Category: Film culture

Remaking The Mosquito Coast

Peter Weir and Harrison Ford on set for The Mosquito Coast (1986)

Last night BBC Radio 4’s Front Row confirmed for me that it is completely in line with the middle class view of the arts in the UK. I have moaned about this several times before but this was an almost perfect example of the programme’s lack of interest in cinema and its preference for literature and ‘quality’ TV.

The first item on the show was a discussion about the new serial on Apple TV+, an adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast which happens to star Theroux’s nephew, Justin Theroux. Regular presenter Tom Sutcliffe, who is usually very good, had two guests, Tanya Motie and Kohinoor Sahota, whom he invited to discuss the new serial as an adaptation of the novel. At no point did he mention that the novel had been adapted for a Hollywood feature in 1986. That film was directed by Peter Weir and starred Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and River Phoenix as the husband, wife and son who attempt to set up a new type of family enterprise in Honduras. The script for the film was written by Paul Schrader. So, the adaptation involved five of the most important figures in 1980s filmmaking. Ford was an A list star, Schrader was an A list writer-director, Peter Weir was perhaps the most reliable director available in Hollywood with a string of top-rated films to his credit, Mirren was a top line British actor and River Phoenix a rising teen star before his tragic early death. But the adaptation was not mentioned by Sutcliffe. One of the guests did mention River Phoenix and later mentioned the film as an adaptation in the 1980s but Sutcliffe ignored the possible link completely (almost as if he had a fixed agenda that precluded discussing the film). I don’t know if you find this odd. I certainly do.

I should say that I haven’t read the novel or seen the 1986 film. I was never attracted to Theroux’s writing but I have been a big fan of Peter Weir and this was one of the few films of his that I didn’t see in the 1980s. He made five major features in Australia and a further eight in Hollywood. I would bet that many more people have seen films directed by Peter Weir than read books by Paul Theroux, but Weir didn’t win literary prizes, he directed intelligent mainstream features, including some literary adaptations (and he received six Oscar nominations). As far as I’m aware, The Mosquito Coast was the least successful of Weir’s Hollywood pictures, despite Schrader’s script and the three talented leads. I would have thought it would be interesting to work out why Weir failed as a line of enquiry about how well, or not, the new serial works. But presumably the Front Row team have forgotten about Peter Weir (who is a few years younger than Paul Theroux). He is, after all, only a director whereas Theroux is a writer.I recognise that the remake is a TV serial and will have different narrative requirements but it will still share with the film the task of finding ways to represent the ideas and the characters in the novel.

I never have great expectations about the coverage of film on Front Row, though I respect Tom Sutcliffe as a general arts commentator. I do recognise that it’s quite difficult to see the 1986 film which is only available to rent on certain streamers at a relatively high price (around £7) but then Apple TV+ is also a niche offering, so why cover the serial at all? As regular readers will know, I don’t watch US TV and don’t have access to US streamers. But I do see a lot of films from around the world. I don’t feel catered for by Radio 4 which seems to dote on American TV and and English language literature, alongside music, dance and art. Fundamental is the bottom line that the BBC approach to cinema as an art form is to accept Hollywood promotions or whatever is the most high profile arthouse offering of the moment but not to treat the medium seriously. The only BBC film critic who might raise the level of debate is Mark Kermode, but he is rarely allowed onto Radio 4. My other thought re The Mosquito Coast is to link it to John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest (1985), another story about an American intrusion into the rain forests of South America, though a different kind of story. Boorman like Weir is one of the best directors to emerge in the 1960s/70s and has rarely received his due from critics. The Emerald Forest also had a mixed reception in the 1980s but as with any Boorman film it was never dull and often surprising in its ways of delivering ideas and a story. Weir and Boorman both deserve reappraisal but our film culture as presented on Radio 4 doesn’t seem to have a place for such discussions. The anti-consumerism of The Mosquito Coast and the ecological discourse of The Emerald Forest have a contemporary resonance that is worth exploring. Perhaps I should try the Radio 3 coverage which I’m told is more intelligent?

Bertrand Tavernier (1941-2021)

The French director Bertrand Tavernier died last week at the age of 79. He was, by all accounts, not only a great filmmaker but also a decent human being, a wonderful colleague and an extremely knowledgeable historian of the cinema. This is a rare combination for any artist. He should be celebrated on this blog for all those reasons and I’m only sorry that we haven’t featured his work as much as we should have done. The three films I have written about do, however, give an indication of the range of his interests and achievements. ‘Round Midnight (France-US 1986) is one of Tavernier’s best-known films internationally. It’s a fiction film made largely in English but set in Paris where an African-American jazz saxophonist down on his luck has a period playing in a club in the 1950s. Tavernier worked with Warner Bros. but defied the studio by casting well-known contemporary jazz players to support Gordon who had himself played in Paris in the 1960s. Tavernier had a close affinity with aspects of American culture – he also made a documentary about Mississippi Blues (1980) with Robert Parrish. But he also was one of the few French directors of his generation to recognise British cinema and in particular to champion Michael Powell and The Red Shoes (1948), which is name-checked in ‘Round Midnight. Powell’s other international champion Martin Scorsese also has a small role in ‘Round Midnight. Tavernier’s British connection also included Deathwatch (France-West Germany 1980), a well-regarded speculative fiction film with an international cast and made in Glasgow and Argyll.

Bertrand Tavernier with Tommy Lee Jones on the set of In the Electric Mist

Like many French cinéastes of his generation Tavernier had a strong interest in American crime fiction, the kind of literature which was often adapted for Hollywood film noir as well as French noir or polars. This interest would also have been strengthened by his early work in the film industry which included time as a publicist for both Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville. For Melville he worked on promoting Le doulos (France 1963), a polar with Jean-Paul Belmondo. When he began to make his own films his filmography included Coup de Torchon (France 1981), an adaptation of pop.128, a crime novel by the hardest of hard-boiled writers, Jim Thompson – but relocated from the American South to French West Africa in the 1930s. On this blog I have written about a later film based on a crime novel by James Lee Bourke, In the Electric Mist (France-US 2009), again made in English, this time in the US and returning to the same region as Mississippi Blues. Once again, Tavernier struggled with American producers but I was pleased with the adaptation of a book I knew.

Bertrand Tavernier on set with Mélanie Thierry for La princesse de Montpensier

The third Tavernier film discussed on this blog is La princesse de Montpensier (France-Germany 2010), an example of the French historical drama, in this case a 16th century swashbuckler/thriller/melodrama. Tavernier proved himself capable of making very different kinds of films as well as having the ability to work in at least two languages and across different international production contexts. This was a film I enjoyed as a festival screening but which didn’t get much of a release in the UK, much like the majority of foreign language releases over the last ten years or so.

The last Tavernier film I watched was the last film the director completed, his magisterial documentary on French cinema, A Journey Through French Cinema (France 2016). This is an autobiographical journey through the director’s own love affair with cinema – it also became a French TV series. It is very personal but because Tavernier is so closely engaged with cinema it is also a guide, a revelation and an inspirational text. My DVD of the film runs over 190 mins and it is crammed full of Tavernier’s memories of the films he watched, the film people he engaged with and the films he made. He re-visits locations and he observes how the industry changed and why. It isn’t a dry history of French cinema with equal time devoted to each decade and to each ‘important film’. Instead it focuses on what he himself discovered and what inspired him. The result is that much of the film focuses on the period from the late 1940s through to the 1970s or between the films the director saw while he was growing up to the films he came to know during their production when he was an assistant. Of course, in discussing these films he refers to many more but his selections provide an entry into what I have always found to be a mysterious void since my own film (self) education was via the polemics of Truffaut and Godard. Truffaut in particular decried ‘le cinéma de papa‘ and the screenwriters of the ‘quality cinema’ of this period. Tavernier’s choices of detailed case studies include Jacques Becker and Claude Sautet as directors and Jean Gabin as star. I was pleased to recognise some of the films that Tavernier discusses and thrilled to be exposed to others I didn’t know. One of the first films I sought out and enjoyed after watching the documentary was Becker’s Edward and Caroline (France 1951). Since then I’ve collected more films from the period and blogged on several with more to come. Much as I loved Truffaut in the 1960s and 1970s, he was wrong to take his polemic so far. I can’t recommend the documentary too highly and it does, of course, present its great variety of clips in the correct ratio.

This last few days has seen many tributes to Tavernier. It was good to see tweets from people who knew Tavernier and who spoke of his kindness and encouragement. In yesterday’s Guardian Ryan Gilbey’s obituary included a couple of stories that I hadn’t seen before but which tie in to what I have written above:

To help him adapt [his first fiction feature] the movie [L’Horloger de Saint-Paul, France 1974] from Georges Simenon’s novel The Watchmaker of Everton, Tavernier hired two screenwriters, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, who had been eviscerated by François Truffaut 20 years earlier in the infamous broadside against ‘le cinéma de papa‘ that had paved the way for the French New Wave.

And this acute observation about one of the filmmakers he worked with:

Only the demands of Stanley Kubrick proved too much. In a cable notifying that director of his resignation from press duties on A Clockwork Orange (1971), he wrote: “As a film-maker you are a genius, but as an employer you are an imbecile.

Only last week I showed a short clip during a Zoom event. It was from Éric Rohmer’s early short film La boulangère de Monceau (France 1963). The clip had a narrator introducing the actions of the characters and it was only when I began to write this post that I discovered that the narration was delivered by Bertrand Tavernier. I certainly won’t forget his contribution to cinema and I look forward to watching more of his films and to looking again at his final documentary when I have caught up with the films he discusses.

Review of film watching in 2018

Things will get better when my train journey to Manchester improves as HOME offers the best choice of films on most days.

The number of film screenings in cinemas fell for me this year. I think that was mainly due to the lack of diversity in the local screenings available and the unfortunate timings of some of the festivals I usually try to attend. It’s true that I did spend more time on the streaming site MUBI (although recently I’ve been very disappointed at the range of films on offer) and also on YouTube catching up with classic Hollywood. I’ve also spent time watching Talking Pictures TV, perhaps the best thing that has happened to UK Freeview television in the last few years.

The rise of Netflix and Amazon as general film and TV streaming sites is increasingly problematic for me, though I recognise that my friends are getting to see a wider range of films, especially if their local cinema scene is even worse than mine. However, the recent furore over the (very) limited cinema screenings of Roma and other Netflix productions is very disturbing. The BBC offered us both Mark Kermode and Neil Brand on BBC4 in 2018, focusing on questions of genre and music in film/film musicals. Both series were intelligently produced and presented by an experienced film journalist and practitioner respectively, both whom are passionate and enthusiastic. That must be a plus. BBC1 have just announced that its Film programme (which usually just took the year as the second part of its title) has been axed. Film 2018  coughed its last some time ago in that dishonourable way that schedulers employ – pushing a programme later and later in the schedule until what’s left of its audience have no idea where it is. We are promised something new on both broadcast and online BBC platforms in 2019. Is it too much to hope that BBC executives will learn from Kermode and Brand?

Here is a list of some of the films that I found most interesting and enjoyable this year. If there are titles missing that you expect to be there, it probably means that I haven’t seen them (e.g. those by Ceylan and McQueen). I’ve listed the films in alphabetical order so there are no preferences displayed. The only title we haven’t blogged about on this site is The Hate U Give which I hope to revisit when the DVD appears in 2019. I saw it with Nick and we were both stunned by its impact and therefore in a year when African-American cinema saw a resurgence, it deserves a mention. Happy as Lazzaro should get a UK release in the Spring but I’m not hopeful for Winter Flies – East European films seem to be very hard to sell to UK cinemas.

I saw six of the films here at festivals, but four of them were subsequently released in the UK. All the films in the list were screened at least once in a UK cinema in 2018.

In 2018 I was pleased to be prompted to explore the career of Ida Lupino as actor/writer/producer and director – thanks Glasgow Film Festival. I was also pleased to celebrate Agnès Varda’s career watching Le bonheur (France 1965) and L’Une chante, l’autre pas (France 1977) on DVD as well as Faces Places. On the negative side I didn’t see any standout British or Chinese language films this year. Many British independent films are increasingly difficult to see and Chinese independent films are similarly hard to find. Six out of fifteen the films here are directed by women.

Cold War (Poland-France-UK 2018)

Faces Places (France 2017)

A Fantastic Woman (Chile-Germany-Spain-US 2017)

Happy as Lazzaro (Italy-Germany-Switz-France 2018)

The Hate U Give (US 2018)

Leave No Trace (US 2018)

Lucky (US 2017)

Mukkabaaz (India 2017)

The Rider (US 2017)

Roma (Mexico-US 2018)

Shoplifters (Japan 2018)

Sweet Country (Australia 2017)

Wajib (Palestine-France-UAE-Columbia-Qatar-Germany-Norway 2017)

Winter Flies (Czech Republic-Slovakia-Slovenia-France-Poland 2018)

Zama (Argentina-Spain-France-Netherlands-Mexico 2017)

I fear for the diversity of films on offer in 2019. I hope I’m wrong but I think finding foreign-language films may become more difficult.

Utopia in Bordeaux

When I venture out of the beleaguered land of Brexit I always look on the Europa Cinemas website to check out the most interesting cinemas in the cities I hope to visit. On a recent trip to Bordeaux I discovered the aptly named ‘Utopia’. The Utopia is situated in Bordeaux’s UNESCO World Heritage district – the entire early 18th century city centre with more listed buildings than any other French city outside Paris. ‘Utopia St. Simeon’ is housed in a former church and offers 5 salles distributed around the building. There are 555 seats distributed across the 5 screens. The cinema opened in 1999. There is also a large and friendly bar-restaurant and tables outside in the square. It’s a great place to visit and just enjoy the atmosphere but it’s the programme which provides the real joy.

The entrance to the Utopia in place Camille Jullian

Scanning through the programme for September 2018 is a real eye-opener for a UK cinephile. There are films that have been big prizewinners but are yet to open in the UK such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree (Turkey 2018) and new films from France and Germany that I doubt will appear in the UK. There are documentaries and programmes of short films and animations and there are re-releases. In France re-releases seem to get much better distribution than in the UK and the programmes seem to be more ambitious. Utopia showed Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (Taiwan 1991) in the uncut 236 minute version, Joseph von Sternberg’s Japanese film Anatahan (1953), Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (US 1950) and a day of polars with three Jean-Pierre Melville films and a Tikano Takeshi. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and other independent American releases are joined by new films from Kurosawa Kiyoshi and one of several events remembering May 1968. I was most surprised to see details of a 2012 Belgian documentary about the great Lancashire classical singer Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) with a Q&A with the film’s producer.

The foyer

Thinking about it carefully, the programme is not that dissimilar to HOME in Manchester, a much bigger enterprise with the same 5 screens (but also theatre spaces and galleries). But I would argue that there are more foreign language films and a greater diversity of films in general. The one difference is that in the UK, without as much funding support, independent cinemas are forced to show the more commercial US and British pictures, the so-called ‘Hollywood art’ or ‘awards films’ to cross-subsidise foreign language films. In France it would seem that ‘cultural cinema’ still survives and the commercial releases are in the multiplexes, three of which are relatively close to Utopia in the centre of Bordeaux with around 38 screens between them. There is a second Europa Network Cinema, Cinéma Jean Eustache in Pessac outside Central Bordeaux. This also has five screens.

The ceiling above the ‘box office’

At the time of our visit, I decided to see Leave No Trace for the second time (my partner was seeing it for the first time). The film was in its opening week at the Utopia, one of the few films on the programme that got a UK release before France. The film shows up very well on a second viewing and confirms its position as one of my films of the year. The screening followed the French pattern – a single trailer for a new French film starring Romain Duris (Nos batailles, France 2018, which looked interesting) and then straight into the feature with no ads or exhortations to join a membership scheme. The standard ticket price is €7 and the morning matinée is just €4.

The screen in Salle 2

If you visit Bordeaux, do look up the Utopia, it’s only a 100 metres from the main shopping street. If there isn’t a film you want to see it’s still worth soaking up the atmosphere and having a beer or a coffee. If you are travelling to Europe, the Europa Cinemas Network is a great resource, listing 1121 cinema in 677 cities in 44 countries. As the number of countries suggests, the network extends beyond Europe into Asia and there are three Europa cinemas in Quebec. The aim of the network is to promote the exhibition of European films and to encourage understanding by audiences, especially younger audiences. The network model offers member cinemas support and funding via the Creative/MEDIA and Eurimages programmes in exchange for programming with a significant amount of European film screenings.

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.

Ken Loach: honoured and pilloried

This post should celebrate Ken Loach receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. I am not really sure what purpose Honorary Doctorates serve but I do admire Ken Loach’s film output and I am happy to see it celebrated. But this event has become clouded because of charges of anti-semitism against the filmmaker. Of course he is in good company: a host of committed supporters of the Palestinian National Liberation Struggle have been subjected to this type of smear.

It appears for some media, including the Guardian newspapers, The Tablet weekly and the BBC, are happy to offer space to a dubious campaign protecting Israel from criticisms.

The Guardian has printed a number of articles about the problem of so-called ‘anti-semitism’ in the Labour Party and the BBC regularly reports on the issue. Yet I have yet to see a report in the paper or hear on the radio a report about the Al Jazeera series that exposed collusion between staff at the Israeli Embassy and the Labour Friends of Israel, The Lobby.

It seems that Ken wrote a riposte to one of his accusers, Jonathan Freedland, but that the Guardian declined to print it. The Jewish Voice for Labour has kindly done a service by publishing it online.

It is ironic that the problem is usually that it is the right-wing film critics who attack Ken’s films. Those on The Wind that Shakes the Barley were prime examples. Now we have critics, supposedly liberal or left, attacking him. We had an example of the failure of Zionist supporters to argue about the actual words, images and meanings when I posted on Waltz with Bashir. There was a series of critical comment on my article but we never actually heard anything from the writer on the actual film.

There is a long tradition of vilifying artists and writers who support resistance to oppression. We still await a film version of Trevor Griffith’s study of one great advocate, Tom Paine. Nearer our own times Jean-Luc Godard was among a number of French artists pilloried for criticising the French settler occupation in Algiers, Le petit soldat. Daniel Ellsberg was labelled the ‘most dangerous man in America’ by Henry Kissinger. The misuse of ‘anti-American’ for criticising US foreign policy parallels the misuse of anti-semitism.

Such critics would be better occupied critically viewing video film of Palestinian unarmed civilians shot in the back outside the borders of Israel.