Category: Documentary

Nothing Like a Dame (UK 2018)

The four dames (from left) Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench

This shortish documentary (84 mins) received some cinema screenings in the UK before being broadcast on BBC2 at the start of June. It also has a planned release in Australia (under the title Tea With the Dames) and IFC has it for the US. The idea for the film couldn’t be simpler. The four surviving ‘grand dames’ of British theatre, film and television meet at Joan Plowright’s country house in Sussex – something they have done regularly in the past, but this time it is a ‘choreographed’ meeting with cameras present and proceedings under the control of director Roger Michell who asks questions off-screen.

Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith were all born in 1934. Joan Plowright is a few years older and she is now visually impaired. The film has several jokes about hearing aids which most of the four appear to need. Judi Dench possibly has the highest public profile of the four, regularly appearing on chat shows and telling her anecdotes. Maggie Smith also has a high public profile, here and abroad because of Downton Abbey. Both Judi and Maggie have gained many fans from working on film franchises such as James Bond and Harry Potter respectively. All four women know each other very well, primarily because they met in West End productions as young women and all have a background with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. One of the experiences they share is working with Laurence Olivier – and Joan Plowright married him in 1961 when he was considerably older. They tell stories about Olivier which only strengthen my idea of him as an unpleasant man (and I never really enjoyed his acting either). Much of this discussion is about playing Shakespeare on the stage and therefore something I know little about.

The most enjoyable parts of the film are concerned with finding out about the early lives of the women and how they got into the business. Some photographs of Eileen Atkins as a young teenager dancing in workingmen’s clubs in relatively skimpy outfits might raise a few eyebrows today, but much about her beginnings reminded me of earlier British actors like Ida Lupino and Margaret Lockwood except that Atkins eventually more involved in theatre than cinema. Of all the four, I feel that it is Maggie Smith that made the most impression on me in the 1960s and 1970s, partly through her marriage to Robert Stephens. I think I did see their stage performance together in Coward’s Private Lives in 1972. Judi Dench is a great sport and I’d seen her telling some of the anecdotes that she repeats in this film on earlier chat shows. It was nice to be reminded though of her TV sitcom success in A Fine Romance (1981-4) with her real-life husband Michael Williams. I wish I had learned a bit more about Joan Plowright since apart from The Entertainer (1960) I don’t know her work at all. Eileen Atkins is slightly different because I have seen her in quite a few films, but not necessarily in lead roles.

Since I mainly study films and now never get to West End Theatre any more, my sense of the four great actors is limited, but by bringing the four of them together like this the producers of this film (Sally Angel and Karen Steyn) raise two important issues. One is, why were these four made ‘Dames’? It occurred to me that there are at least three other women of a similar age and breadth of career – Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson and Sheila Hancock. I don’t know whether they would accept being made a dame (Redgrave is reported as turning one down in 1999 and I imagine that the other two would think twice about it). My point is that it does seem to be an establishment thing. I’m not arguing that Dench and co don’t deserve all their awards, only that some performances seem to have more ‘worth’ in terms of cultural kudos than others (Judi Dench has also worked extensively in the charities sector). Vanessa Redgrave is acting royalty but also politically a supporter of causes not welcomed by the establishment. She and Glenda Jackson outscore the others in terms of film rather than stage or TV work I think. Following on from this point, I think it would be interesting to contrast the seven UK actors I’ve listed above with leading actors in Europe, especially in France. It’s difficult to do this, but my impression is that the well-known stage actors in the UK tend to end up in much more mainstream fare on screen. This week I saw mention of Isabelle Huppert reading two stories from the Marquis de Sade on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Huppert seems capable and willing to do anything that interests her artistically. Would any of our four great dames do something similar? What would audiences think if they did? (If they have done similar things, forgive me, but I think you understand my drift.) Huppert is twenty years younger, but I’m sure Delphine Seyrig (born 1932, died aged 58) would have been game. In the latest honours list, the establishment skipped a generation to make Emma Thompson a fifth dame. She has a strong film background, but again mainly in middlebrow or prestige productions. The British actors who take on the widest variety of roles, such as Tilda Swinton or the late Billie Whitelaw (known for her work with Beckett) tend to get overlooked – they get the next award down, a CBE. Eventually I found this Wikipedia list of ‘dames’ and there are far more actors (stage, film and TV) than I ever imagined (but how could I have forgotten Dame Thora Hird?). My point still stands though – damehood is granted for the things you do that appeal widely to the public.

Nothing Like a Dame is entertaining and part of the BBC’s arts programming. But it’s time we had some serious programming about film culture back on BBC television.

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The Rape of Recy Taylor (US 2017)

The film recounts the rape of a young Afro-American woman and mother in 1944 in Alabama by a gang of white men. This was before the period of activism known for ‘The Civil Rights Movement’. Rape of black women, like the lynching of black people, was common in the period dominated by the racist culture called ‘Jim Crow’. Recy’s struggle for justice was supported by National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP] and by one of its field officers, Rosa Parks. Parks is famous for her role in the ‘Bus Boycotts’ in the 1950s. But this case was equally important in the development of black resistance to the racism endemic in the USA. The NAACP, committed to constitutional action, was for decades the lead organisation in the struggle for equality for African-Americans.

The central event in the film, an assault and rape on the 24 year-old black woman on a Sunday evening as she returned from a church service, is told through the filmed testimony of her family members and audio recordings of Recy herself. The perpetrators were six white teenagers. Though identified the local sheriff contrived to avoid any action. And Recy’s family home was terrorised and there were death threats when she pursued her claim for justice. These testimonies are intercut with contemporary footage, tending to impressionistic, of the settings, in darkness and with travelling shots that suggest a noir, even horror, feel. Alongside this are extracts from documentary film of the period and archive photographs. And as a distinctive addition clips from the ‘race cinema’ of the period and earlier.

The ‘race cinema’ operated from about 1910 to the end of the 1940s. It was a segregated cinema, in its production, distribution and exhibition, not just in the South but across the USA. Whilst it suffered from low production values due the poor economics of the business the films provided a potent experience for black audiences. The films presented black culture in its own estimation, valorised black heroes and heroines, vilified the lumpen proletarian elements in black communities and the racist white communities from which Afro-Americans suffered. The films dramatised the brutalities and inequalities of US culture in the period, including explicit representation of rapes and lynchings and the real violent face of organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

These clips provides a dramatic tapestry into which Recy’s story is implanted. And the film uses virtuoso techniques to increase the drama. There are fine superimpositions of archival footage over the contemporary film. There are montage sequences which interweave, factual and fictionalised renderings. And there is added to this a powerful musical accompaniment of sombre orchestral music and well-chosen songs from the African-American culture. Some of the characters in the events are now deceased and are voiced by actors. So the film is partly a drama-documentary and shares some formal aspects with the film of Ken Burns and his colleagues.

The film is directed by Nancy Buirski whose previous films include a documentary The Loving Story (2011) and a dramatised treatment, Loving (2016), of an inter-racial couple prosecuted for breaking laws against ‘miscegenation’. She scripted the film and skilfully orchestrates the various components. There is excellent contribution in the cinematography by Rex Miller and the film uses drone cinematography to great effect. Also deserving praise is the film editing by Anthony Ripoli; the visual effects by Aaron Hodgins Davis; and the work of the eight craftspeople in the sound department. To this the credits add a long list of researchers who must have combed all sorts of archives and collections as well as tracking down people to be interviewed. The film also respect the archive film and materials using their original aspect ratios.

Recy’s family member comment on the issues as well as recounting the events. In the latter stages of the film two contemporary voices add to this analysis: Daniel L. McGuire whose book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power details the whole violent culture which was inflicted on African-American women over decades. (Published in 2011 the book’s title is taken from a 1960s song.) And there is African-American historian Crystal Feimster. Their contributions place this story in the wider culture of racist violence and black resistance. In particular the film draws out the role of Rosa Parks, a NAACP field officer who took up Recy’s case and worked to develop a widespread protest that reached beyond the black communities. Rosa Parks is more famous for her role in the Montgomery ‘Bus Boycott’, The commentators emphasise how the campaign of support for Recy was equally important in the development of resistance by black people. They also emphasise how important was the role of black women in the movement, both in the 1940s and the 1950s despite the sometime over-emphasis on iconic male leaders. This argument is convincing but I would have liked more on the struggle in the 1940s. The film refers to one other campaign by another black women who suffered rape but the film implies more.

One difference between the 1940s and 1950s was, that whilst the bus boycott led on to increase action and results, in Recy’s case despite widespread campaigning she was not able to get a fair trial of her assailants. The first trial was a mockery and subsequently an all-white jury refused indictments. The film does note that in 2011 the Alabama State Legislature passed the following:

“BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, that we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we express our deepest sympathies and solemn regrets to Recy Taylor and her family and friends.”

Apart from the long and insulting delay the film, at this point, also includes interviews with white residents from Abbeville. They are aware of the events but are not really prepared to condemn them or offer praise for Recy’s struggle for justice. But we do see her, old and infirm, [in a residential home I think}, and she remains as resolute as she must have been in 1944. She died late in 2017. It seems unlikely that she would have seen this film’ tribute to her courage and resilience.

The film has a limited release into cinemas and is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House this week.

See more on Oscar Micheaux and the ‘race cinema’, including Within Our Gates, a film utilised in this documentary.

The Radical Film Network

I have to confess that I have only just informed myself of this network though probably quite a few readers are familiar with it. Formed in 2013 in London it is now fairly widespread across several continents. The objects are to further ‘radical film’ and participants are involved in production, exhibition and associated activities. Radical is defined as

“ . . . first and foremost to a political affiliation to progressive politics and struggles for social justice – from workers’ rights and environmental sustainability to gender, racial and sexual equality.”

A current and welcome project is ‘RFN 68’,

“Taking the radical uprisings and revolutionary fervour of this rare and volatile year as a source of inspiration, the RFN68 festival examines the legacy of the events of 1968 through an international programme of films, workshops, discussion and social events, organised by the Radical Film Network.”

Several events have taken place in Leeds and I attended a screening of In the Intense Now / No Intenso Agora (João Moreira Salles, Brazil, 2017 ) at the Hyde Park Picture House.

This is a documentary about 1968 but offering a distinctive approach. A compilation documentary it uses home movies from Salles’ family and found footage from films of the period, amateur film footage and some material from television, radio and printed sources. Some of the film soundtracks appear in the film but for most of the running time there is a commentative voice of the director. The film is in black and white and colour and in the Academy ratio: it is good to see a film where the makers resists the conventional re-framing of archive footage.

This is a fairly subjective but sympathetic revisiting of Paris in May 1968 and parallel places and events though the parallels are those felt by the director. The film opens with footage from a home movie shot by the director’s mother on a visit to China in 1966 followed by film of events in Prague in 1968 and then some more home movie, this time in a street in Brazil. These signal some of the preoccupations of the film-maker, though they are only clarified as the film progresses. The footage from China was filmed during the Cultural Revolution and features Red Guards who are surprisingly friendly to these bourgeois tourists. The footage from Brazil shows family members but also, as the narrative voice points out, the class situation in which they live.

The first part of the film is mainly devoted to events in Paris in May 1968. The film more or less follows the chronology of events but this is not a history of that month but a series of fragments that give a sense of what happened and offer [as one review suggested] ‘radical romanticism’.

Certain characters occupy the centre. Thus we see and hear General de Gaulle at the New Year of 1967; twice towards the end of May 1968; and finally at the New Year 1968. On television he seems a relic from the past but on radio he is the voice of tradition and moderation. The film thus includes television coverage of the mass demonstration of conservatives that followed the radio broadcast.

There is also ample coverage of Daniel Cohn-Bandit, mainly on film but also on radio. There is a certain identification with Daniel but also a strong note of irony as the film records his rather doubtful con-operation with ‘Paris Match’. And there is much film of the students, the workers and the street clashes that filled the city.

Part 2 includes more material from Paris but also extended coverage of the suppression of ‘The Prague Spring’ by the armies of the Warsaw Pact. Later in the film there is coverage of the funeral of Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself in protest. This leads into a series of films that deal with death and burial. These include a student who died in a protest in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1968; a suicide by a student during the protests in Paris; and a policeman killed during a demonstration in Lyon in the same period. In these passages there is none of the earlier irony but a note of quiet mourning. This seems to aim at generating a sense of loss over the upheavals.

The film ends with more footage from the home movie shot in China and then film of Mao Zedung and one of his poems. Finally we see the famous shot by the Lumière Brothers of workers leaving their factory: why I was unsure.

Whilst the ‘romantic’ does describe much of the treatment there is a continuing tone of irony. Thus at one point the commentary notes the provenance of the famous aphorism,

“Sous les pavés, la plage! (“Under the paving stones, the beach.”)”.

Was this a political slogan or an advertiser’s gimmick. At another point the commentary notes the predominance of short hair among the male protesters and compares this with the USA where the hair was longer and the events [according to the commentator] were more radical. It also notes the dominance of men in Paris 68, [not quite accurate if you watch the footage carefully].

The film offers a fascinating revisiting of these radical events. However it is structured round the personal rather than the analytical. In the end the significance of ’68 seems uncertain. I was struck by the inclusion of ‘The Prague Spring’. The other locations were significant for the director. His family came from Brazil, were living in Paris in May 1968 and his mother did visit China in 1966. But Czechoslovakia has no such relationship. I wondered, as Paris and Rio de Janeiro were protests essentially about capitalism that he felt the need to include a protest against ‘socialism’, in which case he misconstrues the significance of events in Prague.

And I would question the comparison between Paris and the USA. Currently ‘PBS America’ are broadcasting the Ken Burns Vietnam programme, in its entirety not cut as was the case with the BBC. What is apparent in the film is that while many voices supported the Liberation struggle in Vietnam the mass of the protest was against the effects of the war within the USA. Paris was more radical. One aspect of this was the influence of the radical politics in China’s Cultural Revolution. We do get footage of Mao and we do see some Maoists at work in Paris but the parallels are not really drawn out in this film.

Even so I was fascinated by the film which is definitely worth seeing. The research and selection of found footage is impressive. The structure of the film brings out interesting aspects and the editing makes both ironic and political comments. Among the footage in this film is some from the work of Chris Marker. His A Grin Without A Cat / Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) remains the essential viewing on this period. It would be good if we could have an opportunity to revisit this film as well.

The Radical Film Network has a calendar of events for RFN 68 on its webpages. And one can sign up to be kept informed and even participate.

Trevor Mathison: ‘Post-Soul Noise’

This was an afternoon event of screenings and discussion of the work of a film/sound artist organised by The Pavilion together with Leeds Black Film Club. Trevor was a founder member of the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982. This collective produced a series of pioneering and experimental media products and films. Their work reflected what can be called ‘black consciousness’ in the 1980s. Their work was sited in the broader context of colonialism, the diaspora and movements of rebellion. Their productions worked through visual and aural poetry to present challenging representations around these themes.

Trevor Mathison worked on the soundtracks for their productions. He used performed music, noise and invented sounds to produce tracks that worked with the poetry of the visual material. He also worked as sound engineer on Isaac Julien’s Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1995) and on Pratibha Parmar’s Sari Red (1988), screened at an earlier Pavilion event.

The first screening was a work which was originally a two-part tape/slide presentations which had been transferred to digital, Expeditions: Signs of Empire and Images of Nationality (1983–84), These were the first works produced by the collective when they moved to Hackney from Portsmouth where they had studied at the Polytechnic. The two part video exemplified the poetic style that Black Audio developed and presented their key themes: representations around “race”, colonialism and empire, oppression and racism, and assertive consciousness. Each work ran for 25 minutes. The first part opened with Wagnerian strains and then developed a mixture of images and sounds. The second part concluded with the Congo and a voice-over with lines from Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.

Following this Trevor offered some comments and answered questions from the audience. He explained some of the process of production. The main source of images were various monuments around London, and specifically the Victoria and Albert Memorial. They used slide film and the transparencies were worked on and words were imprinted using Letraset. Trevor remembered the collective spread round a long table of materials and gels with the everybody working on the artefacts. The soundtrack was produced with similar techniques, However Trevor worked alone here, (partly from preference). And he recorded and re-recorded the various sounds. What was impressive was that he was using both reel-to-reel and cassette tapes yet the quality on the re-mastered digital version was excellent.

Each part was composed of four carousels, operating in tandem, each containing 80 slides. One technical problem was transferring carousels. But Trevor also thought that the ‘dissolves’ between slides were especially effective because of the slow pace of changes. Much of the music was from the collections of the members and they also investigated the material in a local bookshop.

At one point he used the phrase ‘the ghost in the machine’, a regular motif in Black Audio’s work. He suggested that the work involved stories of ancestors and their ‘ghosts’ Asked about the title of the event Trevor did not exactly explain this but did refer to the effective romanticisms of ‘soul’.

An early presentation of the work was at the Rio Cinema in Dalston. But the collective also travelled widely with the presentation, including to the USA. The approach of the collective was that the content and message were their responsibility and this involved for them alternative narratives. . They expected audiences to treat this critically.

The second work was Twilight City produced for Channel 4 in 1989. The video film ran 52 minutes in colour and with both voice-overs and interviews. The starting point was London after ten years of Conservative rule. So the film spoke to the present of 1989 but Will Rose (who introduced the event) suggested that it also spoke to the present of 2018.

The video started with a young Afro-Caribbean woman writing a letter to her mother who had returned to Dominique ten years earlier and was now thinking of returning to London. This was a neat conceit which enabled the young woman to retell London and its changes over the decade. At several points the film presented extracts from interviews with Afro-Caribbean activists. There was also footage of places and people including a Somali Centre in London and a Community Church. . There were recurring sequences, one of waves on the Thames: another of a car driving through the night-time streets of London, all light and shadows. There were photographs, engravings (Hogarth) and monuments, as in the earlier work. And there was older archive footage of wartime and the ‘Blitz’. All of these were paralleling and connecting with the voice-overs. The film ended with a night-time car drive and then a coastal shot with the sun rising over the ocean.

Trevor talked about the production of the piece. There was more division of roles and the end credits showed different functions including Reece Auguiste as director. He had produced the initial idea which was developed and then the collective obtained funding from Channel 4. At this time there was a scheme for publicly funded workshops agreed by Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians, Channel 4 and a number of public institutions including, until its demise in 1986, the Greater London County Council. Black Audio Film Collective, along with other groups such as Sankofa, benefited from this scheme.

In answer to questions Trevor said more about how he worked up the soundtracks. One example he gave was of dismantling a piano and using the sounding board to create particular noises. The narrative of a ‘returnee’ was invented but provided a focus for the narrative. And the film like the earlier works, combined poetry, symbolism and (amongst others) monuments around the city. One theme central to the work was ‘belonging’. He talked about one sequence that recurred several times of homeless sleepers at night. This was shot in the underpass across from Waterloo Station. And he saw rats there whilst they filmed. Now this was the site for the London IMAX, considerably changed.

The Black Audio Film Collective was wound up in 1998. Over its sixteen years it produced a range of works, including films and programmes aired on Channel 4. In 1988 the ICA published booklet on ‘Black Film British Cinema’. The Document profiled some of the workshop collectives including a discussion with members of the Black Audio Film Collective. They talk about their influences, centrally I noted Franz Fanon. They also mentioned influences on form and style, both Alexander Rodchenko, a Soviet pioneer of photo-montage, and, more recently, Henri Cartier Bresson. At the time they were also discussing a number of French intellectual, including Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser. These explained the interest that can be discerned in psycho-analysis and also a tendency, common in the 1980s, to use fairly complex theoretical language. Closer to home, an important influence was Stuart Hall, an important writer and theorist: he was far more accessible than the French theorists though with a tendency to reformism.

Referring to Expeditions Reece Auguiste commented;

Expeditions (1983), which was our first cultural project, was a way of testing those ideas and trying to extend the power of the images and debates around colonial and post-colonial moment. In order to do that we had to articulate a particular language and vision of that moment.”

The ‘post-colonial, which I find anachronistic when we still have colonialism (just across the Irish Sea for one), is referenced in Expeditions by quotations from Homi Bhabha, a theorist in Cultural Studies.

Reece continued later on Expeditions;

“The way, for example, in which we would actually appropriate from English national fictions – like the Albert and Victoria Memorial – going back and really engaging with the archive of colonial memory. We were not only constructing a colonial narrative, but also critiquing what was seen as the colonial moment – critiquing what was seen as the discourse round empire.”

Twilight City followed later than the ICA profile. I found the work slightly hybrid in style. Much of the film used the visual and aural montage that was the bedrock of Black Audio’s work. But sited within this were a series of interviews. The early interviews were personal and concerned with memory. But later in the film they tended to be prescriptive around political issues. The montage work of the collective seemed to me to be rich in both denotations and connotations whereas some of these interviews were much closer to ‘realist’ documentary. There is something of the same dichotomy in their most famous work for Channel 4, Handsworth Songs (1987), addressing the riots/rebellion in Birmingham in 1985. This particular film occasioned strident debates including an angry attack by Salmon Rushdie in the letter page of the Guardian.

In answer to my question Trevor made the point that in their work for Channel 4 the collective had total editorial control. So I suspect that the use of more ‘realist’ forms was occasioned by the collectives sense of the medium and its audience. It should be noted that Channel 4 at this time was the radical edge of British television. It had a brief to present ‘new voices’, which it did very effectively. But once it settled in the predominant values of the British media gradually toned down its offering The workshop Ceddo had their film The People’s Account (1988) effectively banned by the IBA. The Derry Film & Video Workshop’s Mother Island suffered a similar fate, though that was later screened on Channel 4 with enforced cuts..

This was a fascinating and rewarding sessions. The Black Audio Film Collective work has been missing from screens for a long time and it amply pays revisiting. Trevor has a low-key and very affable manner: but he is also effective at drawing out the import and stance of the work.

The original collective consisted of seven people: John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Reece Auguiste, Trevor Mathison, Edward George and Claire Joseph. Joseph left in 1985 and was replaced by David Lawson.

In 1998 three of the members formed the new Smoking Dog Films: John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul and David Lawson. Trevor Mathison has worked on several of their projects as ‘sound designer’, a recently innovated term that describes his work more accurately.

One of these is The Stuart Hall Project (2013) presenting and celebrating one of their influential mentors. Unfortunately, whilst effective, the film follows the convention of television and reframes much of the Archive footage.

The Nine Muses (2010) is devised from an original exhibition work. It is a complex study of migration, structured around Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. It presents the visual and aural montage that typifies the work of both the Black Audio Film Collective and Smoking Dog Films. It is a brilliant but little seen art work and a key documentary in C21st British film.

GFF18 #9: Arcadia (UK 2017)

Look closely at this image to discover ideas about the ‘pastoral’

‘Arcadia’ is a term full of meanings for cultural work. In one definition on Wikipedia it is seen as “a lost, Edenic form of life, contrasting to the progressive nature of Utopian desires”. The name derives from a region of Greece, so that it is through classical studies that is known in the UK. The GFF Brochure describes the film Arcadia as:

A provocative and poetic exploration of Britain’s relationship with its own land  . . . a dense and elegiac essay of wonder, hope, horror and decay.

This shortish documentary feature (78 minutes) was put together by Paul Wright, the director best known for his fiction feature For Those at Peril (UK 2013) about the impact of the deaths of several fishermen on a remote Scottish fishing community. Original music was composed by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp. The film was produced by Hopscotch Films, one of the leading Scottish film production companies and supported by the British Film Institute and Creative Scotland.

Flooding is still a hazard perhaps because of lack of abuse of building and planning regulations?

Ears of corn as symbolic?

The film is divided into various chapters and there is a narrative of sorts that reflects the seasons. I have problems writing about these kinds of ‘poetic’ documentaries, especially when the subject matter is so diffuse and difficult to pin down. I find my concentration wanders when there is not a pithy argument to follow. In this case I did recognise some of the ‘found footage’ taken from various film archives as well as extracts from named documentaries and, I think, possibly from some fiction features. The festival blurb for the film suggests that we are:

following an unnamed protagonist from the future as she travels through metaphorical ‘seasons’; from spring’s romantic agricultural idyll to winter’s political turmoil, as nature reacts with violent storms.

I couldn’t make much sense of this.

The big house, a folkloric festival?

What is the relationship between people(s) in the UK and the landscapes of these islands? It’s certainly mixed. For some it’s about the ‘pastoral’ and the concept of living close to nature and some kind of innocence. For others it’s about superstition and inward-looking cultures and for some it’s the ‘folk horror’ of The Wicker Man (UK 1973). Although this film is produced within a Scottish context, many of the ideas in the film seem to come from a rural ‘English’ culture (and are often seen from the perspective of the middle-class – UK archives carry a lot of footage taken by amateur filmmakers, most of whom were middle-class). There is also input of material from the rather disparagingly termed ‘Celtic ‘ and ‘Nordic’ ‘fringes’ – there are several events from Padstow and the Up Helly Aa day from Lerwick. At the beginning of the film I remembered John Major’s famous misuse of Orwell and the “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”. We were watching a seemingly timeless scene of an English village coming alive in the morning. I feel that sometimes these images can be a pernicious form of nostalgia. They mask so many political realities across rural England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (North and South). The one extraordinary element I remember from Arcadia was the amount of ‘naturist’ footage. Who on earth shot all of this footage? Is it from a naturist archive? Nubile young women did form more of the naked figures on display, though to be fair there were some naked males as well. What was the point of including this footage? Is it as simple as ‘naturism’ and ‘nature’?

A daring image from an early film in the archives

You might be getting the impression that I was not as enthralled by this film as perhaps I should have been and you would be right. I’m interested in both industrial history and social/cultural history but not the ‘pastoral’ so much. Having said that, Arcadia did remind me of the great film directors who have attempted to use the British landscape. I’m thinking primarily of Michael Powell in The Edge of the World (1937), A Canterbury Tale (1944) and Gone to Earth (1950). Powell was a ‘High Tory’ and with Pressburger he was interested in passion expressed through landscapes. I’d love to see a documentary collage of the use of landscapes in British cinema. It would also be interesting to compare Arcadia with Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (UK 1942) as a poetic documentary representation of Britain during the early part of the Second World War. This last year has also seen the release of three successful small independent films dealing with the loneliness of small farming families: God’s Own Country (2017) and Dark River (2017) set in West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire respectively and The Levelling (2017) set in Somerset. Arcadia certainly has a subject to explore but perhaps not in the way it worked out. I’ve been rather hampered in writing this review as I haven’t found a full crew list (who edited all the clips – was it Paul Wright himself?) and I struggled to find images, even on the Hopscotch Films site. I’m not sure how Hopscotch Films are going to follow up this festival screening (and previously London and Leeds with Borderlines to come) with a cinema, download or DVD release, but I think they need better promotional materials. The images from the film that I did find were from the website of another production partner Common Ground, an arts and environmental charity with some interesting projects. This film is worth seeing but probably with an introduction and a discussion. It might even work best in a gallery installation. And that reminds me to recommend John Akomfrah’s work, especially The Nine Muses (UK 2010) if this kind of film interests you.

Welcome to Britain (UK 1943)

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Cuppa tea is the key

This documentary made to familiarise American troops with British mores is more than a historical curiosity for two reasons. Firstly it’s an example of a ‘self reflexive’ documentary that draws attention to the making of itself. Bill Nichols, who theorised about different modes of documentary, saw this as a late development; for example he cites Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line (US, 1988). So Welcome to Britain was well ahead of its time. In it the narrator, and co-director with Anthony Asquith, Burgess Meredith discusses with two generals, who are greeting arriving troops, what to say in the film. We see Meredith directing the camera and marshalling the sound. It’s works well as a folksy technique that’s designed to get soldiers to listen to friendly advice.

The rest of documentary eschews the self-reflexive, though Meredith continues to chat to camera. Suitably enough he starts in the pub, a key location in Britain. What follows is pedestrian by today’s standards though there are some good jokes: Meredith asks a guy if he’s been living in his cottage ‘all his life’? The reply: “Not yet.” Bob Hope has a cameo and his huckster persona is put to good effect.

The second reason this is an interesting document is when a ‘nice old lady’ invites a, what the documentary terms, ‘niggra’ (negro) soldier and Meredith to tea. The latter explains to camera that this sort of thing happens here because the British are less prejudiced. In his excellent Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga relates how a white soldier attacked a black one when he found they’d both been invited to tea. Apparently the British liked black soldiers more because they were polite; no doubt because they had learned to tread on eggshells, particularly when talking to white women. The brazen admittance of prejudice is quite shocking to see but at least it is honest.

Asquith went on to have a long career in film and Meredith became best known as ‘the Penguin’ in the 1960s Batman television series.

Janis: Little Girl Blue (US 2015)

This recent music doc/biopic offers an interesting comparison with 20 Feet From Stardom (US 2013). Whereas that film seemed to me to have wonderful material but lacked a clear focus, this documentary knew exactly what it was doing and achieved a great deal with the limited material available. I have to confess a strong sense of nostalgia watching the film about the brief career of Janis Joplin which lasted not much longer than four years. The performances on film look better now than I remembered from earlier films and I learned quite a bit more about the difficult life that Janis had – and the tragic circumstances of her death.

This Janis Joplin doc arrived in cinemas just a few months after Amy, the Amy Winehouse doc. Both films must have been in production at the same time so I don’t see one prompting the other. It is remarkable though that the ‘last acts’ of the two films feature the same event. Both young women died from an overdose at the age of 27 (Winehouse in 2011). Janis died in 1970 a few weeks after Jimi Hendrix and a few months before Jim Morrison. Both these young men were also 27. The big difference between the Joplin and Winehouse docs is that the latter includes lots of ‘found footage’ , including social media footage as well as ‘mainstream media’, whereas there are relatively few filmed recordings of Joplin apart from the three well-known festival films.

Janis Joplin was born in the Texas town of Port Arthur, close to the Louisiana border, in 1943 into a middle-class family. She was a misfit at school who discovered she could sing at 17. Her singing career started in Austin but didn’t really begin to develop until she moved to San Francisco in 1963. Even then she lasted only two years before returning to Port Arthur to ‘clean up her act’. She finally made it when she returned to San Francisco in 1966. Over the next four years she sang with three bands and recorded four LPs, the last one, ‘Pearl’, being released posthumously (a double LP of live recordings then appeared in 1972). Joplin was first signed as the singer for Big Brother & The Holding Company (first two LPs) and then became a solo artist backed by first the Kozmic Blues Band and then the Full Tilt Boogie Band. She died in her motel room during the recording of ‘Pearl’. The cause of death was an overdose of heroin, assumed to be accidental (the drug may have been more potent than she expected).

Three of Joplin’s festival performances at Monterey (1967), Woodstock (1970) and on the Festival Express train across Canada (1970) were filmed and subsequently appeared as theatrical documentaries, the first two a few months after the festival in question. The Festival Express material was released as a documentary film in 2003. Various live footage sequences appeared in a Canadian documentary, Janis in 1974 and this is the film I saw in the cinema in 1975. There are numerous other DVDs of her performances but only the four cinema features, I think. There was a fictional biopic The Rose (US 1979) directed by Mark Rydell. This commercially successful film is only loosely based on Joplin’s story (it was initially known as ‘The Pearl’) but was recognised as such by audiences (without taking anything away from Bette Midler’s star-making performance in the lead role).

The director of Janis: Little Girl Blue is Amy Berg, an experienced documentarist and director of at least one interesting-sounding fiction feature. The film also has a host of producers including Alex Gibney, known for high-profile docs such as Finding Fela (2014) and Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015). It’s not surprising then that this Janis doc works so well. Berg’s focus is clearly on Janis as a young woman finding her way in the world and this forms the narrative spine using the letters that Janis wrote home and a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings and still photos (which seem to jump out from the screen when set in the context of grainy home movie footage and 1960s TV news and features shot on 16mm). The authorial voice of Janis is provided very effectively by Chan Marshall (a.k.a. the singer Cat Power). Events back in Port Arthur are narrated by Janis’ younger siblings Laura and Michael and by one or two old schoolfriends. Events in San Francisco are covered by a slew of taking heads including friends and lovers and band members plus other media figures such as CBS CEO Clive Davis, talk show host Dick Cavett and documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker (who made Monterey Pop and tells us how he deliberately sought out Cass Elliott in the audience because he knew about the rivalry between the LA and SF acts – Mama Cass was suitably impressed by Janis). The one recurring image in the film is the single line railway track, presumably seen from the Festival Express train as it moves across Canada. This occurs at regular intervals in the film, seemingly functioning as a marker for the change from one sequence to another. I’m not sure if the symbolic readings of this image are intentional but it might refer to the trajectory of the short life of Janis Joplin – straight down the line as if decreed by fate.

Janis as hippy momma

Many of these films about performers and celebrities seek out the flaws in character or attempt to find those responsible so that a life becomes more like a mystery in a film noir. I don’t think this happens with Little Girl Blue, which feels like a humanist drama. Most of those interviewed are appreciative about Janis’ talent and her dedication to her art. She was let down by the men in her life and the party girl was more often the lonely girl. The film doesn’t analyse the music but presents it (with access to rights agreed by Sony) in ways which enable us to understand why it generated such interest. It certainly sent me back to the performances (and I realised that I knew some of her ‘between songs’ tales almost by heart on the live album). It is this sense of the rapport Janis had with her audience that stands out. She seems to have been happiest on stage – and lonely when the show ended. There is also a strong feminist sub-text about a young woman whose confidence was undermined by the cruel jibes about her looks made by university students in Austin when she first began to perform. She must have welcomed the chance to take on the guise of the hippy mama who could dress as she pleased – partly as a release from the restraints of her conventional home background.

Coming from a town with its own Klu Klux Klan chapter, Janis would have been conscious of her other identity shift which involved discovering Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin and being wowed by Otis Redding. Perhaps this where the film’s lack of deep analysis of Janis’ musical career is a weakness. I think you need to know a lot about American popular roots music in the 1960s and 1970s to understand the changes in the music Janis Joplin made and what she was most comfortable with.

After I’d seen this documentary, I came across a 2000 BBC documentary about Janis from the ‘Reputations’ series narrated by Tracy Macleod. At 48 minutes it is much shorter but actually much more informative about Janis’ life as a teenager in Port Arthur and her time in San Francisco. I think that I’ve also left out the Joplin parents in my account above. They didn’t take to the music Janis was producing or her lifestyle, but they were still supportive when she needed them. I recommend watching the shorter documentary (link below) in conjunction with Little Girl Blue.

20 Feet From Stardom (US 2013)

(from left) Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer

Film 4 in the UK began a week of documentary screenings, kicking off with this Oscar-winning film about some of the most revered ‘backing singers’ of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I enjoyed the film which features some of the faces and the lives of the great singers who are often in the background as performers. Viewed objectively, however, it seemed to me that the film’s narrative was poorly constructed and we didn’t learn as much as we might about the dilemmas facing such singers, the industry in which they worked and the technical details about their performances. Later, I also came across the claims that some of the testimonies by the singers were perhaps misleading.

The film’s director, Morgan Neville, is a very experienced director of popular music documentaries, mostly for US TV, I think. He has explored a range of popular music forms – different genres, eras, stars etc. so I was a little surprised by some of the film’s missed tricks. The film focuses on a group of mainly African-American women, many the daughters of families rooted in gospel music and the church. Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer provide the main focus but there are others as well. We find out something about the stories of each of these women and also hear the commendations of stars like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting as well as record producer Lou Adler and various other industry personnel. My suspicion is that Neville and his team got carried away with some of the great stories that these women could tell and didn’t spend long enough working out what kind of narrative they wanted to construct. The film as a whole lacks a clear focus. Darlene Love has the longest and most emotional story – and she bears the brunt of the negative comments about her time contracted to Phil Spector. I did know about her problems with Spector (shared by many others) and she may well have ’embroidered’ her account a little, but she certainly deserves to be cut some slack.

Claudie Lennear reflecting on her career

One possibility might have been to explore the questions about race and gender in the industry a little more overtly. There is plenty of material but the only reference that is underlined is when Merry Clayton describes her own reaction to being asked to sing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ (the film shows a Skynyrd performance with a Confederate flag as a backdrop). Later Ms Clayton is shown singing her version of ‘Southern Man’, the Neil Young song that prompted the Skynyrd backlash. There are also two references to white performers seeking out black backing singers to give the music more ‘soul’. The first explains that white backing singers were known as ‘readers’ because they could perform any song – but not necessarily ‘feel’ the music. The second reference is to the British singers like Mick Jagger and Joe Cocker who might need an addition of ‘authentic’ voices as white boys singing black music songs. Both these statements needed more examination, I think. The film uses rock for many of its examples and there is a familiar suggestion that while Spector, Ray Charles and Ike Turner may have exploited attractive young black women as singers (and dancers), the British acts tended to treat them more as professional performers. This matches similar claims about Tamla and Stax performers who were more appreciated by white UK audiences than white US audiences in the early years – and the claim that bands like the Stones helped to resurrect the careers of some of the blues acts (and made sure that they earned royalties). This may be just a romantic notion promoted by British journalists, but needs investigating. More pertinent is why none of the well-known black music journalists and scholars are interviewed about the racism in the industry.

Darlene Love

The other central issue in the film is the question about why these performers, who clearly have great voices and great musical skills, have not become stars in their own right as solo performers or leading members of vocal groups. There are suggestions and the issue is explored. The one moment when a visual image seems to comment on the argument is when some of the industry personnel and Sting (who appears in awe of Lisa Fischer’s voice) suggests that the real ‘kick’ in singing together with other people is the feeling that your voice is melding with others and the experience becomes ‘spiritual’. We then see a flock of birds (are they starlings?) swarming together in a night sky and then breaking up again, only to reform their ‘murmurations’. This seems the moment when we really might get to an understanding of why some singers emerge as stars and sustain a career. We might argue that although some of the great backing singers have got better singing skills than the stars, they perhaps haven’t got the ego or the drive to be the star out front – or they recognise what to do but don’t want to ‘play the game? Sting is a singer whose music doesn’t always work for me and he has an image that suggests pretentiousness, but in his comments in this section he makes a lot of sense and is worth listening to. He argues that success depends on more than having the talent, the voice and the performance skills. He suggests that sometimes it’s just circumstances, chance/luck – his point is that those who succeed recognise this and deal with it. But just when this kind of analysis gets interesting it stops when someone suggests that it is autotuning that has changed the industry and record producers no longer need great singers if they can digitally manipulate the voice of someone who works as a celebrity/star.

I think this film operates at the level of a standard TV music documentary, albeit with a high level of performance clips and talking head interviews. The subject could also have been explored in relation to a wider range of industry practice issues. For instance, nearly all the examples derive from either rock music or major acts of R+B/soul music. It might be interesting to compare the use of other voices in aspects of traditional country, country-folk and country rock where typically backing vocals are supplied by other singers of equal status. Why is this? I remember a BBC4 documentary on the recordings by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris as ‘Trio’. The three voices came together beautifully but the three albums of material were spread over many years because each singer was contracted to different record labels. For live performances there were not as many problems perhaps? I suppose I’m saying that the film stimulates lots of debates but doesn’t know which is the focus and can’t cover them all in a satisfying way.

20 Feet From Stardom inhabits similar territory to Standing in the Shadows of Motown (US 2002) and also Secret Voices of Hollywood (UK 2013) about the dubbing of Hollywood musicals by singers who were not credited at the time. All these films are worth watching, but for an emotional documentary narrative about a singer who struggled for years to achieve the acclaim that her performances deserved, I’d go for Miss Sharon Jones! (US 2015), the story of the late Miss Jones and the Dap Kings.