Category: People

More thoughts on Maps to the Stars from Rona

I have seen reviews that focus on the film only as satire or as a Cronenberg film.  It’s as much Bruce Wagner’s (who wrote the screenplay) but it feels as if Cronenberg has subtly channeled his great visceral sensibility into this story of people’s suffering.  I agree with Roy, the characters are no ghastly types and are realised with great feeling, not least because the actors knew when to exercise restraint.  It might not be the kind of body horror of his earlier career.  Flesh, however, seems still of central importance.

After  Shivers (1975), one’s sense of bodily integrity lives in constant threat in a Cronenberg film.  This latest film was reminiscent of Dead Ringers (1988) in its air of tangible menace that fearsome (Freudian) drama of male dominance of female reproduction sustained.  People kept their clothes on in A Dangerous Method (2011), and Cronenberg moved the conversation to desire (in our minds) rather than pure body invasion, although Keira Knightley’s Sabine Spielrein begged for mortification at the hands of Michael Fassbender’s Carl Jung.  This creates a neat lead into Maps to the Stars and Bruce Wagner’s insider script.  Havana’s visceral healing sessions with John Cusack – her crying out as he touches her ‘healing’ points  – seems to develop that idea (from Keira Knightley’s Sabine Spielrein) that mental torture is expressed and expunged through the body – with complex results.  In Existenz (1999), Cronenberg explored a world where his characters could jack into various games and experiences through portals inserted into their physical bodies.  As the gamers found an increasing difficulty in distinguishing what was real or not, there is the same confusion for characters here. Compared to Existenz, this Hollywood world – with pills etc – means the jacking-in is cleaner, less messy physically whilst still devastating mentally.

This is, however, as much Bruce Wagner’s film, who explains his concept (in relation to ghost stories) in an interesting article here.  There has been great focus on how all the dialogue is drawn from situations in real life and the publicity has played up its ‘Hollywood Babylon’ credentials.  Sunset Boulevard (1950) is an obvious reference, in Gloria Swanson’s representation of a life that’s moved beyond reality and into the realms of fantasy.  In that film, we watched people being eaten alive (not least Erich von Stroheim in being cast at all) and felt ourselves separate from what Hollywood does to people.  In A Star is Born (1954) we celebrated the resilience (and loyalty) of Mrs Norman Maine in Judy Garland’s public declaration, rejecting the superficiality and callousness of Hollywood.  The Player (like Maps to the Stars) draws on a noir-ish air of the 1940s.  Mulholland Drive (2001)  (the road itself appears in this film) returns us to psychology in its descent into Naomi Watts’ subconscious – a piece of ‘dreamwork’ set in the dream factory.

Maps, though, felt more grounded than this.  By chance, I watched Hal Ashby’s great satire, Shampoo (1975), again this week, just after the Cronenberg.  Somehow Warren Beatty’s guru-hairdresser, finding his world unravelling at breakneck speed becomes a very ordinary man caught up in an unreal spiral.  Ashby’s context of Nixon’s election, his use of a clearer political context for the film, made an interesting contrast to the other-worldliness of Cronenberg-Wagner’s film.  And Maps does present its characters as a kind of freak show, sitting somewhere between the surreal fantasy of Lynch’s film and the debunking of Ashby’s.   But maybe more interesting (and relevant) questions spill out from this film -  about worlds where youth, constant self-representation, the need to sustain a profile – and their potential dehumanising effects – and how these aren’t (now) only the stuff of Hollywood nightmares.

Peter von Bagh 1943-1914

Peter

Regular readers will be familiar with the reports from Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone. Peter was for many years the Artistic Director for Il Cinemas Ritrovato and he was a familiar and friendly face at Pordenone. So the tribute circulated by the Cineteca di Bologna, together with one posted on Le Giornate WebPages, was sad news and well deserved.

It is with great sorrow that we announce the passing of our friend Peter von Bagh, artistic director of Il Cinema Ritrovato since 2001.

Peter was an enlightened intellectual and cinéphile, former director of the Helsinki Cinémathèque, he first discovered Aki Kaurismäki and was himself a filmmaker: his documentaries are permeated by a deeply human voice and a clever vision.

Peter gave a lot to the Cineteca and to the city of Bologna, contributing in a decisive way to Il Cinema Ritrovato and its international stature.

He had a wealth of unique talents: he had an intimate and voracious relationship with cinema – he had seen virtually every film in existence – which he had learned to understand and know with an unparalleled depth. He was an uncommonly cultivated man, admired by many filmmakers and carried himself with a simplicity and a playful sense of humour that naturally lead him to support many right – therefore often impossible – causes.

His departure is a huge loss for the international community of film lovers. Cineteca di Bologna lost a precious friend, his personal and human presence will stay with us as well as the rich patrimony of studies and films which is bound to acquire more and more relevance in the future.

Peter left us on a high note: a presentation at Bologna this year of his Socialismi. The film uses montage and an impressive assemblage of axioms to trace the developments in the primary progressive movement of the last two centuries. The film is not available at present but hopefully it will become so – a fitting tribute to a great and committed cinéaste.

Jim Hillier 1941-2014

The film scholar and film educationalist Jim Hillier has died after a long illness. He was the first film teacher I met and my experience of a week of seminars studying the opening to Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie at the BFI Summer School in Stirling in 1974 was the start of my formal engagement with film. At that time Jim was the Deputy Head of the ‘Educational Advisory Service’ of the British Film Institute at their old offices in Dean Street and in a key position to help kickstart film education in schools and colleges in the UK. What struck me then was how open and welcoming he was towards young teachers and what a difference his approach represented compared to some of the university teachers I had encountered a few years previously. Jim’s enthusiasm for film was infectious and I remember his stories about cycling across London to visit obscure suburban cinemas, soon to shut down, in the hope of seeing films by important directors which he had missed first time around.

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In 1975 Jim Hillier was one of a group scholars and teachers responsible for the revival of the journal Movie which had first been published in 1962 but had suffered two interruptions since then. The others involved comprised Victor Perkins, Robin Wood, Michael Walker and Ian Cameron and the first new volume carried articles by Doug Pye and Charles Barr. Movie didn’t survive in its third incarnation for very long but it provided a different take on the emerging field of film studies to that coming from Screen in the mid-1970s, providing examples of close reading of texts and leading the UK analysis of American cinema in particular. Jim Hillier was also on the boards of Screen and Screen Education at this point and also already a published author, having written Studies in Documentary with his colleague Alan Lovell for the Cinema One series in 1972. As a film scholar, Jim had many interests as demonstrated by some of the other titles in his impressive list of publications. The two volumes of selected translations of articles from Cahiers du Cinéma that he edited over many years and which emerged in 1985-6 and New Hollywood (1993 Studio Vista) represent essential resources for any film student. Later he co-authored The Film Studies Dictionary (Arnold 2001) with Steve Blandford and Barry Keith Grant and three of the BFI’s ’100 Films’ Series with Alistair Phillips (Film Noirs, 2009), Barry Keith Grant (Documentaries, 2009) and Doug Pye (Film Musicals, 2011). Somehow he also found time to edit the BFI collection Howard Hawks: American Artist with Peter Wollen (1997)  and the Sight and Sound Reader on American Independent Cinema in 2008.

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That first book on Studies in Documentary in 1972 arose from Jim’s experience of the BFI/London University Extra-Mural Film Studies courses, the training ground for many later film teachers (and which eventually became the basis for Birkbeck College’s film and media degree programme). In 1979 I was invited to teach an Extra-Mural class with Jim. From him I learned the pleasures and great strengths of team teaching and I was also introduced to several of his less well-known film interests such as the avant-garde films of Jon Jost and both popular Hindi cinema in the form of Guru Dutt and the parallel cinema of Kumar Shahani. I taught again with him in 1987 and it was noticeable that despite his writing activities he still had the enthusiasm to offer the introductory courses in the programme. Working for the ILEA (Inner Education Authority) I was also aware of Jim’s part in the development of the ILEA Sixth Form Film Project, one of the first attempts to put film education into practice on a large scale across Inner London schools. Jim was involved in the development of the first GCE O Level in film in the early 1970s and then later the A Level in Film Studies in the 1990s. When Jim took up a post at Bulmershe College in Reading (which eventually became part of Reading University) he became a greatly respected and much-loved university teacher. The tributes on this blog with contributions from Doug Pye and other colleagues and students attest to the impact he had as tutor and scholar. It seems fitting that at the time of his death, Jim Hillier was still listed as a guest at the Midnight Film Festival in Finland, June 2014. Finnish Cinema was another of his interests and he had first written on New Cinema in Finland in 1972. Jim’s combination of inspirational teacher and scholar across so many different forms of cinema is rare and deserves to be long remembered.

Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France/Italy 2014)

Fabrizio Rongione and Marion Cotillard as the husband and wife at the centre of Two Days One Night

Fabrizio Rongione and Marion Cotillard as the husband and wife at the centre of Two Days One Night

The latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has got substantial coverage in the UK press and I even heard a cogent analysis of the film on Radio 4′s ‘Thought For the Day’ religious slot last week. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at that. The film deals with a recognisable personal and social quandary and a real moral questions. At a time of austerity when seemingly everything is being ‘cut’, how would you feel if you were a worker offered the choice between receiving a bonus or instead helping a colleague keep her job? And from her point of view how would you feel about spending your weekend trying to persuade your workmates to forego their €1,000 bonus so that you can keep your job? Those are the questions that drive the film narrative. The Dardennes complicate matters further by making their central character Sandra someone trying to return to work after suffering depression. While she has been off work the boss has concluded that his workforce can cope with one less member so he has devised this diabolical choice for his non-unionised workforce. Some commentators (and audiences) have seen the additions of these details as making the narrative more contrived than it needs to be (Sandra also has an almost saintly husband who is super-supportive). The result might be that the film is less about the ‘social issue’ of a fair distribution of income and employment opportunities and more about Sandra’s ‘personal’ struggle to maintain her dignity and sense of self-belief.

A few weeks ago I introduced the film on its first weekend on release and therefore spent some time thinking about how the Dardenne brothers present themselves as filmmakers and how they are generally understood by critics, reviewers and audiences. My notes for that ‘Illustrated Talk’ are downloadable here:

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My conclusion was that most commentators are too keen to try and pigeon-hole the brothers as fitting a specific category in terms of approach, styles, themes etc. Certainly all of their films since the mid-1990s have been set in their home town of Seraing in the Meuse Valley of Wallonia, the francophone region of South-Eastern Belgium, and each film focuses on one or two characters facing some kind of problem connected to a current social issue. However, the approach and the style does change and in the DVD ‘extras’ of the previous film Le gamin au vélo (The Kid With a Bike, 2010), the two brothers (who share writing, production anddirection) demonstrate how they set up certain scenes. They discuss these in some detail and explain the differences between the films in terms of how the camera is used etc. So, for instance, Sandra in Two Days, One Night is on a quest which sends her around Seraing over a weekend and we follow her – much as we follow the central character in Rosetta (1999). But the teenage Rosetta is a very different type of character to Sandra and the Dardennes’ camera follows her as if she is a soldier in a war combat film. Rosetta is a strong young woman determined to do anything to get, and keep, a job. She needs to be strong because her single parent mother is an alcoholic who threatens to drink away Rosetta’s earnings. ‘Following’ the embattled Rosetta with the camera requires a different approach to that in The Kid With a Bike in which Cyrille, in a summery Seraing, is like a character in a fairy-tale searching for his ‘lost’ father and oscillating between the ‘bad’ fairy (the local gangleader) and the ‘good fairy’ Samantha who agrees to be his foster-mother. Sandra is different again in a very physical performance by Marion Cotilard as a woman weakened by depression and medication who must find the energy and self-belief to ask difficult questions of her work-mates.

The publicity for the release of Two Days, One Night focused on the presence of Marion Cotillard as the ‘first A List star’ that the Dardennes had cast in their films. Ms Cotillard is certainly a major star of French cinema as well as appearing in major international Hollywood productions. But Cécile de France was also a major star when she accepted the role as Samantha in Le gamin au vélo. The key point is that whereas de France, a Walloon from Namur, is ‘culturally appropriate’, Cotillard was born in Paris and grew up in Orléans. She can play the role of a woman in Seraing and give it authenticity because of her skill – but this is nevertheless a change in the Dardennes’ approach. The ‘star stature’ is also important. In the clips referenced above the Dardennes discuss how they choreographed scenes and used the camera taking into account Cécile de France’s experience when working with a young non-professional on Le gamin au vélo. De France is a leading figure in the film, but not actually the central character. Marion Cotillard is the main focus of Two Days, One Night. She gives a wonderful performance but the question remains as to what extent her star persona – which includes her willingness to represent the tired and ‘worn’ working woman – is read by audiences as an element in the presentation of the narrative. Does it change the sense of authenticity? After two screenings I’m still not sure. As an exercise, it might be worth comparing Cotillard’s performance with that of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (US 2000). The two films are very different but the issue about a star creating a character within a social realist aesthetic is worth pursuing.

Jean-Pierre (left) et Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre (left) et Luc Dardenne

The other aspect that Two Days, One Night shares with Le gamin au vélo is the emotional use of music. In the previous film a couple of very short bursts of non-diegetic classical music seem to mark moments in the emotional narrative – whereas the filmmakers have generally avoided music in their earlier films. In Two Days, One Night there are two songs heard on the car radio (i.e. diegetic). The first is Petula Clark’s 1964 French version of the Jackie DeShannon song ‘Needles and Pins’ (1963). The French title is ‘La Nuit n’en Finit Plus’ or the ‘night is never-ending’ and it allows a dialogue exchange about Sandra’s state of mind. Later, in a moment of exultation, Sandra, her husband and a workmate sing along to Van Morrison’s (lead singer of Them) anthemic ‘Gloria’ (1966). In one sense this is a strange choice of songs. Though they certainly work in context you do wonder if the Dardennes are drawing on their own teenage years rather than what might be relevant for Sandra’s generation. The point is that like the casting of Marion Cotillard the use of songs like this ‘fits’ this particular production. The Dardennes make each film very carefully. It might take years for the ideas to develop and the films have come out at regular three-year intervals. They aren’t wedded to one way of making films and that’s what makes each one of their films something to look forward to.

If you haven’t seen the film – and you really should – here’s a trailer (with the Pet Clark song):