Search results for: nobody else but you

Nobody Else But You/Poupoupidou (France 2011)

I never quite understand why some French films (and foreign-language films in general) get a UK release and some don’t. OK, there’s something of a star system in operation (though not necessarily the same one that works for French audiences – where Danny Boon, relatively unknown in the UK, is currently the highest paid French actor). I suppose we’re looking at actors such as Audrey Tautou, Marillon Cotillard, Kristin Scott Thomas, Romain Duris, Cécile De France, as well as those of an older generation such as Isabelle Huppert, Isabelle Adjani and Danielle Auteuil – not to mention veterans such as Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu. In most French films I see, even when I can’t name the actors I usually recognise someone, even if its from the recent TV series exported successfully to the UK, Engreneges (Spiral) or the more mundane stuff to be found on TV5 . With Poupoupidou, the only actor I recognized was the one who played the small part of a teenage delinquent, Dylan (Finnegan Oldfield) who tries to blackmail the lawyer Clément over an alleged sexual assault in Season 3 of Engrenages/Spiral and plays an equally small part here. It’s a pity that some interesting French films don’t make it across the Channel or even onto DVD for lack of familiar actors, even with films nominated for or even winning the Césars (French equivalent of the Oscars).

All the more interesting then that I happened on Poupoupidou when I was aimlessly checking out the foreign films on offer from Netflix – and not even the UK version but the US one. The DVD cover shown on Netflix – based on a famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe – clued me in and the English title, Nobody Else But You, wrapped it up. It was a reference to Marilyn Monroe’s song on Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. And indeed, the Monroe persona is at the centre of the film, a sort of MM reincarnation in rural France.

Marilyn Munroe, Playboy photograph 1953, and Poupoupidou DVD cover

Marilyn Monroe, Playboy photograph 1953, and Poupoupidou DVD cover

A few spoilers but not on the fundamental “whodunnit” question

David Rousseau (Jean-Paul Rouve) is a ‘polar’ (crime) novelist who arrives at Mouthe, the coldest town in France, on the border between the Jura region and Switzerland, on family business. Before he leaves he stumbles on a mysterious death – a young woman has been found dead in the snow with sleeping pills by her side. The dead woman is Candice Lecoeur (Sophie Quinton), a small-town beauty and minor celebrity, mainly due to her sexy and quirky news weather forecasts for the local TV station and erotic advertisements for a local brand of cheese. Her death is ruled as suicide although Rousseau realizes that no real investigation has taken place – partly because the crime scene is (conveniently) in a no-mans-land between France and Switzerland – and he thinks that investigating this case may end his writer’s block. The more he investigates, the more he is sure that there is something fishy going on. Candice (real name Martine Langevin just as Marilyn Monroe’s was Norma-Jean Baker) was a Monroe-obsessive and her life has parallels that of Monroe which helps Rouseau to get to the bottom of the mystery as well as providing him with the raw material for his most successful novel.

Comment

It’s enjoyable seeing the similarities with Monroe take shape. She, like Monroe, is blond (peroxide), beautiful and good-natured but also desperately depressed. And Candice’s love affairs shadow Monroe’s. Her ex-husband Gus (Lyes Salem) is an Italian winter sports champion who is devoted to her and also beats her up from time to time (cf. Joe DiMaggio). Next there is the ‘intellectual’, Simon Denner (Eric Ruf), book reviewer or the local paper (cf. Arthur Miller). By this time we’re cued for the arrival of a JFK character but we actually get a JFB (B rhymes with K in French), Jean-Francois Burdeau (Ken Samuels), and of course he is also a president, but the regional president of the area. And of course she sings “Happy Birthday Mr President” but in an even more provocative way than Marilyn’s famous birthday wishes for John F Kennedy. And JFB’s little brother (whose initials are BOB) comes to warn her that the affair is over. And so on.

Now the problem I had with the film, at least at first, is that of tone. From the above it points to comedy or spoof with the string of coincidences making Candice’s story seem superficial rather than something substantial. And there is a lot of cinephilic fun to be had. From the start, sly little intertexts such as the brand of the cheese she advertises is ‘Belle de Jura’, cf. Belle de Jour, Bunuel’s provocative 1967 film, about a young bourgeois housewife who spends her midweek afternoons as a prostitute while her husband is at work. The lead role is played by another iconic blonde, Catherine Deneuve, and in one of the weather forecasts Candice is dressed up in a donkey skin, surely a reference to another Deneuve film, Peau d’Ane, directed by Jacques Demy in 1967.

Candice as Deneuve in Peau d'Anne; Deneuve in Peau d'Ane

Candice as Deneuve in Peau d’Anne; Deneuve in Peau d’Ane

The Coen Brothers’ Fargo is another intertextual allusion, dealing with, as it does, with ear-flapped cops investigating a murder in a snowy terrain in a whimsical mood. And when Rousset goes home having written his most successful best seller, he has changed his pen name to Magnus Hørn, no doubt a reference to recently-successful ‘scandi-noir’ writers such as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.

Right at the start of the film there is another clear intertextual allusion, to David Lynch’s television series, Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-91), particularly the similarity between Candice lying dead in the snow and the murdered Laura Palmer.

Laura Palmer (Twin Peaks); Candice (Poupoupidou)

Laura Palmer (Twin Peaks); Candice (Poupoupidou)

Now Twin-Peaks was one of the earliest examples of postmodern television, heavily laden with such ‘spot-the-reference’ diversion. However, I eventually tired of this and gave up on the show, as did many others, as a third season wasn’t commissioned. I no longer cared about who killed Laura Palmer. One of the problems of this relentless quoting and the barrier that it can put between audience and story is the failure to engage emotionally with the audience.

But, paradoxically, in Poupoupidou I actually found myself becoming more and more involved in the story and the characters and eventually found it quite poignant, just like the tragedy of the real Marilyn. There’s a melancholy in the deep structure of this film that helps anchor its sometimes-manic ingenuity.

Candice narrates her own story, as written in the diaries Rousset discovers as he frequently camps in her flat. The most recent (and ultimately incriminating) volume has gone missing. She seems to have continued writing the diary after her death, Sunset Boulevard style. Again I found this a little uncomfortable at first but eventually accepted as a valid way of telling the story.

Part of the attraction of the film for me were the performance of Rouve as a mopey sad sack of a character with a downbeat demeanor and sardonic sense of humour. Rousset is an archetypal character, the outsider who stirs up trouble and causes resentment from some of the locals. (And the ‘writer’s block’ plot device shows that the old ones are sometimes the best). Quinton’s small-town reincarnation of Marilyn lets us glimpse the parochial banality behind sex-kitten exterior and allows the film to considerthe advantages and disadvantages of fame.

And their relationship (even allowing for the fact that she is dead by the time he comes across her) is fascinating. He falls in love with her based on her diaries; dreams that she comes to his hotel room; and he is enchanted to discover it is in a sense ‘reciprocated’ – as he is leaving Mouthe receives a fan letter she sent before her death. (Or is this another intertextual allusion? To Otto Preminger’s Laura in which a character finds himself falling in love with a dead woman?)

And it looks pretty good, director Gerald Hustache-Mathieu and his cinematographer Pierre Cottreaux making best use of the stunning snow-filled location.

Here’s the trailer.

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Rossellini #5: Reading Viaggio in Italia (Italy-France 1954)

voyagetoitalyFB

This classic film by Roberto Rossellini was re-released in the UK on a new DCP in May. A more helpful English translation of the title than the usual ‘Voyage to Italy’ is ‘Travel in Italy’ or ‘Journey Through Italy’ as it covers the time spent by an English couple on a trip to the Naples region trying to come to terms with their own relationship and the impact of Italian culture. As in many of the Italian films of this period, there have been several versions of this film. In the version for the UK, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as the couple speak English. Italian characters speak Italian amongst themselves and some characters speak both languages.

One of the major issues in appraising the film in 2013 is the need to deal with its reception in the mid 1950s (it opened in Italy in 1954 and was seen in other countries over the next couple of years). In America the film flopped badly, but it is difficult to know how much this was associated with the scandal of the Bergman-Rossellini relationship, which was one of the biggest tabloid stories of its time. (Bergman and Rossellini had a child before Bergman’s divorce and her subsequent marriage to Rossellini.) The other problem in the US might have been cuts that robbed the film of some of its important scenes. By contrast, the film was highly praised by critics in France where the Cahiers du cinéma writers hailed it as the first ‘modern’ film. The enthusiasm of Godard, Truffaut et al was typically excessive and a more common reaction by popular audiences then (and to a certain extent ever since) was one of boredom because ‘nothing happens’.

It seems clear now that the Cahiers critics did have a point – and given the more favourable reception of similar films a few years later, Rossellini was once again ‘ahead of the curve’. The film is defiantly ‘unconventional’. José Luis Gaurner in his 1970 Studio Vista book on Rossellini puts the argument very well:

 . . . its subject [is] the breakup of a marriage, but it is not a tragedy. It is about reconciliation, but it is not a comedy. It revolves around Italy, but it is not a documentary . . . As a film about reality and time, it comes into the sphere of the essay. (Guarner 1970: 58)

This concept of an ‘essay’ refers us to the later films of Jean-Luc Godard in particular – light on narrative pleasures but rich in ideas and explorations of culture and politics. This is the form of filmic ‘modernism’ that also leads towards Antonioni and others in the late 1950s and 1960s and which is still part of contemporary cinema (a film like Nuri Bilge Cyan’s Climates (2006) perhaps, or the films of Joanna Hogg such as Unrelated (2008) or Archipelago (2010)).

Rossellini is interested in the marriage between two people who are not Italian and how their relationship is affected by their exposure to Italian culture. This in itself suggests the urge to explore ‘reality’ rather than the familiar conventions of entertainment cinema. Although many couples have wonderful holidays abroad, sharing the delights of exposure to other cultures, holidays are also potentially difficult to negotiate. How do we know how different people (ourselves and our partners) will react to new situations? The usual tensions in a relationship are exposed in new situations. A Hollywood take on an Italian holiday is likely to develop as a romance or a thriller, but Rossellini is not interested in these kinds of narratives.

The car as a barrier between the couple and their environment – or perhaps a cage in which they are trapped?

The car as a barrier between the couple and their environment – or perhaps a cage in which they are trapped?

Casting, scripting and direction

Ingrid Bergman was by 1953 very familiar with her husband’s approach since she had already experienced two difficult and challenging roles in Stromboli and Europa ’51. On the other hand, Rossellini’s use of his wife/star had become almost obsessive (she wasn’t allowed to work for anyone else) and there had been aspects of the scripts of the earlier films which might in some ways have related to the Bergman-Rossellini marriage. As Katherine, Bergman was already under a certain pressure.

Rossellini cast George Sanders – one of several English actors working mainly on Hollywood productions – as Alex. Sanders had no idea of what to expect and he found Rossellini’s approach bewildering and frustrating. In interviews years later Rossellini claims that Sanders hated the way he was forced to work – and of course his discomfort is evident in his performance, which produces exactly what Rossellini wants.

Rossellini maintains that he had a very clear idea of the film he was going to make, but he refused to write it down as a script to give to his two stars. Instead he would supply the dialogue for the day’s shooting but would often change aspects of the shoot dependent on the ‘reality’ of the situation he found in the location. In one much discussed scene Rossellini was tipped off that a ‘discovery’ was about to be unveiled in the archaeological work in Pompeii. He re-organised that day’s shooting and Bergman and Saunders were required to respond to the events as they unfolded. How much of this was contrived (and embellished in later interviews) is open to conjecture but it is certainly true that the film includes several scenes in which Bergman and sometimes Sanders are confronted with aspects of Italian antiquity as well as the Catholic rituals of Neapolitan life, sometimes with quite disturbing results.

In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Rossellini also used the language differences between Bergman/Sanders and the local people who act as servants in the large house where the couple are staying (selling the house which is a bequest by ‘Uncle Homer’ is the ostensible purpose of the visit to Italy). Far from ‘nothing happening’, the narrative is a tightly-wound structure in which the tension comes from the couple’s relationship with each other and the unsettling effects of the environment on each of them separately and together. Rossellini and his cinematographer Enzo Serafin manage to frame the central characters such that the mise en scène is both ‘realist’ and ‘expressionist’, especially in the several scenes where Katherine visits the classical sites of the region and its museums. (See the poster at the top of this piece in which Katherine is shown to be shocked by the eroticism of some of the statuary.)

Alex and Katherine seem far away from each other and lost in the ruins of Pompeii.

Alex and Katherine seem far away from each other and lost in the ruins of Pompeii.

SPOILER

Reading the closing sequence

The whole film up until the last sequence appears to be about the disintegration of a marriage. In fact some of the English titles used by distributors makes this explicit. Yet from the comments above it should be clear that the characters are actually learning something about themselves and each other because of the impact of the ‘otherness’ of Italy. The last two sequences involve the visit to Pompeii when Katherine is overwhelmed by the discovery of the figures of a man and woman miraculously ‘discovered’ in the lava and then finally the car journey which ends with the couple trapped in the crowds for a religious procession.

In Sight and Sound July 2013, Brad Stevens offers a reading of the ending of the film which places it in the small town of Maiori on the Amalfi coast some distance from Naples. Maiori has been the setting for several Rossellini sequences and holds a film festival with a Rossellini prize according to its Wikipedia entry. However, the implication is that the couple are driving through the outskirts of Naples and this is how André Bazin analyses the closing sequence. This isn’t a documentary, so Rossellini simply chooses a suitable location and what is important is that Alex and Katherine find themselves trapped in the crowds in a street where a religious procession is taking place. They are forced to stop their car and get out and in the mêlée that surrounds them as believers rush towards the effigy of a saint carried in the procession, Katherine is separated from Alex. When he realises what has happened, Alex struggles to find her and when they are re-united something miraculous does indeed happen.

The final shot of Katherine and Alex

The final shot of Katherine and Alex

Throughout the closing scenes Katherine has become more emotional while Alex appears to be repressing his emotions – though he says that he has been ‘moved’ by the discovery of the figures at Pompeii. In the previous sequence when Katherine visits Naples with the wife of the agent who is looking after the house, she keeps noticing the number of pregnant women on the streets and the number of women pushing prams. It’s as if there is an explosion of fertility. Later when she and Alex discuss divorce, she wonders if it would have helped if they had children. This seems like an obvious set of narrative connections but Rossellini presents them in a convincingly seamless way – we have to work to make the connections and reflect upon them. The procession which eventually ensnares the couple is, according to Bazin in an essay entitled ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (1955), one of the annual events associated with Saint Januarius, patron saint of Naples. The local people clearly believe in the restorative powers of the saint and we see a man gesticulating as if he is pleading for/celebrating relief from poor eyesight. Bazin suggests that what we have seen throughout the film is a subjective view of the local environment by Katherine:

“It is Naples ‘filtered’ through the consciousness of the heroine. If the landscape is bare and confined, it is because the consciousness of an ordinary bourgeoisie itself suffers from great spiritual poverty. Nevertheless, the Naples of the film is not false (which it could easily be with the Naples of a documentary three hours long). It is rather a mental landscape at once as objective as a straight photograph and as subjective as pure personal consciousness. We realise now that the attitude which Rossellini takes towards his characters and their geographical and social setting is, at one remove, the attitude of his heroine towards Naples – the difference being that his awareness is that of a highly cultured artist and, in my opinion, an artist of rare spiritual vitality.” (Bazin 1971: 98-9)

In the final scene Katherine can ‘see’ another future – and Alex is finally moved to see with Katherine. Whether this will help to save the marriage is another question – which Rossellini leaves open. His panning camera eventually turns away from the couple and the film finally ends suddenly with one of the bandsmen in the background looking offscreen. It is this framing that Brad Stevens discusses in Sight & Sound. Stevens make the excellent point that this ending with its last glimpse of the bandsman, emphasises for the audience that Katherine and Alex are just another couple amidst the throng of people. Just as Katherine and Alex leave the protective shied/cage of their car, we leave the protected viewing position in which the two characters are privileged and rejoin the ‘real world’. I’ve watched the ending a few times to check these ideas and although I take Stevens’ point, two other observations interest me. One is the camera movements that are both ‘required’ in order to represent the narrative space and also ‘expressionist/symbolic’ in underlining the distance from the events felt by the audience. Rossellini has a camera placed higher up in order to see the procession in the distance. This position also allows us to look down on Katherine and Alex and to see how they are surrounded by people. This isn’t camerawork that we would associate with realist modes (since there is nobody in the scene who could have this perspective) and it would require going back over Rossellini’s earlier films to evaluate if it is a consistent aspect of his style. The second observation emphasises the understanding that Rossellini has taken his actors and crew into a ‘real’ street procession. Just behind Alex and Katherine when they get out of the car are two characters dressed in white suits/coats with white headdresses that might be turbans or something similar. The two men appear to be Indian or African and one is holding a paper cup which might contain crushed ice. I wonder if they are selling ice cream or a cold drink like sugarcane juice? Were traders like this common on the Amalfi coast in the 1950s? Any help on this is appreciated. What the presence of these two does do is to reinforce that sense of a story taking place in a ‘real’ Italy.

If you can find this in a cinema, please go and see it. If you can’t make the big screen, a DVD/Blu-ray package is available from the BFI. Here is a link to Moviemail’s offer.

References

Bazin, Andre (1971) ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (originally published in Cinema Nouvo, August 1955) What is Cinema?, Vol II, Berkeley: University of California Press

Gaurner, José Luis (1970) Roberto Rossellini, London: Studio Vista

BFI link to Geoff Andrew on Viaggio in Italia and the Neo-realism Season in London.

Rossellini #4: Era notte a Roma (Italy 1960)

Another gem from Rossellini, this film (which operates under various titles) is not quite what I expected given the general critical writing on Rossellini. On the other hand, if I’d never read any Rossellini profiles I would have recognised aspects of the film from European cinema generally around 1960.

The common view is that after his break-up with Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini moved away from cinema proclaiming it was dead and turned first towards documentary and eventually towards historical narratives for television. In between he made a few films to make some money but these were of lesser value. I already knew this wasn’t true since many years ago I was lucky to see Viva L’Italia (1961) his Garibaldi film at the NFT in London. I think that was when I first read about his revolutionary new zoom lens device known as the Pancinor. This device enabled the operator to move freely with a subject, maintaining focus and obviating the need to cut – Rossellini devised the technology to allow him to extend the effectiveness of his long take style.

According to José Luis Guarnier (Roberto Rossellini, Studio Vista, 1971) Rossellini used the device for the first time on Era notte a Roma. I confess that I didn’t notice this watching the film – but I did think that the film was very well composed and shot and that is probably the best endorsement.

Era notte a Roma translates via Google as ‘It was night in Rome’ or perhaps ‘To Rome at night’ and actually that title makes sense – more sense than some of the official English titles. The setting is Italy in the latter part of 1943. The Nazis have taken control of Rome, Italians are moving over towards the partisans and the Allies have landed in Sicily. Three soldiers have escaped or been released from an Italian prisoner of war camp in the North of Italy and have made their way South. They are holed up in a village and the villagers arrange a bargain with a group of nuns who are looking for wine and food to take back to Rome. The nuns will take the POWs and in exchange will get ham and wine. But the nuns are actually black marketeers led by a beautiful young woman played by Giovanna Ralli. She wants rid of the POWs as well but she has a kind heart and one of the men, an American airman (played by Peter Baldwin), has an old wound that has re-opened. She ends up letting the men stay in the spacious attic above her apartment. The other two men are a British officer (Leo Genn) and a Russian sergeant (the great Sergei Bondarchuk, a talented actor and director).

The men end up staying for several weeks, culminating in a Christmas dinner. Nobody is fluent in more than one language so communication is difficult, but in the famous Christmas  dinner sequence the Russian makes a moving speech in which the meaning is clear from his intonation and facial expressions. Giovanna is also part of the partisan network and the men meet her boyfriend and others in the movement. Inevitably it becomes impossible to keep the men’s presence a secret and there is a great deal of tension before they are exposed to the fascists and their Nazi bosses. The final section of the film, leading up to the point when the Allied troops arrive in the capital, opens the narrative up further to include the aristocratic family who own the working-class apartment block. They too are on the side of the partisans and the landlord is a Vatican officer whose family entertains an aristocratic German officer. Just as in Roma citta aperta and Paisa there is a sequence involving local priests – with refugees hidden among the novices. This sequence and another in which Leo Genn pretends to be a butler to serve the German officer are played with wit and a gentle sense of the absurd. I was reminded of Fellini’s contributions to the scripts of the earlier wartime films.

Far from being some kind of ‘commercial filler’, I found this to be a moving film about life under occupation and an interesting exploration of the relationships between the occupied population and the escaped POWs. It’s a longish film – according to IMDb the official length was 138 mins in Italy, but only 82 mins in the US (which probably explains some of the negative comments). IMDb also suggests a DVD lasting 151 minutes. The Region 2 DVD that I watched lasted just under 129 mins – the rough equivalent of about 134 mins at film speed. I think Rossellini needed the longer running time to present the ‘reality’ of the lives of the men in the attic and the people who hid them.

The three POWs (from left) Leo Genn, Sergei Bondarchuck and Peter Bradley

The three POWs (from left) Leo Genn, Sergei Bondarchuck and Peter Bradley

The performances are all very good and I was particularly struck by Leo Genn’s British officer. Genn was not only  a distinguished stage and screen actor but he had also been a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Artillery in 1943. When he recreated his wartime persona he was 55 years old, but that doesn’t seem to matter. His calm and ability to speak the Latin of his schooldays and appear to genuinely learn Italian during the course of the narrative give the film a real grounding in the period. This was an actor and trained barrister who prosecuted war crimes at Belsen and narrated both the events at the 1953 Coronation and the opening of the UN in 1947.  The Wikipedia page on Leo Genn refers to his role in “Rossellini’s remarkable and largely forgotten film”. The film is remarkable and it shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s not as ‘dramatic’ as Roma citta aperta but it possibly teaches us more about the experience of wartime in an occupied city.

Das letzte Schweigen (The Silence, Germany 2010)

Victims in the police station: Ruth (Karoline Eichhorn), the mother of the missing girl, watched by Timo's bewildered wife Julia (Claudia Michelsen)

Several reviewers have noted that Das letzte Schweigen bears similarities to the first series of the Danish TV drama The Killing. The formats are different but the central story about the impact of a police investigation of the murder of a young girl is similar and importantly the story is as much about the effects of the investigation on the girl’s parents and the internal wranglings of the police team as it is about the ‘solving’ of a crime.

The Nordic crime connection is not surprising since crime fiction is as popular in Germany as it is elsewhere in Northern Europe. The novel by Jan Costin Wagner, which has been adapted by Swiss writer-director Baran bo Odar, won the German ‘crime prize’ in 2008. Wagner, though writing in his native German, sets his novels in Finland where he lives for much of the time with his Finnish wife. For the adaptation, a Swiss-Finnish perspective is then realised in a South German summer landscape of cornfields, forests and lakes and an oddly sterile collection of new-build houses, municipal flats and nondescript public buildings. This, I’m guessing, replaces the snowy wastes of a Finnish winter.

The film’s German title translates as the ‘final silence’, but I’m not sure why it was necessary to change the novel’s original ‘The Silence’. The title could be a reference to several things but the most likely is to the silence of Timo, who we first see in 1986 when he is witness to, and passive collaborator in, the seemingly random rape and murder of a pre-teen girl, whose bicycle is thrown into a cornfield. Timo immediately splits from the murderer and we see him again 23 years later as a successful architect with a beautiful house, wife and two young children. But then another girl on a bicycle goes missing on the anniversary of the earlier unsolved murder with her bicycle discovered in exactly the same spot. After a police retirement party, the news of the missing girl is taken badly by the retiring officer who failed to crack the earlier case and he sets out to investigate the new one. He’s aided by a younger detective returning to work in a dishevelled state after the death (from cancer) of his wife. The new case stirs the memories of the mother of the girl killed in 1986 and we witness the bewilderment of the parents of the girl who is now missing. Timo is immediately traumatised by the news, having kept his silence for 23 years. Is the missing girl a victim of the same man who was his friend – or is it just a terrible coincidence?

The presentation of this relatively uncomplicated story is stylish with good use of a CinemaScope frame and the dramatic landscape properties of cornfields/forests/lakes seen in occasional overhead aerial shots. I was particularly impressed by the use of music and sound. I found the Sight and Sound review of the film by Matthew Taylor (December 2011) to be rather snotty about the film’s presentation, using words like “portentous”, “over-emphatic, almost pompous” and “lugubriously self-importance”. I think that there is a fear in some parts about genre films that attempt to use the full range of cinematic techniques. Well, it worked for me. I accept that this isn’t a realist film in the sense that the police are a motley crew and nobody who opens the door to them seems to think it would be a good idea to ask for an ID – even though the dishevelled character looks very unlike a responsible copper. But then, invesigators in crime fiction often have behavoural tics and an odd dress sense. The heavily pregnant detective is a nice touch I think and well used in a couple of scenes.

The cornfield brings to mind one of the best crime films of recent years, Memories of Murder (S. Korea 2003). Bong Joon-ho’s film managed to combine the antics (comic, but also brutal) of a similarly bizarre crew of local investigators with a subtle commentary on Korean society and politics in the 1980s. I’m struggling to find the same sense of political purpose in The Silence. However, the film’s ending and certain aspects of the police procedure do leave a lingering sense of ‘disturbance’ –just as the stylistic aspects of the film allow a sense of dread to build throughout the narrative.

The lasting impression is a well-made and highly ‘cinematic’ film which seems to have played mainly on German TV and the joint German-French channel Arte. It wasn’t just the presence of Karoline Eichhorn that made me think of similar Thomas Arslan films (and possibly also Christian Petzold’s Yella). I’m glad that Soda picked it up for UK cinema distribution and I was pleased to see it on a big screen. (This press release seems to indicate that the film received state support in getting distribution in the UK, Denmark and Hungary.)

The trailer gives a good idea about the look and ‘feel’ of the film:

Films From the South #9: About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran 2009)

The crucial moment in the narrative . . . when Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) flies a kite.

About Elly at first sight suggests a familiar narrative idea – a group of middle-class Iranians and their young families arrive in a resort area by the coast for a fun weekend away from Tehran. I thought that perhaps it would turn into a Big Chill type narrative when I realised that the group comprised old friends from university – but then Elly was introduced. She is the nursery school teacher of one of the children whose mother has invited her to join the group, hoping to introduce her to one of the men who has just returned from Germany after his divorce. Elly seems a little reluctant because there are three other couples and just the two singles, but is persuaded to join in with the general festivities. However, the group has already begun to tell ‘little white lies’, joking to the owners of the house they rent by the sea that they have a ‘honeymoon couple’ in their midst (i.e. Elly and the divorced man). The next day an accident involving one of the children threatens disaster and in the mêlée the others realise that Elly is missing. Has she fallen in the sea and been swept away, has she simply gone back to Tehran without telling anyone?

From this point on the narrative ratchets up the tension as each member of the group makes suggestions, some of which make the situation worse and eventually the group finds itself mired in a sea of white lies. No one is prepared to be totally honest. When the authorities are summoned to mount a search, they reasonably ask about Elly and it becomes clear that nobody knows her full name or anything about her background. Was she left in charge of the children? If so, surely somebody knows her background? Her family has to be contacted – but this only makes matters worse when Elly’s real situation turns out to be not quite what the group expected.

I found parts of the film to be almost unbearable – in the sense of those embarrassment comedies where you find yourself crying out “No don’t say that, it’ll only make matters worse!” It was at this point that I realised that the three Farhadi films in the festival reminded me to some extent of Mike Leigh’s work. They all feature a small group of central characters in a relatively closed social situation and social class difference is a crucial factor. The emphasis on social interaction in a limited number of locations makes the presentation of the narrative more like theatre – and both Leigh and Farhadi started by writing plays. There is also a use of certain actors across different films. ‘Elly’ is played by Taraneh Alidoost who was Roohi in Fireworks Wednesday and one of the men in About Elly, Peyman, is played by Peyman Moaadi who also plays Nader in Nader and Simin: A Separation. At least three other actors appear in two of the three films. The odd thing is that though I admire and respect Mike Leigh as a filmmaker, I don’t actually like his films that much – I find them rather cruel towards the characters. Perhaps that’s because I am so close to the culture that produces Leigh’s characters whereas Farhadi’s are necessarily ‘exotic’ and I can be a much more distanced observer. Does anyone else make this connection or is it just me?

Like Fireworks Wednesday, I see About Elly as a satire. In this case there are two targets. One is the ease of lying. In this YouTube clip Golshifteh Farahani, the star who plays Sepideh (the character who invites Elly to the weekend away) discusses the film. She is an actor effectively in exile in Paris who has been criticised for appearing in a Hollywood film (Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies) and she argues that lying is absolutely essential in repressed societies in order to survive – but of course eventually the lies become a kind of false reality. In this sense the film exposes a systematic mode of self-deception. The second target for the satire is the underlying structure of a society that encourages the ‘polite lie’ to avoid offence. This structure sets up complex codes to do with gender relations, religious sensibilities and social class distinctions. So in About Elly, many of the lies arise from a middle-class guilt about being ‘found out’ for doing something silly (i.e. not really checking up on Elly’s background before leaving her in charge of children – note that this isn’t caused by anything Elly has necessarily done, but rather by the fear that if she has done something wrong, others might think that the group had been negligent. Although this has a distinctiveness associated with Iranian society, we all recognise the blustering middle-class person who berates the police to conceal their own failings when we know the officials are trying to do their own jobs professionally. (This also makes me think of another British playwright with an international reputation, Alan Ayckbourn).

The more I think about About Elly, the more it resembles the other two recent films by Asghar Farhadi. ‘Polite lies’ – well-meaning lies, but also real lies that refute the painful truth – are at the heart of Fireworks Wednesday. In A Separation it is not so much about lies but it is about who to believe – with the arbiter becoming the courts. In all three films, it is an ‘outsider’ who is charged with protecting, ‘looking after’, the younger or older family members which in turn becomes crucial in the struggle within the middle-class family or group.

Shooting the scene featured at the head of this posting.

Asghar Farhadi is a major talent and we now need the three films discussed here to be more widely available as well as his two earlier features (as well as scripts and television work).

Website of DreamLab Films – French co-producer/promoter/distributor of Iranian films with resources on both About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday (English version of the site available.)

Trailer with English subs:

Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale France 2008)

Mathieu Almaric, as Henri, disrupts Midnight Mass

Mathieu Amalric, as Henri, disrupts Midnight Mass

The French Institute in South Kensington, possibly the most ‘French’ part of London, has recently renovated its cinema (unsurprisingly called Ciné Lumière). Catherine Deneuve reopened the cinema earlier this month and she leads an all-star cast in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. It seemed to me like a perfect choice – a rich mixture of French bourgeois relationships simmering and brought to the boil over the ‘festive’ season. Readers of this blog will know that we are wary of the bourgeoisie as a subject, but here I think there are reasons why the film is both enjoyable and worthwhile. I confess that I struggled for the first half hour or so in an overheated cinema (with comfortable seats and lots of leg room) at the end of a long day. The opening introduces a host of family and friends through sometimes elliptical sequences. Gradually, I managed to figure out who was who and the last half of the film was very rewarding as realisation of what some of the narrative strands might deliver slowly seeped in. The whole film is 150 minutes, but I’d watch it again, if only to try to hear all the the wide variety of music extracts and to puzzle out the literary references and those parts of the plot I still didn’t understand.

In genre terms, it’s a classic family melodrama (I think calling it a comedy/drama is quite misleading – there are comic moments, but it is all about relationships). It’s also an ‘ensemble piece’ in formal terms, with the multi-stranded narrative that implies and finally it could be assigned a tighter generic repertoire based on the timespan across a particular festive period. I think the film would probably be tough for younger students (and it’s too long for classroom use), but older students could find it both engaging and useful. It cries out to be compared with Hollywood and with similar films from China/Hong Kong and Japan. The first major difference may be that the film was not marketed in France as a ‘Christmas film’ (it came out in May). However, in America, its limited release was around Thanksgiving – possibly a more relevant American festival with the convention that family members try to return to the family home for the Thanksgiving dinner. The other odd dimension of A Christmas Tale is that although many of the aspects of a French Christmas are depicted, nobody is really seen cooking or eating to any great extent. The only (quasi-) American Thanksgiving film that I can remember is Gurinder Chadha’s What’s Cooking (2001) which features several families from different ethnic groups in Los Angeles trying to cook and get through the dinner. It did occur to me that A Christmas Tale is almost a provocation to American audiences. Those critics who respond to French Cinema have named it as one of the films of the year – various ‘users’ on IMDB have called it one of the most boring films ever made! I can’t really see the boring criticism, but I’m not surprised at bafflement.

The central family is the Vuillards – three generations of the French middle class in the town of Roubaix in the North East, situated between Lille and the Belgian border. It’s the director’s home town and, I noticed in doing the research, twinned with my nearest UK city, Bradford. This isn’t so surprising since the two locations have wool textile manufacturing as central to their history. (As an aside, it’s a shame that we don’t see more of the town.) Abel Vuillard, the paterfamilias played by Jean-Paul Roussillon, is a textile dyer with his own small company. With his wife, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), he has three adult children, played by Anne Consigny (Elizabeth), Mathieu Amalric (Henri) and Melvil Poupaud (Ivan). He also took in Simon, his nephew, played by Laurent Capelluto, who grew up with his cousins. Elizabeth has a son with her husband and Ivan has two small boys with his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve’s real-life daughter). Tragedy has already struck the family twice with the early death of the first Vuillard child, Joseph from leukaemia at the age of 6, and Henri’s wife Madeline in an accident. Now it appears that Junon has a blood cancer and only a bone marrow transplant from someone in the family can give her the prospect of at least a couple of years more. Only Elizabeth’s teenage son and his uncle Henri, the family’s ‘black sheep’, are compatible. But Elizabeth hates her brother and has vowed never to see him again. It doesn’t look like Christmas will be peaceful. Elizabeth’s husband (played by Hippolyte Girardot) flits in and out and the only other two characters who join the party are an elderly friend of Abel’s mother and Henri’s girlfriend, played by the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos.

The American model for the ‘ensemble piece’ might be Robert Altman’s films – possibly The Wedding, but in my view rather more Altman’s last (and under-valued) film, Prairie Home Companion with its thematic of impending death and feuding ‘family’ members. The review in Sight & Sound is by Ginette Vincendeau, doyenne of British based French Cinema academics. She argues that the film is a mix of auteurist cinema and popular entertainment (i.e. in the playing of the star cast), citing the success in France that brought in 500,000 admissions. The genre base does allow a range of other repertoires to be plundered, so as well as the comedy moments, there is certainly romance as well as the possibility of a medical thriller, but overall I think that the auteurist touches predominate. There is so much music of every conceivable genre, references to several films ranging from Funny Face and The Ten Commandments (is this the French equivalent of The Great Escape as the ultimate Christmas movie?) to what I now learn was A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I had assumed it was Cocteau). Others have spotted Vertigo references (which I think did dimly impinge on my consciousness, but there was so much else going on I didn’t really notice). Vincendeau suggests that Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and Renoir’s La Règle du jeu are also referenced, but I thought more about Jane Austen when the children put on a Christmas play. I’d like to find out what the German text was that is quoted extensively from a book heavily annotated in French. I’ve read that it was possibly Kant. 

Throughout the narrative, there are mysteries, some of which are revealed, others not. Letters and photographs, family stories – why does it matter that Henri’s girlfriend is Jewish? One of the strands that worked well, I thought was the attempt to represent the disease which might kill Junon through a metaphor using mythological figures. The chimera, made up of parts from different animals, stands in perhaps for the DNA of the Vuillard clan. But Desplechin denies us narrative satisfaction. The ending of the film is open. I’m certainly willing to have another go at uncovering the different strands and this was one bourgeois tale that worked for me. 2008 seems to have been an excellent year for French films – at least from the ones released in the UK.

Bamboozled (US 2000)

Introduction
Spike Lee has been a ‘controversial’ director since his first film, She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Nearly all of his features have focused on African-American culture and identity. Lee trained at New York University film school, following Martin Scorsese as a contemporary of Jim Jarmusch. His first film was an independent feature, but he soon attracted the attention of the studio majors and has since been an uneasy bedfellow for a number of studios. At the same time, Lee has promoted himself and his company very effectively, courting controversy, not only for his own films, but also through his interventions in public debates about other high profile films which address African-American cultural issues.

Through his public appearances and statements, Lee has gained supporters and detractors in equal measure, both within the African-American community and across American society as a whole. Bamboozled can be seen as Lee’s strongest statement about the issue of identity, with its direct references to arguably his most successful previous films Do The Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992) as well as its biting satire on contemporary culture.

These notes explore the following aspects of the film.

  • the history of black representations in American cinema and television
  • satire as a narrative form
  • music and visual style and the aesthetics of Bamboozled
  • Spike Lee as auteur.

First, an outline of the film’s premise:

Pierre Delacroix (Damon Willans) is a highly educated African-American employed as a producer on a TV channel run by a young white guy, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport). Dunwitty commands ‘Dela’ to come up with an idea that will attract a black audience. Feeling undervalued and patronised, Dela comes up with the idea of reviving the ‘minstrel shows’ of the past, expecting to create controversy and expose the institutional racism in US television through biting satire. His assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith) is sent out to find some performers and she returns with Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson) who are busking outside the studio. But Dela’s plan fails when the show is a big hit. Then there are a whole range of unexpected outcomes . . .

‘Minstrelsy’ and black performers
The central idea of Bamboozled is the recreation of a ‘blackface’ minstrel show with the intention of exposing the hypocrisy of the US television industry in its representation of black issues.

The live minstrel show in Bamboozled

The minstrel show in Bamboozled

Minstrel shows developed in the pre Civil War United States. Originally they comprised white performers wearing ‘blackface’ (burnt cork) who created a set of stereotypical characters such as ‘Uncle Tom’, ‘Mammy’, the lazy, chicken stealing ‘Rufus’ or ‘Rastus’ etc. The first of these performers was Thomas D. Rice who appeared as a crippled old black man named ‘Jim Crow’ in 1828. The term ‘Jim Crow’ later became shorthand for the whole edifice of institutionalised Southern racism that oppressed African-Americans even when slavery was ended – thus the so-called ‘Jim Crow Laws’ that underpinned segregation in the South from the late nineteenth century right up to the 1960s. These laws supported segregation of black and white people in public places and denied voting rights and equality before the law.

After the Civil War, black performers themselves began to use ‘blackface’ with its obscenely exaggerated features as an entry into performances for white audiences (including audiences in the UK and mainland Europe). Minstrel shows as live performances began to lose some of their popularity at the start of the twentieth century, but they swiftly moved to the new forms of cinema and radio, where they proved popular as the basis for enduring stereotypes.

Black performers from the 1920s through to the 1960s had two choices. They could appear in small independent films, made for the so-called ‘race’ market – black audiences in the South and in the major urban areas (the ‘race music’ market targeted black consumers in the same way). Some of these films were produced by black entrepreneurs like Oscar Micheaux. Mainstream Hollywood also made the occasional all black film, usually a musical, but mostly, black performers were restricted in Hollywood to specific roles as high class entertainers (such as Duke Ellington) or in the stereotypical supporting roles as ‘Mammy’, ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘Coon’ (the lazy and cowardly Rastus type character). Gone With The Wind (1939) is a good example of a major film with two star turns by Hattie McDaniel as the Mammy and Butterfly McQueen as the childlike maid with the high-pitched voice.

All these roles were demeaning, none more so than the ‘coon’. Hollywood paid better and made some performers into stars, but the antics of the coon were less noticeable in the all black films where such stars would just be seen as a ‘funny man’ amongst a range of black character types. As the sidekick to a white protagonist in a range of ‘B’ pictures, the coon character would widen his eyes and run as soon as danger threatened. One of the most popular performers was Mantan Moreland who played the ‘scared to death’ chauffeur Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan series in the 1940s. The name ‘Sleep ‘n Eat’ was associated with another coon figure, Willie Best. Both these actors were seen as successors to the earlier star, Stepin Fetchit.

The ‘high class entertainers’ were associated with the intellectual and artistic movements of Harlem that also produced poets and writers in the 1940s and 1950s. Reference to these movements comes in Bamboozled via Pierre’s use of the term ‘negro’ and his quotation from James Baldwin at his death. Although the entertainers in this group were wealthy and widely admired in white America, they were still ‘kept in their place’ by entertainment institutions. Lena Horne and Nat King Cole were just two performers who found themselves restricted at various times. Lena Horne’s performances in MGM musicals were edited so that they could easily be cut when the films were shown in the South (see Bogle 1992). The singer Nat King Cole was the first black star to have a networked television show (and the problems that went with it).
The most popular radio act was ‘Amos and Andy’, a pair of clowns who transferred to television in 1951 and became instantly popular portraying uneducated Southern black men. The racism of the 1820s reached television almost unchanged. The success of the show and its subsequent demise a few years later in the face of the Civil Rights movement, scared television producers and black shows were largely absent from television until the emergence of a new generation of shows in the 1970s, which again drew criticisms of ‘one dimensionality’ in terms of African-American representations. This in turn produced ‘safe’ ‘middle-class’ sitcoms such as The Cosby Show. Given the enormous number of television channels in America (over 900), remarkably few address the range of different black audiences. Breaking through the barriers of history and still extant institutional racism is the problem that confronts Pierre Delacroix in Bamboozled. It’s worth noting that in Britain The Black and White Minstrel Show (white performers in blackface) was still the centre of BBC Television’s Saturday night entertainment in the 1960s.

‘Black Americana’
One of the striking aspects of the mise en scène of Bamboozled is the deployment of numerous artefacts that depict the standard stereotypes such as the Mammy figure, ‘Little Nigger Jim’ etc. The characters on stage in the minstrel show are duplicated around Dela’s office and home as he begins to acquire figurines and posters, mirroring the activities of many contemporary African-Americans who now collect such items (including Lee himself). The moment when the savings bank seems to animate itself is a startling representation of Dela’s breakdown. These artifacts were common in North America up to the 1960s (and they existed in the UK as well). Some were associated with particular products such as Uncle Ben’s Rice, Aunt Jemimah’s Pancake Mix etc. and these kinds of associations are satirised by Lee through the reference to ‘Tommy Hilnigger’ clothes and Da Bomb malt liquor.

An example of 'Black Americana'

An example of 'Black Americana'

Another Hollywood film in 2001, Ghost World, also picks up on this phenomenon. A young high school graduate played by Thora Birch discovers an original 1950s poster for ‘Coon Chicken Inns’ and enters it in an art competition as ‘found art’, hoping to cause comment and to raise questions about institutional racism – she succeeds in creating a controversy.

The complexity of representations
There isn’t space here to do justice to the development of racial stereotypes throughout the Hollywood studio era and into television. Bogle points out that the later characters were gradually ‘humanised’ into likeable personalities – but perhaps this makes the type even more dangerous?

What is certainly true is that many of the leading black performers were supreme entertainers who gave audiences immense pleasure in viewing performances. The racism from which they suffered didn’t negate the power of their performances and this is something that Lee clearly recognises and celebrates. Savion Glover who plays Mantan/Manray is one of the foremost performers in contemporary dance and a star of international reputation – when in Bamboozled he is presented with the shoes owned by Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, it is an intensely moving moment.

Satire

1. (a) A literary work in which human vice or folly is ridiculed or attacked scornfully.
1. (b) The branch of literature which composes such work.
2. Irony, derision or caustic wit used to attack, expose folly, vice or stupidity.

These dictionary definitions of ‘satire’ are Pierre Delacroix’s first words in Bamboozled. From the outset, Spike Lee sets out his intentions. His film is clearly not going to be a ‘realist’ account of goings-on in an American television company. From this opening we should expect that the characters in the film will be broadly drawn with names that refer in some way to their role in the satire (as in Thackeray’s nineteenth century take on English manners, Vanity Fair).

This is certainly the case with the names chosen for the performers, referring directly to stereotypical characters or black performers of the 1930s. The lead character has changed his name from ‘Peerless’ (his given name – reflecting his mother’s attempt to strive for a more dignified future?) to the pretentious ‘Pierre’, more suited to his new ‘buppy’ (‘black upwardly mobile professional’ – the equivalent of ‘yuppie’) identity. His father is ‘Junebug’ a more ‘down home’ name for a performer who is something of a ‘gadfly’ with barbed attacks on white society for his predominantly black audience.

The other name change comes with Sloan’s brother, ‘Big Blak Afrika’ who explains that he is not ‘Julius’ any more. His exchange with Sloan explains the whole business of dispensing with ‘slave names’ that began with the Black Muslims in the 1950s. Sloan and Julius both carry the name ‘Hopkins’. This is one of the oldest names in American history, traceable back to a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and one of the first families of settlers in Massachusetts.

In a satire, we can expect that few characters will be ‘sympathetic’ in the usual sense. Some will be clearly misguided or villainous, others will be dupes in the exaggerated story. Thus Pierre’s mother, an otherwise ‘real’ character, represents the over protective mother who is ‘disappointed’ in her son. In Bamboozled, the most seemingly sane and rational character is Sloan – does she in some way represent us, the audience? In the end, she too is implicated in the madness.

“[Jada’s] really the conscience of the film, the character the audience feels for. And despite that, her hands are bloody too, as are Delacroix’s. Everybody’s bloody in the film, everybody’s in cahoots, and she knew about it from the beginning, but like everyone else in the film, she wants to see how it’s going to work out.” (Spike Lee in Fuchs, 2000)

Because the aim of satire is ridicule, we can’t expect a satirical film to conform to narrative conventions as such. The ending of Bamboozled is rushed and ‘over the top’ (‘melodramatic’ perhaps – this particular satire draws on family melodrama for some of its effects). By contrast, the coda – the compilation of clips from Hollywood films and television shows – is given more prominence than usual and earlier narrative sequences, such as the audition scenes for the minstrel show, are given extended coverage when conventionally they would be presented in a montage. Lee’s main purpose is to expose and ridicule, not to tell a conventionally ‘satisfying’ tale.

The major problem with satire for audiences is a tendency towards incoherence. This comes from the lack of conventional narrative structure and from the ‘scattergun effect’ of raising a wide range of issues, none of which will be ‘resolved’ as such. Lee’s aim is to make audiences think, to carry on the debate outside the cinema, rather than to feel that there is a ‘right’ answer.

“This film is really an exploration of the history of racism and misrepresentation of African Americans and people of color since the birth of film and television. This film shows how racism is woven into the very fabric of America: when you think of America, you think of Hollywood, and this wasn’t just D.W. Griffith. This was Al Jolson, and “wholesome” performers like Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Bing Crosby. It was like, the sky was blue, just accepted, an accepted view of black people.” (Lee in Fuchs op cit)

“I want people to think about the power of images, not just in terms of race, but how imagery is used and what sort of social impact it has – how it influences how we talk, how we think, how we view one another. In particular, I want them to see how film and television have historically, from the birth of both mediums, produced and perpetuated distorted images.” (Lee in Cineaste interview)

Bamboozled also emphasises its satirical roots through references to two earlier satires on American media. Spike Lee has discussed his own admiration for A Face in the Crowd (1957) written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. In this film an ‘Arkansas nobody’ becomes a major media star when his personality is promoted by television. His ego takes over and eventually he is found out. References to a later film, Network (1976), written by Paddy Chayevsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, are evident in the pilot minstrel show in Bamboozled when Manray/Mantan urges viewers to go to their windows and shout out that they are “not going to take it any more”. This is a direct reference to the newscaster played by Peter Finch who gains a huge television audience by becoming an evangelical figure: his ravings against the media are turned into high ratings by the network. Something similar (i.e. the cynical manipulation of the truth) is evident in the speeches made by Warren Beatty in the political satire Bulworth (1998).

The pilot minstrel show does seem to be more directly ‘political’ in content with Mantan’s rant referring to the problems of urban America and Womack pointedly referring to a gentler time when there were fewer problems and black people ‘knew their place’. This irony is much diminished in the later shows.

Whatever else we might think about the presentation of characters in Bamboozled, we can be sure that all the stereotypical characters are based on historical evidence. It may be difficult, and painful, to stomach, but Hollywood did create such representations.

The aesthetic of Bamboozled
Spike Lee and his cinematographer Ellen Kuras (a regular Lee collaborator and one of the very few women to succeed in Hollywood as a cinematographer) devised an approach to the ‘look’ of the film using digital video and Super 16. In fact, Ellen Kuras used several ‘mini-DV’ cameras working on the European PAL standard rather than American NTSC (since it gives a slightly higher resolution that is noticeable when blown up to 35mm for cinema projection.) Video is used throughout the film in all scenes except those depicting the stage performances, which are shot on film.

The deliberate move from one format to another might be seen as a ‘distancing’ device such as those associated with the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Such devices serve to break up the easy identification with characters or the flow of the narrative and ask audiences to question the way in which the narrative is being constructed. Lee uses a ‘Brechtian’ approach in several of his films. Other examples in Bamboozled might be the ‘fantasy’ moments such as Pierre thinking about slapping Dunwitty and later when the savings bank is animated.

There are several different ways to approach the choice between digital video and film. On the one hand, video might be thought appropriate for the ‘story’ scenes if they are being equated with the feel of ‘reality tv’ – handheld, grainy, muted colours with plenty of blue. Equally film might suit the ‘fantasy’ of performance. But the opposite could also be argued – film is an ironic medium to use for material that would be viewed as ‘live television’, but film would be the expected format for the fiction narrative of the ‘story’ scenes. This confusion adds to the distanciation effect. Ironically, also, ‘Super 16′ is a film format that uses the whole of the film area to record the image (i.e. sound must be recorded separately) and in the UK it is only used for shooting film for television.

In her contribution to the Cineaste symposium, Zeinabu Irene Davis points to the striking colour scheme in the film with blue the predominant colour in the cold ‘white’ scenes (the network offices, Pierre’s apartment etc.) and orange in the warmer ‘black’ scenes – Junebug’s performance, the focus on Da Bomb malt liquor. Davis points out that blue is a difficult colour to remove from digital images, but film allows the vibrant colours of the minstrel show, none more so than the deeply moving sequences in which Manray and Womack apply the burnt cork of ‘blackface’, finishing with the ‘fire truck red’ lipstick.

As a final comment on the technologies used, the budget for Bamboozled was $10 million. This is significantly more than might be available for a ‘black independent’ production, but only about 20% of the budget of a mainstream Hollywood feature. The film was eventually financed by New Line Cinema, a Time Warner company, so it is ‘independent’ in name only. Lee has criticised the company for its failure to distribute the film properly.

Music is crucial in Spike Lee’s films and in Bamboozled he worked for the ninth time with Terence Blanchard. The music performs two different functions. In the Stevie Wonder songs, the lyrics provide a direct commentary on the themes and issues of the film, whereas in Blanchard’s score, the music serves to add intensity to the emotional underpinning of key scenes.

The performances by the artistes at the audition are more problematic. The key performance is by the Mau Maus, all of whom were played by hip-hop performers from the more politically conscious end of the music. Lee wanted to present both the politics of rap and it’s excesses:

“I think their intentions are honorable but, but they’re misguided. I think a lot of this is because they don’t read. If you don’t read then you’re going to be ignorant, and you’re just going to be making up stuff as you go along. I like rap music, but I’m not a fan of a lot of gangsta rap. I think it’s obsessed with the ‘bling bling,’ with the gold chains and diamonds and Bentleys and all other trappings – you know, the titties and the butts shaking and jigging into the camera. I don’t think that’s uplifting, not at all. It’s all about massive amounts of consumption.” Spike Lee interview in Cineaste.

Spike Lee as auteur
Several references have already been made to Spike Lee’s output via his company ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks’. The company title refers to the (unfulfilled) promise made to freed slaves after the Civil War. In reality not only were blacks in the South not supported by the Federal government, but as already noted, the ‘Jim Crow’ laws reduced them to second-class citizens. Lee’s intent in controlling his own work is clear.
Bamboozled refers directly to several of Lee’s other films. The title itself comes from the term used by Malcolm X to describe the state of mind of black people in the 1950s (“to be deceived, confounded or mystified” is the dictionary definition of the word). Denzel Washington is seen in a clip from Lee’s 1992 film. The history of Southern institutionalised racism is explored in Lee’s critically acclaimed documentary Four Little Girls (1999), which investigates the death of the girls in a bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 during the Civil Rights struggle.

The most striking reference is to Do The Right Thing (1989). This was the film which brought Lee to a wide audience. It concentrates on an incident in the predominantly black neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York on the hottest day of the year. A confrontation begins when a politically conscious young man challenges the owner of the neighbourhood pizzeria over the the issue of the portraits of the ‘heroes’ on the walls of the pizza parlour. They are all Italian-Americans, but most of the customers are black. Why can’t the owner put up portraits of black heroes? He refuses and tension grows. Lee himself plays Mookie, the pizza delivery man – caught in the middle of the conflict. The film explores all the ethnic communities in the area and the different positions they take up.

In Bamboozled, Dunwitty has his office decorated with African-American sports stars in order to prove how ‘black’ he is. But he also smooths his hair and makes a reference to the Rev. Al Sharpton in exactly the same way as the racist son of the pizzeria owner in Do The Right Thing. Lee seems to be saying that the debate has moved on or become more complex. (In Do The Right Thing, the young man who calls for portraits of the ‘brothers’ is clearly right to be asking the question, but is shown to be inept in political strategy – Dunwitty is a target for satire). Lee himself does not appear in Bamboozled. Does he place himself outside the arguments? He is clearly implicated in the issues. D’Arcy (2001) suggests that Lee is a collector of ‘black Americana’ and that some of the figurines that decorate Pierre’s apartment are from Lee’s own collection. Lee would argue that preserving such artefacts is important in keeping the evidence of what happened in front of people. But how does he refute the charge that in promoting his own brand of ‘designer clothing’ he is as culpable as ‘Tommy Hilnigger’ of being an entrepreneur in league with corporate white America in separating urban black youth from their money? The issues are complex and, again, Lee would argue that by earning the money to give him the freedom to make the films he wants, his commercial ventures are ultimately subsidising more important political and cultural work.

Ideas and values: Lee and his critics
Bamboozled was not a box-office success and it attracted plenty of negative reviews to put alongside some glowing endorsements. Almost all critics are agreed on one point. There are possibly too many ideas to fit in one film. The issues are complex and can’t be contained within a single narrative. Lee’s strategy of playing the film as a satire and therefore presenting ‘broad brush’ characters in a didactic and ultimately melodramatic mode then divides the audience. Those who are happy with the satirical mode find the film invigorating and important in stirring up a debate that should be heard. The detractors feel that it simply means that the film is incoherent – a mess.

Lee’s most consistent critic has been Armond White of the alternative weekly New York Press. White sees Lee as making ‘big budget agit-prop’ movies that please the ‘white liberal press’ and take up the space that might be used by more radical and more important black filmmakers such as Charles Burnett (see below). More acutely, White asks whether or not Lee is patronising his audience in not recognising the sophistication with which black audiences read contemporary images and also in not considering how audiences ‘read’ such images in the 1930s.

White’s attack is important and it is supported by Ray Carney, an academic at Boston University:

The presence of racially- or sexually-based characters, settings, and references is no guarantee of minority imaginative content, in this sense, and is in fact irrelevant to it. That is why Spike Lee’s films can be judged to be far more mainstream, middle-class, middlebrow, and ‘Hollywood’ in their point of view than Cassavetes’. While Lee merely recycles standard Hollywood melodramatic conflicts, formulas, and clichés (in Minstrel Blackface, as it were -suburban, Yuppified versions of Cabin in the Sky [a Hollywood musical with an all-black cast, made in 1943]), the stylistic experiences of Cassavetes’ or Burnett’s works provide the viewer with the opportunity to participate imaginatively in truly alien and unconventional forms of knowledge. (Carney 1994)

Carney is writing about the New York independent filmmaker John Cassavettes, but again he mentions Charles Burnett. Burnett is a genuine independent filmmaker who works on miniscule budgets and has produced a handful of films over a twenty year period. Only two of Burnett’s films have been released in the UK, the most recent being a family melodrama set in Los Angeles, To Sleep With Anger (1990). Burnett’s films are characterised by the absence of stereotypical black characters and a much more realist presentation. It is this realism that is seen as radical given that other black films (Lee’s included) are seemingly pre-occupied with violence, drugs and popular entertainment.

Questions for discussion

1. Is Bamboozled a ‘radical film’?
2. Pierre Delacroix is the leading character in Bamboozled. What kind of a journey does he take in terms of understanding black representations?
3. What is Spike Lee suggesting in the way in which he tells the story of Manray/Mantan and Womack/Sleep ‘n Eat?
4. Are the criticisms of Spike Lee justified in presenting him as a middle-class African-American filmmaker who takes the focus of attention away from more radical black filmmakers?

References and further reading
Don Bogle (1992) Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, New York: Continuum
Ray Carney (1994) The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism,
Modernism, and the Movies
, New York and London: Cambridge University Press
Cineaste Vol XXVI No 2 features a Spike Lee interview and a critical symposium on the film.
David D’Arcy (2000), ‘Black market’, Guardian March 30
John Kisch and Edward Mapp (1992) A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black Cast Posters, New York: Noonday Press
Cynthia Fuchs (2000) interview with Spike Lee on http://www.nitrateonline.com/2000/fbambooz.html

Studying From Russia With Love: Study Guide

Studying From Russia With Love, Will Rimmer, Auteur Publications, Leighton Buzzard 2008, ISBN 978-1-903663-78-3

I approached this Study Guide with some trepidation – I’m not a big James Bond fan and I’ve long thought the character an anachronistic fascist misogynist. I’ve tried to watch some of the more recent films, but apart from the impressive action sequences I can’t really see the point. But then, this guide is about the second Bond film – the one that most critics feel is the best of the series. And I remember seeing it on release as a young teenager in 1963, sitting in the first few rows of the ‘front stalls’ at Blackpool’s cavernous Odeon, then one of the largest cinemas in the UK. It was exciting then – I can still remember the credits and the theme music and quite a lot of the film’s action too. Since then, I’ve probably watched some sequences several times and recently I watched the whole film in what looked like a new print on ITV.

Because of these childhood memories, I was interested to see how Will Rimmer would handle the film. It isn’t clear exactly how he approaches it since there is no indication of which exam specifications are being addressed. Presumably A Level Film Studies is the main target as the guide provides ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ analyses (in terms of narrative, ‘film language’ and representation issues) and it attempts to set the film in the context of 1950s and 1960s British Cinema. (There are problems using the film for more than one purpose for A Level assessment – so check carefully.) It was indeed an optional ‘set film’ for the FS3 Exam in Summer 2008, but by Summer 2009 the spec will have changed and study of this film would have to be fitted in to ‘Swinging Britain 1963-73’. This is touched on in the guide, but seems to me a tough call.

Will Rimmer has clearly taught the film (or other James Bond films such as Goldfinger) in the context of A Level Film Studies and I found it interesting to read comments by his students after a screening. The guide offers the analyses mentioned above and comes with eight classroom worksheets. All of these look fairly straightforward, although I’ve always doubted the usefulness of worksheets that you don’t devise yourself with a specific group of students in mind (but I know that this isn’t the modern way and that worksheets are sometimes a popular feature of guides). Slightly more problematic are the attempts to contextualise the film, both in production terms and in cultural terms.

I think the guide suffers from two factors beyond the author’s control. One is the constraint of space – a few pages only to discuss one of the major periods of British filmmaking – and the other is the tendency for contextual/conjunctural work of any kind at this level to be constrained by what teachers and students might have already seen or might have potential access to. It’s very easy to fall back on references to what are seen as historically important film movements, generally ignoring the mainstream commercial filmmaking of the period. Rimmer compounds the problem by relying exclusively on recent material on the Bond franchise and the social history of the period. I haven’t read Dominic Sandbrook’s history (Never Had It So Good, 2005) but it has generally had rave reviews. I’m also not familiar with Rimmer’s main source, Martinis, Girls and Guns: 50 Years of 007 by Martin Sterling and Gary Morecambe. I’m just surprised that he didn’t make use of the scholarly work of the 1980s on James Bond, first for the OU’s Popular Culture course (see Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott, Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero. New York: Methuen, 1987) and later Licence To Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films by James Chapman (1999). (He does quote Chapman, but the reference is not listed.)

Rimmer does make good use of Christopher Frayling’s comments about the ‘consumerist’ appeal of Fleming’s character with his exclusive brand of cigarettes and his instructions about making a martini. He is also surely right to note that in 1963 From Russia With Love was still very much about an older generation and though the film was exciting, it wasn’t actually part of any kind of ‘youth culture’. Where he falls down is in the production background and the discussion of British Cinema generally in the period. Presumably as part of a ploy to attach the film to the beginnings of ‘permissiveness’ etc., Rimmer describes the British New Wave film movement of the late 1950s/early 1960s and conveniently slides it into the earlier non-commercial Free Cinema programmes of the earlier 1950s (I think this kind of shorthand is very misleading). These connections are justified by Bond producer Harry Saltzman’s background as producer for Woodfall Pictures on three of the more celebrated new wave films. Yet the real production context of the James Bond films derives from the ending of the Warwick Films partnership between Cubby Broccoli and Irving Allen – which had turned out various action genre films for Columbia in the 1950s – and Broccoli’s subsequent interest in the Fleming books which led him into a new partnership with Saltzman. Nobody pretended that Eon, as the new company was named, had anything other than a strict commercial interest in James Bond and the approach was significantly different from the ‘artistic’ ambitions of the new wave filmmakers.

From Russia With Love was in some ways ‘new’, but in most respects it drew on a long tradition of spy thrillers/romance thrillers, especially from Hitchcock. Connery was jolted into stardom by Dr No, but he wasn’t new (or ‘young’). Like Michael Caine in Zulu, Ipcress File and Alfie, Connery was a jobbing actor whose time seemed to have come. This was true of others in the cast as well. Rimmer recalls how he first came across Robert Shaw (the Bond villain/assassin in From Russia With Love) in Jaws. In 1963 he was well known to small boys as the dashing hero of The Buccaneers action series on ITV. The other two casting decisions that stand out are Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb and Pedro Armendariz as the Turkish agent. Lotte Lenya was best known as a singer, especially in relation to Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Pedro Armendiraz was a star of the popular Mexican film industry of the 1940s and 1950s who also appeared in Hollywood films. The strange casting of a Mexican as a Turk was of course standard for Hollywood (as was that of an Italian beauty queen as the Russian ‘honey trap’ agent and a Jamaican woman as a ‘Gypsy’ dancer) and it points to the production context in which this ostensibly British film was in effect an international production, set mostly outside the UK and bankrolled by United Artists. Rimmer picks up this facet of the production context in his discussion of the modern action picture genre but Alexander Walker’s account in Hollywood England (1975) is perhaps the best source here.

More worrying is the discussion of representation in this study guide, which seems to mirror the strange casting decisions. I have a problem here in that because I’m antipathetic towards the ideology of the film overall, I find it difficult to take Rimmer’s exploration of class, gender, age etc. seriously. He gamely goes through these issues but it is difficult to pin down how representations in the film are constructed and what they might mean. There is also the problem of sliding between the film and the book and between this single Bond film and the others that followed and the spy thriller genre films of the 1960s. I can’t really accept that the film is any kind of ‘serious commentary’ on the Cold War, though it may be what some commentators have termed ‘symptomatic’ of certain Cold War ideas. My only substantial quibble is with Rimmer’s analysis of the ‘Gypsy’ characters: “The girls dress in clothing appropriate for their culture, with an almost native, Girl Friday look about them, barefooted and bikini clad.” (p. 38) I would have thought it was more useful to question here the 1960s attitudes towards people who in Europe now are generally called Roma. As for the ‘native’ look and the standard Hollywood exploitation costume – how is this “appropriate for their culture”? Elsewhere, Rimmer does refer to the location of Bond films and the producers’ wish not to offend potential audiences. In this sense, choosing a transitory minority group to play a significant role makes some kind of sense.

In summary, I still find From Russia With Love to be an entertaining film, but I’m not really convinced by Will Rimmer’s analysis in terms of 1960s British Cinema or the political and social context of the period. In terms of ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ analyses of key concepts, I think he does a pretty detailed job and on that basis the guide may be useful for students and teachers.