One of the characters in this film uses the word ‘awesome’ twice: it was my response after my first viewing of the film. The film is a worthy follow-on to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s earlier masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da, 2011), though it is also rather different. This is rich and complex work of art. I feel that I need to think about it more and maybe view it again before I can write adequately about it.
I did, though, read the review in Sight & Sound (December 2014): rather lukewarm I thought. Referring to Ceylan’s love of Chekhov Jonathan Romney writes
Understandably, then that it should feel theatrical;..
He comments on one recurring aspect of the film:
But for much of the time, the characters do little except talk at length, in darkened rooms. [which he describes as ‘long, stagey discussions’].
He is right about the length, there is one such scene which runs for about 30m minutes. Such scenes, he thinks
feel like transcribed chapters of a novel.
Like fine theatre the film has great settings, excellent staging and seriously fine acting. But then much of cinema is, like theatre, a performance art. But it is a different art. In fact we talk not about staging but mise en scène. Among other things these sequences are beautifully lit. The rooms in which the characters talk are full of suggestive props and furnishings. But most importantly these images are presented via the camera lens.
Several of these scenes commence with a long shot in long take. And long shots and long takes recur in the scenes but are intercut with close ups, large close-ups, changing camera angles, reverse camera angles, pans and tilts. The camera changes our perception of the characters’ interactions and with close-up shows that they are doing a lot more than just talk: with often delicate but often powerful gestures, body movements and expressions. In the scene between Aydin and Nihal [a husband and wife] that Romney picks out there is also a mirror shot, this brings a notable new perspective at this point.
Likewise the sound is not live but recorded. The dialogue is clear and much of the soundtrack is natural sound. However segments of the film are set up by a solo piano. And the design in scenes of conversation uses noise, tone and timbre in a way that is rigorous and evocative.
Ceylon’s films feature intelligent and stimulating use of image and sound, and this film offers just that. If you have not seen it yet, seek out a cinema with it in the programme. Don’t wait for the Blu-Ray or Television airing – this film deserves a theatrical setting. Both of my viewings were at the Hyde Park Picture House which enjoys a classical auditorium: this is the way to get the full pleasure of this film.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.