I think I chose this screening for the same reasons that I chose Queen of Glory. That film was made by a Ghanian-American and Wild Indian was made by a Native American filmmaker. Both films are début features and there are some similarities in two relatively short features which perhaps struggle to make exactly the film they envisaged. Partly this may be because of budget restrictions, which inevitably mean a relatively short shoot (only 17 days for Wild Indian) and partly just that making your first feature is particularly difficult. But both films are blessed with strong central performances and they tell tales we haven’t seen before, at least in these distinctive cultural contexts.
Writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr told us in the Q&A that his film had been seven years in the making and the narrative had slowly transformed over time. In the version he finally filmed, a prologue presents an Ojibwe man suffering from smallpox at some indeterminate point in history and moving westward. We then meet two characters who are high school students in the 1980s. The school appears to have a strong church connection. Whether all the students are from reservations isn’t clear. Makwa and Teddo are close friends. Makwa in particular has a difficult time at home. The two become involved in a violent incident and the narrative moves forward to 2019. A tall and lean man is practising his golf swing. It’s California and eventually we will realise that this is Makwa who has changed his name to Michael and has become successful in some form of profitable business. Meanwhile back in the Mid-West, Teddo is being released from prison. What happened back in 1988 will now come back to confront both men. I won’t spoil the narrative further, except to note that the film ends with a character on the beach in California, looking out to sea. It’s a scene familiar from many Hollywood narratives but not usually one with Native Americans as central characters. There is also an epilogue involving the man with smallpox discovering a dead man, another Native American.
The film has been promoted as a thriller and it does its job efficiently, helped by the terrific performances of the four actors who play the younger and older versions of Makwa (Phoenix Wilson and Michael Greyeyes) and Teddo (Julian Gopal and Chaske Spencer). The casting delivers an authenticity element in that Wilson and Lisa Cromarty (who plays Reddo’s sister) are Canadian actors from the family of First Nations, the Anishinaabe which includes the Ojibwe of Wisconsin, the director’s home band. Michael Greyeyes is a leading First Nations actor from the Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. He also appears in Jimmy P. (US-France 2013). That film too, though set in the US, cast Canadian First Nations actors in several roles. Indigenous North Americans are not bound by colonial borders but the US and Canada have different policies towards indigenous cultures. Does this affect the development of actors? The production finally shot the reservation scenes in Oklahoma which provided support. Director Mitchell Corbine suggests that the look of the Oklahoma locations has some resemblance to Wisconsin. I understand that there are also Anishinaabe in Oklahoma. Chaske Spencer is also seen as a Native American actor, born in Oklahoma. I’m not sure about Julian Gopal.
The prologue introduces the idea of the fate of indigenous peoples during the colonisation of North America. The ‘choice’ has always been to remain within the family and the band or to assimilate with the white majority. Of course, it was not usually a choice at all. Assimilation was forced on many as the recent outrage at the history of the Canadian residential school deaths attests. In Wild Indian, however, the two central characters take different steps following the events at school in the 1980s. We do learn something about what happened to Teddo but frustratingly not how Makwa became Michael. The repeated narrative is about the difficulty of surviving life on the reservation versus the material wealth offered by assimilation. Mitchell Corbine explores this narrative dichotomy with just two scenes that present white authority figures passing judgement. One is the priest lecturing the high school students about Cain and Abel and the other shows the local DA being dismissive about the re-opening of the investigation of the original violent incident involving Makwa and Teddo. Several of the reviewers who generally praise the film want to know much more about the two central characters. I can understand this but I think I like the more oblique take on the characters’ life choices. The film works as a crime thriller but there is enough to challenge us to think about the politics.
I’ve listed the film has having French involvement and this comes from the participation of the French company Logical Pictures Group which operates from Paris and Los Angeles. The group’s website covers its associates and on one of them, Loveboat, there is a profile of Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr and a chance to watch his two earlier short films, Shinaab (2017) and Shinaab Part 2 (2019) which explore the ‘two paths’ concept at the centre of the struggle for identity for a young Anishinaabe man. The director was selected by Variety as one of its 10 Directors to watch for 2021. There is certainly enough in the two shorts and Wild Indian to make me look out for his future projects.
Wild Indian has been listed as an acquisition by Vertigo Releasing for the UK, so look out for it in cinemas or on download in the coming months. I’ve not included a trailer here as all the available ones give away too much of the plot.
This shortish first feature (78 mins) is fronted by an outstanding performance by its writer-director-star Nana Mensah. An experienced actor with credits on several TV series and some Independent Cinema titles, Mensah had not intended to direct or to star in the film she was writing. But circumstances eventually pushed her into the other roles and as she said in the included online Q&A, it was good that she wrote the script first not thinking she would play the central character. That way she didn’t cut herself any slack or attempt to avoid certain potential scenarios. The outline narrative of the film is relatively simple and, at least on a structural level, familiar as a universal experience. But because of its specific cultural focus it is also distinctive in its narrative events and settings.
After a credit sequence featuring a montage of Ghanaian textile designs, drumming and dancing, we first meet Sarah in her office at Columbia University. She’s a science grad research student with some supervision duties. She’s hoping her boyfriend, who has been appointed to a more senior post in Ohio, will leave his wife and she can share a house with him. She seems sure this will happen. The ‘inciting incident’ when it arrives almost overwhelms Sarah. Her mother dies suddenly and Sarah is faced with a series of responsibilities, the weight of which severely throws her off-balance. First she learns that she has inherited her mother’s house and her Christian bookshop in the Bronx. Second she must organise not one but two large-scale celebrations, one a ‘white person-style funeral’, but the other a traditional Ghanaian funeral with expectations of attendance by many in the ‘Little Ghana’ community in the Bronx. Third, her estranged father arrives from Accra with expectations of a family reunion. No wonder she has little time to check in with the boyfriend, who I think is probably already mistrusted by many in the audience – he can’t even pronounce ‘Accra’ correctly.
One question for me was trying to work out what kind of a film this was. It has been widely promoted as a comedy and I was relieved that the BFI host of the introduction and Q&A, Grace Barber-Plentie, asked Nana Mensah directly about finding the right tone. Mensah was willing to describe her film as a comedy and said that the mixing of grief and comedy was something that did happen in her culture. It strikes me that the same is true in most cultures. It is often said that weddings and funerals have much the same capacity for comedy and drama in my Northern English culture and I suspect it is the same in most others.
From my perspective the narrative suggests a form of realist family melodrama with comic elements. The real story is about Sarah’s struggle to understand what she might be losing if she sells the house and the bookshop and follows her boyfriend to Ohio. This includes questions about the value she places on family ties and friendships within her community. It’s also a question about what a ‘hyphenate’ identity means in the US today. In other words, it’s a diaspora narrative. As I watched the film I realised that I probably know more about Francophone West African cultures both in Africa and in France than the Anglophone West African cultures in the UK and US. This is because of the way film and TV have developed in West Africa in the post-colonial period. I’m aware of a triangular relationship between Nigeria and Ghana with the UK and US, but I don’t have much access to the films and TV produced even though Nollywood and Ghallywood are prolific producers. The films are hard to see in the UK outside specific cities with a Nigerian or Ghanaian community. Nana Mensah’s film feels more like an American Independent film, but there are elements of Ghanaian Cinema as well, I think. She uses archive footage at various points to offer a sense of traditional ceremonies and life on the streets of Accra. One of the key cultural ‘threads’ in the narrative focuses on food. Early in the film Sarah eats pizza and snacks. For the funeral parties she makes, or buys in, Ghanaian food. The prospect of going to the meat market in the Bronx is also intercut with footage of street abattoirs in Ghana, and buying meat (i.e. ‘real meat’) is something she can barely stomach. By the end of the film, however, she is making rice and meat stew for her father.
I enjoyed the film but I agree with at least one other reviewer who recognises that it is almost as if the production ran out of money (and time) since some narrative threads are left in the air and others are quickly resolved. Nana Mensah discussed her positive experience with Kickstarter in the Q&A, but also stressed the work needed to deal with the funding. I don’t know if the production was affected by COVID. This is still an impressive début picture. I enjoyed the ‘Scope photography by Cybel Martin and the editing by Cooper Troxell. I also enjoyed the music in the film, especially the song over the closing credits. I should also mention the actor Meeko who plays the important role of the Christian bookshop manager. The ‘King of Glory’ shop is a ‘real’ location, owned by one of Mensah’s relatives. Anya Migdal was one of the producers of the film and she also plays the the first generation Russian-American next door neighbour in the Bronx who remembers Sarah from the local high school. This was also a promising narrative strand, but like the bookshop perhaps not fully realised.
Queen of Glory won a prize at its home festival Tribeca and it was well-received by Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ghanaian-American reviewer. I’m sure it would find a UK audience if some form of release is possible. Here’s a festival trailer.
This little gem was broadcast as part of Talking Pictures TV ‘Late Night Friday’ schedule in the UK. Generally described as a ‘crime noir’, it’s perhaps better classified as an example of the semi-documentary police procedural cycle of films started by Jules Dassin’s The Naked City in 1948 and eventually becoming a staple of US TV as well as developing a UK equivalent. But He Walked by Night also has its own important features, primarily the camerawork of John Alton. Alton literally ‘wrote the book’ on noir night-time location shooting, characterised by intense shadows. Painting With Light was published in 1949.
There are several other stories about its production that are worth mentioning. It was independently produced by Brian Foy, a veteran of studio ‘B pictures’, and distributed by Eagle-Lion, the company set up as part of J. Arthur Rank’s attempt to distribute his British films in the US (which meant Rank distributed this US indy in the UK). Foy gathered together some of the highly experienced filmmakers he knew from his studio operations including the writers John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur and director Alfred L. Werker. However, there is a strong suggestion that at least some of the directing duties were by an uncredited Anthony Mann. Mann directed T-Men in 1947 for Brian Foy Productions with Higgins as one of the writers and John Alton behind the camera. A similar kind of film with ‘Treasury Men’ working undercover to root out fraud, T-Men is another form of ‘procedural’, also released by Eagle-Lion. Finally in terms of production stories it’s worth noting that Jack Webb, who has a small role in He Walked by Night as a backroom technician, would soon go on to produce and star in a radio series developing the police procedural idea and titled Dragnet (1949-57) and in turn this would become one of the most iconic US TV shows of the 1950s (1951-59 plus later series). There were also a couple of feature films and all this can be traced back to Webb’s experience on He Walked By Night.
The police procedural idea was to take the idea for a film on a real case and to film on location in Los Angeles. Roy Martin/Morgan (Richard Basehart) is a burglar specialising in the then new electronics goods market(radios, TVs and tape recorders etc.) He has also acquired an arsenal of weapons and one night when he is disturbed by a police patrol car he ends up shooting a police officer. This sets off the procedural narrative which ends in a chase through the Los Angeles storm drain system, something used since as either an LA-set device or using sewers and underground tunnels in other locations – but this may be the first use and it benefits greatly from Alton’s camerawork. I enjoyed the film very much though I was struck by the moment when the officers in a patrol car hear over the radio that one of their colleagues has been shot. They are suddenly electrified and burst into action. I hope they would react similarly if any member of the public is shot. This shot reminds us that the film (and many similar procedurals that followed) relied on the co-operation of police forces which perhaps led to a selection of stories and an influence on how these were presented.
I believe that this film is now in the public domain in the US so it is widely available online but to really appreciate its visual qualities, you should seek out the best quality print (see DVD Beaver for disc options or check the streamers). Richard Basehart is excellent as the dangerous man on the run and Scott Brady and Roy Roberts give solid performances as the the two police figures leading the hunt.
This documentary about the American rock band The Doors is streaming on MUBI as part of a selection of music dramas and documentaries. It only occurred to me later that it’s 50 years since Jim Morrison died. I find it quite difficult to gather my thoughts about the film and to write about it coherently. I enjoyed watching it but I was surprised to find many leading critics were down on the film at the time.
Watching the film for the first time now, when there have been so many TV documentaries on almost every major rock act of the 1960s/70s, several successful cinema documentaries such as the Asif Kapadia film about Amy Whitehouse plus many blockbuster biopics, prompts me to reflect on audience expectations. All films about popular musicians are likely to appeal differently to fans and to general audiences and this film is no exception. For the record, I heard plenty of The Doors music across the time of their brief career, but I never bought the singles or albums and I didn’t see them live. I wasn’t a fan as such and I read less about them than compared to many of my favourite acts. I avoided the Oliver Stone biopic but I remember TV material on the band, possibly from the 1968 Granada TV documentary. Perhaps this slight distance from the band meant that I didn’t find this film to be a hackneyed re-telling of the same old story.
It does appear that the writer-director Tom DiCillo was aiming at a more general audience. DiCillo was then a director in American Independent cinema, probably best known for Living in Oblivion (US 1995). He wrote a voice-over commentary for his carefully edited amalgam of archive clips of The Doors and crucially did not include any memories/witness statements/long interviews. This disappointed some fan critics but I found it refreshing. Originally DiCillo read the commentary himself, but after a poor response at an early festival screening, he replaced the commentary with a new reading by Johnny Depp. The USP of the 2009 film was the inclusion of many extracts from two films made by the cinematographer Paul Ferrera, a close collaborator with Jim Morrison. HWY: An American Pastoral (1969) is a 50 minute drama co-written by Morrison who also stars as a young man in the desert. Feast of Friends (1969) is a 50 minute documentary offering a sense of The Doors at work, on the road and at play during 1968. This second film was an ‘official’ Doors documentary which was cancelled at the time (when Morrison was arrested for ‘obscene behaviour on stage’) but was eventually restored and released on DVD in 2014.
I was initially confused by this footage, especially from HWY. I hadn’t read the blurb beforehand and I wondered if this was an actor impersonating Morrison. I also wondered how DiCillo found so much material from the recording studio and backstage at concerts. He certainly managed to work with his team of editors to meld this ‘new’ footage with other archive news footage and stills to produce a coherent whole – with Depp’s V.O. bridging the edits. The commentary has been criticised for not offering enough analysis and insight but I think it is well pitched for a general audience who should learn something. I certainly did. The problem is that, partly because of the HWY clips, Morrison comes to dominate more of the film narrative and therefore it is difficult to go much beyond the story about Morrison which has been told many times before.
What I learned was that Morrison and Ray Manzarek, who was the keyboards player and really the leader of the band, had been together on a film course at UCLA (where they met Ferrera). I also got a much clearer picture of Manzarek and the other two Doors’ members, guitarist Robbie Krieger and drummer John Densmore. The musical backgrounds of the trio helped me to understand more about how the distinctive Doors’ sound came about. It struck me that the combination of blues, jazz and Krieger’s unique guitar-playing with its Spanish guitar feel is representative of that third blend of American rock music (i.e. jazz-blues), as potent but not as well known (to me) as the blends involving country music or soul music. I wanted more of this but it wasn’t to be. Nevertheless, if you don’t know the music or the band that well the film does introduce the strange combination of the Manzarek-led music and Morrison’s doom-laden and gothic-sounding voice and lyrics. One other revelation for me was that Morrison’s father was an admiral in charge of naval forces in the Vietnam War. There is a thesis somewhere about rock music and military families. Morrison was estranged from his family in 1968.
Unfortunately the ‘Official Trailer’ for this film on YouTube is in the wrong aspect ratio so I’ve chosen a fan video which uses some of the material from HWY to give you an idea of how that looks:
Weddings and funeral are universal settings for family events and they have been fertile ground for quarrels and revelations since storytelling developed in human communities. Shiva is the Jewish period of mourning and in this New York Jewish community Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college student, has been asked by her parents to attend a shiva gathering for one of their friends. Danielle doesn’t know (or can’t remember) the person who died and she misses the funeral service because she is enjoying a session with her ‘sugar daddy’. This brief scene opens the film in long shot and we see Dani being paid for sex. The rest of the film is located in the middle-class home of the bereaved’s family.
For Dani the shiva is an unsettling experience which is at times nightmarish. Her parents (played by Polly Draper and Fred Malamed) comment on everything about her and discuss her possible career options, her appearance and prospective marriage partners with all the other ageing parents, friends and relatives. But the real nightmare begins when Dani spots her ex girl-friend, the successful student Maya (Molly Gordon) and soon after her ‘sugar daddy’ turns up with his high-flying wife and their baby. It appears that Max (Danny Deferrari) knows Dani’s parents but he was unaware of who Dani was. It’s not difficult to see how much of a nightmare this is for Dani. The film is relatively short at just 77 minutes but writer-director Emma Seligman packs a lot in. At first I wondered if I would be able to follow this narrative at all but it got easier when I turned the English subtitles on – I found the two young women in particular hard to follow. There are also more Yiddish terms used in the film than I’ve come across for a while. I’m clearly not the target audience for the film but I did find I was engaged and I came to understand Dani more as the film went on. I confess I would have left the shiva gathering as soon as possible to get away from all the other people there but Dani is made of stronger stuff.
Shiva Baby was released in the UK by MUBI following a successful run in North America in cinemas, at festivals and on streamers. MUBI gave the film a single day cinema release in early June and it is now streaming, presumably for some time. On the stream, the film is followed by an informative and engaging Q&A with Emma Seligman who turns out to be from a Reform Jewish Community in Toronto. She trained at NYU and originally made Shiva Baby as an 8 minute short film in 2018 with Rachel Sennott as Dani. Opening out the film required a hunt for funding from various independent sources. Shiva Baby is very impressive as a first feature. Seligman makes the most of her major location and the budget constraints. There is a strong cast supporting Sennott who is herself a comedian and writer as well as actor. The material comes from Seligman’s own observations and experience of her own Jewish community. She makes clear in the Q&A that the film is for ‘millennials’ who are faced with the lack of understanding shown by ‘boomer’ parents. I think this is a little unfair. As a boomer I’m well aware of the struggles of recent graduates in finding jobs and I’ve had a ‘portfolio’ career myself so I know something about what they might face later on. But these are not the real concerns of the narrative. Parents are much the same across many cultures – these New York Jewish parents just seem more hard-edged and extreme, although much of that is bluster, I think.
The real concern here is what Seligman refers to as ‘validation’ of identity for young women and particularly for queer young women like Dani and Maya. It’s about gaining control over your own sexuality and the power relationships that this involves. The concept of the new ‘sugar-daddy’ involves young women (and men) finding older partners online who are willing to pay for sexual relationships. Many young people need money for higher education fees on top of living accommodation and subsistence. Dani, however, has relatively wealthy parents who at the moment are providing monetary support. In a sense she is still a ‘baby’ for her parents and her use of a sugar daddy has wider and more complex meanings. The film’s title thus works both for Dani’s status and for Max’s baby which proves to be the real inciting incident of the narrative structure. “Who on earth brings a baby to a shiva?”, as someone asks rhetorically.
Several reviewers have suggested the narrative resembles a horror narrative, others have referred to farce. One suggested it resembled the scene in The Graduate when Benjamin is urged to go into plastics, the industry of the future (in 1968). There is something in all of these suggestions. Leyna Rowan and Hanna Park, as respectively cinematographer and editor, do a good job of taking us through the several rooms of this suburban house, sometimes seeing characters through windows, down corridors and in doorways in the throes of a lively gathering. The film is presented in ‘Scope and at one point we get an expressionist montage of shots of elderly people rather obscenely eating the various forms of ‘finger food’. Dani we will learn has been ‘chubby’ in the past and now is ‘skinny’. Comments about her weight just add further pressure. The music soundtrack by Ariel Marx is more likely to evoke a horror film or at least severe disturbance.
Shiva baby is a highly-rated film. I did wonder if it could live up to the hype. I needn’t have worried. The whole MUBI programme (97 minutes with the Q&A) flashed by and stirred up a lot of thoughts. I’d recommend it for any audience, not just millennials, though they might get most from it.
I remember reading about Phil Karlson back in the early 1970s when some of his 1950s films were re-released on 16mm and he was written about in Monthly Film Bulletin. Kansas City Confidential was one of the titles that lodged in my brain but I don’t think I saw it in the 1970s. The film was released as The Secret Four in the UK in 1953. That title does refer to the plot but makes it sound like an Enid Blyton children’s story. ‘Kansas City Confidential‘ as a title is explained in the poster above (and in the opening credit sequence) as a police story that the authorities didn’t want to be told. This is a tough crime film related to 1950s film noir. It has a deserved reputation as a film with an intriguing plot that was referenced by more than one later film and perhaps most famously by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs (1992).
Karlson began as an assistant director in the early 1930s and progressed to directing in 1944, proving to be an efficient director of B films. By the early 1950s as the B units of the majors were winding down he was working for independent producers. In this instance it was Edward Small and the film was released through United Artists. Small may have been a low budget producer but this is not a B picture, running at 99 minutes and looking very good in HD on MUBI in the UK. The film has an interesting script by George Bruce and Harry Essex based on a story by Harold Greene and Rowland Browne. It has a strong cast and excellent photography by George Diskant, best known perhaps for his work at RKO, especially on Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951). His work on Kansas City Confidential features close-ups of the leading characters and emphasises the tension in an unusual story.
There are three of cinema’s natural ‘heavies’ here, played by Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef. They are recruited for an armoured car robbery by a ‘Mr Big’ who recruits them individually and forces them to wear a felt mask so that they will not know each other after the robbery. The haul is over $1 million and the three are sent to different locations to await instructions about meeting up and dividing the spoils. The planning for the robbery implicates an innocent man, ‘Joe Rolfe’ played by John Payne, the tob-billed actor in the cast. Is this deliberate or accidental? Either way he isn’t going to be happy and we know he will find a way to track down the others.
Most of the narrative focuses on the aftermath of the robbery and takes place in Mexico where the four robbers and are intended to meet at a fishing resort and Mr Big will divide the spoils. A fifth character is introduced in the form of a youngish woman played by Coleen Gray who inevitably becomes interested in Joe. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative. Needless to say it all ends badly after a ‘reveal’.
My initial reaction to this film was simply how good it looked. This is a film which somehow did not have its intellectual property rights renewed and fell into the Public Domain in the US, meaning that anyone could circulate poorly copied prints. This HD print is a revelation. I was reminded of a host of American crime films from the 1940s to 1960s. The Mexican setting (actually filmed in California) made me think of Out of the Past (1947) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953), both seen as films noirs. It doesn’t have the romanticism of Out of the Past but instead it has the hardness and brutality of the 1950s films like The Big Combo (1955). In fact, the brutality is picked out by several commentators. Joe in particular is subjected to several beatings and he also delivers his own. Jack Elam, in particular suffers badly. These beatings are ones in which the victims seem to recover remarkably quickly – that’s possibly a reason why, for a modern audience they seem more shocking, as if the kicks and punches are of no consequence. Joe is an interesting character, well played by the experienced Payne, who has a back-story that is hinted at but not filled in with any detail. This seems like another difference compared to the late 1940s noirs in which the war is only a few years past and there might be some kind of explanation for why some men behave as they do. I did also think about Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1956), a film which shares some narrative elements with Kansas City Confidential and was also overlooked at the time perhaps but has since been appreciated. Tourneur and Karlson had similar early careers and made a broad range of films, Tourneur was given his chance by Val Lewton in the RKO B-unit and from then on got more interesting jobs (including Out of the Past) but in the 1950s found himself again being badly treated by the studios. I don’t know enough about Karlson to make a proper comparison but he seems to have remained within the world of low budget genre pictures.
Kansas City Confidential isn’t perfect. The low budget shows in places. I noticed several continuity errors that perhaps should have been re-shot – a gun is placed in a holster under a jacket on the right but in a fight is drawn from under the jacket on the left and so on. The plot is cleverly thought through but still has a few holes, I think. Nevertheless, I think this film deserves its high rating on IMDb and I’ll certainly take any other opportunities to see films by Phil Karlson.