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Argo (US 2012)

argo-poster-header 
Argo is based on declassified information about a little-known episode during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980. A group of Islamist students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took its staff hostage for 444 days. The Iranians wanted the terminally ill Shah returned for trial from the US where he had been given asylum. US diplomats were ill-prepared for the waves of popular rage that crashed over the embassy walls, and which led to all US nationals inside being taken hostage. However, on the day of the occupation, six members of the staff managed to slip out unnoticed and found shelter in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Argo tells the story of the CIA operation to smuggle these six diplomats out of Iran.

CIA ‘exfiltration’ expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan for the group to pose as members of a Canadian film unit scouting locations for a science fiction film to be shot in Iran. In order to make the scheme convincing, it’s necessary to select an actual script (hence “Argo”), assemble a Hollywood production team and promote the planned film to the trade press. They generate documentation, storyboards and sundry media paraphernalia to convince the Iranian authorities that all is as it seems. Mendez enters Iran, posing as the film’s producer, and has to lead the group in their escape.

The film works fairly well as a thriller. One effective method of ratcheting up the tension was to have Iranian kids employed to sift through the paperwork the CIA had shredded before the embassy fell to see if they could find anything useful. We see at various stages the jigsaw coming together so that by the time the diplomats are heading to the airport, the authorities have a photograph of one of them. (I recall a similar technique used in an earlier political thriller from the 1980s – I can’t recall the name of the film but it may or may not have starred Robert Redford and if anyone is familiar with it please put me out of my misery! – which showed the a photograph of the hero, who was in danger, gradually crystallising from the pixels on the computer screen).

In terms of the drama, it would have been better had the film ended as the plane was leaving Iranian airspace and we would have been spared the sentimental backstory of the FBI agent and the commentaries at the end with the originals the characters are based on bringing us up to date with the characters’ stories – a dubious kind of plea for authenticity. (As often is the case in such films, there is a caption, “Based on a true story”, a special pleading that I find annoying). But as a genre piece, a hybrid of thriller, heist and caper movie, I found it quite successful. The cloak-and-dagger operation mounted by the CIA does make for an exciting film.

Another generic strand (or tone) in the film is comedy. Mendez recruits two Hollywood veterans, the affable makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), designer of Mr Spock’s ears for Star Trek, and the grizzled old-school producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Their cynical humour (“You could teach a rhesus monkey to direct a film in a day,” Siegel states – a line which reminds me of Orson Welles’ daft statement about Citizen Kane that anyone could learn how to direct a film in a week) lightens the tension. Another such put-down of the Hollywood system occurs when Chambers asks Mendez when he first explains his plan. “You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in.” The conspirators take to greeting each other with the catch-phrase, based on the title, “Argofuckyourself”

And so I found that the film worked fairly effectively on these levels. However, what I found somewhat far more problematic was the film’s overall portrayal of the hostage crisis. It fails to convey the idea that the USA in general and the CIA in particular were hated by wide layers of the population and for good reason. The success of the Shah’s brutal dictatorial regime depended upon its support by Washington. Now It’s true that the film opens with a brief summary of Britain and America’s role in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Dr Mosaddeq whose policy was to nationalise the oil. We are also shown footage of the Shah in a TV interview denying knowledge of the torture carried out by Savak, his secret police. And a CIA operative tells Mendez that when they were evacuating the Shah, the plane struggled to take off, such was the volume of stolen gold the Shah had taken onto the plane.

These serve to provide a veneer of objectivity to the film but what dominates throughout the rest of the film is something quite different. While the film invites us to empathise with the CIA hero and the diplomats and laugh at Hollywood’s antics, it also urges us view Iranians as the enemy. What struck me in particular was how the Iranian characters are not individualised in the film: they are seen just as “the mob”. We hear none of the debates taking place between different factions (including the secular left) that were taking place throughout the hostage crisis. The Iranian characters lack any real subjectivity.  In a couple of key scenes where we see Iranians on screen, we are not given sub-titles. This first occurs in the market where Mendez takes the group to meet the Culture Ministry officials and they run into some local people who shout at them aggressively. We can probably guess what they’re on about but it would be useful to hear what they had to say. Another occasion was while the Americans were facing the final terrifying hurdle of  the airport guards. While their officer does not play the clown  à la Sacha Baron-Cohen like so many middle-eastern villains in Hollywood films, most of the little he has been given to say remains untranslated.

Coming out at a time when Israel is openly threatening to bomb Iran, and the American media have ramped up their campaign of fear-mongering, the film can’t help but seem to play into the hands of the most reactionary elements in the US ruling class. And given its box-office success, it has already had millions of viewers flocking to theatres to hear the story of how innocent Americans were victimized by the jihad-crazed Iranians and the CIA came in to save the day.

This despite the fact that Ben Affleck and, in particular, George Clooney, who initiated the project and is co-producer, have campaigned for liberal, even leftist causes. They supported radical historian Howard Zinn and before his death they campaigned to get a TV series adapted from his major work off the ground.  (In Affleck and Matt Damon’s script for Good Will Hunting, they have the arrogant young genius played by Damon sneer at his Boston psychiatrist for “surrounding yourself with all the wrong fuckin’ books. You wanna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll fuckin’ knock you on your ass”). Clooney and Affleck seem oblivious to the fact that the film, whether they like it or not, has become part of the effort by the most reactionary elements in the American ruling class to drag the US into a war with Iran.

Is Affleck so desperate for a box office hit and a return to his star status which has been frittered away over the years in mediocre work that he blinds himself to the possible political effects of the film? Or is there something about the culture of Hollywood that makes so many artists vulnerable to pressures and moods and social forces that they may only be partially aware of?

The extract below takes place near the end of the film as the American diplomats have to negotiate the hurdle of the airport guards:

Mary Queen of Scots (UK 2018)

Mary (Saoirse Ronan) with Darnley (Jack Lowden) centre and her brother Moray (James McCardle) on the right

This is the third female-led major release of early 2019 in the UK and for me it is the most interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed Colette but was underwhelmed by The Favourite (although I recognise the three outstanding performances by the female leads and Sandy Powell’s costumes). But Saoirse Ronan as Mary tops all the others. Margot Robbie is also very good and we are blessed with such an array of powerful female stars in contemporary cinema. At one point in Mary Queen of Scots, Ms Ronan managed to invoke both Deborah Kerr and Maureen O’Hara as an auburn-haired Scots-Irish woman and I can’t think of a better recommendation.

It may be because I have only the faintest remembrance of the Mary story from the history books of my childhood that I found this the most engaging of the three narratives about female figures in specific historical contexts. Perhaps right now it is because it speaks to my desperation in Brexit England and a strong feeling that I would rather be in Ireland or Scotland. Mary’s story is about both the Catholic-Protestant struggle in the British Isles and the ‘Auld Alliance’ between France and Scotland, two countries concerned by the nascent imperialist visions of England (though the French angle is dropped too early I think). All of this comes down to the confrontation between the cousins Mary and Elizabeth and the former’s belief that she has the prior claim to be queen in both Scotland and England. It is a story that has been told many times, sometimes by unlikely story-tellers. I’ve tried in the past to watch John Ford’s Mary of Scotland (1936) with Katharine Hepburn as Mary. Ford’s Irish Catholicism naturally backs Mary and by all accounts he was entranced by Hepburn who was well able to spar with him. I’d like to see that again now. There have since been many TV offerings of Mary’s story and at least three more feature films before the current release. In 1940 the biggest star in Nazi cinema, Zarah Leander, played Mary in a German film. In 1971 Vanessa Redgrave was Mary opposite Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth in Charles Jarrot’s film Mary, Queen of Scots and in 2013 Camille Rutherford appeared as Mary in a French-Swiss version of the story.

Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) and her lover Dudley (Joe Alwyn)

It’s not difficult to see the attraction of the story of an intelligent and passionate woman who finds herself Queen in such difficult circumstances- and sometimes makes unwise decisions. Mary attracts the more romantically-inclined narratives while Elizabeth has often become the focus for the stories of adventure and strength in building up English naval and mercantilist power (though famously also the romantic adventures of Elizabeth and Essex (US 1939)). The two Elizabeth films starring Cate Blanchett in 1998 and 2007 portray Elizabeth in terms of creating the myths of British power. The script for the new film by the American writer Beau Gallimon is based on John Guy’s prizewinning biography My Heart is My Own: the Life of Mary Queen of Scots published in 2004. Guy is a highly-respected historian but this was a book which attempted to dismantle the mythology surrounding Mary and it had its critics. I’m not sure how closely Gallimon sticks to Guy’s ideas, but the film has also been criticised. I’m sure that there are the usual condensings of characters and time-lines but at heart the film tries to stick to historical events apart from its fictional meeting between Elizabeth and Mary.

Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph, Ambassador to Scotland

I think there are several interesting elements in this production. I was struck by the use of landscape. Scotland and the North of England are characterised by sweeping long shots of mountains and glens through which Mary and her entourage travel. (See Scottish locations used here.) By contrast, Elizabeth is seen only in her palace in London. John Mathieson as cinematographer has long experience of productions like this, working on Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood for Ridley Scott among several other similar titles. Director Josie Rourke making her first film is a celebrated stage director and I was interested in the settings for Mary’s Holyrood court which seemed to me more intriguing than the stiffness and formality of Elizabeth’s English court. I suspect that Alexandra Byrne’s costumes also work to distinguish the two court settings. Again I felt drawn to the Scots locations rather than Elizabeth’s. The distinction also arises in relation to the question of casting. Several prominent Scots actors are depicted in Holyrood with Martin Compston as Bothwell, James McCardle as Moray, Jack Lowden as Darnley and David Tennant almost unrecognisable as John Knox. Researching this I discovered that the distinction carries through to the more controversial aspect of the casting. At last we have a British film with a significant number of BAME actors in a major historical drama. Some of these are prominent roles such as Adrian Lester as Elizabeth’s Ambassador to Scotland and Gemma Chan as one of her ladies-in-waiting. Others are in smaller roles and here I found the Scottish-Asian actor Kal Sabir. This approach has sadly produced an array of ‘outraged’ IMDb User Comments. Some of these are clearly racist but others suggest a lack of knowledge of British history. There have been ‘people of colour’ living in the UK since at least Roman times. But anyway it doesn’t really matter whether the casting is historically accurate. It’s no longer an issue for someone like Adrian Lester to play classical (e.g. Shakespearean) roles on stage so why should it matter on screen?

Gemma Chan stars as Bess of Hardwick
Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

But how has this film gone down in Scotland you might ask? I’m not sure, but checking out the reviews in The Scotsman and the Herald, I found the first lukewarm but the second complimentary and I came across at least one piece wondering why an Irish woman was playing Mary. More intriguing as I thumbed through several reviews was that most of the negative reviews came from men and most of the positive ones came from women. Has Josie Rourke managed to make a film in which women (not just a solitary woman) have significant roles in the history of the British Isles? I’d say yes. I’m hesitant in arguing that Rourke shows aspects of the two monarchs from a clearly female perspective, but it is certainly true that I thought quite a lot about what being a female monarch in the 16th century actually meant and how child-bearing and questions of fertility were so important in the legal/constitutional wrangles over claims to the thrones of England and Scotland during this period. I’ve been a fervent anti-monarchist for as long as I can remember, but thanks to Saoirse Ronan and Josie Rourke this production made me feel for Mary’s predicament.

Hard, Fast and Beautiful (US 1951)

Florence (Sally Forrest), Mrs Farley (Claire Trevor) and Fletcher Locke (Carleton G. Young)
Photo courtesy Everett Collection / Rex Features ( 794943a )

This was the fourth feature directed by Ida Lupino and produced by her husband Collier Young for their company The Filmakers. It has received far less attention than the first three and suffered more from a critical dismissal. I think there are two reasons for this. First, its subject matter is less sensational/socially conscious than the first three (which deal with unwanted pregnancy, polio and its effect on young lives and rape) and secondly it is adapted by Martha Wilkerson from a novel (or possibly a short story) by John R. Tunis. On the previous three pictures, Lupino and/or Young had been involved in the writing. My own feeling is that although the film has weaknesses it is overall a well-made film on a modest budget that has several good points and provides both an enjoyable entertainment and food for thought – partially provided by the original material by John R. Tunis.

The best way to describe this 77 minute picture is as a sports film and family melodrama hybrid. It tells the cautionary tale of a young female tennis star and her pushy mother played by Sally Forrest and Claire Trevor, the two stars in the cast. Forrest had played the lead in two of the earlier Lupino films, Not Wanted and Never Fear. Claire Trevor was just a few years older than Ida Lupino and had experienced something of a similar career. I remember her from Stagecoach (1939), Farewell My Lovely (1944) and Born to Kill (1946). She would have known Lupino at least through shared experiences of working with Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and other leading stars (e.g. on Key Largo (1948)).

Gordon (Robert Clarke) is torn between his love for Florence and his anger about the way she is being led astray by her mother and Locke

Sally Forrest is Florence Farley, an 18 year-old high school graduate practising tennis shots against the wall when she is spotted by Gordon (Robert Clarke, also in Outrage). He has a temporary job at the local country/sports club and invites her to play tennis there. Florence is seriously talented and before long is a local junior champion and over the next couple of years becomes a contender for National Women’s Champion at Forest Hills and then at Wimbledon. Her rise to tennis stardom is orchestrated by her mother (Claire Trevor) in cahoots with the oily Fletcher Locke (Carleton G. Young), an Eastern tennis agent. Both Gordon and Florence’s father Will (Kenneth Patterson, again, also in Outrage) are left struggling in Florence’s wake.

It is when Florence and her mother opt to travel to Europe with backing by Locke through his contacts with hotel chains and other ‘sponsors’ that Gordon, who has proposed to Florence, refuses to follow her. Instead he rails against the sponsorship which threatens her ‘amateur’ status. I was a little surprised by this (and an earlier similar scene on a smaller scale). I remember how tennis, like athletics and rugby always had the important professional v. amateur divide, but I do wonder how American amateurs could afford to travel to London, Paris and Melbourne without some form of sponsorship – presumably through their official federation? The reason why this is a strong element in the film’s plot goes back to John R. Tunis who was a fierce critic of professional sports and the way they were covered by the media. He usually wrote what would now be termed ‘Young Adult’ fiction (his publishers actually pushed him into writing for younger readers) with a strong moral undertow. Many of his books were about baseball and American football but his novel American Girl (1930) and short story Champion’s Choice (1940) were about tennis. By all accounts Tunis was a highly regarded and very well-known writer as well as tennis commentator. It’s unfortunate that the film’s short running time doesn’t allow Tunis’ ideas to be developed in a more organic way. At the end of the film when Florence has ‘repented’ to some extent, she gives an interview about fair play and being a role model to a journalist who is rolling her eyes in disbelief at the fiercely moral line that is being taken.

The sensational poster dreamed up by RKO’s marketing department

The short running time is a feature of The Filmmakers’ films. This was mainly because of limited funding, though in the best films it means a lean and supple narrative. Hard, Fast and Beautiful is one of the films funded and distributed by RKO. According to various sources, Howard Hughes offered The Filmakers around $200,000 per picture but did not interfere in the productions. However, this film certainly shows all the signs of a rushed ending and the narrative almost seems to collapse in the final scenes as Florence performs a volte-face and her mother is left to try to understand what has happened. The quandary for Lupino and Young as The Filmmakers is neatly summed up by the marketing campaign devised by RKO exemplified by the poster above. The imagery and the tagline both oversell and distort what the film has to offer – but on the other hand, RKO muscled the film into cinemas and attracted audiences. However, the film ultimately failed because it actually bears little resemblance to the poster’s suggestions. Hughes organised grand openings for the film in various cities – but The Filmakers picked up the expenses bill and this wiped out their share of any profits.  The Filmmakers’ films have also suffered from the label of ‘B picture’ attached to them by critics and general commentators. I suspect the tag comes mainly because of the short length and the relatively low-budget. But Hard, Fast and Beautiful is not a ‘B’ in conception or execution. Ida Lupino herself associated The Filmakers with the director-producers she named as ‘Independents’ including Stanley Kramer, Robert Rossen and Louis de Rochemont (see below). Using this term suggests a link between Ida Lupino and later ‘American Independents’ like John Sayles.

Florence speaks to her father (Kenneth Patterson)

The film is photographed by Archie Stout who shot Lupino’s first three pictures but is best known for his work with John Ford and edited by William Ziegler (known for work with Hitchcock). The music is by RKO’s film noir master composer Roy Webb and the two art directors, Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey were responsible for the sets on Out of the Past (1947) – in my view the best noir from the 1940s. This is a list of veteran talent that any ‘A’ film production would be lucky to attract. These were hard-bitten Hollywood pros, some of whom were happy to work with The Filmakers more than once because they admired Ida Lupino’s talent and desire to learn as a director.I think a lot of that industry knowledge is up there on the screen. The tennis matches, mostly filmed in California or at Forest Hills are very well put together. I’m no tennis expert, but Sally Forrest was convincing for me. There are many long shots of the courts with cuts to Forrest serving and returning and she certainly hits the ball ‘hard and fast’. Lupino was well-known for her use of location shooting and for her interest in both neo-realism (she met and admired Roberto Rossellini) and in the American form of ‘semi-documentary’ championed by Louis de Rochemont in which crime and ‘social problem’ pictures were shot on location. Lupino probably also followed the career of Mark Hellinger, the producer for whom she worked on They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941) and Moontide (1942). In the late 1940s he produced two New York-based films noirs with extensive location shooting, the Jules Dassin directed Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948).

But it is the melodrama which intrigues in Hard, Fast and Beautiful and Lupino must have known instinctively how to direct Forrest and Trevor, having played similar roles herself. In the scene above the mise en scène conveys so clearly the family conflict. Hollywood showed us so many twin beds in married couples’ bedrooms, but I’ve never seen them back to back like this. The divide is very clear and almost doesn’t need dialogue. The film’s script draws on the mother-daughter relationship seen in films like Mildred Pierce (1945) though the roles are reversed to some extent. Mildred has a much stronger story but on the other hand, Ida Lupino and Collier Young present a more realist feel for the situations faced by their characters. Claire Trevor is also a match for Crawford as the mother. I can’t help feeling that if The Filmmakers had had a little more time and a little more money they would have made a fine melodrama.

LIFF#1: The Raft (Flotten, Sweden-Denmark-US-Germany 2018)

THE RAFT

A raft of memories

My first film at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival was a fascinating documentary retelling an anthropological experiment organised by Santiago Genoves in 1973. In what would now be a fatuous ‘reality TV’ format, Genoves placed a multinational group of ten five men and five women, along with himself, on a raft that drifted across the Atlantic in over three months. He’d chosen the participants because he thought their differences would lead to violence; no books were allowed so boredom would ensue. He used questionnaires to test the psychological well-being of the participants. Director Marcus Lindeen reassembled the surviving members (above) to discuss their memories on a replica raft in a studio. 16mm footage from the voyage intersperses their dialogue.

Presumably because no British people were on board, I don’t think this ‘sexperiment’, as some newspapers salaciously covered the story, impinged upon the UK at the time (at lease I don’t remember it). The experiment now appears to be a horrendous abuse as the participants were at great risk.

Everyone survived the expedition but only six have out-lived death and Lindeen’s coup is to show the narrative of ‘the raft’ via their memories and actuality footage. The reformatting of the 16mm for the widescreen leaves the image extremely grainy; a perfect metaphor for memory. Genoves is represented via the voiceover narration based on his writings: so he is another teller of the tale. Hence the documentary is as much about ‘telling tales’ as it is about the raft. In many ways The Raft is an ‘observational documentary’ as Lindeen ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’; the voiceover, although telling, is clearly showing one person’s perspective.

It appears that the audience is left to make their own mind up about what happened whereas, of course, Lindeen – particularly through editing – is the master narrator. As someone who knew nothing of what happened it was interesting to see the documentary, at its conclusion, come to the same view as mine. Except, of course it’s the other way around; which is not to say it is not the truth.

Spoilers:Genoves failed to find the violence he was looking for so he sought to stir it up. He’d placed Maria Bjornstam as skipper of the crew thinking the men would be resentful. He usurped her place when she said they should shelter from a hurricane. When threatened by a cargo ship he panicked but Maria’s calm expertise saved them; she took back control. We see, ultimately, the Genoves’ experiment tells us much about the type of man he was: full of self-regard, controlling and determined to be successful. His crew get along great amongst themeselves. In a short post-raft TV interview, shown during the end credits, Genoves admits he discovered much about himself but he doesn’t say what he learned. I suspect he blamed others for the expedition’s ‘failure’ whereas it was a great success in that they all survived and the people got along great.

Many of the memories of the survivors are, unsurprisingly, vague and they contradict one another. The abstract reconstruction of the raft, it’s full-sized but not equipped, brightly lit in the blackness of a studio gives a dream-like feel to the mise en scene

African-American Fé Seymour movingly tells of how she hallucinated that drowned slaves appeared to her as she realised they were tracing the route of the slave ships. Japanese photographer, Yamaki Eisuke, shyly relates who he’d fancied on the voyage. These human touches stand in contrast to Genoves’ hubris; but Lindeen is right to give him the voiceover as it was his experiment and he damns himself with his words.

Women’s Animation from Near and Far

This was a programme selected by the Leeds Animation Workshop and screened at the Hyde Park Picture House. The occasion was to mark forty years of Leeds Animation Workshop and their total of forty films. Rona Murray celebrated and praised their contribution to both animation and women’s struggles over the years in a ‘thank you’. Before that we had a fine programme of animated films by women filmmakers from a variety of countries and in a variety of forms with a stimulating range of subjects.

No Offence, Leeds Animation Workshop (1996).

This was part of a series of films the Workshop made using the ‘fairy-tale’ form. In this case the topic was sexual harassment at work. In an original twist a Queen disguises herself as an ordinary female worker to investigate the behaviour of her managers. The tale includes reforms to end the harassment. The narrative is told with the distinctive voice of Alan Bennett.

Otesanek, Czech Republic 2017. Director Linda Retterová. 6 minutes

This film is an updated version of the traditional tale, ‘Little Otik’. There is an earlier version by Jan Švankmajer and Eva Švankmajerová (2000). This version is less macabre and the ‘Otik’ character is a carved trees stump in the form of a child. But s/he also devours everything in sight. The animation uses felt and embroidery as the materials for stop-motion.

The Black Dog (1987). 18 minutes.

This is a film by Alison De Vere who was a key figure in British animation from the 1950s until the late 1990s. The ‘Black Dog’ of the title is a shaman figure in a dream world which parallels work by surrealist artists. The fantastical settings are finely done and traverse a range of imaginative imagery.

The New Species, Czech Republic, 2014. Director Katerina Karhánková. 6 minutes.

The film follows three children as they attempt to identify a mysterious bone. On the way we also see representation of adult ways with children.

Phototaxis, USA (2017). Director Melissa Ferrari. 7 minutes.

The film uses the ‘Mothman’ myth from West Virginia; dramatised in the feature The Mothman Prophecies (2002). The film draws quite complex parallels between this and an addiction epidemic in the region. The film is fairly experiential in its techniques, including paper with superimposed pastels.

Black Soul, Canada (2000). Director Martine Chartrand. 9 minutes

In this narrative we see an older black woman and her grandson as she proffers examples of their cultural heritage. The film uses paint-on-glass techniques. The colours are luminous whilst the film’s trajectory is versatile.

Three Thousand, Canada (2017). Director Asinnajaq. 14 minutes.

This film combines newsreels [partly from the 1920s], ethnographic film and film of indigenous art work to explore the worlds of the Inuit peoples. It uses both animation techniques and film footage.

Nutag-Homeland, Canada (2016). Director Alisi Telegut. 6 minutes.

The film-maker is of Kalmyk origin. This people were formerly in the North Caucuses but now they are settled by the Caspian Sea. Their history is one of travails and forced migrations. The film presents poetic images of this through hand-painted frames.

The Fruit of Clouds, Czech republic (2017). 10 minutes.

Another film by Katerina Karhánková. In this a small colony of delightfully realised woodland creatures have an unusual diet. One brave individual finds an abundant source of this.

Own Skin, Leeds (2018). 3 minutes.

Geena Gasser and Saskia Tomlinson enjoyed an internship at the Animation Workshop. This hand-painted film examines the pressures of the body image.

They Call Us Maids: The Domestic Workers’ Story, Leeds Animation Workshop (2015). 7 minutes.

This film uses the actual experiences of migrant women works to expose the exploitation and oppression that they frequently suffer. The film relies on hand-painted water colours. It was commissioned by the Pavilion arts project and worked with Justice 4 Domestic Workers.

The whole programme was a rich palette of animation. There were a variety on techniques on show. And the subjects ranged widely as did the form of the films. Most of the titles had not been seen in Leeds before so this was a real treat.

Hopefully we will see more with a celebration at the Leeds International Film Festival of this important anniversary.

Ten Thousand Waves (UK-China 2010)

Zhao Tao as Ruan Ling-yu in The Goddess walks down a 1930s Shanghai street for the cameras

In 2017 I visited the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester to watch Vertigo Sea, an ‘installation’ film by John Akomfrah. A few weeks ago I managed to catch Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves in the same gallery. I first came across both artists when they were young independent filmmakers in the workshops Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa respectively. Isaac and John both became directors recognised in international independent/festival/auteur cinema before moving into more art-orientated forms and attracting wide attention for their installation works. Both have focused on issues associated with their own ideas about identity. John Akomfrah has long been fascinated by migration and it’s interesting that Isaac Julien should join him in making a piece about a specific tragic moment of contemporary migration.

The deaths of twenty-three Chinese migrants in Morecambe Bay in 2004 was a horrific event which resulted in the conviction of three Chinese for trafficking with one also as a gangmaster responsible for manslaughter. Isaac Julien was shocked by the events and he teamed up with the Chinese poet Wang Ping to make a trip to Morecambe Bay and then to explore a multimedia arts project about Chinese migration and the sea. This was the beginning of the project in 2006 and it was completed for the Sydney Biennial in 2010. Since then the work has been on show in several galleries, sometimes as a complex nine-screen multi-media show and sometimes, as here in Manchester, as a three-screen video installation accompanied by two large photographic exhibits. Since I’ve already written about the viewing conditions at the Whitworth, I won’t repeat my complaints, but it’s a shame that an otherwise excellent venue can’t do more to make viewers more comfortable. Like Vertigo Sea, Ten Thousand Waves takes around 49 minutes for a complete run through its narrative and most people stayed for only part of the full experience when I watched the film. Unlike Vertigo Sea in which the three screens seemed sometimes to offer different material and sometimes to produce meanings by the juxtapositions of sounds and images on adjacent screens, Ten Thousand Waves seemed to be playing the same sequence of images, slightly out of synch with each other, on all three screens. But since it is impossible to focus on three large screens simultaneously, I can’t be sure. I entered the installation partway through and stayed until I was sure I’d seen the whole thing.

Zhao Tao stares out from a high-rise window in contemporary Shanghai

There are three distinct sections of the narrative, although two of these also use two or more different kinds of material within them. What I assume is ‘found footage’ from the screens of the Liverpool Coastguard shows helicopter footage of the discovery of one of the survivors of the tragedy in Morecambe Bay and is accompanied by some of the phone and radio dialogue associated with the emergency. A further sound layer has Wang Ping’s poem about the events read by the British-Chinese actor Benedict Wong. This is all very affecting, although the poem strikes an odd note with references to the ‘North Wales Sea’ since no such body of water exists (it’s the Irish Sea and specifically Morecambe Bay). It’s an understandable mistake for a Chinese poet, but a bit sad that a British filmmaker doesn’t know his geography. Perhaps it is deliberately a ‘fantasy name’? Either way it’s odd for someone like me who knows that coastline well. The second section is filmed in Shanghai and offers sequences of the actor Zhao Tao (known for her work with her partner the auteur director Jia Zhang-ke) dressed in 1930s period costume on the streets of the Bund as it would have been in the film melodrama The Goddess (China 1934). This is presented as a reconstruction so we see the camera following the actor as she goes into buildings and a tram clanks down the street. It occurred to me later (when I learned of the intended The Goddess connection) that Julien here is mirroring the work of Stanley Kwan on the film Actress/Centre Stage (Hong Kong 1991). In that film, Maggie Cheung plays the 1930s actor Ruan Ling-yu (the star of The Goddess) in a biopic which also works as a kind of documentary-drama about Maggie Cheung herself and her performance alongside interviews with survivors of the 1930s Shanghai film industry and archive sequences from the original films. I’m assuming that these streets in Shanghai are preserved/reconstructed as both tourist attractions and film locations. After Ten Thousand Waves, I watched Lou Ye’s 2006 film Purple Butterfly, possibly filmed on the same streets for a 1930-set Shanghai film. Isaac Julien also offers us short scenes of modern Shanghai (urban motorways) and other brief images which might be of young people in some form of protest march (I didn’t take notes, so this was just a fleeting image).

Maggie Cheung recreates her role as Flying Snow in the studio

The third major section of Ten Thousand Waves is also in two parts and also features Maggie Cheung. Ms Cheung is now largely retired from feature films but here she appears in flowing white robes as if dressed for her part as ‘Flying Snow’ in Zhang Yimou’s Hero (China-HK 2002) (but also wearing an incongruous pair of white sports shoes). Once again, Julien shows the construction of this footage so we see Maggie on wires being pulled along against a green screen with a wind machine blowing. These movements are then laid over footage of a river gorge in South China in which also we see a group of men travelling down the river in period costume. It is from this footage that the two large still photographs exhibited alongside the film are taken, one of Maggie Cheung in flight (‘Maiden of Silence’) and one of the men (‘Yishuan Island, Dreaming’). Also in the studio, we see master calligrapher Gong Fagen who uses a large brush to write on glass, which is then rubbed off. The notes accompanying the exhibition also mention ‘video artist Yang Fudong’ and the music score which “incorporates music and original score by Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra as well as by the classical composer Maria de Alvear”.

. . . and fishermen travel down the river in Ghangxi

What does all this mean? The notes tell us that:

. . . the film interweaves moments of Chinese history, custom and legend to explore contemporary experiences of desire, loss and separation. Central to the film is the ancient Chinese myth of Mazu the Sea Goddess, the protector of seafarers, alongside  scenes of the Ghangxi province in Southern China, where the cockle-pickers’ spirits  journeyed back to the ‘middle kingdom’.

I find it difficult to articulate what I felt watching the film and thinking about it later. A few weeks earlier I had sat on the banks of the River Kent estuary in Morecambe Bay watching the ‘Arnside Bore’, the racing tide which is signalled by warning sirens. It’s horrific to think of cockle-pickers caught by such tides at night and totally unprepared. Whether that feeling of helplessness and horror that comes from the archive footage can be linked to the Shanghai footage so that, to quote the notes again, “[the film] penetrates the realities of labour, landscape and migration that continues to define our times” is an open question.

Since I know something about the two cinematic references the installation uses, I suppose I can make some kind of connection. I was also to some extent primed for the experience by the Manchester-based Chinese film scholar Felicia Chan who sent me her paper ‘Cosmopolitan Pleasures and Affects; Or Why Are We Still Talking about Yellowface in Twenty-First-Century Cinema?’, Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, Issue 14, Winter 2017, pp. 41–60. Dr Chan is concerned that the orientalist images of ‘exotic China’, first created or ‘captured’ in the West and then repeated within contemporary Chinese culture, have come to dominate global representations of ‘Chineseness’. She uses Ten Thousand Waves as one of several examples, picking out a comment by the Guardian‘s correspondent in a report about the acquisition of rights to present the installation at the Whitworth:

. . . these images are continually reprised for Western ‘cosmopolitan’ consumption, even when spoken of as a ‘homecoming’ to the north of England (Brown 2016). The ‘local’ on this occasion, whether of Morecambe, the north of England, or the plight of the Chinese migrants cannot really compete with the scopophilic power of the Chinese exotic once again.

(ref: Brown, Mark, ‘Film on Morecambe Cockle Picker Disaster Bought for UK Art Collections’, the Guardian, 22 March 2016, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/22/film-isaac-julien-morecambe-cockle-picker-disaster-uk-public-art.) (Felicia Chan is the author of Cosmopolitan Cinema: Cross-Cultural Encounters in East Asian Film. I.B. Tauris, 2017)

I’m with Felicia Chan on wondering why Isaac Julien chose such well-known images and references from Chinese recent visual culture in constructing his story. I’m also saddened to realise (admittedly only some time after experiencing Ten Thousand Waves) that Julien might have discovered other historical migration links for the waters of Morecambe Bay. A few miles south of Hest Bank (the closest coastal settlement to the site of the tragedy) is Sunderland Point, on the headland of the River Lune estuary. In the 18th century this tiny village became part of slave trade practice. Lancaster was then the third largest English slave port and ships that were too large to reach its rapidly silting docks dropped cargo at Sunderland. As well as slavery, the ports of the Irish Sea were also embarkation ports for migrants from the UK to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. (The main English port for migration from the region would have been Liverpool). Finally, just south of Lancaster is another possible Chinese connection via the silk mill at Galgate which operated from 1792 until 1971. Each of these connections might have enabled a different kind of analysis of the local-global perspectives on the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers tragedy.

Viewing the 3 screen installation seems like a somewhat diminished version of Isaac Julien’s vision and in the clip below he talks about the 9 screen original and its sense of immersion. In other similar clips on YouTube he talks about the visual qualities of his work (shot on 35mm) and the importance of the best available projection. From the glimpses of the 9 screen version I can see that the moving camera becomes more noticeable – and there also seems to be material that either isn’t in the 3 screen version, or which is less pronounced in the overall presentation. As an artwork, Ten Thousand Waves is certainly impressive but the questions it raises need discussion.

I, Tonya (US 2017)

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as a teenager when she first meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), photos courtesy of NEON and 30WEST.

I went into this screening with no expectations and came out wondering exactly what I’d seen. I remembered the furore about the figure skater Tonya Harding and her rival Nancy Kerrigan back in 1994 but I was unaware of how it had been covered in the US media. My immediate reaction to the film was that Tonya got a ‘bum rap’ from the authorities, but since the film begins by telling us that it is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true” interviews, I don’t know if this is a reasonable position or not. I will say that Margot Robbie as Tonya gives an amazing performance. Allison Janney as her mother gives the kind of performance you expect from a great character actor.

Tonya’s mother (Allison Janney)

For anyone who doesn’t know the background to the story, Tonya Harding in the late 1980s was a working-class girl who had shown genuine skating talent from the time she was a toddler and as an older teenager she was clearly a major talent with athleticism and a real drive to succeed. Aged 14 she was 6th in the American Championships in 1985 and a year later 2nd in the Skate America international competition. But from the start Harding felt she was treated unfairly because of her working-class background and for the next eight years she struggled to gain credibility even when she won or was well-placed in major international competitions. In 1994 she was charged, along with her ex-husband, his friend and two hired thugs that they had attacked Harding’s rival Kerrigan. Harding maintained she didn’t know about the physical attack but she confessed to the charge that she subsequently conspired to hinder the prosecution of the attackers. The whole series of events became a tabloid sensation in the US and when Harding was sentenced she received what amounted to a lifetime ban from skating.

Tonya becomes the first American woman to perform a successful ‘triple axel’

Given the coverage at the time, anyone over 40 in America today knows the story and younger audiences must be similarly aware: Wikipedia informs me that there have been several TV documentaries as well as a play and a musical plus references/spoofs in other entertainment media. Why then should you be interested in this new film? The first reason may well be Margot Robbie’s performance. The Australian actor is 5′ 6”. Tonya Harding is 5′ 1″. Robbie is not a look-a-like stand-in but she is convincing in ageing from 15 to 47. Much of the performance requires world-class skating (and Harding was one of the strongest athletic skaters around). The filmmakers (Robbie was also a producer on the film directed by another Australian, Craig Gillespie) managed to use CGI, literally drawing on Harding’s routines, but even so it is a tour de force by Robbie.

Jeff, Tonya and her trainer Diane (Julianne Nicholson) are approached by a police officer with a report of an anonymous threat

The key to the film’s approach is the choice of ‘mockumentary’ and reality TV as an aesthetic mode, so we are offered ‘straight to camera’ comments by the principals as if they were being  interviewed today (i.e. Robbie is aged to 47). During the historical narrative, the same principals will also turn to the camera and offer observations on the scene as it is unfolding. Several reviews reference Scorsese’s presentation of Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990) and that’s not a bad shout in terms of the use of music and voiceovers. I’m not a fan of reality TV and though I found some scenes amusing, I was also saddened to see a life marked by domestic violence that is played for laughs. I thought that the array of characters were exaggerated grotesques – only then to discover from the photographs at the end in the credits sequence that at least the actors did look like the real players in this biopic. The mockumentary tropes also get in the way of the other genre features which interest me more. I, Tonya is a sports movie of a specific kind. In the Guardian Anne Billson offers a useful piece in which she points out that the film deals with a sport in which women are not competing in a ‘man’s world’ and therefore we can enjoy a different kind of sports narrative. Billson also offers us brief descriptions of several other sports stories with female leads to underpin her argument, including the Drew Barrymore-Ellen Page film Whiplash (US 2014), which would make an interesting comparison for film students.

Ice skating is one of those sports with a relatively ‘niche’ following of devoted fans, but which occasionally produces a celebrity figure with wide appeal. The Winter Olympics is always a high point and this year it was the Canadian ice-dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, three-time gold medallists who wowed a Canadian public who seemingly want the couple to marry. On the same day as I, Tonya‘s release, The Ice King, a documentary about John Curry, the supreme ice-dancer from the 1970s also opened in UK cinemas – unfortunately overshadowed by the American film. Skating fans will no doubt seek it out on DVD or online.

There are several distinct features of skating as a sport. One is difficulty of access and the funding for equipment and training. Entertainment features tend to gloss over this. So, while I, Tonya makes jokes about abuse and the costumes that Tonya and her mother sew at home, it doesn’t represent the very real struggle to compete without adequate funds. The conservative attitudes of the administrators of American skating create another barrier to success. A sport like skating is in one sense linked to equestrian sports in the UK in terms of funding, access and potential class conflict. But in North America they might be linked to geographical isolation and small town communities. I, Tonya is odd in not exploring Harding’s home context in Portland, Oregon. I assumed at first that the Hardings were in the South (and the film was shot almost entirely in Georgia, supported by that state’s film commission). It also misses a trick in not exploring more of Nancy Kerrigan’s background (which may be down to permissions). Kerrigan was also from a working-class background in a small town north of Boston. She wasn’t a privileged skater, though in ideological terms her career success could be seen as the result of ‘hard work’ and ‘family support’ – factors difficult for Tonya Harding to draw on for various reasons.

I, Tonya is a well-made film with some great performances and I was certainly engaged throughout. It does give a sense of the impact of celebrity and tabloid sensationalism as it began to be used on cable TV news in North America, but it misses out on a real story about sport, class and gender. Harding’s life after her conviction could be the basis for a whole new narrative but in I, Tonya it is just a relatively brief coda.

Here is the trailer. It hints at the extensive use of popular songs on the soundtrack, which includes Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman’ and Chicago’s ’25 or 6 to 4′ plus Doris Day and a host of familiar 70s and 80s stuff.

Weimar – Sonntag

I have now also viewed films in the alternative venue for Weimar, CinemaxX. This is a multi-screen venue right in the heart of Potsdamer Platz. Consequently it is popular and very busy. The screen dedicated for Weimar [with other titles] is CinemaxX 8. This is a 250 seat auditorium with a fairly steep rake and thus has good sight-lines. Friends warned me though that the front three rows are rather too close to the screen: Jenny Jugo (the Weimar Carmen) could drop straight into one’s lap. They have installed a piano for the silent accompaniments. And, for the space of the Festival, pop-corn and bought-in drinks are banned.

The day opened however at the Zeughauskino.

Menschen im Busch, Ein Afrika-Tonfilm (1930). We had an introduction from a member of the Deutsche Kinemathek who provided the background and context to the film. The film-makers, Gulia Pfeffer and Friedrich Dalssheim, filmed in the interior of Togoland [later part of Ghana and the Togolese Republic]. The land had been a German colony before World War I and post-war it became a British Mandate: a method used by the British to grab land in many places. This political dimension was not addressed by the film. Whilst the film used footage shot on location the sound was dubbed in Berlin. Some of this was clearly voiced in Germany but some appeared to be actual sound incorporated. I hope to check this out. The use of actual African voices was a first in ethnographic film; a parallel to Edgar Anstey’s film Housing Problems (1936).

The film opened with an introduction from the former German Governor. We had been warned that his comments were littered with what are now ‘politically incorrect’ descriptions. He compared the Africans to ‘children’ and described their culture as ‘inferior to European Civilisation’. All was not lost, because most of his talk was heard over images of the coast line of the territory. The opening was very well done, we watched fishing boats landing their cargoes, battling through the surf to the beach. This, like the rest of the film offered excellent camera shots and movements.

The film presented a day in the life of the Ewe people in Chelekpe village. In fact the majority of the film followed one family, a village man, his two wives and children. The narrative ran from daybreak to late evening. There were meals, work, and leisure. The village had a division of labour, both in harvesting and hunting, and in the technologically dependent activity of weaving. Animals were a full part of the village life: goats, pigs, chickens, and some smaller animals we could not identify. In the evening there was a religious/social dance ritual. This was accompanied by drumming as both men and women, some in special costumes, swayed and rotated. The dancing and drumming reached a frenzied climax before darkness fully fell.

We then had a two-part film adapted from a novel by Jacob Wassermann. I do not know the novel but the plot of the films suggested a vast picaresque narrative.

Christian Wahnschaffe, Teil 1: Weltbrand (Part 1: World Afire) was directed by Urban Gad in 1920 and in a digital form ran 80 minutes. The opening title explained that the film is set in 1905 in several European countries. Conrad Veidt played the titular role. Christian is the son of a wealthy industrialist. He lacks purpose though he has secret desire for his engaged step-sister. Spoilt and lacking direction Christian is introduced to a popular Pairs-based dancer with whom he begins an affair. Eva is a man-eater and later in the film she has another affair with a Grand Duke, [a stand-in for the Romanov Tzar]. This links the film to the Revolutionary Year of 1905, though it is not actually presented in name]. In the course of the film we have become acquainted with anarchists and a secret group called ‘The Nihilists’: appropriately their political programme is never explained. They are involved in protests and suffer in the repression ordered by the Grand Duke. In one scene he watches a s a machine gun opens up on a civilian demonstration. In the later stages the plot develops round an envelope of secret papers. The story ends pretty badly for everyone, except the Grand Duke and his henchmen: but Christian does survive.

The film followed the style of many early films in this period. Full of parallel cutting between characters and events, often in very short scenes. So the events and characters move at speed and it becomes quite complicated following the plot. It is however full of conventional tropes and stereotypes, and combines motifs from several familiar genres of the period. In that sense it was probably easy for a contemporary audience to follow. Stylistically the production is not that well done. The editing leaves a certain amount to be desired though it was not clear how much was due to missing footage. The cast are reasonable but it is not one of Veidt’s great performances.

Christian Wahnschaffe, Teil 2: Die Flucht aus dem Goldenen Kerker (Part 2: The Escape from the Golden Prison, 1921) is a sequel. The ‘golden prison’ is Christian’s family home where he feels bored and guilty over his privileges. A different friend takes him to a working class district in the hope of excitement. This they find, and Christian assists, a poor prostitute attacked by her pimp. He thus meets a young social worker, Rose. Partly due to her attraction and partly due to acquiring a social and religious conscience, Christian starts to ‘give all he has to the poor’. However, in this slum we find few ‘deserving poor’ and an amount of ‘undeserving poor’. The film resembles Part I in that once again the story ends badly for most characters.

However, this film has a coherent narrative thread and avoids the endless parallel cutting. So it works in a more constrained and effective manner. In addition, whilst the film has the same director as Part I, it has new scriptwriters. Most noticeably it has a new cinematographer, Willy Hameister. His work offers frequent high angle shots of the slums. The exterior use both low-key lighting and effective tinting. It looks much better than the first part. And there are some excellent set-pieces in the slum tenements as the mass of working class denizens are involved in varied agitations. Part 2 seems a much better film than Part 1. A colleague thought that the second part might have been re-edited after release: the digital versions relies mainly on a Dutch print.

Stephen Horne provided the accompaniment for both films. He worked effectively with Part 1 but Part 2 provided greater scope for drama and emotion. Stephen is a multi-instrumentalist, so we had several instruments; one at least, the accordion, provided a musical motif for working class scenes in both films. Escape from the Golden Prison is a definite film to see but watching the whole two-part drama makes better sense and the contrasts alone are entertaining.

Der Himmel auf Erden (Heaven on Earth, 1927) was the first film that I viewed at CinemaxX. This was a social comedy. The lead character, Traugott Bellmann (Reinhold Schünzel, who also directed the film), is a Member of Parliament who achieves famed by condemning centres of vice. He specifically names the night club, ‘Heaven on Earth’. However, newly married he discovers first that his new father-in-law sells the copious amounts of Champagne consumer in the club; then, that it belongs to his step-brother, not seen for years. His embarrassment creates problem in both his public and personal life.

The situation opens in a very witty manner with a delightful satire of parliamentary action. The night club itself is only mildly unseemly and hardly at all immoral. The main consumption is the champagne. The dancing girls are leggy but not overtly sexy. And the nudes on the drapery are really quite prim. The comedy in the club is probably stretched out too long: I found the humour and wit dissipated at times. But it come together in a great and comic climax And the scenes of the moral guardians and some of Bellmann’s discomfiture are very funny.

The film was screened from a pretty good 35mm print. Maud Nelissen provided a score that included light sequences, lively dances and touches of ragtime.

Another good day. As the retrospective develops it is emerging as an intelligent and rewarding exploration.