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My Cousin Rachel, Britain, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on June 15, 2017

Daphne Du Maurier published this novel in 1951. It offered a romantic and mysterious story with many of her familiar features. The novel is set in the C19th, but offers no particular dates. The setting is Cornwall, and the book includes descriptions of the Cornish countryside and, importantly, the coastline and the sea. There is a Gothic feel to the novel and there are traces of the influence of the Brontë sisters. The obvious reference is Du Maurier’s earlier classic, ‘Rebecca’. It shares the setting and the mystery from the past. However, instead of a young and naïve female narrator, we have a young, naïve and male narrator.

This is Philip Ashley who has been bought by up an older landowning relative Ambrose. Early on Ambrose’s death takes Philip to Florence and later leads to his meeting Ambrose’s widow Rachel.

Rather as with ‘Rebecca’ the book offers an investigation of a woman; in the earlier novel this was the dead wife of Maxim de Winter: this later novel investigates Philip’s cousin Rachel. However, the final resolution of this story holds ambiguities whereas in ‘Rebecca’ the mystery is fully explained. Just as Rebecca is aided by the intimidating Mrs Danvers Rachel is aided by the more slippery Rainaldi: [slippery perhaps because he is Italian]. Both films offer aspects of the Gothic. One genre that frequently has a Gothic feel are the ‘threatened wife’ scenarios. In these two works we have the ‘threatened husband’.

The ‘mystery’ offered by the novel is less deliberately ambiguous. However, I felt that this is not completely convincing. In ‘Rebecca’ the final conflagration of the house, with Rebecca working through the medium of Mrs Danvers, strikes down Maxim and is powerful and effective. In ‘My Cousin Rachel’ we have a death and then Philip’s anguished questioning, ‘Rachel my torment’. This ties in the narrative to the subjective narrator, often an unreliable source. Philip’s judgements are partially backed up by what he reads in the letters from Ambrose: but Ambrose was sick and could have been mentally unstable. What Philip recounts is partial and contradictory. A key element are the herbal drinks [tisanes] that Rachel makes. These may indeed be poisonous but in which case, if they did cause Philip’s illness, why does she nurse him so assiduously. Covering her tracks does not seem quite sufficient. The investigation of ‘cousin Rachel’ is carried out by Philip and in his mind the jury is still out. For the reader the problem is not just Philip’s subjective viewpoint but his failure to analyse what he has seen and heard fully. The written portrait of Rachel manages to present her as apparently quixotic which makes Philip’s uncertainty convincing. However, it is likely to be a problem when Rachel, as in a film, is literalised in a character that is both seen and heard.

The first film adaptation of the book was produced by Twentieth Century Fox in 1952. In black and white and running 98 minutes the film was helmed by Hollywood professionals: script by Nunnally Johnson who also produced and direction by Henry Koster. The filmed starred Richard Burton as Philip and Olivia de Havilland as ‘my cousin Rachel’. This was Burton’s first film in Hollywood. Du Maurier was not keen on the initial screenplay and later unimpressed with de Havilland’s characterisation. She did, though, enjoy Burton’s Philip and some sequences actually filmed in Cornwall. An important change is that the key setting of an Italianate garden is replaced by a rocky seaside cove. The cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is finely done. And the visual chiaroscuro emphasises the Gothic feel more than the novel. There is a romantic and dramatic score by Franz Waxman. The screenplay is highly compressed: 98 minutes is really insufficient for the plot and characters. The setting of the film is the 1830s: information gained from Ambrose’s tombstone visited by Philip, something he avoids in the novel. Burton has Philip’s intensity and impetuosity but lacks the naivety in relation to women. De Havilland lacks the complexity of Rachel, but this is at least partly due to the scriptwriting. The film does retain some of the ambiguity of the novel, but the relationships do not convincingly prepare for the final questions. On a happier note Don, the Labrador, survives avoiding his accidental death in the novel.

Now, in 2017, comes a new adaptation. The main production company is Fox Searchlight, who presumably retain the copyright to Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. It is a company project and writer and director Roger Mitchell was recruited to this. The film has received quite a few favourable reviews. It is in colour, with a ratio of 2.35:1 and runs ten minutes longer than the 1952 version. It has also enjoyed location filming in both England and Italy, so the film should offer settings that would meet the wishes of Du Maurier.

The production offers some unknowns and some promising possibilities. This is Mitchell’s first screenwriting credit. His previous directorial record does not offer a lot of relevance to this type of property. He did direct Hyde Park on the Hudson (2012) which I enjoyed and which has some slight parallels with this story: an older man has a relationship with a younger cousin and visitors play important parts in the plotting. Rachel Weisz is cast as ‘cousin Rachel’. This would seem to be ideal. She has starred in some rather run-of-the mill genre films but also some fine dramas: of particular relevance here is her role as Hester Collyer in  Terence Davies’ beautifully judged version of The Deep Blue Sea (2012). Sam Claflin plays Philip. Rather like the director how appropriate he will be is hard to judge. The ‘Pirates’ film and the ‘Hunger’ series’ have little in common with Du Maurier’s romantic mystery. I thought he was good in Their Finest (2017) as Tom Buckley, but that character is far removed from Phillip Ashley.

Rachel Weisz is indeed fine as ‘cousin Rachel’. She offers real attraction, changeable behaviour and a certain ambiguity about her aims and motivation. Sam Claflin is very good as Philip. He achieves the gaucheness around woman which is important, however he does not really make the character naive. The supporting cast are good. Holliday Grainger gives Louise both her desires for Philip but also a much more down-to-earth understanding. Rainaldi is a much changed character in the film but Pierfrancesco Favino carries the part well. I should add that the numerous dogs are now only two unnamed Irish Wolf Hounds. As in 1952 we are spared a canine death, but only because [typical Hollywood] they disappear from the film about half-way through: [and Philip is wilfully responsible for the death of a horse]. Rainaldi also disappears abruptly from the plot for a time, unexplained.

The film has fine cinematography by Mike Eley. It uses locations in Italy [Florence looking fine in long shot] and Cornwall to good effect. The scope image is very effective for these landscapes. The cinematography in particular effects a Gothic feel. There are scenes heavily laden with chiaroscuro and we frequently see characters through framings such as doors, windows and banisters. There is fine period design, sets and costumes by Alice Normington, Barbara Herman-Skelding and Dinah Collin respectively. The editing rhythm at the hands of  Kristina Hetherington takes the film forward in many places at a fast pace, using ellipsis after ellipsis to drive the story on.

In fact I think this is often overdone. There are several places where the actions and/or motivations are not totally clear. Thus Rainaldi leaves Philip’s house after his first visit but it is only later in dialogue that we discover where and why. And I suspect that if one does not know the book the status and contents of the different wills will remain unclear; again only a later piece of dialogue fully explains about the marriage restriction that will limit Rachel’s inheritance.

The designs certainly achieve the period setting, as do the costumes. Note though, that following the book, the specific period in the C19th is not presented. There are some exaggerated differences. One is the state of Philip’s mansion. Early on Louise helps Philip prepare the house for Rachel’s visit. it is a dishevelled and grungy mess. Only a few months later, as Philip in an usually smart attire, waits for Rachel and the Christmas presents, the room is transformed, even with new and expensive wall paper.

The film takes much of the plot at a fast pace. But it also takes the time to dwell on particular cinematic moments. One is the Christmas party for the workers and tenants on the estate. During the revelling and carousing there is slow track along the seated labourers which achieves a fine feel.

At the point of Philips 25th birthday when he comes into his inheritance we follow the consequences of his gift of jewels to Rachel. This leads to a sexual act, quite clearly implied in the novel. Here the scene ends with a defocusing as Philip and Rachel lie back on the bed followed by a dissolve. This achieves the effect set out in the book. However, a little later there is a second sexual act in the woods: this I felt was a misjudgement, though Rachel’s stony face as Philip grunts on top of her spoke volumes.

Alongside this there is a important revelation late in the film when Louise translates an Italian letter for Philip. Enlarging on the book Louise comments that

‘Enrico [Rainaldi] is more Greek than Italian …”,

that is he prefers boys! I suspect this is part of an attempt to give the book a modern sensibility regarding gender and sexuality. However, like the editing, I find this overdone.

One of the most important sequences is Philip’s serious illness late in the film. The length of this is cut from weeks to days: an example of how the film speeds up the plot. This is still very effective. At one point we have a montage of what appear to be both flashbacks and hallucinations. The scenes show the manner in which Rachel tends Philip. It also prepares the ground for the shock that Philip receives on regaining some sort of health.

One space that this new version retains from the 1952 film is the replacement of the gardens by the seashore and cliff-tops as key settings. The accident on the cliff top sets up the later fatality effectively. In fact there are far more beach sequences in this film than either in the earlier film or indeed in the original novel;. Philip’s final remorseful voice-over as he sits on the beach uses this richly mythic setting to full effect.

 

The film opens and closes, as does the book, with Philip’s voice-over. The opening offers series of brief flashbacks that provide a helpful ‘back story’ to the main narrative. The ending here, with a carriage bowling along in the countryside, is possibly a little too pat. The novel seems to suggest that life after the events will be much darker. In this film Philip, [as did Richard Burton’s Philip] asks ‘why?, ‘did she?’. This is where the novel ends. However events in the film, for example the careful nursing of Philip [who may or may not have been poisoned] suggest that motivations are relatively uncomplicated. I did find that the novel failed to completely motivate this ambiguity. A weakness which the earlier ‘Rebecca’ does not share. Of course, the film does not need to strictly follow all the ins and outs of the novel. But I felt that ‘cousin Rachel’, despite Weisz’s fine performance’, is a less ambiguous figure. And therefore Philip’s tortured musings seem not properly motivated. As I noted I think there are unintentional ambiguities in the plot, partly because the film has such pace, presumably because it comes in at under two hours. Along the way it looks and sounds good and the characters are always interesting. But just as the novel of ‘Rebecca’, remains a superior work by Du Maurier I think the Daryl Zanuck production of that novel [directed by Alfred Hitchcock] remains the best film adaptation of her pen.

Posted in British films, Hollywood, Literature on Film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Their Finest, Britain, Sweden 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 27, 2017

This was a BBC project which enjoyed Stephen Woolley as a key producer and recruited Lone Scherfig as director. It was adapted from the novel by Lissa Evans, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, by Gabby Chiape. Stephen Woolley has written on the background to the film in Sight & Sound (May 2017) and there is also an interview with Lone Scherfig in this issue. All of them bring their particular talents to the film. This bears the hall marks of the BBC, both in the reconstruction of wartime Britain and in its particular sense of British values, from the 1940s and the C21st. Stephen Woolley appears to have spearheaded the research into the British film industry of the 1940s, which is the setting for this comedy/drama. Lone Scherfig shows the skill with actors that she demonstrated in An Education (2009) and the combination of comedy and drama that graced the earlier Italian for Beginners (2000). Gabby Chiape has previously written for television, [including ‘East Enders’] and whilst this is a big-screen film the  interactions have a familiar tone found in a certain area of television. The production values are excellent, notably some fine cinematography.

Set in 1940 the film follows the career of Catrin Cole (Gemma Atherton) when she is recruited to provide ‘women’s’ dialogue’ for feature films. She is recruited by the Ministry of Information and then placed in a commercial film company charged with producing ‘propaganda’ that offers ‘authenticity and optimism to inspire a nation’. The brief is also to feature stories about ordinary people including women. Catrin interviews two sisters whose exploit [exaggerated] provides the pitch for a drama around the Dunkirk Evacuation.

Catrin works with two experienced writers in a small office near Wardour Street. Their impresario is clearly modelled on Alexander Korda. The lead writer, Tom Buckley (Sam Caflin), is worldly wise in the ways of the industry. Their narrative becomes a ‘film within a film’, The Nancy Starling.

The cast are filled out with the members of the film production and Whitehall mandarins who are overseeing the project. There is a substantial role for Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard [‘Uncle Frank’ in the film within]. Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons both have sequences where they deliver the rhetoric of the period with aplomb. And the latter adds a ‘yank’ to the film, Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy) seconded from the RAF where he has volunteered as a fighter pilot. Carl has to be given acting lessons by ‘Uncle Frank’ but his presence means that the film will receive US distribution and is shot in Technicolor.

The pre-production sequences where the script emerges and the writers are embroiled in the departmental wartime politics work well. The productions sequences, with a film directed by a documentary filmmaker, capture the technical and conventional aspects of 1940s filming. And the ‘film within a film’ nicely parallels the developments in the actual feature.

The emphasis in the feature is on the writing aspects of film. The film production within this feature uses some settings with visual interest and also with humour. So there is a wry joke regarding ‘Uncle Frank’ and special effects: and a later one whilst shooting a scene in the studio water tank. As well as the ‘ham’ US actor there is [predictably] the rescue of a cute dog. However, there is much less attention paid to the film crafts people than to the writers. Thus the film is supposed directed by someone from the documentary film movement, but we never get any sense of this character. And this applies to the technical people such as cinematographer or sound engineer. And there is no real focus on the editing of the film.

What we do see is a visit by Catrin to a cinema where she watches [in a series of brief clips] the finished and distributed film. The audience at the screening are clearly both involved and entertained by the feature. We watch, in particular, the climax and ending of the film. By this stage we know that finally Catrin has been able to write in a sequence in which one of the sister performs a ‘heroic’ act. And we know that she has written the ending for the film after US distributors thought the original ending to ‘tame’.

This is the only part of the film that we see that has a documentary flavour. With a voice over by one of the characters, intoning the message of continued struggle and US support, there is a long shot of a couple seated on the harbour wall in a small port in Devon. [Actually shot in Pembrokeshire]. We have seen this shot earlier; it is in reality a test shot before the actual filming and is of two of the key characters in the feature itself. This precedes a final sequence where we see that Catrin has succeeded in becoming part of the established film writing team.

This ending takes on a special emotional feel because of development among the key characters in the feature’s story. Whilst the ending of a ‘film within a film’ provides a suitable war-time feel of ‘authenticity’, with ‘optimism’ in the commentary, the knowledge we have about this couple adds a real poignancy to the feature film’s ending.

The shooting of the film within a film in Technicolor is well done and enables the film to be predominantly in colour. Less happily we see extracts from 1940s films, [including the production in this feature] projected for viewers in Academy ratio and then [as clips] in reframed in the 2.35:1 ratio. I find this distracting and unnecessary; presumably the BBC was looking forward to television screenings. But I was also undecided just how well presented is the supposed 1940 film. In his article Stephen Woolley lists a number of British productions from the period that he and colleagues studied in order to gauge style and content. Most of these are familiar titles such as The Foreman Went to France (1940) or ‘Pimpernel’ Smith (1941): but there are also lesser known features such as Tomorrow We Live’(1944). This feature is placed in a period of transition from the 1930s style, frequently relying on conventional techniques and lacking authenticity, certainly in terms of working class characters, to the wartime ‘documentary influenced’ approach epitomised in a film like Love on the Dole (also 1941)..

The Technicolor films that spring to mind are those of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, later and a long way from either the feature or its film within. And there is an uneven tone, notably in the acting. Bill Nighy has been critically commended but I found his ‘Uncle Frank’ stagy for any sense of authenticity. This may be deliberate by the filmmakers,, but it left me unconvinced by the audience response in the cinema to this film within.

 

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

Elle, France, Germany, Belgium 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrival – Philosophy on Film

Posted by keith1942 on January 14, 2017

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It seems to me that there has been an increase in writing on film that addresses philosophical issues. However, the content does not always match up to the traditional sense of this concept:

“the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence”

It is even less common for films to address such issues. But this science fiction film (USA 2016) seems to do this to a greater degree than is common, certainly with mainstream films. It is a complex film and I watched it twice before I was satisfied that I have completely grasped the plot. But a second viewing also made me consider some of the existential and moral issues that it raises.

The film is adapted from a short story by a US-based writer Ted Chiang. I have not read the original: our local library has not got a copy. But I have checked out some reviews which has given me a sense of how the film differs from the story. The story, and to a degree the film, address theories regarding language, perception, what we call time, and even cause and effect. Some of these theories are matters of debate among scholars. Some are certainly complex and I did not understand some of the more intricate aspects of some theories. What seemed clear to me was that certain concepts or phrases are treated ambiguously in the film. So I have noted this by using ‘…’ as for ‘present’, ‘past’ and ‘future’, all aspects in the story whose meaning needs to be tested.

The film centres on the character of Doctor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a linguistic scholar. When Alien spaceships arrive on earth Louise is recruited to assist in establishing communications with the Aliens. She works alongside a physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Both are under the control of a Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Agent Halpern (Michael Stulbarg). Most of the action takes place at a temporary military base at the site occupied by the Alien space craft. We learn that there are eleven other such space crafts at various sites round the world. Whilst the Doctors Banks and Donnelly pursue their research there is an interchange via video links with teams in other countries also attempting to communicate with the aliens.

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The concept and visualisation of the Aliens is brilliant. They are seven-limbed and christened ‘Heptapods’. Their spoken and written [graphic] language appear incomprehensible. At the same time they appear more interested in observing than [say] threatening earth. Donnelly christens the two that he and Louise [and we] meet ‘Abbott and Costello’.

Some of the most fascinating sequences are as Louise takes a lead in working out how to communicate with the Aliens. We are told that their spoken language bears no relationship with their written language. The latter appears more like graphic/symbolic displays than writing. And the symbols shoot out from one of the limbs of the Alien and are displayed on the glass screen between the Aliens and the scientists. As Louise develops her understanding of their communication she explains that each symbol is known completely before being presented: she uses the example of writing a sentence with both hands starting on opposite sides of  page. The writer would need to know the whole communication exactly in advance, even the space between letters.

Donnelly contributes to the understanding by identifying and explaining that the Aliens do not relate to what we call time in the same way as humans. Essentially he claims that they are aware of all parts of a series in a timeline at once. This seems not to be the same aspect as involved in time travel but is a mode of perception, even existence.

Since this is a mainstream release it also has an amount of action and suspense. Both are created by tensions and suspicions between the different countries working with/against the Aliens. It falls to Louise to prevent armed conflict at the moment of crisis and climax. She does this by conducting the Commander (General Shang / Tzi Ma)in charge of the Chinese effort and using knowledge she has gained from the Heptapods, defuses the situation. It is worth noting that the representation of the Chinese does not go beyond the Shang character and this presents an autocratic and militaristic regime.

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Interwoven with the somewhat conventional sci-fi plot are a series of sequences with Louise and her daughter Hannah (four actresses of different ages). These both open and close the film and appear frequently in between. At first they seem to be flashbacks: then they seem to possibly be flash-forwards. It is apparent that they are connected in some way with Louise’s contact with the Heptapods.

Another point that develops with the film is the assumption that the use of language affects the way of thinking. In Louise’s case this means as she develops her grasp of the Alien language she also acquires their perception of time. This only falls into place for the viewer towards the end of the film. At this point it becomes apparent that in terms of human perception of time the Alien arrival occurs at the beginning of the narrative that we witness: and that the birth, upbringing and early death of Hannah occur later. The sequences in which we see/hear what seem to be Louise’s perception of Hannah’s life are examples of seeing events across a whole timeline and not as human being usually experience this: in a linear fashion.

The interaction of the two plot lines presents a different manner of regarding time. This is a familiar trope in science fiction but treated in an atypical manner. It raises issues about philosophical questions and also about the film’s plot line itself. Apparently the conflict that develops between the different states engaging with the Aliens and the resolution of this have been added to the original story. I found this not completely convincing. Even at my first viewing the manner in which Louise ‘converts’ General Shang seemed rather pat. Moreover the film implies that the way the conflict and resolution is plotted follows a design by the Aliens. Their visit to earth is motivated by the fact that in several thousand years in the future they will need assistance from earth. So this plotting supposedly produces a unified earth community that will still be round when needed. This was not only pat but given human history [with which the Aliens are presumably conversant] seriously unconvincing.

A second plot problem relates to the personal. In the alternative time sequence we learn that Louise and Ian, now married and parents of Hannah, have separated. The reason is that Louise told Ian something and he could not accept this. What she told him is that she knew when they conceived Hannah that she would die young: he thinks she made the wrong decision. However, if Louise can see across the timeline she would know what Ian’s response would be in advance.

Some reviews suggest that Louise chooses to conceive Louise despite knowing the outcome. This could be applied to Louise telling Ian. I do not find that totally convincing. In both cases one could interpret the events and choices as fated, rather like a Greek tragedy. Another aspect would be other comments in reviews to the purpose that one can know the ‘future’ but not change it. This is intriguing because it separates the treatment of time in this work from that of time travel. It appears that not even the Aliens in ‘Arrival’ time travel. But they see across time, a skill that Louise develops. This aspect raises questions about the relationship between cause and effect.

Arrival appears to have been influenced by Chris Marker’s science fiction classic La Jetée (1962). That film appears to be about time travel as the protagonists goes forward in time and then backwards in time. However, the plot is really about his life story and centrally about memory. At the conclusion the viewer realises that his experience in what seems to be the ‘past’ has characterised all his other experiences. So something similar can be seen in the presentation of Louise and Hannah’s stories. The film and story seems to be playing with philosophical concepts of time. There is Immanuel Kant’s position that this is a ‘systematic mental framework’ and also Eisenstein’s argument in relativity that different observers see events in time differently.

It is worth noting how Louise appears to view across the timeline: the film does not give any idea of how the Heptapods do this. When she has been in close proximity to the Heptapods we see insert shots, as if she has been stimulated by the Aliens. Elsewhere she works at it rather in the way that people work at recovering memories: there is no sense that she has an overview of all elements or events at once. So in one scene she ‘remembers’ a concept taught her by Ian to solve a question by Hannah. The key example is her call to General Shang on a mobile, as she talks on the phone she ‘remembers’ the conversation she will have with the General after the crisis is over. In this case what is in the ‘future’ informs her actions at an earlier point in time. This is the paradox associated with time travel and which also appears in La Jetée  and numerous other science fiction works.

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Louise’s development of the ability to see across the timeline follows from an assumption that language affects the way that humans think. The alternative position is that the way humans think affects language. The film does not follow this through. In the film Louise publishes a book on the Alien language: it is visible at the reception where she meets General Shang and the logo on the book is seen several times in the ‘future sequences’. Are other humans learning the language? Is that the object of the Alien visit so that when the need arises humans will see across the timeline in relation to the Alien situation? Why does Ian not learn the language? He does not seem to display much interest in this. Perhaps he has picked up a smattering and that is the reason that Louise feels impelled to tell him about Hannah.

The aspect of the story that the film does emphasise is gender. Science fiction remains a predominately masculine genre, even after the appearance of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien (1979): and the same problem bedevils Passengers (USA 2016) despite the presence of Jennifer Lawrence. In Arrival Louise is more or less the lone woman in a man’s world. The leading  characters in the ‘present’ are all men. The only other important character is Hannah. Even when we see other research teams round the world on the video-call I do not remember any women members. The most notable females are the presenters on the Television News Broadcasts.

Moreover the male characters in the film display the stereotypical attitudes of men: prone to expect conflict and aggression. So Louis provides an alternative in terms of rationality but also emotional stability. However, it is not clear whether the Heptapods have different genders. Ian christens them as men, but that appears to be his unthinking gesture rather than based on any evidence. The film uses tropes relating to feminine characters repeatedly. The most interesting is Louise’s hair. There is a long tradition in film regarding a woman’s hair. Tied back in some fashion is represents restraint even repression. Hanging loose it represents openness and sexuality. Markedly women frequently cut their hair after moments of trauma, so the Jodie Foster character cuts her hair after the rape in The Accused (1988).

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In Arrival’s present Louise has her hair tied back for most of the time, we see her tying it back after the ‘shower’ on returning from the Alien craft. In the ‘other time;’ sequences with Hannah it is usually hanging loose, and we also see it loose in sequences with Ian from ‘the future’ but not in the ‘present’. The most notable differentiation from this in the film is a solitary visit that Louise makes to the Alien craft. This is approaching the film’s climax, conflict seems imminent. The Alien craft is hovering above the ground and when Louise runs towards it a pod descends and takes her up into the craft. Once in her hair flies free and is at its most unrestricted in the whole film. She is enveloped in mist and floating in the air. The sequence reminded me forcibly of a scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) where the David Bowie character (Thomas Jerome Newton) has coitus with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). Whilst this film is not noticeable sexual this is a moment of real sensuousness. It is also the point that Louise realises she can understand the Alien language.

However, the aspect of Louise’s femininity that the film emphasises is as a mother. The sequences with Hannah all give expression to a strong maternal instinct. And her life after the Alien visit, whilst it involves marriage with Ian, is most concerned with her as mother. Ian really is a plot necessity, he has to impregnate Louise, but at some point in Hannah’s childhood he leaves, so we have a single mother and child.

Ted Chiang’s original story was titled ‘Story of Your Life’. It presumably refers to the life of Hannah. In the film Hannah’s story is seen through the perspective of Louise, hence ‘your life’. So this is emphatically a mother’s point of view. The film clearly makes play with supposed gender differences between men and women. It would be interesting if the written story explores this in terms of the Heptapods. The handling of concepts of language, time, perception and related scientific concepts clearly makes this ‘hard’ science fiction’. The mother/daughter story falls into the realm of melodrama. Part of the effectiveness and success of the film results from the interaction of these two generic strands. As I write I see that Arrival has done well in the BAFTA nominations, better than in the USA Award Festivals. Is that a reflection of different attitudes to science fiction among audiences?

Directed by Denis Villeneuve: Produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levinem Aaron Ryder, David Linde: Screenplay by Eric Heisserer,  Based on “Story of Your Life”  by Ted Chiang: Music by Jóhann Jóhannsson:  Cinematography Bradford Young: Edited by Joe Young. The film was produced in Montréal and Québec in Canada.

It was filmed in colour and in anamorphic widescreen. The version I saw was masked to 2.35:1.

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The Unknown Girl / La fille inconnue,Belgium, France, Italy 2016).

Posted by keith1942 on December 18, 2016

the-unknown-girl

This is the new film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. It bears their recognisable style and content: that is a social realist approach to a story that is fairly dramatic. As with most of their films the story is driven by character. However, on this occasion the plotting does seem to take control, which dilutes the impact and which is likely the reason why the film has received mixed reviews. In fact, after the Cannes Festival the brothers went back to the film and made changes, about thirty, which resulted in the film running seven minutes shorter. It seems that this affected the way that the main character, a local doctor in a suburb of Liege, Jenny Davin, is presented: she spends the film seeking the identify of a young dead woman,

“In the end, in the second version, one of the main differences from the version we showed in Cannes was that we brought it back into her mind, so that the audience is closer to Jenny.” (Sight & Sound Interview, December 2016).

When the film opens Jenny is working as a locum at the practice where the resident doctor is retiring. After surgery hours someone rings the door buzzer but at that hour Jenny, who is with an Intern Julian, fails to open the door. Next day she discovers that a young woman who is black, has been found dead; identity unknown but recorded on the practice’s CCTV. Partly from guilt Jenny sets out to identify the young woman. We follow her in this quest, both among the patients who are registered with the practice but also in the more dissolute areas of the Seriang suburb: the regular setting for Dardenne films.

Some reviews have characterised this quest as a detective film. I felt it closer to film noir. The police in the film are not that interested in the case. But Jenny becomes the seeker heroine, a rare phenomenon. The young black woman acts as the femme fatale, though she is more endangered than dangerous. And there is definitely an aspect of a chaotic world as Jenny seeks an answer. And the noir style of chiaroscuro re-appear intermittently in the film. There are no flashbacks but people do recount past events. And while we do not have a narrative voice the quest is filmed entirely from the perspective of Jenny.

The Dardenne brother also remarked that:

“At the beginning, we were talking about a doctor who was older and we needed to construct some form of intrigue around her. We had elaborated a more complex life for her – she had failed at some point – but we weren’t able to develop the story that way. We decided to chose someone younger. The face of Adèle Haenel triggered something in us: the innocence of her face.” [S&S Interview).

Adèle Haenel is a French actor. One of her earliest films was the excellent Water Lilies / Naissance des pieuvres (2007). Recently she was a feisty Madeleine in the unusual Love at First Fight / Les combattants (2014). She is really fine in the film as Jenny. She is onscreen for practically the whole of the film and her performance conveys the emotions and responses of the doctor with great subtlety. The supporting cast are [as usual in a Dardenne film] very good. Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), the intern, is important because he brings out aspects of Jenny’s character that clarify her motivations. Her character is presented with little back story: she is possibly an isolated person which makes her sense of identity with the dead woman more likely.

The film runs just under two hours and I was immersed all the way through. However, I did also have reservations, both during the screening and again afterwards. Some of the plotting seems to determine the characters rather than reverse: the latter is more typical of Dardenne’s films. There were several points where I was conscious of how Jenny’s contact with other characters was about forwarding the investigative narrative. After the film I also thought of some implausibilities, one being that the practice does not have a receptionist? There is a lot of plot play with the entry door and buzzer.

The film remains superior to any other new release that I have seen this month. Apart from the skill with which the filmmakers and their cast present this tale and its setting the film has familiar and important themes. There is a controlled passion and a strong compassion as the team thread their way through the disadvantaged spaces of a modern city, as they chart the situations of working class people and the migrants who exist among them and of dedicated people who attempt to service them.

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Jane Eyre on film

Posted by keith1942 on July 21, 2016

Peggy-Ann-Garner-in-Jane-Eyre-1943

I was able to revisit C20th Fox’s classic film version of this story in a good quality 35mm print at the National Media Museum. There was also a panel discussion before the film. This is an adaptation from one of the most potent novels in English literature written by Charlotte Brontë  and published in 1847. I first encountered it at the start of my teens, and read it twelve times in the space of a couple of years. Jane Eyre’s passionate, tenacious and truculent resistance to being put down and patronised struck a strong chord with me.  I have since seen at least six official translations to the screen and a number of other films clearly influenced by the novel.

This 1943 version is one of the most famous and was preceded only by four fairly short silent versions [varying in length from one to seven reels] and a relatively short feature length version in 1934. The latter is stagey and suffers from the limitations of early sound. It also rewrites the plot in a way that diminishes the story. So we get quite  a lot of the book, but extremely condensed. Unlike some later versions we meet [St] John Rivers (Desmond Roberts), but only in one short scene. Jane is played by Jean Darling as a child and Virginia Bruce as an adult. In both cases she is too attractive and too stylishly dressed. Both Adele (Edith Fellows) and Blanche (Aileen Pringle) describe her as ‘pretty’. Colin Clive as Rochester is miscast. He completely lacks the dark mystery of the novel’s characterisation. And the film also lacks any Gothic trappings. The house is affluent and cosy: indeed the staircase to the attic where Bertha (Claire Du Brey, who hardly seems mad at all) resides looks like any ground to first floor stairs. And to cap this Rochester is daily expecting his marriage to be annulled. We do get the fire and subsequent blindness.

The 1943 version does to a great degree dramatise the book and has become one of is the most influential film versions. It was filmed at the C20th studio at Century City and runs for 97 minutes in crisp, black and white Academy ratio. It has a crew of stellar names, both in front of and behind the camera and microphone.

It is worth restating one of the models frequently used in analysing adaptations of literature to film. There is the adaptation that aims at relative fidelity to the source novel. Then there are the versions that reinterprets or even deconstructs the novel. And the third approach is one that re-imagines the novel, using selectively whatever fits. The 1943 Jane Eyre is clearly a film that aims at a degree of fidelity, allowing for both the stylistic conventions and dominant values of the studio film. Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ could be seen as a novel that deconstructs the original, and the film (1940) follows suit. While Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ would seem to re-imagine the original: a filmic equivalent would be Val Lewton’s production of I Walked with a Zombie (1943). All of these later works offer interesting illuminations on the novel and on the film adaptations.

The screenplay for the film is credited to Aldous Huxley, the film’s director Robert Stevenson and John Houseman. The latter was a key associate with one of the stars of the film, Orson Welles. Welles’ The Mercury Theatre on Air had broadcast a radio adaptation in 1938 of the work with John Houseman collaborating in the writing. This film, to some degree, was developed from the that version. Welles also produced ‘Rebecca’ for his later radio series The Campbell Playhouse. Bernard Hermann, composer for the film, provided music for that broadcast.

Lowood school in the 1943 version

Lowood school in the 1943 version

The screenplay deftly cuts the novel to fit the reduced space in a 97 minute running time. So scenes are cut or abbreviated. A good example is right near the opening of the film. We see a candle [repeatedly used with low key lighting throughout the film] held by Bessie (Sara Allgood) accompanied by a manservant as he opens the door to let Jane [Peggy Ann Garner] out of what is [in the book the red-room] some sort of or cellar store room.. This follows the altercations with her cousin John which is elided though referred to in the subsequent dialogue. Far more drastic changes occur later in the film. The characters of Miss Temple at the Lowood School and St John Rivers, who with his sisters provides shelter for Jane late in the film, are both missing. However, they are in a way substituted by an additional character, Doctor Rivers (John Sutton) who is seen several times in the sequences at Lowood School. He stands in for Miss Temple, especially in relation to the illness and death of Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor). He is also given some of the maxims that St John Rivers opined in the book. After the death and burial of Helen he tells Jane, with reference to ‘duty, that she needs,

“to do God’s work…” and that this requires “an educated woman”.

Much of the dialogue is taken from the novel or is fairly close to that. Moreover the film uses literary devices common in Hollywood adaptation of classic literature. The film credits present first the embossed cover of the novel and subsequent pages setting out the title and production credits. Then we see the opening page of the opening chapter. A voice [that of Joan Fontaine] reads out the opening paragraph. This device is repeated five more times in the film. On each occasion we are shown the page and particular paragraph in the novel, read out by a voice-over. However, at the end of the film Jane’s voice reprises the end of the novel without any use of page or book.

St John Rivers is a character that is frequently missing in film adaptations, though he gets fully developed characterisation in the 2011 version. Another character, but minor, also frequently missing in film adaptations is the gypsy fortune teller, who turns out to be Edward Rochester in disguise. In this adaptation the plot information that was presented in this way is covered by an additional scene, differently scripted, between Edward Rochester (Orson Welles) and Blanche Ingram (Hilary Brooks). This is one of at least two sequences where the narrative departs from what Jane herself can know. The other is a sequence between Rochester and Mason (John Abbott), the brother of Rochester’s actual wife Bertha. Note, the actress or extra playing Bertha does not appear in the credits, probably because she is only glimpsed briefly through a doorway.

Through the use of the voice-over the film attempts to provide the personal narrative voice which is one of the real successes of the original novel. But, apart from the scenes mentioned, this device is not consistently used in the film. Whilst Jane’s voice is a constant in the book, not only explaining the plot but commentating both on the characters and her own feeling and responses, in this film I counted seven such sequences, all only a paragraph from the book. We get leaving Gateshead, arriving at Lowood, Jane’s early thoughts on Rochester, her first awareness of the ‘mystery in the tower’, her thoughts after Rochester has proposed marriage, her return to Gateshead, and the final summing up for the conclusion. Key sequences, as that involving the actual Bertha or Jane’s subsequent flight from Thornfield, offer no such comment. Moreover, despite the presentation these are not the words that Brontë wrote. The opening page and voice-over offers,

“My name is Jane Eyre …. I was born in 1820, a harsh time in England.”

After more on social conditions and attitudes we get a reference to Gateshead and to Aunt Reed. But the original novel opens with,

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. “

It goes on to describe the events that led to Jane’s incarnation in the red-room. It is only half-way through chapter two that Bronte allows Jane her comments on Mrs Reed. The same is true of the later ‘extracts’ and only the final un-illustrated voice-over comes close to the novel with the details of Edward Rochester’s recovering sight and his first-born. The novel though goes on toe inform the reader about the sojourn of St John Rivers whose religious commitment closes the book. I incline to think that these passages are taken from the earlier radio version and are designed to help the audience into the story and to follow its plot.

Peggy Ann Garner as the young Jane catches her rebellious spirit. In both the Reed household and at Lowood, she resists the impositions on her by adults. The film’s emphasises the power of this world by using low angle shots from Jane’s point of view of both her aunt Mrs Reed (Agnes Moorehead) and of Mr Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell) . Agnes Moorehead is suitably icy as the uncaring Aunt. Daniell is a little overbearing as the sadistic head of the Orphanage. The film emphatically stresses this aspect with an additional scene which shows Jane and Helen burns forced to perambulate in the rain with signs bearing the label ‘rebellious’ and ‘vain’. The latter notice refers to Burns’ ringlets. The punishment exacerbates Burns illness and it is after her funeral that we hear the religious strictures from Doctor Rivers.

The rebellious spirit is more muted when the Jane transforms to the adult woman played by Joan Fontaine. However, she still displays a firm determination, especially in the exchanges with Edward Rochester. This is a much more confident and determined young woman than the unnamed heroine of Rebecca. However, the film leaves out all the plot and discussion about her paintings, an aspect of the story that brings out Jane’s imaginative world. So the film lacks the intellectual relationship between Jane and Edward described in the book..

Kate Ellis and Ann Kaplan commented on both this film and the 1970 TV film version directed by Delbert Mann:

“[this] is a story of a woman who understands instinctively the inequities of patriarchal structures but who cannot, finally, move entirely beyond them. … Jane’s strength comes to the reader through the clear, strong voice of the first person narrative . . . Neither film version (1944, 1970) is ultimately able to retain the centrality of Jane’s point of view. (The English Novel and the Movies, 1981).

Fontaine does have a problem in the overbearing presence of Orson Wells as Rochester. Once he appears he dominates the film and even after tragedy strikes he is till the most potent presence on screen. Referring to the finale of the novel and film Ellis and Kaplan ask,

“(could Welles ever appear chastened?) . . . “

And it is worth noting that at their first meeting, when in an unexpected encounter Rochester is thrown from his horse, he does not need Jane’s assistance to remount as he does in the book.

Adele (Margaret O’Brien) is pleasant but clearly cannot achieve the French quality which is important tin the book. Blanche Ingram is suitably arch. Mason is underdeveloped and, as noted, we do not really see Bertha at all. The film does essay presenting Jane’s point of view, but not consistently. Two shots stand out, as the camera, sited behind Jane, includes her in a shot of Rochester with Blanche in deep staging. In fact the film uses deep focus/staging and chiaroscuro for much of its length. In that and other ways it resembles Citizen Kane. Here though we have cinematographer George Barnes. He had worked on the earlier Rebecca, where equally there was a frequent use of chiaroscuro sand a gothic feel.

Jane Eyre 06

This gothic feel is emphasised by the Production Design of William Pereira, who also acted a second unit director. Together with the Art Designs by James Basevi (who worked on Wuthering Heights) and Ward Ihnen and also the set decoration of Thomas Little the film seems to come from some C18th Gothic novel rather than the C19th Brontë. Thornfield is like a castle and most rooms have bare stone walls. There are battlements and a tower where Bertha resides. And there are frequent shots of the battlements as the plot darkens. Thornfield is a building full of shadows. The film was shot in a studio but through back projections, matte shots and the use of models it generates a feel of a Yorkshire landscape, wild and turbulent. There are frequent dissolves as transitions between scenes, the work of special effects specialist Fred Sersen. Another trope is the use of staircases, a conventional Hollywood setting for moment so drama and transition. There are at least nine sequences set on a staircase, more than a in any other version of the novel that I have seen. They appear when Jane leaves Gateshead, when we meet Helen Burns for the first time, in several scenes involving Jane with Rochester and, of course, as a spiral, in the tower where Bertha is hidden.

The director of the film was Robert Stevenson, who had worked in the British film industry and then moved to Hollywood. But this gothic-style film is unlike his other films of the periods. However, it is very like the work directed by Orson Welles, and seems at times to borrow from the style of Citizen Kane (1941). Welles, when negotiating the film, asked for a producer credit, but was only contracted as an actor. However, it is clear from reminiscences that he also ‘assisted’ in some of the direction. Citizen Kane, of  course, had an immense influence among the Hollywood craft community. The expressionist style and atmosphere can be seen in numerous examples across the studio films. But Welles was also assisted in this case by the number of his associates working on the film. John Houseman worked with Welles in the theatre and radio in New York. Welles apparently picked a member of the Mercury Theatre, Agnes Moorehead, for the role of Mrs Reed. The Jane Eyre film also crosses over in at least one way with I Walked with a Zombie. This was filmed at RKO , Welles old studio, where he was still working when not acting, on re-cutting his It’s All True [only to see the light of day in 1993]. And the score for Jane Eyre by Bernard Herrmann at times seems to recall that in Citizen Kane: in fact, it appears that Herrmann used orchestrations and themes in this film from the score he composed for the earlier Rebecca.

Rochester and Jane in the 1943 version

Rochester and Jane in the 1943 version

Welles, like the dominant studio model of the time, was not strong on independent women. And the film does not generate the sense of female autonomy for which Jane struggles throughout the novel. There is no mention of the inheritance which gives her economic independence in the novel. When Rochester and Jane meet again in the ruins of Thornfield, it is almost as if the former is the savaged persona of Kane. There is a brief but passionate kiss between the couple, dominated by Rochester. Then Jane’s final comment tells the audience that Edward recovered enough sight to see his first-born son.

There have been several film versions of the book since the C20th Fox feature. Ellis and Kaplan note that a later film of Jane Eyre, a UK/USA TV film production in 1971, came after the period of Hollywood’s flirtation with film noir and when values around the representation of women had changed:

“But Mann’s [The director Delbert Mann) version made in the period when the new wave of feminism was at its most exuberant, optimistic phase, humanizes Rochester and Bertha …”

The film is in Eastmancolor, with George C. Scott as Rochester and Susannah York as Jane. In some ways the film returns to the 1934 version, with a more obviously attractive Jane and Thornfield as an elegant mansion, though more in keeping with the period of the novel. Bertha is a catatonic character, rather than the violent person of novel and the earlier film. This version omits the opening in the Reed household but does include St. John Rivers (Ian Bannen, excellent) and his sisters. There is no mention of an inheritance for Jane. And when she returns to Thornfield her meeting with the now blind Rochester is in a wooded walk where he first proposed to her. She tells him “I’ve  come home, Edward, to stay.” ‘Coming home’ is one of the classic endings in Hollywood films. The film did have a theatrical release in the UK but was shot for television. It does have some odd ellipsis which may be due to this, cuts where one feels that material is omitted. And the Eastmancolor does not serve the drama as well as black and white film.

Rochester and Jane in the 1970 version

Rochester and Jane in the 1970 version

There was another TV film version for London Weekend Television in 1997. This has Samantha Morton as Jane and Ciarán Hinds as Rochester. The film opens as young Jane (Laura Harling) is bundled into the red-room after the incident with John Reed. There is quite an amount of play with the effect of this on  Jane. This leads to her moving to the Lowood School, Miss Temple (Emily Joyce) does appear here but is an undeveloped character as is Helen Burns (Gemma Eglinton). Eight years pass and she takes up employment as the Governess at Thornfield. It is at this point that we get the first of the occasional voice-overs with Jane’s comments. Rochester and Jane are well presented, and include the responses to Jane’s paintings. When we come to the climatic revelation of Bertha she is vividly portrayed and with quite a lot of sympathy. The film does address how much or how little knowledge Mrs Fairfax (Gemma Jones) has of Bertha, something the novel is slightly ambiguous about. Jane’s journey from Thornfield is detailed and we meet St John Rivers (Rupert Penry-Jones), but with only one sister, Diana ((Elizabeth Garvie). Again there is no reference to an inheritance and when Jane returns to Rochester the emphasis is on the union and subsequent children. The film makes quite a lot of play with landscapes, though shot in Cumbria rather than Yorkshire. This version also uses less of the dialogue from the book than other versions but with the most distinctive Pilot, a Newfoundland / Landseer.

A family ending in the 1997 version

A family ending in the 1997 version

The 1996 film version is produced by Miramax and involved several European film companies. It was directed by Franco Zeffirelli. For much of its 112 minutes it has a high degree of fidelity to the book, but takes bizarre turn late in the film. There is a strong cast, led by William Hurt playing Rochester in a low key and Charlotte Gainsborough as an admirably determined Jane. There are also some Yorkshire landscapes. The film opens with a powerful rendering of the red-room incident. When Jane moves to Lowood we have a recognisable Miss Temple and Helen Burns, with the original religious emphasis. And an interesting detail, we see Helen and Jane’s locks loose before Mr Brocklehurst as he wields the scissors. This is the only time in the film that Jane’s hair is completely loose. When we arrive at Thornfield the building has the recognisable battlements, and the interiors are affluent but also limited in the C19th style. Rochester and Jane study and discuss her paintings. Later she makes the trip to the dying Mrs Reed. At this point St John Rivers appears as the local vicar and with only one sister. Also at this point we learn about the inheritance that waits Jane. Here as with Bertha the film brings in the West Indian connection. After the interrupted wedding and the revelation of Bertha Jane leaves Thornfield. Immediately Bertha starts the fire that kills her, and Grace Poole and maims Rochester. Jane meanwhile receives a perfunctory proposal from Rivers but returns to Thornfield. Now the couple are united. In this final scene it is Jane who is passionate in the kisses and embraces. So the film offers an effective representation of the original, marred by some careless plotting.

Jane kisses the blind Rochester in the 1996 version

Jane kisses the blind Rochester in the 1996 version

The most recent version on film was produced by Focus Features and BBC Films in 2011. It was scripted by Moira Buffini, whose earlier Byzantium (2012) was impressive in its treatment of a pair of vampiric sisters. The director was Cary Joji Fukunaga whose earlier Beasts of the No Nation (2015), set among child soldiers in Africa,  was good, though I thought the plotting was slightly problematic. This colour film retains much of the plot and dialogue of the novel but changes the structure. So the film opens with the adult Jane standing in a doorway. She leave Thornfield [following the attempted wedding ceremony] and endures a difficult and distraught journey to the door of the River’s household. As she convalesces Jane has a series of flashbacks, first to the red-room incident at Gateshead and then [briefly] to Lowood school and her friendship with Helen Burns. Now follows her taking up the post of governess to Adele at Thornfield. For this we  have one long and uninterrupted flashback. She meets Rochester as he falls from his startled horse. Note, this is the most undeveloped Pilot in the whole cycle. At Thornfield Rochester discusses her painting with Jane: their conversation brings out the imaginative side of Jane’s character. The film uses a series of visual motifs and tropes to illuminate the developing relationship. One example is picture that Jane examines twice, a nude woman reclining on a sofa. This is a film where the sexual aspect of the relationship is acknowledged. The other, possibly a subtle point, is a brief glimpse of a black coachman when Jane arrives at Thornfield. When Blanche Ingram appears we also see Jane’s journey back to Gateshead and Mrs Reed’s confession of Jane’s relative John Eyre. The only voice-over in the film gives us the wording of a letter that Jane writes to him.

Back at Thornfield we hear Rochester’s proposal, see the interrupted wedding and the mad Bertha. This flashback includes part of the journey already seen at the film’s opening. There are two differences: one is a shot of a distraught Rochester calling after Jane at a window: the other a dramatic overhead shot of a distraught Jane lying in the heather. Back into the film’s present, we see Jane working at the school and then St John River’s proposal. Now she also learns of her inheritance. In an open-air encounter Rivers questions her continuing passion for Rochester. At the sound of his name Jane runs off into the surrounding moors. We then see her in a carriage journeying to Thornfield. Finding Rochester, in the spot where he originally proposed to her, the couple are re-united. There is no dialogue about wedding or children,. just a long shot of the entwined couple.

The interrupted wedding in the 2011 version.

The interrupted wedding in the 2011 version.

The organisation of the flashback is slightly odd. The series of flashbacks at the River’s house of Lowood draw a parallel between the two settings: places where Jane’s education, formal and informal, occurs. However, the later shot as she runs towards the moors does raise a question as to whether the final sequence is actual or imagined?

The panel discussion that accompanied the screening of the 1943 film version was chaired by Samira Ahmed with Lauren Livesey, Amber Regis and Michael Jackson. They were all interesting but none of them was a film specialist. This was an aspect that was not fully explored.

The three panellist talked about aspects of the novel and the various adaptations, both on film and on television. There are also several foreign language versions. The television versions, they suggested, offered much more detailed versions of the novel. It also appears that there have been a number of pornographic film versions based on the novel and that Fifty Shades of Gray is an example.  Laura suggested that this related to the master/servant relationship in the novel. This aspect is one that varies considerably in the film versions, though more recent films treat this with greater complexity.

They noted how the films tended to project a ‘brooding Byronic hero’ with Jane the ‘right kind of woman to tame him’. This is especially true of the 1943 and 1970 film versions. The more recent films tend to a less strident characterisation. But as Amber pointed out all the films in some way present ‘a damaged English character [who] needs saving’. They also noted how certain characters or events, Gateshead – the Rivers family, the Madeira inheritance – are not always included. And the sequence that is uniformly missing is Rochester’s impersonation of a gypsy and his fortune telling trick. It is worth adding that the characterisation of Bertha varies considerably. From a violent and malevolent hag to a damaged and catatonic woman.

Bertha raises the point that is dramatised in Jean Rhys novel, the West Indian connection. There is a hint of this in the 1943 version, which intriguingly in places has a similar feel to that of I Walked with a Zombie: filmed in the same year at RKO. Both film’s have the heroine walking in mist, and with an oppressive silence. The RKO film has a plot that includes voodoo, which is where it crosses over with the Rhys novel. It also brings out the horror aspect that is a sub-text in the Bronte novel. Whilst recent versions have shown the influence of feminism in treating the novel, the colonial subtext has yet to be exploited. This is present in the Rhys novel through Rochester’s first marriage in Jamaica and also through Jane’s inheritance of estates in Madeira, where the Portuguese operated a slave system.

There is a 1993 film version of the Rhys novel produced in Australia and a BBC TV film made in 2006. The 1993 film is the more faithful to the novel: it received an 18 certificate in the UK for sex, nudity, violence and profanity. The novel and the films chart Edwards Rochetster’s [but not named as such] relationship with Bertha, originally Antoinette and renamed by her husband. Antoinette is Creole and comes from a slave owning family. Her mother was mentally unstable and the same malady blights her marriage. However, in this version Rochester is not the victim and already in the early days of wedlock he has had sex with a servant. The novel takes in Antoinette’s childhood right up to her incarceration at Thornfield and the subsequent fire which will lead to her death. The novel has multiple voices, including Antoinette and Rochester. In this and in other ways the Rhys version picks up on the form, motifs and tropes in the Bronte original. The use of narrative voices is present in the 1993 film, as are a number of the motifs. The 2006 versions lacks most of these, certainly the narrative voices.

There was only time for one question, which raised the issue of female consciousness. All the panellists agreed that the narrative voice of the book is crucial to this. The films vary in their use of this. Only the 1943 and 1996 version use this extensively, though the 2011 version does essay a subjective viewpoint through the camerawork. What is interesting is the choice of dialogue. Jane’s intelligent response to Brocklehurst’s vision of sin and hell,

‘I must keep well and not die’

seems the most favoured. The missing line in most that strikes me is the rhetorical,

‘Reader, I married him’.

This decisive statement undercuts the seemingly conventional ending to the work, the bonding of heroine to hero. The closest to this is Charlotte Gainsborough’s Jane who ends with

“And so I married him.”

Judging by these adaptations even a work aiming at fidelity only offers a partial rendering. Condensing a book that can take many hours to read into the space of two hours has its impact. Television can offer a more leisurely perusal. And writing a story is rather different than rendering it in images and sound. Having noted that I found it odd that there is so little use of the voice-over in the film versions. Then there are the changing mores of the times. the original Jane Eyre has a concentration on religious values that do not speak to effectively to a more secular time. Likewise child rearing has changed in immeasurable ways in English/British society: even more true of the English-speaking society in North America. However the films do bring out aspect of the work. This is especially true of the gothic atmosphere of the novel and the implied horror. Jane actually uses the word ‘vampire’ when describing Bertha in the novel. In the sequence after Bertha attacks Richard Mason he claims,

“She  sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my hear,” ..

The 1943 version has “sank her teeth into me..”, the 1970 “she bit me..”, 1996 “drain my heart …”, the 1997 “bit and clawed me … like  a vampire..” whilst the 2011 version has a silent Mason. The later colour versions offer a more graphic depiction of the actual wounds, peaking in the 2011 version with exposed and bloody flesh.

From that point of view I prefer to have read the novel prior to seeing the film as this illuminates Bronte’s masterpiece: a status |i feel none of the films achieve.

 

 

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

Posted by keith1942 on April 14, 2016

Son and mother

Son and mother

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic labour

Domestic labour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘The Male Gaze’?

Posted by keith1942 on December 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

audience 1940s

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

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Chantal Akerman’s NOW

Posted by keith1942 on December 17, 2015

Shanghai

‘Shanghai’

This was a series of installations displayed at Ambika P3, an exhibition space at the University of Westminster. It is sited nearly opposite Baker Street Tube Station. The site is a cavernous subterranean space worthy of one of cinema’s noir sequences. It is all concrete, with piping, metal stairs and fairly dark with green exit signs glowing through the gloom. It suited this exhibition of video installations: the only drawback was that the large, high spaces had an echoing quality and one had to listen carefully where there was dialogue as part of the sound design. Chantal Akerman was a major filmmaker and artist, sadly she died earlier this year. The exhibition was organised by A Nos Amours along with a series of screenings of her films at the ICA. I unfortunately was not able to make any of the screenings and I hope that in time at least some prints will appear in Yorkshire. There were seven installations spread across a number of alcoves and one change in level. The majority offered images and sound in fairly constant movement. I went round in sequence but then wandered round from installation to installation experiencing the changing images and sound-scapes. I found this a good way to enjoy the exhibition. And it increased my sense of its complexity. In the Mirror (1971), This was a scene from a black and white 16mm Akerman film with a young woman examining her body and commenting on its aspects. This exemplifies Akerman’s frequent focus on women’s representations and their sense of autonomy. A Voice in the Desert (2002), This was a videos sequence edited from an Akerman documentary. In the film she studied both sides of the border between the USA and Mexico. The sequences were screened at the actual border, with different views depending on which side one stood. The installation mirrored this by alternating film from either side. One could hear Akerman reading on the accompanying sound Maniac Summer (2009). This installation covered three walls, in both colour and black and white images. The video was filmed from her Paris apartment, some with the camera just left running, some pointedly recording. The accompanying sound was similar, and at times one could hear Akerman’s life proceeding in her flat. The Exhibition notes commented, “Akerman was looking for, and finding traces, shadows, remnants – “ Some of the imagery of families was in warm colours whilst other was shadowy nights or stark black and whit images.

Paris colour

‘Paris’

Maniac Shadows (2013). This consisted or a letterbox triptych of images along a wall with an alcove showing a smaller video and a wall of photographs. The larger image was a record of New York, both everyday minutia by a New York apartment, and more public records from television including President Obama. The smaller screen and photographs related to Akerman’s own mother. The latter was accompanied by readings by Akerman herself. There were some parallels to the proceeding installation but a greater sense of subjectivities.

'New York'

‘New York’

Tombes de sur Shanghai (2007). This video film was part of a larger project, The State of the World, which included other artists. Akerman filmed with a locked off camera as night fell over Shanghai. There ware long shots of the city, but interspersed were shots of people as day moved into night. There were two decorative lanterns below the screen. I was uncertain if these were part of the work or not. They were and re-appeared in NOW. D’est: au bord de la fiction (1995). These were excerpts from another Akerman film set in Eastern European countries when still part of the Soviet alliance. The sequences were unstructured and repetitive. The two common scenes were people waiting and people walking, mainly in wet or freezing conditions. There was a sense of grim and relentless life. The use of monitors gave it a televisual effect, providing less impact than the larger installations. NOW (2015) was the centrepiece of the exhibition, the only installation with its own specially constructed room. There were five screens and a multi-channel sound track. It used film of desert regions, stark, rocky, and empty of people. The recurring sequences were mainly fast tracks, apparently shot from a car. The accompanying sounds of gunfire, sirens, animals and tonal noise added the sense of threatening and threatened landscapes. We were clearly in the conflict zones of the Middle East,

“Where ignorant armies clash by night …”

This was a powerful and suggestive installation. It was Akerman’s final gallery work and a fitting end piece.

'NOW'

‘NOW’

I was really impressed with the exhibition and glad that I managed to get down and experience it before it closed, early December. The setting and the setting-out did good service to the works. A number of the installations were edited for the exhibition by Claire Atherton who would seem to have done an excellent job on this. It would be nice if some, if not all, could be seen in the North.        

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Suffragette, UK 2015

Posted by keith1942 on November 6, 2015

suffragette 2014

This film has received generally good reviews and quite a few friends, especially women, have been impressed with the film. It certainly has good production values and an impressive set of performances, notably by Cary Mulligan in the central role of Maud. But I found the film problematic, partly because of weaknesses in the script but even more because of the superficial treatment of an important political movement in the early C20th.

The film opens with a set of introductory titles, one of which states that the films deals with a ‘group of working women’. This is a something of a misnomer. Maud and Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) are both clearly working class. Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), with her husband, runs a pharmacy. The employment of the other members of this group is unclear. Moreover, apart from Maud the other women characters are undeveloped. The film fits into a type of historical drama beloved by Richard Attenborough [e.g. Gandhi (1982) and Cry Freedom (1987)]. In this type of films the personal dramas outweigh the social: the plot is constructed around action sequences: and the characters are filled out by star cameos. So, unlike the excellent Selma (2014), we never meet a character who spells out the political line of the Women’s Social and Political Union. The film’s choice of specific years in the period appears to have been chosen so that the plot could include the famous/infamous action at the 1913 Derby. But the film’s production  is not really up to this; the ‘dummies’ and the CGI are rather obvious. And then we have Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, addressing her followers, from a  balcony no less. Yet this is her solitary appearance in the film.

Much of the film’s drama revolves around the activities of the police and state surveillance. The key character here is Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a character who appears to liaise between the political class and the police. He is of Irish origin. And there is one line where he refers to both the Republican struggle against British colonialism and to working class agitation in Liverpool: but that is it. What the film focuses on is the personal confrontation between him and Maud. It even has him expressing distaste when the film arrives at the force-feeding. A change of heart that I find unconvincing.

From a political point-of-view the film is beset with problems. For a start we never get a clear explanation of the politics of the WSPU. There is the famous dictum, ‘deeds not words’ and the emphasis by the organisation on women’s suffrage at the expense of other issues. What the film appears not to notice is that the WSPU demand was for limited suffrage for women based on property right: that right already enjoyed by men. This means that Maud’s struggles in the film, even is successful, would not win her the vote. For that she would need the universal suffrage advocated by alternative organisations. But as the film does make clear the WSPU refused to work with other organisations unless they made the women suffrage demand their primary demand: a line that led to extremely sectarian conduct.

The film does also suggest, though not strongly, the autocratic control of the organisation exerted by Emmeline Pankhurst and her elder daughter Christabel. Opposition to this behaviour led to a split and the formation of the Women’s Freedom league in 1907. In fact there was a larger Woman’s Suffrage Movement of which the film gives little sense and one that predated the WSPU.

Emmeline and Christabel were not really interested in working class members. In the years in which the film is set there were a number of branches in the East End of London but these were closed down by the leading duo. This was a factor in the split with the younger daughter Sylvia. Sylvia’s only mention in the film is a line ‘Sylvia won’t like that’ with reference to militant actions. This is a real distortion. It is true that Sylvia became increasingly critical of the militant line pursued by Emmeline and Christabel. But the disagreements were larger and more political. In fact Sylvia was, in the years in which the film is set, the most active member of the Pankhurst family. In total she was sent to jail over thirty times and suffered force-feeding at least fifteen times. She organised great demonstrations in and from the East End. And she publically addressed Parliament and political leaders. Despite this she was expelled from the WSPU for, among other errors, organising in the East End, speaking on a joint platform with the ILP and George Lansbury, and for speaking in support of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, led by James Larkin, in the great Dublin lockout.

Sylvia arrested in 1911

Sylvia arrested in 1911

The real disagreements between Sylvia and her mother and elder sister were to do the wider political struggle, almost totally absent from the film. It is difficult to grasp from the film that this period was one of intense political struggle, by women, by trade unions and the working class, by the young socialist organisations and by the Irish freedom fighters. Both the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation officially supported women’s suffrage, though there were dissenters in both organisations. In 1911 George Lansbury [also missing from the film] stood in a Parliamentary by-election on a platform of Women’s Suffrage.

Sylvia’s response to expulsion was to lead the formation of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which in 1914 launched the marvellously titled Women’s Dreadnought. 1914 also bought the imperialist war. The political differences among the women came down to a fundamental line: Emmeline and Christabel suspended the struggle by the WSPU for the duration of the war. Sylvia became an important leader in the anti-war struggle: leadership that won her the praise of Lenin. Emmeline later developed into an anti-Bolshevik and joined the Conservative party, though in her earlier years she had staunchly  supported the young socialist organisations.

It does seem unlikely that Maud, working class, living in the East End, and working in a laundry was more likely to meet middle class WSPU agitators in central London rather than the organised socialist and suffrage women in her own East End. If she had she would not only have campaigned for a suffrage policy that embraced herself but she could also have fought against the exploitation and oppression vividly dramatised in the film’s sequences.

That she does not is down to a plot coincidence, a frequent plot device in melodramas. The rationale for this is that the film dramatises that ‘the personal is political’, where as in the early teens of the C19th social and political struggles, including in the WSPU, were premised on the ‘political is personal’.

Posted in British films, Films by women, Movies with messages | Tagged: | 1 Comment »