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Triennial Review for the British Film Institute

Posted by keith1942 on 6 April 2014

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The online notice below appeared on the bfi and DCMS WebPages on March 28th. However, I only found out when Mark Newell kindly emailed me with the information. This does seem rather typical of the bfi and government consultations. There has not exactly been a flurry of information or publicity around this. I have not found anything regarding this in Sight & Sound, which one would suppose was an obvious place to catch the attention of people interested in the work of the bfi. Now there remain only just on three weeks to send in comments. However, it does provide an opportunity to feed in comments, suggestions and complaints about this important film institution.‏

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has launched a triennial review of the BFI.

It is a standard requirement by the Cabinet Office for all Government departments to review their agencies and non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) at least once every three years to ensure that they are still needed and are complying with principles of good corporate governance.

The aim of this review of the BFI is two-fold:

  • Stage one: to examine whether there is a continuing public need for all functions performed by the BFI and if so, to determine if the BFI should deliver them or if there is an alternative delivery model.
  • Stage two: to look at the control and governance of the BFI to make sure we are complying with recognised governance principles and delivering our functions effectively and efficiently.

If you would like to take part in this review you can do so by responding to an online questionnaire.  The questionnaire will remain online for four weeks, starting on Friday 28 March and finishing on Monday 28 April. The review team expects to report in the summer.

For more information about Triennial Reviews and the process, visit the Government Services website:

Ways to respond:

Respond online          or         email to:

BFI Triennial Review @culture.gsi.gov.uk

Write to:

Department for Culture, Media & Sport
100 Parliament Street
London
SW1A 2BQ

Mark, with great promptness, has already sent in comments. He kindly agreed to let this blog reproduce his letter. He has clearly raised some important and central issues about the bfi. Hopefully our readers will be stimulated to follow his example. I have looked over the questionnaire on the DCMS site – letters would be better! Anyway,  I suspect readers will have other key issues to add. Given the paucity of information it would be a good idea to pass this information on to other interested parties. I should also note that the next meeting of the Board of Governors is fixed for April 29th: presumably to discuss the review among other matters. As Roy posted they have added more metropolitan members of the establishment to their number. However, according to the November and January minutes (posted on the bfi WebPages) they have not given any more thought to the reduction in Member Governors.

 The Rt. Hon. Maria Miller, M.P.

Secretary of State               
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
100 Parliament Street
London SW1A 2BQ
Dear Maria Miller,
The British Film Institute
The BFI should now review as promised its new rules for the conduct of Member Governor Elections. These were introduced about three years ago and have resulted in three failed polls and finally, in 2013, in the temporary (or permanent?) removal of one of the two Member Governor posts. At the present time the Board has given no indication as to what will happen when the one remaining “regional” Member Governor’s term expires this September. Members are justifiably concerned that their views are neither heard nor properly represented.
Film enthusiasts subscribe to the BFI Southbank’s monthly guide in the main to see films that cannot be viewed elsewhere. One of the more popular themes is Archive film. In 2013 this programme strand was drastically cut to enable work to be carried out on digitisation. It should be restored as soon as possible. Useful as the BFI Player and the Mediatheque are, they’re no substitute for seeing films on the big screen with an audience.
Yours sincerely,
Mark Newell
PS a friend emailed me and it seems that one can encounter problems both with the ‘online response’ and with the ‘questionnaire’.

Posted in BFI | Leave a Comment »

Kinugasa Teinosuke

Posted by keith1942 on 12 March 2014

Yoshiwara in Crossways

Yoshiwara in Crossways

Kinugasa worked as a director in the Japanese film industry from 1920 to 1966. His main work was at the Shochiku and Daiei Studios. He had started in films acting as an oyama – a male actor impersonating in women’s roles. His 1953 film Gate of Hell (Jigokumon) won both the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award for Best Colour Costume Design and a Special Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture. But Kinugasa is most famous for two very distinctive films late in the silent era.

A Page of Madness (Kurita ippèji, 1926) is an avant-garde film with striking use of montage and of the expressionist use of chiaroscuro. The plot concerns an old man who works in an insane asylum in order to be near to his wife who is an inmate. However, the action is presented in an elliptical fashion and without any title cards. The film works in an open and fragmentary manner and [as with the inmates] moving between reality and illusion. The film was almost totally innovatory in the Japanese cinema of the time. However, its challenging form did not appeal to audiences and the film was believed lost until its rediscovery in the 1970s. It now holds place as a distinctive classic of Japanese film.

Kinugasa’s 1928 film Crossroads (also Crossways / Jujiro) combines the technical experimentation of the earlier film with a far more accessible plot. Set in the C18th it concerns a young man who is smitten with the charms of a geisha. She prefers his rival though she also exploits the young innocent. A fight leads to his temporary blindness. His sister sacrifices herself to obtain treatment for her brother. The melodrama continues to a violent and tragic resolution.

The sister who sacrifices herself for her brother is a staple of Japanese culture, notably in the films of Mizoguchi Kenji.

The use of expressionist chiaroscuro in the film both dramatises the plight of the brother and the oppressive situation of the sister. Whilst the montage, combined with a use of Grand Guignol reminiscent of Eisenstein, dramatises the exploitative and decadent character of the milieu of Yoshiwara, the area of debauchery and prostitution.

The later film falls into the period characterised as ‘late silents’; the use of synchronous sounds in commercial features having arrived in the USA in 1927. However, in Japan [along with several other East Asian countries] the use of sound was delayed for several years. This was partly economic, because of the capital cost involved, including the wiring of exhibition venues. But there was a particular factor in Japanese cinema, the power of the benshi, who provided voiceover and commentary for silent films. The benshi were one reason why Japanese film came late to the use of title cards. There were benshi strikes against the introduction of sound in 1932. The earliest surviving indigenous sound film in Japan is The Speech of Prime Minister Tanaka (Seiyukai Sosia Tanaka Giichi-shi Enzetsu, 1928). Sound features appeared in 1930, one of the earliest surviving films is by Mizoguchi Kenji, Hometown (Fujiwara Yoshie no Furosato). Kinugasa directed the first sound version of The Loyal 47 Ronin (Chūshingura) in 1932. It was only in 1935 that the production of sound films in Japan exceeded that of silents. And the latter type of film was still made a couple of years later.

There is an opportunity to see Crossways in a reasonably good 35mm print at the National Media Museum on Sunday March 16th. And there will be a live piano accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla.

Note, it is possible that the 35mm print will not be available and the screening will have to use some other format.

Posted in Japanese Cinema, Silent Era | Leave a Comment »

The Missing Picture / L’image manquante, France/ Kingdom of Cambodia 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on 28 February 2014

The Missing Picture 1

This documentary revisits the now notorious period in which the Khmer Rouge attempted to implement a very particular form of rurally-based Communism in Cambodia / Kampuchea. This brutally distinctive experiment is usually lumped together with socialist revolutions in other states and/or what are termed ‘totalitarian’ states. Regarding the former it needs to be recognised that the political line of the Khmer Rouge had little in common with the writings of Marx and Engels on a Socialist alternative to Capitalism. Regarding the latter this concept fails to address the very different political economy of the variety of states so described.

I make this point because this film directed by Rithy Panh is very much a personal journey back to the past of the country from which he hails. He was a child when the Khmer Rouge seized power: he was 15 when he escaped to the west. The basis of the film is a contrast between Panh’s memories of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge revolution and the genocidal practice that characterised this regime when it seized power. The film’s title makes the point that Panh has no filmic record for the first, and only the Khmer Rouge’s own film records for the latter.

To recreate the world of his childhood Panh uses beautifully modelled clay figures set in both urban and rural model settings. He also uses the same technique to partly recreate the world of the Khmer Rouge as he himself experienced it. This is interspersed with predominantly black and white film footage of the latter. The use of the models is impressive. And during the end credits we get to see the small studio where these were set out and filmed. They become even more impressive when you see the techniques in action.

This is very much a personal vision. The film is not really analytical. It offers a Manichean division between the pre-Khmer Rouge period and their own period of rule and misrule. His viewpoint is supported to a degree by the Khmer Rouge’s own film propaganda, which presents a world of horrific brutality and of grossly simplified political ideas and practice.

The visual material is supported by as commentary written by Christophe Bataille and Rithy Panh. This appears to be modelled on the commentary from Alain Resnais’s seminal documentary Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956). Both commentaries are in French, but more than that, the phrasing recalls the earlier film as does the tone and rhythm of the reading. For me though this film’s commentary lacked the complexity of the earlier one. It also appears to reference comparisons that have been drawn between the Khmer Rouge regime and that of the Third Reich. This ignores that the former was a response to the experience of French colonialism, the Japanese occupation, and a later US backed military junta. In the case of the latter its practices developed from those inflicted by colonial powers across Africa and other continents: those inflicting including France, Britain and Germany.

However the film does not just critically expose the Khmer Rouge. There are brief references to the exploitative form of the pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. And there is also the briefest mention of the bombing of Cambodia: carried out, of course, by the USA. The politicians of the latter state have been loud in their criticism of the Khmer Rouge but mainly silent on their own war crimes against Cambodia. Panh also briefly makes a point about the post-Khmer Rouge Kingdom of Cambodia with a shot of proletarians involved in labour as exploitative as that of the earlier society.

Rithy Panh has made a series of films about this sad period in the history of Cambodia. The most famous was S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003). This film has some parallels with Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1965), as it uses a series of testimonies from both perpetrators and victims.

The Missing Picture is a finely created and presented documentary. It conveys a powerful sense of the violent inanities of the Khmer Rouge period. And with justice it criticises the atrocities of the regime and the venality of the leadership. I am disappointed that it came joint 17th in the Sight & Sound annual critic’s poll, some way behind the winner The Act of Killing (2012, the latter also up for an Oscar for Best Documentary).  Rithy Panh’s film is both a finer and a more honest documentary than the study of equivalent atrocities in Indonesia. The Missing Picture is still on release: in Leeds the Hyde Park Picture House screens it on Tuesday March 11th.

Posted in Documentary, East Asian Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Invisible Woman (UK/USA 2014).

Posted by keith1942 on 18 February 2014

The Invisible Woman (2013) Left to right: Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens

Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens

This film is based on the study by Claire Tomalin of Charles Dickens’s (Ralph Fiennes) illicit relationship with Ellen Ternan (Nelly – Felicity Jones). I decided to see it a week after its UK release. It turned out to be quite difficult. The two independent cinemas in Leeds may screen it, but that is not yet certain. None of the Multiplex listings I checked has the film in their programme. Finally I found it programmed at Bradford’s National Media Museum: though even here it was in the smaller of the Museum’s auditorium. The larger had Her; which had a dozen or maybe two dozen punters. The Dickens’s film had over fifty. I put this down to the dead hand of the Distributors, accentuated by it being the Award season. Our Distribution Companies clearly have little sense of British culture: Dickens may not be the celebrity focus he was in his own lifetime, but following on from his bi-centenary he remains a popular figure and writer.

The film’s title refers to the hidden nature of the relationship between Dickens and Nelly: hidden from the prurient gaze of the dominant Victorian public discourse. The film has been adapted from the book by Abi Morgan and directed by Ralph Fiennes. It has the expected graces of a British period film: beautifully composed and authentic looking production design and a sterling cast, including Kristin Scott Thomas as the Ternan matriarch and Tom Hollander as a delightful scapegrace Willkie Collins.  The plotting however is less conventional. The presentation is elliptical, not just in the use of flashbacks but also in the ellipses from the description of the affairs development. I did wonder if the limitations of a commercial running time, 111 minutes, had not had an effect. There were several missing emotional developments, including aspects of how Dickens bought his passion to fruition. This fits with the sense of the title, the woman hidden from view: but I was aware of these lacunae whilst watching the film.

It is Nelly’s viewpoint that pre-dominates as she provides the main narrative voice. There are however sequences which she will not have seen. One is when Dickens has the connecting door between the rooms of himself and his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlon, another fine performance) boarded up. One imagines that Dickens never told Nelly of this incident.

The absences in the film are not just down to discretion. We see sex scenes between Dickens and Nelly and also between Nelly and her later husband, George Wharton (Tom Burke). These throw an interesting and unexpected light on sexuality in the Victorian era.

Claire Tomalin has an excellent piece in The Guardian Review (01-02-2014). She describes how she persuaded Ralph Fiennes not only to direct but also to take the part of Dickens in the film – clearly she is a fine judge of actor and character. She also comments on some differences between her study and the film. These have affected the ending of them film, making it less downbeat. However, it also has the effect of making Nelly a less interesting and less complex character.

This is an excellent production and deserves better than the ‘limited release’ accorded it.

Posted in Biopic, British Cinema, Home, Literary adaptations | 2 Comments »

The BAFTAS 2014

Posted by keith1942 on 17 February 2014

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It would seem that the majority of BAFTA members are lacking in any sense of irony: they awarded the Outstanding British Film Award to Gravity. Technically they are correct, and apparently about 90% of what we see and hear [much of it debris] was Made in Britain. However one wonders what criteria they were following: two Hollywood stars and the logo of Warner Brothers.  I thought the latter resided under the famed Hollywood sign rather than overlooking one of the plinths in Trafalgar Square?

One wonders how many of the members actually watched all of the nominees in this category. Not that this mattered that much: they included Philomena, The Selfish Giant and then the South African Mandela biopic, Rush and Saving Mr Banks. The last two were celebrating Formula 1 and Walt Disney. I assumed that given Best Picture frequently goes to a Hollywood movie that the function of Outstanding British Picture was to celebrate home-made films. I rather think we are in danger of losing the plot.

Gravity also won the award for Best Cinematography. This would seem slightly more appropriate. If like me you listened to Radio 4 on Friday morning, you would have heard one of the skilled technicians explaining about the Computer Generated Images in the film. Monday’s Radio 4 had a critic justifying the awards, including that for Gravity. ‘Me thinks they protest too much’.

To balance the above the officially listed US film 12 Years a Slave won Best Film and Best Actor  – the director and lead actor having crossed the Atlantic to present a film about slavery in the USA. This is a film that also has no visible presence from these shores: but the invisible presence includes the British ships that transported the majority of Africans across the same Atlantic Ocean.

 

Posted in Film industry | 1 Comment »

Miklós Janscó, 1921 – 2014

Posted by keith1942 on 15 February 2014

Miklós Janscó

Miklós Janscó

Apologies for the lateness of this tribute. I noted the attention given to the demise of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Shirley Temple and (to lesser degree) that fine actor Maximilian Schell. Then checking over obituaries I see that we have lost this fine Hungarian film director.

I was fortunate to see his great films – The Roundup (Svegénylegények, 1965, The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonák, 1967) and Red Psalm (Még Kér a Nép, 1972) at Film Societies in the 1960s and 1970s. Even in that radical decade of political and unconventional films this output stood out as distinctive and enthrallingly critical. The early films featured long travelling shots that Vincente Minnelli would have died for. Even now I have only seen a small part of his output. There was a major retrospective in London earlier this century, but as I remember only one film co circulated in the provinces. The Leeds International festival of 2011 featured a two of his films: thought unfortunately one of them relied on DVD.

Janscó’s work remains among the most impressive and stimulating of European art cinema. Certainly his best work in political terms is as striking as that of Jean-Luc Godard whilst his command of film technique equals that of Michelangelo Antonioni. A proper testimonial to his unique contribution to European cinema would be a retrospective. The Berlin International Film Festival has announced plans for one. Let us hope that these will get a wider distribution

Posted in Directors, East European Cinema, Home | Leave a Comment »

The Patience Stone / Syngué Sabour, pierre de patience (Afghanistan, France, Germany, UK, 2013).

Posted by keith1942 on 12 February 2014

1913

This was the first seriously impressive film that I have seen in 2014. Unfortunately it seems to be suffering from a very limited release in the UK. It is definitely worth seeking out.

The film is adapted from a novella of the same name – translated from the French by Polly McLean (Vintage 2011). The author, Atiq Rahimi, has also directed this film version.   The book is set in one room in a small dwelling in Kabul. On a mattress on the floor lies a wounded mujaheddin. His wound is in the back of the neck and he is in a seemingly permanent coma. He is tended by his younger wife who has to arrange the saline drip, or often a water and salt substitute. She talks to him constantly, however she talks about matters and experiences that she would presumably avoid if he was conscious. At times she reads briefly from a Koran, marking her place with a feather. The title of book and film refers to a precious object that the woman recalls that her father told her of: “You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces. …. Sang-e sabur!”

The book is sited almost wholly in the small, bare room where the woman tends her husband. We find out about what happens beyond these walls from the woman and from an unidentified narrative voice. A couple of times her two daughters venture into the room. Later she takes them to stay with her sister, who has both employment and a place to live. A battle ebbs and flows in the streets. A Mullah calls several times to pray for the man, but the wife manages to avoid letting him in. We hear her call to neighbours on occasions. And two sets of mujaheddin visit the room: once when she is absent once when she is present. The book struck me as having a fairly detached description and commentary upon the characters and events in the story.

Not surprisingly the film has a less detached sense, seeing and hearing the characters and their actions is a much more immediate experience. And the performance of Golshifteh Farahani as the woman is both powerful and involving for the audience. Moreover, the film, unlike the book, shows us the events beyond the room. We follow the woman and her children into a basement shelter where we also meet her neighbours. We see the Mullah a he makes his brief calls. We follow the woman through the streets of Kabul and to the rooms of her sister. And we see the visits of the mujaheddin and the consequent actions.

Even so the film follows the book’s plot and characterisations fairly faithfully. One difference that puzzled me was that in the Koran is taken away by the first group of Muhadenne, leaving only the feather behind. In the film it remains in the room.

This appears to be Rahini’s first film. He had the good sense to arrange for Jean-Claude Carriére to adapt the book into a screenplay. Carriére is, of course, well known for his work with Luis Buñuel. In his eighties he remains amazingly productive. The last seriously good film that I saw before The Patience Stone was The Artist and the Model, also scripted by Carriére. Whilst the film is faithful to the book it also contains themes and motifs familiar from Carriere’s other film work: a couple of moments reminded me also of Buñuel. Centrally we have the unconventional passive male in the presence of a woman. Then there is the exploration of sexuality linked to an oppressive obsession. And there is the contrast presented between a woman’s access to sexuality – through choice, marriage and prostitution.

Posted in Afghan film, Literary adaptations | Leave a Comment »

Aspects ratios in the cinema.

Posted by keith1942 on 31 January 2014

Cropped image in The Spirit of '45

Cropped image in The Spirit of ’45

The ratio of the film frame is often overlooked. However, it has changed as cinema itself has experienced major changes. In the silent era the dominant frame was 1.33:1, a third longer on the horizontal than on the vertical. With sound the norm, the Academy ratio was established by Hollywood: 1.37:1, accommodating the soundtrack on one side of the celluloid strip. Widescreen bought more changes: New Academy ratio settled on 1.85:1, though European films as frequently utilised 1.66:1. And anamorphic films offered between 2.55:1 and 2.35:1. Larger screen formats like 70mm, Cinerama and IMAX had their own variations.

When film first appeared on television screens they had to fit into an old-fashioned frame, 4:3. The digital age has bought widescreen television, the norm being 16:9, which equates to 1.78:1. At various times television has cropped, stretched or panned and scanned films. And whilst 16:9 is closer to the modern widescreen ratio such practices continue, though with a less drastic impact.

I tended to think that serious filmmakers and serious exhibitors of film will respect older films, preserving their original presentation: complete as intended, black and white or colour as fits, mono or stereo sound as fits, and the correct aspect ratio. The model here would be the filmmaker Hans-Jűrgen Syberberg, who’s Parsifal opens with the prescription that it only be exhibited in the Academy ratio.

From this point of view 2013 was not a good year. Not just one but four [in my viewing] major and serious filmmakers had films released in which older archive material was cropped or squeezed into a 1.85:1 or even 2.35:1 ratio. There was Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45: where the archive material, carefully researched and selected, was almost uniformly cropped to fit a 1.85:1 frame. Andrzej Wajda’s Walesa: Man of Hope (Walesa. Czlowiek z nadziei) also included archive film, this time cropped to fit a frame of 2.35:1.  Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt included material shot for television of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann. Early in the film there was a cut from such material, cropped to fit a 2.35:1 frame to a dramatised re-enactment in colour and widescreen. This might be justified? But later on there was a cut from Arendt watching a TV monitor to a POV shot, in 2.35:1.  And then there was John Akomfrah’s Stuart Hall Project. In this case both earlier film and television footage was cropped to fit the 2.35:1 frame.

I assume that the rationale in all these cases was the time when these films were to be screened on television. In fact, Akomfrah had already used cropping of archive material for his television documentary Martin Luther King and the March on Washington (shown on BBC 2 in 16:9). Much of earlier material in all of these films was noticeably handled at some point – or as above ‘mishandled’. The cropping often cut off heads or the top of the frame, and rendered titles within the frame partial. In the case of 2.35:1 framing, this accentuated the film grain in black and white material. And with some of the colour extracts there was noticeable pixilation.

2014 looks likely to continue this unfortunate practice. Mark Kermode, who I mark as a serious film critic, fronted a profile of Steve McQueen and his new film 12 Years a Slave in which extracts from earlier films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939) were cropped to fit the 16:9 frame. Ironically the extracts from contemporary features were screened in their correct ratio.

NB – Stuart Hall Project is now released on DVD. According to the Sight & Sound review this is in a ratio of 16:9. Why it has been cropped I do not know: but presumably the contrast between the new film and ‘found footage’ will be less stark.

Posted in Exhibitors, Film industry | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

 
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