This is a montage film by Peter Von Bagh screened at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato. The Catalogue notes by Olaf Műller state the subject:
“Socialism, the 20th century’s greatest dream and source of some of its darkest nightmares.”
In fact the film takes up back to deep into the C19th, to the Paris barricades and the drafting by then two little-known activists and theorists of The Communist Manifesto (1848). The film emphasises the internationalism of that founding document right at the start – The Paris Commune in The New Babylon (Novyi Vavilon, 1929): Vietnam in Hanoi 13 Martes (Hanoi Tuesday 13th, 1966) and Chile 1973 in The Battle of Chile (La Batalla de Chile, 1977) Later it takes in the Industrial Workers of the World [The Wobblies], The Soviet Revolution, 1917; the failed revolution in Germany, 1919; and the capitalist counter-attack and the problematic decade of the 1930s. including Spain and the Republican struggle. The film presents events up until the fall of ‘The Wall’ surrounding East Berlin in 1989. There is an overall chronology, but the film also draws parallels across movements and events as edits jump between decades and territories.
The film does focus primarily on the European theatre, but there is a section on ‘Socialism and the Third World’. We encounter the Chinese revolution, the rather different revolutions in Cuba, as well as Vietnam and Chile. Also included are darker passages from the past – the Soviet show trials, the Stakhanovite movement and the non-proletarian dictatorships in Eastern Europe post W.W.II.
The structure of the film offers eighteen sections; each introduced by a caption and a quotation from noted political leaders, activist, writers, artists and thinkers. Marx is here, along with Maxim Gorky, John Reed, Bertolt Brecht, Andre Malraux and Jack London.
Each is accompanied by one of the quotation against a red background. The sections are short, averaging 4 to 5 minutes though they vary considerably in length, and the montage is rapid.
The choice of film material draws a continuous interaction between cinema and socialism. Thus the film opens with the famous Lumière film of workers leaving their factory, (La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière a Lyon, Workers leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895). Very quickly we are at the Paris Commune. Later there are extracts from films like Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) and October (Ten Days that Shook the World, Okltyabr, 1928), but also from D. W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909), Chaplin’s one and two reel comedies, J. B. Priestley’s They Came to a City (1944), Hollywood’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Mathew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, 1964), and The Red Detachment of Women (Honhse Niangzijun, 1961).
This is a powerful and, in many ways, inspiring film. It does what good political films should do – agitate, stimulate, question and inform. The film engages, celebrates but also questions 150 years or so of the main progressive movement in the world under capitalism. The film is absorbing and the use of accompanying music – including soundtracks, jazz, choirs and popular melodies – is an excellent example of sound montage. Several films are featured more than once, but I think only one shot was presented three times. Right at the end, we see again the opening shot from Part III of Battleship Potemkin, the harbour in the early morning mist. This is an example of the complexity of Eisenstein’s conception of montage but the image also provides a metaphor for working class aims – arriving in the safe harbour of socialism and a new order.
The original, longer review is on Third Cinema Blog.
Szabo Istvan’s second feature takes Billy Liar‘s (UK, 1963) premise and makes it philosophical rather than funny. Takó is growing up in post-War Budapest and trying to come to terms with his dead father; the same situation as Szabo found himself. However, the director insists that the film is not autobiographical because, he states, 60% of the children in his class had lost their fathers; it is, he says, ‘the autobiography of a generation’ (quoted in Hungarian Cinema: from coffee house to multiplex by John Cunningham). Takó’s, like Billy’s, fantasies are made flesh by being dramatised in the film but, unlike Billy, the father is the hero of the scenarios rather than himself.
The film starts with stunning archive footage from the war, including a devastated bridge and a man sawing off a dead horse’s leg, before segueing to his father’s funeral. Takó’s remark that he was impressed by how many people came to the funeral immediately marks him as an unreliable narrator as there are few there.
So Takó imagines his father in a variety of heroic roles that makes him a national hero. However, we learn right at the start, he only has three very brief memories of his dad who was an ordinary man; like Szabo’s father, a doctor. Although the fantasies, unlike in Billy Liar, do outstay their welcome the narrative conceit is quite brilliant, as coming to terms with the loss of fathers stands in for recreating a past after the devastation of war. The trauma of war has to be healed but Takó comes to realise, as a young adult, that he needs to deal with reality rather than fantasy. In a marvellous sequence, Takó interviews people who knew his father and most don’t have anything more to say than he was ‘nice'; a bland but positive epitaph.
Women aren’t completely marginalised in this entirely ‘vital’ Oedipal activity, Takó’s friend Anya is a Jew who would rather forget the past, her parents were victims of Auschwitz, in order to forge her identity as a Hungarian Jew. The print, of the Second Run DVD, is immaculate and shows Szabo’s imaginative direction, characterised by the use of telephoto lens, to best advantage.
This ‘round table discussion’ was presented by the Centre for World Cinemas at Leeds University as part of the Leeds International Film Festival. I should start by confessing that I was out of sympathy with most of the seminar as it ticked quite a few of my prejudice boxes. In fact the title was a misnomer. The definition of catalyst was not fully explicated, and several speakers had reservations regarding the use of the term. Moreover the European dimension was under-developed. We actually got comments on Hollywood, Latin American Cinema and Mumbai or Bollywood cinema, but not a great deal on the actual catalyst films screened in the Festival. The seminar appeared to be directed mainly by the research interests of the academic speakers. I would have preferred speakers chosen to elucidate the titled topic. In fact the panel was composed of four academics and one industry person: not as varied as suggested in the Catalogue which also specified ‘media practitioners’. The ‘conversation’ [a term used at least twice] was mainly between the panel. Even when the seminar opened up to the audience we were asked for questions rather than comment. The seminar seemed like one presented for students at the University. There were indeed students from the Centre there. However, as an event that was part of the public festival I thought a rather different approach would have been better.
And there were technical deficiencies. A microphone was only switched on after I pointed out the introduction was not really audible. And nearly all the stills and all of the video extracts presented were in the wrong aspect ratios. 1.85:1 clips looked about 2.2:1 and scope extracts were over 3:1. I did note that the panel turned to view the extracts on the screen, but no one seemed to notice or think this mattered much. They did, though, mainly avoid the often obscurantist language favoured by some academics. We did get one or two specialist terms, notably polycentric: “the fact, principle, or advocacy of the existence of more than one guiding or predominant ideological or political centre in a political system, alliance etc in the communist world.” (Collins 2000 English dictionary). The academics were using it in a rather different sense but I think they thought of it as addressing ‘ideologies’. As a Marxist I do not use ideology in the sense that they appear to use it.
The introduction started by setting out the catalyst films programmed in the Festival: it was pointed out all these films in some way fit into a ‘new wave’ or new film movement category.
Ossessione, Italy 1943.
Le Beau Serge, France 1958.
The Sun in the Net / Sinko v sieti, Czechoslovakia 1962.
Presumably that is why two films in the Festival that would seem to fit the topic, Peeping Tom (UK 1960) and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Belgium France 1975) were left out. The latter’s omission seems to me a serious one. Moreover this film was screened in 35mm. Only two of the catalyst films were screened in what was their original exhibition format. The others were all on digital video. And there were other films that could have graced the Festival. At one point we had a mention of Turkey as a possible E.E.C. member. Turkey has had its own ‘new wave’ and a catalyst film: Hudutlarin Kannu / The Law of the Border (Turkey 1966. Director: Lüfti Akad. Scenario, dialogue: Orner Lufti Akad, Yilmaz Güney). The film has been restored by the World Cinema Foundation and is available on 35mm.
The session was introduced by Stephanie Dennison, Reader in Brazilian Studies at the Centre. She introduced the panel members and then displayed four questions on the screen. They were not up long enough for me to copy them. The first addressed how particular films might help us understand the impact of ‘new waves’? The second how the films might help us understand their catalyst role? But since there was little comment on the individual films I don’t think the questions were much discussed. She went through the list of films screened at the festival, making the point about ‘new waves’
She then moved beyond Europe to talk about examples from the New Latin American Cinema, specifically Ukamau’s Blood of the Condor (Yawar Maliku, Bolivia 1969) and the Cinema Nuevo’s Black God White Devil (Deaus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, Brazil 1964). The latter was directed by Glauber Rocha and she specifically mentioned his manifesto The Aesthetics of Hunger. I remember that these films caused a stir among European critics in the 1960s. However, I cannot think of European films that show a great influence from them. Rocha was influenced by the nouvelle vague. However, both he and Jorge Sanjines [of Ukamau] clearly make the point that the cinemas fighting colonialism and neo-colonialism are distinct from cinemas of the colonisers. Rocha comments on ‘hunger’, “For the European, it is a strange tropical surrealism. For the Brazilian, it is a national shame.” Two other Latin American filmmakers, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, went further and coined the term Third Cinema. This is an oppositional cinema over and against both mainstream or first cinema and auteur or second cinema: the latter applying too much of the output of European art cinemas. Stephanie Dennison went on to question the distinction between ‘centre’ and periphery’, a distinction which does not seen to accommodate Third Cinema.
Paul Cooke is the Chair of the Centre. He discussed the way that the “Centre’s work looks to rethink the notion of a catalyst film by adopting a ‘polycentric’ approach”. He also wanted to rethink notions of centre and periphery. He made the valid point that films are labelled catalyst, though he did not clearly define the notion of catalyst. He talked mainly about German Cinema and Alexander Kluge, director of Yesterday Girl. He also pointed up other aspects, including Kluge’s role in working for changes in the German Film Industry and State funding policies of film: a key factor in the development of the New German Cinema.
Alan O’Leary, Senior Lecturer in Italian Cinema at the Centre, wanted to address notions of art cinema and the mainstream. He also used display material of posters, stills and video clips. His main example was a popular Italian genre of Christmas movies. The key film was Vacanze di Natale (1983), a popular box office success that spawned something like 20 sequels over a couple of decades. This was an interesting example of his argument to study popular mainstream films with the rigour applied to art films. He drew a distinction between ‘catalyst’ [art cinema] and ‘prototype’ [mainstream film]. He also went on to offer a definition of catalyst from an English language dictionary, “Effect produced by a substance that without undergoing change itself aids a chemical change in other bodies.” This is a chemical definition, I don’t think he actually addressed the sense in which it is used in humanities, “person or thing that causes change”: a rather different sense.
His follow-up for this seemed to me to take us away from the European focus of the films screened at the Festival. He argued that one example of a prototype was the Hollywood Blockbuster. He showed a clip from one example The Matrix (1999). And then as an example of its influence he showed an extract from a Bollywood film, Robot (2010). The problem with this is that long before the appellation of Bollywood to the Hindi cinema of Mumbai there was a clear line of films that ‘borrowed’ heavily from foreign language films circulating in India. Another example of a prototype film that he presented was A Fish Called Wanda (1988). I do wonder how much influence this exerted outside the cinema of the UK? Given the European focus I thought better examples could have been found in the cinéma du look, for example films produced and directed by Luc Besson.
The final part of his argument was ‘against cinephilia’. He seemed to regard cinephilia as the same as a strong penchant for art films. I think this is very debatable. Even among directors this is not a clear distinction, Werner Herzog would be a good example. It certainly is not a valid distinction among audiences. Someone pointed out in the question section that cinephilia could equally apply to fans of horror films. And during the festival I had friends who both attended and enjoyed films characterised as art cinema and films that fell in the horror genre.
The fourth speaker was Mariana Liz, a new member of the centre. She talked about Europe and the European film industry. She raised some interesting points, both about what constituted Europe and what might constitute European film. One example was where might one place Turkey? However, again she said very little about the films that we had actually watched in the Festival.
Finally we had Bill Lawrence, who has worked extensively as a film programmer and now offers consultancy work with Reel Solutions. He provided a number of telling criticisms and questions regarding the essentially academic categories already offered. He made the point about ‘plagiarism’ in Bollywood. He also stressed circumstance over other aspects. An interesting example concerned the Danish Dogme movement. It seems that in earlier times a Senior Lecturer at the highly regarded Danish Film School advocated to his student groups a return to film basics and an avoidance of unnecessary extras. Much of what he advocated bore a striking resemblance to what became the Dogme Manifesto. You can guess that one of his students was Lars von Trier. Bill remarked that the Lecturer was rather disappointed that he never received any credit when the Manifesto appeared. Bill also provided some interesting examples of the dominance of money and box office take in the industry.
After this we opened up to questions, though fortunately several of these were actuality comments. One of the other centre members produced some interesting examples from mainstream Spanish cinema, including a genre of bigoted cop films. He suggested these might have influenced the successful Irish film The Guard (2011). Another audience member made the point I mentioned earlier regarding what constituted cinephilia. In response Alan O’Leary bought up the aspect of what we call ‘realism’, arguing that ‘realism is a value in our culture’. Moved at last I suggested that realism was also a political issue, and that there had not been direct address of the political in the discussion of the catalyst films. In response Stephanie Dennison explained that they had wanted to avoid the ‘obvious talking points’.
This was my most serious concern about the seminar. I think all the films in the Festival programme have a political dimension. But in particular I find it difficult to agree that one can discuss, for example, Neo-realism or the Czechoslovakian new wave or New German Cinema without addressing both their politics and the political context. And as Jean-Luc Godard pointed out with reference to the zoom: even style has a political aspect. In fact, we probably should have had a Godard film included. If Godard’s work has not been a catalyst I wonder whose has? And given the absence of British films we could have included a work by Ken Loach, Cathy Come Home (1966) whilst made for television is clearly a catalyst film.
Equally important the political dimension is a central aspect of how audiences relate to film. One distinction one can make is about how audiences respond to and even seek out the political dimension. Most films are commodities, with an exchange value. This is paramount in mainstream cinema. Audiences purchase a set amount of time in the cinema and the entertainment can be judged on how well that times is filled with interest and enjoyment. There is a whole gamut of art film and of independent film where this division between the world inside the cinema and the world outside is more fluid. Much of the expectation about art film is the stimulation that a film will provide for post-screen activities. So Alan O’Leary has a point about how we tend to treat art cinema and mainstream cinema. However I disagree that this constitutes cinephilia. If we take the work of Sergei Eisenstein, whose Battleship Potemkin was also screened during the festival, the way he distinguished his audience was the degree to which they were willing to engage with advanced ideas. And that would certainly apply to contemporary filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard or from a different slant Chantal Ackerman.
So my criticisms of the seminar include a whole dimension which it failed to address. I rather feel that if we had focussed more closely on the actual films that such a discussion would have been more likely. I had one other worry at the end of the seminar when the Chair advised us that the Centre was already in discussion with the Festival about 2014. I should now reveal an interest; I teach and lecture on film. But 2014 is the centenary of World War I and there are certainly plans to provide some sort of cinematic perspective. I am sure the academics at the Centre can address interesting issues around that topic. But it would be nice to see something which works outside the limitations of academia. And if that WW I is not a central political issue in European cinema I wonder what is.
There was a bit of a stink last week when The Family was released in the UK. This film, written and directed by Luc Besson for his EuropaCorp was panned by virtually all the leading UK critics. They may well be correct in giving it the thumbs down. I haven’t seen the film, though I’m tempted to check it out (if it lasts long enough in cinemas). I’m intrigued because I read the source novel a few years ago. The novel – about an American mafia family, hiding under ‘witness protection’ in France – was written by Tonino Benacquista who despite his name is French and he has a generally very good reputation. The original title was ‘Malavita‘ which translates as ‘Badfellas‘. I thought the novel was a diverting amusement, but my interest now is in the ignorance of some UK critics who a) fail to notice that it is a French story and b) that it is essentially a French film, albeit filmed in English and starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard wondered how much of the film was shot outside LA (apart from a sequence in New York most of the film was shot in France). The main problem, I suspect, is that Luc Besson’s mix of extreme violence and comedy just doesn’t work in Anglo-American film culture.
So far the $30 million film has grossed over $50 million worldwide and will probably eventually make a profit. Besson consistently turns out commercially successful ‘international’ films in English with Hollywood stars and production budgets small by US standards but high for Europe. I’m using the term ‘international’ to stress that these films in English are not necessarily addressed directly to a domestic European market but are intended to compete with Hollywood product in the international market. The Family has an American (independent) partner, Relativity Media, but is essentially a French production. Nearly all these films are condemned by critics but audiences want to see them. Little is written about Besson’s success but I’m interested now because I’m starting to watch some of the better films produced on a similar basis in Europe (mainly France and Italy) in the 1960s and early 1970s. I’ve seen some crackers so far and I’m going to discuss them in an evening class course running next term at Cornerhouse in Manchester. Watch this space!