The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

The Golden 50s: India’s Endangered Classics

Posted by keith1942 on 9 July 2014

Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Awara, 1951.

Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Awara, 1951.

This was one of the real treats at the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato. The programme offered eight classics from the sub-continent that spanned the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s. The programme was curated by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. His film, Celluloid Man (2012), a study of the Indian film archive and archivists, had limited outings in the UK last year. Shivendra writes in the Festival Catalogue:

These films represent a rich and varied cinematic heritage that is in danger of becoming extinct. 1700 silent films were made in India of which only 5 or 6 complete films remain. [These were screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1993]. Tragically, we have lost our first sound film Alam Ara (1931, the film that established music, song and dance as the essential ingredient of popular Indian film). By 1950, India had lost seventy to eighty per cent of its films, and this has been the result of a widespread and complacent belief that film will last forever. We now realise that these eight classics too are in imminent danger of being lost to the world if urgent steps are not taken for their preservation and restoration. Screening these film is not just a reminder of a singular cinematic legacy, but one that is endangered and must be saved.

Chandralekha, 1948, black and white, in Tamil, 193 minutes.

Directed by S. S. Vasan. The script was developed by a group in the Gemini Studio Story Department. It was a Tamil production but an early example of that industry attempting a nation-wide distribution and circulated in both Tamil and Hindi versions. It is an epic film with innumerable songs and dances. Chandra is a young village girl who captures the eye of a prince. Much of the plot concerns the machinations of the prince’s younger brother. The story wanders over action and countryside, including an impressive sequence in a travelling circus. The film ends with a mammoth Drum Dance number that leads into the final battle. If you have watched documentaries on Indian cinema on British TV you will have seen a snippet of this sequence, a popular film clip. In 1948 the film played into the rhetoric of Indian Independence –

The film’s primary conflict – the struggle between the usurper and the rightful heir – would have resonated strongly with Indian audiences, leading them to register all the nuanced allusions and metaphors embodied in the film.

Awara, (The Vagabond), 1951, black and white, in Hindi, 168 minutes.

This is a film directed by and starring Raj Kapoor, one of the most popular stars in the history of Indian cinema.  Alongside him is Indian greatest female star, Nargis. And the film was produced at Kapoor’s own studio, built from the profits of his earlier successes. The film runs for 168 though there was a longer version of 193 minutes. The film, Kapoor and Nargis were also immensely popular in the Soviet Union and Arabia and China. Kapoor’s character is clearly influenced by Chaplin and he exploited the persona in a number of films.

The film follows the son of a judge, unfairly expelled from home and who grows up in the slums and is tutored by criminals. The film ends in a courtroom, where both romance and the father/son conflict are resolved.

Do Bigha Zameen (Two Acres of Land) 1953, black and white, in Hindi, 142 minutes.

The film was directed by Bimal Roy who started in the Bengali film industry and then moved to Bombay and the mainstream Hindi film.  The film shows the influence of Italian neo-realism [Roy had seen De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette, 1948 in Calcutta). However much of the film is shot in a studio with a limited amount of location work. Even so it stood out from the contemporary popular film. What also stood out was the performance of Bairaj Sahni as the central character Shambu. He is the victim of an exploitative landlord and ends up in the city struggling to find work and earn a living. The Catalogue notes that:

Audiences around the country greeted it with stunned silence. There was no boisterous acclaim, none of the celebratory music that follows the news of a film becoming a box-office success. It was an acknowledgement that a new kind of cinema had emerged: a cinema in the popular mode, with the ring of truth.

Pyaasa (The Thirsty One) 1957, black and white, in Hindi, 143 minutes.

The film was directed by Guru Dutt. That two of his films were included in the programme gives an idea of his status in Indian film. Dutt also stars as the hero Vijay, and plays opposite another major star Waheeda Rehman as Meena. The music is by a major composer of the period S. D. Burman. Their import is spelt out in the Catalogue:

In Pyaasa Guru Dutt disregarded the conventions of Indian cinema regarding songs. He could use them in fragmentary form or as an extension of dialogue, while at other times, they went beyond the standard length.

Vijay is a poet who

encounters greed and philistinism among the gatekeepers of society, and compassion among its outcasts.

[including Meena].

Mother India 1957, in colour, in Hindi, 172 minutes.

The film is often referred to as India’s Gone With the Wind. This comparison is misplaced, though both films are the most famous and popular examples of their two respective studio systems. Where the Selznick film recycles a reactionary representation of the US Civil War the Hindi film, directed by Mehboob Khan, dramatises in populist terms the class conflict and exploitation involving India’s peasant millions. This is another epic with Nargis in her greatest role as Radha, village girl, wife, mother, widow and finally the matriarch of the title.  The film is crammed with melodrama and song and filmed in evocative colour. The Catalogue notes that Nargis’ Radha

combines the characteristics of both Mother Courage and Mother Earth. Through her we traverse the epic journey of a country from darkness to light.

The filmmaker Mehboob Kahn, like the Government headed by Nehru, was strongly influenced by the Soviet model. In one glorious dance number the peasants in the fields combine in the form of a hammer and sickle.

Ajantrik (Pathetic Fallacy) 1957, black and white, in Bengali, 102 minutes.

This was the second feature of Ritwik Ghatak, a Bengali filmmaker. Ghatak’s films, whilst observing some of the conventions of popular cinema, fall outside the mainstream. He is a key figure in the development of what became known as the ‘parallel’ or New Indian Cinema. In this film

Literally, the tile Ajantrik extends the word ‘jantrik’ (mechanical) to suggests its antithesis.

The plot, which follows an unconventional structure, concerns a taxi-driver Bimal and his vehicle, a battered old Chevrolet, called Jagaddal. Ghatak himself commented on the film re the idea of the machine:

It is something that is alien. [T]his apathy may be due to the fact that all change and the very introduction of the machine age was the handiwork of foreign overlords.

(Quoted in Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, BFI 1994). Those authors add that the film suggests that

the forces driving the speed of change disregard and thus destroy the slower, more human tempo at which people adopt and incorporate change into their networks of social relations.

Madhumati, 1958, black and white, in Hindi, 149 minutes.

This was the second film directed by Bimal Roy in the programme, and was scripted by Ritwik Ghatak. It features one of the popular stars of the period Dilip Kumar as Anand. The plot involves a haunted mansion, ghosts and reincarnation. The film falls within a genre known as Indian Gothic – which will give some sense of its style and atmosphere. The film was immensely popular and weaves the generic tale into a tapestry of songs, dances, folk-style humour and traditional tropes.

Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers), 1959, black and white CinemaScope, in Hindi, 144 minutes.

This was the last film on which Guru Dutt put his name as director. It is a doomed tale of a successful filmmaker whose career goes into decline when his personal life goes awry. There is a strong element of autobiography in the film: Dutt committed suicide in 1964, aged only 39. Dutt plays the lead character Suresh, whilst his favoured actress Waheeda Rehman plays Shanti.

The music is by S. D. Burman, though the songs and dances are not integrated into the film story as well as in the earlier Pyaasa. What is most memorable about the film is the cinematography by V. K. Murthy. This was the first occasion that I was able to see a film print in the full widescreen format; earlier screenings had been cropped to 1.37:1. This is a film of shadows, which are used in an exemplary fashion. The chiaroscuro lighting in many of the studio sequences is beautifully done. Dutt and Murthy also have a mastery of the crane shot, with one striking flowing camera movement during the climatic sequence of the film.

The screenings were preceded by Indian Newsreels of the period, some of more interest than others. The films were mainly screened in 35mm prints, the majority from the National Archive of India. Unfortunately three films were screened from Blu-Ray discs, not a format that could do justice to these great films. When there were not subtitles on the print digital titles were projected in both English and Italian. We did miss the lyrics for several songs in this way.

Shivendra Sing Dungarpur is a founder member, along with some illustrious names from the Indian film Industry, of the Film Heritage Foundation. This foundation aims to campaign for the restoration and preservation of the Indian film heritage. Many of these great classic films from the sub-continent are only in video formats in the UK – so I applaud their intent. A Website for the Foundation is under construction and will be found when uploaded at – www.filmheritagefoundation.co.in

 

Posted in Bengali Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Hindi Cinema – Bollywood, Indian Cinema, Tamil Cinema | Leave a Comment »

Bicycling with Molière (Alceste à bicyclette, France 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 9 July 2014

Serge (Fabrice Luchini, left) and Gauthier (Lambert Wilson) rehearse

Serge (Fabrice Luchini, left) and Gauthier (Lambert Wilson) rehearse

I very much enjoyed Alceste à bicyclette, especially after watching the peloton of the Tour de France at the weekend and remembering the bicycle ride in Jules et Jim which is definitely referenced here. This is the kind of film the French make so well. I calculate that there are probably two or three French films like this each year whereas in the UK there might be two or three like this each decade. That is a difference in film culture. What do I mean by this? Simply that here is a film that mixes high culture and popular culture references and plays mainly, I suspect, to a middle-aged and middle-class audience.  There are two aspects of the film which will probably  reduce the enjoyment of large numbers of the potential anglophone audience – they were a problem for me – but I hope that non-French speakers will give it a go. Those problems are the cultural importance of Molière in France (the equivalent of Shakespeare in England?) and the difficulty of portraying the specificities of elegant 17th century French dialogue in English subtitles.

The film presents a narrative that involves a mise en abîme – the use of a play within a play. Gauthier Valance (Lambert Wilson) is a successful TV actor who decides to massage his ego by putting on a theatrical presentation of Molière’s Le misanthrope (the French actor’s equivalent of producing Hamlet and playing the lead role himself?). He has the idea of casting an old colleague Serge (Fabrice Luchini) who retired several years ago, but who was a celebrated actor in films as well as on stage. He knows that Serge has a particular passion for Molière. Serge now lives on the Île de Ré, the exclusive resort off the Atlantic coast near La Rochelle, in an old house he has inherited. Serge at first resists all Gauthier’s inducements but then decides it would be fun to ‘play’ Gauthier like a salmon, teasing him with a fly and then refusing him when he leaps. He suggests that they spend the next four days rehearsing scenes from the play and alternating the two main roles, Alceste, the lead and Philtrine. This is the mise en abîme as the two men exchange roles and try to top each other as they repeat lines of dialogue. They become aggressive and devious towards each other just like Molière’s characters and start to compete. Two women are included in the plot to help show up the male posturing. Zoé works in her aunt’s hotel and also as a porn actress, but she demonstrates that she can read Molière, just like she did at school. Francesca is the attractive Italian divorcée who plays the Jeanne Moreau role in the Jules et Jim reference, looking very fetching on her bike.

Francesca (Maya Sansa) places herself between the two men.

Francesca (Maya Sansa) places herself between the two men.

I know relatively little about Molière but I think he at some point came out with the classic humanist line about all characters having human foibles. Gauthier and Serge are both seriously flawed human beings, here played by actors putting in great performances. Personally I go with Serge and Fabrice Luchini is terrific in the pompous/vulnerable mode of comic acting. See our posts on Potiche and In the House. I laughed out loud on several occasions and the Île de Ré looks wonderful (although I’m told it is full of posh French tourists and costs €16 to cross the toll bridge). Lambert Wilson is also excellent in a role very different to his lead in Of Gods and Men. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else by writer-director Philippe Le Guay but I’ve noted that he is ‘thanked’ by the producers of Cherchez Hortense. He’s written a witty script which the two leads lap up with relish. There isn’t too much to watch in UK cinemas at the moment, so this is well worth a visit. Cyclists may also enjoy an Yves Montand chanson about a bicyclette which accompanies one of several cycling scenes.

Here is the delightful trailer (but be warned it includes some of the best bits of a film that is mainly dialogue-driven):

Posted in Comedies, French Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Reel Spokes – Bikes on Film

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 July 2014

Le tour races through itpworld‘s home town on July 6 so it seems appropriate to celebrate a glimpse of the Yellow Jersey with a favourite collection of images of bikes on film. Pride of place should go in this case to one of my favourite Jean-Luc Godard films, Une femme est une femme (France 1961) in which Anna Karina is the partner of Jean-Claude Brialy who follows sport with a passion, listening to football on the radio and cycling around the tiny apartment as he thinks about cycle races:

Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy in UNE FEMME EST UNE FEMME

Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy in UNE FEMME EST UNE FEMME

I’ve scoured the internet for interesting images and discovered several ‘bikes in the movies’ blogs. I’ve listed some of the best at the end of the post. Apologies to all concerned from whom I’ve borrowed images – I hope you feel that it’s a good cause.

Who could resist the idea of Stan and Ollie running a bike shop?

AIR RAID WARDENS (1943)

AIR RAID WARDENS (1943)

Five entries for the sexiest cyclist:

Emily Lloyd in WISHING YOU WERE HERE (d. David Leland, UK 1987)

Emily Lloyd in WISH YOU WERE HERE (d. David Leland, UK 1987)

Bernadettle Lafont in LES MISTONS (d. Francois Truffaut 1957)

Bernadette Lafont in LES MISTONS (d. Francois Truffaut 1957)

Jeanne Moreau with Oskar Werner and ? in JULES ET JIM (d. François Truffaut 1961)

Jeanne Moreau in JULES ET JIM (d. François Truffaut 1961)

Paul Newman in BUTCH CASSIDY & the SUNDANCE KID (d. George Roy Hill, 1969)

Paul Newman in BUTCH CASSIDY & the SUNDANCE KID (d. George Roy Hill, 1969)

Paul Newman and Katherine Ross in BUTCH CASSIDY & the SUNDANCE KID

Paul Newman and Katherine Ross in BUTCH CASSIDY & the SUNDANCE KID

Bikes can be sexy I think you’ll agree. Part of the appeal is the sense of freedom, the ‘go anywhere’ possibilities of the bike. But I have to confess those loose dresses and flashes of suntanned legs pumping the pedals are very alluring. As for Paul Newman on a bike, I’m not best equipped to explain why it works but it does. Here’s another trio:

Anna Karina gets help from Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur in Godard's A BANDE A PART (France 1964)

Anna Karina gets help from Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur in Godard’s A BANDE A PART (France 1964)

Nina Hoss in BARBARA (Germany 2012 dir. Christian Petzold)

Nina Hoss in BARBARA (Germany 2012 dir. Christian Petzold)

Cécile De France and Thomas Doret in LE GAMIN AU VÉLO (dirs Jean-Pierre et Luc Dardenne France-Belgium 2011)

Cécile De France and Thomas Doret in LE GAMIN AU VÉLO (dirs Jean-Pierre et Luc Dardenne France-Belgium 2011)

Our local cycling connection from film history is A Boy, A Girl and a Bike (dir. Ralph Smart, UK 1949) filmed in some of the locations visited by the Le tour this weekend. It’s remembered now partly because the British 1950s sex symbol Diana Dors has a minor role, but there is much more to it than that.

Honor Blackman looks back

Honor Blackman looks back

Miss Dors in the Dales

Miss Dors in the Dales

Sam (Patrick Holt) and Sue (Honor Blackman) out riding with the Wakeford Wheelers.

Sam (Patrick Holt) and Sue (Honor Blackman) out riding with the Wakeford Wheelers.

Bicycles feature in several well-known British films, here are a few more:

Maggie Smith in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (dir. Ronald Neame, UK 1969)

Maggie Smith in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (dir. Ronald Neame, UK 1969)

Cycling was once essential for workers and here’s a famous example of riding home from work. It’s appropriate that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (dir Karel Reisz, UK 1960) was set in Nottingham, home to the UK’s most famous manufacturer of bicycles, Raleigh.

Besides the practicalities of cycling, bicycles are an important part of the neo-realist tradition – an important plot device in those societies where ownership of a bike, or even just the chance to ride one, can change people’s lives. Bicycle Thieves (dir Vittorio De Sica, Italy 1948) is perhaps the most influential film on new filmmakers across the world:

Antonio and Bruno ask their friends to help them look for the stolen bike in BICYCLE THIEVES

Antonio and Bruno ask their friends to help them look for the stolen bike in BICYCLE THIEVES

Two images from Beijing Bicycle (dir Wang Xiaoshuai, China 2001):

The bike is first leased to the courier . . .

The bike is first leased to the courier . . .

. . . and is then stolen by the schoolboy to impress his girlfriend

. . . and is then stolen by the schoolboy to impress his girlfriend

Bicycles have given women freedom at certain times and here in Late Spring (dir Ozu Yasujiro, Japan 1949) Hara Setsuko is able to go out for a ride inan unusual sequence from an Ozu film:

latespring

In some societies, the bicycle is a potent symbol of gender difference and cultural/religious conflict as in Wadjda (dir. Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia-Germany 2012):

Tribeca Wadjda

and in The Day I Became a Woman (dir. Marziyeh Meshkini, Iran 2000)

Ahoo takes part in a bicycle race in THE DAY I BECAME a WOMAN

Ahoo takes part in a bicycle race in THE DAY I BECAME a WOMAN

And to round off our tribute to the peleton, a reminder of one of the most enjoyable bike films, Breaking Away (dir Peter Yates, US 1979)

BreakingAway

Here’s that list of useful sites:

http://ridesabike.com

http://www.dollyrockergirl.com/2011/05/i-want-to-ride-my-bicycle-bicycle.html

http://quitecontinental.net/tag/history/page/2/

http://hollywood-legacy.tumblr.com/post/48457889233/paul-newman-and-katharine-ross-as-butch-and

http://inter.pyramidefilms.com/content/beijing-bicycle

Happy pedalling!

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Under the Rainbow (Au bout du conte, France 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 3 July 2014

Laura (Agather Bonitzer) and (Pierre) Jean-Perre Bacri

Laura (Agathe Bonitzer) and Pierre (Jean-Pierre Bacri making a typical face)

Released without fanfare by Artificial Eye in the UK, the latest film from Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri deserves a much bigger audience than it is getting in UK cinemas. The couple’s scripts are directed by Jaoui and both are also actors in an ensemble cast. Like their previous films Au bout du conte centres on the ‘cultural’ sector of the French bourgeoisie. The difference here is that Jaoui has decided to incorporate a discourse about fairytales into the familiar network of shifting relationships. The couple’s films are invariably witty takes on relationships informed by previous collaborations with Alain Resnais and Cédric Klapisch (both Jaoui and Bacri also work as actors on separate projects). Here, the starting point is Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and fairytale films like Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin and Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. The English title of the film is not helpful and a better, more helpful translation might be ‘Happily Ever After’, (the end of the fairytale).

In some ways, the central idea here is most similar to the couple’s 2004 film Comme une image (Look at Me, France-Italy). In that film Jean-Pierre Bacri plays a cold-blooded and rather egotistical celebrity author with a daughter who is attempting to become a classical singer. In this new film, he is again a rather grouchy figure (owner of a local driving school) with an estranged son who is a budding composer of ‘contemporary music’. The son is Sandro (Arthur Dupont), the ‘Prince Charming’ of the story, but also in a neat inversion, its Cinderella as well. At a party Sandro meets Laura (Agathe Bonitzer) – and loses his shoe when he rushes off early to pick up his mother who is closing her late night bar. Agathe is the ‘Princess’, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, but she is also Little Red Riding Hood on her way to her aunt’s house in the woods and prey to the ‘big bad wolf’ who lives next door. The aunt, a hippyish school teacher is played by Jaoui herself. The aunt is also separated from her husband and she takes driving lessons from Bacri’s character. This spiralling of relationships is a common feature of the scripts by Jaoui-Bacri. The scripts are meticulously written with dialogue being Bacri’s specialism.

Agnès Jaoui as Marianne attempts to direct her child actors

Agnès Jaoui as Marianne attempts to direct her child actors

The difference this time is the fairytale discourse. This is presented – and commented on – in a number of ways. At the straightforward iconic level, Jaoui’s character Marianne is attempting to persuade a class of primary children to perform a play based on traditional fairytales. She also lives in a house that resembles a house in the woods in Hansel and Gretel. This visual impression is re-inforced by CGI rendering for a dream sequence and there are references to several forms of mysticism ranging from Marianne’s young daughter’s sudden interest in Jesus via clairvoyants and alternative therapies to modern psychoanalysis. More subtle is the cinematography by the Bulgarian Lubomir Bakchev. In the film’s press notes Jaoui tells us that she and Bakchev shared an interest in Russian films they both saw in Paris years ago. He has come up with a very fluid style for the film which emphasises the ‘swirl’ of relationships and an overall motif of ‘circling’. There are one or two clever devices to create the impression of ‘otherworldliness’. In one scene a teddy bear dances on a window sill as we look through at Pierre. Later we realise it is a wind-up toy but for a moment it looks ‘real’. Much of this effect is about sound and in the press notes Jaoui also discusses her increased confidence in manipulating sound as well as making more use of music. I can’t comment on the ‘contemporary’ score written by Sandro but there is good use of a Gil Scott-Heron song for the sequence in which the ‘Princess’ is ‘lost’. At the end of the film, which doesn’t quite see everyone living ‘happily ever after’, I nevertheless felt better, having enjoyed myself – and laughed out loud several times.

As well as Comme une image, see earlier postings on this blog of Let’s Talk About the Rain (2008) and Looking for Hortense (2012) (which stars Bacri and is directed by Pascale Bonitzer, Agathe’s father).

A short teaser trailer:

 

Posted in Comedies, Films by women, French Cinema | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Recent films from India and Japan

Posted by Roy Stafford on 1 July 2014

Some posts on films from India, Japan and China are now appearing on The Global Film Book Blog. I’ve added a feed from that blog in the left-hand sidebar on this blog. If you follow both blogs you will get an alert for everything posted. Recent posts on The Global Film Book blog include the Malayalam language film How Old Are You? (2014) and the Hindi ‘independent’ film That Girl in Yellow Boots (2010). Japanese films include Like Father, Like Son (2013) and The Wind Rises (2013) plus the Chinese film A Touch of Sin (2013).

Posted in East Asian Cinema, Indian Cinema | Leave a Comment »

Fatherland (UK-West Germany-France 1986)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 28 June 2014

Klaus in the machine shop where his stepfather works. The sign says "This machine does the work of 40 men". The added graffiti says "Bet it won't replace the Central Committee [of the Party]"

Klaus in the machine shop in East Berlin where his stepfather works. The sign says “This machine does the work of 40 men”. The added graffiti says “Bet it will never replace the Central Committee [of the Party]“

Fatherland was the only cinema feature by Ken Loach that I hadn’t seen so I was pleased to find the Region 2 DVD from Park Circus. This is an unusual film for several reasons and although it presents some problems I did enjoy watching it. It raises a range of interesting questions.

Loach found it extremely difficult to work in the UK in the 1980s, partly because of the lack of television commissions in a climate of Thatcherism and partly because the UK film industry hit bottom in terms of audiences and films produced. Fatherland was the last cinematic outing for Loach with Kestrel Films, the company he founded with Tony Garnett, and funding was forthcoming from the only source readily available in the 1980s – Channel 4. Even so the film needed to be a co-production with French and German partners. Although the European market had been a consideration for earlier Kestrel/Loach films (e.g. Black Jack), Fatherland was Loach’s first venture abroad in terms of production. Later he would make films in Spain, Nicaragua, the US, Ireland and Italy etc. Fatherland was a genuine international co-production and Loach shot partly in Germany with a German crew and UK department heads.

Outline

This is one of the relatively few Loach films not written by one of his three regular writers Jim Allen, Barry Hines and Paul Laverty. However, Trevor Griffiths had been on the Loach/Garnett radar for some time and by the mid-1980s he had become well-known as a playwright and a film and television writer – often of stories with a political setting. Fatherland refers quite literally to ‘my father’s country’ and also to the wider usage of ‘my homeland’, in this case Germany – in the guise of East Germany (the GDR). The central character is Klaus, a ‘protest singer’ (played by the real singer Gerulf Pannach, who had a similar biography and who provides some of the music – which I liked very much). He finds himself persona non grata in East Germany because of his songs and is effectively deported (given a ‘one-way visa’) to the West. There he finds himself caught up in a propaganda war and treated like a commodity by an American record company which offers him a lucrative contract in return for exploitation of an image as a ‘defector’. But his family circumstances are of more immediate concern. Before his departure his mother gives him the key to a safe deposit in West Berlin where some of his father’s papers have been stored. Klaus hasn’t seen his father, also a dissident musician, since 1953 when he left the GDR. Where is he and what has he been doing all this time? Klaus sets off to find him with a young Dutch-French woman who also seems to be searching for him and already has a lead.

Commentary

The first thing that I want to say is that the presentation of the film on the Park Circus DVD is very good and that Chris Menges’ cinematography is a thing of wonder. Menges worked with Loach intermittently over a long period between Kes (1969) and Route Irish (2010) and by my count is second only to Barry Ackroyd in terms of Loach collaborations as a cinematographer. He brings a certain kind of ‘romantic naturalism’ to Loach’s films, unlike the documentary style of Ackroyd (which I think is still the defining Loach ‘look’ for many audiences). Menges works here with the other long term Loach collaborators, Martin Johnson as ‘Art Director’ and Jonathan Morris as editor, offering us contrasting views of East and West Berlin and finally of a trip through East Anglia to Cambridge. Menges is also required to present some black and white ‘dream/nightmare material’ – representing Klaus’s disturbed state. I mention these aesthetic ‘tasks’ for cinematographer and art director because they have been picked out by John Hill, one of the film scholars most associated with studies of Loach’s films, as indicators of the problems in the film. Hill (1997) argues that the script pushed Loach towards the European art film and away from his familiar sense of using characters and locations he understood so well. Loach doesn’t speak German and much of the dialogue in the first section of the narrative is in that language. Similarly he had some difficulties working with the German crew. The ‘modernist’ devices such as the dreams, the use of intertitles for the three separate locations (political slogans in German) and the jumps in narrative time created through editing were part of Loach’s repertoire in the 1960s but again here they disrupt the transparency of realism/naturalism. Loach himself in Graham Fuller’s book of interviews (1998) argues that he ‘failed’ on the film and was unable to deliver what the script required. He refers to his own ‘observational style’ as inappropriate for the material.

. . . and with the American record label representative (played by Cristine Rose) in an apartment in West Berlin

. . . and with the American record label representative (played by Cristine Rose) in an apartment in West Berlin

I’m not going to disagree with John Hill and obviously I can’t argue with how Loach himself felt about the film, but I do want to suggest another approach. Hill uses the Bordwell and Thompson definition of art cinema but doesn’t refer to any specific films. I was struck by similarities with various German films both closer to the period of Fatherland‘s production and more recent. Such comparisons also suggest the generic concerns of German (and other European and American) films. For instance, there is a mix here of two familiar narrative themes. Klaus faces similar questions as a dissident in the East who moves to the West as do some of the characters in Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise, 1995) and Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012). Once in the West the search for the father takes on a familiar thriller mode and given the real sense of being ‘watched’ ties together Klaus’s fear of the Stasi in East Germany and the conspiracy thrillers of US and and UK filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s. Hill argues that Loach is not able to develop his usual approach to characters and locations and that he ‘resorts’ to shooting Cambridge as a tourist destination. I think that this misses the point. Cambridge is the appropriate location for these genres – it is home to exiles, fenland villages are the preferred ‘hiding places’ for certain kinds of exile and East Anglia in the 1980s ‘fits’ the conspiracy thriller because of the American air bases still in use and relatively close in Mildenhall and Lakenheath. In addition, I don’t think Loach treats Cambridge as a tourist destination. Apart from one shot down a main street, the main location is the open-air market where Klaus and the journalist/investigator Emma go to buy second-hand clothes.

The main problem with the narrative is that the two stories don’t really mesh and that Loach’s discomfort with Griffiths’s script is evident in the seeming lack of confidence with which Loach handles the narrative and the actors. Or at least that is what I get from Loach’s own comments. He tells Fuller that his own observational style didn’t fit with Griffiths’ more literary script – he just couldn’t do it justice. The action needed to be more plot-driven whereas he was more used to allowing actors to find the ‘natural’ way to act out the scene. Loach implies that it wasn’t that he and Griffiths had a disagreement, rather that their approaches were simply different. Loach also admits that at this point he simply wasn’t “competent at filmmaking” (Fuller 1998: 60) – the difficulties he faced in getting work transmitted/screened were presumably having an effect on his confidence.

Political discourse

Whether or not we accept Loach’s comments at face value, the script and the completed film still offer some interesting ideas about politics in the mid-1980s. Klaus is a hero for the anti-Stalinist socialist. His dissent in East Germany is voiced against the regime, not against socialism and it does not imply any compromise with ‘social democracy’ in the West. The press conference at which Klaus is introduced to Western journalists is shown twice – once in the title credit sequence and then again in the chronology of Klaus’ journey to the UK. Klaus refuses to say he is happy in the West and then insults the West German Minister for Culture when the politician trots out the “I disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it . . .” line. Klaus says that he sees West Germany as a continuation of the ‘fascistic state’ under the Nazis. I enjoyed this sequence very much – it’s so refreshing to see someone not prepared to kow-tow to convention and to maintain a thought-out political position. The exchange reminded me of the time around the late 1970s/early 1980s that teachers in the UK were asked to support their fellow trade unionists in West Germany who were faced with the Berufsverbot – a ‘professional ban’ on political activists from appointment to various public sector jobs, including teaching. These responses are matched later when Klaus under pressure to sign a recording contract, does so only after crossing out the majority of its clauses. It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that the three slogans which introduce each location are: ‘Actually existing socialism’ (Ost Berlin), ‘Grosse Freheitstrasse’ (Great Freedom Street – West Berlin) and ‘Stalinism is not socialism, capitalism is not freedom’ (on the train to the ferry in Holland).

Klaus and Emma (Fabienne Babe) in disguise in a 'stakeout' of a post office in Cambridge.

Klaus and Emma (Fabienne Babe) in disguise in a ‘stakeout’ of a post office in Cambridge.

The link between Klaus’ experiences of the FDR (West Germany) and his ‘quest’ in travelling to Cambridge is his father’s letters and the other materials in the safe deposit box. These refer back to his father’s journey to to fight in Spain in 1936 as a German communist – but what then put him in back in Germany under Hitler and then exiled him to the US before his final exile in the UK? At this point the thriller/conspiracy narrative takes over. (Ironically of course, Loach would return to related questions about socialists fighting in Spain in (Land and Freedom, 1995). When I think about it, the two plot points in the car journey to Cambridge do seem rather heavy-handed in showing the UK to be just as repressive as West Germany (which was probably ‘true’ in 1986). What is odd, perhaps, is that a socialist like Klaus would come to the UK with a young woman he didn’t really know (i.e. in regards to her politics) without seeking to find some British socialist contacts who might help him in his quest. This for me is the ‘disjuncture’ with Loach’s British films rather than the aesthetic differences noted by John Hill. Dialogue with Brits at this point might help the political discourse to cohere. The introduction of Emma also tends to hint at a possible emotional involvement that I’m not sure the script knows how to handle (or perhaps it was intended to but got cut?). Klaus is concerned about his son but his divorced wife has re-married. Personal emotions are part of the political but we don’t really see this with Klaus.

Fatherland is certainly flawed, but its problems are interesting and now I feel that I need to re-watch Riff-Raff (1991), usually seen as the ‘comeback’ or ‘re-launch film for Loach  and to consider it alongside Fatherland and Hidden Agenda to appreciate the changes.

References

Graham Fuller (ed) (1998) Loach on Loach, London: faber & faber

John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in FatherlandHidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Trowbridge: Flicks Books

Posted in British Cinema, German Cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Three Clear Sundays (UK 1965)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 27 June 2014

The closing sequence of the play with Danny about to be executed (from Sixteen Films)

The closing sequence of the play with Danny about to be executed (from Sixteen Films)

In 1965 Ken Loach began working on ‘The Wednesday Play’ for BBC Television. These feature-length films, initially shot on video in studios but gradually moving into 16mm film production, attracted audiences of over 10 million. Many of them dealt directly with contemporary social issues, often creating headlines in the press the following day. Three Clear Sundays is a drama about capital punishment – the title refers to the statutory period between sentence and execution in which an appeal for a reprieve could be made. This was a live debate in the UK at the time – the death penalty for capital murder (death by hanging) was commuted to life imprisonment later in the same year, 1965. The last executions had actually taken place in 1964.

The script was written by an ex-con James O’Connor. It tells the story of Danny Lee (Tony Selby) a London street trader (‘barrow boy’) who is sentenced to 6 months in Pentonville for punching a police officer (who had provoked him). Danny is illiterate and not very bright. He is the only ‘straight’ member of a criminal family headed by Brittie (Rita Webb) and he has ignored her 11th commandment “Thou shalt never plead guilty”. In prison he is easily led and eventually finds himself involved in a scheme which requires him to cosh a prison officer. He hits the man too hard and discovers that killing a prison officer is one of six capital murder offences.

Over the course of 1965 BBC production teams experimented further with the mix of film and video and Ken Loach emerged as one of the prominent figures in the development of ‘documentary dramas’ utilising film footage. How much of this actually came from Ken himself and how much from his collaborators is not clear. In April 1965 he was working with producer James MacTaggart and story editor Roger Smith. Three Clear Sundays has three ‘filmed’ sequences depicting the barrow boys in the market, Brittie outside the Old Bailey and outside the prison gates. These are relatively static scenes – like the studio sequences. A prison-based drama doesn’t give many opportunities to show the city environment. The key aesthetic decision perhaps concerns the use of music, an important feature of two later Loach plays in the same year (and of Loach’s work over his whole career). Danny’s story is told from different perspectives (e.g. his mother and his girlfriend) and each ‘chapter’ is introduced by a song. All the lyrics are written by Nemone Lethbridge and set to some familiar folk tunes. Loach uses a technique in this play which involves presenting characters speaking but with the songs are dubbed over the speech. I wonder if this was related in any way to Godard’s deliberate mismatching of sound and image in his early 1960s films? (In the Graham Fuller interviews (1998) Loach says that he rarely saw British or American films as a teenager, being more interested in theatre and once at university saw mainly European films.)

Not surprisingly perhaps, the Lee family are portrayed as  ‘cockney characters’ and the girlfriend Rosa is Irish. The Irish connection might come from O’Connor the writer. Rosa and Danny are both Roman Catholic. There is also a West Indian character in prison and others in the street scenes. There is a palpable sense of trying to ‘root’ the drama in a recognisable London, but aesthetically it isn’t quite there yet. The social commentary is certainly there with references to both racism and homophobia in the script. Overall the play now appears ‘rough and ready’ and seems best categorised as still ‘experimental’. The closing scenes in the condemned man’s cell are very moving and the social chatter of the hangman and his assistant is quite startling. Years before Pulp Fiction, their chatter about the techniques of the job (where to place a knot in the noose etc.) alongside sleeping arrangements and tales about the Nuremburg trials in 1945-6 are effective in making executions ‘real’. Loach would later be accused of being didactic but Three Clear Sundays works well because Danny is clearly ‘guilty’ but in no way ‘deserves to die’ –the story may well be ‘loaded’ in this sense but the presentation is ‘straight’. There is no evidence that the play greatly influenced audiences (public opinion in the UK seems to have been unchanged throughout the 1960s) but it must have had an impact. Unfortunately, none of Loach’s interviewers seemed to have asked him about this play (please comment if you know of any other interviews).

Presumably Loach and the cast and crew had little time to make these plays. Loach directed six such plays of 75-80 mins each all of which appeared in 1965. Three Clear Sundays is the earliest example of Loach’s work available on the DVD boxset ‘Ken Loach at the BBC’. I’ll try to comment on other titles in the set over the next few weeks.

Reference

Fuller, Graham (ed) (1998) Loach on Loach, London: faber & faber

Posted in British Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Yves Saint Laurent (France 2014)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 21 June 2014

Pierre Bergé  (Guillaume Gallienne) and Yves Saint Laurent (Pierre Niney) in the dressing room for a fashion show.

Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne) and Yves Saint Laurent (Pierre Niney) in the dressing room for a fashion show.

It’s time in the UK for the annual rush of French films onto our screens but first there is Yves Saint Laurent which has been around for two or three months in various locations and appears in Bradford next week. I should confess from the outset that I’m not interested in fashion, brand names or celebrities so you might wonder why I went to see a film about a celebrity fashion designer back in March. There are two reasons. First I’m interested in biopics as a form and second, this was the only non-Hollywood film showing in the town I was in.

Yves Saint Laurent is a handsomely-mounted film presented in 2.35:1. I didn’t recognise any of the names of actors or creatives in the titles but I did note that the two lead actors were each given the prestigious appendage of ‘de la Comédie-Française’. Only later did I note that the names of the director (Jalil Lespert), composer and others in the crew suggested a North African link and the film does indeed begin in Algeria in 1958 when Yves is 21 (and already a young star of the fashion industry) and the War of Independence in Algeria is putting pressure on the French colonial families. With this starting point amidst a colonial war, the brilliance of the young Yves and his gay sexuality there is a mix of elements waiting to be exploited in a biopic. What follows does not unfortunately create the drama we might expect.

The triumph of the film is also perhaps its biggest weakness. The clothes are presented reverentially in sumptuous settings and anyone interested in fashion, costumes and set design will have a field day. Again, if you have knowledge of the fashion industry you will enjoy coming across well-known names and how they are involved in the workings of the industry. I do understand that ‘YSL’ is an important figure in the history of fashion. The problem is that with the narrative constructed around the next challenge to present a show more challenging/radical/daring etc. than the one before, the fashion events themselves become increasingly sterile presentations of clothes. Given the characters involved the possibilities for human drama are certainly there and the two lead actors (Pierre Niney as Yves and Guillaume Gallient as his partner Pierre Bergé) certainly could deliver the performances, but my feeling was that the writers were too reverential in their presentation of Yves Saint Laurent himself. As it is we get some familiar stories about the pressures on celebrities and the ways in which they respond. The more sensitive early references to Yves’ sexuality and vulnerability give way to more familiar scenes of degradation with booze and drugs. I began to lose interest and was then shocked to realise that the film just suddenly seemed to end with Yves in his 40s. Since he lived a further thirty years (at a time when his designer brand presumably grew in importance in the fashion industry) I felt like something was missing. I think perhaps I was looking for something similar to the biopic of Serge Gainsbourg.

The most surprising aspect of the film is perhaps its large budget (€12 million) and its popularity in France (box office of $13 million) and the rest of Europe (another $5 million). Clearly there is a big audience for this kind of ‘official’ and safe extravaganza (Saint Laurent’s friends and family seem to have supported the film). It also consolidates the niche genre of the ‘designer biopic’. Following two films focusing on periods of the life of Coco Chanel, we now have this and a second film (‘unofficial’ and scheduled for an October release in France) focusing on Yves Saint Laurent. Enjoy the frocks but don’t expect too much else.

Posted in Biopic, French Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

 
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