Little Women (US 2019)

The sisters by the sea (from left, Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, Saoirse  Ronan as Jo and Eliza Scanlen as Beth)

Little Women, adapted from the novel and directed by Greta Gerwig, is a clever mainstream family entertainment (classified ‘U’ in the UK). It’s a mainstream studio movie for Gerwig who has been mainly associated with American Independent Cinema up to this point. It is very enjoyable to watch but also makes statements in line with current ideas about feminism and in particular the difficulties women have faced in becoming media producers and artists. The film has been a deserved success. The local single screen cinema I attended in a small market town was busy for a Thursday afternoon matinee in its third week of release and I understand that in Hebden Bridge, the cinema advised audiences that they may have to queue for admission and they should arrive early. Releasing at Christmas was a good move – some scenes in the snow and the colourful outfits of the March girls reminded me of another film with Christmas connections, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). The success is richly deserved and there are many reviews out there so I’ll just make a few observations that might be less widely circulated.

One of several beautifully composed long shots

First up is casting. Everyone is very good in their role but I’m intrigued that none of the March ‘girls’/women (the narrative deals with several years and previous films sometimes used two actors for some of the parts) are actually American. Saoirse Ronan as Jo was, I think born in New York, but grew up in Ireland from the age of 3. Emma Watson as Meg, was born in Paris, but grew up in England. Florence Pugh as Amy is English and Eiza Scanlen as Beth is Australian. In addition James Norton whose character marries Meg is also English (and currently playing Stephen Ward in the BBC serial on Christine Keeler). I don’t have a problem with this but I’m surprised as previous film versions have usually cast American actors. I’m wondering if there was a conscious decision to think of non-American English speakers because they might be more suited to a 19th century East Coast narrative? Of course, many American actors have played British characters, including Emma Stone who was at one point going to play Meg. Ms Stone played an 18th century English woman in The Favourite. But I want to link the casting to two other selections of ‘creative personnel’ for the film, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux and composer Alexandre Desplat, both French, though with experience on American films.

Another beautiful long shot of landscape. I’m showing these because the film’s promo shots focus only on the characters and part of the pleasure of heritage films is settings on a big screen

The ‘literary adaptation’, especially of 19th century novels, is a British ‘thing’ for good or ill. For a period they were known in the UK as ‘heritage films’, a generic category that is equally popular in France. My feeling is that the British and French ‘heritage films’ look and feel different, though I confess I’m not sure exactly what the differences might be. I am inclined to say that Little Women ‘sounds’ British and looks French – but the actions are American?. Partly this is because I was riveted by some of the camerawork which at different times made me think of various European painting styles. I was particularly taken by long shots of the Laurence house in Concord and the beach scenes which presumably are meant to be the New England coast but could for me have been Europe. Allied to this, I was easily accepting of the Paris scenes as being shot in Paris when they were actually in the US. Gerwig (or Columbia) also cast French actor-director Louis Garrel as ‘the Professor’.

Laura Dern and Meryl Streep with Florence Pugh

Finally re the casting, I didn’t recognise Chris Cooper at all as Mr Laurence, but I thought him very good. Laura Dern and Meryl Streep are also effective as Marmee and Aunt March. Saoirse Ronan plays the lead and she has great screen presence and charisma, but in some ways Florence Pugh steals the film and I did feel sorry for Emma Watson as Meg, though it is the part rather than the performance that means she makes less impact than Pugh’s Amy.

The major innovation in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is the restructuring of the narrative, so that flashbacks reveal to us how the March daughters were, back in 1861, and how they are ‘now’ in 1867. Cuts are often made ‘seamlessly’ on similar movements by the same character. This has been much heralded by critics but I found it disconcerting at first. I like to think I am a reasonably skilled reader, but I had to ‘work’ to follow the narrative and reassemble the plot as we went along. Eventually I found myself in tune with the flashbacks but I wonder how many audiences were either confused or just allowed the overall narrative flow to take them along? Perhaps most audiences, especially in North America, know the story so well that they could follow events with no problem at all? The major innovation in the film appears to be to ‘play’ with the scenes detailing how the sisters are influenced or not in terms of the need to marry ‘well’ – i.e. to rich men. I haven’t read the novel but Gerwig’s script seems to shift the discourse around the marriage ‘deal’ to make it a more complex issue about the possibility for women to control their own creativity – and to get properly recompensed for their output. Jo achieves this by writing about herself and her family and getting the full royalties. Amy marries into money but only once she has worked out the economics of life as a female fine artist.

I’m not part of the target audience for this film and I note that there are female commentators who don’t like the film. Hadley Freeman posted a negative personal take in her Guardian column. I found her argument confusing but along with the many comments on her piece she does articulate some of the concerns about Hollywood’s practice of re-making literary adaptations of the same canonical novels. The video essay below by ‘Be Kind Rewind’ is quite long (25 mins) but highly recommended. It takes you through the 1933, 1949 and 1994 film versions and suggests the ways in which the current version is different. It’s both scholarly and engaging – a neat trick. What comes over most of all is that each version is appropriate for its time. I don’t know who is behind this video but she is very good (and she has other similar essays on her YouTube Channel that are well worth viewing).

Tony Garnett, 3 April 1936 – 12 January 2020

We have lost one of the major radical voices in British film and television. I more or less grew up on a diet of the trailblazing television dramas produced by Tony Garnett; most often with writer Jim Allen and director Ken Loach. Cathy Come Home (BBC 1966) was both an emotional and political clarion call. The Wednesday Play, dramas like Rank and File (1971) coincided for me with my political education into Marxism. And I was studying Labour History when I saw Days of Hope  ( 1975). Later there was a film like Kes and more impressive television work like Spongers (1978). Recently, in 2016, I had the pleasure of hearing Garnett live as he introduced his ‘Memoir – The Day the Music Died. A life behind the lens’. This a fine autobiography, interweaving the political and the personal with everything that is needed for an obituary..

Garnett was an intelligent, analytical and engaging writer and speaker. At the meeting we had a tribute to writer Barry Hines with whom Garnett worked. Garnett was passionate about working class culture, something that he and Jim Allen, Barry Hines and Ken Loach did so much to represent on the large and small screens. Garnett was also the most intelligent voice in the film Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach (2016), a work that really did not do justice to Loach’s radical films.

Jim Allen

This ‘Memoir’ details both Garnett’s personal life and his professional life as a producer on British television and in both British and Hollywood cinemas.

The early chapters record his family life in Birmingham in the 1930s and 1940s. It was then that the family tragedy represented by ‘the day the music died’ occurred – the trauma of his mother’s death after a back-street abortion, followed nineteen days later when Garnett’s grief-stricken father committed suicide and Tony was sent to live with other family members. This clearly marked Garnett throughout his life. However, the portrait of life in the urban Midlands in this period is finely described and makes for fascinating reading.

When Garnett moved on to London he initially worked as an actor, with limited success. In this period he also experienced a further tragedy. He met and married Topsy Jane. She gave a memorable and sensitive portrayal as Audrey, Colin’s (Tom Courtenay’s) girlfriend in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). She then had a nervous breakdown and suffered a severe mental illness from which she never really recovered. This tragedy too marked Garnett life.

Then, in the most significant move in his professional life, Garnet was invited by producer Sydney Newman to work on a new series of television dramas. This led to the famous partnership with Ken Loach and some of the most outstanding productions in British television history. These were watersheds in a number of ways. This was not just because of its quality and politics but because they became test cases for the conservative reaction against such work. The responses included the withholding a title from screening, BBC’s first use of a ‘’balancing’ programme and that bourgeois tribute, fulminations in a ‘Times’ editorial.

Garnett discusses some of the productions in some detail in the book;, including Cathy Come Home and his famous collaboration with Barry Hines and Ken Loach on Kes (1969) in individual chapters. He also pays tribute to the particular contribution they brought to these films along with Jim Allen. All of them would be termed left-wingers, though there are variations in their political stances.

Barry Hines

All were formed to some degree by the heightened activities and debates of the 1960s. In one fascinating chapter, ‘Protest and Confusion’, Garnett records his experiences in this area. These were centred round the influential (at that time) Workers’ Revolutionary Party with their leader Gerry Healey. Trevor Griffith, also involved in these activities at the time, has a witty portrait of these events in his play The Party (1988).

Garnett went on to produce further work for British television and for a period worked in Hollywood, though I find this the least successful output in his career. The best known title is Handgun (1983), a film that draws parallels between US gun  culture and sexual molestation. Garnett’s work on this film was re-edited by the production company, EMI. As Garnett acknowledged, the BBC, where he produced so much, became an inhospitable environment for his type of drama. Up until 2017 he ran World Productions where he produced Between the Lines (1992 – 1994).

The earlier years at the BBC, as was later the case with the young Channel Four, saw Garnett as a key protagonist in many memorable achievements. His memoir combines the story of these years with his own personal odyssey and he recounts this with a distinctive personal voice. I found the book fascinating and informative. It remains essential reading for people interested in the British media in the late twentieth century. So read the book whilst we wait for enterprising exhibitors to re–screen some of the classics.

The Day the Music Died, A Life behind the Lens – A Memoir, Tony Garnett, Constable 2016, 306 pages, (illustrations, no index). ISBN 978147212273S

Parts of this post are from a review in the Media Education Journal.

Savage (Les fauves, France 2018)

Laura (left, Rose-Lily Depp) and Anne (Aloïse Sauvage)

The online festival, ‘My French Film Festival’, is on offer again via Unifrance and various streaming platforms. You can sign up on this website. There are 12 features plus 19 short films on offer over a period of 28 days. In some territories the films are free to watch but in the UK I’m paying £7.14 for the features (the shorts are free). My first film is an 83 minute mystery film deemed suitable for any audience, though that is a French classification. It would probably be 12A in the UK.

Laura with the writer, Paul (Laurent Lafitte)

Les fauves begins with teenagers ‘making out’ in cars in a clearing when the sounds of a predatory animal growling are heard. The cars are all started up and they drive away. After the credits we find ourselves on a campsite somewhere by a river in the Dordogne. Laura and her cousin Anne are staking out a cabin on the campsite. When the family leave the cabin, the cousins break in and steal some cash which they spend in the camp’s café while flirting with two guys. Later we learn that there is a ‘rural myth’ that the campsite is threatened by a ‘big cat’, possibly a leopard, that the previous summer killed a man. These kinds of myths are quite common in the UK and I guess are likely to be even more familiar in France, a much bigger land mass with more remote regions. As a reviewer has pointed out there are also a couple of ‘big cat’ horror stories associated with the producer Val Lewton at RKO in the early 1940s. Cat People (1942) starring the French actor Simone Simon and The Leopard Man (1943) are actually quite different films but they both use the idea of a big cat prowling around people. Given the interest of French cinephilia in this kind of Hollywood ‘B’ picture material, it is possible that they have inspired a film like this. (But when I checked the Press Pack, the director’s comments revealed that he only thought of Cat People later on when he was shooting the film – and then he mentioned the Paul Schrader film.

The police officer (Camille Cottin). Note the scar beneath her eye.

Laura is a typical curious teenager. She determines to find out what is creating the fear in the campsite. Laura is played by Lily-Rose Depp, the daughter of Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp and as might be expected she is an attractive young woman when she smiles – but she spends much of her time with a sullen teenage scowl. Director Vincent Mariette and his co-writer Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq make Laura the central character by involving her in up to five separate ‘investigations’, four of which are directly concerned with the possibility of a predator in the forest. These will implicate her in the mystery of a young man who goes missing after Laura was the last person to see him one night. A female police officer questions Laura about her relationship with the young man and Laura’s cousin is still in touch with the young man’s friend. Laura also stalks a man on the site who she recognises as writer ‘Paul Baltimore’ and who might himself be investigating the possibility of a predator in the woods. She gets closer to Paul and she also engages with another young man, a worker at the site who takes his rifle to the woods, hoping to find and kill the ‘beast’. Finally someone is stealing Laura’s underwear. It’s probably Anne’s brother.

Paul and Laura explore the caves where the beast may be hiding. This is a region where pre-historic cave paintings like those at Lascaux show animal images

The film is a mere 83 minutes long and it could work as a ‘B’ picture – if cinemas still programmed double bills. But it needs more coherence as a narrative. It’s not a bad idea for a story but the script seems undeveloped and the narrative just seems to fizzle out. I’m assuming that the intention is to explore Laura’s ‘self-discovery’ and one of her investigations seems to make more of an emotional impact on her than the others. The director confirms this but he suggests a great deal of psychological motivation that didn’t make much sense to me – he also namedrops several other references that didn’t add much to my understanding of what he was trying to achieve. There is a tradition of films like this, arguably going back to Cat People and with a more modern cycle associated with Ginger Snaps (Canada 2000). But Les fauves (which I translate as ‘Wild Beasts’) doesn’t come close to the excitement of either of these earlier films. The cast features two established actors, Laurent Lafitte and Camille Cottin. I’m not sure what they expected from the script but they seem wasted on this material. I suspect that the film would have been more enjoyable if the setting had been used for a teen genre picture that followed a more conventional narrative.

This wasn’t a great start to my festival viewing in 2020 but I suspect that things will get better soon! Here’s the French trailer:

Tag (Riaru onigokko, Japan 2015)

Tag-1080x583

Sticking it to patriarchy

I’m very much a later-comer to the Sono Sion party who directed four other films in the year Tag came out; his total is over 50 features. He reminded me Miike Takashi, who now has over 100 films as director, in that he is prolific and multiplies ‘going overboard’ with ‘throwing in the kitchen sink’. I stumbled across the film on Prime and had zero idea what to expect so my eyeballs were well and truly shredded around five minutes into the film. Critical commentary on the film is favourable but as I watched it I had no idea whether I was watching something that was entirely exploitation horror or whether there was, as is often the case in this type of horror film, more to it. When I realised, about half way through, no male character had made an appearance so far I twigged that writer-director Sono was saying something.

The fact that most of the characters to that point had been Japanese school girls in short skirts and had included many knicker-shots suggested dubious (to be polite) character but it turned out that the film was making a point about gender. Having cake and eating it does spring to mind but to critique patriarchy does sometimes require it to be mimicked.

To avoid spoilers I won’t go into the details of exactly how Sono is critiquing male dominance as the film does manage to pull off, in the denouement, the pretty impressive trick of actually explaining the bonkers-ness of what we have seen before. The source material is Yamada Yusuke’s novel Real Onigokko (2001) but I suspect that this has only formed the narrative premise rather than the feminist perspective.

It’s not a film for those for whom gore is a turn-off, though it is strictly cartoonish rather than realistic hence its 15-certificate in the UK. I’ve tagged the film SF as the narrative explanation for the bizarre events qualifies for the genre rather than fantasy, which seems to be the usual category used in reviews.

I now have the challenge of catching up with the rest of Sono’s ouevre; come to think of it, I’m still in single figures for the number of Miike films I’ve seen. Of course, it is an impossible task to keep up with everything, especially as most of the rest-of-the-world cinema never gets distributed in the UK. By the way, the Japanese title apparently translates as ‘real tag’, the game when you’re ‘it’ until you touch someone; we used to call it ‘tick’.