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Posts Tagged ‘Women and film’

Out of Blue, Britain, USA 2018

Posted by keith1942 on July 2, 2021

This movie received mixed reviews on release,however Mark Kermode in his television preview was really positive. I saw it on release and I was very impressed. Now it has been aired on BBC2 and is available on the BBC I-player until mid-July. The drama presented in this title is rather unconventional. The narrative mixes objective scenes [the audience assume we are watching a record of realistic events] and subjective scenes [a character’s internal memories and musings] and it is likely to take time for viewers to be able to clearly distinguish them. The plot also mixes actions by characters with philosophical musings by them.

The latter aspect is exemplified by the opening sequence which commences with the night sky and an astronomer speculating on the cosmos. This would appear to be a homage to the British film masterpiece, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It also sets up a treatment of the characters and their experiences which suggest issues of existential consideration.

‘We are all stardust’.

On the surface this is a story of a murder investigation shot in a noir manner, with a world of chaos, a ‘seeker’ hero, flashbacks, triangles of relationships, dark nights paralleled by talk of ‘dark matter’ and ‘black holes’, and visually chiaroscuro. The setting is New Orleans and the production makes good use of the varied character of this city, which at times has an exotic tinge. It is though a symbolic city and despite location filming it is not the city seen in contemporary news. Visually the film is treat. The colours are evocative and suggestive, not just the ‘blue’ of the title but a range of tones which match the different facets of the city. The cinematography, in colour and a ratio of 2.35:1, by Conrad Hall is excellent and the title is well served in all production departments. The editing is deft and precise with cuts at a particular micro-second.

The other compelling aspect of the film is the performance of Patricia Clarkson as detective Houlihan, the investigator. This is a tour de force. I actually pay little attention to the Academy Awards but this performance deserves a Best Actor trophy. It is also a still rare pleasure to see an older actress with a lead role in a thriller. The supporting cast are also excellent.

Detective Mike Houlihan investigates a death with her two assistants; the violent death of Jennifer Rockwell. Her father is a war hero: her brothers run the family business in electronics:her mother is at home with a pet dog [Tibetan Lhasa] and a large portrait of Rockwell senior’s mother.

In one of the edits which make the narrative cryptic and ambiguous it seems that Houlihan and a young local reporter, Stella, both attend an Alcoholics Anonymous therapy session. Her problems with drink provide an important plot turn but they also reveal the tortured psyche of Houlihan; stemming back to her youth, obscure parentage and a problematic sojourn in an institution. Clearly police work provides order for Houlihan life. At one point she states that life only started for her

‘when I joined the Academy’.

Film noir is often as much about an investigation of a woman as it is about a hero. In this title Houlihan is the women investigated; investigated by herself as she gradually trawls up suppressed events from her childhood. These are associated with a selection bric-a-brac. Jennifer apartment is full of them; and a warehouse at Rockwell Electronic is also full of them. Houlihan herself carries at least one example on her person.

The philosophy in the film is important to the development of the plot. It also offers some moment of delicious irony. Morley and her team use visual clues to assist in the investigation but also to draw out the parallels with characters’ intellectual forays. One recurring such foray is talk of ‘Schrodinger’s cat’. Houlihan shares her apartment with a Siamese cat who also has cryptic moments. At one point she jokingly offers the cat in a box, [just like Schrodinger] to Daniel, one time lover of the dead Jennifer.

As well as scientific references the film seems to offer homages to key movies. I have mentioned the Powell and Pressburger title. At other points I detected some sort of trope connected to The Birds (1963): Blade Runner (1982): Chinatown (1974), Citizen Kane (1941): and Pursued (1947).

These fit into a dramatisation and play with the noir discourse; critically revisiting some of the key aspects that so fascinate viewers and critics.

This is the latest movie by Carol Morley. Her Dreams of a Life (2011) stood out amongst recent British documentaries. Mark Kermode commented that she was ‘born a film-maker’. I actually think that quality film-makers develop by commitment and hard work, attention to detail and a serious study of cinematic form. Carol Morley seems to have done all of this. And, uncommon among the ‘new auteurs’, she has mastered both the direction of film and script-writing for film.

The plot is challenging as viewers have to distinguish actual and mental worlds. The film does bring these together in its resolution. Even here though there is an ambiguity with the colour blue pointing to the outcome; ambiguity that runs right through the film. The editing is elliptical and it takes seconds sometime to recognise which character and setting we are viewing. The mise en scene is full of meanings; characters and props seem to disappear as very slight ellipsis lead the plotting on.

The film is adapted from a novel by Martin Amis, ‘Night Train’ (1997), changing the tone and the plot. Amis’ novel aimed to be a parody, this is a fairly bleak film noir. Morley’s version changes the character of the detective, the plotting of both the deaths and the investigation and, finally, the resolution. It was mainly funded by the BBC and the BFI. This may be part of the reason that it stands out in productions by British directors working on US-based stories. Frequently such films are a disappointment and less satisfying than earlier British-based stories by the same film-maker. Here Carol Morley succeeds with a really effective treatment which also develops some of the themes found in her earlier works.

Definitely a film to see. Mark Kermode suggests it repays seeing more than once; I fully agree. If you do enjoy it there is an article, ‘Under Investigation’, privileging the female protagonist as detective in the April 2019 edition of Sight & Sound, and followed by an interview with Carol Morley.

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Tanaka Kinuyo retrospectives

Posted by keith1942 on March 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Retrospective of legendary Japanese actress and filmmaker Kinuyo Tanaka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother (Okasan, 1952)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, 1954).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How I long for you, Zushiô, Anju”

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

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

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

His mother responds,

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

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

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

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

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

The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare, 1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girls of Dark ( Onna bakari no yoru, 1961)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Middlemarch (1994) vs Days of Hope (1975)

Posted by keith1942 on August 9, 2020

The BBC’s Dorothea and Will

The BBC is currently broadcasting and adaptation  of Vikram Seth’s novel, ‘A Suitable Boy’. A post on ‘The Case for Global Film’, ‘A suitable writer for A Suitable Boy’,  includes the question as to whether Andrew Davies was the right choice to adapt this highly praised novel from the Indian sub-continent for television. This reminded me of an article I wrote in the 1990s when Andrew Davies adapted the seminal English novel ‘Middlemarch’ [by George Eliot) for BBC television in 1994. My argument then would raise questions about Davies suitability, not because of his ethnicity, but because of the political and aesthetic values that inform his work. He is clearly a skilled worker at adaptation but he also carries the baggage of the British class and colonial values. So I present my original article below, with some necessary amendments for the changes in time; hopefully it will prove interesting. The article compared the adaptations on BBC television of Eliot’s novel and a series written by Jim Allen and directed by Ken Loach, Days of Hope, that followed several working class characters through World War I up until the seismic General Strike of 1926.

Dorothea Brooke, heroine of George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, was an important icon for the women’s movement of the 1970s. In Andrew Davies’ 1994 adaptation, she takes a back seat to the less substantial pairing of Lydgate and Rosamund Vincy. A rather different treatment of gender, class and politics is found in the earlier four part series Days of Hope; which was seen as controversial at the time, both in the mainstream media and amongst academics. I have included production detail and the main sources in  notes at the end.

My starting point was some teaching with students on City & Guilds 7700. We were covering the critical analysis module using some Open University materials’ which compared, in terms of competing realisms, four 1970s television programmes; The Twenties Revisited, Nine Days in ’26, Upstairs Downstairs and Days of Hope . All the programmes dealt in some way with the 1926 General Strike, and the OU commentators compared the interests and values and the formal strategies employed by the programmes, and in doing so discussed some of the strands of a somewhat academic controversy surrounding the concept of realism and Ken Loach’s Days of Hope (also ‘authored’ by writer Jim Allen and producer Tony Garnett).

Filming ‘Days of Hope’

Loach was a filmmaker who figured prominently in our examples from film and television (e.g. Cathy Come Home, BBC 1966) and the students were familiar with his work. By chance, all this happened during transmission of BBC’s Middlemarch. So we were able to discuss the question of realism, style and content, the interests and values and their boundaries in British television, and some key developments within it over two decades.

I also re-read the series of articles, appearing mainly in the journal ‘Screen’ where the debate about realism and Days of Hope was published; re-confirming my earlier suspicion that the whole critique of Loach’s work and its realist approach was flawed with questionable assumptions. A useful antidote to this was an article by Colin Sparks  in the political journal ‘International Socialism’ which amplified a point made by Colin McArthur in the debate in ‘Screen’;  that there were so many different examples of realism and that the concept was general beyond belief. One example which showed some of the traits of a realist text was the Hollywood musical, but did anyone imagine that audiences read musicals as real? More seriously, the real world was more than a set of appearances, authentic scenery, accents, costumes etc.: it was a set of social relations, and even when the argument about realism was applied to the nineteenth century novel, it failed to account for the reality for the readers of the frequently dramatised and heightened relations of literary texts.

To take the two examples mentioned, George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ and Jim Allen’s Days of Hop‘; while both take great pains to represent the visual, aural and cultural surface of the region and time in which their stories are set, it is apparent to the reader that the narrative foreshortens the historical action, selecting from it and re-emphasising some events rather than others.

In fact, both works are retrospective, returning to a period about fifty years earlier that has become significant because of the replaying of particular social contradictions around class, but with Eliot this is the democratic movement of the 1830s and 1870s, with Allen it is the industrial movements of the 1920s and 1970s.

There are a number of similarities between the two stories: each centres on a woman who marries a man above herself in the social structure and whom she looks up to both culturally and politically. In the course of the narrative this man is discredited and the heroine has to break free from him. (Dorothea – Casaubon, Sarah – Philip). Crucial in this turnabout is another man, of lower class origins than the husband, and to begin with also seen as culturally or politically weak. His developing relationship with the heroine parallels her distancing from the husband figure. (Dorothea – Will, Sarah – Ben). By the end of the story, this new pairing is embarked on the political project which is privileged by the narrative. Despite Ben and Sarah being brother and sister, the other pair is not really more sexual. In fact, both stories restrict any reference to sexuality to the actual problem relationship between husband and wife.

The political strands of the stories also parallel. Eliot portrays the disruption in bourgeois Middlemarch’s lives of the agitation and conflict surrounding the 1832 Reform Act. Equally disruptive is the arrival of the railways, the manifestation of the new class power that was one of the most powerful contradictions fuelling reform. Nearly a century later, and from a working -class perspective, Allen (with Loach et al) portrays the disruptions consequent on revolutionary class politics, centring on contending class fractions for leadership of the new working-class movement, which in Britain came to a head around the General Strike. The other manifestation of economic and class struggle is the re-alignment of capital following the First World War and the increasing importance of imperialist exploitation. The ideological differences between the two narratives can be ascribed to both temporal and political changes; but it is interesting that there are such strong similarities in the narrative structures. This is partly due to the common political intentions of Eliot and Allen; Loach. Both works aim to arouse the sympathy of the reader for the representative characters and against the social oppression and exploitation they suffer. Both use facets of the melodrama of protest model, though the modern work is more centrally protest.

Of course, Eliot is writing a novel, Allen (with Loach and Garnett and the rest of the crew) are making a film. And the form used by the latter has much more in common with film and television drama, like the BBC version of Eliot’s novel. For this version, the key members of the production team all shared some notion of producing a realist work:

“. . . if you define realism as portraying life with all its warts rather than an idealised form of life as you would like it. Realism is the way we’ve done it.”

The OU articles examined questions of form and style by comparing Days of Hope with the episode of Upstairs Downstairs which dramatised the days in which the General Strike occurred. The latter shares the standard and traditional forms of television drama (itself very similar to the conventions of the Hollywood Cinema). The values of the drama are carefully embodied in the characters, the viewer is placed by both character and scene position and that of the camera to facilitate identification with the dominant character and message. The former appears less carefully structured, having the look and sound more associated with documentary. Characters and events seem to stumble into view rather than seamlessly unfold. One of my favourite such moments is in the last episode of Days of Hope, when Philip, fearful of the growing extremism of Ben and Sarah, arrives at a Council of Action meeting. While he (and we) can hear the discussion in the meeting, he and we (via the camera) have to struggle past children playing with a makeshift shying stall, featuring Churchill and Baldwin as cardboard cut-outs.

The household arranged by class

The Allen/ Loach work is doing more than just recreate the documentary mode, or mark itself off from traditional costume drama; it is providing a way of seeing/ hearing that attempts to articulate the way workers usually see and learn. Fliot’s novel, while constructed round a middle-class character, also includes working-class views and expressions. In an excellent analysis, Andrew Britton has exemplified such an instance while critiquing simplistic notions of realism. His points about Eliot’s authorial voice are very important:

“(she) emphatically alerts us to . ” . the experience, the dramatic world, the narrative voice, the reader. The foregrounding of narration has the effect of compelling us to reconsider our reading and perhaps criticise it’.”

Yet one of the main authors of the television version preferred to:

“‘let the tale tell itself . . . one thing I’ve always hated about George Eliot is the way she’ll write a brilliantly dramatic and moving scene and then spend the next few pages pointing out the subtleties, just in case we missed them”

It is Davies who misses the point. For me, the BBC version bears all the recognisable facets of a programme like Upstairs Downstairs. Visually, the programmes replicate the conventions of mainstream television and film dramas, asking the viewer to experience the story and identify with the characters, but not encouraging distancing and questioning. The drama centres on the several romances which are affected by the social movements, whereas Eliot’s novel seems to me to do the reverse. Most strongly this comes out in the fate of Eliot’s two great motifs, political reform and the economic imperative of railway development.

The adaptation opens with the arrival of a character on the new-fangled train which is to so disrupt Middlemarch society. Yet this early contradiction then slides out of the narrative for three episodes; as if the film-makers had detected Eliot’s mechanism, but failed to understand its import. Similarly, the question of reform, which never achieves the all-pervasive impact it establishes in the novel; Mr Brooke’s powerful failure at the hustings becomes an exercise in character by the actor Robert Hardy. Story takes precedence over narration.

Of course, to the modern viewer it might all seem quaint – democracy is passé and trains are on the way out. But to do justice to the political and artistic impact of the novel, the film-makers either needed to bring these contradictions to life or to re-visualise them. Days of Hope does just this, using the parallels available to the modern viewer to develop the impact of particular points. At a discussion after a Council of Action, the middle-class lawyer/ intellectual discourses on the lessons of the failed German Revolution, as a warning to England’s revolutionaries deliberately picking up ‘Socialism in one country’. Whilst this scene is not central to the course of the strike, it is making a definite political point – one that was a direct play to the contemporary audience and debates in the early 1970s.

But the naturalism of the BBC’s Middlemarch is of a different order. it reduces the feminist critique of 1870, so that, at the end, carrying a candle up a dark staircase, Dorothea has become the wise virgin who supports Will Ladislaw. Given her liberation, and the progressive political developments within the story, the image seems romantic rather than instructive. We do actually hear the narration of George Eliot in voice-over, but there is no counter-point, as all her earlier narrative comment has been removed. I find it difficult to believe that viewers really think that the General Strike was just like Days of Hope or that women’s oppression in nineteenth century England was just like Middlemarch. But, I do think they engage with both their personal lives and their wider social ones.

Ben and Sarah are representations for a class view of one important story in our past: Dorothea is one of the more powerful representations of women’s struggles in an earlier past. Yet the most common praise heaped on the BBC adaptation of Middlemarch is for the ‘quality’ of its acting. If that is what impresses the viewer/reader most, I find it disturbing. When I first read ‘Middlemarch’, whilst I fell in love with Dorothea, my final feeling about the novel was still its powerful critique of ,women’s oppression and its intricate relationship to the political and economic complexion of the times. My regard for Sarah and Ben in Days of Hope was equally tied to sympathy for their struggle and objections to their oppressors, but was also part of a real intellectual engagement with the argument of the films (with which I do not totally agree). The 1870s novel and 1970s film are both real for me because they dramatise the history of our society; the actions of the stories show society and individuals interacting, and history acting on both. The BBC has dramatised, I fear, only romance, costumes and nostalgia. In their adaptation of the novel, history does not act, only the characters.

I expected that the new drama would suffer from similar conventionality, [I have not watched it]. The last Andrew Davies adaptation that I watched was the BBC version of Charles Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ (2005): i gave up on it. Several commentators have suggested that if Dickens was writing today it would be for television soaps! This seems to me anachronistic. Dickens was a product of C19th Victorian Britain when he lived and worked. In ‘Bleak House’ the  central thematic is ‘muck’: Dickens responding to and criticising the ‘muck’ of the Victorian capital; the latter word in both senses. I did not really find this theme central in the several episodes of the BBC adaptation that I watched.

Notes:

The Open University material is not currently in use but was published for the now defunct OU Popular Culture Course and is partly available in ‘Popular Television and Film’, Bennett, Boyd-Bowman, Mercer & Woolacott eds.. BFI 1981. It includes a substantial part of an important article by Colin MacArthur.

Middlemarch BBC 1994 in seven episodes. Leading players: Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke: Douglas Hodge as Dr. Tertius Lydgate: Robert Hardy    as Arthur Brooke: Trevyn McDowell as Rosamond Vincy: Rufus Sewel as Will Ladislaw: Jonathan Firth as Fred Vincy: Rachel Power as Mary Garth.

Leading production people: Series Directed by Anthony Page: Series Produced by Louis Marks: Series Music by Christopher Gunning: Stanley Myers: Series Cinematography by Brian Tufano: Series Film Editing by Jerry Leon and Paul Tothill: Series Production Design by Gerry Scott: Series Art Direction by Mark Kebby: Series Costume Design by Anushia Nieradzik. The writer was Andrew Davies and he is quoted, along with production detail,  in ‘Screening Middlemarch C19th Novel to 90’s Television’, BBC and BFI.

Days of Hope (1975) is four separate films [shot on 16mm] covering the Great War and pacificism (1916: Joining Up), the British Army in Ireland and class conflict in mining communities (1921: Lockout), Labour Party ‘reformism’ and the British Communist Movement (1924: Labour Government) and 1926: General Strike. It was ( in now familiar fashion) the subject of both a Times editorial attack and a ‘balancing’ BBC discussion programme.

Leading players: Paul Copley as Ben Matthews: Pamela Brighton    Pamela Brighton as Sarah Hargreaves: Nikolas Simmonds as Philip Hargreaves.

Leading production people: Series Music by Marc Wilkinson: Series Cinematography by

John Else and Tony Pierce-Roberts: Series Film Editing by Roger Waugh: Series Production Design by Martin Johnson: Series Costume Design by Sally Nieper.

Upstairs Downstairs was a very successful videotaped drama from London Weekend Television which ran in five thirteen week series between 1971 and 1975, covering British social history from the Edwardian era until the early 1930s. The series was the subject of a long essay in ‘Movie’ No 21 Autumn 1975, in which Charles Barr, Jim Hillier and Victor Perkins compared it to the ‘quality British Cinema’ of the 1940s in terms of production techniques and audience appeal.

Colin Sparks, A Marxist Guide to Contemporary Film Theory in International Socialism 34 1987

Andrew Britton comments on ‘Middlemarch’ in ‘Metaphor and Mimesis: Madame de’ in ‘Movie’ 29/30.

The original article was in ‘in the picture’, issue 24, autumn 1994

Posted in Literature on Film, Television film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

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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The Bicycle / Das Fahrrad, Deutsche Demokratische Republik 1982

Posted by keith1942 on April 29, 2020

I saw this film at the 69th Berlinale as part of a programme “Self-determined. Perspectives of Women Filmmakers” with the sub-title ‘The Personal is Political’. This East German film offers what seems to be a frank and fairly realistic portrait of a working class woman. The protagonist is Susanne (Hiedemarie Schneider) divorced and caring for a young son. When we meet her she is working as a punch press operator; repetitious work in a dingy factory. Outside of work she cares for her son. Her main leisure activity appears to be drinking in a bar with her friend and dancing in its disco. Susanne and her friends are all marginalised people. They are in part outsiders in this society and far from the ‘all-round developed person’ which is the officially approved stereotype.

The film opens as Susanne leaves her apartment to take her son to the nursery on the titular red bicycle. The son’s bright yellow jackets stands out in the grey rush hour traffic. But when the rain starts they are splashed and then drenched by other traffic.

A the nursery Susanne is overdue with the money for her son’s lunches. It is clear that Susanne’s lives on the edge of penury, just about balancing her income and expenditure. Something of a ‘free spirit’, when she packs in her boring job her finances come apart. A friend explains how she can make some ‘illegitimate’ money; an escapade that comes back to haunt her later.

There is an interesting sequence when Susanna enters a factory celebration. The main hall is full of smartly dressed people and Susanne in her everyday wear stands out. This partly explains how she catches the eye of Thomas (Roman Kominski) a rising young engineer; endlessly congratulated at the social on being promoted to management. Susanne continues to her usual haunt, a bar beneath the hall, with lurid lighting and far less sedate music. It is like ‘hell’ beneath the official ‘socialist ‘heaven’ above. Thomas follows her. Thus starts a hesitant relationship which will finally lead to their becoming partners for a period.

The film catches the different aspects of working class life really well. Susanne’s apartment lies alongside an older woman, ‘granny’. Neither is especially integrated into the society of these buildings and they help and support each other. Susanne and her son have a strong relationship as well. Susanne’s regular bar is a marginal site, lacking all the prized virtues ascribed to the working class in a supposedly workers’ state.

Thomas’s work as a manager, including dealing with the ordinary workers, is closer to this. However, he is frustrated by the out-of-date techniques and management. This is a recurring sense in all the East German films; they are decades behind the western style seen in West Berlin; in factories, in streets, in homes and in social centres.

Susanne’s relationship leads to her obtaining a job in the factory managed by Thomas. But her scam now threatens both the relationship and her job. This segment of the film is interesting in terms of East German employment practice. Susanne works with a female group who are split in their sympathies when they learn of her earlier action. However, factory rules include ‘conflict resolution committees’ where Susanna’s fellow workers have an input. It seems that this mechanism will save her from the law.

The relationship with Thomas however does not survive this episode. And it is Susanne, ‘self-determining’, who makes the break. At the end she seems more confident in herself and her economic situation has improved. Her relationship with her son, finely represented in key scenes, remains positive and rewarding.

The film was shot in colour and widescreen by Roland Dressel and was scripted by Ernst Wenig. The film’s style is conventional but the use of locations offers a real sense of the environment. The editing takes us forward in a mainly linear fashion. There are two dream sequences when we get a sense of Susanne’s emotional state; she does become desperate at one point. The cast is convincing and Schneider, dominating the narrative, is excellent. She is at times refreshingly forthright but also capable of generating a sense of strong emotion.

The East German film system, like the western mainstream, preferred conventional characters.

 “Dismissed by critics and the studio heads as “confusing” and “flawed . . . ” (Retrospective Brochure).

The director Evelyn Schmidt was there to introduce the film. Because of the disfavour the film was refused invitations to International Festivals. [It was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in a retrospective in 2005]. In East Germany itself it was only screened for a few days. The problems included

   ” showing the working class divided”

In other words an accurate depiction of the disguised class structure in the state. It also affected Schmidt’s career. She made only seven features, three of them scripted by herself, including The Bicycle. And for much of the time she was reduced to working as an assistant director. She also gave us an enigmatic comment,

   ” watch for when the colour red is taken out.”

I did not actually spot this exactly but I think it was during the deterioration of the relationship between Susanne and Thomas. However, I was aware of red as a sign. The colour is prominent in the lower bar when Susanne and her friends relax. Whereas the staid social, like the factory spaces, has only an occasional red. There are a lot of exterior sequences which have a lively colour palette. As with ‘red’ the colour contrast contributes to the film’s representation. The bright yellow jacket and red bicycle are followed later by the drab, grey factory interior. When Susanne gets a new job later she works with a group of women in a workshop full of light from large windows. At another point we see Susanne in a cramped grey telephone box talking to her brusque ex-husband. But later, in a park with her son, the image is all sunshine with bright blues and greens. The grey alienation of East Germany was presumably registered by her censors. Not easily available but definitely a film to see. But can be streamed. MUBI have a copy but it is not playing at present; if you can use ‘Kanopy‘ it is available.

 

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Red Joan, Britain 2018

Posted by keith1942 on May 10, 2019

This is the story of a fictional character, Joan Stanley, who in the 1940s passed secret information to the Soviet Union. However, it, and the novel from which it is adapted, are based on the life of a actual historical character, Melita Norwood. Norwood was exposed publicly in 1999 when information from an ex-Soviet agent and now-defector revealed her past activities. These two fictional versions of a real-life heroine appears to have caused some confusion. The plot synopsis on IMDB relates to the real-life Norwood and not to the character in the film.
The film version presents the story in a fairly conventional-style narrative. The film opens with the arrest of Joan (Judi Dench) by Special Branch in 1999. Then we view a series of interrogations which are intercut with flashbacks by Joan to the 1930s and 1940s. The interrogations fill out the action in 1999 where information has led to the exposure of a senior Foreign Office official as well as Joan. The flashbacks presents Joan’s personal life and then her spy activities. At Cambridge ‘Young Joan’ (Sophie Cookson) meets glamorous European emigre Sonya Galich (Teresa Srbova) and cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes). Both are communist activists. They are also ex-lovers, something only revealed late in the flashbacks. Joan becomes involved with Leo. Come the 1940s Joan is recruited to the secret ‘Tube Alloys Project’ which is actually part of the war-time nuclear research. She is personal secretary to project leader Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moor) and is privy to all of the secret papers to and from the project. Leo and Sonia both urge Joan to pass on secret information for Russia, as the war-time ally is excluded from the circulation of such research. The film hardly at all uses the correct definition of the Soviet Union. Joan resists, she is prejudiced against Russia. At a screening of The Battleship Potemkin she is clearly bored by the film .
Then the USA and Britain use the new nuclear device on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Joan is appalled and now starts to pass on secret information via Sonia to Soviet agents. Her justification is that the Soviet Union needs equal access to this new weapon. As the flashbacks develop Leo is killed, possibly by the NKVD; and Sonia flees to Europe. Joan begins an affair with Max. When the leaks become apparent Max is suspected of the espionage and arrested. Joan blackmails a fellow communist sympathiser and secret homosexual, William Mitchell (Freddie Gaminara), now based in the Foreign Office, to obtain Max’s release and new passports so the couple can emigrate to Australia. As they board the boat Joan confesses to Max that she was the spy.
In the present it appears that at some point Joan has returned to Britain, possibly after the death of her husband Max. Her son Nick (Ben Miles) is now a lawyer. He is appalled when he learn of his mother’s ‘treachery’. The film ends as Joan is arrested after the release of the story. At her front door she faces the press and declares that she did indeed pass secret information to the Russians. She justifies this by saying that equal access by the Allies and Russia prevented a nuclear war. Nick, now reconciled, joins her.
The film apparently follows the book fairly closely. The author, Jennie Rooney, studied at Cambridge University. Here she encountered the story of Melita Norwood. Her narrative is heavily fictionalised and one senses it is strongly influenced by the history and myths around the Cambridge spies. Some of the characters in the film seems thinly disguised versions of characters well-known in that history. This seems to have carried over into the film. And the politics of the latter are far removed from those of the actual Melita Norwood. Peter Bradshaw, in The Guardian, commented;
“The film gives its ‘Red Joan’ a conventionally glamorous Apostle-style career in Cambridge University that Norwood didn’t have, along with a less ideological, more-mainstream approach to cold war politics.”
I was trying to work out in what sense he was using ideological? Perhaps that there is not much political dialogue or discussion. The flashbacks focus on the romances between Joan and Leo, and then between Joan and Max. Stalin gets a mention several times, I think being labelled a ‘mass murderer’ at least twice. Leo talks about the Communist International but I do not recollect many members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. William Mitchell was member but lets it drop as he becomes involved in espionage. Hitler gets a few mentions but not Trotsky. The British imperial values are present. It is clear that the ‘Tube Alloy Project’ is about an independent nuclear weapon. In one scene Max stresses the importance of the British research and autonomy whilst the listening Atlee comments approvingly. This probably relates to the strand of values embraced by Joan; equal access for Russia.


The history of Melita Norwood is strikingly different. No Cambridge career. A member of the British Communist Party along with her husband. She actually worked as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association and the secrets she found passed through her office. A convinced communist, she apparently gained no material profit from her actions. When asked about her motives, she said:
“I did what I did, not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service.” (Wikipedia – BBC interview in 1999).
Given the conformist politics in Britain that was thought to radical for audiences. The title is certainly mainstream in that sense. It is also mainstream and conventional in its form and style. The director, Trevor Nunn, found the story in the novel. But as well as seemingly following the book closely it relies on fairly standard tropes. Judi Dench, as one would expect, is excellent as the older Joan. The rest of the cast are good and the flashbacks work as drama. Visually and aurally the film has good techniques but does not generate great emotion or involvement. The plot is obviously geared towards the development and resolution of the narrative. Max and Joan’s escape seems fatuous even given the failings of British security later. Nick’s final support of his mother lacks conviction and motivation.
It is good to see the story told on film. The period detail is pretty good so it is fascinating [as always] to revisit this important period. But it does little serve to the heroine who inspired the story. Melita may have harboured illusions about the Soviet Union that many other had already overcome. But the still lasting effects of socialist construction meant that in many ways it still pipped an advanced capitalist and colonialist state like Britain. Melita Norwood saw herself as supporting the International Working Class and its own workers’ state. By contrast ‘Red Joan’ comes across as rather liberal and lacking in developed cinematic tastes.

Posted in British films, Literature on Film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Die Bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters, Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1981)

Posted by keith1942 on March 16, 2019

This was another title in the Berlinale retrospective and the audience were fortunate in that the director, Margarethe von Trotta, was there to introduce her film. She first talked about the title of the film which was variously translated and changed during its international release; (there seem to be at least six variants). The German title is a quotation from a famous poem;

Trūb ists heut, es schlummern die Gäng’ und die Gassen und fast will

Mir es scheinen, es sei, als in der bleiernen Zeit

(Gloomy it is today, sleepy are the pathways and lanes and it seems as almost, we are, in the leaden times.) (Friedrich Hölderlin) (Translation Jane Buekett).

The last three words provide the title and a metaphor for the 1950s, a crucial decade for the story and the characters; and for von Trotta herself.

Von Trotta went on to recount how in 1977 she was with fellow film-makers who were working on a portmanteau film addressing in various ways the actions and the current trial of the Red Army Faction [often called the Baader-Meinhof Gang]; Germany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst, 1978). Von Trotta was not actually filming and she had a number of long conversations with Christina Ensslin, the sister of a member of RAF Gudrun Ensslin. This inspired her to start work on a screenplay, later this film, which studied the lives and relationships of two sisters. Von Trotta also remarked that the story was influenced by the Sophocles play Antigone, where Antigone is a rebel whilst her sister Iamene is more dutiful. However, in this story, the roles change as the narrative develops.

“The younger, Marianne, has joined the ‘armed resistance’ in West Germany and disappeared into the political underground. Juliane is an editor at a feminist magazine and is judgemental of her sister’s radicalism.” (Retrospective Brochure).

But the film develops far more complexity than is suggested in these bald sentences. Marianne is another brilliant and convincing performance from von Trotta’s regular collaborator Barbara Sukowa. Juliane, an equally good performance, though a more restrained character, is played by Jutta Lampe. We also meet their partners though the male characters pale alongside these powerful women. The exception is Jan, Marianne’s son by a failed marriage.

Early in the film we get a sense of the radically different lives and relationships of the sisters. There is a brief glimpse of the ‘armed resistance’ training with Palestinian fighters in North Africa. The film moves into it most intense mode when Marianne is captured and imprisoned. Juliane visits her regularly and we witness the emotional and sometimes overcharge relationship. We also see, in flashbacks, the earlier life of the two women, including a very strict religious upbringing in the 1950s. The ‘leaden’ 1950s and its silences on German history were a frequent target of attack for the New German Cinema.

It is in the latter stages that Jan becomes an important character. It is also the stage where Juliane has to confront her sister’s death and her suspicions, (widely shared at the time with regard to the deaths of RAF members) of her secret murder by the West German State.

This is an undoubted classic of the New German Cinema. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The central performances are memorable, but the film is carefully constructed as well. There is fine cinematography from Franz Rath. This covers the modern apartment and more traditional family house which contrast with the grim and stark prison interiors. And exteriors range from a wintry wood to sun-baked Africa and then to the forbidding walls of the prisons. The settings and costumes, by Georg von Kieserite and Minka Hasse respectively, are excellent. The sound is fine and at times very atmospheric. And all of this is edited into a complex tapestry between past and present by Dagmar Hirtz. The now veteran composer Nicolas Economou, (recently working with Koreeda Hirokazu) produces an effective score, at times minimal, occasionally more forceful.

The film has been restored and was screened from a DCP. It seemed from memory a reasonable transfer and it was a pleasure to see this again in a cinema after a wait of many years.

It is one of the films directed by Margarethe von Trotta in the Independent Cinema Office retrospective programme. This is titled ‘The Personal is Political’. This is partly accurate as von Trotta, as in other films, is concerned to bring out how personal relationships feed into political issues. But it is also true that in this film, as in most of her other films, the political both determines and limits the personal. This indeed is where the film leaves us with a stark and complex scene that speaks volumes about the sisters and the future of Juliane and Jan.

The film runs 106 minutes in colour and with English sub-titles. The latter on this digital version are reasonable but in the traditional white-on-background; so occasionally, in lighter scenes, you have to focus carefully. A small challenge to what is, for me, probably the finest film made by Margarethe von Trotta. And she has turned out a number of really fine film including Rosa Luxembourg (1986, featuring Barbara Sukowa].

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Women filmmakers at the 2019 Berlinale

Posted by keith1942 on February 6, 2019

The Berlinale, Berlin’s International Film Festival, opens this coming Thursday, February 7th. The Festival is a vast terrain with a wide selection of contemporary films from all over world cinema. The key films are often landmark titles and the Festival Awards are rightly prized trophies. But the Festival also offers opportunities to visit fascinating aspects of cinema history. The Retrospectives, organised by the Deutsche Kinematic, are singular filmic events. Last year we enjoyed a return to Weimar Cinema in an impressive and rewarding programme. And the presentations, of film in both celluloid and digital formats, were also really well done. And the silent titles enjoyed live and skilful musical accompaniments.

This year the Retrospective moves forward three decades to celebrate the contributions of women film-makers to German cinema.

“The Retrospective of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival takes as its subject women film-makers between 1968 and 1999. The programme encompasses 26 narrative and documentary features from the former East and West Germany, as well as German films after re-unification in 1990. In addition, the Retrospective will show some 20 shorter films on their own, or as lead-ins to the features. What the film-makers and their protagonists have in common is an interest in exploring their own environment, and the search for their own cinematic idiom.

In West Germany, this development was embedded in the 1968 student movement, and closely linked to the new women’s movement and the New German Cinema wave. In East Germany, by contrast, all films were made within the state-controlled studio system. That studio, DEFA, gave a few women a chance to direct as early as the 1950s, however they were mainly assigned to children’s films. Towards the end of the 1960s, everyday life in the socialist country became the focus of East Germany’s women directors. “

The length of the period covered means that this is likely to be a series of snapshots. One of the best known directors, Margarethe von Trotta, has only a single title, The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981). This I though a welcome presentations, a film that I have not seen for a considerable period [though it currently has a limited release in Britain courtesy of the ICO) but which I remember finding powerful and stimulating.

Other well known film-makers are also featured.

“Helma Sanders-Brahms – Her early films engage critically with the themes of labour, migration, and the situation of women in West Germany. Under the Pavement Lies the Strand / Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand (1975, Federal Republic of Germany / Bundesrepublik Deutschland) was a central film for the German women’s movement and for the student movement, as well as for the director’s own emergence as an explicitly feminist film-maker.” (Wikipedia)

But, for me, the bulk of the titles, are unknown and promise to offer an exciting exploration of German film. There has always been a limited selection of German films circulating in Britain, but in recent years hardly any cross over the channel or the territories barriers.

There will be films from four women film-makers working in the German Democratic Republic / Deutsche Demokratische Republik. I have seen only a small proportion of the films produced in the GDR. And I cannot recollect seeing a film directed by a woman. So this will fill an unfortunate gap in my film knowledge.

And there are other titles from the FGR or contemporary Germany. From the FGR in 1984,

The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press / Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse.

Our organization will create a human being whom we can shape and manipulate according to our needs. Dorian Gray: young, rich and handsome. We will make him, seduce him and break him.

Director and writer: Ulrike Ottinge.” (Details on IMDB).

As well as the features and documentaries there are a number of short film, more also from the GDR. And there is animation work. So it promises to be great cinematic week.

Added to this are the regular Berlinale Classics. There are six titles, five of which I welcome seeing again and one, for me, completely new; Ung flukt (The Wayward Girl), dir: Edith Carlmar, Norway 1959. They are all digital restorations. Certainly the digital versions I saw last year were all of good quality. Moreover, several of these are in 4K versions, a quality rarely seen in Britain.

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Further thoughts on Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary Japan 2015

Posted by keith1942 on July 30, 2018

I discussed this film with a student group in Talking Pictures. The response was positive. And the discussion raised some further aspects of the film which I find interesting. One student, familiar with Japan and Japanese culture made a comment about the title:

Umimachi Diary (Japanese: 海街diary?, lit. “Seaside Town Diary”) is a Japanese ‘josei manga’ [comic book] by Akimi Yoshida serialized in Monthly Flowers magazine.

It seems that in the original comic book, whilst the sisters are the key characters there is more about the town itself. Kamakura is a small coastal town about fifty kilometres south west of Tokyo. In the film [and I believe the comic] the film opens with the three sisters [Sachi, aged 29, Yoshino aged 22, and Chika, aged 19) travelling to Yamagata in the north of Japan for the funeral of their father, who deserted them and their mother 15 years or more ago for another women. At the funeral they meet the fourth sister, Suzu [aged 13]. She was bought up in Sendai, not that far from Yamagata.

For the western viewer the topography is not spelt out but presumably it is quite clear to a Japanese audience. Travelling north suggests moving from the relatively warn coastal region to the north, which suffers more severe winters and is prey to much stormier conditions; it is in the north that the 2011 Tsunami wreaked havoc. The difference between the key towns in the story would appear to mirror differences among the characters. Whilst the sisters have their failings and foibles they generally adhere to a set of values around family and personal responsibilities. But characters away from Kamakura, like the father and their absent mother, seem much less faithful to these values.

The film appears to follow a set of seasons over a year. It could be longer. In the manga source Suzu is thirteen when she meets her older sisters. In the film, but the concluding summer of the story, she is given as fifteen. The film is ambiguous about time, as we move from setting to setting, defined more by the season than the calendar. The film is [more or less] bookended by funerals; at the opening that of the absent father which brings the four sisters together; at the end it is the funeral of Ms Nimoniya (Fabuki Jun), whose seaside café is an important and recurring setting in the film.

The film uses a number of recurring tropes and motifs, which fill out relationships and comment on the characters. One particular trope that struck me was people going up and down hill: steps, stairways and paths through woods or up hills. This trope occurs in most of Koreeda’s films. These walks seem to mirror the up and down rhythms of the lives of characters. There is one splendid sequence when Suzu is given a bicycle spin by a fellow students and they glide downhill under an overarching cover of cherry blossom; and cherry blossom is a motif that crops up a couple of times in characters dialogue and memories.

Memory is central to Koreeda’s family dramas, indeed to all of his films that I have seen. Memories can fill out the resonance of lives and relationships. This is represented most frequently in the film by the plum wine. At a key moment of reconciliation Sachi, who has argued painfully with her mother on a brief return visit, caries the last jar of the grandmother’s vintage plum wine as a parting gift.  Other memories are more problematic and characters are inhibited about these. An example is whitebait, which Suzu experiences as a treat of Ms Nimoniya’s café. However, she cannot admit that it is a dish that she shared with her father in times past.

Food is notable in this film. And it seems to me that it is a much more notable presence in South East Asian films, especially those from Japan. Ritual like food preparation and enjoyment provide moments when characters can group together. And the shared pleasures bring out a warmth in relationships. In some films meal times are moment of crisis, but not in Our Little Sister. Moreover, they are also associated with memories. Not only in the case of Suzu and whitebait but with Yoshino and fried mackerel.

The sisters house is the central set of the story. Old and lacking full up-to-date amenities, it represents a feel for past. It does enjoy a splendid garden, with the luxuriant plum tree near the house. Within it are the personal spaces, represented by the sisters’ rooms. But there are the shared spaces like the bathroom, seen briefly, but a site of a tussle between Yoshino and Sachi. And there are the communal spaces, notably the kitchen and the lounge which is where meals are taken.

We see Sachi at her work at a local hospital, where she is also involved with a doctor, married but whose wife’s mental problem mean she is housed in an institution. We see Yoshino working at the bank, and indeed one of the feckless young men who she dates, usually disastrously. We also see her on visits as a financial advisor, including to Ms Nominiya’s café, where the latter’s ill health is exacerbated by financial problems. And we see Chika at the sport shop, where she works with her  boyfriend. They regularly support the school football team, in which Suzu becomes a star player. And we see Suzu at school with her follow students and friends.

Late in the film, in late summer we watch an annual town firework display; held over the waters alongside the small port. There is a beautifully spectacular long shot of Suzu and her friends in a small boat watching the firework display; with its coloured reflection in the evening waters. And there is a smaller celebration with sparklers in the garden.

This is one of many sequences in the film that strike the viewer with their beauty. But they also offer occasions where we see the sisters in the wider communities of the town. In this film, whilst there are traumas and conflicts within family groups, the sense of relationships is generally positive: something not found in all of Koreeda’s dramas. The film is a pleasure to watch and to listen to. It generally moves at a slow and undramatic pace and this is part of its pleasure. And it offers a portrait of family life that stands out both in  Japanese film and World Cinema.

Posted in Japanese film, Literature on Film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Rape of Recy Taylor, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on June 22, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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