Train of Events (UK 1949)

Railways are featured in several Ealing films, but in the case of Train of Events the studio went the whole hog and and approached the newly formed London Midland region of British Railways to provide access to the engine sheds and mainline trains working out of Euston station. The resulting production is a good example of a film that misses several targets and has generally left critics cold, but for anybody interested in railways or representations of aspects of life in London in 1949 it offers a range of pleasures. This is one of Ealing’s ‘portmanteau’ or anthology/compendium films. The best known of these is Dead of Night (1945), which like The Halfway House (1944), goes for individual stories told because of a meeting of different groups of people around whom the segments of the narrative are organised. Each of these films has a slightly different narrative structure and a different feel in terms of genre. Train of Events deals with four separate stories which eventually converge on the 3.45 pm Liverpool express from London Euston. What happens to the train is revealed immediately after the credits and the four stories are told in flashback before a final sequence in the present.

Miles Malleson as the clerk issuing job sheets at the engine shed

There are three directors, four writers and two cinematographers involved and the large cast required the round-up of actors from other Rank partners as well as early roles for actors who would become well-known in the 1950s, such as Peter Finch, John Gregson, Anthony Quayle and Leslie Phillips. There are a host of familiar players who will have you scrambling for reference books. The first story, directed by Sidney Cole, focuses on the railway itself and the family of a senior locoman played by Jack Warner. Gladys Henson and Susan Shaw are his wife and daughter. Warner and Shaw were well-known to audiences at the time as key members of the Huggett Family films made by Gainsborough. In 1950, Warner and Henson were reunited in the police procedural, The Blue Lamp. This railway story offers us access to the engine shed at Camden and the streets around Somers Town, the district just to the North of the three mainline railway stations of Euston, St. Pancras and King’s Cross. The few minutes of documentary footage promise a fascinating story that isn’t really followed through completely. Cole was the least experienced of the three directors but the very experienced actors and camera crews carry the story segment. It’s the only time in my viewing experience that I’ve had the same thrill of a railway drama that could match Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine (France 1938), if only for a few moments. Currently, there are hundreds of historical railway films on YouTube, many made by the railway companies or British Transport films, but few of them with the professional crews of a studio like Ealing. Having said that, I don’t think Ealing’s crew members were very aware of which locos they were filming and how to ensure they had enough coverage of the loco on the 3.45 express. Still, 1949 was particularly interesting for transport historians as the railways had just been formally nationalised in 1948. Some of the locomotives on shed have the new numbering system and livery, others are still identifiable as London Midland and Scottish Railway engines.

Valerie Hobson and John Clements in ‘The Composer’ story

The narrative structure means that the stories are not presented separately and instead there is some cutting between stories that takes us to different parts of London and includes some more documentary-style location shooting. It’s good to see trams crossing Westminster Bridge and buses around the West End. One story is set partly in the BBC television studio at Alexandra Palace and partly in Covent Garden. It features a conductor/composer (John Clements) and his music: a piece about one man and two women which in turn points to a comic drama about the two women in his life, his wife (Valeria Hobson) and the prima donna pianist (Irina Baronova). John Gregson plays a priggish young man interviewed in the studio about the ‘immoral music composition’. Directed by Charles Crichton, this is the weakest of the four stories for me. In parts it felt like it was borrowing from The Archers’ The Red Shoes (1948) but without the sure-footedness of Powell and Pressburger.

Patric Doonan as the railwayman boyfriend to Susan Shaw (with her back to the camera)

The other two stories are the responsibility of Basil Dearden. One is a different kind of arts/theatre story in which a young actor (Peter Finch) is rehearsing a part in the West End in a play about to go on tour. He is disturbed by the sudden appearance of his estranged wife who he hasn’t seen for some time. This story includes some night time street footage which is distinctly noirish. The fourth story involves a young woman who has fallen for a German POW who has possibly eluded the authorities for whatever reasons (repatriation or settlement of POWs was not completed until late 1948). Either way, the couple are on the run and the Liverpool train offers the chance of access to a boat leaving the UK. Both these stories have real possibilities and offer real drama rooted in the London of the time. They reminded me of Dearden’s 1947 film Frieda, one of my favourite Ealing pictures. One of the main problems with Train of Events is the shifting tone between the four stories with two stories including comedy and the other two tragedy. I think the problem lies with Michael Balcon as the studio head. It would have been better for me if the railway worker’s family story had had more bite, perhaps along the lines of It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) which as well as some noir railway footage includes both Warner and Shaw in its cast. I would have left out the ‘composer’ story altogether and developed each of the other stories. I would also have avoided the underlying message of the film which seems to suggest that the outcome of each story is based on the ‘moral behaviour’ of the central characters.

Fallen Angel (US 1945)

Guillermo del Toro picked out Fallen Angel as one of the films that he and his partner Kim Gordon studied while they were working on the script for his new film Nightmare Alley. He suggested that at least one scene in his new film used a similar set to one used in Fallen Angel. Critics now consider consider Fallen Angel to be a film noir but it has generally been regarded as somehow inferior to director Otto Preminger’s earlier Laura (1944), also featuring Dana Andrews in a lead role. Fallen Angel does seem to me to be a more interesting film than Laura for a couple of reasons. As del Toro suggests, it’s grittier – and about ‘ordinary people’. It is also definitely noirish in tone, considering the use of sets and locations and Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography. But perhaps the central noir element is the pairing of Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell and the discourses created by the script.

First, however, we have to consider the casting of Alice Faye. Ms Faye became a major star in the 1930s after chorus girl work as a teenager. She developed a singing career winning starring roles in musicals at 20th Century Fox. But after her second pregnancy kept her away from the studio for longer than expected she decided to reduce the number of films she made (Fox had exploited her immense popularity by placing her in films that made money simply from her presence). In 1945 therefore, still only 30, she accepted a dramatic role in Fallen Angel, hoping to steer her career in a different direction. She didn’t get on well with studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and she was angry when Zanuck cut some of her scenes and switched the emphasis in the narrative to Linda Darnell. I didn’t recognise Alice Faye at first and it wasn’t until the second half that I realised she was the lead. I was indeed more interested in Linda Darnell. This probably doesn’t mean much now, but in 1945-6 audiences would have been surprised and probably disappointed that Alice Faye is not more prominent in the film.

Stanton outside Pop’s Bar with Stella and ‘Pop’ (Percy Kilbride) inside. This still is used as the cover image of ‘The Movie Book of Film Noir’ (1992)

The film depends a great deal on the performance by Dana Andrews and on the presentation of June Mills (Alice Faye) as a woman who is sexually repressed and dominated by her older sister Clara (Anne Revere). The film opens with a drifter, Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) arriving in a small coastal town after being thrown off the San Francisco bus when his ticket expired. Stanton has little more than his small suitcase, a suit and hat and his ready wit. In Pop’s Bar he comes across Stella (Linda Darnell) behind the counter and ‘retired’ police officer Mark Judd (Charles Bickford) propping up the bar. We gradually realise that Stanton is a con-artist and he quickly discovers that a medium (played by John Carradine) is due to visit the town and relay messages from the dead. Stanton is soon inviting himself to drum up the crowds for a commission fee. In doing so he comes across the Mills sisters as Clara is actively trying to stop the medium’s performance from taking place. It soon becomes apparent that Stanton wants Stella because she is a beautiful woman and desperate to leave the small town. Marrying a smart guy is her preferred ticket out. But Stanton, though interested, discovers that June could also be persuaded to ‘live a little’ and that she has money. Could he find a way to get June’s money and then leave town with Stella?

Stanton and Stella . . .

Dana Andrews is an interesting star performer whose deep, low voice and manner tend to suggest someone trustworthy and this film appeared between his two celebrated performances in Laura and the phenomenally successful The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) from William Wyler. Audiences are invited to determine whether Stanton is a charming con-man or a dangerous killer and there are scenes which support either view. There are also moments when I found myself almost convinced by his stories. I note that he appeared in five films for Preminger, but my introduction to his work was the two films he made for Fritz Lang, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both in 1956). Del Toro says that what fascinates him about Andrews is the way the actor seems to present himself as bottled up with emotion. What we think about Stanton here depends mainly on how he behaves with Stella and June. Linda Darnell is one of far too many attractive young women (and she was very young, only 15, when she signed a contract at 20th Century Fox in 1939) who struggled to get established in Hollywood. Any acting talent was often ignored by producers focusing on her beauty. Until recently the only role of hers that had stayed in my mind was as Chihuahua in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), but recently I watched her excellent performance in Joe Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950). In Fallen Angel the question might be whether she is the angel or whether Stanton is a Satanic figure – the title is later referenced in a line of (possibly fictitious) poetry. Stella, despite the allusions in her name, seems not to be seeking stardom but rather the conventional dream of marriage and comforts at home with city life as a diversion.

. . . and Stanton with June

For me the the plausibility of the narrative depends on Faye’s performance as June. Can she convince us that she is a talented woman (Stanton’s first real contact with her is when he finds her playing the organ in a church) who could fall for a man like Stanton so suddenly and in the face of her sister’s doubts? Or perhaps her sister’s dominant behaviour pushes June towards a form of rebellion? Here it is worth noting that the novel which Preminger and screenwriter Harry Kleiner adapted as Fallen Angel was written by ‘Marty Holland’. This name turns out to have been a pseudonym for a young woman working as a typist at Paramount. Her script was bought by Fox for $40,000. She had just one more credit, for The File on Thelma Jordon (1949) starring Barbara Stanwyck. Fallen Angel doesn’t feel like a script adapted from the ‘hard-boiled’ writers who were the source for several well-known films noirs and I’m imagining that the female audience in 1945 might well have found June a believable character. It’s worth noting here that the film’s time setting doesn’t indicate the end of the war and it could be more like a 1930s narrative.

Stanton and June with Judd and Clara

I’ve not outlined the key events of the second half of the story. All I’ll say is that there is violence, but most of it off-screen. Overall the narrative worked for me but I can see why some audiences might be disappointed. I’m not sure the ending lives up to the noirish tone of some of the earlier scenes. I think I enjoyed the performances most of all. The music is by David Raskin and it features a song, ‘Slowly’ played several times in Pop’s bar by Stella. Ironically, Alice Faye recorded the song and it was to be used in the film but Zanuck decided to use the Dick Haymes version in the final cut. No wonder Faye left Fox in high dudgeon! The film is widely available on streamers but try not to miss the opening titles which are presented in typical Preminger style as illuminated road signs seen through the windscreen of the bus carrying Stanton. I’m glad I watched this film and I think I’ll watch some more of del Toro’s selection of noirs and ‘near noirs‘ before seeing Nightmare Alley.

Here’s a clip from Fallen Angel featuring Stella and Stanton:

Crazy Rich Asians (US 2018)

Crazy Rich Asians was broadcast on BBC1 late night before Christmas. I think it would have been interesting for it to be on Christmas Day. I missed the film in UK cinemas by accident so I welcomed the chance to watch a release that performed well at the UK box office. What I saw was an accomplished romantic comedy set amongst the super-rich Chinese community of Singapore and Malaysia (many of the locations that purport to be in Singapore are actually in Malaysia). The film is conventional in terms of Hollywood genre titles but also has elements of ‘local’ culture that could help it to appeal to both the Chinese-American and the broader Chinese diasporic audience. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Kevin Kwan, a Singapore-born American author. Having said that, I can see that the film could be seen as offensive to some audiences – especially the other ‘Asians’ who are not rich and not Chinese. Box Office Mojo figures suggest that the film’s main audience was in North America (whereas most Hollywood films now sell the majority of their tickets in the ‘international’ marketplace). It appears to have had only a restricted release in China but has performed well in Australia, the UK and Indonesia as the biggest markets outside North America.

It’s possible to outline the plot without spoiling the story. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a young woman in New York, is invited to a wedding in Singapore at which her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Goldingwill be best man for his old schoolfriend. Rachel is unaware that her boyfriend is heir to a massive fortune with interests across South East Asia. She also doesn’t realise that the news of her relationship with Nick is already spreading through social media networks and causing some concern in Nick’s family in Singapore. Rachel is an Economics professor and a single parent child from a relatively poor background. Fortunately she has Peik Lin (Awkwafina), a college friend now based in Singapore, to act as support so she will not be completely defenceless when she meets Nick’s formidable mother and grandma as well as his wealthy friends.

Meeting your prospective mother-in-law for the first time is always stressful, especially when she is as talented and formidable as Eleanour Young (Michelle Yeoh, left)

The ingredients of the romcom are laid out before us with the added element of the difference in ‘family values’ between the Singapore-Chinese and the ‘Chinese-American’ families. The film’s casting is interesting in that three of the principals are played by actors educated in the UK, two of whom have British nationality. In a sense this adds some authenticity to the casting while at the same time creating links between British colonial backgrounds and traditional Chinese families as opposed to the ‘freedom/modernity’ tag associated with the Chinese-American characters. This is most evident in the confrontations between Nick’s mother, played by Michelle Yeoh, and Rachel. Michelle Yeoh was born in Ipoh in Malaysia and developed her career as an action star in Hong Kong cinema after training in the UK, initially as a ballet dancer. She has been arguably the most versatile and successful global star of the Chinese diaspora with major roles in Hollywood films as well as ‘international’ productions. Nick’s older sister Astrid is played by Gemma Chan. The rising British-Chinese star was born in the UK to parents who had both lived in Hong Kong before settling in the UK. Henry Golding as Nick is perhaps the most controversial casting – and, I understand, it was actually a late decision. Golding has a British father but he was born in Sarawak and though he was educated in the UK, he returned to Malaysia when he was 21 and began his career in Kuala Lumpur. The issue for some audiences appears to be his Malay heritage (actually the indigenous people of Borneo) and that he is not Chinese. This in turn refers to one of the criticisms of the film overall which is that the focus on the super-rich Chinese in Singapore means the exclusion of the other two main communities in Singapore, the Malay and the Indian.

The magnificent Michelle Yeoh plays mahjong with Rachel. Who will win the game?

Singapore is an interesting setting for this film for several reasons. It is now one of the wealthiest countries in the world having developed its full potential as an entrepôt – a trading and distribution centre – and then diversifying to cover finance, oil refining and electronics as important industrial sectors. It also has a history of ‘strong’ government that has attempted to mould a disciplined and meritocratic society. This has produced high standards of education but also great economic wealth disparity. Two other distinctive features of Singapore are the division between the roughly 60% ‘resident’ population and the remainder of ‘guest workers’. But against this, Singapore is a country that recognises its different communities by making its four main languages equally important in public services. I can’t think of anywhere else where the public transit system routinely presents information in four languages – English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Crazy Rich Asians is an ‘entertainment’ and the film doesn’t have to explore all the social issues that run through the lives of ordinary Singapore families. On the other hand, a romcom that is built around social class differences and national ideologies about family values does need to be a little careful, I think.

Rachel in the car with Peik Lin on the way to the Young mansion with the Indian security guards

The film’s aim is clearly to emphasise glamour and to this end the different locations used range from the tourist region of Langkawi, the island group in North-West Malaysia, through Penang and Kuala Lumpur to Singapore itself. This is of course a traditional Hollywood ploy. When big budget romcoms are made in the UK, they focus on the tourist parts of London and then other hotspts such as the Lake District, Scottish highlands, Bath, Oxford/Cambridge etc. The same is true of major Bollywood productions that set their narratives in London and attractive tourist centres. The Bollywood connection is in fact something I would like to follow up. This Asian American romcom is similar in several ways to those films which explore the Indian diasporas and the clashes over changing family values. I was reminded of Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice (UK-US-India 2004) and Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (India-US-UK 2001) as films by diasporic directors plus countless mainstream Hindi films. But I wonder if any of these Indian narratives stumbled like Crazy Rich Asians in representing other cultures? I’m referring here to the scene in which Rachel and Peik Lin travel to the Young mansion for the first time (Rachel is not staying with Nick). They find the massive house and extensive gardens in the middle of a wooded area along a private road which the satnav is unaware of (the house is actually in North Malaysia). It’s dark and at the gates of the mansion they are met by two Indian security officers. Awkwafina’s reaction (IMDb suggests that she improvised much of her dialogue) is to freak out at the sight of a dark-skinned man, even to the extent of raising her hands and saying “we come in peace”. She also makes a reference to the area as ‘jungle’. The guards themselves say nothing though their body language is a little strange. I’m not sure if they are meant to be Sikhs (Sikhs have traditionally been over-represented in the Indian armed forces) but they are turnbanned, bearded, dressed in a military type uniform and carrying what look like ancient .303 rifles with fixed bayonets, just as if they have stepped out of a 1950s adventure film.

Astrid (Gemma Chen) with her husband Michael (Pierre Png)

The film does attempt to represent Singapore culture via a sequence set in a food court with different types of street food and at one point Rachel plays mahjong on a street that looked familiar to me in terms of architecture but then I realised the scene was shot in Penang, Malaysia. In a sense none of this ‘inauthenticity’ matters but I find it irritating mainly because the narrative could have been ‘smaller’ and more realist. I realise that that is not the point of romcoms and so I accept the film for what it is and reserve my disappointment. I thought all the principals were very good in their roles and particularly Constance Wu as Rachel who puts across her character as an intelligent and attractive young woman without being over-glamourised – and she can stand up to Michelle Yeoh in full spate of motherly control. Accents in the film are important and I noted that the Japanese-born Sonoya Mizuno has an impeccable British accent, as did some of the Singaporean actors. The Brits are the bad guys again in a Hollywood film but Nick and Rachel make a winning pair and I had a tear in my eye at the end of the film. I must also give a shout out to Gemma Chan and the sub-plot that she leads which illustrates the different kinds of problems the Young family wealth creates for Nick’s sister.

I understand that perhaps not all of the original novel was used in the film so there may be more to come. The film made a heap of money and that might trigger further films. Crazy Rich Asians is on iPlayer for a further 10 days. It’s a fun picture to brighten up a January day.

It Must Be Heaven (France-Germany-Canada-Turkey-Qatar-Palestine 2019)

Elia Suleiman as ‘ES’, always centre frame

Elia Suleiman’s fourth fiction feature in 23 years (he has also made a documentary and a handful of shorts) is perhaps his most beautiful and most perfectly formed yet. It won a prize at Cannes in 2019 and finally reached the UK in Summer 2021. The film works on two levels. On the surface it is a deadpan, absurdist silent movie which follows Suleiman himself (‘ES’) as the central character, a filmmaker who travels from Nazareth to Paris and to New York/Montreal. But this ‘comedy’ is underpinned by a sometimes obvious, but often disguised, critique of not just the Israeli occupation of Palestine but also the ways in which Palestine’s situation is viewed in Europe and North America. There is also a ‘third dimension’ in which the kinds of oppression felt in Palestine are also spreading in other cultures but are not always understood in the same way. Suleiman himself offers us this explanation:

If my previous films tried to present Palestine as a microcosm of the world; my new film It Must Be Heaven tries to show the world as if it were a microcosm of Palestine. (from the film’s Press Pack.)

This statement perhaps doesn’t make immediate sense, but it is worth pondering and thinking through as the incidents during Suleiman’s journey play out. I suspect that different audiences will react differently towards what they see on screen. Some of these differences are evident in the (generally very positive) reviews of the film. However, a good example of what I mean is that some reviewers and scholars still persist in referring to Suleiman’s comedy as based on or similar to Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. I like Keaton very much and though I don’t know Tati’s films very well, I can understand to some extent why these references are used. But there are three problems here.

ES in Paris where the police are checking the café’s encroachment onto the pavement

The first is that Suleiman himself says that he has not been influenced by these two film artists and that if he has been influenced by other directors it is Ozu and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Second, Keaton and Tati have been seen as creating ‘universal’ characters understood through their mute responses to the trials and tribulations of the situations in which they find themselves. It is often their actions that trigger the chaos around them. Suleiman is quite different. He is a passive observer, he doesn’t get involved – the craziness is ‘out there’ and he just watches. In this film he speaks just once, to a taxi driver, and acts only to command a small bird to leave him alone when he is writing. Significantly, he breaks his rule of passivity on only one other occasion when he engages with a security official at the airport in a hilarious spoof of martial arts combat. I think this might be a reference back to one of his earlier films in which he pole-vaults over the security wall which divides Israel from the West Bank.

Elia Suleiman has an unusual history. He was born into a Palestinian Orthodox Christian family in Nazareth in 1960. He has always maintained his Palestinian identity. He lived in New York as a young man (1981-93) where he began his involvement in filmmaking. Later he set up a Film and Media course at Birzeit University in the West Bank as part of a European-funded project in 1994. His feature films from 1996 onwards have been funded from various international sources and usually co-ordinated through Paris where he has based himself for the last twenty years or so. It Must Be Heaven thus presents not a ‘voyage of discovery’ but rather a set of observations linking contemporary Nazareth with what Suleiman sees as the changing worlds of Paris and New York (I’m assuming some of the New York scenes were shot in Montreal for funding purposes). Anyone who has seen Suleiman’s earlier films will also note that he makes references back to his own films and his own history and to his collaborations with others.

ES waits in the foyer of a film production company with his friend Gael García Bernal

The character Suleiman plays in It Must Be Heaven is perhaps a version of himself, as a filmmaker travelling abroad and looking for funding. There is the suggestion that someone in his Nazareth family has died and this refers us back to his previous film The Time That Remains (2009) which engages with his family history from the time of the 1948 war which saw Nazareth ‘incorporated’ in the new state of Israel. Suleiman is an actor in several of his own films and also one of the guests in a fantasy sequence featuring in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako (Mali-France 2006). It’s no surprise then to find other directors and film industry figures popping up in Suleiman’s films. Vincent Maraval, the co-founder of Wild Bunch and a prolific producer ,appears as a film producer and Grégoire Colin, an actor associated strongly with Claire Denis, as a menacing man on the Metro, both appear in the Paris segment of It Must Be Heaven. In New York, Suleiman is greeted by the actor-director Gael García Bernal in the foyer of a film production office. This is an important scene partly because of Bernal’s dialogue (he refers to his friend the ‘Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’).

This is the POV of ES as he watches what happens to the girl with the angel wings

It Must Be Heaven has a very distinctive aesthetic. The cinematography by Sofian El Fani is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.66:1 according to IMDb. This is wider than even original CinemaScope (2.55:1). El Fani’s work on Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014) included some memorable compositions in ‘extreme long shots’. In It Must Be Heaven, there are many wide shots, though perhaps not so many extreme long shots. But many compositions are geometrically designed with Suleiman himself central in the image, i.e. either central in the frame or with a POV which is from a central position. Suleiman’s aim as stated in the Press Pack is to present:

. . . the moment in the margin, the trivial, or that which is usually out of focus. Consequently, it approaches what is intimate, tender and touching. It’s the personal and human stories that are based on identification which raise questions and raise hope.

A good example is the sequence in Paris which focuses on a square with an ornamental pool and fountain around which various people are enjoying sitting in the sunshine. Suleiman watches on as others arrive and try to find an empty seat, sometimes moving the chairs around. There are small acts of rudeness and meanness in this sequence, as well as less offensive struggles to find a chair. Any reading of the film has to try to connect together the different observations in Paris and New York with those in Nazareth. To give just one example, in Nazareth Suleiman watches as his neighbour steals/takes without permission lemons from Suleiman’s tree. This has obvious connotations about the daily small acts of theft by Israelis, supported by their government, which sees Arab houses in the West Bank demolished, especially currently in East Jerusalem, and eventually replaced by houses for Israelis. Suleiman is arguing that some similar kinds of issues to those in Palestine are beginning to be experienced by Parisians and New Yorkers. They are relatively benign at the moment but the connections are there. I should emphasise that Suleiman doesn’t speak during his observations but some are accompanied by an eclectic range of music tracks including a song by his partner Yasmine Hamdan and other Arab performers plus Leonard Cohen and Nina Simone (singing ‘I Put a Spell on You’ – the same song appeared in an earlier Suleiman film sung by Natacha Atlas). It Must Be Heaven is a film to watch, admire and re-watch. The trailer below offers glimpses of several of the extended sight gags, pointing to another issue – how Suleiman’s films are promoted to international audiences. The film is on several streaming services, including MUBI – which also offers 7 Days in Havana (Cuba-Spain-France 2012) including a segment by Suleiman which in some ways pre-figures It Must Be Heaven.

Highlights of home spectatorship in 2021

A proper Scottish landscape in Limbo?

It seems a good moment to reflect on this second year of my absence from cinemas and what I’ve managed to see online (or broadcast) during the year. Here’s my list of twelve films available in the UK for the first time either in cinemas or broadcast/catch-up/streaming during 2021. The titles are in no particular order and I’ve chosen them for all kinds of different reasons, some of which are noted below, but perhaps most importantly because they represent films from all parts of the globe. There is also a blog post on this site on each one:

Adolescentes (France 2019)

One of two documentaries on the list, I found this on the ‘My French Film Festival’ stream earlier this year. Directed by Sébastien Lifshitz, it belongs to the small group of films that try to trace the development of two young people over several years, in this case two girls from the ages of 13 to 18.

There Is No Evil (Iran-Germany-Czech Republic 2020)

I watched this film on the Borderlines Film Festival online stream and it has now had a UK cinema release. There is No Evil won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2020. It was written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, one of the film directors banned from filmmaking in Iran who has found ways to complete a film and show it to the world.

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (India 2020)

One of the major frustrations of the pandemic has been the impossibility to see recent Indian releases, so I’ve leapt on any opportunities to see independent Indian films in festivals. This unusual film by Pushpendra Singh was a highlight of the Borderlines festival.

Moving On (South Korea 2019)

I was slightly underwhelmed by the much-celebrated Korean-American film Minari in 2021 and this family melodrama by first time filmmaker writer-director Yoon Dan-bi was for me the film I had hoped Minari might be. This was one of the MUBI films of the year and further evidence of the strength of the output of young female filmmakers in South Korea.

First Cow (US 2019)

Another Borderlines FF offering, this was eventually released in cinemas by MUBI and then streamed. Kelly Reichardt can do no wrong for me. First Cow has many layers of commentary on American history and colonialism/racism.

Nadia, Butterfly (Canada 2020)

An unusual film in many ways, this ‘sports film’ doesn’t deliver a conventional narrative but offers us an intimate view of an Olympic swimmer, acted by a current Olympic swimmer and directed by Pascal Plante, a similarly accomplished ex-Canadian swimming team member. The film is strangely out of time because of COVID which meant that the Tokyo games were delayed until 2021. This title was on MUBI.

Undine in her formal dress in the museum

Undine (Germany-France 2020)

As with Kelly Reichardt, Christian Petzold is another director whose films never disappoint me and often inspire. This was on MUBI, complementing a retrospective of Petzold’s work and I also enjoyed the earlier Petzold films, The State I’m In (2000) and Jerichow (2008) in MUBI’s Petzold strand. Undine returns Petzold to Berlin and I was fascinated by a narrative that literally melds myth, fantasy and architecture.

Billy (Spain 2020)

Shown as part of the annual ¡Viva! film festival of Spanish and Latin-American films in Manchester, this short documentary by writer-director Max Lemcke reveals the story of a notorious Francoist police spy turned investigator and torturer during the 1960s and 1970s. It is remarkable how the history of the Franco dictatorship still needs to fully understood and how filmmakers are trying to help contemporary audiences to understand how the legacy of fascist policies still lingers.

Tove (Finland-Sweden 2020)

I didn’t know very much at all about the Moomins and their creator Tove Jansson before I watched this film (via the BFI Player online offer). Unlike many cinephiles, I’m not at all averse to biopics of various kinds, especially when it means learning about such a fascinating creative figure, marvellously portrayed by Alma Pöysti in Zaida Bergroth’s film.

Limbo (UK 2020)

This was a film I was looking forward to and I wasn’t disappointed. Given the xenophobia towards asylum seekers in England it was wonderful to find a Scottish film with such an intelligent take on contemporary refugee stories. Director Ben Sharrock seems to be a ‘global Scot’ in terms of his vision. His film has won several prizes around the world and deserves more I think. I’ll be looking out for his next one. Again this was viewed on MUBI.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Japan 2021)

It has been a good year for Japanese cinema online, aided by the decision of the Japanese Foundation UK film tour to move online. It is scheduled to return to cinemas in 2022, but I hope it considers putting some titles online as it is difficult to see all the films spread across a range of venues. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is one of two films released by writer-director Hamaguchi Ryûsuke in 2021. It’s the other one, Drive My Car, that has won more prizes. I wonder if that is partly because that film is an adaptation of a Murakami story? Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy was screened by the London Film Festival online and offers three short narratives in a two hour film (short for Hamaguchi). I thought this was a masterclass in writing and directing.

Azor (Switzerland-France-Argentina 2021)

This was one of the few films I saw in 2021 close to the time of its cinema release thanks to MUBI. I was amazed to find that the Swiss director Andreas Fortuna was a début feature filmmaker and that he was making a film in a country he did know but not as a native. He made the film in Spanish and seemed to have such impressive control in a story about politics and finance during the military dictatorship in Argentina.

My main source of new/recent films has been MUBI. I suspect I might make more use of BFI Player as well in future. Otherwise I am dependent on online festivals and I fear that there may not be so many in 2002, despite the fact that the pandemic is still not under control in the UK. There are a host of interesting-looking film titles from major directors in 2022. I hope I get to see some of them, probably online as I hope that some of the festivals do maintain their online screening plans. The one bonus of the forced move to streaming is that it has actually made film festivals more accessible and arguably widened the horizons of audiences who can’t attend big city festivals, either because of the cost or the difficulties of travel. Whatever happens, let’s hope film flourishes in all its forms in the year to come.

Being the Ricardos (US 2021)

Being the Ricardos is an ‘Amazon Original Movie’. It did get into some UK cinemas on December 21st, I think, but mainly it has been available to Amazon Prime subscribers. Since I was more or less ‘forced’ into a free month of Prime membership, that’s how I got to watch it. I’m glad I got the opportunity because I thoroughly enjoyed the film. However, that has not been a universal reaction and it’s worth exploring why. First, I think the title is not very informative or inviting for audiences who don’t already know what the story is about. As someone who started watching TV in the 1950s, even I had forgotten that ‘The Ricardos’ were the family in the I Love Lucy TV series. Second, I suspect that some audiences, including some high-profile reviewers, have been taken in by assumptions that this is a ‘biopic’ and a ‘comedy’ and have found the film disappointing. I’d argue that it is only a ‘partial biopic’ (so many important aspects of the two central characters’ lives are not presented) and that the film is ‘about comedy on TV’ and not necessarily meant to induce laughs – though it made me smile on many occasions.

Lucy (Nicole Kidman) and Desi (Javier Bardem) in the meeting room for their weekly production planning

I think I’d argue that the film is primarily a hybrid of a ‘TV production procedural’, a romance melodrama and a show business drama. In other words, it’s a complex and ambitious production. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, I assumed that it would be something like The West Wing and in a way it is. It is also a long film at 133 minutes and when I first heard about the production I assumed that it would be a TV mini-series. (It is, however, presented in a CinemaScope ratio that is more suitable for a big screen.)

Outline plot

In the late 1940s Lucille Ball, a Hollywood contract player whose career had never really established her A List status at RKO or MGM, was finding some success with a radio show My Favourite Husband for CBS. This prompted CBS to suggest a TV sitcom roughly based on the show. Lucy agreed but insisted that her real-life husband Desi Arnaz be cast as her TV husband and the family name became Ricardo. The couple formed Desilu productions and the show first aired in 1951. Lucy and Desi had been married since 1940 when they met on a Hollywood musical. Lucy was the lead in Too Many Girls with Desi as a supporting player. He also had a career as a musician and bandleader and the marriage was difficult as the two partners were often working in separate locations. Desi was often on tour and part of Lucy’s plan for the TV series was to keep Desi closer in a bid to stop his philandering.

Lucille Ball (the tallest woman in the group on the set of Dorothy Arzner’s Dance Girl Dance in 1940. Photo from ‘Bizarre Los Angeles‘.

The 1940s back story does appear in a series of flashbacks in Being the Ricardos, but the film’s narrative is set around the production schedule for one week in the second season during 1952. On the Monday the team are faced with possible disaster as a story about Lucy’s links to the US Communist Party in the 1930s threatens to break. (This is during the height of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings). A second issue also arises as Lucy is pregnant with the couple’s second child – something which for several reasons could be a problem for the show. These two issues sit alongside the long-running issues on any TV show such as squabbles between the stars and the writers and amongst the principal cast members as well as issues with the show’s sponsor Philip Morris cigarettes. Everything must be resolved by the time the show is recorded before a live audience on Friday for broadcast the following Monday.

Commentary

Lucy is played by Nicole Kidman and Desi by Javier Bardem. Both actors are older (more than 10 years older) than the ‘real’ Lucy and Desi and there are physical differences too. But both are very fine actors and they both worked for me. Kidman in particular seems able to suggest Lucy’s energy as a dancer and comedian. On reflection, though I always like Bardem, it might have given the part more ‘umph’ if a younger actor had been cast. Desi Arnaz was only 35 in 1952. He seems to have had a great deal of authority and a quick brain and in that respect, Bardem does represent him well.

Alia Shawkat (left) as the writer Madelyn Pugh, Nicole Kidman and Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance

Though the film clearly hinges on the relationship between Lucy and Desi, the other five important characters do give the film the feel of an ensemble piece. J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda play the actors William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who are the landlords and friends of Lucy and Desi on the show. Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy play the two writers and Tony Hale plays the producer. These three roles are also played by three older actors in ‘flashforwards’ when they appear as ‘talking heads’ witnesses in a documentary biopic about the show. In effect, we have many interactions across three different time periods which could get a little confusing for audiences. Almost the entire narrative takes place in the TV studio apart from the 1940s flashbacks and the later interviews.

The studio set of the Ricardos bedroom for the original series. Photo from ‘Bizarre Los Angeles

For UK audiences two aspects of US TV history are also important. First is the production process: there were three different ways of shooting, editing and distributing TV shows. Shows could be shot live for instantaneous transmission, shows could be recorded on film, edited and distributed on film or they could be shot on video which was then recorded from the TV monitor using a Kinescope device (introduced by Kodak in 1947). This last option was necessary in the US because of the significant time differences across the country. A live broadcast in New York would often be too early for broadcast in Los Angeles. The downside was that Kinescope recordings were much lower quality even than the relatively poor broadcast TV image. Shooting on film gave the best quality but was the most expensive. Desilu opted to shoot on film using 35mm (rather than 16mm which was the UK standard) but to use three cameras in the same way live TV worked rather than single camera set-ups. Finally they brought a live studio audience into the shoot and by building two or more sets could record ‘live’ but then edit. This was the most expensive option but it preserved the live ‘feel’ that had worked so well on Lucy’s radio shows and in theatres on tour with Desi. The added bonus was that the high quality recordings could be re-broadcast. Some years later this led to ‘syndication’ – re-runs on smaller TV channels and export overseas. But the most immediate benefit was that the programmes were recorded in the studio Desilu acquired in LA and Desi and Lucy didn’t have to travel to New York. Seeing this process in operation was one of the high points of Being the Ricardos for me. The missing historical figure in the film is Karl Freund, the legendary director/cinematographer, one of the Central European emigrés who revolutionised Hollywood production from the early 1930s. Freund supervised the use of three film cameras, lighting them carefully to match scenes for consistent tones.

Karl Freund with Desi Arnaz in 1952

The second major issue for UK audiences is the role of the sponsor of the show. This was a feature of early US TV that carried over from radio. ‘Sponsorship’ allowed a major advertiser to control the show, inserting brands and product placement into the show and crucially proscribing some forms of representation. The word ‘pregnancy’ was a potential problem. In the UK sponsorship arrived much later in the 1990s and only allowed the sponsor to advertise in the breaks in commercial broadcasts, even when it had paid for the sponsorship association. In the US advertisers in the 1950s got their brands into the show’s title, e.g. ‘Kraft Theatre’ or ‘The Philco Television Playhouse’. Desilu became a powerful TV production company before finally selling up to Paramount in 1968 by which time Lucy had divorced Desi and bought out his stake in the company.

Nicole Kidman as Lucy performs for a live studio audience in the CBS radio studio during one of the flashback scenes

The whole film worked for me and I was interested in the internal disputes about this particular episode and the insight into the history of Lucille Ball’s work in Hollywood (and in particular her developing expertise in comedy playing for TV). I’m still not quite sure about the ways in which Desi Arnaz ‘solved’ the problems for the show’s production caused by the anti-communist investigations and the announcement of Lucy’s pregnancy, but they do suggest he was a brilliant producer. A full biopic of Lucille Ball would be an interesting prospect for me and Being the Ricardos has whetted my appetite. I’d also like to know more about Desi Arnaz. The one bizarre moment in the script is when Desi, explaining why he left Cuba, makes a reference to the ‘Bolsheviks’ who attacked his father and the family business. This was in 1933 when Desi was 16. It was the beginning of the military dictatorship following the ‘Sergeants Revolt’ led by Fulgencio Batista, certainly not a communist, who became the leader later ousted by the socialist revolution of 1959. This must be confusing/misleading for audiences who don’t know the history. But rest assured, most of what we see on the screen is based on the actual events in the development of I Love Lucy and the careers of Lucy and Desi. Here’s the Amazon trailer.