State of the Union (UK 2019)

Tom (Chris O’Dowd) and Louise (Rosamund Pike)

State of the Union is what now appears to be called ‘short form narrative TV’ and as such it represents, alongside the resurgence of ‘long form TV drama’ (aka serial narratives), the new TV world of VOD. Ten episodes of approx. ten minutes each tell the story of Tom and Louise, a middle-class couple in London with two sons and a wobbly marriage. The episodes are broadcast one per week but all ten were made available on BBC iPlayer immediately and many viewers watched several or all episodes at once.

I think this is probably what some might call ‘Marmite TV’ – audiences might love or hate the programme because of the specific metropolitan middle-class setting. (For non-UK readers, ‘Marmite’ is a yeast-based salty spread, enjoyed by some and loathed by others.) This kind of response is understandable but State of the Union is certainly a high-class product. The script is by Nick Hornby, the successful novelist who has now become one of the most successful UK-based screenwriters in international cinema. The director is Stephen Frears who is arguably the most successful British director of his generation over a long career in TV and film, both in the UK and in Hollywood. The two stars are Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd, both again internationally successful TV and film stars. The 100 minute narrative could perhaps have become a cinema film except for the restrictions of the format and it is this observation that interests me.

Tom and Louise have decided to see a marriage guidance counsellor once a week to try to sort out their difficulties. They meet at lunchtime in a quiet pub where they nurse a pint of bitter for him and a glass of white wine for her. We experience 10 minutes of their chat before they visit the counsellor who lives opposite the pub. The camera rarely moves out of the pub. For most of the time it is just two people talking, joshing and scoring points off each other. How does Frears keep us interested in the talk, apart from relying on his two brilliant actors? The cinematography by Mike Eley is inventive, finding new angles and compositions. Mostly ‘over the shoulder shots’ or shot-reverse-shot, I was intrigued by some of the unbalanced compositions and I almost cheered when the couple found their usual table occupied and had to resort to a sofa, requiring a completely different camera set-up.

The sofa forces a new composition

One of the few scenes outside the pub

The other noticeable feature is the impact of costume design. Louise wears a different outfit for each meeting. She works in the NHS and generally she wears sensible tops and a long loose skirt. It’s summer so she doesn’t need a top coat. When on one occasion she wears a version of the classic ‘litle black dress’ we know something has happened. Tom is a freelance writer and we aren’t surprised to see him wearing more or less the same clothes each time (or perhaps we simply don’t notice what he wears?). When he too changes his appearance more dramatically it makes a real impact. Like Mike Eley, Irish costume designer Consolata Boyle is a long-term collaborator with a host of British (and Irish) film and TV directors. It’s interesting too that the pub setting is open and airy rather than expressionistic. No booths, dark corners and none of the classic features of a gothic West End boozer – nothing to distract us from the two characters and their conversation.

Janet Amsden as the woman in the older couple who have an appointment with the same counsellor

I’m not saying anything about the content of the chat apart from that there are a couple of surreal exchanges. Chris O’Dowd is a past master at this kind of thing as seen in the classic sit-com the IT Crowd. Rosamund Pike gives as good as she gets and sometimes is very funny. Working slightly against her screen persona she also delivers some earthy lines about their married sex life.

If this kind of production brings Stephen Frears back into TV (where he made several excellent TV movies in the 1970s/80s, notably the breakout international hit My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985), I’m all for the new format. I note that State of the Union has already been shown in the US and has won ‘Primetime Emmys’ for the two leads. However, I wonder if future productions will attract such a starry combination of cast and crew?

Bait (UK 2019)

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It’s grim in Cornwall

It’s heartening that writer-director-editor Mark Jenkin’s Bait is doing decent business at the UK box office. A low budget, black and white film about Cornish fisherman could easily get swamped by the flotsam from mainstream distributors. What Bait has is a USP (unique selling point) as its ‘low-fi’ Bolex camera approach offers difference to jaded palettes; manna for the bourgeoisie. It is also an excellent film.

One moan first: the film is scored with scratches as if it was an old classic on 16mm that has been in distribution, and maltreated, for decades. These look as if they have been digitally added as they appear in patterns not associated with conventional print blemishes. Apparently these were caused, no doubt intentionally, by the unusual processing materials (including coffee and washing soda) Jenkin used. In my eyes it appeared he was trying to age the look of the print and so enhance the analogue ‘authenticity’ of his monochrome cinematography. In other words, it was an unwanted distraction; unless he was trying to be Brechtian? The obvious post-synching of the sound also supports ‘estrangement’ from the film.

Jenkin has written a Dogme95 style manifesto, ‘Silent Landscape Dancing Grain 13’, which ironically appears to be only available on Facebook (which I won’t use). Here is a screenshot from:

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Fortunately he hasn’t followed Dogme95 with his approach to composition, and one of the pleasures of the film is the beautiful mise en scene. Unusually there are a number of sequences of montage-editing; another anti-realist technique with Brechtian associations. Overall it struck me as a brilliant debut where the director stretches every sinew to make the film interesting; sometimes he over-reaches himself but there’s no danger of blandness.

I’m not sure what the ‘bait’ of the title is (Ian Mantgani says, “The double-meaning of the title – literal fishing bait and the colloquialism meaning something flagrantly shady”) but the film focuses on the economical difficulties of the traditional fishing industry in Cornwall. Absent landlords arrive at the start to rent out cottages to tourists who want ‘peace and quiet’ whilst the protagonist, Martin (superbly played by comedian Edward Rowe), obstinately sticks to the ‘old ways. His daily routine is shown in realist detail but he also talks to what appears to be the ghost of his dad putting an expressionist mix into the narrative; this is daring and successful. The use of sound is also occasionally anti-realist, for example, objects fall with more weight than they contain, reverberating with their significance rather than simply being caused by molecules of air.

In his Sight & Sound review (September) Jonathan Romney interestingly suggests the film’s form can be compared to comic-book frames and the obviously post-synched dialogue to speech balloons. The framing does use sudden extreme close-ups which is certainly comic-book like. In addition, in some sequences the frames almost appear to be shuffled as inter-cutting between scenes (in the same and different spaces) is very rapid indeed.

There’s no reason why Jenkin’s ‘hand-made’ approach shouldn’t work with other subject matter but, clearly, he was well at home with the difficulties of Cornish fishermen. It’s a fascinating debut.

The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol, Czechoslovakia 1969)

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The wordless woman gives an arthouse texture to the film

The Cremator probably lies on the edges of the Czech New Wave as co-writer and director, Juraj Herz (he co-wrote the film with Ladislav Fuks on whose novel it was based), didn’t attend FAMU (the national film school that nurtured many of the wave’s talent) but entered film through the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU) alongside animator Jan Švankmajer. Whilst The Cremator sports the brilliant monochrome cinematography, by Stanislav Milota, associated with the ‘wave’, the style is more arthouse. This is particularly evident in the editing: rapidly cut montage sequences occur throughout including at the start. Here the protagonist and cremator, Kopfrkingl (superbly played as a slimeball by Rudolf Hrusínský), revisits the zoo where he started his relationship with his wife. Extreme close-ups use graphic matches to link humans to the animals; for example, the creases on Kopfrkingl’s forehead are juxtaposed with a snake. Other arthouse tropes, include the woman who wordlessly appears throughout the film; possibly a figment of Kopfrkingl’s imagination.

I can’t think of a film that uses dialogue so insistently that it appears to be a monologue. Kopfrkingl is constantly talking, justifying himself to friends and family as he seeks to expand the business of burning corpses. So although all his speech is diegetic (within the narrative world) it seems as if it is narrative voiceover. The effect is to expressionistically place us within Kopfrkingl’s consciousness and this is not a good place to be.

The film is set during the late ’30s as the Nazis consolidated their power in eastern Europe and Kopfrkingl’s bourgeois businessmen slowly sways toward supporting the fascists. As befits a person whose business is death, he does so with malign vigour. Hence the film slowly metamorphoses into horror.

It is also extremely sexually explicit for its time. The fascists treat themselves to a ‘club’ (brothel) were all the prostitutes are blonde; one is seen with her head bobbing in the lap of a male character. I’m surprised the censors in post-’68 Prague let the film through on this basis alone, ignoring political implications. I suppose the critique of the bourgeoisie as fascists was something to be celebrated and the arthouse aesthetic probably confused the bureaucrats.

There’s a touch of Švankmajer too with waxworks being embodied by humans in a circus sideshow. The uncanniness of this is as creepy as Kopfrkingl’s descent into madness. I saw the film on another excellent Second Run release though the extra of the Quay Brothers explaining their love of the film added little.

A Hill in Korea (UK 1956)

In most respects a conventional ‘war combat’ film featuring a unit attempting to fend off overwhelming enemy forces, A Hill in Korea does have some interesting features. It’s a Wessex Films production and as in the much earlier Once a Jolly Swagman, Ian Dalrymple’s production carries a couple of reminders of his documentary roots. The film begins and ends with a ‘voice of authority’ voiceover explaining that this unit went out on patrol at a certain time and that there were ‘ten national servicemen’ among the 16 men in the unit. The story is set during the retreat of UN forces in late 1950 as the Chinese advance.

British films about the war in Korea are hard to find and the action is largely represented on screen by Hollywood. The British contribution to the UN Command forces was part of a ‘Commonwealth  Division’ with Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Indian personnel. In numerical terms, the Commonwealth forces comprised only a fraction of the total UN forces compared to the dominant American contribution. ‘National Service’ was introduced  in the UK in 1949 and lasted until 1960 with young men required to serve  for two years by the time of Korea. Later British films featured the independence struggles in the British colonies of Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus as well as the débacle of Suez, in each of which national servicemen saw action. In A Hill in Korea, there are various taunts and squabbles between the national servicemen and the ‘regulars’.

The unit finds what appears to be an abandoned village. The two men in the foreground are infantry privates played by Robert Shaw (left) and Percy Herbert

Although there are two prolonged action sequences, two hills to be defended in fact, much of the interest in this relatively short film is now in the casting, which serves as a commentary on how the British film industry was developing. The biggest contemporary name has the smallest part with Michael Caine seemingly having one line in one of his earliest credited appearances. The unit is commanded by George Baker as a young Lieutenant who may actually be a national serviceman – it was possible to be commissioned on entry. Certainly he has never seen combat before, unlike the ‘regulars’ Harry Andrews as the Sergeant and Stanley Baker as the hard-bitten corporal. The rest of the cast are also mainly familiar names, known through theatre and TV as well as film in the 1950s. Victor Maddern and Percy Herbert would become well-known character actors while future Hollywood stars Robert Shaw and Stephen Boyd have a few lines each. Ronald Lewis, an actor who is not well-known now, has a fairly prominent role as a more middle-class serviceman who plays the one member of the unit who breaks down psychologically – and is not supported by his fellow squaddies.

One aspect of the film that grated with me was the use of the term ‘Chinks’ to refer to the Chinese troops. Every character uses this term and the most loquacious refers to ‘yellow men’. The enemy troops are never seen in close-up but only as tiny figures running towards the British positions. I’m assuming this racist terminology was meant to be ‘realistic’ in terms of how soldiers referred to the enemy in 1950 when the film was set. There is a South Korean soldier attached to the unit and he is played by an English actor, Charles Laurence with heavy make-up. I think it must have been a budget issue that meant that this film didn’t attempt to represent Chines and Korean culture in any ‘authentic’ way. Hollywood, with bigger budgets and more access to Korean  actors and extras does at least give a veneer of authenticity, even if the locations used are in California. According to one review I read, this British film was shot in Portugal with American jet fighters purchased for the Portuguese Air Force. These were possibly Lockheed T-33 training aircraft, a variant of the Shooting Star fighter-bombers used by the Americans in Korea.

Sgt Payne (Harry Andrews, left) and Lt. Butler (George Baker) in the bombed temple

A Hill in Korea was directed by Julian Aymes. He was a TV director who only made two cinema features but worked extensively on ‘TV films’ and series from the early 1950s to the late 1980s. The great director-cinematographer Freddie Francis made his debut as DoP on the film shooting in B&W. IMDb lists the aspect ratio as Academy and certainly that was the ratio used on the print shown on Talking Pictures TV. It’s late to still be using Academy and some of the shots did seem possibly cropped to me. Does anyone have more information? Malcolm Arnold is credited with the music score. The film was released outside the UK (including in the US) as Hell in Korea.

A lot of viewers must come to the film hoping to see the Michael Caine performance, but as I’ve indicated, he has a very small role. Caine himself was one of those national servicemen aged 19 sent out to Korea and it’s worth listening to an extract from his recent radio broadcast of his autobiography about his time as a soldier in Korea. It’s on YouTube as ‘The Korean War and Michael Caine’. It sounds like the real experience wasn’t too different from the film. Searching for images, I discovered that Robert Shaw seems to have been the actor that most attracted the stills photographer on set. A Hill in Korea isn’t an action spectacular but as a gritty drama about a bunch of squaddies fighting against overwhelming odds it’s definitely worth a watch.