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Entre les murs / The Class, France 2008) and It All Starts Today / Ça commence aujourd’hui, France, 1999,

Posted by keith1942 on May 24, 2020

I want to discuss a French film success The Class, along with an earlier and comparable film by Bertrand Tavernier, It All Starts Today. Both are really interesting films dealing with education and teaching. And they are part of a long-running cycle in French cinema, reaching back to Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933) and continuing to the recent documentary success directed by Nicolas Philibert, Etre et Avoir (2002). The latter features a rural primary school; a long way from the situation in The Class.

The Class presents the audience with a year in the life of a suburban Paris school, focusing on one teacher, François, and the class to whom he teaches French language. The film is based on a book by an actual teacher, François Marin. Marin himself plays the protagonist François. And the students are from a school in a Zone d’Education Prioritaire.

The Sight & Sound synopsis reads in part:

    ” He [François] and his colleagues are shown teaching inattentive yet opinionated adolescents, some of whom have significant behavioural and personal problems.

François attempts to engage his pupils critically, using every opportunity to make them reflect on themselves and the subjects being studied. However, his efforts to create a stimulating learning environment are continually undermined by the need to impose discipline on frequently unruly and insolent pupils.”

This is fine in terms of an ‘official’ plot. However, the mise en scène, especially the performance of a predominately non-professional cast, suggests a different ‘subplot’. The film appears to present a positive engagement of a liberal teaching approach with pupils from deprived situations. But this liberal ethos is undermined by the developments we see taking place in the classroom.

The French title, Entre les murs , translating as ‘within the walls’, offers a more accurate rendition of the film. For the students are clearly caught within the confines of this educational institution, deemed to be in their interests. I should say that they did appear fairly motivated in comparison with some actual British student groups I have encountered. The most dramatic and violent moment occurs when an African student from Mali, Souleymane, accidentally strikes a fellow pupil with his satchel.

The classroom in which these students sit increasingly becomes a ‘stage’ for their teacher, François. Good teaching navigates a fine line between display and engagement. What I noticed was that as the year progresses François becomes increasingly taken with the display he presents to these students. Despite his frequent questions and the usage of their cultural language, François is ‘presenting’. One notices that François’ interaction with students is limited to certain extrovert students. The point is emphasised when one black girl, often seen in shot but never speaking, confesses at the end of the year that ‘she does not know what she has learnt.’ Francois’ response is to demur and insist that she will discover that she has learnt something: but I incline to think the student was the more accurate. Ginette Vincendeau in Sight & Sound suggested that in both book and film it is “beur and black pupils [that] are the most disruptive (the white pupils are visually and orally marginalised) . . .” I am not certain this is completely so, but it does fit with the power relations that the film dissects.

The climax of the classroom interaction is the one occasion when François loses his ‘cool’ with his challenging charges. He calls two girl students pétasses (‘skanks’ according to the subtitles, I think ‘slags’ gives a sense of this). The incident escalates as Souleymane discovers that François has labelled him as ‘limited’ during a teacher assessment. Souleymane’s abrupt exit, with a girl struck by his satchel, leads to a disciplinary hearing. On one of the few occasions that we learn about situations beyond the school we are told that expulsion for Souleymane would mean him having to return to his home country of Mali. Despite this, the hearing leads to his expulsion. His mother, who has to have the French of the hearing translated for her by her son, sits and listens, displaying a clear awareness of the power relations being brought to bear on Souleymane.

There seemed to me a clear intent by the director, Laurent Cantet, to demonstrate the limitations of the liberal teaching ethos. The incident involving Souleymane was taken from another script written by Cantet. In an interview he suggests a rather ambiguous standpoint. “The film is utopian about the possibilities this kind of setting offers, but pessimistic about the school system in general.” Quite a few critics saw the film as endorsing the approach of François and regarded the climatic confrontation as demonstrating

“the fragility of a world in which a single word . . . can bring a year’s work, a lifetime investment in a career, and the modest hopes of a young man’s family, crashing down.” (Sight & Sound review).

My teaching friends tended to be much more critical of the teacher François. And for me, those positive reviews fail to pick up on the nature of interaction of teacher and students. This interaction is actually a manifestation of the social and economic relations that determine the situation of both teachers and students. However, I think the film fails to make this point that strongly, partly because of its enclosed representation of a school: by not going beyond its walls.

By comparison Bertrand Tavernier’s film, It All Starts Today has a very overt political discourse. The film focuses on Daniel, a head-teacher in an infant school in an-ex-mining area in Northern France. Like The Class, It All Starts Today is based on actual experience. In this case it is the memories described to Tavernier by Dominique Sampiero. However, Sampiero did not write a book and Tavernier himself developed his accounts into a scripted story. And unlike The Class, whilst there are clearly non-professional adult and child performers, there are also professional actors cast in the film. Presumably this was in part due to Tavernier writing in scenes of life away from the school, both within Daniel’s own family and within the families of some of the school students. The plotting of the story produces an uneven narrative: parts of the film parallel the documentary feel of The Class: other sequences are clearly dramatisations.

But this scripting also introduces a clear political and economic discourse. The mining town of Hernaing has seen pit closures. The mayor informs us that employment is at 34%. We see the poverty and deprivation when the children return from school. In one traumatic case unpaid electricity bills lead to a suicide and infanticide by a mother. Daniel, like François, is clearly on the sides of the students. But he is also clearly set off from the authorities and the establishment. Whilst François becomes a participant in the ‘trial’ of Souleymane, Daniel is shown repeatedly in conflict with his superiors and local agencies. One of his conflicts with authorities is over attempts to have the school designated as a ‘priority zone’. And the depiction of violence includes the complete trashing of the school by two local teenagers.

I found The Class created a fine sense of the school and the class, with impressive performances from the students. It All Starts Today achieves this only intermittently with its far younger students. But I felt that the latter film did have a more developed political discourse. Tavernier also directed an earlier film dealing with education; A Week’s Vacation / Une semaine de vacances (1980). Nathalie Baye plays Laurence Cuers, a school teacher, who takes a week off from teaching to re-assess her life.

Des [of the Media Education Journal] commented on another example:

“Another film in the long line of films about the French education system worth looking at is Truffaut’s 1976 film, L’argent de poche / Small Change or (pocket money). I’m never quite sure about Truffaut’s films about adults but he is on surer ground with children. Unlike many films about children, the film doesn’t make them overly precocious or sentimentalise their experiences. It’s a bit more optimistic than both Ca commence aujourdhui and Entre les murs (despite highlighting an individual tragedy) but avoids the overblown sentimentality of Les choristes (which, alas, is far more popular with French teachers than all of the above mentioned; a 2004 French film set in a boarding school). The teacher’s final address to the class who are about to move on (Jean-François Stevenin had a singular talent for representing ‘goodness’) should be shown to all student teachers.”

What is interesting about all these films is that they treat education as a concept and a practice. This is something that is much rarer in British cinema. A famous example, Kes (1969), from Ken Loach and his colleagues, is actually about a school student. It does include schooling in its damning indictment of Britain’s social and economic world. If…’ (1968) is actually about the reproduction of class though set in a public school. In a totally different tenor Tom Brown’s School Days [five versions between 1916 and 2005] treats the same topic. Other examples that I can think of are like The Browning Version (six versions between 1949 and 1994), a drama set in school. In fact, the majority of British films set in schools seem to be either about the public school ethos or universities; which speaks volumes about the class attitudes dominant in British cinema. Films that treat of schools with working class students tend to be about reform. This is where an enlightened teacher transforms an unruly class into a positive learning group. Spare the Rod (1961) and To Sir With Love  (1967) are examples of such films which cross over with the focus provided in The Class.  But even here the parallel is limited as outside social and political values hardly obtrude. Even when, as in To Sir With love, one issue  the Afro-Caribbean teacher, the racism outside school hardly figures.

I reckon the difference is down to French cinema having what we would term a viable independent/art cinema; something that has never quite managed to develop an autonomous space in Britain.

Both the French titles are well made and well worth viewing. Note also, both were filmed in anamorphic formats, (i.e. 2.35:1), so if you watch it away from the cinema screen, check it has not been cropped. You will miss quite a lot!

The interview with Laurent Cantet is in Sight & Sound November 2008 issue: the film review of the film and the article by Ginette Vincendeau are in the March 2009 issue. And there is a review of the Tavernier film in the August 1999 issue.

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I, Daniel Blake, Britain 2016

Posted by keith1942 on April 18, 2020

Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, this film attracted good audiences on release locally at both the Hyde Park Picture House and at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. All the people I spoke to after screenings had been impressed and moved by the film. The coverage in the media suggested that this was the film by Ken Loach and his colleagues that had attracted the most interest in recent years and one that had had a powerful affect on audiences.

I was able to see this film again in Montreal whilst visiting friends there; it was screened at a small local multi-screen, ‘Cinéma du Parc’. They have regular screenings on Monday nights of interesting films from outside the mainstream. About a 100 people turned up for a brief introduction, the film [with French sub-titles] and a Q&A, with commentary, afterwards. The film got a round of applause and most of the audience stated for the discussion.

I was interested in the responses to the film. Apparently Ken Loach and his colleagues have a high reputation in Montreal. The audience seemed to navigate the particular British context and language fairly easily. Quite a number of the comments offered exampled that paralleled events in the story in Canada itself: we heard about the mistreatment of disability; problems in regard to housing: the ubiquitous CCTV: and the horrors of automated telephone systems and call centres.

My friend Peter Rist, in an introduction, placed the film in the context of Loach’s work: especially in the parallels with Cathy Come Home. We also heard about parallels with the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night / Deux jours, une nuit and Stéphane Brizé’s The Measure of a Man / La loi du marché [The Law of the Market].

It was clear that this film travels well and whilst it offers a very British stance and setting, raises issues that are widely experienced. I had reservations about the politics in the film but I do find it a powerful indictment of ‘the condition of the English working class’ in 2016.

In October ‘The Guardian’ newspaper had a slew of letters motivated by seeing the film, ‘The punitive treatment of our Daniel Blakes’. We had four decrying the inequities of contemporary Britain and its treatment of the low paid, the unemployed and people outside the labour market. The fifth letter was refreshingly different:

“Am I the only person not to like I, Daniel Blake?”

The writer objected to the lack of a story: the characterisation of Daniel Blake as a ‘deserving benefits claimant’: and the portrayal of the ‘dole’ as one-dimensional’.

I did not agree with much of this criticism. The film is extremely well written by Paul Laverty and extremely well made by Ken Loach and his team. The two lead actors, David Johns as Daniel, and Hayley Squires as Katie, the single mother he befriends, are excellent. Both are ‘deserving’ but also convincing and  rounded characters. There is a story, but it is low-key and treated in the observational style that is Loach’s metier. And I do not think the representation of the Benefit System and staff is simplistic, though it does lack depth.

Other responses I saw included people recounting that they cried in emotional scenes and two people who described the treatment of Daniel and Katie, and her two children, as ‘cruel’. This is where the writer in ‘The Guardian’ seemed to be picking up on an important point. I, like many film fans, often cry during films, and I was intensely moved  in I, Daniel Blake. But this is an emotional response and does not necessarily involve a reflexive engagement with the characters and situation depicted. And reflexivity is an aspect that is rare in Loach films.

As for ‘cruelty’, this is valid comment but less than adequate. What the film depicts is serious exploitation and oppression. The situations in the film are part of a systematic attack on the working class, including its organisations. In the film Daniel, a victim of a heart attack, is denied income for which he has contributed throughout his working life. Katie and her children are forced to relocate from London to the unknown Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Alongside this we learn that Daniel’s neighbour, ‘China’ (Kema Sikazwe), appears to work on what is known as a ‘zero hours contract’ at below the minimum wage. One of the powerful sequences takes place in a local food bank where Daniel, Katie and the children join a long queue that involves hours of waiting.

So congratulations are on order to Loach and Laverty for addressing an issue that the mainstream media and film industry mainly ignore or caricature. But the representation they offer has severe limits. Community has always been an important strand in the films of Ken Loach, but there is no coherent community in this film. Katie has left family and friends behind in London, as have her children Daisy (Brianna Shann) and Dylan (Dylan Philip McKiernan). The only neighbours of Daniel that we see are China and his flatmate. Daniel’s only surviving community is his workplace and his workmates, from whom he is now separated by illness. The Benefit Office is certainly no community: the claimants are deliberately isolated and the staff are divided, apparently by whether or not they have any sympathy for the people they serve.

The nearest to a community that we see is the food bank, where the volunteers are both sympathetic and caring in their assistance. There is also a suggestion of community when Daniel finally makes a public protest, as passers-by cheer him and barrack the managers and police when they stop him. But these latter people are separated by the road, and do no more than express verbal solidarity. This would seem to express the fractured situation of the working class in modern Britain.

In other films Loach and Laverty have often included a sequence where the working class protagonists provide some analysis of their situation. Such sequences could be seen in the recent Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and in the earlier Looking for Eric (2009). But whilst this film refers to matters like re-housing, sanctioning benefits, low wages, the lack of jobs, malnutrition . . . we do not meet a character who offers some sort of critical discussion.

Our Guardian writer offered a parallel example, the 1978 TV drama, The Spongers, scripted by Loach’s earlier colleague Jim Allen (now sadly passed on), produced by another Loach colleague Tony Garnett, and directed by Roland Joffé for the BBC. The parallel is instructive. There are crossovers between the television and film dramas, including a single mother and children and an uncaring bureaucracy. But the earlier play also delved into the world of the local council and the council departments who administer the system that impacts so negatively on the characters. Some sort of rationale on their part is voiced. We do not get a similar ‘behind the scenes’ presentation in I, Daniel Blake. And there is only a brief reference to an ‘American company’ clearly offsetting the declining rate of profit through state assistance. I think such a sequence would have improved the politics. The French film The Measure of a Man offers another parallel. The French title La loi du marché’ translates as The Law of the Market. This provides an interesting contrast and it is also revealing that the title for distribution in Britain changes the original title so markedly.

This one of the bleakest of Ken Loach’s films and dramas. In some ways it harks back to the seminal Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966). There is the same downward spiral for the protagonists. I, Daniel Blake does end on a more positive note for Katie and her children, as Daniel’s caring assistance has help them start on a new life ‘up north’.

A friend who recommended the film to me referred to it as a ‘socialist’ film. To be honest I think a socialist film needs to offer articulation of the politics of the world it depicts. This seem to me a definite failing in what is still a very fine film. And thanks to our Liverpool-based letter writer who stimulated me to think on this. He also recommends an earlier Loach film, Riff-Raff (1991), which I think is one of the best films on the British working class by Loach and his team since the early television dramas.

Note, an earlier version of this post appeared on ‘The Case for Global Film’.

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Sight & Sound ‘Top Films of 2018’

Posted by keith1942 on December 31, 2018

As last year this list, compiled from 164 responses, appeared early in December, so that it does not cover the whole year. This is partly the odd practice of the BFI to issue the magazine a month ahead of its calendar date. A new facet this year is that it is a double issue, January and February 2019. At 144 pages this is not actually equal to two separate issues.

Apart from these oddities the whole concept of listing the ‘best’ or ‘top’ films for any period is slightly problematic. I assume that even the most indefatigable critic or punter will only have seen a proportion of the new films in any period. In fact this year’s list includes five titles that also appeared in 2017. That make me wonder to what degree there is a common pool of films from which the respondents choose; unlikely which undermines the idea of ‘top’.

Of the 164 respondents only 40 lists of choices appeared in the magazine. Apparently the rest are on the Web pages. I searched twice with no success and an email enquiry to S&S went without response. The top title received 38 votes, the rest 30 or less. That means that no film on the listing garnered even a quarter of the ‘votes’. The more one examines this the more dubious the underlying concept becomes.

Below are my comments on the ones that I have seen plus one.

1. Roma, USA/Netflix.. 38 votes, presumably like me, many respondents have not seen this title.

2. Phantom Thread, USA / Britain. This was well made and well acted but suffered from the usual pre-occupations of the director. He seems to be keen on cults and manages to make 1950s British fashion industry cult-like.

3. Burning / Beoning, South Korea. This I thought seriously good film. I was really interested in the characters. The narrative was somewhat unconventional but I was always involved in the story. And the film made great use of style.

4. Cold War / Zimna wojna, Poland / Britain / France. I have think the best film yet from a talented director. The film owes much to the beautiful black and white cinematography. The two leads are terrific.

5. First Reformed, USA / Britain / Australia. This was a very good film, though I thought the over-the-top ending rather blew it. The cast are good. The director’s minimalist approach in narrative and style is very effective.

6, Leave No Trace, USA / Canada. A fine film with fine performances and a distinctive situation.

7. The Favourite, Eire / Britain / USA. This film irritated me. Too many self-conscious techniques and too heavy-handed satire. It reminded me of The Draughtman’s Contract (1982), which was equally self-conscious.

You Were Never Really Here, Britain, France, USA.. This film, bizarrely, was included among ‘five British films to see’, even though it is set in New York, with a predominately US cast and locations. Apparently the leads first name is pronounced ‘wack hin’; this would seem to aptly sum up the title.

9. Happy as Lazzarro / Lazzaro felice, Italy/ Switzerland / France / Germany. This is one of many titles where I wondered how it came behind others, especially those at 7. This is an example of Italian ‘magic realism’; more common than often allowed. The combination of social realism and a sort of fantasy is a great combination. The narrative, cast and style of the film are all excellent.

Zama, Argentina / Brazil / Spain / Dominican Republic / France / Netherlands / Mexico / Switzerland / USA / Portugal / Lebanon. The director spent nine years setting up this production; too long but time well spent. Great filmic adaptation with a really interesting narration and fine stylistic contributions.

11. The Image Book / Le livre d’image Switzerland / France. Brilliant, challenging and a stimulating commentary on modern cinema and digital formats.

12. If Beale Street Could Talk, USA. A fine adaptation of a great novel by James Baldwin. An impressive cast, a moving story and a fine sense of period.

13. BlacKkKlansman, USA. Very funny but the social commentary seems slightly laboured.

14 [three titles] Shoplifters / Manbiki kazoku, Japan.. I would have put this right at the top. Were any members of the Jury who voted it the Palme d’Or among the voters? It is a beautifully crafted film with an involving story and a rather subversive treatment of representations of the ‘family’.

17. Sorry to Bother You, USA. This seems to me overrated. There are some splendid sequences but overall it needs a script doctor. The reviews claimed the title was anti-capitalist! No more so than Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story (2009). Filmmakers and reviewers alike need to read ‘The Communist Manifesto’, celebrated in The Young Karl Marx (2017).

18. Faces Places / Visages villages, France. This must be one of the best documentaries of the year.

….  The Rider, USA. A fine feature with an interesting main human character and animal characters including horses, dogs and goats.

….  Western, Germany / Bulgaria / Austria. A fine drama which tackled an unconventional setting.

21. [seven titles including] Isle of Dogs, Germany / USA. Brilliant animation and comedy. I love canine movies and this was one of the best.

28. [eight titles including] Lady Bird, USA. This was well done and an interesting plot but I found it unconvincing. It seemed to be stuck in a time warp from the 1950s; Apparently the film-makers wanted to give that impression.

….  Loveless / Nelyubov, Russia / France / Germany / Belgium / USA. Bleak and exceptionally well achieved. The characters were convincing as was the story which was untypical, even for family trauma.

….  A Star is Born, USA. I was not struck with this, it seemed to me the weakest of the four versions of the story. This despite recycling most of them; such as the ‘Grannies’ instead of the ‘Oscars’. It did have a rather nice dog, but only to follow characters around.

….  Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, Britain / USA. Very good with a great lead performance. The final resolution though seemed a little optimistic.

….  The Wild Pear Tree / Ahlat Agaci, Turkey / Republic of Macedonia / France / Germany / Bosnia and Herzegovina / Bulgaria / Sweden. How is this film this low in the list? I have seen it twice and I was even more impressed the second time round.

36.  Apostasy, Britain. Another film I thought was over-rated. There is clearly a strong critical sense in the film but the plot needs attention. If the daughter is broke how come she drives round in a nearly-new car. And the image looked ‘muddy’ most of the time.

….  The Miseducation of Cameron Post, USA. This had a strong story, looked good and an excellent cast. But no review that I read picked up on the borrowings from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (USA 1975).

….  Widows, Britain / USA. I do not think this should actually be in the list when better films are missing. The cast are good. The plot, though, has continuity errors or omissions. I suspect the original television version was better.

Missing Titles: [none of these was even listed by a respondent, at least those I could check].

Jupitor’s Moon / Jupiter holdja, Hungary / Germany / France. Shades of ‘magical realism’ in this powerful drama about an illegal migrant battling the European ‘walls’.

Peterloo, Britain. This is not even in the ‘five British films to see’! There are flaws which I suspect are due to the film being bought forward to 2018 instead of accompanying the bi-centenary of the event. The ending is rushed. But the context of the event and the participants is excellent. The critical reaction possibly explains [as Paul Rotha once pointed out] why it has taken so long for a film of the Manchester massacre to appear.

The Rape of Recy Taylor, USA. Not even in ‘five documentaries to see’. An important subject and a impressive treatment. Were all the critics watching something else?

The Young Karl Marx / La jeune Karl Marx, France / Belgium / Germany. Apart from issues of aesthetics respondents to the poll should watch this film because, at least in quite a few cases, they do not understand the mode of production in  which film industries operate.

Missing Title: [which at least received one ‘vote’.

Sweet Country, Australia. I saw this early in the year, so maybe respondents had forgotten the title. I remembered it vividly, including the outback town screening.

Among the important matters which are omitted are where respondents saw these films and on what format. One of the ‘five to see’ lists was for silent; but most of the titles were ones where they seem to have screened in a digital format rather than on 35mm, the latter is much closer to the original nitrate formats. And in Britain it is hard to see titles in a 4K standard; I manged only five this year despite going every week to see titles.

And the question regarding formats goes further. Did all the voters watch the titles they recommended in a theatrical setting and on a theatrical format or did they watch them via some video format or via downloading or streaming. It seems likely that Academy members often vote after watching a free-bee video! This is not the same thing at all.

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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: … #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.

Posted in Festivals, Film censorship | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Misogyny or Sexism

Posted by keith1942 on November 16, 2018

Jeannie and Peter in ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’

In my experience of reading material on film I have found that ‘misogyny’ is a term increasingly used whereas the term ‘sexism’ seems to be used less frequently. In some cases I think the former term is less appropriate than the latter term.

‘Misogyny’; some definitions use ‘hatred and contempt for women’, some use ‘dislike and hatred for women’. However, the word ‘misos’ [from the Greek] which combines in the term is given as ‘hatred’. ‘Sexism’; an online definition gives ‘prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.’ There is a clear distinction here and I tend to restrict misogyny to cases where there is a definite ‘hatred and/or contempt’, which infers both an identifiable standpoint and action. ‘Prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination’ suggest unquestioned values that people may or may not critically examine.

I was motivated to consider this recently by an online review of the British film The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). I had seen this film again in the last few years in a 35mm anamorphic print and including the yellow tinting at the opening and closing of the film that appeared in it original release. The review on ‘The Case for Global Film’ included the following;

“His [the protagonist Peter Stenning played by Edward Judd] developing relationship with Janet Munro’s Jeannie is almost equally important. Scriptwriters Val Guest (who directed) and Wolf Marcinkiewicz parallel Stenning’s alcoholic cynicism with the existential threat of the dying planet. By doing this the abstract idea of extinction can be more readily understood: it matters little whether he loves life or not if we are all doomed. Munro’s character, though politically naive, is wise to Stenning’s initially predatory motives and she shows herself entirely able to look after herself. As I.Q. Hunter says, in an excellent piece in British Science Fiction(which he also edited), her character is far less misogynist than many in the New Wave films of the time.”

I agreed with the characterisation of Jeannie but I questioned the claim of misogyny in New Wave Films and I assumed the reference was to the British variant. In a follow-up to my comment the reviewer responded:

“The broad reference to misogynistic ‘new wave’ films (yes, the British variety but I think the charge sticks to the French one too) isn’t simply about their objectification (which is itself misogynistic) but their role in the narratives (obviously not all of them). This reflected the mores of the time and it was refreshing to see Janet Munro’s character as more than a passive recipient of male attentions.”

‘Objectification’ has a number of definitions but that on Wikipedia is helpful in this case:

”Sexual objectification is the act of treating a person as a mere object of sexual desire. Objectification more broadly means treating a person as a commodity or an object without regard to their personality or dignity. Objectification is most commonly examined at the level of a society, but can also refer to the behaviour of individuals and is a type of dehumanization.”

It should be noted that treats the usage as a set of values. Treating someone as a commodity reflects the mode of production and is some way from activities including hatred and contempt. And it is difficult to consider films as ‘individual behaviour’ except in terms of the characters within this narrative; and only some films endorse some characters.

Then I went to the quoted volume, ‘British Science Fiction Cinema’, (Routledge 1999) and edited by I. Q. Hunter. The article quoted was on ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’ by I. Q. Hunter an included,

‘She [Jeannie] is stronger and more sexually aware than the hapless, misogynistically portrayed women in the New Wave films, of whom a surprising number fall into one of two grim stereotypes: older women who need sex and younger women who need abortions.”

I did add a further comment and asked for specific examples but none have been offered yet. I do wonder if Hunter has actually watched the New Wave films, British or French.

To address the British New Wave films first; I have appended a listing of titles at the end.

Alice and Joe in ‘Room at the Top’

The ‘older women who need sex’. This might refer to Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life. In Room at the Top the older woman is Alice Aisgill played by Simone Signoret. Alice certainly has a sexual relationship with the younger Joe Lampton (Lawrence Harvey) but the relationship is about much more than sex. The key sequence here is when Alice and Joe spends a few days together at a country cottage. This depicts a serious and loving relationship. One that leads Alice to effective commit suicide when Joe marries the younger Susan Brown (Heather Sears). A death that leaves Joe distraught with both loss and guilt.

In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Rachel Roberts plays the married Brenda who is having an affair with the protagonist Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney). Their relationship is primarily sexual but it is also notably friendly. Brenda does not just need sex, she wants a relationship with fun; this is more than the merely ‘need’ used by Hunter.

Rachel Roberts also plays the widowed Margaret Hammond who is wooed by her lodger Frank Machin (Richard Harris) in This Sporting Life. In this case it is because of her repressions that Margaret cannot consummate a sexual relationship with Frank and this is important in the tragic end of the relationship. There is Helen (Dora Bryan) in A Taste of Honey, the mother of protagonist Jo Rita Tushingham). But Helen wants sex and a good time, and she does not need younger men to enjoy this.

Hunters comments in this case seems simplistic and based on the plots of the films rather than the characters in the story. Simone Signoret and Rachael Roberts give fine performances in all three of their films and these are portraits that are complex not simplistic. It occurs to me that Hunter may have been thinking of a different film in this case; Alfie (1966) where the titular protagonist (played by Michael Caine] has a relationship with the older Ruby (Shelley Winters). Ruby does indeed dump Alfie for a younger and presumably more sexually active man. But Alfie is not a New Wave film, it is a ‘swinging London’ film.

Alfie and Ruby in ‘Alfie’

When we turn to ‘younger women who need an abortion’ this might include A Taste of Honey with the pregnant Jo. If Hunter thinks that this film includes misogyny I am [almost] lost for words. Jo is one of the finest portrayals of a young women in 1960s cinema And while her mother Helen is less sympathetic her portrayal is not misogynistic. She is feckless but she also has a vibrant feel for life. Moreover Jo decides to have her child. And she is assisted by Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), a breakthrough in the portrayal of homosexual characters.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning could feature again. Here it is Brenda, the older married woman, who needs the abortion. But this is not treated in a misogynistic manner. Brenda’s attempted abortion in the film is a harrowing experience and it is also a breakthrough in British cinema in the representation of this. A Kind of Loving does seem closer to his description. But when Ingrid Rothwell (June Ritchie) is made pregnant by ‘Vic’ Brown (Alan Bates) they actually marry and the film’s focus is the strains within the marriage because it was occasioned by an unintended pregnancy.

There is The L-shaped Room (1962) adapted from the novel by Lynne Reid Banks. But it is the male doctor who suggests an abortion and Jane (Leslie Caron, in an award winning performance) decides the have the child. It is her preparation for the birth and the relationships that she has that occupy the film.

Perhaps we have the same error repeated. In Alfie Gilda (Julia Foster) is made pregnant and Alfie tries to arrange an abortion. But Gilda finally has the child and marries an older but more sympathetic man. And Alfie is left ruefully wondering where his life is leading.

So if the comments regarding the British New Wave seem misjudged, what about the Nouvelle Vague. These were less specific, just a generalised comment by the reviewer. But having seen the French films on a number of occasions I am equally mystified.

Michel with Patricia in ‘A bout de souffle’

In À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) might seem a misogynist but the film does not endorse his behaviour, as indeed neither does Patricia (Jena Seberg). Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) has at least one male character who is a misogynist but the centre of the film are the four women, interesting and attractive characters. Lola (1960) has Anouk Aimée in the title role of a celebration of a woman pursued by three men who makes her own choice, even if the audience may not agree on its suitability. Jules et Jim (1962) may focus on two male friends, Jim (Henri Serre) Jules (Oskar Werner), but its real subject, treated as capricious but full of fascination, is Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). And there is Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1962), which I have just seen again at the Leeds International Film festival. This is more ‘Left Bank’ that Nouvelle Vague but it is a wonderful study of a young women treated as subject in her own right. One could continue with films by Jacques Rivette or Eric Rohmer.

I just have to object to the use of misogyny with regard to any of these films. Such films should in the first instance be judge in the world and culture for which they were made. And both the British New Wave and the French Nouvelle Vague are trailblazers in so many ways, including in the representation of women in mainstream and commercial cinema. Even in the world of art cinema they are notable. If the judgement is from later standpoint then the contemporary culture needs to be accounted for as well.

The use in the earlier comment of ‘objectification ‘ would seem to be of this type. But, as the Wikipedia definition makes clear, the term represents a separate discourse from that implied by misogyny. Films are distinct from the individuals who made them, even the more influential and powerful individuals involved. Objectification falls into the area of [another much abused word] ‘ideology’. But referring back to Marx, who uses the term with both intelligence and precision, then we have not just dominant ideas but ideas that represent the surface rather than the underlying social relations. But hatred and contempt besides being personal are separate from the underlying values, though they may be influenced by these.

The sort of comment in the ITP review and in Hunter’s article do a grave disservice to the study of film. The notable films of the 1960s deserve to be critically examined but with intelligence and care.

BFI and Wikipedia listings for British New Wave;

Room at the Top (1959; directed by Jack Clayton)

Look Back in Anger (1959; directed by Tony Richardson)

The Entertainer (1960; directed by Tony Richardson) [only in Wikipedia

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960; directed by Karel Reisz)

A Taste of Honey (1961; directed by Tony Richardson)

A Kind of Loving (1962; directed by John Schlesinger)

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962; directed by Tony Richardson)

The L-Shaped Room (1962; directed by Bryan Forbes)

This Sporting Life (1963; directed by Lindsay Anderson)

Billy Liar (1963; directed by John Schlesinger)

I would add,

Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966; directed by Karel Reisz).


NB. There is a section in ‘Behind the Scenes at the BBFC’, edited by Edward Lamberti (BFI 2012) dealing with the period; ‘The Trevelyan Years …’ and dealing with ‘Women and the New Wave’. I think the discussion of how these films were treated supports my argument regarding these titles.

Posted in British films, French film | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Elle, France, Germany, Belgium 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2017

This film has received much critical praise. In particular Isabelle Hubert in the lead role has been uniformly lauded, winning the Best Actress Award at the Golden Globes. At the same time there has been discussion and argument regarding the film’s subject, a woman’s reaction to rape. So this is a very effective title but also one which is somewhat controversial.

The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven, a filmmaker with a reputation for shocking audiences and tending to a degree of exploitation, especially of sex and violence. The best known example would be Basic Instincts (1992). However, I think that there is some difference in content and tone between his films made in Hollywood [the majority] and films made in Europe. In particular Black Book (Netherlands, Germany, UK, Belgium, 2006) struck me as less than conventional with its study of a Jewish women who is caught between the Dutch resistance and the German occupiers during World War II. More generally Verhoeven has the ability to take genre films in unconventional and unexpected directions. His Hollywood film Total Recoil (1990) is one of the more distinctive contributions to the science fiction genre. This likely depends in part on his collaborators. Total Recall was adapted from a work by Philip K. Dick whilst Black Book was scripted by the writer of the original novel Gerard Soeteman.

Elle opens on an assault of Michéle Le Blanc (Isabelle Hubert) by a masked man in her own home. This is violent and kinetic action. The rest of the film studies her responses which include her relations with an ex-husband and son, her woman friend and partner, a lover, and two neighbours. There are two flashbacks to the initial rape, a further assault and a sequence of what is termed ‘rough sex’. There are two important strands. One if Michéle’s response to the experience. The other, which interacts, is the unmasking of the perpetrator.

The rape sequences are treated in a typical visceral fashion by Verhoeven. And we return to these several times. The violence in the film is added to by a family connection to a series of brutal killings. And both are reinforced by the video game company that Michéle runs with her friend Anna (Anne Consigny); in fact the video game aspect is part of a series of false leads that the film exploits. All of these lends credence to the argument by Ginette Vincendeau in Sight & Sound (April 2017) that the film ‘crosses the line’.

However, the character of Michelle as presented by Hubert is far more complex. We see her interactions with her friends, her management at work, and her solitude [importantly with a cat].. Her comments to other characters and the more ambiguous allusions lend weight to the argument by Erika Balsom in S&S that the film ‘explores’ rather than crosses the line.

I found myself being partially convinced by both sets of arguments. My feeling is that the film is on the borderline between a serious study and a piece of exploitation. Borderlines are a common feature of Verhoeven’s work. And indeed they are also familiar in the screen work of Isabelle Hubert.

The generis of the film is interesting. It is based on a French novel which was translated in order to provide a basis for an English-language script pitched to US majors. That failed and seeing the film one can understand why. When Hubert expressed interest the film the script then had to be translated into French. This is a intriguing comment on international film production. But it seems to me that this process, and especially the presence of Hubert, accounts for the ambiguous status of the film. One aspect of the plot which I suspect was left over from the US version of the script is the video game company. I found this the weakest aspect of the film: in the book Michéle and Anna run a team of scriptwriters. The latter is much more in keeping with the characters we see in the film.

Of course, Verhoeven has a tendency to want to ‘have his cake and eat it to’. Inflammatory material for the box office, intriguing thematic angles for critics. But I am finally more impressed than disturbed by the film. It is the best of the Verhoeven films that I have seen. And Isabelle Hubert’s performance is riveting, and that of an actor whose work over a number of decades stands out triumphantly.

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

Posted by keith1942 on November 21, 2016


The film came second in ‘BBC Culture’s 100 greatest films of the 21st Century’. Nick James, in an editorial in Sight & Sound, made a personal argument that it should be in the first place. It is certainly critically highly regarded and has good rankings in many different listings: it has also won many awards. The International title in English comes from a popular song of the 1930s: recorded many times over the years. The Chinese title has a couple of meanings, one being ‘the flowery years’:  a ‘Chinese metaphor for the fleeting time of youth, beauty and love’. The film uses Cantonese, Shanghainese and French [with subtitles] and the songs on the soundtrack come in several languages as well.

The basic story is simple and the main plot suggested by an opening on-screen title. Set in the early 1960s Hong Kong, a married man and woman move into adjoining apartments. As they become acquainted they realise that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Despite this, their growing friendship remains platonic. Later in the film the man moves to Singapore and they are separated. They miss meeting each other later in Hong Kong. At the film’s end the man visits the Buddhist Temple at Angkor Wat where he performs a ritual relating to his memories.

The main setting is important. We are in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony. There is a brief reference in the film to the unrest there in 1967 and demonstrations against the British occupation. In the same period Hong Kong was an emerging, dynamic market with a rapidly expanding population. One of the key aspects of the film is the sense of an overcrowded urban area with competition for living space. The characters are on top of each other and accommodation is a prized commodity.

Food is an important component in the film. We see characters at meals on a number of occasions. The depiction of food and eating seems to be a common motif in South East Asian films. And the communal aspects of eating is important here. There are a number of occasions when the landlady of the apartments invites one character to join them in a meal. But we also see characters eating alone and using taken out food: emphasising a sense of alienation for some.


The two main characters are Su Li-zhen – Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan  (Tony Leung). They are two of the best known Hong Kong film stars internationally and have appeared in several films together. These include other films by the director Won Kar-wai and martial arts films such as Hero (2002).   Their performances and the relationship they create onscreen is important for the feel of the film. Moreover, throughout the film Mrs Chan is dressed in the traditional cheongsam dresses whilst Chow is uniformly in suits, though he at one point removes his jacket and at another both jacket and shirt. All these add to the strong sense of period.

This and the style of the film would appear to account for its appeal. It is very much a cineaste’s film, with a strong emphasises on visual and aural style. The cinematography by Chris Doyle [a Wong-Kar Wai regular] and Mark Lee Ping Bin is lustrous. It is also carefully constructed. The sense of cramped space and of society bearing in on the characters is strong, with characters frequently blocked in by lines, buildings and fittings. There are several shots that use mirrors for reflection. Long shots also suggest characters trapped by their environment. And the leisurely long takes that recur, notably in the final sequence at Ankur Wat Temple, produce a meditative feel. Much of the film relies on chiaroscuro lighting and the colour palette lacks saturated hues.


The soundtrack and in particular then use of popular song adds to the feel of the film. The Chinese title track is “Hua Yang De Nian Hua”, a popular song from the 1940s. There are also several songs performed by Nat King Cole including “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” [known as ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’ in an English rendering],  a popular Cuban song. The song ‘In the Mood for Love’, which inspires the international English-language title, does not appear in the film. The choice of songs adds to the wishful feel in the film and a sense of loss and transitory times.

The editing by William Chang is elliptical: moments are cut off whilst we are still following the action. And at other time shots are held beyond the point of the import for plot. This helps the feeling of ambiguity that pervades the film. The audience are listening in but never completely hear all the relevant information. The later point is emphasised in the final sequence, a sort of epilogue. When Chow visits the Ankor Wat Temple he whispers his secret into a cavity in a tree. We do not hear the words but we can guess at their import.

When we discussed the film students had a number of reservations about the film, though they were impressed by the production and felt the emotional effect of the story. Some felt that the film was too ambiguous and also found the style of the film inhibited involvement with the characters. It strikes me that In the Mood for Love is indeed a cineaste’s film. When I looked at the BBC Culture ‘top 100’ I saw that this Wong-Kar-wai film followed David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). That film is even more ambiguous and even trickier to follow than In the Mood for Love. The BBC list was compiled from responses from 177 film critics. This is a very specialist audience and, moreover, both directors are regarded as ‘auteurs’, beloved by critics. It would seem that In the Mood for Love is a classic with a specific and limited audience. It is worth adding that the film received a further outing in Leeds earlier this year. This was a screening organised by the Confucius Business Institute. The Institute is a parallel to the British Council, propagandising China’ economic potential abroad. Confucius was rightly criticised under the genuine Communist rule but has made a comeback under the ‘capitalist roaders’. The film does connect in some ways with Confucian morals which emphasise ‘correct’ social relationships and ‘family values’. However, at the end of the film, Chow is at a Buddhist temple, a movement that emphasises the transitory nature of our temporary life here; added to by an end-on-screen title. So I would be chary of subscribing Confucian values to this film: I doubt Confucius would have sympathised with the sense of loss that the film engenders.

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21st Century classic films?

Posted by keith1942 on September 4, 2016


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


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


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

“his books have become classics”

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

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

A filmmaker opines:

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

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

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

An anonymous film buff offers:

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

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

Mulholland Drive (USA 20011)

Hunger (UK 2008)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The Master (USA 2012)

Carol (USA 2015)

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

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


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

Bamboozled (USA 2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flags of Our Fathers (USA 2006)

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

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

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

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

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

35 Rhum (France 2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amour (France, Germany, Austria 2012)

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

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

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

Selma (USA 2014)

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

45 Years (UK 2015)

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

Carol (USA 2015)

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

Our younger sister / Umimachi Diary (Japan 2015)

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

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‘The Male Gaze’?

Posted by keith1942 on December 27, 2015

Mulvey This term goes back to a well-known article in Screen Journal by Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975). Feminist film writing has been greatly influenced by psychoanalytic theory since the mid-1970s. Laura Mulvey’s influential article was one that had an impact on feminist film theorists and critics. It was part of a general theoretical attempt to use the work of Freud and Lacan for the analysis of mainstream cinema. In her piece, Mulvey claims,

“that psychoanalytic theory can be appropriated… as a political weapon.”

There have been plenty of critiques of the article. One that I find especially helpful includes this:

“She argues that it offers a causal analysis of women’s oppression under patriarchy which can provide the foundation for political action and social change. Concerned with the relationship between the gendered spectator, the cinematic image and the pleasures of dominant cinema, Mulvey asserts that mainstream cinema organises the spectator in a gender-specific way. She argues that the visual pleasures of popular film are associated with fetishistic and voyeuristic ways of looking. These looks are organised so that the spec-tator has no choice but to identify with the narrative’s male protagonist and thus becomes complicit with his objectification of female charac-ters. Women, according to Mulvey’s article, are theorised as the passive `sexual Spectacle’,’ at the mercy of the active male gaze. In popular film Mulvey argues, men look and women are looked at; men act and women are acted upon. This claim may emphasise male control, but it tends to obscure differences between definitions of masculinity and femininity within society. It also, and perhaps most worryingly, tends to emphasise domination rather than struggle, contestation or resistance. In this way, it tends to reproduce the very ideas of women as victims which many feminists have criticised so vehemently.” From Psychoanalytic feminism to popular feminism by Liza Taylor in Approaches to Popular Film edited by Joanne Hollows and Mark Jancovich. 1995.”

Mulvey’s concept appears to have enjoyed a new lease of life over the last couple of years. It turned up in a film review in Sight & Sound of Blue is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle 2013): not without some justification in terms of the film’s treatment of female sexuality. Then it reappeared again in a letter of fulsome praise in the same magazine.

“So whether we are born biologically female, male or other; whether we subsequently define our gender as feminine, masculine or other; and whether we define our sexuality as gay, straight, bisexual or other; we have all already adopted the male gaze.” (S&S July 2014).

This would seem to go beyond Mulvey’s own arguments. And it overlooks people who define their sexuality through chastity. Still, one can recognise the absolute nature and application of the concept. I do not want to address the psychoanalytical arguments offered by Mulvey, the comments by Liza Taylor seem to me very apt. However I do want to criticise a couple of her specific arguments regarding cinema and its audiences and then look at some examples of films that appear to not fit into her construction. At one point Mulvey discusses the concept of scopophlia [sexual pleasure from looking at erotica] and following this she claims:

“Although the film is really being shown, is there to be seen, conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world.”

audience 1940s

This is not an uncommon comment on cinema exhibition; hence also the frequent use of the dream parallel. But this ignores the actuality of cinema, especially cinema during the era of the studio system, which is the period that Mulvey focuses on. I am not sure if there are any statistics, but descriptions, records and my own experience seem to indicate that the majority audience in cinema then were the couple, the group or the family. The isolated film fan or viewer was a minority, possibly quite a large one. In fact the power and popularity of cinema probably related to this aspect. The darkened auditorium and the dominating screen and sound system certainly worked, but there was also the atmosphere of a communal ritual. One could follow the narrative partially at an individual level, but the group response was also important. This was most obvious in comedy, where the laugher in the auditorium was a stimulant and an encouragement. But it also worked in drama. Those great moments of élan or surprise: the singing of the ‘Marsellaise’ in Casablanca (Warner Bros. 1942): the opening graveyard scene in Great Expectations (Cineguild 1946): the ironic dialogue as Holly Martin mistook matters in The Third Man (London Film Prod. 1949). Other audience members could be disruptive but the majority respected the attention of their fellow members: a discipline that spoke to the importance of the group experience. What is noticeable about Mulvey’s article is how few film titles actually get discussed. Those included comprise Marilyn Monroe, in The River of No Return and Lauren Bacall’s songs in To Have or Have and Not, Busby Berkeley, Marlene Dietrich and Morocco, Alfred Hitchcock and Vertigo, Marnie and Rear Window. The majority of the ten pages in Mulvey’s article are taken up with references to and comments on Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. This is THEORY rather than the ‘concrete analysis of concrete things’. The films that Mulvey refers to in her article are predominantly those of Holywwod in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. They certainly were films where the contemporary audience enjoyed them in large, usually fairly full auditoriums. An important element in the pleasure they offered was this collective experience. When you examine many of the studio films one finds that they offer pleasure for a varied audience: a ‘male gaze’, a ‘female gaze’; and one that was likely not gender specific. I want to look at some examples of films where the audience is offered dynamic active women characters, and where male characters are offered as objects of pleasure for women [and other men], both onscreen and in the auditorium. The Flesh and the Devil, MGM 1926 FleshAndDevilD Greta Garbo was one of the great icons of early cinema. But she was not just the object of male subjects. In this film, she plays the siren Felicitas, who has a dramatic effect on both Leo (John Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hansen). She actively seduces Leo and manipulates Ulrich for her own ends. She does, of course, suffer a conventionally moral fate at the film’s end, but that is for villainy as well as for her gender. And for the many women in the audience her obvious desire for the character played by Gilbert must have offered a fulfilling experience. The love scenes between the two characters are torrid, and Garbo generates as much sense of physical desire as Gilbert. This is an aspect that re-appears in a number of their films together. Queen Christina (MGM 1933) has a scene set in an inn, with Christina (Greta Garbo) reclining and Antonio (John Gilbert) seated at her feet. Her gaze upon Gilbert embodies physical passion and desire. Morocco, Paramount 1930 This film stars an actress referred to by Mulvey, Marlene Dietrich as Mamoiselle Amy Jolly. To imagine, after The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel UFA 1931), that Dietrich could be constrained within the gaze of a mere man seems misplaced. This film also stars Gary Cooper as Légionnaire Tom Brown. Cooper was noted in his early career for his physical beauty. In The Wolf Song (Paramount 1929) one of the pleasure of his appearance as Sam Lash is a scene where he is nude but not quite completely exposed. Lupe Velez as Lola Salazar certainly lusts after him. And in this film he becomes the object of Dietrich’s explicit desire. Moreover the film has a delightful moment when Dietrich, dressed in male attire, gently kisses a female member of her audience. Gone With the Wind, Selznick International Pictures 1939 Gone With the Wind movie image This is in many respects the seminal film of the Hollywood Studio system. Its immense popularity, at the time and subsequently, likely follows on from the pleasures it offers specifically to women; pleasures Mulvey does not seem to recognise. Certainly the film offers the pleasures of the male object. Primarily this is in the character of Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable. Within the film diegesis he is clearly an object of pleasure for Scarlet O’Hara; one has just to watch how Vivian Leigh [as Scarlet] looks at him; repeatedly, at different stages of the film. And Gable was clearly an object of pleasure for substantial part of the audience. The petitions to cast him in the role of Rhett, long before the film entered actual production, speak volumes about his attractions. But there is an alternative object for female pleasure, Ashley Wilkes (Lesley Howard). So Scarlet, and the audience, had a choice – in fact in terms of plot a number of choices. Ashley is the domesticated male, whilst Rhett is the lover male: the equivalents of male choices in other genre films. It might seem that Rhett matters as the active character. But the film deliberately subverts this role. Thus after having rescued Scarlet from burning Atlanta, Rhett leaves the narrative to volunteer in the Confederate army. A decision scornfully criticised by Scarlet. Then, as the film reaches its closure, he again leaves; and thus it is Scarlet and the plantation that dominate the final frames of the film. The potency of this ending is demonstrated by the failures to ever provide a satisfactory sequel to the film and the book. And Scarlet is equally forceful in social and economic matters. For much of the film she scorns traditional conventions. And her business prowess comes to the fore in the period of construction. Much of this is a repeat of the presentation in the novel by Margaret Mitchell. The latter raises another issue that Mulvey does not address. How films work with non-cinematic sources. Whilst the racism of the book is diluted in the film, the centrality and dynamism of Scarlet is apparent in both. This sort of novel, with its female protagonist, would require substantial subversion to fit into Mulvey’s frame. His Girl Friday, Columbia Pictures 1940 Despite the title Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is not the subordinate of editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant). This is a very clever and very witty reworking of the classic comedy The Front Page [now filmed at least five times]. In this version gender and sexual politics get one of the most entertaining outings in the studio era. Hildy can handle her editor, the governor, the prison warden, her newspaper colleagues, the chief of police and anyone else who stand between her and her story. As well as a remarkably doughty fighter Hildy is the investigator par excellence. Here she crosses over with a series of female investigators in newspaper stories, crime thrillers and film noirs. [See the excellent study – Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film, 2011 by Philippa Gates]. Double Indemnity, Paramount 1944, This is another film adaptation from a novel, an example of extremely tough pulp fiction. In the book the femme fatale Phyllis has a scene with Walter Neff in which she almost seems to devour him. Whilst the operation of the Production Code meant that the film toned down aspects of the book Barbara Stanwyck’s portrayal of Phyllis embodies her strength and her active sexuality. Aspects of her character that her husband, Mr Dietrichson (Tom Powers), Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson – indirectly) all learn to their cost. Duel in the Sun, Selznick Studio 1946. Duel in the Sun This is a film that Mulvey comment upon in her “Afterthought’. She sees Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) as caught between two masculine views of her as an attractive woman. Pearl’s active presence in the film is finally subsumed under the ‘male gaze’. It is probably the case that for some men in the audience this is the way the film works: personally from the first screening I was always rooting for Pearl. And I am sure that this was also the case for many women. Lewt McCanies (Gregory Peck) and Jesse McCanies (Joseph Cotton) represent two conventional types of men, the domesticated male and the lover male. Pearl, however, neither fits neatly into the domesticated women nor into the lover woman. This is one of the aspects that make the film so interesting. There are a number of scenes where Pearl’s gaze upon Lewt is full of laviscious desire: returning the gaze that Lewt directs at her. In the climatic showdown Pearl actively lays hands upon and fires the gun: so frequently seen as a stand-in for the phallus [penis] in psychoanalytical commentaries. This is followed by the terrific sequence in which she crawls to the dying Lewt and they expire together in a dramatic crane shot. If, as Mulvey seems to think, the phallus denotes activity, then it is a mute point who has a stronger hold in the film. River of No Return C20th Fox 1954. This film features Marilyn Monroe as Kay Weston, basically a good-time girl: a role she reprised a number of times. Here she is paired with Robert Mitchum as Matt Calder, unusually for Mitchum he is a domesticated male with a son. The film includes a dangerous ride down river torrents. It closes with Matt carrying Kay away from her work as a saloon moll and home to cabin and family. Whilst Mitchum’s Matt is an action hero Marilyn’s Kay is more than a moll or perspective wife and mother. Like Pearl she has a choice between two men. Like other western heroines she has to survive physical danger, here river rapids, and hostile Indians. And at a key moment in the film she not only chooses but also provides care and attention for Matt. Rear Window Paramount 1954 Rearwindow This is one of the films directed by Alfred Hitchcock that is referred to by Mulvey. Hitchcock is, of course, a favourite with writers interested in psychoanalytical and voyeuristic standpoints. This is currently my favourite Hitchcock and I have seen it on number of occasions. Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) is no mere object for L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart). He is wheel-chair bound for just about the whole film. And whilst he spends time playing with the phallic telephoto lens of his camera, he is not really potent. It is Lisa who ventures into the dangerous territory of the apartment in which a murder may have been committed. It is Lisa who makes the running in their romantic relationship and in a scene like the evening dinner ‘Jeff’ is clearly the object of Lisa’s attentions. And it is likely at the end that it is ‘Jeff’ who has been landed by Lisa rather than the other way round. Of course, the film is full of male voyeurism but it is a voyeurism that comes badly unstuck in the climax of the film. I am sure readers could think of many other examples. And these are all films that are products of a studio system. It is not just a question of certain directors, but includes writers and performers. There is The Wind (MGM 1928), scripted by Frances Marion. In this film Lillian Gish plays Letty and what the film shows us is predominately her view or gaze. And I should definitely mention Dance Girl, Dance (RKO 1940). It is directed by Dorothy Arzner. But it is actually Maureen O’Hara’s Judy O’Brien who delivers the lecture to the mainly male audience about their ‘gaze’. I note that MGM and Paramount get more mentions in my examples. An intriguing question would relate to how distinctive on this issue were any studios? Mulvey’s article would appear to be about fitting the studio cinema into framework of the ideas of Freud and Lacan. But as the quotation from Liza Taylor suggests, if you take the analysis’ claims seriously then women in the audience have ‘no choice’. In fact, Mulvey wants to deconstruct the ‘male gaze’. She identifies the mechanism in mainstream film as follows: “There are three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience.” I am not convinced by the arguments about how audiences watch films, popular or otherwise. It does seem the norm for films presented as entertainment that audiences do not pay much attention to the camera, or other technical aspects. But there is a fourth aspect, which is the projection and its environs. Depending on the lighting, the seating and the audience one can be more or less involved in the film drama. And that involvement is a matter of choice for every individual. That choice is affected by the amount of sympathy or empathy we have for the film’s content. So our responses and involvement vary across a range films. But Mulvey’s argument sees the female audience as determined within the whole output of a particular form of cinema. This is a tendency I find in psychoanalytical analyses, and also in semiotics. My sense of film, popular or otherwise, is that only proportion of the meanings in films are denotative, and that far more are commentative. It should be a matter of empirical investigation as to what meanings particular audiences take from particular films. If we do identify with a particular character in a film we may accept the point of view they offer. But it can be complete and it can be only partial. In my experience and in discussions with friends and fellow viewers it is clear that on many occasions they and myself have opted for different identification figures. Just as the commentative language of film allows for multiple readings so do the films allow for multiple identifications, for multiple ‘gazes’.   Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) – Laura Mulvey. Originally Published – Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975 pp. 6-18 Afterthoughts on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” inspired by Duel in the Sun by Laura Mulvey  

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Citizen Kane, USA 1941

Posted by keith1942 on April 27, 2015


In September 2012, in a Film Extra programme at the National Media Museum, we followed up the Sight & Sound once-in-a-decade Poll of the ‘Greatest Film of All Times’. Given that it seems irrefutable that no single person has seen every film ever made the Poll needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt. However, the Museum programmed the top three films in the recent Poll – Vertigo (1958), Citizen Kane (1941) and Tokyo Story (1953). There was a chance to discuss the films and the Poll following the screenings with myself pitching for Citizen Kane, Jen [the then Education Officer) pitching for Vertigo and Roy (of ITP World) pitching for Tokyo Story.

It is worth noting that Citizen Kane was the only one of the three screened in 35mm: the other two were screened from DCPs. I have seen all three films a number of times. I found that the critics first choice, Vertigo, did not really stand up to another viewing. Citizen Kane delighted me as much as in earlier viewings: it is the film that has the most panache. Tokyo Story also stood the test of an umpteenth viewing: and since this film and that by Orson Welles represent entirely different types of cinema, how do you compare or contrast them?

I was reminded of that earlier occasion when I noted an article in the Review section of The Guardian (Saturday April 25th) in which Peter Bradshaw discussed the memorable Welles film. In particular he claimed to offer a new reading of that most famous word from the film, ‘Rosebud’. He joins a long line of interpreters of this particular metaphor, as it is nearly always seen to be. I have a feeling that I have made this point on earlier occasions and surely someone else has, though I do not remember reading it. How does anyone know what is the final breathy word of Charles Foster Kane. In the film a series of cuts carry us through the grounds of Xanadu: a further cut transports the camera and the audience into the chamber where Kane lies dying. Only after he breaths his final word and drops the snow toy does a nurse enter the room. There appears to be no one else in the room at this point?

The explanation usually relies on a line of dialogue by Raymond, the major domo at Xanadu. He, with other servants, heard Kane say ‘Rosebud’ after Susan leaves, and Kane was also holding the snow toy then. Raymond adds a repetition for Thompson, ‘that other time’, the death sequence. But why would Raymond be alone in the chamber with the dying Kane. There is no acknowledgement by the nurse to any one when she enters the room. It is entirely plausible that since no one heard Kane’s final word or words that Raymond invented it for the newspapers. He is certainly trying to milk the journalists for money.

At a more general level the film critiques the reliability and reliance of memories. Those of different characters contradict each other. And they clearly suffer from the personal stance of the character. But more than  this memories can represent very different experiences. Thompson, the investigative reporter, interviews Berstein, Kane’s old manager. He asks him about Rosebud and Berstein suggests ‘some gal’.  He expands.

  “One day back in 1896 I was crossing over the Jersey on the ferry. And as we pulled     out there was another ferry pulled in. And on it there was girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. And she was carrying a white parasol. And I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t got by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

Visually a series of symbols seemingly refer to Rosebud – a number of these are consigned to the flames of the final furnace. Among them is at least one of the jigsaw puzzles that occupied Susan in Xanadu. Certainly Rosebud can be seen as piece of a jigsaw puzzle, the final piece in the film. Individually not that significant, but in terms of the whole puzzle it takes on added connotations. And the structure of the film resembles the playing of a jigsaw puzzle: a point suggested by Thompson’s final lines of dialogue.

Covering slight holes in the plot is a common device in Hollywood films: so Raymond’s line ‘explains’ the characters’ knowledge of Rosebud. Given how smart Welles and Mankiewicz were I am sure they noted this cheat. I rather imagine they had moments filled with quiet chuckles as they read the interpretations offered for this single word.

As the journalist Thompson remarks,  “I don’t think one word can explain a man’s life”. Nor indeed does the sledge, which the privileged audience seen consigned to the flames. What Rosebud really does is subvert the apparent closure of the film. Thompson goes back to his news agency; the audience go home, but Kane remains, the enigma. Surely one of the reasons that the film has endured so long.

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