Touch and Go is an Ealing film I knew nothing about before I watched it on Talking Pictures TV, though most of the cast and crew were familiar. When I looked the title up in Charles Barr’s Ealing Studios book I discovered that it is one of the prime exhibits in his condemnation of the ‘End’ of Ealing in the 1950s. It’s hard to argue against Barr’s analysis of what the film represents in terms of a studio that appeared to have lost its way and indeed its purpose by 1955-6. To emphasise his argument Barr contrasts the film with The Ladykillers, one of the few successful films from the same period. It’s a legitimate comparison in the sense that both films are shot in Technicolor and located in specific districts of London – and both were written by William Rose. But one has great vitality and a real cutting edge while the other is ‘suffocating’ and ‘stodgy’. My own preference is to try to find something of interest in everything I watch and Touch and Go reveals some aspects of British culture in the 1950s, even if the overall effect is indeed ‘deadening’.
The film’s plot is very simple. Jim Fletcher (Jack Hawkins) is a furniture designer who stomps off from his job because the firm’s head man (James Hayter) refuses to consider expanding production of Jim’s modernist furniture. This is a classic Ealing set-up of traditional v. modern written by Ealing stalwart Rose from an idea conceived by himself and his wife Tania. Jim decides that his family should emigrate to Australia – his wife Helen (Margaret Johnston) and 18 year-old daughter Peggy (June Thorburn) having little chance to object. The main section of the narrative then concerns the last few days before departure from Tilbury. The second ‘inciting incident’ is provoked by the family’s ageing black cat, a cunning brute named Heathcliff, who causes Peggy to meet a young engineering student Richard (John Fraser) and very quickly fall in love with time running out before ship sails. Will they actually get on board? Well, what do you think?
Technically, there is little wrong with a film shot by the great Douglas Slocombe and though it may have been Michael Truman’s first directorial credit he had been an editor on many of the Ealing classics of the late 1940s and a producer on similarly well-known films in the early 1950s. This film is edited by Peter Tanner, also a very experienced Ealing hand. The cast too are fine with Hawkins turning his contrasting avuncular charm and rages towards domestic struggles and occasional comic interludes with his neighbour, Reg (Roland Culver). The plotting includes some important details such as Jim’s recognition that Richard will be facing National Service, a concept most audiences under 70 will probably have forgotten about. Richard also wants to be an engineer and seems enthusiastic about something that was once a British strength. By contrast, the script does nothing with Jim’s designer skills, his role as a designer is a plot point and not much else. Heathcliff is actually the most interesting character.
The film’s setting is the Fletcher home in a Chelsea house with a basement kitchen. The house is part of a studio set with a pub handy across the road. It’s very quiet and Jim and Reg can stand in the middle of the road in the late evening, drunkenly talking and larking about. A few yards from the set is the ‘real’ London of the Albert Bridge and the Embankment – which is actually quite well-used as the setting for the romance. Barr’s comparison with The Ladykillers is valid, but the more revealing comparison is with John Ford’s Gideon’s Day (UK 1958). This odd excursion for Ford is a mix of police procedural and family melodrama, filmed in Technicolor with Hawkins as Inspector Gideon and also paterfamilias with a lively daughter played with pizzaz by Anna Massey, a music student who becomes involved with a bright young police constable. Ironically, Ford’s film was co-scripted by the Ealing writer ‘Tibby’ Clarke (writer of Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob). The script is full of comic moments amongst some rather grisly crime stories. My focus in the comparison with Touch and Go is the contrasting characterisation of the daughters. June Thorburn as Peggy is lovely and convincing in her role but she seems a young 18 (she was actually 24) and the script has her attending what appears to be a secretarial school for middle-class girls. The mothers in these films seem to be stay at home housewives even though their children are independent young women. Anna Massey’s music student has the banter of an arts student and the drive and the wit. Peggy looks beautiful on the dancefloor in her rather formal gown, even though the music is trad jazz with a trumpet solo played by Richard’s fellow student. Bill Rose’s script is so timid that the potential in the characters rarely develops into anything. Charles Barr makes the point that the Ealing films in his ‘End’ phase seem almost primed to become TV sitcoms, soaps and dramas. At the end of 1955 the Ealing Studios lot was actually sold to the BBC and, breaking with Rank, Ealing moved to the MGM British lot in Borehamwood in 1957. The Ealing site would now become the production centre for ‘cop shows’. Jack Hawkins made The Long Arm for Ealing in 1956, a ‘police procedural’ film in some ways looking forward to Z-Cars on TV. Pat Jackson’s Ealing film about nurses in training, The Feminine Touch (1956) could also be seen as the precursor for hospital soaps. Following ITV’s Emergency Ward 10 (1957-67), the BBC created Angels (1975-83) focusing on student nurses.
The potential of Touch and Go to tap into the migration narrative of the post-war period seems to have been deliberately ignored and this seems strange given Ealing’s ventures into Australian productions. Between 1945 and 1972, Australia funded an assisted passage scheme whereby migrants could travel to Australia from the UK for just £10. This was part of the ‘White Australia’ policy and was also linked to the movement of children in care, the focus of Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (UK-Aus 2010). Alongside these dubious policies, Australia also encouraged migration from Ireland and several other European countries. Michael Powell eventually made a film about an Italian migrant, They’re a Weird Mob (1962). I do wonder why Ealing chose to develop drama/action pictures in Australia rather than comedies, especially in 1955? The comedy Geordie (UK 1955) in which Bill Travers plays a Scottish highlander who competes in the Olympics at Melbourne in 1956 attempted to make use of the interest in the games. But perhaps by this stage, Ealing was unprepared to do anything too different? (Ironically Margaret Johnston was born in Australia – and June Thorburn in Karachi). Touch and Go is at best gentle comedy. I laughed out loud just the once.
I’m not sure why the Criterion print of Tampopo turned up in the Leeds festival programme but I’m glad it did because I missed it back in the 1980s. I think I probably got more from it now than I would have done then. The film opens with an extended gag about audience etiquette in the cinema featuring a dashing gangster (Koji Yakusho) in his white suit accompanied by his moll. The gangster sits on the front row and threatens the rest of the audience not to talk or eat crackly snacks during the film.
The opening gag is a marker for the unconventional narrative that unfolds in which the central story is ‘interrupted’ (but all in quite smooth transitions) by several unconnected vignettes – two more of which feature the gangster. The main narrative is associated with the Japanese passion for ramen – noodles. Two truckers operating a milk tanker return to their home city in a rainstorm and decide to drop into a run-down noodle bar. The noodles aren’t great but the driver Gorô (Yamazaki Tsutomu) falls for the widow running the joint and determines to help her make it the best ramen bar in the city. Ken Watanabe in an early role plays the trucker’s co-driver Gun. The ‘task’ that the duo undertake will involve various escapades until the widow Tampopo (meaning ‘Dandelion’) played by Miyamoto Nobuko becomes the proud proprietor of the best establishment in town. It will, for instance, mean collecting together a band of helpers – almost like recruiting the samurai in Seven Samurai. In the meantime we revisit the gangster and enjoy other food and class conflict-related vignettes. In the process we learn a great deal about the Japanese obsession with how food is prepared and served. And we laugh at the differences in food culture entertainingly presented in a scene where a Japanese tutor attempts to teach her students how to eat spaghetti without noisy slurping – which at that time was very acceptable when eating noodles in Japan (I’m not sure if it still is in Japan?).
The film is quite rightly celebrated for its comedy, though I’m not sure it is as much of a masterpiece as its reputation suggests. Still, I don’t begrudge that reputation and the film is certainly loved by its supporters. Tampopo is an ’18’ in the UK, partly because of some entertaining eroticism as the gangster and his moll ‘exchange’ foodstuffs, licking them off each other while naked. More importantly, for animal lovers, a small turtle is killed and prepared to be eaten.
Tampopo is directed by Itami Jûzô and photographed by Tamura Masaki who executes a much discussed final shot with a beautifully-arranged zoom to show the most natural form of human food consumption imaginable. It’s a very enjoyable film and reminds me that I haven’t seen enough Japanese cinema from the 1980s (and 1970s). Many commentators have made the link to Italian Westerns, partly because of the cowboy hat Gorô wears plus the music and other elements. The film is available in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray.
Is there any country in the world with a higher batting average in films produced than Palestine? It’s not even technically a country but an occupied land which, as the funding sources listed above indicate, needs all the help it can get. Yet every Palestinian film I’ve seen has been well worth watching and many of them have been excellent. Annemarie Jacir has made three of the best Palestinian features as director, she also writes and produces (see Speed Sisters) and she acted as curator of the ‘Dreams of A Nation’ Palestinian Film Festival in 2002. She’s a phenomenon.
She wrote and directed Wajib and it is a brilliantly conceived narrative with fabulous performance by the two leads, the real-life father and son actors Mohammad and Saleh Bakri. Palestine is a small country with many people and many more living in exile, as refugees or migrants. The West Bank and Gaza are strips of land a few miles across and on the West Bank penetrated by Israeli settlements. So the obvious solution is . . . a road movie! Not only that, but a road movie set entirely in the Christian Arab community of the small city of Nazareth, the largest Arab city within the state of Israel after its capture by Israeli forces in 1948. This is truly a narrative of a fecund imagination. It’s also unusual as a narrative with a plot that only covers a few hours – though the story depends on events over many years.
The starting point is the ‘wajib’ or ‘duty’ of Abu Shadi in delivering by hand all the invites to his daughter’s wedding on the Saturday before Christmas. Abu Shadi is not a well man and there are a lot of stairs to climb. Fortunately, his son Shadi has arrived from Italy and the two drive slowly around the city in the family’s old Volvo. Everybody needs imagination living as a kind of prisoner in an occupied city. Abu Shadi is a teacher who has seemingly taught most of the young men he meets has had to ‘keep face’ by inventing stories about his son’s life in Italy but now with a son baffled to learn that he’s meant to be something he isn’t, it’s got a lot trickier. Any single man like Shadi is bound to be asked questions about why he hasn’t married and to be offered every eligible daughter.
I wonder if the slightly smaller audience that the film attracted for its single showing in Hebden Bridge was a result of its relatively low-key presentation of the politics of occupation? We are used in the UK to Palestinian films that involve direct conflict with the Israeli state in some way – often through the military or settlers or movement restrictions. Setting the action in Nazareth doesn’t mean that such issues are not important, but that they are expressed in different ways. There is actually a political discourse but in one sense it is developed in quite subtle ways and in another it is played out in the generational difference between father and son and between ‘staying’ and exile/migration.
I can imagine a similar film being described as a ‘bitter-sweet comedy’ and Wajib does have many small moments of humour, mostly arising from the interactions with friends and relatives who receive the invites. The father-son relationship also functions as a universal story so you don’t need to know that much about life in Nazareth to appreciate the film, but it is so much richer if you delve through the small incidents for their deeper meanings. The father-son relationship does reach a climactic moment which is confidently handled and the film ends at what for me was the perfect moment. To avoid spoilers I haven’t discussed the other characters – present or absent – but be assured there is plenty to enjoy across 95 minutes. Annemarie Jacir’s previous film, When I Saw You (2012) is a must see and is fortunately available in the UK on DVD. Saleh Bakri appears in a lead role in that film and also in Salt of this Sea (2008) which is only on a Region 1 DVD.
SPOILER! The trailer below starts of well, giving a good sense of the ‘feel’ of the film – but then gives away an important plot point. You’ve been warned!
Talking Pictures TV comes up trumps again with this British film starring Vera Lynn. I’ve always known Vera Lynn as ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’ because of her war work visiting troops at the front and singing for relatives and friends on her radio show. I also knew about her fabulous recording career in the 1940s and 1950s. But I’d never seen her before in a feature film. This film (under its alternative title) was the third of three wartime features. It’s in some ways an unremarkable mixture of a romance, a crime film and a musical comedy of the sub-genre of wartime films featuring charity music and variety performances (e.g. the ‘Hollywood canteen’ films).
Vera plays a young woman who has volunteered for a women’s auxiliary role supporting RAF personnel on leave in London. But secretly she is hoping to get a break that will offer her an entry into show-business. By chance she gets mixed up with an attempted robbery in a very complicated bit of plotting. The victim of the robbery is Michael Thorne (Donald Stewart) who has been some kind of impresario but now works in a government office. Egged on by her comrades, Vera gets an invite to a charity performance and meets and falls in love with Thorne, eventually winning on three counts – saving him, getting together with him and rescuing him from the crooks.
The film is directed by Walter Forde (known for his earlier work, especially with Ealing (see Saloon Bar, 1940)) and photographed by Otto Heller. It was made for Columbia UK on a reasonable budget and generally looks pretty good. Vera gets to sing six songs and she has a wonderful voice. (Some of the musical numbers follow the convention of an invisible orchestra accompanying Vera.) For me the highlight of the film is a bit of daredevil sleuthing in which Vera has to climb out of a window high above the West End and edge along a narrow ledge in her attempts to save Thorne. She does this in a long evening dress and heels most impressively. I wonder why she didn’t get more roles after the war? She is quite tall (5′ 7″) for the period, especially in heels. She looks very good and moves very well but I don’t think some of the hair and make-up styles suited her as she has a strong distinctive face which makes her stand out against her rather bland rivals for Michael’s affections. She also has a bright, open personality and a sense of grit and determination beneath. The cinema’s loss was music’s gain. I think Vera Lynn is now 101 and I wish her well. Donald Stewart (an American domiciled in the UK) had a small part in the Jessie Matthews musical First a Girl (1935) and I think that Vera Lynn, like Jessie Matthews might have had a successful Hollywood career in other times. She did have a successful music career including hit singles in the US. Here’s one of the songs:
The Vue at Leeds Light refused to sell me a ticket for the film showing I wanted as it had ‘gone from their computer’. Given that they regularly run 20 minutes of ads, I don’t think it was unreasonable to ask for a ticket 20 minutes after the recognised start time. Later I realised that I could have bought a ticket for any screening and then switched auditorium. To be fair the tickets are only £4.99 so I plonked a fiver down for my second choice, Night School. I chose it on the reasonable grounds that I’d enjoyed Girls Trip directed by Malcolm D. Lee and starring Tiffany Haddish and the two are together again in Night School. The real star of the film is, however, Kevin Hart, who I knew much less about – OK, nothing at all. My research reveals that he has been a very busy stand-up and film and TV comedian/comic actor who on this film is also a writer and producer. I don’t watch US TV or mainstream films, otherwise he would be very familiar. Comments on Night School from critics and audiences suggest that most of Hart’s antics in this film have been seen before. The ratings for the film are generally low but it has still made a lot of money – $84 million at the time of writing, with the UK and Australia as major overseas markets.
I enjoyed the film but I feel it has one major weakness – it’s far too long at 111 minutes and could lose 10 to 20 minutes quite easily. The problem is in the opening sequence which takes too long to introduce the narrative disruption – and therefore delays getting into what is essentially the ensemble piece which makes the film work. As various commentators have pointed out the film attempts to meld two different but connected narratives. The first sees Teddy (Kevin Hart) as a successful salesman who has wooed a beautiful and highly successful interior designer to whom he is about to propose, but in the process he has put himself into severe financial difficulties. When disaster strikes Teddy finds himself in debt, with no job and no chance of getting another because he left school without qualifications and now he can’t get the high-powered job he needs without passing a GED test (which employers will accept as an alternative to a high school diploma). To get this he decides to go to night school – at the same high school he attended twenty years earlier. The narrative about his romance and the one about his learning difficulties with formal tests don’t really fit together. The night school introduces Tiffany Haddish as Teddy’s teacher and a varied group of misfits as his classmates. There is even a pantomime villain in the form of the school principal who Teddy insulted when they were high school students together.
The night school story seems to me to be well-written and sometimes very funny. It’s a familiar generic narrative but Hart and Haddish and the others make it work. The ‘second chance’ that night school offers easily fits the Hollywood dream promise. Interestingly, although this is an African-American film, the night school student group comprises three white and three black students and one Latino (the story is set in Atlanta). The students are there for different reasons (including one in prison doing the course via Skype). Tiffany Haddish plays quite a different role from the party girl in Girls Trip, although she does get at least one action sequence.
What struck me most of all was that this film is in many ways quite old-fashioned and draws on decades of similar comedian-led narrative escapades in which the hapless central character works hard and is defeated many times, but eventually succeeds, wins the ‘girl’ and defeats the authority figure (here the school principal). Kevin Hart is short (with a high-pitched voice when his fears are exposed), but he offers a character who is ‘smart’ and attractive on the outside but damaged by a sense of failure beneath. That’s perhaps the modern aspect of the narrative – otherwise it seems to me very familiar from the comedy vehicles of my childhood, the films of Norman Wisdom in the UK in the 1950s and early 1960s that were massively popular.
I was going to add the trailer for the film, but it includes many of the jokes and ‘explains’ the whole film in ways that mean that you may feel that you don’t need to see it. It undersells itself. Why can’t Hollywood make trailers? Still, I think Night School confirms the promise of Girls Trip in showing that African-American cinema can justify a wide release in the UK – and that’s no bad thing.
LFF came up trumps with this comedy roadtrip. I enjoyed the film very much and was dismayed that the morning showing was not well attended. When Olmo Omerzu introduced his film I thought that this tall, gangling young man looked vaguely familiar and by the end of the film I had realised that I’d seen him receive praise at the Bradford International Film Festival for his first feature A Night Too Young (2012). It’s great to see a young filmmaker growing in confidence on this his third feature. Just as in A Night Too Young, the new film takes two younger teenagers as its entertaining central characters. In the earlier film the boys were 12 but here they are a couple of years older – but still not old enough to be driving across the Czech Republic. In the Q&A that followed Olmo told us that the script had been written by a teacher and that it had won a prize in a radio drama competition but that the ‘bad language’ content had made it impossible to broadcast. Omerzu took a long time to find two young non-actors and they strove to learn the script. The result is an absolute joy.
The film opens with what I thought at first was a hunter dressed in a fancy dress costume as an enormous flightless bird. But then I realised it was an overweight boy rather alarmingly carrying what seemed to be an assault rifle. But any fear was soon undercut by his struggles to clamber over some large pipes leading into a lake, not helped by the hood of his costume falling over his eyes. This is Heduš and soon we also meet Mára who has hot-wired a car and reluctantly accepts Heduš (who he knows) as a travelling companion. Soon, however, Mára appears to have been arrested and the car impounded. Olmo Ormetzu is telling the story in non-linear fashion and we return to the road trip via the interrogation of Mára by a female police officer. But the key to the narrative is that we very gradually begin to doubt the story that Mára is telling. Is it all a fantasy with a simple explanation or did it really happen precisely as he recounts it?
This is a road trip and the boys meet various characters and have various adventures. These are not ‘bad lads’. Mára is very bright and cocky, Heduš is naïve and still child-like – his rifle is a toy, but proves useful on a couple of occasions – but he is also quite resourceful. It isn’t difficult to root for them. The two police officers are rounded characters too, the male one being more aggressive but the female one more cunning. We are on the boys’ side. As the title suggests, it is winter and not the best time to be ‘on the run’. The winter landscapes are presented in drab colours and in compositions for the CinemaScope frame by Lukás Milota who has shot all three of Omerzu’s films. Music is important in road movies and there is an interesting mix here. I should have asked the director about the soft reggae track. The film is well-edited to strengthen the narrative drive incorporating a non-linear structure. The dialogue is beautifully written and the performances by the boys are exceptional. The ‘bad language’ mainly arises from two young teenagers with vivid imaginations confronted at one point with a young woman in her early twenties thumbing a ride. But enough of that, there are plenty of adventures and something magical about Mára’s stories of his grandfather who taught him everything he knows (including how to revive houseflies!).
I hope some enterprising sales agent manages to sell the film for distribution in the UK. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying Winter Flies. I won’t be so slow to recognise Olmo Omerzu next time and I look forward to the possibility of seeing his next film. Here’s the international trailer:
Eat Drink Man Woman is the third film in the loose trilogy of features that form the first stage in Ang Lee’s directorial career. Although made in Taiwan and presented in Mandarin, it feels like a ‘transnational film’, a traditional Chinese (family) melodrama filtered through an American sense of international cinema. It’s co-scripted by Lee’s long-time contributor James Schamus and Taiwanese writer Wang Hui-Ling (who would go to script Lee’s other Chinese films). I can’t quite put my finger on why this Taiwanese film might have faint American feel – other than Lee and Schamus sharing time together in the US. Immediately after this production Lee directed his first English language film and tackled an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility – not perhaps an enormous leap from a Taiwanese family drama.
There is a useful overview of Ang Lee’s early career by David Minnihan on Senses of Cinema in its ‘Great Directors’ section. He discusses Lee’s move to the US for his education and his subsequent early production career. Minnihan takes an auteurist approach in which he sees Lee’s early work, especially the ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy of Pushing Hands (1991), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) as an expression of Lee’s difficult relationship with his own father. The same actor, Lung Sihung, plays the father in each of these otherwise unrelated family comedy-dramas (as IMDb lists them). Each of the three is a Taiwan-US production. I haven’t seen the first two films but they both appear to deal with Taiwanese migrants in the US. Coming at Eat Drink Man Woman from a slightly different angle my first question concerns Lee’s Taiwanese background and why he doesn’t seem to be more closely concerned with the work of the Taiwanese directors who comprised the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ (NTC) of the 1980s. Lee was born in 1954 making him around seven years younger than the two most prominent directors of NTC, Hou Hsaio-Hsen and Edward Yang. Lee would have been in America finishing his Film MA when Hou and Yang began making their first NTC films. He wouldn’t make his own Taiwan-set film until Eat Drink Man Woman and he was surprised at the changes in Taipei when he returned. In some ways, Eat Drink Man Woman is similar to Yang’s masterpeice Yi Yi (Taiwan-Japan 2000) but Lee had not spent twenty years exploring the social history of Taiwan since 1945 like Hou and Yang.
The family at the centre of the film comprises the father on the brink of retirement and his three grown-up daughters. Father is the joint top chef of a prestigious restaurant. He has a well-equipped kitchen at home with everything he needs to create a feast and every Sunday he cooks an enormously elaborate meal which has become the setting for the weekly family meeting. Important announcements will be made at this meal but much of the time the four family members don’t really communicate. Lee spends a great deal of time (and expense) showing the father making such a lunch and I was pained to see how little of it was actually eaten. A similar amount of care goes into a long tracking shot which follows the chef through the restaurant and into the kitchens when he is summoned in an emergency. It’s tempting to see this as Lee trying out the kind of long-take style demonstrated via a similar shot in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (US 1990). Something similar, though in a very different location, occurs in the large high school where the eldest daughter teaches. The camera follows the teacher down the open walkways around the large playground where volleyball is being played. This combines a long shot and long take approach. Lee also employs a long shot of a Taipei crossroads with heavy traffic much like a ‘pillow shot’ in an Ozu film.
The eldest daughter is introduced as a kind of ‘old maid’ character who was jilted by a lover at university and has now converted to Christianity and adopted a subdued approach to life. The middle daughter is in some ways the key character. In Minnihan’s terms she is the character who embodies Lee’s own feelings. As a teenager she had shown the most interest in cooking and wanted to be a chef or a restaurateur only to be discouraged by her father and urged to continue her education. Now she is the high-flyer, working for an airline in a senior position and wondering whether to stay in Taiwan or work abroad. The youngest daughter (whose story seems to get the least attention) works in a fast-food outlet and is seeking her independence. Her father seems less concerned about her ‘challenge’ to his love of fine cooking.
Each of the family members has a story and the narrative moves between the four stories, bringing them together at the Sunday meal. As I’ve indicated, the main story for me is that of daughter No 2 played by Wu Chien-Lien. There are also other significant characters like the other top chef ‘Old Wen’ whose actions provide a contrast (or a warning?) for the father. I did find the introduction of another set of characters quite confusing. I think these are ‘returnees’ from a previous migration and a failed marriage who are invited to stay in the family house. Lian Jin-Rong and her mother knew the chef’s family when Jin-Rong (Sylvia Chang) was a girl who played with the three daughters. Now she has a child of her own and needs to re-start her life. Her predicament and that of her mother has a bearing on what will happen to the father/chef in perhaps surprising ways.
My overall view is that Eat Drink Man Woman is a carefully scripted, very well-acted film narrative skilfully constructed by Ang Lee and his crew. I watched it on my TV via MUBI in two or three parts which isn’t ideal and therefore I’m not sure if I’m being fair in suggesting that the film doesn’t in the end ‘lift off’ to become something really distinctive and that’s perhaps what suggests a kind of ‘internationalism’ about it – as if it doesn’t quite have the confidence to be a ‘contemporary Taiwanese’ story. It explores migration, education and other familiar issues but it doesn’t ‘feel’ like other Taiwanese films I’ve watched. I’ve tended to think that Ang Lee’s best films have been based on acclaimed novels/short stories, e.g. The Life of Pi or Brokeback Mountain. On the other hand it could be that there are too many central characters and not enough time to explore them all in detail? In a family melodrama like this the central conflict needs a strong focus and here the youngest daughter seems like a peripheral character. Even so, I feel like I’ve learned more about Ang Lee’s work and I’m primed to watch some other Taiwanese melodramas in my unwatched piles of DVDs.
It’s very exciting to see a Spike Lee film back in wide release in UK cinemas. BlacKkKlansman just scrapes in as a wide release with 217 cinemas but these had the highest average audience numbers of any film in UK cinemas last weekend. I have a great deal of time for Spike Lee as a filmmaker with passion, creativity and political intelligence to go with a deep knowledge of cinema and the skills to make memorable films. Having said that it’s also the case that he makes a wide range of features, shorts, documentaries and other types of moving image work and sometimes he chooses projects that puzzle me. Too often he falls foul of UK distribution companies and their notorious reluctance to release African-American films. All of this means that I hadn’t actually seen a Spike Lee ‘joint’ since I managed to import a US DVD of The Miracle at St. Anna in 2009. After all the build-up to the release of BlacKkKlansman and its Cannes Grand Prix I did worry that it could be a let-down, but it isn’t. This is Spike returning to the form that produced Do the Right Thing (1989) and Bamboozled (2000), the former universally acclaimed, the latter larger ignored – but both important films.
The first point to make about BlacKkKlansman is that it is packed with a great deal of material and ideas and I found that the 135 minutes flew by. I think it will take several more viewings to properly ‘read’ the film and come to any sensible conclusion about what it might mean to different audiences. Spike Lee at his best is always provocative and attempting to build a polemic using humour as well as political insight is often rejected by audiences looking for clear resolutions. My feeling at the moment is that BlacKkKlansman makes important political statements. It certainly made me think about strategies and ways to articulate arguments and it made me question some of my assumptions and ways of thinking about politics in the UK as well as the US and indeed universally. I did also wonder at moments whether Spike gets the balance right and whether his satire works – but in the circumstances I think that is inevitable.
I recommend the Sight and Sound (September) interview with Spike Lee (I have some arguments with the rather negative review of the film in the same print issue but the online piece by Sophie Monks Kaufman is also very good). Queried by Sight and Sound interviewer Kaleem Aftab about how much of the film is actually based on the real events described by Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth, Lee simply re-iterates “[the film] is based on a true story”. It’s a reasonable question – and response. Some aspects of the narrative seem so fantastical that it is hard to believe that they ever happened, but at other moments the narrative seems only too ‘real’. Ron Stallworth (played with bravura by John David Washington, son of Lee regular Denzel Washington) was the first African-American to join the Colorado Springs force in 1972 as a cadet. It wasn’t until several years later that as an undercover cop he answered an advertisement for applications to join the Ku Klux Klan. Establishing himself on the phone as a ‘white supremacist’, it then required a white officer to physically attend KKK meetings posing as ‘Ron Stallworth’. This was ‘Flip’ Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Lee and his co-writers decided to compress the story so that the events seem to take place over a few months in 1973/4. Apart from a familiar strategy to speed up the pace of the narrative, this also allows Lee to highlight questions around black identity at the time of the ‘Blaxpoitation’ cycle of films in the early 1970s alongside the fashions, the music and the ‘Black Power’ iconography.
The wonderful Afros on display, the clothes and the music and the discussion of Shaft and Superfly and Pam Grier (complete with on-screen film posters) provide a rich mise en scène which allows Lee to explore issues within African-American culture. Ron’s first undercover job was to ‘infiltrate’ a student-organised event at which Kwame Ture (aka Stokeley Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins) makes an impassioned plea to the students to prepare for revolution. That evening Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier) the student president and begins a relationship. This relationship is an invention which in genre terms allows Lee to explore a romance-thriller narrative thread. We worry about Patrice, although she is generally quite capable of looking after herself and her fellow students. But as Herb Boyd in Cineaste (Fall 2018) points out, we learn relatively little about Patrice and, apart from two or three key moments, the relationship between Ron and Flip is much more important. It is Flip who is in the most danger. The script emphasises how much the Klan are anti-semitic and Flip is someone who has never really thought about his own Jewish identity. This danger (of exposure) is an element of the romance thriller that also generates the possibility of comedy and it is these scenes (i.e. Flip among the Klan members) that test Lee’s ability to balance humour and anger. He’s helped by wonderful performances all round and especially by Jasper Pääkkönen as the most suspicious Klansman and Topher Grace as David Duke, the Klan ‘Grand Wizard’. These two are chilling and completely absurd at the same time.
While much of the film narrative remains within the familiar mode of ‘Hollywood realism’, Spike explores the legacy of racism in Hollywood through extracts from Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939). I don’t want to spoil the impact of how he does this, but the appearance of Harry Belafonte is thrilling for anyone old enough to remember one of the great figures of the Civil Rights movement. Alec Baldwin’s appearance might be more puzzling for some audiences outside North America, although I guess his YouTube appearances as ‘Donald Trump’ are easily accessible around the world. The crucial question is how does Spike Lee end his narrative? We know Ron Stallworth survived his involvement with the Klan because he wrote his memoir in 2014. But it would be dangerous to leave us laughing and feeling good about victory. In fact, I think there is a narrative thread running throughout which keeps us querying Ron’s actions and his motivations. When the final section comes I think it works very well and I hope that BlacKkKlansman will become a classic ‘joint’ like Do The Right Thing.
BlacKkKlansman took £1.2 million on its first UK weekend and it looks set to be one of Spike’s biggest hits. I’ve failed to mention the initiative of Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele who initially brought the project to Lee and also Blumhouse Productions the company which made Get Out. Peele and Blumhouse are both part of the production background for BlacKkKlansman, demonstrating that Spike Lee is very much still part of the cutting edge of African-American cinema. Terence Blanchard, Lee’s long-time collaborator is still on board composing a fine score and including an array of great 1970s tracks. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin is new to me but Spike Lee has a strong track record in working with exciting camera people and Irvin’s work contributes a great deal to the look of the film. I want to finish by urging you to see this film. I also want to emphasise that there is much, much more to say about it so I hope some of you will add your comments.