hears that his family back home has perished, [the cause is not given]. To the extent that I was able to find out the content of her other films it seems they frequently deal with relationships, isolation or exclusion and alienation. That would certainly tie them to this title, A Wasted Sunday. Perhaps her films bring together her own particular concerns with the larger concerns in a Czechoslovakia oppressed by occupation.

The titles on the film translated the Czech as A Wasted Sunday but it seems that Squandered Sunday is the circulated title. We were fortunate in viewing a good 35mm print. Shot in black and white in academy ratio it has excellent cinematography by Zdenek Prchlík and Petr Volf. The editing was by Miroslav Hájek who presumably was fully occupied with the cutting of the film also well done. The music by Jirí Sust is often discordant, which fits the narrative. The screenplay was by Jirí Krenek from his own novel and involved the director in the writing. The film was screened at the 2017 Cinema Ritrovato which presumably gave it exposure. It is good that the Leeds Festival also gave an opportunity to see this little-known film.

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711 Ocean Drive, USA 1950

Posted by keith1942 on May 20, 2018

I saw this film for the first time in the ‘Mary Pickford Theater’ at the Library of Congress. This is a small viewing room/cinema on the Third Floor of the Madison Memorial Building in Washington DC. James Madison was a ‘founding father’ and the 4th President of the United States. The building was erected in 1976 and is in the neo-classical style common on the National Mall. As you enter under imposing columns you pass engraved quotations by the President. The ‘Mary Pickford Theater’ is small, only seating 64 people. However it is fine for viewing though the rake is shallow. It has both digital and 35mm projection. This cinema was partly funded by a bequest by Mary Pickford herself. There are regular screenings of both film and television material held in the Library of Congress archives. I was fortunate on this occasion as this cycle of classic films is held only once  a month. Other recent screenings have included films directed by Robert Aldrich [Autumn Leaves, 1956], Lloyd Bacon [In Caliente, 1935], Jerry Lewis [The Ladies Man, 1961].

On this occasion we watched a 35mm print in good condition. It was copied by the Library in 1990 from a nitrate print held in the American Film Institute collection. The projection, including sound, was good. And whilst we waited, [doors opened at 6.30 for a 7.00 p.m. start] there were a series of PDF pages projected on the screen detailing the production company and the careers of the director and stars. In addition we had an introduction providing background on the making of the film.

It was produced by Frank N. Seltzer, an independent; a common feature in the period when the studios were declining. Like other independents Seltzer relied on a major company for distribution, in this case Columbia. Seltzer was also one of the producers of a script by Dalton Trumbo during the blacklist period, The Boss (1956).

711 Ocean Drive was notable for another reason, attempts by organised crime to stop the film. The plot-line involved organised crime operating in the illegal gambling. The law restricted gambling  in the case of horse racing to the race track. Illicit bookies operated in cities dependent on information provided by a wire service. This was similar in some ways to the ‘numbers racket’ which featured in a number of Hollywood films, notably Force of Evil (1948). In many cases this also involved organised crime syndicates. In the case of 711 Ocean Drive threats were made against the production. For one climatic scene it is possible that shots were fired at the cast. Certainly an attempt to film scenes in a Las Vegas location had to be halted due to intimidation. The producer appeared before the Kefauver Commission, a 1950  Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. The film had an introductory title page on-screen,

“Because of the disclosures made in this film, powerful underworld interests tried to halt production with threats of violence and reprisal. It was only through the armed protection provided by members of the Police Department in the locales where the picture was filmed, that this story was able to reach the screen. To these men, and to the U.S. Rangers at Boulder Dam, we are deeply grateful.”

Edmund O’Brien as Mal

The film is introduced by a voice-over, not the protagonist but a policeman, Lieutenant Pete Wright [Howard St. John]. He introduces us to the crime problem and the major criminal, Mal Granger (Edmund O’Brien]. Effectively the rest of the film is a flashback charting Mal’s criminal career. At the start of the film he is a telephone repair man who indulges in a gambling. His regular bookie, Chippie (Sammy White) notes his skills and ambition and introduces him to the Vince Walters (Barry Kelley) who runs a gambling network in Los Angles and California,. Walker’s gambling network uses a legal wire service to provide information illegally to bookies, also working illegally. May, skilled and intelligent, adapts new technology to Walter’s system and increases his turn-over and profits. Mal is affable but also ambitious; and as the plot develops it becomes apparent that he is also ruthless in pursuit of wealth and women. On joining Walters Mal dumps his current girlfriend and takes up with one of Walters’ staff, Trudi (Dorothy Patrick). Later he dumps Trudi when he meets Gail Mason (Joanne Dru). Equally ruthless is his response when Walters is shot by an embittered ex-bookie: he takes over the network and ups the charges made to his clients. But Mal’s success brings him to the attention of a larger East Coast operation headed by Carl Stevens (Otto Kruger). Stevens is smart and debonair and leaves the violence underlying the syndicate’s control to henchman.

His assistant is Larry Mason (Don Porter) who is married to Gail. Gail is used as part of an entrapment, a trope repeated in the later Heist (2001). But Mal and Gail fall in love, or at least develop a consuming passion. Mal does join the East Coast syndicate but discovers his take is not what he expected. ‘Killing two birds with one stone’ he arranges for Larry to be murdered by a paid assassin, Gizzi (Robert Osterloh). He then uses his technical know-how to construct an alibi. But this breaks down and he becomes the target of both police and gangsters.

Larry and Gail

The climax of the film is at the Boulder Dam [actually the Hoover Dam] sited on the border between California and Arizona. Mal believes if he crosses the state line he will be out of police jurisdiction. The couple attempt to flee over the dam and then down into the inner working, pass great turbines and up and down winding corridors and stairwells. This is exciting stuff and really well done. Predictably, in a film adhering to official moral codes, Mal is fated.

The film is a well executed Hollywood crime thriller. Some sources describe it as a film noir but, as the Introduction pointed out, it is actually a ‘crime syndicate film’. This is an early example of the cycle which includes a film like Underworld USA (1961). This film does have a fated protagonist, but the voice-over is not confessional, the flashback is just one narration, there is little in the way of chiaroscuro and there is not a fully formed femme fatale. It does have the organised crime syndicate, the rise and fall of a criminal, and an interesting focus on the role of modern technology.

The film is dominated by the performance of Edmund O’Brien as Mal. This is a bravura characterisation as we watch him develop from an apparently easy-going and affable guy to a ruthless crime boss. The passion that develops between him and Gail seems unlikely given their preceding behaviour, but both make it convincing. Otto Krueger is also very good as the slick syndicate boss. The police are not that developed in the script which rather undermines the moral project of the film: as so often is the case criminals seem more interesting.

The film’s style is conventional but well executed. There is a lot of location work, a development in Hollywood productions in this period. These include both Los Angeles [including Sunset Boulevard] and [briefly] Las Vegas; a baseball stadium and Malibu where Mal gets himself an up-market apartment. Apparently this address, number 711 in Ocean Drive, gives the film its title but I do not remember seeing the actual address in the film. Franz Planer’s cinematography and Bert Jordan’s editing are both excellent. The long sequence at the dam has a developing rhythm and some fine shots both above and inside the dam. The music by Sol Kaplan seems fine though I found it obtrusive at time but conventions have changed since the 1950s.

So this was an enjoyable evening with a rare treat in visiting the Library’s cinema. If you are in Washington be sure to check the programme and visit if you can.

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Room for Let / Kashima ari, 1959

Posted by keith1942 on March 28, 2018

This was a title in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme screened at the Sheffield Showroom. I think this was the only title screened from 35mm. a good quality black and white print in Toho-Scope with clear English sub-titles.  The film was directed by Kawashima Yūzō, a director whose work I had not seen before. He was born in 1918 so this is his centenary year.

Alexander Jacoby [‘A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors’, 2008) notes,

“Little known outside Japan, the wry, wild work of Yuzo Kawashima is the missing link between the classical Japanese cinema of the fifties ands the modernism of the sixties.”

Kwashima started out at Shochiku in the war years. He only achieved a reputation in the 1950s when he moved to Nikkatsu. On a number of his films his assistant and script-writer was Imamura Shōhei. Hi worked in a variety of genres but his most notable films were comedies, a mixture of satire and farce. ‘Room for Let’ is, apparently, his most characteristic.

The film certainly mixed comedy and farce and [I suspect] a certain amount of satire on 1950s society. The film is set in a multi-room single storey tenement on a hill overlooking the city of Osaka. There are some fine views of the cityscape. The film, to a degree; follows the actions of the various tenants living in the house.

“a barbed hilarious portrait of the mostly disreputable characters inhabiting an Osaka boarding house .” [Japan Foundation Programme notes].

This sort of drama, showing the interactions of tenants in a multi-room establishment, is familiar in South Asian cinema, and there are a number of examples in Chinese and Japanese films.

The film does have key protagonists. One is Goro (Sakai Frankie), a jack-of-all-trades around whom the other characters revolve. Opposite him is Yumiko (Awashima, Chikage), a potter who rents the vacant room. She is an independent and strong-minded character, as are the majority of female characters in this film.

The ‘room for let’ provides a mechanism for the development in the plots But it is the interactions between the various tenants that provides the comedy. This is often unseemly and the sexual aspect if fairly explicit. The comedy develops slowly. Early on the film has a wry quality, but as the drama develops the tone becomes farcical. There is a splendid sequence as most of the tenants are involved in or observing Goro’s panic-stricken response to a forceful women tenant.

At the same time there are notes of disquiet. A young woman who services some older men in her room suffers the indignity of exposure to her family. Her suicide and the following mourning ritual is sombre.

The cast is excellent, striking just the right note this side of farce for much of the film. Their characters and idiosyncrasies are presented entirely convincingly. The cinematography by Okazaki Kôzô is finely done. He makes great use of the scope frame and there are some fine dollies in the interiors and some fine tracking shots in the exteriors. The music by Manabe    Riichirô for much of the time has a suitably jaunty quality which sets off the often racy visuals.

This is the first Japanese film farce that I have seen and it struck me as surprising but extremely funny. The set pieces are a real pleasure to watch. Unfortunately there were only about a dozen in the audience for this screening. I have travelled to Sheffield on several occasions for the Japan Foundation touring programme, the audiences have always been small. This is a shame. Their programmes are interesting. And the 35mm prints I have seen so far have been good quality. Britain seems to be a less friendly place for both ‘reel’ film and for Asian cinema. I am currently having to hunt round to find a screening of the new Kore-eda Hirokazu film, The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin.

 

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