Keith reported on Sunset Song after its inclusion in the Leeds Film Festival. Seeing it now on general release, I recognise several of the points he raises and it is certainly a ‘flawed’ film in several respects. However, as Keith suggests, as a Terence Davies fan I find much to admire. I haven’t read the novel(s) (A Scots Quair Trilogy) by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, but I’ve done my research and some interesting issues arise that are worth discussing. Sunset Song is the first and most widely praised (and presumably most widely read) of the three novels written in the early 1930s when Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was in exile in Welwyn Garden City where he died just short of 34 years old in 1935. Although the film is relatively long at 135 minutes, Davies, as his own adapter, has cut several characters and attendant narrative lines from the central story – which will/has alienated some fans of the novel (a novel seen as central in the canon of Scots literature).
One of Keith’s main reservations was that the film does not deal sufficiently with the two central themes of the modernisation of the rural economy/agriculture in the 1900s and the socialist politics of some of the characters. Unfortunately, the screening I attended had sound problems for the first ten minutes and I couldn’t follow some of the dialogue. I think I missed some of the arguments around education. Chris, the central character played Agyness Deyn is a bright young woman, encouraged by her otherwise brutal father (Peter Mullan) to become a teacher. But I suspect Keith has a valid point about the politics in the novel that doesn’t get much of a mention in the film. Davies is not really interested in politics. However, I disagree about the importance of the land, especially to Chris. There is a distinct discourse about the land and what it means to her. I was also struck by some of the similarities between the narrative and Thomas Hardy’s novels such as Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Unlike Hardy’s fictional ‘Wessex’ a few decades earlier however, the similarly fictional Kinraddie Estate in The Mearns inland from Stonehaven does have access to the railway but the claims to mechanised farming seem less secure. I did though find one scene particularly symbolic when Chris’s father has a stroke while he is in the process of preparing a cart to receive a horse. It is almost as if he is the horse being felled.
The issue about Davies’s adaptation is that this isn’t a ‘filmic version of the book’, but instead it is another auterist work by the creator of Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and succeeding melodramas, usually focusing on central female characters (often as witnessed by the young Davies himself). Distant Voices includes some of the most stunning and disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen and the same approach is taken here for many of the domestic scenes. The static camera views various tableaux head on. During a wake the assembled male mourners are gathered around a table and then we look through a doorway to see the women in a separate room, further back from the camera with shafts of light creating dark shadows around them. These are images like old Dutch paintings and from interviews we know that Vermeer is a favourite for Davies. But he also tells us about a Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) whose work on interiors was introduced to Davies and his cinematographer Michael McDonough by production designer Andy Harris. At this point I should say that one of the great achievements of the production is the way in which Davies and his production crew have managed to bring together three completely different production set-ups and meld them into a single coherent visual narrative. Keith suggested that: “It was shot on film but the transfer to a DCP is very good”. I need to correct and amplify that statement.
I think I’m correct in saying that in contemporary filmmaking, the original footage, whether it on film or digital, is first processed to create a ‘Digital Intermediate’ which is used for post-production. When this is complete, the print for projection is created, usually now via a digital master copy which is used to create a DCP, Blu-ray, DVD etc. In a sense, all films, even those that started on celluloid will be ‘digital’ at some point. For Sunset Song, the production went first to New Zealand for the summer harvest scenes which were shot by McDonough on 65mm film using an Arriflex 765 camera. 65mm gave McDonough the chance to film in very deep focus. There were just four days in New Zealand, followed by twenty days in a studio in Luxembourg for the interiors that were shot digitally on the Alexa XT Studio. Finally the production moved to Scotland to Gibbon/Mitchell’s chosen location for the fictional Kinraddie and completed the shoot after thirteen more days, combining 65mm film and digital for both exteriors and interiors. McDonough (a Scot trained in the US whose best-known film work is perhaps on Winter’s Bone) explains how he ‘matched’ the film and digital sequences in an interview for the ARRI Rental website. He also spoke about what Davies wanted in terms of visual style:
Terence has a very precise style. His frames are classically composed and he loves the camera to flow – to move elegantly and always with a clear justification. I knew going in that there would be no Steadicam or handheld shots; this would be classically lensed with tripod, dolly and crane. Our production designer, Andy Harris, had introduced the idea of taking the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi as our main inspiration for the look of Sunset Song. The paintings are illuminated by a soft, directional, northern light; there was a coolness to them that suited our Scottish setting perfectly. The only variation from this was the summer harvest scenes, which were much warmer and more romantic in tone.
Sunset Song used the latest anamorphic lenses for a ‘Scope presentation and the care taken in the visual style means you should try to see this on the biggest screen possible. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the audience looking for a literary adaptation or for a straightforward romance or drama will recognise the artistry of the presentation. The film has received a number of negative reviews and it may be that it will attempt to find its audience on TV and video which will struggle to show it in all its glory. I’ve already indicated that I think the adaptation is flawed. For me the final part of the film that refers to what happens to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) when he enlists in the Great War just doesn’t work. I’ve read what Davies says in interviews and his logic and arguments are sound but it didn’t make sense to me on a first viewing. It felt to me that the ending had been foreshortened and the events didn’t seem to go together – the timescale seemed wrong.
The other criticisms of the film seem unwarranted. Inevitably there are arguments about ‘authenticity’ of accents etc. There are some local actors, specifically Ian Pirie as Chae, but many of the Scots are from the West Coast (Mullan, Guthrie and Daniela Nardini as Mrs Guthrie). I’ve seen some comments from North East Scotland both pro and anti. But of course it’s the casting of Agyness Deyn which is most controversial. Ms Deyn is a Lancashire lass and she makes a brave stab at the local accent but to see how far off she sometimes gets (especially in her voiceover narration) just go to the 1971 BBC TV serial of the books on YouTube (mind you, I don’t know how authentic that is!). Does it matter? Not at all for me. I was very impressed with Agyness Deyn. I’d never seen her before and I thought she moved well, used her modelling training and conveyed her spirit through her sparkling eyes. Most of all she conveyed what I take Terence Davies to have wanted from his heroine – which is all that matters really. I enjoyed all the other performances as well – although I do understand why many audiences might be tired of yet another angry and violent man portrayed by Peter Mullan. I feel that I do have to mention the pairing of Agyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie. I like Kevin Guthrie but he is shorter than his co-star (as was the case in Sunshine on Leith as well). I can’t work out if Davies thought that having Chris taller than Ewan said something in terms of the narrative or whether the height difference is irrelevant – but it is there and I increasingly find casting decisions interesting.
I’m not going to attempt to deal with the music and the singing in the film, even though they are a crucial element in any Terence Davies film. The choice of songs – and versions of the songs has been quite controversial, but information on the soundtrack is difficult to find. I need to see the film a few more times. But to go back to Keith’s review, he mentions the Glasgow Orpheus Choir (I’m assuming it’s them singing ‘All in the April Evening’ during a sequence in which the villagers ‘flock’ to the church). This is a good example of Davies creating an image that doesn’t refer to realism. People would not trample through the barley field as depicted in the film and it is very strange to have the scene in the church with the choir singing. Is it diegetic or non-diegetic? I kept wondering if the choir would emerge from the shadows at the back of the church. My knowledge of Scottish religious practice is limited and didn’t allow me to recognise what kind of church it was. But I don’t go to a Terence Davies film for authenticity, I go for art.
Sunset Song is absolutely worth seeing on a big screen and some of the points discussed above are illustrated in the trailer:
As part of its centenary tribute to Orson Welles the British Film Institute has re-released Welles’ Touch of Evil (US 1958) on a DCP. I’ve seen the film several times before but not for some time. I was amazed/heartened to find an audience of over 50 for a screening on a sunny August morning in Hebden Bridge. I was also surprised to discover that this was a release of the 1998 version – the re-edit by Walter Murch. This following the detailed description given in the memo that an angry Welles sent to Universal after the studio took the film from him and shot extra footage as well as re-ordering scenes and using more non-diegetic music than Welles wanted. All of this I learned after the screening from the detailed account by Jonathan Rosenbaum who was the ‘Welles scholar’ consultant on the re-edit.
Touch of Evil was not a box office success in 1958 but its reputation has grown considerably since then and it is now very highly regarded. It was a relatively low budget film, shot on Universal’s lot and in nearby Venice. Charlton Heston is Mike Vargas, a Mexican police officer visiting a border town with his new American wife Susan (Janet Leigh) on their honeymoon when they become involved in a cross-border incident – a local businessman and his girlfriend are blown up by a car bomb. The local American lawman is Captain Quinlan (Welles) who very quickly finds a suspect. Vargas soon realises that Quinlan’s methods are unorthodox and risks saying so. In the meantime Susan falls into the clutches of a local criminal family headed by Joe Grandi (Akim Tamaroff) who turns out to be the brother of the big drug dealer who Vargas has arrested in Mexico City. The narrative thus involves a diabolical triangle between Quinlan, Grandi and Vargas. The other major star involved in the film is Marlene Dietrich who has a small but significant role as Tana, a rather exotic madame of a local brothel.
I’ve seen several theatrical re-releases recently and I’m often aware of how much I’ve forgotten about films I thought I knew well. But I also have contradictory feelings so that one moment I’m in danger of getting bored because I know (hazily) where the plot is going and then suddenly my attention is caught by something I hadn’t noticed before. Screenings often have a specific context which ‘fixes’ a reading of the film. Touch of Evil was at one time classified as a film noir – indeed as the ‘last film noir‘ of the classical period. That is probably the context in which I first saw the film. It still is a great noir, but this time round I was more conscious of other features of the film, some of which are certainly noir elements, but others which produce new perspectives. For instance, this time I was more conscious of the racism inherent in Quinlan’s approach and I was also intrigued with the way that Joe Grandi’s ‘gang’, comprising mainly younger members of his family, were presented as ‘leather boys and girls’, a Mexican version of what in the UK were originally ‘teddy-boys’ and later ‘rockers’. Allied with aspects of Henry Mancini’s score this seems like an attempt to make a crime genre picture more attractive for younger audiences (a crucial move in 1950s Hollywood).
Welles’ directorial credit seems to have come about because Heston saw that Welles had been cast and assumed that he would direct – and then persuaded Universal that this should happen. In terms of studio productions it is also interesting that the film’s producer and cinematographer, Albert Zugsmith and Russell Metty are Universal regulars familiar from Douglas Sirk’s films of the 1950s. The two art directors, Alexander Golitzen and Robert Clatworthy had also worked with Sirk. Given the cast and crew it seems surprising that Universal would release the film cropped to Academy Ratio (1:1.37) in 1958 even though it had been previewed as 1:1.85. The 1958 release version ran only 93 minutes (the print I saw was nearer 110 minutes) and otherwise differs from the 1998 re-edit mainly, as indicated above, by presenting linear narrative sequences rather than cross-cutting between what is happening to Vargas and what is happening to his wife. What is really noticeable though is that the re-edit omits the titles completely at the beginning of the film (they are given in full at the end. This means that Metty’s incredible opening tracking crane shot of the car with the bomb in its boot is not encumbered by traditional overlaid credits. Also, instead of Mancini’s traditional non-diegetic score, we only hear snatches of music played in bars and on the car radio. Rosenbaum suggests:
Though the suspense is lessened, the physical density, atmosphere, and many passing details are considerably heightened, altering one’s sense of the picture from the outset.
I agree that this creates a heightened sense of atmosphere but I actually thought the tension and suspense increased. Because the intricate movement of the car is so closely choreographed with the walking couple (Heston and Leigh) I found myself more and more concerned about where the explosion would take place – even though I knew Heston and Leigh would not be injured. The other moment when diegetic sound becomes important is a fight in a bar when the juke box suddenly stops playing. Overall the sound in the 1998 version is improved dramatically from the 1958 cut and that’s another reason to see this print even if you know the film from earlier versions. The other revelation for me was the terrific performance by Joseph Calleia as Quinlan’s sergeant.
Trailer from 1958 (1:1.37)
Documentary on the ‘making of’ the film (there is also part 2 on YouTube):
Marshland is a brilliantly executed crime thriller that grips throughout its whole 105 minutes. It has an arresting and original title sequence and its use of landscape and local culture is terrific. It’s only after several hours of reflection that I’m beginning to develop some doubts and they are mostly about the script. The trio of director Alberto Rodríguez and his co-writer Rafael Cobos plus cinematographer Alex Catalán, and indeed most of the creative team, have worked on two previous crime thrillers, all set in Andalusia. With Marshland they seem to have moved up a notch and the film has won several Goya Awards in Spain. The film’s USP is its historical setting in that difficult period following the death of Franco and the struggle to establish a real democracy in Spain at the end of the 1970s. The two detectives assigned to the case of a pair of missing teenage sisters in the marshlands of the Guadalquivir delta are a mismatched pair. Juan is an experienced officer from the fascist past and Pedro is a younger man committed to a democratic future. Juan has all the old tricks for ‘persuading’ witnesses to talk but Pedro, aiming to be ‘straight’, tends to annoy the locals with his challenges to ingrained ideas. The two men keep their distance from each other but they gradually learn how to work together. This latter is in some ways what the film is about – what must it be like to live in a country that has just ‘awoken’ after a nightmare of forty years? That person you meet, that person you work with might have all kinds of skeletons in their cupboards. How much do you need to compromise in order to get things done? Can you compromise and still stay true to a democratic ideal?
My slight worry about the film is that though this social sub-text should perhaps be the central concern of the narrative, instead the team seem more interested in making an American-style serial killer thriller. Most commentators have referred to the HBO series True Detective. I must be the only person who hasn’t seen the series which I understand begins in a similar environment in Louisiana and which also refers to a ‘cold case’ seventeen years ago that is now seen as re-opened with the detectives’ work on the original crime under scrutiny. Not having seen this model, I’m inclined to think of David Fincher’s work on Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007) which both have a similar sense of period design, an almost fetishised sense of crime scenes, and an anger and commitment that drives the isolated investigator. The problem for me with Fincher’s Hollywood models is that they tend towards being ‘personal’ rather than ‘societal’ in scope – they are like gruesome puzzle narratives in which the narrative agents (police, journalists) suffer. They don’t say that much directly about the society that produces the crimes.
I prefer to think about Marshland in relation to other European crime thrillers police procedurals, especially Mediterranean narratives from Southern France and Italy (although to be pedantic this is technically an ‘Atlantic’ thriller). What is most important is that the two detectives come into a conservative, almost feudal, community from outside. I’m not sure how clearly this is explained in the script (the subtitles may miss nuances). There is a reference to a letter Pedro has sent to the press criticising the slow pace of change. Juan’s problems are revealed later in the narrative. Certainly there is a sense that they are being sent to this rural backwater from Madrid rather than to big city cases. Pedro hopes that success in the case will get him posted to a Madrid investigations team. When the two men come into contact with the local Guardia Civil they begin to realise that there are unwritten rules about crimes and relationships that are not necessarily investigated thoroughly and that assumptions are made about witnesses and victims of crimes. Although they are generally very different in style and tone, there is something of Inspector Montalbano in the way in which the local police operate in a community where many people know a lot but aren’t talking. The detectives also realise that this case is being pursued (where others have been neglected) because ‘somebody knows somebody high up’.
I’m most tempted by the potential links between Marshland and the South Korean film Memories of Murder (2003). Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece also begins in the ricefields with crime scenes in ditches and fields and local police officers feeling overwhelmed before a ‘big city cop’ arrives. Bong’s film is also set in the past – the 1980s – and deals with the investigation of a real crime. But his film seems both more comic, more brutal and more stark but also more ‘humanist’ and much richer in its political analysis – and it refuses the conventional ‘narrative closure’ of the crime film. But perhaps I’m being unfair – there are other aspects of Marshlands that also contribute meanings and the central feature of the narrative – young girls wanting to leave the region to have a future and being easily seduced by those offering opportunities – is in itself part of a social critique. Juan has a medical problem and this may be the reason he appears to hallucinate. On two occasions a single bird appears in a scene incongruously – rather like the cow that Vinz sees in La Haine (France 1995). Or are these merely signifiers of the mystical nature of life in the marshes? There is a woman in the narrative who is said to have ‘second sight’ – and she certainly knows something about Juan. There is also the wonderful credits sequence which uses photographic images created by the artist Hector Garrido. These (see the image above) are aerial photographs of the delta that make it appear more like a painting of the human brain. According to this web review of the film the overall visual style is also informed by the work of Atin Aya who took photographs of the people and landscapes of Andalusia between 1955 and 2007.
The cinematography is one of the strongest elements of the film. Besides the extraordinary aerial shots, the landscape gives opportunities for action framed in long shots across marshes and ricefields. The colour palette has been adjusted and the lashing rainstorms help to create the perfect environment for chases. One car chase was the most compelling I’ve seen for some time.
So, there is plenty to admire here and I’ll happily watch the film again to look out for the aspects of the script that I might have missed in the lead up to the action film ending. I think my real concern is with UK distributors and exhibitors. Marshland opened the week before Theeb, the Jordanian film I’ve written about on The Global Film Book blog. Both films are among the best I’ve seen this year but whereas Theeb opened in only 13 cinemas, Marshland has been much more visible in 32, playing once or twice a day in my nearest arthouse. I hope that Marshland becomes appreciated as a Spanish crime film rather than just an interesting subtitled alternative to Hollywood.
Marshland‘s UK trailer with examples of cinematography and use of aerial photographs:
This vies with Phoenix as my film of the year (i.e. seen in a UK screening). It’s a perfectly formed art object that is both engaging and moving. It has been celebrated around the world and has recently been in UK cinemas after a winning a prize at the London Film Festival a year ago. We’ve had to wait a year but it has been worth it. I’ve watched the film twice now and in between screenings I spent a couple of days researching the work of the director Pawel Pawlikowski for an introductory talk. I enjoyed the research very much because it seemed that as I re-watched clips from the earlier films I’d seen and sampled some of the director’s TV documentaries from the 1990s, I began to see the continuities and the links between ostensibly different projects. Ida has been seen either as Pawlikowski’s ‘comeback’ film or as a revelation for those who have not known about the earlier films. Whether or not the concept of a director with ‘personal vision’ as an auteur still has mileage, there is no denying the continuities between Pawlikowski’s films.
Pawel Pawlikowski left Poland with his mother some time in the 1970s and eventually arrived in 1977 in the UK aged 19. His career as a filmmaker began in the late 1980s with documentaries mainly focusing on quite controversial figures in Eastern Europe. My notes for the film introduction can be downloaded here: Pawlikowski Background Notes.
Ida is a short film (just over 80 mins) and a plot outline would suggest that relatively little happens. A young woman, Anna, who we presume has grown up in a convent is now 18 and in preparation to take her vows when she is told that she has a relative, her aunt Wanda, and that she should visit her before she takes the final decision to commit to Christ. Anna is not sure what to expect but Wanda eventually provides surprising information about Anna’s Jewish family, including Anna’s birth name, ‘Ida’. Reluctantly at first (in Wanda’s case) the pair undertake a road trip to uncover the past. They meet relatively few people and the ‘action’ is limited but there is so much going on in the unspoken exchanges between characters and in the presentation of sound and image that we experience an immensely rich narrative.
There is no better way to introduce the film than to give the director’s opening statement (from the Press Pack):
Ida is a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism and music. I wanted to make a film about history, which wouldnʼt feel like a historical film; a film which is moral, but has no lessons to offer; I wanted to tell a story in which ʻeveryone has their reasonsʼ; a story closer to poetry than plot. Most of all, I wanted to steer clear of the usual rhetoric of the Polish cinema. The Poland in Ida is shown by an ʻoutsiderʼ with no axe to grind, filtered through personal memory and emotion, the sounds and images of childhood . . .
It seems to me that Pawlikowski succeeds in each of these aims. (Though the ‘outsider’ bit is possibly something for Polish audiences to comment on and they haven’t taken to the film as much as audiences in France or even the UK as far as I can see.) Much of the strength of the film does come from the director’s perspective – as an insider who became an outsider and who now returns unafraid to ask questions and ‘re-present’ the past. The power of the film comes from the astounding attention to the detail of the visual and sound images and the performances of the cast, especially the three leads.
The film was shot digitally using an Alexa 4:3 camera and the raw footage was then processed to create a monochrome film with a traditional Academy ratio and then further processed to add the grain effect of the filmstock used in the early 1960s. This process is described by ‘Benjamin B’ in his blog, ‘The Film Book’, which carries two features complementing an initial feature in American Cinematographer. These are a must read for anyone interested in the filmic image. There are several notable features of the images created in the film. As Benjamin B comments in his analysis of a short sequence, Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal, create pure cinema, ‘showing’ not ‘telling’ the story through a combination of acting, camerawork and sound related to a carefully structured narrative outline. The film also offers good examples of the old adage about needing a great deal of artifice to represent an image of ‘reality’. To achieve the ‘effect’ of natural light and simplicity in the depiction of the convent required careful placing of key and fill lamps. The effect works very well.
The two central characters of Wanda and Ida are played by Agata Kulesza, a vastly experienced actor and Agata Trzebuchowska a non-actor and this fits the narrative perfectly as Wanda has to drive the narrative and Ida has to respond to what happens. I was intrigued to discover that Agata Trzebuchowska had seen Pawlikowski’s earlier British films even though she was not involved in the film industry. I’m delighted that films do travel more extensively than might be apparent from the relatively meagre information we get from outside the US/UK film world.
I think Ida is going to be one of those films that “keeps on giving” – offering up new insights into how it can create meanings through camerawork, lighting, design, sound and performance. It has also prompted me to find the few John Coltrane recordings that ought to be played more often. The most striking aspect of the beautiful visual compositions is that they often place the characters in the bottom third of the frame, utilising a low horizon in landscape shots and producing a great deal of ‘sky room’. I haven’t quite decided what this means but it is distinctive and it certainly suggests a dialogue between characters and their environment. It also reminds me of the big skies in Academy frame compositions by directors like Kurosawa Akira and John Ford.
Since I started this posting several weeks ago the European Film Awards in December made Ida the big winner with a total of five awards – two for the film itself, two for Pawel Pawlikowski as writer and director and one for cinematography (shared by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski who both worked on the film). If there is any justice the film would win at the Oscars as well. If you haven’t seen it, the DVD is now out but do try and find it on a big screen.