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Notes from another India.

Posted by keith1942 on August 27, 2017

A Kolkata shanty town – Alamy file.

This was another screening presented by the Pavilion together with the Hyde Park Picture House. In fact, we can look forward to a number of films about the sub-continent and the states created seventy years ago, in 1947, India and Pakistan. As one would expect from the Pavilion these are unconventional film which offer a distinctive take on the sub-continent and its cultures

The programme offered

“three perspectives on Kolkata, a city whose name was anglicised to Calcutta during the British Imperial period, then officially changed to it’s Bengali pronunciation in 2001.”

Tales From Planet Kolkata (UK, 1993, 38 min)

Rochir Joshi is an Indian writer and filmmaker and also authors a columns in ‘The Telegraph’, ‘India Today’ and other publications. He was born in Kolkata and now is an artist in the Diaspora, commuting between London and Delhi.

“In 1993, Ruchir Joshi decided to spoof the Western cinematic notions of the city that he loves.

“My documentary Tales From Planet Kolkata was made to mock the popular perception of the city. I was fed up of everyone telling me about the progression of Mumbai and Delhi while Kolkata, apparently, languished in the backwaters,” says Joshi.” (From ‘Indian Express’: the film was commissioned by Channel 4.

The film is in colour and in the academy ratio. It was projected from a digital source.

The film offers a series of shots and sequences from the city. Some of these offer comments on the history, notably two singers who display traditional scrolls with paintings about events, including the British presence in the city. The soundtrack is quite diverse, some of it is actual sound with voices of the inhabitants. There is a reflective strand in the film as people refer to the earlier western filmmakers who have filmed in the city: notably Louis Malle and Pier Paulo Pasolini. A recurring strand is film of the making of ‘City of Joy’ (1991) which starred Patrick Swayze. These cinematic references are completed with the final imagery of acetate film floating and then sinking in the river.

The cinematography in the film is very well done and it is visually pleasing. The sound, images and metaphors do not completely translate for English viewers [though there are sub-titles] but I suspect that it deliberate.

There were then two films made by Mark LaPore, a USA-based experimental filmmaker and teacher: he died in 2005. The ‘Boston Glove’ obituary included the comment on Lapore’s films as :

”unique, a form of visual anthropology but equally about the mystery of being and film as consciousness. These uncompromising films have enormous integrity and deserve a very important place within the entire history of film.’”

Will Rose in introducing the films pointed out that LaPore’s work was ethnographic but also personal and offered a strong sense of place. I certainly got this sense from the films.

The Glass System (USA, 2000, 20 min)

The film was in black and white, academy ratio and was projected on 16mm. It was a series of shots of the city and its people. There is a thread running through the film but rather tenuous; there is definitely the sense of the personal in the selection of images and sounds. LaPore has a tendency for long takes. The film is mostly in long shot with the camera moving to mid-shots and close-ups, most frequently on people. The camera is most often in “plan américain”, a straight-on shot at mid-height. The sound appears to be predominantly actual including the music.

Mark LaPore on an improvised dolly.

Kolkata (USA, 2005, 35 min – his final film)

This was my favourite of the three titles. It was also filmed in black and white and academy on 16mm. Like The Glass System the film is composed of a series of shots of the city and its people. In this film the emphasis is on the streets, their vendors and shoppers and a street market. At the centre of the film are two remarkably parallel tracks, one reversing the other. Both seem to run for about five minutes as LaPore [and we with him] observe the life of the street. Both tracks are plan américain. The accompanying sound seems mainly actual, though the complex mix of sounds produces an aural tapestry.

And finally there was an excerpt from

Dreams and Apparitions of Mark Lapore (Saul Levine, 2006/7, 12 min)

This film, made after LaPore’s death [by suicide], offers friends and colleagues talking about him and his work.

Here a colleague recounts a minor but telling incident. She was preparing for a film class and checked her bag for her materials, including two cans of Kodak Tri-Pax. After the class she realised that one can was used film. it turned out to be film shot be LaPore before he died. It was filmed in India and focussed on elephants, a particular interest of the filmmaker. So she screened the film for us, [whilst the original was in colour this extract was on black and white video].

You gained a real sense of both a working relationship and a friendship from the film.

This was a really worthwhile set of screenings. It is always pleasure, [rare now] to watch 16mm film prints. The texture and contrast of the films, especially in black and white, is distinct from digital formats. And the films were, to differing degrees, fascinating.

The Pavilion have two more events planned at the Hyde Park Picture House in this series.

And the Independent Cinema Office have a number of titles, really fine films produced in India, circulating over the months of the anniversary.

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

Four films by Larry Gottheim

Posted by keith1942 on June 6, 2017

A US presentation on Larry Gottheim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“wanting us to see it [and them].”

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

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

Mnemosyne Mother Of Muses

1986, colour and black and white , 16 minutes.

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

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

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

“the conflict between the intellectual and the experiential …”

Tree of Knowledge (Elective Affinities, Part IV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All quotations by Larry Gottheim in the presentation or online.

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

The Edge of the World Britain 1937

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2017

The film was screened from a 35mm print at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the AGM for the Friends of the Hyde Park Picture.

The 1930s is often seen as a ‘low decade’ for British films. But, apart from many of the ‘Quota Quickies’ [made on the cheap to take advantage of state subsidies] there were some fine and well made movies. This title is one of those. It was directed by Michael Powell, shortly before he began his famous partnership with Emeric Pressburger.

The film is a melodrama set in a traditional community where modern influences are threatening the established way of life. Tensions within communities are accentuated by conflicts over tradition versus the new. The central problem is the impact of modern life and new technologies on a traditional community in decline. One example in the film is that the Islands fishing work has been taken over by trawlers operating from the Scottish mainland. This conflict is personified in the persons of the sons of the Manson and Gray families. Ironically the conflict is played out in a traditional ritual: a contest on the steep Island cliffs.

Powell’s story was inspired by reports in 1930 of the evacuation of St. Kilda [in the Hebrides]. In fact he had to shoot the film on Foula in the Shetlands. Given the story that was the source the film’s resolution is pre-ordained. The drama is developed by the conflict, which to a degree is a generational conflict. But there is also a romance, itself tragically affected by the larger conflict.

The film makes impressive use of Island rituals. Early on we see the Sabbath morning and the inhabitants gathering at the Kirk for a service and a traditional sermon running over an hour. Later we see the Islanders herding sheep for traditional hand-picking of the wool. There is an open-air ceilidh. A major event is a funeral and wake for a victim. And finally, we watch as the Inhabitants file onto a trawler, leaving their home for the mainland.

These characters are well played by familiar actors like John Laurie (Peter Manson), Finlay Currie (James Gray) and Niall MacGinnis (Andrew Gray) with lesser known performers like Belle Chrystall (Ruth Manson) and Kitty Kirwan (Jean Manson – seen in other classic films like I Know

Where I’m Going (1945) and Odd Man Out (1947)]. They were supported by actual islanders living on the location, the Isle of Fulva: and [rather Hitchcockian] Michael Powell as a Yachtsman.

The film opens as the yacht, with Andrew Gray, on-board as it sails into the small harbour. On a tour of the Island the trio come on a stone slab, marked ‘Gone Over’; marking the spot where Peter Manson fell. Then as Andrew wanders pass a croft and then the Kirk we enter a flashback to ten years earlier. Finally the film returns to the trio after detailing the mains story.

Three cinematographers worked on the film but the key lighting cameraman was Ernest Palmer [H.E.]who captured the beauty of the wild terrains and massive cliffs of the island. Nearly the whole of the film was shot on location with a few linking shots added at the studio. There is extensive use of superimpositions and these tie together the present and the past in the film. Presumably the experience of location filming stood him in good stead on a later film,  San Demetrio London (1943). The soundtrack was  by W. H. Sweeney and L. K. Tregellas, also excellent and combining actual sounds and music. The music includes three songs by the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. Music is mostly used for sequences that offer drama and heightened emotion.

The production team had to live on the island for several months from June till October, a long way from the studios which were the normal home of film crews. The latter stages saw them battling wind and rain. Michael Powell wrote the story: the script seems to have developed during the shoot, taking in rituals that were part of the actual Island life. The film was produced by a US émigré, Joe Rock, who ran a small independent studio near Elstree. Most of the technical crew had worked with Powell before. He had established himself with a number of ‘quota quickies’, including a recent success for the Rock Production Company The Man Behind the Mask (1936). The film’s pre-release was in the summer of 1937. Michael Powell recalled [in his autobiographical ‘A Life in the Movies’  (1986)]:

“The film opened at the New Gallery Cinema in Regent Street, now the London headquarters of the Seventh day Adventists, but then a rather classy movie theatre. [It is now a Burberry store, but the auditorium and its screen can still be seen and are used for promotional videos]. The critics gave it a cautious reviews. But my old admirer, C. A. Lejeune, writing in The Observer knew the difference between a lyric drama and a documentary, and said: “I hope everyone who can will make a point of seeing The Edge of the World. In some obscure judgement day, when these things are measured, I have a feeling it will come up somewhere near the top of English classics.”

And Basil Wright [of the British Documentary Movement] trumpeted in the Cinema: “If The Edge of the World achieves the success it so well deserves, it will be yet another reminder that vast production costs, exotic casts, and cosmopolitan scenarios are perhaps not the ultimate plan for the British Cinema.”

The film opened at the New Gallery Cinema in Regent Street, now the London headquarters of the Seventh day Adventists, but then a rather classy movie theatre. [It is now a Burberry store, but the auditorium and its screen can still be seen and are used for promotional videos]. The critics gave it a cautious reviews. But my old admirer, C. A. Lejeune, writing in The Observer knew the difference between a lyric drama and a documentary, and said: “I hope everyone who can will make a point of seeing The Edge of the World. In some obscure judgement day, when these things are measured, I have a feeling it will come up somewhere near the top of English classics.”

[Later] Joe Rock, who was fighting for the film, had sent a copy to New York to a small distributor, who submitted it to the National Board of Review film critics, and they chose it as one of the best foreign films of the year, which gave me a wonderful lift.”

This was well before British films won the occasional Academy Award. It was also seen and liked by film impresario Alexander Korda, And it was at his Denham Studio that Powell and Pressburger commenced the most memorable partnership in British Cinema.

The film was restored by the National Film Archive in 1990, though the present 35mm print is slightly shorter than the original release. The film was re-issued in cut version in 1940, running 62 minutes. The restoration runs 74 minutes. The print is good, though the is some variation on the  image, presumably due to different source material. And since 1990 it has suffered a few minor cuts, so we get what seem like ‘jump cuts’.

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Savage Messiah Britain 1972

Posted by keith1942 on August 10, 2016

Savage Messiah

This screening at the Hyde Park Picture was part of celebration of the film’s artistic protagonist, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in 2011. The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds was hosting an exhibition ‘Savage Messiah: The Creation of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’. We had been hoping then to hear Ken Russell introduce his film. However, he was unfortunately in hospital after suffering a ‘little’ stroke; he sadly succumbed and later died. So his friend and long-time editor Michael Bradsell introduced the film, reading out a letter from Ken’s sick- bed. He told us this was the favourite among his many fine films. It was understandable that British films foremost maverick should love a film about an early C20th artistic maverick.

The film primarily focuses on the stormy and unconventional relationship between Gaudier [Scot Antony) and Polish writer Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin). The joined surname is a symbol of their union, and Russell described one facet of it as ‘solitudes join up’, [quoting the German poet Rilke].

Michael Bradsell suggested that film had not been seen in a public screening for forty years, [the original West End release only ran five days: it was screened on television in the 1980s]. My memory of the film was that it was uneven, brilliant, but not completely so. The new screening fitted that memory. The film does depend on the central characterisation of Gaudier. Scot Antony seemed to me a one-note performance. He captures the restless and exuberant energy of youth, but not the complexity and angst that I certainly sense in Gaudier’s artistic work. But opposite him as Sophie Dorothy Tutin is magnificent. Her Sophie is contradictory, emotional, passionate, critical and obsessive. I felt that the best scenes in the film were when she was fully involved.

savage_messiah_sophie

Henri and Sophie are [I believe] the only historical characters in the film. Gaudier was involved with British Vorticism, a movement also enjoying renewed interest at that moment. Russell and his screenwriter Christopher Logue created a set of fictional characters embodying some [but not all] of the characteristics of this artistic group. Their particular brand of experimentalism provided a grand opportunity for the sort of camp display that Russell so enjoyed. These included two visits to The Vortex club where their unconventional behaviour and performance were gloriously dramatised. This group also included an early film outing for Helen Mirren (‘Gosh’ Smith-Boyle], outlandish but performed with great assurance.

The screenplay was developed from a biography of Gaudier by H. S. Ede. This provided the title of the film: it also used the many letters between Henri and Sophie to develop their story. This effectively provided continuing and illuminating dialogue on the up and downs of their relationship and of his art.

The film offers two major settings, Paris and London. I found the Paris sequence fairly unconvincing; [the locations all appear to be English]. However, when the poverty-stricken couple cross the channel the film improves immeasurably. The focus in London is Gaudier’s Putney studio, a basement where a grill at eye-level, running the entirety of this long room, looks out on the street. Russell uses this as a canvas on which past the rapidly developing social events of the day. This is a rather theatrical device, but one which Russell [as in other films] delivers in beautiful cinematic form. The camera work is extremely good: apparently shot mostly in natural light by Dick Bush. The dark and shadowy basement is frequently illuminated by the wider world of the street. And there is the memorable design work of Derek Jarman.

It is in the basement that we see most of Gaudier’s artistic endeavour, especially the sculptures for which he is famous. Russell captures the effort and the energy that produced his work. There is less sense of his artistic purpose and philosophy, though there are a couple of monologues where he does expound his ideas. So the film captures the visual rather than the mental state of this artist.

Apparently Russell and his collaborators reworked Gaudier’s biography fairly freely in their dramatisation. He arrived in London in 1911. By 1915 he went off to the trenches of World War I where was he killed. The film presents this as a contradictory response to the devastation of the war: apparently the actual Gaudier was quite gung-ho about supporting the war, certainly in keeping with Vorticism and its major influence Futurism. His death is followed by a posthumous exhibition of his works, with the camera focusing on the many, varied and innovative sculptures. This sequence is intercut with the grieving Sophie. And the final shot shows her standing by a massive, unfinished sculpture in the studio. It is a beautiful visual image to close to a powerful film.

Savage_Messiah_sculpting

Whilst it is a film of light and shadows, it is not all doom and gloom. There is a delightful scene where Sophie serenades a dinner party with a pseudo-folk song. In another sequence Henri and Sophie explore and romance among the piles of stones at Portland. A night scene in a cemetery shows Gaudier and his friends purloining a marble for a sculpture: a scene, which takes us back to Russell much earlier work on the Pre-Raphaelites. And at the start of the film Gaudier drapes himself round a stature to the consternation of Parisians and the police. This last reminded me of the opening of Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), not the sort of reference I usually associate with Russell.

The qualities of the film certainly outshine its limitations. And the print, restored with assistance from the Institute, looked really good and showed up well on the big screen. Hopefully, its availability would temp more exhibitors to offer screenings of this important film. And then we might also get to see again Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971). In fact I have seen both the latter films again since 2011 but there has been no further sign of Savage Messiah.

Producer and director: Ken Russell. Screenplay: Christopher Logue from the book by H. S. Ede. Photography: Dick Bush. Editor: Michael Bradsell. Production designer: Derek Jarman. Music: Michael Garratt. UK 1972, 100 minutes. In Metrocolor.

Originally posted on ITP World.

Posted in British films, UK filmmakers | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary Japan 2015

Posted by keith1942 on May 8, 2016

our_little_sister_edit_xlarge

This film was screened in the 29th Leeds International Film Festival and I thought it the pick in a strong programme. The film is adapted from a popular manga title by Koreeda Hirokazu, who also edited the film. It is the most recent in a line of family dramas in the tradition of the Japanese film genre, shomin-geki [shōshimin-eiga, the lives of ordinary working people]. These include Like Father / Soshite chichi ni naru (2013) involving parentage and children: I Wish / Kiseki (2011) about separated siblings: and Still Walking / Aruitemo aruitemo (2008) about adults and their ageing parents. Our Little Sister combines aspects of the earlier films with its main focus on four sisters. Three of these are the adult Koda sisters, Ayase Haruka as Sachi, Nagasawa Masami as Yoshino and Kaho as Chika. The ‘little sister’ has Hirose Suzu as Asano Suzu, their step-sister.

The film is set in Kamakura on the Yokohama peninsula; not that far away from Tokyo. The characters also travel at one point to the North-East and other characters from there. Kamakura is a small coastal town. The settings include the family home, urban and rural sites and the seashore.

The four sisters are beautifully played and the supporting cast are excellent. Their actions and conversations are totally believable. Detail is important and lovingly played in this film. Little touches like the picking and preparation of plums from the garden tree are very effective. And these actions play into a complex network of motifs that tell us as much about the characters as their words.

Koreeda and his team, notably cinematographer Takimoto Mikiya, offer fairly slow and detailed observation. Critics have made comparisons with the films of the great Ozu Yasijurō, but thematically this film is closer to the equally fine work of Naruse Mikio. There is loss but also resilience and the importance of memory and tradition. The film is a delicate study with moments of fine humour and irony. As with the earlier films food and meals are an important aspect of the lives and their study.

If you have not seen Koreeda’s films before this would make an excellent start. if you have you will know just how rewarding are his studies of family life. If we see half-a dozen equally fine films in 2016 then this year will be a classic. Note though, it has a very limited distribution. It seems the next screening locally is on the evening of Tuesday May 31st at Hebden Bridge Picture House.

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The Divide Britain 2015

Posted by keith1942 on April 22, 2016

Framing Keith

Framing Keith

This documentary was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House and followed by a Q&A with the director, Katherine Round. The film is ‘inspired’ by the best-selling The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009). There was an audience of around 200 for the event. This is probably partly due to the topicality of the central issue in the film: inequality. But also Katherine Round studied at Leeds University.

This is a powerful documentary with telling effects and arguments. But I felt that it also had severe limitations. To start with the virtues. The core of the film is the presentation of the part-stories and situations of seven people living in either the USA or UK.

Alden, a New York psychologist whose clients include Wall Street Bankers. He is affluent but works long hours and so has a diminished family life.

Leah is an Afro-American single mother in Virginia and she works in a Kentucky Fried Chicken diner.

Jen and her husband live in a gated’ community. They seem less affluent than their neighbours and appear isolated. Their income is unclear.

Janet and her husband ran a video store which failed. She now works for Al-Mart in Louisiana.

Rochelle is a care worker in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Her pay is low and her hours demanding. She has difficulty feeding and clothing her children.

Darren lives on an estate in Glasgow where poverty and unemployment are endemic. He has problems with addictions.

Keith is in a California Penitentiary. he fell foul of the ‘three strikes’ rule.

We meet and hear the seven several times and learn something of their situation and their lives. We also occasionally hear the interviewer Katherine Round. Alden and Jen seem somewhat dissatisfied with their lives. Leah is more buoyant about life and Janet is active in the union. Rochelle is hard-pressed to cope. Darren’s life is very problematic but he has some hopes. Whilst Keith, after seventeen years in jail, is extremely oppressed.

The interviews and film of these subjects is intercut with comments by professionals and academics. Among these we see and hear well known names such as the author Richard Wilkinson, Noam Chomsky and Ha-Joon Chang. There are clips of political leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and [briefly] Tony Blair at his most fatuous.

These are accompanied by archive films and television footage. They come from key years between 1979 [UK] and 1981 [USA] and the present. This is part of an argument regarding changes in the way these modern capitalist societies are organised, in particular the growing disparity between the bulk of the population and an extremely rich elite. The now familiar argument is made about how the elite, through their influence on political power, are able to not only defend but to aggrandize their share of the national cake.

The film is well shot by cinematographer Woody James. there are some excellent framing of subjects, especially Keith in the penitentiary. The editing by John Mister is extremely effective as it crosses time, the USA and the Atlantic. And the team of sound recordists have blended a variety of voices, noises and effects to good purpose, with much of the accompanying music offering a blues tone.

There were however for me serious limitation in this film. Katherine Round has worked on many documentaries for Television and I found the films’ form somewhat conventional. The film of and interviews with the subjects work very well, though the subjects do not get an equal amount of time. And the commentative voices do seem a little like ‘talking heads’. Noam Chomsky, for example, appears a couple of times with only one or two sentences: and he is not known for his brevity. Some of the illustrative material, like the adverts, feel like the visual spots in the news, filling space rather than informing. And the identification of voices or footage is not consistent. I thought that some film of the subjects could have been older footage, but this was not clear.

In terms of the inspiration by The Spirit Level, the film does not follow the book, which was very much a presentation of research. This is a more poetic vision. However, I think this approach does not present all of the book’s view. In the Q&A one audience member remarked on the absence from the film of the ‘top one percent’. Round suggested that all of the subjects were in some sense disadvantaged and therefore dissatisfied. I thought that was in the film but the sense of the oppressiveness of lives for the most exploited was much clearer. And the idea behind this ignores the way that economic impacts are more fundamental than psychological ones.

Part of the problem is that the film does not have a clear sense of class. There is a lack of economic data on the subjects. We learn that Alden gets 1500 dollars for treating clients, but we do not learn about the income of the others. In Jen’s case it is not clear where her family income comes from. Rochelle confesses to having to buy food and clothes on her credit card as she waits for payday. Leah and Janet have their own houses apparently, whilst Rochelle and Darren appear to live in council hosing. But otherwise we are left in the dark.

In fact the film spends more time on housing than income or wealth. There is more material on ‘gated communities’ than other aspects. This seems to relate to the role of ‘sub-prime mortgages’ in the 2008 crash. The geography of the film is problematic. We have widely scattered abodes across the USA: and the film does not really address the way that the different settings vary. Even more problematic is the cross-over between the USA and UK. I am not really sure I you compare the Southern USA with northern Britain. The settings are as varied as the class position of the subjects.

The analysis in the film is limited in other ways. The main argument concerns changes in the advanced capitalist economies since the 1980s. An argument that has moved centre stage since the 2008 crash. But there appears to be an unexpressed acceptance of the capitalist mode of production. A venture capitalist defends his ‘wealth making’ without challenge. Several speakers talk of how things have ‘got out of hand’. And a couple, including Chomsky, refer to the ‘unregulated market’ and that we no longer all ‘play by the same set of rules’. The anarchy of the market is at the centre of capitalism but the fundamental aspect of this mode of production is the commodity and the way that the value created in it by labour power is expropriated by the capitalist class. On the platform with Katherine Round was an equality campaigner [whose name I did not catch]. He referred to the minimum wage: a valid defensive tactic but not one that changes the fundamentals. There was no sense of the arguments by Marx and Engels that the basic mechanism of this society leads to expropriation and so inequality.

Moreover the historical view in the film is extremely limited. So it fails to draw any parallels with the 1929 crash and The Great Depression. One could tell seven stories from the 1930s that parallel those in The Divide and here we are again. [CBS documentary Meltdown: The Global Financial Collapse series draws the comparison]. And the realisation that it is a fundamental issue predates Marx and Engels. A hundred years earlier Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract, or Of the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique; 1762) that what was required was that

“no citizen is rich enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.”

Even so the film is worth seeing, because there is not that much critical material around. It screens again at the Hyde Park on April 27th and it will screen at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum on May 31st.

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Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, Belgium, France 1975

Posted by keith1942 on April 14, 2016

Son and mother

Son and mother

Over the last year A Nos Amours have made available several films by Chantal Ackerman who died in 2015. None of these reached Leeds unfortunately. However in 2013 this film was screened at the Leeds International Film Festival on a 35mm print. It is an almost flawless masterpiece. I write flawless because it seemed to me that the film perfectly captures the intent of its writer and director Chantal Ackerman. It is a film where the distinction that we usually make between form and content is almost redundant, because they are in complete synchrony.

The film charts almost three days in the life of the widow Jeanne and her son Sylvain. That she is a widow is important: a photograph of her wedding day, with her husband, stands on her dressing room table. The critics quoted in the Catalogue uses the term ‘single mother’, but certainly in English ‘widow’ and ‘single mother’ have very different connotations.

On the first day, Wednesday, we join the routine of Jeanne as housewife and mother. Her day includes looking after a neighbour’s baby, shopping, domestic duties and preparing meals: and of a different order, servicing regular male clients whilst her son is out at school. Her activities are all performed with methodical care. And this is also true of the evenings when her son Sylvain returns home. There is a simple meal. Reading to help retain his French accent as he is attending a Flemish school: reading a letter from a married sister in Canada. And there is a constitutional walk before bedtime. Of a slightly different character is the bedtime exchange when the son probes his mother’s past emotional life.

Thursday the second day seems very similar. But we notice small discords that intrude on Jeanne’s routines. Another male client attends, but the transaction seems little different from the preceding day. The son’s bedtime questions are more probing and personal, including emotional comments on the dead father.

On Friday, day three, the discords become much more apparent and Jeanne’s growing disquiet moves from subtle expression to clear disruptions. It is on day three that a dramatic event occurs. This completely breaks down Jeanne’s life of orderly routine but also shines a strong illumination on all that has gone before. The ending of the film leaves a number of conventional plot questions unresolved, but exposes the contradictions under which Jeanne has laboured.

Domestic labour

Domestic labour

The film is shot predominantly in mid-shot with occasional long shots. The rhythm of the film is slow; whole sequences are often filmed in one take. And the sound track on the film is natural and diegetic. The audience is asked to watch and consider. Since the film runs for 201 minutes this is quite an ask. But I found, and other audience members concurred, that the film did not seem anywhere as long as that.

As the title suggests Jeanne’s labour as a prostitute is presented as an example of commodity exchange. And the routines that she follows when preparing for her clients emphasises this aspect. In fact we do not see the actual acts of intercourse on the Wednesday or Thursday. However we do enter the bedroom for the coitus on the Friday. This act is clearly of a different order from those of the preceding days. Essentially the use value and exchange value of Jeanne’s sexuality come into conflict at this point.

Whilst the events on the Friday are likely to take the audience by surprise, the film is careful to prepare the ground, though this is done in a low-key and fairly subtle manner. But the methodical behaviour that Jeanne follows, and the increasing discrepancies that become apparent, both lead up to the climax. Seeing the film again I noted the neon sign in the street creates a flashing reflection which is seen on the sitting room wall in the evenings Jeanne spends with her son. Now this seems like a premonition with a strong film noir flavour.

The LIFF Catalogue refers to the influence of two of the USA avant-garde filmmakers, Michael Snow and Andy Warhol. This is noticeable in the importance of space and time in the film. Ackerman herself has acknowledged the influence of Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard. The latter possibly influenced the way that the film uses repetition and ellipsis to present the routines of Jeanne. What struck me was the way that the film uses props in the mise en scène, also relying on the depth of field, and recalling the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, another acknowledged influence. I found the similarity especially pronounced in the long shots along corridors.

If the film’s direction is beautifully modulated then this is also true of the central performance by Delphine Seyrig. Her Jeanne is some way removed from her character in Last Year in Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961). Indeed that film’s director Alain Resnais is another obvious influence. Whilst the two films are very different, what they share is a formal rigour.

The screening used a fairly good 35mm print, with only a few noticeably worn sections. So it showed off the production skills of Babette Mangolte’s cinematography, Patricia Canino’s editing and Alain Marchall’s sound editing.

Along with the films A Nos Amours arranged an exhibition of Ackerman’s Installations.

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Victim Britain 1961

Posted by keith1942 on March 9, 2016

63 'Victim', 1961

I was able to revisit this film when the Hyde Park Picture House screened it in a fine 35mm print. The film stands up well. It has a strong cast and is generally well filmed if in a rather conventional style. It is a seminal film of the early 1960s, basically because it addresses explicitly the question of sexual orientation and homosexuality. Homosexual practice was illegal in the UK in this period though the 1958 Wolfenden Report had recommended liberalisation. Gay people had suffered from police harassment and prosecutions. By 1961 the police were generally more laid back, partly because the law was seen as a ‘blackmailer’s charter’ and gay men as easy but innocent victims. The film reflects these aspects in its plot and characters. It is worth noting that the moral panics around paedophilia are much more recent. There are slight references to ‘corruption’ in the film but modern films on the issue would likely be more pronounced. In fact I saw the film in the same week as Spotlight (USA 2015) and that film is centrally constructed around the issue of abuse.

Dirk Bogarde plays Melvin Farr, a successful lawyer who has had a relationship with a younger man, ‘Boy’ Barrett (Peter McInery). Farr is married to Laura (Sylvia Syms) though they have no children. He had had a previous same sex relationship at University and Laura knew about this before they were married. Barrett is being blackmailed and because he loves/is besotted with Farr he steals at work to pay off the blackmailers. So the police enter the picture. Barrett commits suicide in custody. Farr, who initially refused contact with Barrett, is now struck by guilt and determines to hunt down the blackmailers. This involves him in seeking out gay men being blackmailed: some of whom turn out to be his own friends and professional colleagues.

The police question Barrett

The police question Barrett

The thriller format allows the film to appear primarily as a genre piece. It even has a rather heavy handed red herring. But it is a noir thriller, full of chiaroscuro lighting.  Characters are constantly presented in shadow. There is one intriguing scene early in the film when Melville returns home late and finds Laura still up: she has risen to answer the telephone. It was Barrett but Laura is still unaware of the implications. As they ascend the stairs Melville tells her he loves her and they embrace. Yet both are in deep shadow and the clinch is hardly visible. At other times full illumination falls on a character: one such point is at the moment that Farr realises that Barrett’s death is a sacrifice for his interests.

The cinematography is fairly typical of mainstream films of the period, moving from long shots to mid-shots and then close-ups, especially at moments of intense drama. There are frequent dollies and tracks, and less often crane shots and high and low angle camera settings for particular emphasis. The editing uses frequent parallel cuts, to draw links between characters and events. So in the opening section of the film we first see Barrett on the building site where he works as a wages clerk. There is a crane shot with high angle camera as the police arrive. The following sequences cut between Barrett as he desperately seeks help from his friends and gay acquaintances: the police as they close in on Barrett: and Farr, who refuses to engage with Barrett’s phone calls. As these sequences progress we move from daylight to night and to an increasing noir sensibility.

The film uses quite a number of scenes shot on actual location. Four of these are exteriors of the Farr house. On the second occasion Melville returns in his car and parks. A tilt and pan follow him as he looks to his right. A cut with an eye-line match shows a disconsolate Laura standing by the river. However, the locations do not match. The first shot shows railing and shrubs on the offside, the reverse shot shows a low wall with the river and a panorama beyond. The reverse shot is presumably to emphasise the desolation felt by Laura, but most locations seem mainly to present a particular sense of place.

The gay character are an interesting cross-section: including an actor Calloway (Dennis Price): a photographer Paul Mandrake (Peter Copley) : a prominent lawyer Lord Fullbrook (Anthony Nicholls): a car salesman Phip (Nigel Stock):a hairdresser Harold Doe (Norman Bird) and a bookshop owner Henry (Charles Lloyd Pack). These characters are presented in a relatively sympathetic fashion. Interestingly the main villain, Sandy (Derren Nesbit) has a rather homoerotic air to his flat: including a punch ball and an illustration of a  classical nude male sculpture. In fact the most stereotypical characterisation is a police plain clothes officer (John Bennett), who is presumably straight. The key straight character appears to be Barrett’s friend Eddy (Donald Churchill) who assist Barrett at the beginning and then Farr in his investigation.

Harold with Sandy

Harold with Sandy

There are other straight characters, and frequently they express distaste for homosexuals. At an early stage Barrett seeks help from his friend Frank (Alan Howard): and Frank’s girlfriends Sylvie (Dawn Beret) is adamant that

“I wouldn’t have him at home. … Why can’t he stay with his own kind?”

A little later as they embrace at bedtime Frank remarks to Sylvie that Barrett

“hasn’t got what you and I’ve got.”

The two key policeman are Detective Inspector Harris (John Barrie) – relatively liberal in his attitude – and his aide Bridie (John Cairney) who clearly finds homosexuals distasteful. The barman (Frank Petitt) at a regular haunt for Barrett and friends is amicable in their presence but scathing about them when they are gone. And Sandy’s assistant in the blackmail, Miss Benham (Margaret Diamond) is [according to Sandy]

‘a cross between an avenging angel and a peeping Tom’

with regard to homosexuals. It is her who comes up with the idea of daubing Farr’s garage with

“Farr is Queer”.

Another character who finds homosexuality problematic is Laura’s brother Scott (Alan MacNaughton), also a lawyer. At one point, when he realises about Melville’s orientation, Scott questions Laura about her marriage, asking ‘have you been satisfied’. To this Laura responds that Melville has been ‘kind and understanding’ adding the rider ‘it’s all I’ve known’.

It is pointed that Melville and Laura have no children. In fact, Laura has taken on a day-time teaching job even though she does not need to work for money. It is a ‘working with difficult kids’. We see the children several times in the film. At one potent point Laura is observing a problem child who is, at this moment, painting in a relaxed manner. She peruses a newspaper and then starts as she reads the report of Barrett’s suicide; matters start to fall into place. Immediately the child, in a spasm, daubs his picture of a woman’s head with striking crosses.

In fact, little is made of the question of adult homosexuals and younger males. Barrett clearly has had a relationship prior to Melville with Harold, the older book shop owner. In a scene where Melville meets three gay men and realises their orientation one remarks that ‘ he has never corrupted the normal’. Scott, who is a widower, tells Laura that he fears that his son Ronnie could come to ‘hero worship’ Melville.

The most powerful scene in which the film addresses the issue of gay sex is when Laura, having realised that there is some sort of relationship between Melville and Barrett, questions him. Melville insists that the relationship was platonic. But he goes on to admit that

‘I wanted him’.

This powerful moment was not in the original script but was added at Bogarde’s insistence and with him proposing the dialogue. For the period it is a moment of dramatic and unconventional intensity.

Laura questions Melville

Laura questions Melville

But Farr has clearly repressed his desires. When Mandrake refers to the young man with whom Melville had a relationship at University and who later committed suicide [again!] Melville strikes him. In an early version of the film the script had Melville telling Laura that

“Only religion can help any man who falls in love with those of his own sex but knows that he should deny himself in the interests of society.”

The change is a definite improvement. However there is a short sequence, after Melville’s ‘confession’, when he is seen leaving a churchyard: it is as if he has been to religious confession.

The script had been written by Janet Green and John McCormick. They were a wife and husband team with Green obviously the key writer. She had worked on a number of films produced by Michael Relph and directed by Basil Dearden. Interestingly a little earlier all three were involved with Sapphire (1959). This was also a film with a thriller format. In this case the central focus was racism, dramatised by an investigation of a young woman who was of ‘mixed race’. In that film also there was distinction between a liberal police inspector and his more obviously prejudiced subordinate. As with Victim and homosexuality, the treatment of “race” was problematic. In fact that film has less apparent sympathy for the black characters than Victim displays for its gay ones.

Relph and Dearden were an important team in 1950s and early 1960s British cinema. Among their output were a number of social problem films. Cage of Gold {1950) is set in the then new National Health Service. I Believe in You (1952) deals with parole officers and delinquency. And there is Pool of London (1951). This film demonstrates equally how their social consciousness is limited by the attitudes of the time. A subplot allows a tentative romance to develop between Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron – a frequent black face in British films of the period including Sapphire) and Pat (Susan Shaw, blonde and white). But it cannot be realised. There is a key scene where as Pat leaves on a bus Johnny leans forward to kiss her, and the bus starts off with a jolt!

This sort of inhibition is apparent in Victim. So we never see any actual physical contact between any of the men. In fact, the blackmail is constructed round a photograph taken of Melville and Barrett in the former’s car through a telephoto lens. But the audience never see the photograph, though it is shown to several characters. And the final moment of the film shows Melville burns the photo. Odd, as it would presumably be evidence in the prosecution that the films’ plot proposed in the resolution though the police do have the negative.

There are more subtle hints to audiences. Early in the film Barrett visits Harold in his bookshop. As they enter his study, in the foreground of the image, a kettle is about to boil. This would seem a steal/homage from Crossfire (USA 1947) in which there is a similar shot of a bubbling coffee pot. Harold runs his own hairdressing salon: indeed one of his customers is Calloway. As Farr travels in Lord Fulbrook’s car at night they pass the building site where Barrett worked. The building is topped by the sign ‘Trollope and Colls’. Spelt as ‘trollop’ the term applies to promiscuous women: here, is it coincidence or comment?

Melville’s home is primarily of the professional class, with a housekeeper. But in the lounge, lined up on the mantelpiece are a line of C19th military toys. All in the flamboyant and skin tight uniform of the early part of the century. They are most visible in a close-up of Melville as he leans over the fire and confesses to Laura.

Even with what may now appear extreme reticence the film encountered problems with the British Board of Film Censors. There is a detailed discussion of this in James C. Robertson key study, The Hidden Cinema British Film censorship in action, 1913 – 1975 (Routledge 1989). Predictably the Boards censors had problems with the film. The fairly long-serving Audrey Field commented:

The synopsis reads perfectly all right: it is a sympathetic, perceptive, moral and responsible discussion of a problem…. But the film may well be a bit of a problem: it is very oppressive … to be confronted with a world peopled with practically no one but `queers’; and there are precious few other characters in this synopsis. Great tact and discretion will be needed if this project is to come off, and the `queerness’ must not be laid on with a trowel.

However, John Trevelyan was the recently appointed secretary and he was more sympathetic to the project. But he also had his reservation,

It is, I think, most important that the division of public opinion should be reflected in this, or any other film dealing with the subject, and I think it would be wise to treat the subject with the greatest discretion. Furthermore, I think it is really important that a film of this subject should be one of serious purpose and should not include any material which might lead to sensationalism and would lessen its claim to seriousness.

Dearden revised the script and the final film involved this response:

“Their reaction was largely favour­able, but four dialogue objections emerged. In the scene between Mel and his wife when he first divulges to her his homosexual urges, she says, `You were attracted to that boy as a man would be to a girl?’ and he replies, `Because I wanted him. Do you understand? Because I wanted him.’ The BBFC sought the deletion of the underlined words, and the report on the film continued:

Reel 8 We don’t like the scene between Mel and the three men in Mandrake’s studios, where we feel that the case for homosexual practices between consenting adults is too plausibly put and not sufficiently countered. (There was more from Mel about self-control in the last script we read.) We think that this scene should be shortened. Reel 9 We think that the statement `there’s a moment of choice for almost every adolescent boy’ is too sweeping and not a good idea to put into the minds of adolescents in the audience.

Reel 11 … vindictive outburst against homosexuals is likely to give a spurious justification for the kind of blackmail shown in the film; and some reduction would be desirable.

These issues were taken up with Relph, and Trevelyan subsequently met him and Basil Dearden. Evidently they put up a strong fight against the proposed cuts for an `X’ certificate award, for in the event the BBFC insisted upon only the deletion in the ninth reel of the dialogue about adolescent boys. This represented a cut of merely a few feet, on which basis the BBFC allowed Victim on 1 June 1961.

So little was cut but Dearden his team had bought the screenplay closer to the wishes of the Board. There is a slight oddity here as there is apparently a ninety minute cut of the film, which would mean ten minutes deleted from the producers version. But from Robertson’s research it would appear that only a very light cut was demanded. Even so, the film received an X Certificate. Nearly all of the really interesting British films of this period suffered the X certificate, including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). However, times change and over the years the certification had reduced, first to 15 under the new categories, then 12 and finally PG.

Trevelyan, in What the Censor Saw (Michael Joseph 1973) recorded the rather different response that film received in the USA.

“As an example of this I remember being surprised that a Code Seal (a seal of approval) was given to Suddenly Last Summer in 1959, a film that included almost all known sexual perversions, but refused in 1961 to a British film called Victim which was a thriller with a background of homosexual blackmail: when I asked the reason for this I was told that the former film did not violate Section III (6) of the Code -‘Sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden’ – because the perversions were never specified, whereas the later film violated it because homosexuality was specifically referred to.”

What a difference several decades makes!

Posted in British film stars, British films, British noir, Film censorship, Film Directors, Movies with messages, UK filmmakers | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Strangers on a Train, USA 1951.

Posted by keith1942 on May 8, 2015

strangers on a train poster

I was able to revisit this film at the Leeds Young Film Festival. We were fortunate to have the film in a relatively good 35mm print. Intriguingly I realised later that this was the ‘pre-release’ version, which only came to light in 1995. Michael Walker, in Hitchcock’s Motifs (2005), provides a description of this version: it has additional footage but lacks the final humorous encounter by Guy and Ann on a train. Michael also makes the point that Strangers on a Train has the greatest number of the motifs that he identified across Hitchcock’s work: this makes it not only a very enjoyable but also a very interesting film.

The film has a striking opening as we follow two pairs of shoes from a taxi rank through Central Station to a waiting train. The shoes suggest something of the owners. The camera shots are deliberately placed in opposing angles. And when the shoes finally meet in the lounge car on the train a slight nudge provides an introduction. Guy Haynes [Farley Granger) is a restrained conventional character, a successful tennis star: he works for a US senator and is having a romance with his daughter Ann (Ruth Roman). Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) does not work but lives off his affluent parents: He is coded as gay. He appears exuberant and is obviously unconventional. What they have in common is a problem: in Guy’s case a separated and pregnant wife who will not divorce him: in Bruno’s case a father who he finds oppressive, ‘I hate him’. Out of this chance encounter the original Patricia Highsmith novel developed a distinctive murder mystery. If you are familiar with Highsmith’s writings then it will come as no surprise that the film makes considerably alterations to the plot of the novel, especially in the latter stages. Whilst the script removes the darker aspects of the novel it also introduces effective additions: for example the issue of competitive tennis which provides a suspenseful climatic sequence.

The audience can enjoy a film that has many of Hitchcock’s virtues. The plotting is ingenious and absorbing. The mechanics of the murder investigation are carefully spread out over the film. The character of the apparently innocent man provides a moral force to the tale. And the stylistic touches, including expressionist techniques and carefully suspenseful editing, add to the brio and allure of the film.

The most notable of these techniques is a reflection of a murder in the lenses of a pair of spectacles. The spectacles are passed to Guy by Bruno and then seem to disappear from the plot. They clearly suggest overtones of guilt but unlike another object – a lighter – their fate is unknown. Michael Walker also draws attention to another facet – both Miriam and Ann’s sister Patricia (Patricia Hitchcock) have a similar look, partly due to the spectacles they wear. He makes a general point regarding women characters who wear spectacles:

strangers-on-a-train

Apart from the connotations of ‘cleverness’ (in itself, a potential threat to a man), they also serve to draw attention to the fact that she was looking and lent her a certain intensity, the sort of intensity that men, apparently, find disturbing.

This is apt, for both Miriam and Patricia are ‘sassy’ women: they answer back to men. Miriam does this in an argument with Guy: Patricia to her father, a patriarchal figure who is also a lawmaker. Ann on the other hand is the dependent non-threatening woman. She stands by Guy even to the point when he appears to be guilty of a crime.

This gives the film a subversive edge, but the resolution – different from that offered by Patricia Highsmith – recoups this for the audience.

 

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A Matter of Life and Death,

Posted by keith1942 on April 23, 2015

Title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Movie:

Lancaster

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

Romance:

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

Peter June

An Atlanticist paean:

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

Science fiction:

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

“We are talking in space not time.”

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

Records

Psychological drama:

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

“… exists only in the mind …”

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

Medical drama:

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

Courtroom drama:

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

Political film:

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

A film about literature:

Stairway

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

A film about cinema:

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

“One if starved for Technicolor up there.”

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

Canine friendly:

Obscura

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

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

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

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

 

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