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The Spirit of ’45, Britain 2013

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2020

I have recently read some comments on where ‘the left’ should go in Britain today. The comments were interesting and also claimed to be inspired by this Ken Loach documentary; distributed digitally. It has the subtitle of ‘The Labour Victory of 1945 – memories and reflections’. It is a historical investigation with a clear political message to the Britain of the Coalition’s policies of ‘austerity’. Loach has a long pedigree of political films, both fictional features and documentaries, that address contemporary and historical Britain from a left position. This cinema of Loach and his collaborators is a cinema of opposition. I however have reservations about this documentary and the interpretation of the politics of the late 1940s. Note though, there is a ‘spirit of ’45’ national day in August [apparently started in the USA]  which appears a completely uncritical celebration.

Like his earlier work this title relies  on the distribution system of mainstream cinema. But the films are not typically mainstream and whilst they are often placed in art and independent categories it  is fair to distinguish his work from that of the ‘auteurs using ‘non-standard language’ . The boundaries of categories are always slippery. Loach clearly is a distinctive film-maker in terms of style of content: but it is also the case that the films are the product of a collective: as Loach has often affirmed the script is the determining basis of his works. That definitely seems the case with this new title and as it relies on an amount of archive footage and of a number of interviews there are several voices peaking to us here.  with its overt political message directed at the current activities of the British bourgeoisie provides an interesting case study to assess his politics and their place in a movement of real opposition.

The Spirit of ’45 focuses on the five years, [1945 – 1950] of the post W.W.II Labour Government led by Clement Atlee. The Labour Party won a surprise landslide victory in June 1945. It then proceeded on possibly the most radical restructuring of British economic, political and civil society of the C20th. The coincidence of the death of Tory Leader Margaret Thatcher during this film’s current distribution provides a telling set of parallels. It also provides a contradictory position to the hype that has tried to elevate her to the top in UK Prime Minster ratings.

This contrast is deliberately presented in the film. It is constructed around to set of polarities. The first is between the 1930s, Auden’s ‘low decade’, and the late 1940s. The 1930s were the decade of the great depression and of the Tory dominated National Government. The levels of exploitation, poverty and deprivation are only now being matched in the current austerity.

Later the film sets up a second set of polarities, between the 1945 Labour Government and the 1979 Conservative Government. They are indeed polar opposites. And the 1980s saw the start of the destruction of the Welfare State created under Labour. It should be noted that the destruction has taken longer than the original construction, and that the obverse is usually the case. This speaks to the importance of the welfare institutions to Britain’s working classes.

The film is constructed mainly from archive footage. There should be a word of praise for archivist Jimmy Anderson, who has researched and supplied a rich and varied selection of film from the 1930s through to the 1980s. Interspersed with the archive footage are a series of interviews with people who lived through or have studied these different decades. Many of these are working people with direct experience of the 1940s and indeed the 1930s. There are several ‘experts’ and few representatives of the political classes. All are filmed in black and white by Stephen Standen, matching the predominately black and white archive footage.

The interviews are the strong centre of this film. The witnesses are clear and direct, often extremely eloquent. They provide both evidence and personal testimonies to support and enrich the archive material. They are also often moving, as for example the woman who recalls her grandfather carrying round in his wallet the letter informing him of his first council house. A doctor recalls calling on a working class family who, counting the pennies, only advised him of one sick son when there were two. He told the mother; ‘from today it’s free!’

There are also moments, of humour, some grim some satirical. A conservative MP reads out a letter from a constituent who fears that the British Army’s ‘Current Affairs Education Programme’, late in the war, is both subversive and in danger of creating demobbed soldiers ‘all pansy-pink.’

The style is recognisable from Loach’s other work. There is frequent use of overlapping sound. Parallel editing creates significant and signifying contrasts. The interviews are almost uniformly shot from a frontal viewpoint in mid-shot. However, on just two occasions the camera cuts to a side-angle and close-up: in both cases the witness is remembering a traumatic death. In the first instance Bert remembers realising that his mother has died from a miscarriage and the lack of proper medical provision. In the latter Ray remembers the death of a fellow miner due to the lack of pit props in the seam where they were working.

Unfortunately one technical weakness is that the 1930s and 1940s film footage has been re-framed to fit the 1.85:1 frame of the digital release. I was surprised at this act in a Loach film. I wondered if it is down to one of the funders, Film Four, who will sooner or later transmit the film on television. It does show a lack of respect for the footage so carefully selected. And it is quite obvious on occasion, as with newsreel footage where titles are often only partly visible.

A much more effective technique is colourisation, the first time I have approved of such manipulation. The film opens with celebrations by people on VE day 1945. We see them singing, dancing, cheering in the streets and in iconic setting such as Trafalgar Square. At the film’s end the footage re-appears, now in colour. The contrast achieves a fine, upbeat sense. And it fits with the thrust of the film, which is that the loss sense of community of the 1940s is actually re-achievable today.

In both the coverage of the 1940s and of the 1980s there is detailed film on the policies and actions of the two governments. As one might expect, this is a series of oppositions. The Labour’ Governments major achievements are dealt with in turn – nationalising the mines, transport, housing and centrally the National Health Service. And it is in this iconic achievement that the destruction of the later governments is most forcibly made apparent.

The film is not unalloyed praise for the great 1945 reforming Labour Party. In particular the experts offer some critical comments. These include Tony Benn, who was both a participant but who also looks back and examines. Two points in particular emerge as criticism of the Labour Governments implementation of their policies. One is the dominance of centralisation: the other is the lack of any sort of control by the working class. A particular example of this is the new National Coal Board. Its head was an ex-coal owner who had led the opposition to nationalisation.

But there are important aspects of the 1945 Labour Government that the documentary omits. One ‘elephant in the room’ is Finance Capital. In fact one of the early nationalisation in the 1940s was the Bank of England. But the Government went no further, though nationalising the top 100 companies including the banks was a policy supported by grass roots activists. This failure becomes more obvious when our gaze [which the films prompts] comes forward to the current crisis. It is worth noting that the reforming Labour Government was constrained in the same manner as the current Coalition Government. The need to placate the banks and the markets so that they would fund the debts to pay for government action. The UK was a substantial recipient of monies in the USA ‘s Marshall Plan, and pressure from across the Atlantic was clearly a powerful factor. One commentator in the film suggests that the USA aid was partly motivated by the fears of radical change or even revolution by the British working class.

There is the another ‘elephant in the room’; Britain’s membership of what became the Western Imperialist front [NATO], led by the USA. Nowhere in the film are the policies of imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism addressed. Among the important issues from the 1940s would be the suppression of the democracy in the Greek Civil War: the handing back of Vietnam to the French colonialist: covert support to suppress the movement for Independence in Indonesia: the creation of a settler Zionist State in Palestine: and the partition of the Indian sub-continent. Notable also was Bevin’s insistence on the development of a nuclear option. The government saw the empire / Commonwealth, particularly Africa, as a source of cheap resources: the groundnut scandal was not about economic independence for Africans but bailing out Britain’s own faltering economy.

These omissions may seem surprising. Ken Loach in earlier films has addressed the Republican war against fascism in Spain (Land and Freedom, 1995); though it omitted the issue of Spanish colonialism. Other films have addressed colonialism: the War of Independence in Eire (The Wind That Shakes the Barley): and resistance to US neo-colonialism in Nicaragua (Carla’s Song, 1996). However, only The Wind That Shakes the Barley actually addresses British colonialism and the central focus of that film is the Irish Civil War. The earlier film Hidden Agenda (190) actually focused on the abuses by the British state and the representation of the Republicans was problematic. The more recent Jimmy’s Hall (20140 is about the struggle in the new Irish free State. Loach clearly supports National Liberation Struggles, witness his defamation by Zionists, but it is not properly developed in his films or this documentary.

These lacunae carry over into the treatment of the UK class struggle. Loach’s film completely fails to deal with one of the most potent factors in the politics of the decade, the arrival of large numbers of black people from Britain’s colonies. This was underway during the 1940s, partly due to the need for additional labour. The Labour Home Secretary opined that ‘he would be happier if the intake could be limited to entrants from the Western countries.” Part of his motivations were questions of ‘tradition and social background’, partly the possible problems of deportation if needed. The Trade Unions were often hostile, as Bevan reported to the Cabinet in 1946. By 1949 there were occasional racist riots, but the Government ‘sat on its hands’. By 1950 a review was underway to “check immigrants into the country of colonial people from the British Colonial territories”. [See Race & Class 1984].

This would seem to be a broader issue that has never been squarely confronted in Loach’s output. His films do feature positive black characters, but only in subordinate roles. Given his output is almost entirely devoted to issue of the class struggle in Britain, the absence of a film that centrally deals with what is termed “race” is surprising. More generally whilst Loach’s film focuses on and supports the struggles of the working class it is debatable whether it fully confront ‘the system’. The continuing strand that runs through most of his films is the sense of ‘betrayal’. This is the message that appears at the end of the very fine series for BBC Days of Hope (1975). And it a feeling that figures in The Spirit of ’45. The film’s main analytical conclusion centres on the failure of working class control. This begs the question of what are the politics of that control.

A number of screenings of the film have featured a Live Satellite coverage of a Q&A following a screening at Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema. There was Ken Loach, Dot Gibson, Owen Jones and Jeremy Hardy. Dot is interesting because she recalled being expelled from the Labour Party in the 1950s for belonging to a group that promoted the policy of nationalising the banks! The central theme of this discussion was a new political movement, Left Unity. This offers the appearance of being a new, more democratic, more radical version of the Labour Party. This also begs the question of the political line required to effect actual, real change. Britain’s Empire was a factor in enabling the British capitalist class to make concessions to the working class. Certainly socialism is not compatible with imperialist power or imperialist ambitions.

The original post was on Third Cinema Revisited and also addressed the question of a distinction between films that address decolonization and films that address  class struggle.

Race & Class 1994, see ‘The Role Labour in the creation of a racist Britain’ by S Joshi and B Carter, Volume XXV, number 3.

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‘From Méliès to New Media’: the problem of the facsimiles in the digital age.

Posted by keith1942 on August 17, 2020

Al in ‘Detour’

Detour (Producer Releasing Corporation, 1945 ) was directed Edgar Ulmer and is generally labelled a film noir though it is also in some sense a road movie. The basic plot offers us Al ( Tom Neal) who is hitch-hiking to California to join his girl-friend Sue (Claudia Drake). Along the way he first meets Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) who gives him a lift  and then Vera (Ann Savage), who turns out to be the femme fatale. He is also drawn into a world of chaos and criminality from which, as a ‘victim hero” he fails to emerge in safety. As is common in film noirs Al recounts this story in flashback and in the confessional mode.  The film has an excellent discussion in an analysis by Andrew Britton in ‘The Movie Book of Film Noir’, edited by Ian Cameron (Studio Vista 1992). There is also an excellent discussion of the genre in the Introduction by Michael Walker, including defining the ‘victim hero’.

Detour is one of the titles discussed in ’From Méliès to New Media’ by Wendy Haslem, published by Intellect 2019. I reviewed this book for the Media Education Journal and found it challenging. At times I felt like Al who, in his narration, constantly asks why this is happening in this way; why are his assumptions so frequently frustrated? I felt rather in that situation after struggling through this volume page by page. Finally I had figured out who had said or written what and, importantly, what I thought this signified. Signifiers are important here as this is a book informed by ‘signs’.

I did complete a review for MEJ but at just over a 1,000 words there was not the space to address in detail all the theory and analysis in the book. But by the end I was convinced that there was some misconstruction in the critical discussion. Hence this longer article where I wish to subject some of the assumptions and arguments made to detailed criticism.

This is an academic work replete with uncommon terms and concepts and with frequent references to authors who have a reputation for difficulty. Predominantly those quoted can be categorised as proposing THEORY; the upper case letters denote a particular emphasis on the theoretical. The author  relies on the discipline called semiotics. I have had earlier occasions to grapple with the discourse of this, notably in the pages of the journal ‘Screen’. I have a working  understanding of the language and concepts involved but since I do not use them in my criticism I frequently have to revisit sources of explanation.

The central concept that informs the book is a term from Semiotics.

“[film] has been understood to have a direct relationship to the concept of indexicality. To understand the index …we need to return to the literary origin of this concept. Writing on semiotics in 1931, Charles Sanders Pierce described the associative power of the index as, ‘like  a pronoun demonstrative or relative, [it] forces the attention to a particular object intended without describing it’.” (Pages 14 and 15).

This tricky passage does not quite give the sense of the index. The author uses  the index as a sign that does which points to or offers evidence of the intended object. One example in a quotation from Pierce offers;

“the pole star … to show us which way is north.” (page 15).

This demonstrates for me the limitation of the uses of index. You need to know the function of the pole star in order to realise that it gives evidence of the direction of north and this itself assumes some knowledge of astronomy. When we come to examples offered of the indexical in certain films I will point out such limitations.

The book uses a number of examples of 35mm film prints transferred to digital. The author raises the question as to whether the indexical characteristics of a film transfer to a digital version. The complication is that film is ‘material’ whilst digital is ‘immaterial’. This distinction offers a problematic usage of ‘material’. I can see that photo-chemical film is tangible in a way that digital images are not. But both forms rely on light and sound which are actually also material. They involved either radiation or waves which have material properties though they are not tangible to human senses.  From the audience point  of view both film and digital files would seem to be immaterial. What they present is a stream of light projected onto a screen where it forms  moving images and the sound is projected into the auditorium seemingly invisibly. This is part of the mainstream film industry presentations which seeks to avoid drawing the attention of viewers to the paraphernalia of presentation; just as film-makers in the mainstream avoid drawing attention to the techniques that present plot and character. Occasionally in the latter case  a technique is empathized for effect. And there have been infrequent attempts by  non-mainstream film workers to subvert the dominant mode, but with little impact.

One of my major problems with the author’s approach is that there is a tendency to downplay the distinction between photo-chemical film and digital files. This is fairly common in film writing and comment. The industry has tended to obfuscate the differences for commercial reasons. When the subject is addressed the hype tends to overstate the quality of digital in relation to film. The author does actually detail the differences between photo-chemical film’s random silver halide grains and digital uniform non-random pixels. But much of the book assumes a fair equivalence between the two median. At one point  digital versions are described as ‘spectral simulations’. There are a number of quotations from Paulo Cherchi Usai but not the argument in ‘Silent Cinema’, [Third edition, 2019] that digitized versions of photo-chemical films are not copies but facsimiles. Usai does recognise that digital versions provided a site for investigation but bearing in mind that the two are separate and distinct. For me photochemical film and digital moving images are incommensurable.

The Introduction Chapter 1 bears the title; ‘Cigarette Burns and Bullet Holes; Celluloid Cues in Digital Cinema’. This title follows on from a description of watching  Detour. The writer opens with

“Not so long ago whilst on the tram on my way home from work I began watching the 1945 celluloid print of Edgar G. Ulmer’s B film noir Detour downloaded and configured for my mobile screen.” [page 5].  Then adds,” I watched the chemical, celluloid material form of Detour on a tiny digital screen that was rotated so that it measured eleven centimetres in width and almost six centimetres in height.” [page 6}.

The writer does not specify the source format or the viewing equipment.  The writer does acknowledge differences quoting Thomas Elsaesser that this is

“doing the same thing with different means.” (page 6)

But such a comment does not really address the problem. The pixels [of what quality?] compressed into a small electronic display are somewhat removed from a large projected image composed of the random halide grains. An oddity is the description is that

“the original screen ratio of 1.37:1 was unfurled using an anamorphic lens in theatrical exhibition.” [page 6}.

Anamorphic lens were not in use in mainstream production or exhibition in the 1940s. They came into use with the advent of wide-screen processes like CinemaScope in the 1950s. The sentence seems confused; perhaps, given the dimensions of the screen, the version is not in academy but some other ratio? The term ‘anamorphic’ appears in descriptions of digital technology but the process varies from format to format and in many cases is an electronic as opposed to a lens process.

Al and Vera in ‘Detour’

A little further on there is a comment and quotation from Laura Mulvey; [see critique of her theorizing].

“The intersection of different historical moments and the illusion of oppositional contemporaneities is outlined by Laura\ Mulvey who writes, ‘[i]n this dialogue between old and new, past and present, the opposition between film and new technologies begins to break down and the new modes of spectator illuminate aspects of cinema that, like the still frame, have been hidden from view’.” [page 16].

I would query how a screen 11 centimetres by 6 centimetres relates to a theatrical space upwards of 4 by 6 meters. And just how this opposition breaks down is unclear. The author’s example for this development are the cue marks that appear at each reel change in a 35mm projection; [hence the chapter title]. Apparently these were visible whilst viewing the 11 by 6 centimetres screen; impressive eye sight. And, if using wide-screen FHA then the image was not in 1.37:1. If cropped , presumably the cue marks would be missing as they sit in the top left hand corner of the frame. But most people watching a small screen, even if they spot the cure marks, are unlikely to know their function. Audiences may well presume they are signs of the damaged condition of old films. And there is a problem with the supposition that using modern digital techniques, including stopping, winding or rewinding the moving image tells us about the linear projection  of 35mm film in its theatrical setting.

Later in the chapter the author discusses different responses to the question of the differences between film and digital files; returning to the issues of indexical and immaterial. Whilst maintaining the sense of these medium as indexical they are  both termed ‘ material’. The presentation is complex, and I thought, complicated. The writing uses the term ‘spectral’ to describe traces of original film in new digital files. These spectral traces are the basis, it is opined, for a new history of film through digital versions. I still find this argument fails to recognise just how different are the differences; and it is a matter of investigation whether the digital does indeed offer ‘new histories’.

The first section in the book is titled ‘Early Cinema: Colour and Spectrality’ with Chapter 2 on ‘Applied Colour: Chromatic Frankenstein’s Monster’; more on the ‘monster’ later. The text for study in this chapter is an early and seminal film, Le Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon, produced by a key pioneer in film history George Méliès . In fact, the author is discussing just one version of this much produced film; that created by the French company Lobster Films, This version was constructed using different materials, but the key source was print found in 1993 in the Filmoteca de Catalunya. Using modern digital technology the team produced a colour version. The original would have been hand-painted but most surviving version are in black and white, and do differ in the ‘cut‘ on offer. The author saw this version, at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2011. It was screened from a digital version with an added soundtrack of musical accompaniment. The author was both amazed and thrilled with this version.

I was also at the Festival but skipped the screening in the Piazza Maggiore because I always prioritize 35mm prints at the Festival. I did see the same version later at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto where we had separate screenings from digital files and from a 35mm print. The latter was copied from the digital version. I did prefer the latter, mainly because it had  a piano accompaniment. I was not happy about the visual sheen of the versions though the colour recreation was impressive. I thought the music on digital files was anachronistic. I was not amazed or thrilled. Whilst the techniques used are impressive it does feel exactly like a facsimile of the original. Because of the state of the source material traces of damage over time and use remain in the digital version. The author sees these as traces of the original and therefore indexical signs of that in the digital files. What is not discussed here are the additions not in the original or the source material. Because of the limitations of digital specifications most digital projectors do not project at a lower frame rate than 24 fps. But the Méliès  would have [on average as screening varied] projected at 14 fps. This means inserting extra frames, in this case probably 10 a second; the technique  is called step-printing. And even the 35mm print was copied from the digital master and projected at 24 fps. When I attended my early silent festivals in the 1990s frame rates, along with aspect ratios and colouring  were common topics of debates. Now one rarely hears discussion of frame rates. In addition, frame rates could vary in screenings for effect; this is not possible in digital projection though a dedicated projectionist could do so on 35mm. [A pleasure one can experience in some of the screening presented by Kevin Brownlow]. So of what are these frames an indexical sign of? Presumably digital techniques, though they re only occasionally visible to viewers with effects like ‘ghosting’, caused by the additional frames. This is not a topic seriously discussed in the book.

‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’

The author is right to be impressed with the project and result; which has been accompanied by a volume with many illustrations and information from Lobster Films. The work in producing this title is impressive and involves state-of-the art digital technology. But it remains a facsimile. And the book is curiously opaque on at least one aspect: the achievement of 24 fps is described as ‘time-converted’. Something I find like a mystification.

The author offers a long discussion on both the celluloid original and copies of the Méliès  title and the new digital version. The latter provides much technical information on the process of handling, reworking and transferring the frames of the 1998 film. As the chapter title suggests there is particular attention to the process involving colour; which is one of the aspects that the Lobster version offers. The writer concedes that this is a simulation rather than a copy. And it is in part a recreation, which is where the sense of a ‘Frankenstein monster’ appears.

One aside in a discussion of the famous argument by Walter Benjamin that ‘originals; have an aura lacking in reproductions. I have never really been convinced by this argument. It strikes me that the ;’aura’ [like beauty] is in the mind of the beholder. And John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972) critiqued some of the impositions on art works caused by ideas in the minds of beholders. Because the author sees the indexical working from the celluloid to the digital version we are offered quotations arguing that both the original mechanical reproduction’ and its transfer in digital files both retain such an ‘aura’.

There is much close reading and research apparent in this chapter but what escapes my eye is why a digital version should be seen as ‘forcing’ new readings. The chapter seems to merge the reading of the celluloid original and the digital transfer; as a facsimile I think that they remain separate.

With Chapter 3 we encounter ‘The Serpentine Dance Films: ‘Dream Visions that change ten thousand times a minute’. You might call the ‘serpentine dance’ a genre. The Edison company produced Annabelle’s Dance in 1895. It caught the public fancy  and innumerable short films, usually a single camera shot, were made of dancers, often in voluminous garments that waved over the screen. What made these dancers a particular experience was the use of colour which went though transformations as the dancer and her veils moved. The author provides extensive  information on the invention and development of this ‘international rage’ and its creator, Loie Fuller. The author, as with the Méliès , is especially interested in the use of colour. The chapter concludes with a discussion of music videos inspired by the early cinematic versions. This exploration is fascinating but, as with the Méliès , the celluloid and digital seem to remain distinct.

Section II commences with ‘Luminescence, Montage and frame ratios’ Within this Chapter 4 deals with Memory and Noir: Neon Contrasts’. The opening title discussed is Blade Runner: 2049 (2017), a production that originated not on photo-chemical film but on the digital codex format. So the issues here are different from those relating to the earlier study texts. We then get Memento (2000) which did originate on 35mm, produced in 2.39:1. In The Mood for Love  (2000) follows, also in 35mm but in the much narrower ratio of 1.66:1. Then Drive (2011), another digital wide screen title using the SXS Pro format. So the discussion is dealing with differing formats. This ends with ‘Fifth Night’ which is a gallery presentation where 35mm has been transferred to a digital format.

The author discusses how these titles inform understanding of earlier noir films including what are commonly seen as ‘classic noir’. I do think the inclusion of In the Mood for Love is problematic. The film does use some techniques common to the noir cycles, including chiaroscuro. But in other senses this sort of ‘Brief Encounter’ story is far removed from the criminality which is endemic in noir. People do endlessly debate what constitutes film noir; I think the opening chapter of the ‘The Movie Book of Film Noir’ is a model to follow.

The chapter is fairly dense, including quoting from Gilles Deleuze, an intellectual who comes only second to Jacques Lacan in the use of complicated language. On the interaction between memory and the noir experience:

“Taken more broadly as an approach to historical mapping, memory allows for a consideration of the influences and various iterations of noir, its presence and absence across time in a Deleuzian rhizomatic network rather than as an evolutionary teology.” (page 83)

Thankfully I was able to look up ‘rhizomatic’ on Wikipedia.

“theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.”

So this complicated sentence seems to opine that the genre of noir should be viewed not just in a linear fashion over time but as a toing and froing between films and film-makings and audiences. This treats the noir titles as texts rather than events. It also seems to suppose that a study in a linear form presupposes and defines end; which is not necessarily the case.  This complex arguments centre on the idea that the ‘indexicality’ of titles in a digital format evidence titles originally in 35mm. This leads to some interest research and discussion of film noir from its origins to the present. But this latter aspect does not seem to need to prompt of the digital; it could equally be prompted by 35mm, 16mm copies and analogue video facsimile of film noir.

Chapter five is titled ‘Cutting: Shock and Endurance.’ Here the writing addresses ‘montage, opening with a quotation from Sergei Eisenstein. The two key  titles discussed are Man With a Movie Camera and Eyes Without a Face. This makes the opening quotation from Eisenstein slightly odd because the former film was made by the ‘Factory of Facts’, convened by Dziga Vertov. Vertov had rather different ideas from Eisenstein on what constituted montage and they engaged [as was common in the Soviet art world] in fairly forceful argument. Equally the two titles are oddly chosen. The term montage has a range of meanings; referring to rather different formal strategies in Soviet or [for example] Surrealist film-making and in mainstream film production; and Un Chien Andalu (1929) does get a mention . You can describe the operating sequence in Eyes Without a Face as montage, but apart from fast editing, it bears little relationship to the montage used by Vertov and his comrades. The author opines that the most famous example of montage is the shower sequence in Psycho. But if you read Alfred Hitchcock discussing montage in comparison to Dziga Vertov discussing montage, differences are immediately apparent.

The chapter goes on to discuss work by the media artist Christian Marclay. He constructs ‘new films from old’. His use of film footage offers counterpoint to bring out new associations. Whilst this might seem to parallel in some sense the work of Vertov: the descriptions of his pieces suggests little political or social intent: something that is essential in the work of the’ Factory of Facts’.

Chapter 6 bears the title ‘Screens, Scale Ratio: Verticality celluloid in the Digital Age’. This chapter discusses the work of gallery artists using photo-chemical film and digital forms , notably Tacita Dean. One of her works, Film (2011) is discussed in detail. On this occasion the presentation is correctly described as using an anamorphic lens, that used in the CinemaScope format. One aspect of this presentation in the Tate Modern gallery was the ability of spectators to choose their position and standpoint and vary it; something that is far more difficult in a cinema. The author explores this as another aspect of indexicality; viewers reconsidering their viewing strategy. This is fair comment but seems to me of a different order to that repositioning that may occur with digital facsimile. The writer goes on to discuss parallel issues regarding another gallery artist, Christian Boltanski, whose work I have not seen.

Tacita dean’s ‘Film’ at the Tate Modern

Section 1211 opens with ‘Cinema Beyond the Frame’ and Chapter 7 ‘Haluucinatory Framing and Kaleidescopic Vision’. Here we read about an early film  series of genre, ‘The Phantom Ride’. Then the discussion movers on to more gallery presentations including the ‘24 hour Psycho’ and some other exhibitions which I have not seen.

With Chapter 8 we reach ‘Ephemeral Screens: The Muybridgizer’ which h is an on line digital version of the work of the early pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. All of these contain well conducted research and interesting discussion. But the author constantly returns to the key point, regarding indexicality. We have a quote from the well-known film scholar Thomas Elsaesser who asks regarding digital media:

“did it bring about  a rupture in the history of cinema that some critics have experienced as traumatic and terminal, or have we merely misunderstand the meaning of ‘index’. For those in the former camp, digitization quite literally means the end c cinema, so that there cannot possibly be a convergence. Instead in this light, an era of post-cinema has begun , with its own characteristics and certainty based on a different ontology.” (page 176)

The author then comments:

“The argument about the loss of indexicality in digital film imagines a coherent, formal evolutionary history, a dominant narrative that has framed  cinema for more than one hundred years. Such historical mapping according to a traditional understanding of indexicality and cinematic specificity reduces the definition  of films to its potential to a capture the ‘real’.” [page 176].

This is problematic in all sort of ways and demonstrates why focusing on the term ‘index’ does not address the full issue. For a start film and cinema are not synonymous, though often treated as so. Cinema is a particular forum for moving images; traditionally this has been 35mm film but it now theatrical DCPs. One has to add  the innovation of non-theatrical screenings in what are termed cinemas.

More importantly the assumption that film in cinema is accessing the real or evidencing the actual world is really dubious. Vertov and his comrades had to use montage in order for film to address the world of the spectators; Soviet citizens. Un Chien Andalu consciously drove a coach and horses through any illusions that cinema was delivering the actual world in which audiences lived. And Méliès offered this audiences fantasies, entertainment that escape, like the characters in Voyage to the Moon, from their early limitations.

This volume is full of interesting and well-researched material on aspects of film history, cinema history and the new digital technologies that are replacing the traditional. One of the overarching arguments of the book is that this work has been motivated by digital viewings. However, it appears that such research and discussion could have been motivated by viewing on different formats, or indeed, from readings. I did wonder if this was developed from a post-graduate thesis. The THEORY in the volume appears to overlay the research and discussion; something that follows from academic requirements to reference writers, views, research and recognised studies.

There is also a major lacunae which is an important feature of digital which is the necessity of compression. Essentially once a image enters the digital process it experiences a range of compression. This is the term used though it not strictly accurate. Compression implies that when uncompressed the object merges again as the image compressed in the anamorphic process emerges on screen in its full wide format. But digital compression actually removes pixels.  The sophisticated techniques involved in digital compensate when the screening or viewing commences. But it does not replace the pixels removed. The process uses algorithms which [apparently] remove redundant data; this might be information not considered essential to the image and data that is repeated and can be duplicated in projection. Because it is not as dense  in terms of data the sound does not require the same level of compression.

This is not a new issue. The 35mm system involved copies of the originals negative and masters take from this. The more times a title was copied the increased loss of quality in the image. Thus there were prints described as ‘dupes’ where the contrast and definition, even the colour palette, were noticeably reduced. But the original, unless lost, remained for preservation and restoration. A digital master has already suffered compression. And, I have not found comment on this; since digital requires transferring of data as systems become redundant, what happens to the compressed data?

It is also worth noting that the range of digital formats means that the levels of compression vary considerably; increasing as the format capacity reduces. A DVD can house 4.7 gigabytes: High Definition Television and streaming services exceed this standard: but Blue-Ray exceed the live transmission systems offering 25 gigabytes of storage. When we reach theatrical standards a 2K DCP offers between 70 and a 100 gigabytes: whilst a 4K DCP can reach 300 gigabytes. Added to this it is far simpler to copy highly compressed data to higher-quality systems; the final result is only as good as the original source. Unfortunately the volume does not provide what size or standard the digital versions of Detour offered.

And there is an important feature that is common to photo-chemical film and to analogue facsimiles and digital facsimiles; this that they are all commodities. What determines the production of these titles and audience access to these is their exchange value. This applies across cinema and the moving image industries. Even the Soviet film-makers, working in a phase of socialist transition, were caught up in commodity exchange. To a degree they relied on commodities for production and even if the audiences in the Worker Clubs were not paying  a price for such products, for the Soviet Un ion they were frequently a vehicle  outside the Union and earning much need foreign exchange. In the similar fashion surrealist film-makers may not have relied  on audiences paying a price for their work but he funding from the affluent relied on the profits that arose from commodity production.

In his volume ‘ Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking’ (2011)  David Bordwell, whilst not really engaging with commodity production as such, details how the production of digital cinema aims at restoring or increasing the profits [surplus value] from industry products and, moreover, how it has been used by the oligopoly  that dominate the industry. In the era of photo-chemical film and, now in the era of digital forms, what mainly determines the production, form and content of film and its facsimiles is the commodity form and the necessity of producing surplus value.

This is the capitalist world in which Al, Se and Vera struggle to find a place. As Andrew Britton comments;

“Ulmer’s road is not a refuge for exiles from a culture in which America’s ideals have been degraded, but a place where the real logic of advanced capitalist society is ac ted out by characters who have completely internalised its values, and whose interaction exemplifies the grotesque deformation of all human relationships by the principles of the market.”

This explains whilst it is increasingly difficult to see 35mm titles. In fact, whilst, as mentioned in Bordwell’s study, there is continuing presentation and restoration of photo-chemical film, it is increasingly the case that the archival product in digital rather than filmic. This is despite the fact that digital storage costs more than filmic storage and that the former’s shelf life is about only 10% of that of 35mm film, nitrate or safety. It also explains why the theatrical DCP, commonly in Britain, at what is termed 2K, is not an equivalent to 35mm prints. And it is debatable where the 4K  DCP, relatively rare, is equivalent either.

Usai’s use of ‘facsimile is a more accurate description of the digital version than copy and more useful than the term ‘simulation’; the latter might work better for gallery presentations or for a work like Hugo (2011) which renders version of Méliès titles into 3D. It is not always a matter of choice for viewers which they can see and hear. So digital facsimiles are of definite use for audiences and individuals. But it is not the same. A student can clearly write an essay of Leonardo da Vinci without visiting the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. And it will cheaper and easier; no crowds on a computer screen. But even if you do not subscribe to Benjamin’s ‘aura’, the texture of the image is not the same. This applies just as well to films and digital files. I have seen several hundred titles transferred from 35mm to digital files. In only a few cases does the viewing seem equivalent to the original. The Scandinavian archives have a very high standard. One title I have seen in both formats is the 1924 Kean. One notable difference is the tinting on the 35mm print, which has been carefully recreated on a restoration by the Cinémathèque with assistance from the Czech archive; whilst t on the digital version the tinting is over saturated.

The books offers interesting material and, at time, sharp comment. But the overarching values accept uncritically the transformation of cinematic film by theatrical [and indeed non-theatrical] digital formats. With a film shot digitally, like Blade Runner 2049, this is fine with its own aesthetic. But when the transfer is of works like those by Edward Ulmer and Georges Méliès I find the result problematic. I felt the author was, like Al, an ‘unreliable narrator’. It paralleled the way that Andrew Britton describes Al’s narration;

“Al’s commentary, however, though it is not hypocritical – he plainly believes every word of it – is profoundly self-deceived and systematically unreliable.

“The whole meaning of Detour depends on the fact that Al is incapable of providing the impartial account of the action which convention leads us to expect in first-person narrative, and when we examine the film’s detail, we discover that his commentary has a status quite different….”

In detour Haskell first offers a lift to Al: later, Al offers a lift to Vera: all three characters find their expectations frustrated by events. I often feel like that when I watch a digital facsimile of an earlier film. So, I borrow and reword with an acknowledgement to Groucho Marx;

‘Every time someone switches on a digital facsimile I can [hopefully] go into another auditorium and watch a 35mm print.’

 

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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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Adoption / Örökbefogadás, Hungary 1975)

Posted by keith1942 on June 15, 2020

This title was screened in the Berlinale Classics programme and marked the return of a film that was the Golden Bear winner in 1975. It was also the film that established its director, Márta Mészáros, as a internationally recognised film-maker.

 “A widowed working woman in her early forties would like to escape the emptiness that surrounds her by having a child with her married lover, to whom she is attached only as a matter of habit. . . . One day, a girl who has run away from a home seeks shelter with her.”

The home is a state orphanage. The girl, Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), is in her late teens and already involved in a sexual relationship. The older woman, Kata (Katalin Berek), works in a factory but also has an interest in wood work, which she does in a small workshop at home. Her home is near a small town but separated from other houses and Kata is also separate from the other residents. The orphanage is very free in its control of the young people. This seems to be, in part, because it is under-resourced. But the manager does seem fairly sympathetic. This culture enables the young inmates to indulge in activities outside the home, so Anna regularly meets her boyfriend, Sanyi (Péter Fried) who lives and works in a nearby city and travels down to meet Anna.

The films gives a sense of these characters and the operation of the home when we see Kata, returning from work. Anna, in a group of teenage girls, teasingly confronting Kata begging cigarettes. And we also get a sense of Kara’s relationship with a married man Jóska (László Szabó) at a tryst, he is clearly less involved than Kata. In a later scene in a park he is definitely troubled when Kata raises the issue of children. Even later he takes Kata home on the pretext of her being a colleague from work. His wife seems unsuspecting whilst there is also a young child in the family. Jóska is obviously a male chauvinist and that is his role in the narrative. But the much younger Sanyi displays a strong affection and responsibility for Anna. Whilst the manager at the home is seen later showing both sympathy and practical assistance to Kata and Anna.

We only get a representation of the Hungarian state at this time at a remove, but the sense is of a rather underfunded and inadequate bureaucracy rather than the stereotypical representation found in western films at the period.

The film has fine black and white cinematography by Lajos Koltai. Mészáros uses frequent long takes, not just for action but also for contemplation. This is noticeable in the group sequences which have the feel of documentary. Several times we see Kata at her work table and the sense of her ruminations on her situation. The film editing by Éva Kármentõ carefully juxtaposes the several repeated settings; Kara’s house, the orphanage and the places where Kata and Jósha have their trysts. There is much location work but production design by Tamás Banovich marries studio set-ups with the natural settings. And by the end of the film we see a traditional celebration with a convincing sense of ordinary people enjoying an occasion. The film sound and music by György Kovács fits in with a general naturalistic feel.

Mészáros scripted the film with two colleagues, Ferenc Grunwalsky and Gyula Hernádi. The writing both presents characterisations that seem taken from life; that are unconventional in terms of the European cinema of the time; and which develop with a real sympathy for ordinary people and everyday life.

In 1975 the ‘Berliner Morgen post’ commented;

“The Hungarian director, a woman, has come up, not with a drama but a low-key reticent everyday story that is full of tenderness and hope. In a succession of filmed-to-the-life occasions, Kati Berek makes her mark as a sort of Budapest Annie Giradot. Quiet, strong and true.” (Giradot is a fine French actress who at this stage of her career had graced Rocco and his Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli, 1960) with an outstanding performance).”

The paper’s note of the director being a ‘woman’, picked up on the Mészáros being the first woman director to win a Golden Bear Award. And she and the film won a number of other awards as well. Márta Mészáros was there to introduce the film. She spoke with emotion of her memories of the visit to the Berlinale, she was then an unknown in western Europe and this her first experience of a major festival and major awards.

There was also a staff member of the Hungarian Film Fund Film Archive who have produced the digital restoration of the film onto a 4K DCP, with English subtitles. The restoration was based on the original camera negative and a magnetic tape of sound. This was supervised by the original cinematographer, Lajos Koltai. The restoration differs in an important manner from the original 35mm. Mészáros had wanted to shoot the film in a scope format but was unable to do so and the film used the academy ratio. This restored version has been produced in 1.85:1; closer to the desired scope format. In other ways it reproduces the original. The change of ratio is unusual. The Berlinale staff were unsure but thought the version at the Festival might have been in 1.85:1 as well. This presumably would have involved plates or masks in the projector. I think when I saw the film, long ago, it was in academy. I have to say that in 1.85:1 there was no obvious cropping of the image. We did not hear the technical description of how the re-framing was achieved.

The archive have actually restored ten other titles directed by Mészáros between 1969 and 1999, including the famous ‘Diary’ series. They have all been restored digitally at 4K and will be available this year and in 2020.

“Given Mészáros’ status, together with her contemporaries Agnès Varda, Larissa Shepitko and Vera Chytilova, she ranks as one of the most significant female authors in the world.” (Restored Films of Márta Mészáros, Hungarian Film Fund).

I expected this title and the other titles that follow to get a British release. In fact,  Adoption only circulated as part of a ‘touring’ programme by the Bristol Watershed. This would have involved special arrangements with the Hungarian Film Archive and exhibitors involved in the tour. It appeared to only be available eon a 2K DCP and I am uncertain how it was sourced. So far there has been neither a general release not have any of the other titles appeared. A colleague advised that Adoption was available on the MUBI streaming service and he thought the quality was good. This film was a deserved winner of the Golden Bear in 1975 and has maintained its quality and relevance; Mészáros’ other films equally offer both quality and satisfaction. If you can track down screenings then I recommend doing so.

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Churchill and the |Movie Mogul, BBC 2019

Posted by keith1942 on November 13, 2019

“Before the Second World War, Winston Churchill work for film producer Alexander Korda as screenwriter and historical advisor.

The Power of cinema later became a vital weapon in wartime.” (Opening on-screen titles).

“Churchill understood the power of films, but the true extent of his use of cinema as a propaganda tool is rarely explored. In 1934, one of Britain’s most celebrated film producers, Alexander Korda, signed Churchill up as a screenwriter and historical advisor. It was the start of a unique collaboration. Churchill provided script notes for Korea’s productions and penned an epic screenplay.

When war broke out, their collaboration took on national importance. Korda was sent on a mission to Hollywood to help bring America into the war, with positive results.

With access to previously undiscovered documents, this film documentary examines that mission and a friendship that underpinned a unique, creative partnership.” [BBC profile].

This new documentary for the BBC is an example of how cinema can be misconstrued on television. And this sort of construction’s seems to becoming more common on that median.

The programme at the start treats the relationship between the politician and the film producer in the early 1930s. The one screenplay that Churchill produced is featured, ‘The Life and Times of King George V’. The topic fits both Churchill’s pre-occupations and bears the hallmark of his writings. The film was not produced, the reason given in the programme is that the treatment would have been too expensive to make. This is quite likely but, having read Churchill, I suspect that his screenplay was too rhetorical for a film treatment.

One of the contributors to the programme is Charles Drazin, author of ‘Korda Britain’s Only Movie Mogul’, (2002). In this book Drazin notes a six month contract between Churchill and Korda in 1934. Projects included five short films as well as the ‘George V’ proposal. The latter had ‘difficulties’ with the script as well as likely production costs. After the contract ended Drazin records no other actual involvement by Churchill in film projects. He does record that Korda later pu8rchased the rights to some of Churchill’s published writings but these did not even reach the scripting stage. He, of course, when he contributed to the programme may have been unaware of the conjectures made about other work.

These ‘conjectures’ concern other script suggestions though no actual evidence for the examples are produced. The film relies on drawing parallels between Churchill known interests and particular films produced by Alexander Korda. One example of the 1939 The Four Feathers. The connection drawn is between the experience of the young Churchill at the battle in Omdurmand (19898). The sequence in the book and the film follows the British colonial expedition in the 1882 Sudan campaign.

The other example is Lady Hamilton / That Hamilton Woman (1941) which was produced in association with Hollywood. The documentary points to Churchill’s known interest in Horatio Nelson, Emma Hamilton’s lover; a relationship which forms the centre of the film narrative. One interviewee comments that the

“suggestion must have come from Churchill.”

And another, quoted alongside a sequence where nelson agitates for military action, that

“it is easy to imagine that he might have done …”

Suggestions for the screenplay. The film is obviously one of those British titles that draw comparison from British history to the then current war with the Third Reich. Another quoted title is Fire Over England set in Elizabethan England at the time of the Armada. It also points to Churchill known fondness for the film, quoting one occasion when, on board a naval al ship in the Atlantic, he screened the film for Roosevelt and his entourage. But there is no evidence presented that Churchill actually contributed in any way to the film screenplay.

The extracts from Triumph of the Will are used to comment on the relationship between Adolf Hitler and film-maker Leni Riefienstahl. A parallel is drawn [in terms of cinema not politics] between that and the relationship between Churchill and Korda. However, there is evidence on record of the relationship between Hitler and Riefienstahl; if there is such evidence for Churchill / Korda it is not presented here.

The documentary goes on to chart the way that Korda assisted Churchill in his efforts to bring the USA into the European war. The commentary is on stronger ground here though this is already a well-trodden subject, including by Charles Drazin. And, ironically, it was the War in the Pacific and Hitler’s misjudged declaration of war on the USA that ushered in the Yanks.

What is really disconcerting about this documentary is its use of archival film. This is an area where television has a littered trail of abuse, regularly changing, editing and re-framing original film footage from the past. But ‘Churchill and the Movie Mogul’ has some of the worse examples that I have seen.

A still from ‘Lady Hamilton’ in the wrong ratio.

There is an amount of newsreel footage and studio record footage used from the 1930s and 1940s. Almost uniformly this has been re-framed to fir the 16:9/1.78:1 aspect ratio. An interview with Churchill [possibly the late 1940s] starts in academy ratio, off-centre so as the also show the projector; then it cuts to a re-framed screen of 16:9, This is repeated with other film extracts. Much of the footage from the feature films is screened in its original aspect ratio, 1.37:1. But Lady Hamilton appears in both academy and 16:9. and oddly at one point footage from Lady Hamilton appears in the academy ratio, briefly in 16:9 and then in another fragment sharing the frame with a projector. Some film, [The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Thief of Baghdad and Triumph of the Will] are screened in a cinema, [I think the Regent near Oxford Circus] with an audience; this film is in academy but shots of the audience are in colour and in academy and then in colour and 16:9. Added to this CGI has been used to attempt to recreate cinema screening of the films. In this case an auditorium complete with audience has been created digitally and then the academy ratio black and white footage inserted in a frame {auditorium screen] at the central focus. A similar sequence is set in a US drive-in cinema. It is a mess and one can only sympathise with the poor and abused cinematographers from the past, including George Périnal and Rudolph Maté, whose work has been mutilated.

It is difficult to know why the footage has been so mistreated. Perhaps they have used different sources and just followed the state of the source: some taken from original 35mm film and some taken from video copies of original film. The programme uses a series of experts, academics, biographers and historians. Whilst they talk about Churchill, Korda and several of the films none seem to actually give a specific detail on Churchill’s work as a consultant. We do see photographed of his one screenplay. And the commentators do speak specifically of the work of Korda on behalf of Churchill in the USA. They, of course, spoke during the making of the programme; they presumably were not familiar with the final form of the documentary.

There are extracts from The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Scarlett Pimpernel (1934). Fire over England (1937), The Four Feather (1939), The Lion Has Winds (1939), The Thief of Baghdad (1940)and Lady Hamilton (1941). There are also extracts from Triumph of the Will (1935) and newsreel from the Third Reich.

All are abused in some fashion, including the now anonymous cinematographers on newsreels. I am happy to see Leni Riefienstahl criticised but I think we should at least study her films in the form in which they were originally intended.

 

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The Happy Prince, Germany, Belgium, Britain 2018

Posted by keith1942 on August 20, 2018

This is the new film about Oscar Wilde, titled from his famous short story. Oscar Wilde’s rise and fall is one of the most well-known and dramatic careers in C19th Britain. A popular writer and journalist, a successful playwright, raconteur and epigrammatist, the revelation of his homosexuality, the repressed and noir looking underground of Victorian society, led to disaster and early death. There have been numerous books about Wilde, and quite a few theatrical plays and television features and programmes. And there have been four English language features films, and French and German features, plus several documentarians. And his plays and his one novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’, have a number of film adaptations.

There is much material for the films. Apart from biographies and treatments in other media, memoirs of Wilde abound. There is his own ‘De Profundis’, though this and the recollections of people who knew him are not always reliable. And the famous trials were recorded in detail and all these film versions utilise the more notable contributions by Wilde. ‘The love that dare not speak its name’ [from an essay] has become a well used phrase in English.

Oscar Wilde (1960) was produced by Vantage Films and distributed by C20th Fox. It garnered an ‘X’ certificate from the British Board of Film Censors, a classification that seems bizarre fifty years on. It was shot in black and white and in the Academy ratio, quite a late example of the use of this ratio. The director was Gregory Ratoff, a Russian émigré who moved first to Paris and then Hollywood. The script was by Jo Eisinger and based on a play that included reminiscences by Wilde’s friend Frank Harris. Eisinger had earlier scripted the notable 1950 Night and the City.

The key members of the cast were Robert Morley as Oscar Wilde; Phyllis Calvert as his wife Constance; and John Neville as Lord Alfred Douglas,[Bosie], Wilde’s lover and the cause of his downfall. Morley is fine presenting Wilde as society wit and epigrammatist; the sexual side is much weaker. But the film itself is weak on this; apparently a scene involving Wilde soliciting a ‘rent boy’ was cut. Neville as Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) does not generate enough charm to justify the obsession that Wilde developed for him. Calvert’s Constance is under-written and her casting presumably followed from earlier roles where she was a put-upon wife, such as They Were Sisters (1945).

The film opens and closes ion Wilde’s grave in Paris at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. It then revisits Wilde’s infatuation and introduces his nemesis, Bosie ‘s father, The Marquis of Queensbury [spellings vary], played by Edmunds Chapman who never exhibits the manic qualities ascribed to the character. What stands out is the trial and the now famous cross-examination by Sir Edward Carson (Ralph Richardson). Richardson plays the character as steely and pitiless. The film also uses the trial transcripts and offers the fullest dramatisation of the court hearing. Following the trial we briefly see Wilde’s incarceration and then his decline in Paris.

The Monthly Film Bulletin (July 1960]] notes the circumstances of the film’s release.

“The film, by five days, of two neck and neck versions of the Wilde story to reach the screen, Oscar Wilde was still being edited up to a couple of hours before the press show. “

This partly accounts for the lack of life in the film and in the portrayals. Possibly responding to Richardson’s careful demolition Morley does give eloquence to the passage of the ‘Love that dare not speak its name’.

The competing version was The Trials of Oscar Wilde, with executive producers Irving Allan and Albert R. Broccoli. This film also received an ‘X’ certificate, with slightly more justification. The film was both scripted and directed by Ken Hughes,; he went on to direct the fine film version of Oliver Cromwell (1970). The film was based on a novel of the same name by Montgomery Hyde and a theatrical adaptation by John Furnell, ‘The Stringed Lute’. The film was shot in Technirama 70, with fine Technicolor and a ratio of 2.20:1 in the 70mm prints, [2.35:1 in the 35mm prints]. The film had a talented production crew, Ted Moore providing the cinematography : he worked on several Bond films. As also did the designer [along with Bill Constable] Ken Adams. And Ron Goodwin provided the music. The film looks and sounds much better than its rival.

The plot begins at the same point as Oscar Wilde, the opening of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. However the film fills in the preceding relationship between Wilde and ‘Bosie’. In fact the film portrays this relationship in much greater depth. One gets a sense of the involvement between the two men and their other relationships, wife and father. John Fraser is good as lord Douglas whilst Lionel Jefferies is excellent as the mad, manic and macho Marquis of Queensbury. Yvonne Mitchell plays Wilde’s wife Constance but the part is again underwritten. We meet their children briefly and at one point hear Oscar telling ‘The Happy Prince’ [incomplete]. At the centre of the film is Peter Finch’s portrayal of Wilde. He does not really catch the writer or the notorious public figure but invests great skill in his obsession with ‘Bosie’ and in the way his life collapses.

Given the title of the film the treatment of the criminal libel case is underdeveloped; ‘trials’ in the sense of the personal. James Mason is not as ruthless as the Richardson portrayal. The film does deal with the two subsequent prosecutions, one ending in a dead-locked jury the other in Wilde’s draconian and moralistic punishment. The film ends with Wilde’s release and does not follow him in his exile in Paris. The last shot is as he leaves London by train. This common trope offers the sight of Wilde spurning ‘Bosie’ as his train departs.

This is a pretty good portrait of Wilde but its primary concern is the in famous relationship and his personal suffering. London and theatre-land of the period is well drawn but seems slightly external to the characters. The powerful scenes are those where Wilde’s obsession increases at the same time as Bosie’s demands increasingly sap his artistry and his social position.

Thirty seven years on and with social attitudes to sexual orientation much changed came Wilde (1997). This biopic was produced in a period when films openly and explicitly addressing gay love were frequent. The film was credited as British and to three other territories; there are a number of production companies, including monies from British and European state agencies. The screenplay is by Julian Mitchell from the book ‘Oscar Wilde’ by Richard Ellmann. It is filmed in anamorphic 2.35:1 and in full Metrocolor. Martin Fuhrer cinematography makes good use of the production design by Maria Djurkovic and very fine costumes by Nic Ede. Oscar Wilde is played in the film by Christopher Fry whose personal and sexual orientation are closer to the subject than that of the earlier actors. He does capture the flamboyance of Wilde’s public image and [to a degree] the contradictory nature of his desires and attractions. The film sets this up in an inspired opening sequence. Prior to marriage the young Wilde, already a noted social figure, visits and entertains miners as he makes a trip to the USA and ‘out west’. This nicely sets up the public figure of Wilde and his ambiguous standing.

The film gives us Wilde’s married life and his two children. Jennifer Ehle has a better written part than her predecessors and offers more rounded portrait of the character. Michael Sheen plays Robert Ross, who both introduces Wilde to the pleasures of homosexuality and also remains a steadfast friend through the travails that will follow. But the film’s prime interest is in Wilde’s sexuality and his obsession with Lord Alfred Douglas, (Jude Law). Their sequences are the most extended in the film and the two actors give full rein to the obsession on one side and the self-centred conduct on the other. Some of the scenes, like Wilde’s sojourn in Brighton whilst ill, cross over with the earlier Trials. But this representation is more powerful and complex, thanks in part to the greater latitude allowed the subject in this period. Tom Wilkinson, as the Marquess of Queensbury, is good and allowed a more complex characterisation than the earlier films.

The film was classified ’15’, how times changed. And it contains a certain amount of explicit sexual conduct. However, I do not think there is any frontal nudity, and the film successfully avoided the ’18’ classification in Britain. The film does show us both Wilde and Bosie’s sexual relationship and their indulgence in what then [as more recently] were described as ‘rent boys’. But that focus takes the film away from the most famous aspect of the story, the notorious trials. The treatment of the libel case is fairly perfunctory in relation to the earlier versions. And the two cases of prosecution are past over.

There are some grim sequences of Wilde’s prison term. And we follow him to exile in France. However, the film ends when he and Bosie re-unite, [though in actuality this was a brief reunion].

The film, as in earlier versions, uses much of the recorded dialogue. Some of the stormier scenes are taken from the account Wilde himself gave in ‘De Profundis’. And there are a number of scenes where we hear Wilde’s famous short story, ‘The Selfish Giant’; suggesting a critical line in the narrative,.

Now, twenty years later, we have a new version of Oscar Wilde. ‘A passion project’ for writer and director Rupert Everett. Apparently it took Everett five years to bring the project to completion. It is credited to Belgium, Italy and Britain; the list of Production Companies runs to two columns in S&S, the main sources being the BBC, Tele München and Télevision belge. The film was shot digitally and in colour and 2.35:1. The main location for the project was Bavaria, with other sites in Belgium, France and Italy. The cinematography by John Conroy looks good as does the production design by Brian Morris. Both interiors and exteriors are convincing and full of interest. The locations partly reflect the film’s focus, the last years of Wilde’s life following his imprisonment and exile. The title of the film is taken from the famous short story by Oscar Wilde, which also figured briefly in the earlier Trials. But here the story becomes a metaphor for the downward spiral of Wilde’s life. The last line of that story suggests the posthumous upward spiral of his work and reputation.

The film opens in 1900 with Wilde already in exile. His life there is intercut with flashbacks to the earlier parts of the story. In a couple of places we get a montage of clips summoning up the past but also highlighting the parallels and oppositions in his career. In an early sequence he entertains a crowd in a low Paris bar with a rendition of a music hall favourite, he collapses and this is followed by a montage of clips including his sentencing for ‘immorality’, the vindictive Marquess of Queensbury and the deeply depressing Reading Gaol. In another sequence, that also appeared in Wilde, we see Oscar pursued by homophobic young Englishness in a Normandy town. There follows a montage of clips that present the opposition and parallels in Wilde life, including a grim sequence as he was baited on his way to prison counterposed with his triumph at the opening night of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. Right through the film Everett and his team counterpose the life in exile with memories and returns to both Wilde success and fame and his degradation after his fall. Nicolas Gaster editing is to be commended.

Everett’s Wilde dominates the film. Philip Kemp notes that

Rupert Everett, in his magisterial role as writer, director and star, catches the theatricality self-mocking aspect of the flamboyant littérateur almost from the start.” (Sight & Sound July 2018).

Everett also catches the rumbustious vitality which enabled Wilde to entertain people across the Victorian divide, from bourgeois to proletarians. This also brings out his sympathy, [though not very analytical] for the exploited and oppressed.

Everett dominates the screen so that other characters are not that fully developed. Both Edwin Thomas) Robbie Ross) and Colin Morgan (Lord Alfred Douglas are excellent as Oscar’s lovers. Emily Watson is fine but gets only limited screen time. The rest of the cast are those who Wilde encounters in exile with a key British character, like the Marquess of Queensbury’ seen only briefly and not credited.

The film offers a valedictory portrait of the artist, with all his flaws and vices. It also give insight into this destructive urges which explain how his great success was followed by such a precipitous fall. And it addresses directly and fully his homosexual activities. The BBFC gave the film a ’15’ certificate noting that

very strong language, strong nudity, drug misuse”.

We see Oscar recounting ‘The Happy Prince’ to two young French urchins, one of who he pays for sex. And in another fine transition we cut to the earlier Wilde recounting that story to his two sons. I think this story makes a better metaphor for Wilde himself that that of ‘The Selfish Giant’ used in Wilde. Everett subtly changes some of the tale to suit the film. Thus the ‘young man in as garret’ becomes

a broken man … He was a writer, but he was too cold to finish his play”.

Here the sentimentality in some of Wilde’s work, though not his famous plays, comes to the fore. And the part of the story [featured elsewhere in the film] where the Mayor decrees the fate of the statue of the ‘Happy Prince,’ cast aside and melted down, draws Wilde’s moral with emphasis to his own fate at the hands of the moralistic Victorian society.

The film has its flaws and the occasional longueur. But Everett’s characterisation, the vivid portrayal of Wilde’s treatment, and the moral valuation offered by the film, make this my favourite of the film adaptations. Given Wilde’s place in the Pantheon, the richness of his artistic work, and the key place he occupies in the history of ‘coming out’, I am sure that we will see more films on this subject in the future.

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Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on August 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sight & Sound [August 2018] review offers,

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

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

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Apostasy, Britain 2017

Posted by keith1942 on August 5, 2018

This is a new release which has enjoyed a number of favourable reviews but for me the word that best describes the title is ‘glum’. This was due to a combination of factors, especially the subject, plot and the style.

The subject is a family who are members of the Jehovah Witnesses. There is an absent father [unexplained] the mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran ), the elder daughter Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and the younger daughter Alex (Molly Wright). The plot presents both their family and the local Kingdom Hall congregation of which they are members. As the narrative proceeds the faith of the family comes up against increasing contradictions which are fuelled by the authoritarian nature of the Witnesses, embodied by the all-male elders.

Ivanna is strong in her faith despite the problems she faces; she works in what seems to be a council office. Alex is also committed but she suffers from anaemia; she works in a gardening team.. This as a problem is raised right at the start of the story when we learn that as a child Alex had a blood transfusion, insisted on by a hospital despite this being contrary to the beliefs of the Witnesses. Luisa is the odd one out. She attends a local college and her encounters with people of other or of no faith has an effect. She becomes pregnant and it this this issue that drives a wedge between the family and incurs the restrained wrath of the elders.

As you might guess the film ends up with a critical perspective on the Jehovah Witnesses. The narrative is generally low-key and the presentation of the meetings and rituals of the Witnesses is matter-of-a fact and [it seems] very accurate. The drama, as much as there is, is partly presented through performance and partly through the use of ellipses in the plot.

The cast are good and they are convincing and [despite the low-key presentation] there are scenes of powerful emotion . The film aims to add to this through the style. The palette of the film is almost dismal and the framing concentrates on the interaction of the actors. At time though the settings [such as the family home] are important in setting the mood.

The problem with the style for me is that the title is shot on a digital format and not one of particularly high quality as far as I could tell. [I have not been able to find a listing that gives the technical information]. The title is in colour and the unusual aspect ratio of 1.5:1, [apparently the ratio used in photographs that were source for the production]. But especially in the interiors of the family home the image has low contrast and low definition: 35mm film would have improved both areas. The visual effect was, for me, best described as ‘muddy’.

I also found the narrative uneven. It seems to aim for a social realist presentation. Yet there are some lacunae in the plot. When Luisa is pregnant Ivanna has to bail her out as Luisa has not got a job and appears broke. Yet she drives round in a relatively new saloon car. I also wondered if other aspects of the Witnesses beliefs would not have created problems? We get their ‘shunning’ of apostates, their reliance on a particular version of the bible and their proselytizing. But they also reject quite a few obligations of citizenship and this seems to be missing.

The narrative is hard work, partly because we get so much of the Witnesses theology, which is fundamentalist and reactionary. I possibly could have managed the plot and characters if it were not for the poor image. As it was I found the title’s 95 minutes a real struggle. I saw it at local cinema where it seems the film has so far enjoyed good audiences, and quite a few of them thought it good. The writer/director Daniel Kokotajlo [who has direct experience of the Witnesses] clearly aims to subvert the fundamentalist religious values propagated by the Witnesses. But we have been here before. Michael Relph and Basil Dearden addressed the central topic, the objection to blood transfusions, in one of their social-problem films, Life For Ruth (1962). This was a film in black and white and in the 1.66:1 ratio. The Witnesses were not actually identified as the religious sect in this film, but it clearly dramatised the same issue. My memory of it is that it worked better as a drama that this new title.

Apart from the hardship of sitting through the film I am also unhappy about the vagaries of British distribution. So Apostasy is screening at a local cinema for seven night but not a single cinema in Leeds/Bradford has yet screened The Young Karl Marx which is both politically superior and far more entertaining.

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