Search results for: of horses and men

Of Horses and Men (Iceland 2013)

Ingvar E. Sigurðsson plays the lone farmer who proudly trots his mare down the road watched by a visitor from Latin America.

Ingvar E. Sigurðsson plays the lone farmer who proudly trots his mare down the road watched by a visitor from Latin America.

This is a riveting 80-something minutes of bravura filmmaking best seen on a big screen in a good-sized cinema (go here to find current bookings across the UK – often single screenings). It’s set in rural Iceland with sea, mountains and rough pasture and accompanied by a terrific soundtrack (including Icelandic choir performances). Described as ‘Comedy-Drama’ by the distributor, the humour is actually very dark. When I was going into the cinema I overheard an argument at the box office when someone couldn’t understand why the cinema would not admit her child (aged under 15). I suspect that the film would be very upsetting for most children – this isn’t a ‘horsey romance’.

There is no strong narrative as such. Instead we get a number of shorter narratives, mostly tragic with elements of comedy, involving the small farmers on the plain. The farmers all in some way live with/by the wild horses of the region, each year rounding up a number of them and breaking them for leisure or commerce of some kind. There is something of a documentary feel to the narrative structure in the way that the stories lead towards the big summer round-up. The community is quite ‘close’ in proximity but individuals are also competitive/jealous/promiscuous etc. The film’s English title (not a direct translation) misses out ‘women’, at least two of whom are also important narrative agents.

I was trying to think of another film that had a similar tone and I began to think of the Basque film Vacas (Cows) made by Julio Medem in 1992. A tight-knit community in a very specific locale with a strong local culture and some almost surreal local practices. At one point, when the various widows/divorcées are angered that one of their number has got her teeth into the most eligible male by teaming up with him during the horse round-up, the other women suggest that there should be more than two people doing the job taken by the couple. “It’s been a two-person job for a thousand years” retorts an older man.

Of Horses and Men is a début film for writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson and as such it is a staggering achievement, winning several international prizes as well as cleaning up at the Icelandic ‘Edda’ awards. One of the roles is played by the Icelandic actor who is best known by international audiences, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, and I recognised at least one other actor from Jar City (2006), the last Icelandic film to get a significant release in the UK. Most of the stories have surprising twists which I don’t want to give away but I was intrigued by the reference to a famous sequence from Jan Troell’s The New Land (Sweden 1972) (what to do when you and your horse/ox etc. are caught in a snowstorm). The relatively few Icelandic films I’ve seen have all had ‘noirish’ features. The short film Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) shares the dark tone and appears to have been shot in a similar location.

I enjoyed the film very much, but I turned away from the screen a couple of times since I’m squeamish about many forms of violence or medical procedure. Will the film please horse-lovers? I don’t know, but I think they will appreciate the representation of the horses (beautifully photographed) and the realism of certain scenes. Be warned, however, that the film ends with the message that all those taking part in the film are horse lovers and that “no horses were harmed during the making of the film”. Some pretty good CGI or VFX then, I think!

Buck and the Preacher (US 1972)

Sidney Poitier as a Western hero

Following the release of the Harry Belafonte ‘bio-documentary’ Sing Your Song in UK cinemas, I decided to look at some of the Belafonte movies available on DVD. In all the coverage of the new documentary relatively little has been said about Belafonte’s film work – which though not extensive was important in the development of African-American cinema, not least because the actor-singer produced his own films at a time when few African-Americans had any direct power in the industry. Belafonte’s second independent production company, Belafonte Enterprises, made the film in conjunction with Columbia. Belafonte took the second lead, but the star and director of the film was Sidney Poitier (who took over from the first director, Joseph Sargent). Ruby Dee, often paired with Poitier as an actor and with Belafonte as an activist, was billed third. The script was by the distinguished TV writer Ernest Kinoy who had written another Sidney Poitier script, Brother John, a year earlier and who would go on to contribute scripts to the TV serial Roots (1977) and its sequel in 1979. The music for the film was composed by Benny Carter, the great jazz band leader, and includes contributions from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Buck and the Preacher belongs to the cycle of ‘revisionist Westerns’ in the early 1970s when the counter culture and the anti-war movement in the US managed to find an outlet in the New Hollywood. This was the period of Soldier Blue (1970) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), but the most popular Western of the 1970s was Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles (1974). What links these three very different films is a debunking of the mythology of the West and a reappraisal of the representation of characters who would later be known as ‘African-Americans’ and ‘Native Americans’. This same period also saw the commercial success of a range of ‘Blaxploitation’ films, led by urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and this development also included Blaxploitation Westerns, especially the cycle of films starring Fred Williamson – The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), its sequel The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (Black Bounty Hunter, 1974). The creation of Black ‘super-heroes’ in different settings attracted audiences (partly because of the provocative titles which created controversy) but didn’t really engage with the Western myths or the conventions of the genre as such. In his magisterial BFI Companion to the Western (1971), editor Ed Buscombe argues that Buck and the Preacher did precisely that – and that makes it an important film both for African-American cinema and the Western.

Outline

The narrative focuses on an aspect of American history largely neglected by Hollywood – the attempt by freed slaves from the South, after the Civil War ended, to head West on wagon trains, seeking new lands. Poitier plays ‘Buck’, an ex Union Cavalry sergeant, who sets himself up as a wagonmaster who will pilot wagon trains through hostile territory. He makes a deal with the local Native American chief to allow the wagon trains an unhindered passage, but he also has to battle a band of ex-Confederate soldiers. These men have been hired by plantation-owners in the South to drive the freed slaves back into low-paid employment in the cottonfields and their tactics are vicious and uncompromising. Ruby Dee plays Buck’s wife and Belafonte plays a con-man preacher who clashes with Buck but eventually forms an uneasy alliance with him to fight the ex-Confederates.

Analysis

The history of African-American cinema is usually presented via three distinct phases in Hollywood and then a question mark about what is happening today. In the first phase early American cinema and Hollywood in the silent era drew upon a range of Black stereotypes that had been developed in the nineteenth century. Donald Bogle’s ‘Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films’ revised in 1992 has the main title of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. These five types defined the roles offered to Black actors in mainstream Hollywood (although initially, following the practices of minstrelsy, white actors ‘blacked up’ for some roles). In the 1930s Black entrepreneurs struggled to offer an alternative to this Hollywood condescension but they did manage to produce low-budget independent Black films exploring popular genres – including Black Westerns such as the ‘Western Musical’ Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and the much earlier The Bull-Dogger (1922).

Hollywood eventually reacted to the potential of the Black popular audience with the gradual development of mainstream films with Black themes – and predominantly Black casting – by the late 1940s and early 1950s when Poitier and Belafonte were young actors seeking work. This was the second phase of African-American cinema with films that were presented as ‘liberal’ dramas attempting to deal with some elements of social realism. However, the old stereotypes remained in place. Sidney Poitier was the 1950s ‘good Negro’, essentially a ‘Tom’ derived from the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ruby Dee was the ‘good Negro wife’ and Harry Belafonte was seen as the ‘beautiful, sexy young man’ – the ‘Buck’ (which he resisted strongly and which no doubt was one of the reasons why he focused more on his musical career). The third phase was associated with the Blaxploitation cycle which critiqued the old stereotypes and the most immediate signal of change was evident in the casting of Poitier, quite literally, as ‘Buck’ with Ruby Dee still his wife, but now supporting him in actions which under the conventions of the Western represent resistance to the dominant ideology. Meanwhile, Belafonte is cast as the ‘Preacher’, a con-man role which featured in several of the earlier Black Westerns of the 1930s/40s.

Harry Belafonte as the long-haired ‘Preacher’

Buck and the Preacher is partly a comedy and that may be both why the film was a relative commercial success, but also why it hasn’t perhaps been given the status it deserves. As Ed Buscombe points out, the script is intelligent and knowing in its play with the conventions and the performances are very enjoyable. Poitier doesn’t just play the ‘Buck’, he overplays the role, sporting two mini-howitzers rather than conventional six-guns. There is an exhilaration in the way in which all three leads become ‘Western heroes’ and Bogle tells us that Black audiences cheered at the sight of the three heroes racing their horses across the screen pursued by a sheriff’s posse – I won’t spoil the narrative by revealing why they are on the run. The smiles are more wry in the key scene when Buck negotiates with the Native American chief who responds to the argument that Black and Red men have both suffered at the hands of the Whites by pointing out that Buck had served in the Union Army. This again feels like a commentary on Poitier’s previous roles in Hollywood – as well as, perhaps, a comment on the way in which Black soldiers had become a crucial element in the US Army in Vietnam.

I highly recommend the film as an enjoyable Western and a film that at least lifts a corner of the carpet under which the African-American experience of the ‘Old West’ has been carefully swept by Hollywood. You can download my notes on Harry Belafonte and Hollywood here: BelafonteNotes

BIFF 5: Coeur Animal (Animal Heart, Switzerland/France 2009)

Paul and Eusebio outside the farm.

Animal Heart played on DVD in one of the ‘satellite venues’ of the Bradford International Film Festival at the Playhouse in Ilkley, a theatre space used as a digital cinema by the Ilkley Film Society. Ilkley is a genteel small town in Yorkshire and I’m not sure what the audience made of this quite brutal story of rural marital strife – but I’m sure that they admired the quality of the filmmaking.

Camille Japy as Rosine

In many ways Animal Heart is a traditional and familiar story. Paul is a farmer in the high mountain country with a mixed livestock farm. He sends cow’s milk to the dairy and makes cheese from goat’s milk (or rather Rosine, his wife, makes cheese). He also has horses, pigs and chickens, but he treats most of his animals better than he treats Rosine. We read the signals early on that she is not well but he assumes that she is pregnant. Having a son seems his only concern. The necessary agent of change comes in the form of Eusebio, a Spanish farmworker who he hires for the summer. Thereafter the plot is not totally predictable. There isn’t a strong narrative. Instead, this is a film about the three characters and as such it works very well. The mountains are both majestic and inhospitable, the performances are very good (especially the farmer’s dog) and all the technical credits are excellent. The three lead actors are very experienced. I don’t mind watching films on DVD projection, but as one local film society member suggested, the film would have looked even better on a huge screen on film.

The director and co-writer is Séverine Cornamusaz and this is her first feature after training in New York and returning to Switzerland to make shorts. The film was financed by Swiss television and various public funds – including the French film agency, CNC, (it was made in the canton of Vaud in the French-speaking region of Switzerland). The script is based on the novel Rapport aux bêtes by Noëlle Revaz. I’m not sure if there is a generic hill farmer type across all of European literature but Paul did seem recognisable from other films – though perhaps not as extreme (he doesn’t seem to believe in medical care for humans and routinely uses the first-aid kit designed for animal welfare). Coeur Animal has won several prizes at festivals, but I don’t know of any plans to release it in the UK.

There is a high quality trailer here. This gives a sense of the locale and the shifting tones of the film, but also confuses a little and doesn’t show the brutality.

GFF18 #11: The Hitch-Hiker (US 1953)

On Wednesday 28th February Scotland was given a Red warning of heavy snow. I was due to go home but found all the trains cancelled. Most of the Film Festival venues closed as Glasgow went into lock-down. But even snow storms can have a silver lining and next day, aware I couldn’t get home, I turned up at GFT to discover that the afternoon shows were on and that I would be able to see more of Ida Lupino’s in the festival’s centenary retrospective.

Ida Lupino was always frustrated under contract at Warner Brothers and in 1948 she set up her own production company, ‘Emerald Productions’ (referring to her mother’s stage name) with partners including producer Collier Young who she married in 1948. Later the company was renamed as ‘The Filmakers’ (sic). During suspensions by Warner Bros for refusing parts, she had learned as much as she could about directing and become an admirer of the tough guy directors like Raoul Walsh and William Wellman. The Hitch-Hiker is one of the seven films that Lupino directed (two of them uncredited) between 1949 and 1954. Her later directing career took her into television, apart from one more film in 1966. Ida Lupino became known as a director who belonged to a modernist school of pre-New Wave auteurs. On a practical level her independent films were all short (70-80 minutes) and made quickly on low budgets of less than $200,000. The Hitch-Hiker lasts just 71 minutes – none of them wasted. It’s a cracker! Made as a co-production with RKO, the film benefits from some well-known RKO department heads including Nicholas Musuraca as cinematographer (one of the great film noir creatives) and C. Bakaleinikoff as music director (again a noir expert). Lupino and Young (now divorced) wrote the screenplay, though IMDb also lists Daniel Mainwaring (writer of Out of the Past and many more noirs) as an uncredited writer. The original story came from Robert Joseph. Mainwaring was one of the writers to suffer from the blacklist – which Lupino didn’t recognise.

Director Ida Lupino on set with Edmond O’Brien (left) and William Talman

The short running time for a film with so much creative talent working on the production is partly attributable to the difficulties Lupino faced with the subject matter. She decided to make a film based on a ‘true crime’ story about the serial killer Billy Cook who was in San Quentin awaiting execution. Lupino visited him there and arranged the rights to his story, planning a film which sounds something like In Cold Blood (1967), the film based on Truman Capote’s ‘faction’ novel. For various reasons, including problems with the production code, the final screenplay changed names and story elements but under Lupino’s direction still retained a documentary, or at least a ‘procedural’ feel. The killer, renamed Emmett Myers, is first seen in California, killing a couple who had offered him a lift and then similarly despatching a travelling salesman and taking his car. When that breaks down he again hitches a ride but this time doesn’t immediately kill the two men on a fishing trip but, holding them at gun-point, forces them to drive him down through Mexico. At some point they know he will kill again. Lupino shows only the killer’s feet and very brief shots of the victims in a swift opening to the narrative before we settle in to the psychological play between the three central characters.

In one of his psychological ploys, the killer forces one of his hostages (Frank Lovejoy) to shoot a can out of his friend’s hand

As the killer, Lupino and Young cast William Talman (who later became well-known as the DA always defeated in court by Perry Mason on TV). Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy were cast as the two hostages. O’Brien was an excellent character actor who appeared again for Lupino in The Bigamist later in 1953. Lovejoy is best known to me as the police officer in Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). Lupino had a leading acting role in On Dangerous Ground (1950) for Nick Ray and claims have been made that she directed some scenes of that film when Ray was unwell. I imagine Lupino was very well-known in Hollywood and must have had a large network of people she had worked with and could rely on. She was an independent, but needed a studio like RKO to distribute her films so she still had to compromise on certain issues.

One of the noir sequences with careful lighting of the passengers in the car

The Hitch-Hiker is usually described as a film noir and Lupino is often described as the first woman to make a noir – as well as being one of the great femmes fatales in several noirs. I understand why this has happened and it’s true that there are distinctly ‘noirish’ sequences in the film. However, I think it is more useful to consider the film as being in the ‘mode’ of a film noir but drawing on several other genres. Lupino herself was generally interested in films about ‘ordinary people’ – the bewildered folk who find themselves in difficult positions. She looked for that documentary feel. In The Hitch-Hiker there are conventional montages showing newspaper headlines, but also important procedural touches such as the co-operation between the US and Mexican police agencies, the use of radio transmissions to deceive Myers and coverage of the search techniques. I was also struck by how much the narrative resembled a Western, especially in the journey through the desert, the night-time camping and the encounters with small Mexican communities and travellers. It isn’t difficult to imagine the car replaced by horses or a buggy. But the prime generic ‘mover’ of the action is the psychological thriller. Collins (O’Brien) and Bowen (Lovejoy) are ‘ordinary guys’ on a fishing trip. They may well have been in the Second World War (and Bowen is a skilled rifleman) but now they live comfortable lives in the suburbs with wives and families (incidentally this is a very male story – there are no female characters). Myers knows that they can only act together. Neither will risk escaping alone as the other would certainly be killed. He plays games with them and unsettles them at every opportunity. Myers also has a damaged eye that will not close, so it’s almost impossible to tell if he’s sleeping with his staring eye clearly visible.

There are no real surprises in how the story ends but we don’t care because we are taken up with the tension and suspense. We know Myers will be caught but we are still concerned about the two hostages – who are different in their behaviour. I’ve rarely got so involved in a short feature like this.

The film was presented on a 35mm print from the National Film Archive in good condition. Since the railways showed no sign of re-opening, I knew I would have the chance to see The Bigamist the next day – post to follow.

The Rider (US 2017)

Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn, rodeo rider and horse trainer, recovering from injury

This was the only new film that I saw at the Leeds Film Festival and it goes immediately into my shortlist for films of the year. I selected it solely on the basis of its cinematographer Joshua James Richardson, who had previously shot God Own’s Country (UK 2017), one of my other candidates for best of the year so far. I’m so glad that the cinematography led me to The Rider.

Writer-director Chloé Zhao was born in China, went to ‘high school’ in London and university in the US where she now lives. Her first feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me appeared in 2015, playing in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. It tells the story of a sibling relationship in a Sioux family on the Pine Ridge ‘Reservation’ in South Dakota. The Rider is set on the same reservation, but this film went a step further, picking up the Art Cinema Award after also playing in Cannes.

I went into the film knowing little apart from the cinematography connection and the fact that a rodeo competition was involved. I didn’t really twig the Native American background at first. I’ll admit that the first few minutes were hard-going, but I soon tuned into the film and was engrossed from then on. This is a narrative fiction feature, but it is based on the lives of real people who play characters much like themselves, so it also has distinct elements of documentary. The trio of Jandreau family members play the three members of the Blackburn family. Brady is the older of Tim’s children and he has a younger sister, Lilly. The film opens with Brady getting up in the night to remove the dressing on his head and to ease out the staples that hold it in place. We can see immediately that he has suffered a terrible wound and that his skull has been seriously gashed, requiring staples to hold it together. Brady is not going to be riding ‘bucking broncos’ or bulls for quite a while.

Brady Jandreau and Chloé Zhao by the camera

What makes the film so effective for me are three factors. The cinematography is marvellous and the three actors are equally wonderful. But I’m also intrigued by the coming together of different narrative modes which is so well handled by the director. There is a sense of a ‘realist family melodrama’ developed around the three family members. Lilly has what I take to be a mild form of autism (the Press Pack calls it ‘Aspergers’). The dialogue suggests that she is 14 but I’d assumed she was older. Her autism doesn’t prevent her working around the home and she is a loving companion for Brady while father Tim tries to maintain some form of income, even if it requires selling assets. The film is also a documentary drama about the life of a horse trainer/rodeo performer, with Brady soon returning to demonstrate how he can calm a wild horse and train it to accept a rider. I enjoyed these sequences very much, but I think the film finally won me over completely when I realised that it is also a Western (and the combination of Western + melodrama is an absolute winner for me).

Brady can train and ride a wild horse

One of my all-time favourite films is Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (US 1972), in my book Peckinpah’s best film – a family melodrama built around the rodeo circuit with Robert Preston and Ida Lupino as Steve McQueen’s estranged parents and Joe Don Baker as his entrepreneurial younger brother. The Western melodrama is often built around the father-son relationship. The female character(s) are usually the calm centres around whom the males thrash about trying to resolve macho power struggles. The rodeo life is hard and unforgiving. If you survive those few seconds on a bull or a wild horse, you can be a hero. But you can just as easily be crushed by the weight of the animal, gored by a horn or trampled on. Brady loves his sister and his horses – and his dad. But he needs to make sense of his upbringing which has stressed the manly virtues of being tough. Getting back on the horse in his current predicament of being too physically vulnerable to ride competitively is very tough. At one point he goes to visit a friend and former champ who is still a young man, but who now lives in a care home because he is so severely disabled by his injuries. But what else can Brady do that will restore his self-confidence?

What is so refreshing in the film is the sense of community. When Brady needs to get a job, he meets an employment agent who knew his late mother from her high school days (and Brady visits his mother’s grave on a rise, just like a character in a Ford Western). The narrative doesn’t focus on the Native American community as such. Feeding the gambling machines in the bar does seem to be an issue but it isn’t pushed too much. Mostly, this is a small community where people seem to get on. At one point a couple of kids approach Brady when he is working in the local supermarket. For a moment I feared they were going to photograph him in order to humiliate him, but instead they just want a selfie with a celebrity. The filmed helped me to forget Trump for a moment and restored some sense of hope for working people in the US.

Landscape in the ‘magic hour’

One of the attractions for audiences of Westerns has always been the landscapes and Richardson shoots these beautifully in ‘Scope at what is often termed the ‘magic hour’. I must have watched hundreds of Westerns but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about the actual physical movement of either horse or rider in an abstract sense before. By this, I mean that because the Western narrative drive is so strong and I’ve never ridden a horse, I’ve never thought before about the beauty of cowboy and horse together. In Richardson’s images under Zhao’s direction, I could see the horse’s muscles working and appreciate the riding skills.

The film has been bought by Sony Classics. The last Sony Classics film that I enjoyed, Maudie, got a fairly restricted release in the UK and deserved much more, so, please, UK exhibitors and Sony, get this onto as many screens as possible. There is a press release on the site of one of my favourite distributors, Mongrel Media in Canada.

Here’s a clip from the film of Brady with Apollo:

King Lear (Korol Lir, USSR (Russian) 1971)

Juri Jarvet as Lear sitting by the fire in his court.

(This post is written by Shabanah Fazal and posted by Roy Stafford)

King Lear is Shakespeare’s tale of an ageing monarch who makes a spectacular error of judgement by dividing his kingdom through a ‘love trial’ of his three daughters, unleashing chaos in the land. There are countless film versions, some of the best known like King of Texas (US TV film, 2002), A Thousand Acres (Iowa, US 1997), Ran (Japan 1985), transplanting the story to radically different soil.  Peter Brook’s monochrome film (1971) is considered by many the definitive screen version of Shakespeare’s original. In his absurdist vision, the key word ‘Nothing’ reverberates throughout – from the black silence of the opening titles to the apocalyptic waste of the ending. Most British stage and screen productions have followed in this tradition of nihilistic despair, recent ones taking the theme of breakdown further by retreating to the small, dark, senseless space of an old man’s dementia-ridden head.

It was refreshing therefore recently to discover Grigori Kozintsev’s gloriously expansive Russian language film Korol Lir. Released the same year as Brook’s film and superficially similar in its monochrome vision of tragic destruction, it deserves to be far better known: Kozintsev offers a more coherent, richer and arguably uplifting reading of Shakespeare. The film is available on DVD but only a cinema re-release could truly do justice to this wide-screen epic. A contemporary of Eisenstein, Kozintsev was an experimental film-maker who learned his craft in the great age of montage, with the creative theatre and film school FEKS; in his later career, he developed into a visually imaginative but more mature artist with a (socialist?) realist style. He was also a Shakespeare scholar with a deep interest in his tragic ‘philosophy’, so it is no surprise that in the 1940s he staged and later filmed his two darkest tragedies Gamlet (1964) and Korol Lir (1971). Kozintsev declared he wanted ‘to create a visual poetry with the same quality as that of Shakespearian verse’ (dialogue with Ronald Hayman, 1973) – so dramatically cut Shakespeare’s lines (the film runs to only 2 hours 11 minutes). Achieving his goal was made easier because of his long and close collaboration with translator Boris Pasternak and composer Dmitri Shostakovich on productions of Shakespeare. Shot on the shores of the Baltic, both films are remarkable for their powerfully symbolic elemental imagery, luminous clarity of vision and epic – often monumental – shot-making. There is no finer example than the breathtaking scene in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears on the castle battlements.

Much of the rich ambiguity of Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films derives from the Soviet context: they share the quality of ‘double-voicing’ (Bakhtin) that characterises much of the art produced in a repressive state. That is to say, they can be read as innocent ‘art’ or allegorically, as political critique of the Soviet system. In turn, audiences were primed to look for encoded meanings – each one potentially a small act of resistance. To the distant pre-Christian English setting of King Lear, Kozintsev added another layer of strangeness, using some foreign actors dubbed into Russian – for example, lead actor Estonian Juri Jarvet. As a truth-hating tyrant whose actions ruin his country (symbolised by his tearing up of an enormous map of the nation), Lear stands for oppressive Soviet leadership, from Stalin to Brezhnev. However, Kozintsev suggests he is doomed from the start: unlike the great bearded patriarch of the silent era Lear (1909) or Patrick Stewart’s heroically masculine ‘King of Texas’, gaunt-faced Juri Jarvet cuts a frail figure. For all the actor’s passionate performance, this Lear is dwarfed by his throne, his outsize royal garments and ridiculously sculpted hair collapsing around him as he hurtles towards his downfall. In presenting the all-powerful leader as almost comically impotent from the start, Kozintsev creates pity for Lear and but also stirs the political hopes of his audience.

Grigori Kozintsev

Like many Russian artists who saw Shakespeare as a radical and their contemporary, Kozintsev understood instinctively the deeply political nature of a tragic vision that links the fate of the individual to the nation. From the opening frames to the great final battle, this feels like a biblical epic. In his re-imagining of the play, Kozintsev presents  the poor multitudes on the move, devotedly following Lear on his journey all the way to Dover – crowds that perhaps represent the peasantry or proletariat, the dispossessed and alienated living in internal exile. Lear has to be reduced to their level, to a state of Nature, to ‘ . . . a bare, forked animal’ before the process of regeneration can begin.  At this climactic point of the narrative, Kozintsev makes Nature his central character. In a series of intensely atmospheric scenes Ionas Gritsius’ savagely beautiful cinematography captures the disorder both in Lear’s mind and kingdom. In the critical storm scene, there is an epic sweep to his camera work, which takes us to vast windswept wastelands where high overhead shots pick out a tiny figure illuminated in the darkness – Lear raging pitifully against the elements.  Such shots are reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Macbeth and Othello, but Welles’ use of chiaroscuro is more noirish. In this scene wild grunting boars, horses, and bears charge restlessly through desert spaces, amid an enhanced soundscape of violently rustling trees and howling winds. The film abounds in such primitive imagery and Kozintsev does not flinch from the darkest side of human nature. After the unimaginable cruelty of Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out, he reflects Lear’s verdict that he has spawned sexually rapacious ‘tigers, not daughters’ by cutting to invented  scenes of Goneril and Edmund having sex, followed by the necrophiliac horror of Regan not so much kissing as devouring the face of her dead husband Cornwall.

Despite its darkness, there are other striking features that make this a politically engaged film. Firstly, Kozintsev gives the Fool (Oleg Dahl) a much greater role than usual, exploiting his ambiguous status as state servant but licenced truth-teller to represent him partly as the artist, and partly as the ‘holy fool’ of Russian tradition. He introduces him to the play earlier than does Shakespeare, showing Lear from the start sheltering him under his cloak and patting him on the head, like a surrogate child, a reminder of the loving daughter Cordelia he has unjustly banished. Crouching in dark corners, the Fool is a loyal dog growling out his riddling wisdom to Lear. From the opening titles, Shostakovich uses the motif of jaunty pipe music to signal the Fool’s artistic purity and role as the voice of Shakespeare’s conscience. Even though the playwright has him fade away well before then, Kozintsev keeps him till the final frames, when he is kicked aside like a cur but rises defiantly to play Russian folk tunes that hint of hope to the audience.

Cordelia’s marriage to the King of France with the overt Christian symbolism

Secondly, Kozintsev makes overt use of Christian references in a pagan world that can be taken for the atheist state. Shostakovich begins with highly emotive religious chants, reflecting the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a force of resistance in the later Communist era. His orchestral score then builds to a thundering discordant climax as Lear ascends prophet-like to the top of his castle to address his kneeling subjects, only to spew ugly fire against his daughters. To emphasise that Lear is the false god of the old order, Kozintsev cuts straight to a new order in which the forces of good are aligned with Christian imagery of resurrection: Cordelia’s marriage to France (off-stage in Shakespeare’s play) takes place before a great wooden cross. He underscores this idea through the use of a fabric motif; first seen in the background to the opening and closing titles is a threadbare coarse-weave fabric that symbolises both the ruination of Lear’s land and its salvation. This becomes clear when Gloucester’s innocent banished son Edgar (disguised as Poor Tom the beggar) uses such a fabric to cover his nakedness, but later gives up even this meagre rag to bind his broken staff into a cross marking his father’s grave. Fire that is first foregrounded burning in Lear’s hearth eventually becomes a raging holocaust, evoking perhaps the destruction of two world wars, Hiroshima and Vietnam. But the effect is cathartic and perhaps revolutionary: the whole social order must be razed to the ground for a better one to arise.  After the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, the camera takes us out wide to birds flying over the sea, signifying not death but liberation. Ending on images of sacrifice and redemption might in a western context seem almost reactionary, but here can be read as resistance.

Faced with the everyday threat of personal and nuclear annihilation, for the artists of Brezhnev’s Cold War USSR despair might have seemed a western luxury; on the other hand, engagement was an act of survival. Some might dismiss the film as rather traditional, but for me it is precisely Kozintsev’s commitment to a search for meaning that makes his version of King Lear particularly appealing in our jaded postmodern age. His achievement was to marry poetry and politics using the moving image – the ultimate light illusion – to conjure something from Shakespeare’s ‘Nothing’.

The film is officially available from Lenfilm (with English subs) in HD (but a slightly-squeezed aspect ratio on YouTube:

Blackthorn ( Spain-France-Bolivia-UK 2011)

The chasing posse (whose identity is unclear at first)

I missed this in cinemas but caught it through my HDD Recorder on (very) late night TV. Blackthorn is an excellent Western with an interesting background. Shot entirely in Bolivia with Spanish, French and UK inputs, the film was directed by Mateo Gil, best known perhaps as the writer of four films for Alejandro Amenábar (including Mar Adentro and Agora discussed on this blog). It was written by Miguel Barros and photographed by Juan Ruiz-Anchía (born in Bilbao, but long in the US). The cast includes leads who are American, Spanish, Irish, Danish and Peruvian. This is certainly a ‘global film’ as well as a Latin-American Western from a region between Mexico and Argentina, the more usual locations for the genre.

Sam Shepard as the grizzled Blackthorn

Magaly Solier as Blackthorn’s lover

The genealogy of the narrative is however pure Hollywood as it offers a third episode to the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969). There had already been a ‘prequel’ to the 1969 story in 1979 and since they were historical characters, the Butch and Sundance appear in other Western films and TV series. Blackthorn argues that Butch, Sundance and Etta Place survived a battle with Bolivian police in 1908 but Etta and Sundance then returned to the US while Butch Cassidy changed his name to James Blackthorn and retired to a small house in the hills to rear horses. The film begins in 1928 (when Butch/Blackthorn is 62 and played by a grizzled Sam Shepard). Etta has died and Blackthorn decides to return to the US to find Etta’s son (Blackthorn may be his father but he writes to him as ‘nephew’). Blackthorn sells his horses to pay for the trip but the money is then lost and Blackthorn finds himself on the run again, but this time with a Spanish mining engineer (played by Eduardo Noriega, another Amenábar film alumni). Much of the film is a chase narrative which will eventually lead to Blackthorn being discovered by his old foe Mackinley (Stephen Rea), once a Pinkerton detective, now an ‘honorary consul’ and town drunk. Intercut with this chase are short flashback sequences which show Butch (the younger version played by Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Sundance (Pádraic Delaney) and Etta back in 1908. From these plot elements and castings it is clear that this is a ‘twilight Western’ with other inflections.

In the film’s press notes Gil:

One of the things that I like most about the Western is that it’s a truly moral genre. The characters face life and death, and other very important matters (freedom, commitment and loyalty, courage, treachery, ownership and money, justice, friendship and even love) in very pure and simple terms. The decisions they make are not only very dramatic, but set examples. What more can you ask from a film? From any dramatic work? It’s a genre that helps us look at our own life and find a way to face it.

But Gil disrupts this purity:

By facing these matters from a modern point of view (conscious of the fact that the legendary American outlaw will end up as just another extra in Hollywood Westerns).

His innovation is to introduce the Noriega character as an unreliable character. This has another dimension as well. The engineer is a Spanish adventurer, a representative of the ex-colonial power and as one IMDb user commented “a Madrileño in a film produced by Catalans” – so, clearly a bad guy.

A composition that emphasises the landscape and the distance between hunter and hunted

The other intriguing statement by Gil refers to the ‘look’ of the film and its tone:

Blackthorn would not be a film made up by grandiose images and ‘traditional aesthetic’, of slow camera movements and tall crane shots; but of closer images, near to the characters, that allow us to see the landscape through their eyes as they reveal the most intimate side of their dramatic voyage. The deep-seated feelings our main character feels for the land that has sheltered him; his feelings about the past and how they are reawakened by the appearance of his new comrade; his feelings towards the woman with whom he spends his afternoons, although the passion of love is absent, affection, respect and carnality are all present; his feelings toward a young man he has never met but who could very well be his son, to whom he writes and directs every last effort; how he feels about the small things that surround him, his clean but simple home, his horses, what he chooses to take with him on this last trek, where he chooses to sleep each night as they advance . . .

This is a thoughtful film, under-appreciated by critics but appealing to fans of Westerns, I think. Gil’s ideas about the camerawork are put into practice by Ruiz-Anchía and I wish I’d seen this on a giant screen. We see the two hunted men traversing the high salt flat plateaux and then we see their PoV as across the staggeringly beautiful landscapes the tiny figures of their hunters race towards them. By contrast, the camera loves the craggy, weatherbeaten face of Sam Shepard. It’s an iconic image and Shepard seems to become the image of all ageing cowboys (he even sings four popular folk songs on the soundtrack, including ‘Wayfaring Stranger’).

Gil’s comments ring true in the simplicity and realism of his vision. This is one of the most beautiful, but also the harshest Westerns I’ve seen. It’s slow and pensive despite various shoot-outs. It has little to do with most Italian Westerns that I’ve seen, though the use of Irish actors – Etta is played by Dominique McElligott in the flashback sequences – did remind me of Leone’s Fistful of Dynamite and Louis Malle’s Viva Maria with their Irish characters. In the classic twilight Western, the two central characters are usually two men of the same age with different views on how to deal with the death of the West. Here, Blackthorn tries to reconcile his past with a still possible future whereas the Noriega character is a younger man and a pragmatist. The other difference here is the role of the indigenous people of Bolivia who are not typed in the same way as Mexicans or Native Americans. They make up the group of hunters but they are ‘personalised’ in the character of Blackthorn’s lover played Yana played by the Peruvian actor with a growing presence in international cinema, Magaly Solier (see Magallanes, Peru 2015).

Blackthorn has some Spanish dialogue but is mainly in English. It’s well worth seeing.

Sunset Song (UK-Luxembourg 2015)

SunsetSong2web

This film is in the Official Selection at the Leeds International Film Festival. From the opening sequences the meticulous mise en scène and the overbearing father figure we are in the familiar territory of director Terence Davies. Farmer Guthrie presides over a family of wife, older daughter and son and younger children in the early C20th. They live and work in Aberdeenshire near the North East Coast of Scotland. If you like Davies’ work then you will, along with my friend Jake, be absorbed and impressed by the film. I found it rather long and not that involving. This is partly down to Davies’ style: the film appears to aim at naturalism, but the self-conscious style militates against this.

It is, as always with Davies, beautifully done. The cast are excellent and to my (untrained) ear the Scottish accents were correct. Note though, the film uses locations in New Zealand as well as Scotland: surprising when the film was partly funded by Creative Scotland. The farm is set on the edge of rolling hills and the landscapes, buildings and surrounds appear authentic. This is equally true of the costumes and props, and indeed the animals on the farm. But there is an absence of muck. There are muddy fields, but elsewhere it all seems rather pristine. The daughter Chris at one point states that

“I hate dirt.”

And this seems true of the film. Chris appears to be wearing make-up all through the film, in 1900s rural Scotland. There is mud aplenty in a wartime sequence; here we get a slow overhead tracking shot of mud and barbed wire, possibly a fly cam.

The film presents all this in a slow manner. There are frequent slow pans, tilts and dissolves. Whilst the pace of a early 20th rural community would be slow I rather felt that there would have been a quicker rhythm to life. The most dramatic sequences involve violence and sex with a raw realism.

The period is just before and during World War I. This was a period of transition in Scottish rural communities, a major theme apparently in the source novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbons (1932) adapted by Davies.

“i.e. the coming of modernisation to traditional farming communities”.

However I felt that the film did not really dramatise these themes effectively. Obviously the film has made cuts to the novel, but not always to best effect. Just one example, the novel includes the following:

“The theme of the onset of modernisation and the end of old ways is explored using many symbols, for example, violent deaths of horses (supposed to represent old, traditional farming methods)”

I can ensure animals lovers that I did not spot any animal fatalities in the film.

Another theme in the novel, addressing the position of women, is there in the film. Indeed Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie is excellent, but the other women in the story are undeveloped, so it becomes a film about a heroine rather than a community. One of  the major scenes  of community in the film is a gathering to attend the Church Service and be harangued by the minister on the war effort. The critical tone of this is good but it also feels so conventional. Davies likes shots of golden cornfields. And the villagers gather through a cornfield whilst the Glasgow Orpheus Choir sing on the soundtrack: this was overly rich.

The novel has enjoyed a number of adaptations, both for the theatre and for television. I have not seen these but apparently they also made changes. It is not really fair to judge the film by its faithfulness to the novel. However, apart from the style, I found the film thematically unclear. In particular there is a strong strand of socialist thinking in Gibbons’ novels, but the film only had three lines of dialogue in which ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ appears, and no serious context for this: (rather like Suffragette 2015). The novel is part of a trilogy by Gibbons, so I suspect the absence of the later two from the treatment leads to the sense of irresolution at the close. I think if you like Davies’ films you will probably enjoy his treatment of this period story, it is a visual and aural feast. It is screening again on Thursday November 12th at the Hyde Park Picture house, but at 3.30 p.m. It is a long film 135 minutes. It was shot on film but the transfer to a DCP is very good.

Wikipedia has a page on the novelist and there is Paul Foot.