Category: Film Reviews

Literary critics and the cinema

A US poster – the film opens a fortnight later in the UK

It’s a while since I had a rant about film criticism. One of my bugbears is about literary critics and the way they approach cinema. In today’s Guardian Saturday Review there is a short piece by John Mullan focusing on the upcoming release of the film The Goldfinch, an adaptation of the 2013 third novel by Donna Tartt. I should state from the outset that I haven’t seen the film yet or read the book and that I have no beef with John Mullan when he writes about novels. What concerns me here is the aim behind the editorial decision to publish this piece three weeks before the film opens.

Literary adaptation is perhaps the main focus of the cultural clash between literary critics and cinephiles/film scholars. I quite understand that for many people who are readers as well as moviegoers they will often make their own judgements about whether they prefer the novel of the film, if they want to experience both and if they would prefer to experience one before the other. The problem is that in British culture the novel is seen by the arts establishment as of superior cultural value to the film. Films are often judged on their ‘fidelity’ to the source material. What this means isn’t always clear. It is generally accepted that a film can’t include all the narrative information in a long novel, even in a very long film. Fidelity then may be about retaining the ‘spirit’ of the novel, however that might be defined, or retaining the central ideas and incidents of the novel’s narrative. What is generally lacking in criticism of the film adaptation is any extensive understanding about how filmic rather than literary narratives work and how ‘film language’ (for want of a better term) is utilised to tell stories. Films and novels are different narrative forms. The novel is not necessarily superior just because it is ‘original’. Even if the adaptation draws on the literary narrative, it is also likely to draw on several other sources of meaning (for example, stars, genres, visual styles, music etc.).

Mullan begins his essay by noting that it is surprising that this is the first of Tartt’s novels to make it to the big screen. He helpfully tells us that Warner Bros. did option Tartt’s first novel The Secret History in 1992 but that for various reasons the planned production didn’t happen. Mullan also expresses surprise that The Goldfinch is the Tartt novel that did make it onto the screen and in doing so he begins to explore some of those familiar assumptions about literary adaptations. His piece is given a subhead which asks “Can the film of Donna Tartt’s Pullitzer prize-winner bring to life a novel that divided the critics?”. The novel is very long and there aren’t as many characters as in a Dickens novel so how will the filmmaker cope with creating a sustained narrative drive? IMDb gives a very long list of characters so I’m not sure what this means. Mullan describes aspects of the plot and the literary narrative (i.e. he gives us some of the events and how they are narrated). I would call these insights ‘spoilers’ – I will now have to try and forget what I’ve learned in order to come to the film without too many expectations.

My major problem though is that John Mullan tells us about Donna Tartt’s literary style and how ‘cinematic’ it is – the writing is full of visual detail and some scenes are played out as in slow-motion. He then tells us that any [film] director should relish re-creating certain key scenes and that they will have to make an audience understand the magnetism of the work of art which is the obsession of the central character (the novel is able to make us share the passion that the character has for this work of art).

Mullan does tell us that the director who finally made this film version of The Goldfinch is John Crowley, “who was responsible for the adaptation of Colm Tóbín’s dauntingly inward novel Brooklyn“. I’ve seen Brooklyn and liked it, but not having read the novel, I wasn’t concerned by its ‘dauntingly inward’ qualities. I’m not sure I even know what that phrase means. Looking back at my post on Brooklyn, I see that I suggested “this is a film about casting, costumes and locations”. In other words I honed in on the filmic qualities of the film rather than the narrative structure. I also noted that the script was actually an adaptation by Nick Hornby, a well-known novelist turned successful screenwriter. Since I hadn’t read the original novel I didn’t offer a comparison of the narratives, but if I had wanted to do that, Hornby’s role would have been important.

What is strange about John Mullan’s essay is that he doesn’t mention who wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of The Goldfinch. In his final sentence he asks “will they [the filmmakers] be able to resist the sentimentality that Tartt resolutely avoids? I would bet not”. This seems like a jibe at film compared to literature. IMDb lists the screenwriter on the film as Peter Straughan, an experienced writer for film and TV who has previously adapted two best-selling novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and The Snowman (2017), both for the same director, Thomas Alfredson. My take on these was that the first was a very successful film and the second was something of a disaster. However, this distinction is suspect since I was a big fan of Jo Nesbø’s 2007 novel The Snowman but I haven’t read the le Carré novel (and I don’t necessarily always enjoy his work for various reasons). My point here is that I don’t think Mullan has any right to say that Crowley ‘must’ do this or ‘should’ do that with the adaptation and that the film’s success or failure will in any case be just as much about Straughan’s script as Crowley’s direction (and the cast and cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, the music, editing, art direction, costumes etc.).

So what was the purpose of putting Mullan’s essay into the Review at this point? If it was just a piece of promotion, an image and a caption would have sufficed. It seems to me to set up readers of the Review with a given ‘position’ from which to see the film which is based on certain assumptions about literary adaptations. It may turn out to be a film which works well or works badly but surely audiences want to be able to approach it with an open mind – or if they have read the book, their own ideas about what they are looking for in an adaptation. I have no problem with John Mullan discussing the film from his perspective after he has seen it and when it has been seen by paying audiences. He may well have some interesting points to make. In the past, before the Guardian changed the format of its Saturday Review, this did sometimes happen. Such pieces didn’t always work but at least they reflected on the film. I realise that the Review is about books rather than film and that this has become more evident since the change of format, but please Guardian editors, don’t treat literary adaptations in this way.

Happy End (France-Austria-Germany 2017)

I viewed this film at the Leeds International Film Festival and then on its British release in December 2017. I have waited to post on the film as I have been trying to resolve a puzzle. The title failed to achieve an entry in the Sight & Sound ‘Top 40 Films of 2017’. This despite the ludicrous Mother achieving equal 19; several productions that were not actually cinema films; and the beautifully undramatic Call Me By Your Name. I did wonder if the oddity of the S&S list coming out at the beginning of December was the reason? Solving the conundrum proved difficult. The complete lists of voters and votes is actually on the S&S webpages but it was beyond my limited computer skills to crack it. After some delays I managed to get the information from the S&S editorial office. It appears that Michael Haneke’s new film received only one vote, by Geoff Andrews. I shall include him in my top five film critics of the year.

So what was the problem with the film for so many critics. Adam Nayman’s review in S&S noted,

“In what has to be considered a minor upset by Cannes standards, Happy End was the first Michael Haneke joint to leave the festival without a major prize since 2003 …” [this use of ‘joint’ is new to me].

It is a typical Haneke film. Perhaps critics felt a sense of déjà vu as they watch the familiar characters, situations and events. I did think it is not in the same class as Amour (2012) or Caché / Hidden (2005). But it is very funny, more so than the recent Haneke productions; certainly as effectively as the 1997 Funny Games. This is a sardonic and satirical examination of the French bourgeoisie whilst at the same time drawing attention to the exploitation and oppression that their wealth and success entails.

The setting for most of the film is the area around Calais where the central family live and have their business. The plot presents aspects of that but most of the running time is concerned with the interaction within the family. However, at key points in the narrative there are important scenes involving members of the working class, members of the servant class and the unemployed migrants in the area. The latter are presumable waiting to try and cross the channel to join the British audiences of the film.

The central characters are the family and their circle:

To this can be added Nathalie (Aurélia Petit ), Thomas’ ex-wife and mother of Eve; a young woman cellist, also a mistress; a site workers and his family; and four or five migrants/refugees, apparently based in the well publicised ‘jungle’. None of the main characters are presented sympathetically; even the family dog bites a small child. We have the well-heeled self-centred bourgeoisie and the hard-pressed people who depend on them, at least financially. The only sympathetic relationship is that between the young Eve and the elderly Georges. The latter’s situation appears to have confused at least one reviewer. Adam Nayman writes:

“It’s strongly implied, as Happy End goes on, that Trintignant is playing the same Georges Laurent he did in Amour; a bit of continuity that is (intentionally) undermined by the fact that the daughter figure played by Hubert in that film was named Eva, not Anne.”

Actually Amour does not provide the surname of Georges. Though the death of the wives are similar the point is that one is a retired piano teacher, miles away from the bourgeois owner of a substantial construction company.

The film opens with a series of shots taken on a mobile phone, first of a woman washing and toileting, then of the family pet. These are accompanied by text messages which seem inconsequential but require close attention. These shots set up one strand in the film dealing with modern electronic gadgets. Later we see a series of what I take to be texts messages on a laptop. Some of these are extremely funny. Then at the end of the film we return to the mobile phone; this sequence is noted for provoking audible responses in the audiences; I found it exhilarating.

The opening is followed by a long shot/long take , in typical Haneke fashion., of a Laurent construction site. The event here will create repercussion right throughout the film.

Between these very personal and these very public sequences we see the family politely destroying each other. These interactions fall between expensive rituals like parties and meals. And both types are disrupted by the people from ‘across the tracks’ . Thus whilst Haneke’s representation of the family is sardonic the film also presents the critical alternative worlds as was the case in Caché.

The film is scripted and directed by Michael Haneke. As usual it has a beautifully realised style with fine production design and cinematography by Oliver Radot and Christian Berger respectively. And the editing by Monika Willi is unshowy but very effective; and equally so is the sound.

Adam Nayman does recognise the quality of the film,

“Cut to several months later (from the Cannes Festival in May to the December S&S), and it looks as if Happy End is Haneke’s most interesting film since Hidden (2005) . . . “

So, perhaps given that the film received a December release and that S&S continue their odd practice of publishing issues in the month preceding the titular date, we could see this fine film in the 2018 ‘top forty’.

I, Daniel Blake (UK-France-Belgium 2016)

i-daniel-blake-3

Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, this film is now attracting good audiences at both the Hyde Park Picture House and at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. All the people I have spoken to have been impressed and moved by the film. Now, on Friday October 28th, The Guardian had a slew of letters motivated by seeing the film ‘The punitive treatment of our Daniel Blakes’. We had four decrying the inequities of contemporary Britain and its treatment of the low paid,  the unemployed and people outside the labour market. The fifth letter was refreshingly different:

“Am I the only person not to like I, Daniel Blake?”

The writer objected to the lack of a story: the characterisation of Daniel Blake as a ‘deserving benefits claimant’, and the portrayal of the ‘dole’ as one-dimensional’.

I did not agree with much of this criticism. The film is extremely well written by Paul Laverty and extremely well made by Ken Loach and his team. The two lead actors, David Johns as Daniel, and Hayley Squires as Katie, the single mother he befriends, are excellent. Both are ‘deserving’ but also convincing and rounded characters. There is a story, but it is low-key and treated in the observational style that is Loach’s metier. And I do not think the representation of the Benefit System and staff is simplistic, though it does lack depth.

Other responses included people telling me they cried in emotional scenes and two people who described the treatment of Daniel and Katie, and her two children, as ‘cruel’. This is where the writer in the Guardian seems to be picking up on an important point. I, like many film fans, often cry during films, and I was intensely moved in I, Daniel Blake. But this is an emotional response and does not necessarily involve a reflexive engagement with the characters and situation depicted. And reflexivity is an aspect that is rare in Loach films.

As for ‘cruelty’, this is valid comment but less than adequate. What the film depicts is serious exploitation and oppression. The situations in the film are part of a systematic attack on the working class, including its organisations. In the film Daniel, a victim of a heart attack, is denied income for which he has contributed throughout his working life. Katie and her children are forced to relocate from London to the unknown Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Alongside this we learn that Daniel’s neighbour, ‘China’ (Kema Sikazwe), appears to work on what is known as a ‘zero hours contract’ at below the minimum wage. One of the powerful sequences takes place in a local food bank where Daniel, Katie and the children join a long queue that involves hours of waiting.

So congratulations are on order to Loach and Laverty for addressing an issue that the mainstream media and film industry mainly ignore or caricature. But the representation they offer has severe limits. Community has always been an important strand in the films of Ken Loach, but there is no coherent community in this film. Katie has left family and friends behind in London, as have her children Daisy (Brianna Shann) and Dylan (Dylan Philip McKiernan). The only neighbours of Daniel that we see are China and his flatmate. Daniel’s only surviving community is his workplace and his workmates, from whom he is now separated by illness. The Benefit Office is certainly no community: the claimants are deliberately isolated and the staff are divided, apparently by whether or not they have any sympathy for the people they serve.

The nearest to a community that we see is the food bank, where the volunteers are both sympathetic and caring in their assistance. There is also a suggestion of community when Daniel finally makes a public protest, as passers-by cheer him and barrack the managers and police when they stop him. But these latter people are separated by the road, and do no more than express verbal solidarity. This would seem to express the fractured situation of the working class in modern Britain.

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake's protest

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake’s protest

In other films Loach and Laverty have often included a sequence where the working class protagonists provide some analysis of their situation. Such sequences could be seen in the recent Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and in the earlier Looking for Eric (2009). But whilst this film refers to matters like re-housing, sanctioning benefits, low wages, the lack of jobs, malnutrition . . . we do not meet a character who offers some sort of critical discussion.

Our Guardian writer offered a parallel example, the 1978 TV drama, The Spongers, scripted by Loach’s earlier colleague Jim Allen (now sadly passed on), produced by another Loach colleague Tony Garnett, and directed by Roland Joffé for the BBC. The parallel is instructive. There are crossovers between the television and film dramas, including a single mother and children and an uncaring bureaucracy. But the earlier play also delved into the world of the local council and the council departments who administer the system that impacts so negatively on the characters. Some sort of rationale on their part is voiced. We do not get a similar ‘behind the scenes’ presentation in I, Daniel Blake. And there is only a brief reference to an ‘American company’ clearly offsetting the declining rate of profit through state assistance. I think such a sequence would have improved the politics.

This one of the bleakest of Ken Loach’s films and dramas. In some ways it harks back to the seminal Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966). There is the same downward spiral for the protagonists. I, Daniel Blake does end on a more positive note for Katie and her children, as Daniel’s caring assistance has help them start on a new life ‘up north’.

A friend who recommended the film to me referred to it as a ‘socialist’ film. To be honest I think a socialist film needs to offer articulation of the politics of the world it depicts. This seem to me a definite failing in what is still a very fine film. And thanks to our Liverpool-based letter writer who stimulated me to think on this.

Trumbo and a critic!

Trumbo-poster-2015

If there is one thing that depresses me as much as some of the programming by exhibitors it is some of the published criticisms of the films themselves. Trumbo (USA 2015) is essentially a biopic of one of the Hollywood Ten, the victims of the House Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress, the heads of the major Hollywood Studios, cranky right-wingers who presumably would now be members of the Tea Party, and quite a few members of the film industry who owed their careers and their profits to this group, predominately writers of scripts.

The Guardian review (05-02-16), by Peter Bradshaw, opens on this

“heartfelt, stolid picture about an important period in American history”

and adds this peculiar comment,

“the petty Maoism of 1950s Hollywood…”

In fact, the target of this hysteria was the Communist Party USA who, by the late 1940s, were not even Leninist, let alone Maoist. Presumably Bradshaw or his editor thought the epithet would make a change from their regular target, Uncle Joe.

At least there is a greater sense of history and politics in the interview of the star Bryan Cranston by John Patterson. They do add the point made in the end titles of the film, that the victims of this witch-hunt came from all professions and all walks of life. I was a little surprised to find out recently that our own Richard Attenborough was honoured by inclusion in what was known as ‘the blacklist’. The latter term is slightly unfortunate given this is the period of a rising Civil Rights movement.

To be honest the production team, and certainly quite a few of the critics, should read the excellent

The Inquisition in Hollywood Politics in the Film Community, 1930 – 1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, University of California Press 1979.

I also recommend it to our readers interested in the topic or indeed who just see the film.

Whatever its limitations Trumbo is a worthy addition to the films dealing with what became popularly known as ‘McCarthyism’. Intriguingly it offers a rather different slant on Woody Allen’s The Front (1976). And for a parallel story watch, [if you can], BBC Screen 2’s Fellow Traveller (1991).