MUBI also includes in its streaming schedule some Hollywood films from the recent past (see below for definitions of ‘recent’). This last week saw two Sydney Pollack titles added to the roster (the other is Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman). Pollack had a forty-year career as a director, producer and actor working with the leading stars from 1965 to 2005. As a director he made conventional mainstream films with strong narratives, often dealing with outsider figures from a ‘liberal’ perspective. Absence of Malice pairs Paul Newman and Sally Field. I was a fan of both actors in 1981 but I don’t remember watching this at the time. I always loved Newman as a star, wishing only that he would make more films as a director – Rachel, Rachel (1968) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1971) are films I’d happily watch again. Sally Field is still active but her peak film career was probably from the mid 1970s to the mid ’90s when Hollywood’s sexism cast her as the older woman destined for character parts. Earlier she had often been paired with male stars ten or more years older (Burt Reynolds, James Garner et al.) and therefore a romance with Newman was par for the course.
‘Absence of malice’ is a legal term relevant to libel law in the US. A newspaper may print a story that may not be true about a person as long as they do so in good faith, not knowing that it is false. Whether the film’s plot actually works in terms of the US legal system appears to be open to question. The basic premise is that Megan (Sally Field), a news reporter for a local Miami paper, runs a story about an FBI investigation of a local rum importer, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) who is assumed to be a suspect in the disappearance of a local union leader. Michael’s father was a ‘rum runner’ during prohibition with contacts in organised crime. Michael was sent to good schools and is ‘clean’. The news report creates major difficulties for Michael with the withdrawal of labour by his unionised workforce and loss of business with local restaurants. He begins his fightback by confronting Megan about where she got the story.
As the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the local FBI boss is ‘fishing’ for leads and that the District Attorney has his own election issues. Throw in that Michael and Megan have an attraction for each other plus there is a third person with an emotional attachment involved in Michael’s situation and an intriguing narrative develops. The Miami setting is well handled and the film begins with a documentary montage detailing the hot metal process for newspaper printing that should be an eye-opener for younger viewers. Megan is an interesting character. She’s without a significant back story and it could be argued that she finds herself trapped between her boss (the editor played Josef Sommer) the FBI team (at least one of whom is an admirer) and Michael – all older men. But she remains her own woman. It’s good to see Sally Field playing her real age (34) and coming across as a professional woman rather than simply as the plot’s romance interest. In her best line she reminds Michael that she is a woman of 34 who doesn’t need courting. Some reviewers at the time saw her character as an example of a ‘bad journalist’ (in the context of All the President’s Men in 1976). That seems a mis-reading to me. Megan certainly uses the tricks she knows to get a story but I don’t think that makes her ‘bad’, especially given the pressure on her to sensationalise – which she tries not to do.. I won’t spoil the narrative by explaining Melinda Dillon’s character as Teresa, but she won an Oscar nomination for her part. There were also nominations for Newman and for the main writer Kurt Luedtke who had been a newspaper reporter and editor – he wrote two further scripts for Pollack, Out of Africa in 1985 and Random Hearts in 1999.
A couple of days before I saw the film, someone suggested to me that some younger film programmers saw 1980s films as ‘classic cinema’ now. I was initially shocked but now I can see that there is evidence to support this. Absence of Malice seems more like the tail-end of 1970s Hollywood. Aspects of the plot are similar to several of those 70s movies that find darker, ‘murkier’? elements in cities like Miami. I did find some of the costumes odd. Newman is beautiful in his mid fifties, still slim and still with those piercing blue eyes, but in one scene he wears high-waisted jeans with a tight check shirt which didn’t work for me in terms of the character. Sally Field has a smaller version of that 80s ‘big hair’ trend and a succession of suit outfits with heels which make her look uncomfortable in the heat of Miami (especially when clambering into Michael’s boat. But these are minor worries. What does seem ‘classic’ is that this is engaging entertainment over 116 minutes for an adult audience without a contrived tacked-on ending. It’s good to be reminded that Hollywood could once do this on a regular basis.
The oddly-titled Canyon Passage is currently available online via MUBI UK. I chose to watch it, intrigued by a Technicolor Western from 1946. I’d never heard of the title before but with Jacques Tourneur at the helm and a starry cast it looked like a good bet. It was indeed entertaining and also intriguing in suggesting inspirations for later films. The title is odd because ‘canyon’ makes me think of the dry South West and this story is set in the much wetter North West, specifically inland from Portland, Oregon in the 1850s. (‘Canyon’, Wikipedia tells me. simply means a ravine or gorge and could be in the Rockies.) It’s still an odd title though since it says very little about the film’s narrative.
Logan (Dana Andrews) is a store-owner and muleteer who services the mining settlements in the interior. His aim is to control the passage of people and goods in the region. However, he appears to be caught up in two love triangles. The most important of the two involves Lucy (Susan Hayward) and Logan’s close friend George Camrose (Brian Donlevy) who is a gold agent with an unfortunate gambling addiction. With Lucy likely to marry George, Logan is encouraged to court a young visiting English woman (Patricia Roc) – but she’s also attracted to Logan’s employee, Vane. This might be enough plot for a romance, but Canyon Passage also features a rogue character, ‘Honey’ Bragg (a very aggressive Ward Bond) who targets Logan. Though the settlement of Jacksonville appears well-established, it is still subject to attacks by the local Native Americans who are enraged by some of the actions of the settlers. The cast list also includes three other names familiar to me. The singer Hoagy Carmichael wanders through many scenes in Jacksonville, commenting on events with an appropriate song and making crucial plot interventions. Lloyd Bridges plays the unofficial leader of the local miners and Andy Devine is a settler who has established a staging post – a stopping place on Logan’s trading route. He is also hosting the English woman.
Tourneur manages to pack an enormous amount of plot into 91 minutes. He does this deftly and makes use of superb location footage of the Cascades and his cinematographer, the veteran Edward Cronjager often uses long shots to frame groups rather than close-ups to feature the stars. The complex plot points at different moments to distinct sub-genres of the Western. Canyon Passage is a ‘frontier Western’ located before the Civil War when the frontier is still being contested by Native Americans. It’s a ‘settlement Western’ with time spent on the building of the settlement and an extensive ‘raising’ of a new homestead sequence in which the whole community builds a house for a couple about to be married. It’s also a ‘mining Western’/’mountain Western’ focusing on the potential stories of gold prospecting, saloon bars and gambling. Most of all, this is a narrative in which friendships are tested and harsh decisions related to community and survival have to be made. Overall, it seems to me that this is impressive story-telling.
Canyon Passage was adapted from a novel by Ernest Haycox originally serialised in The Saturday Evening Post in 1945. Haycox was an extremely prolific and popular writer who was born in Portland. He wrote both short stories and novels and two different serial novels appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s at the same time in 1943. Haycox has been credited in helping to raise the status of Western stories and two of his stories were adapted for John Ford’s Stagecoach and Cecil B De Mille’s Union Pacific (both 1939). Canyon Passage was a Walter Wanger production with a large budget of $2.6 million. Wanger was a major figure in Studio Hollywood becoming a leading producer, sometimes independent but also working under contract at various studios. Susan Hayward was the star he contracted and she would become an award-winning actor in Wanger’s later ‘social issue’ films. Canyon Passage was made at Universal, one of the two ‘mini-majors’ not well-known for larger budgets or for Technicolor at this point. The studio had a long-term relationship with the Rank Organisation in the UK (Rank was actually a bigger studio than Universal in 1946 and had owned a 25% stake in the company since 1936). This explains why Patricia Roc is ‘introduced’ in Canyon Passage as part of a deal to bring US stars to the UK. Roc would have had some US recognition because of the furore surrounding The Wicked Lady (1945) which was ‘unrated’ for US distribution. Her part in Canyon Passage is relatively small and she looks out of place (which is reasonable as the character is meant to be English) – largely ‘ornamental’ and no match for Susan Hayward’s vivacity. As a Rank loanee she joined Margaret Lockwood and later Phyllis Calvert who also made trips to Hollywood.
Dana Andrews was reaching the high point of his stardom in 1946 (the year of Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives – which also featured Hoagy Carmichael). His status had been established by Preminger’s Laura in 1944. I hadn’t thought of Andrews as a Western star but in fact he had several supporting roles in Westerns in the early 1940s. In Canyon Passage he is a strong, confident figure who exudes authority and strength of character and his relationship with Donlevy’s character is believable.
Canyon Passage was by all accounts a successful and popular picture, although the high production budget meant it wasn’t particularly profitable. What struck me most was how much it made me think of later films. I wonder if it influenced Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)? The use of the setting, the songs that seem to comment on the narrative and the English woman – a far more successful import in the form of Julie Christie. I was also intrigued when I realised that ‘Logan’ is also the name of the Sterling Hayden character in Johnny Guitar (1954) and that ‘McIver’ is the name of a miner who is murdered in Canyon Passage and turns up again as the name of Ward Bond’s blustering character in Johnny Guitar. Several commentators have suggested that perhaps Peter Weir was familiar with the house-raising scene when he made Witness (1982). These scenes are impressive and the log cabins and stone fireplaces made me think of Ford’s The Searchers (1956) as well as his earlier Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). The presence of Andy Devine and Ward Bond also invokes Ford.
I enjoyed Canyon Passage and it confirmed for me the skills and artistic vision of Jacques Tourneur. This was his first Western and first film in colour. A year later he made Out of the Past, often cited as the peak of film noir and one of my favourite films. The clip below from the film’s premiere in Portland gives a flavour of the Hollywood publicity machine in 1946.
A Blu-ray of the film was released in the UK (Region B) by the Scottish company Panamint in 2016:
When a film wins Oscars everyone writes about it. I’m not that bothered by Oscars but I’m glad that del Toro won something and I’m pleased the production design team got a gong. I loved the mix of songs in the film but I didn’t really notice the score – perhaps I will next time. Above all, however, I’m saddened that Sally Hawkins wasn’t rewarded. She is an extraordinary actor, capable of anything. I think that The Shape of Water is a love letter to cinema from a film lover who remembers the movies he watched with his grandmother. I’m not sure why The Story of Ruth (US 1960) is the film showing in the cinema when the creature stands in the stalls. It was a Fox film so the rights weren’t a problem. I’m assuming Guillermo saw it as a child. I watched Mr Ed on TV as a teenager so I was taken back too.
I guess most of you will know that the film is about a mute cleaner, Elisa Esposito (‘Esposito’ was originally a name given in Italy to abandoned children). She is looking for love and finds it with an amphibious man captured by US intelligence and threatened with vivisection in a search for ideas to prepare human physiology for the space race. 1962 is an interesting year to choose for the film’s time period. I’ve heard del Toro discussing why he chose it. At the height of the Cold War (the year of the Cuban missile crisis) and before the major breakthroughs on Civil Rights, those historical references are well used to underpin the narrative. The Cadillac showroom and the suburban family home reek of the immediate legacy of Eisenhower’s affluent, aspirational and conformist 1950s. The Cadillac also introduces teal as a key colour which emphasises the blue-green spectrum in the ‘facility’ where Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as cleaners and where the creature (Doug Jones) is incarcerated. But I think that the selection of songs is the most intriguing. 1962 in the US is often considered to be in that dead period between the brief re-appearance of Elvis on his return from the army and the arrival of the Beatles in 1964. It wasn’t dead, but pop music wasn’t as dynamic and exciting as it had been and would soon become again. Pop music was for kids and The Shape of Water is for adults and especially for adults who feel they have lost out and for whom passion and romance seem better represented by the sound of Alice Faye in 1940s movies or Andy Williams as a ‘grown-up’ singer in 1959. Everything in the film seems to me to fit together perfectly. It’s a fantasy but it is perfectly coherent and ‘real’ in terms of its cultural references.
The classification for The Shape of Water is interesting. The US ‘R’ rating seems excessive to me but Guillermo del Toro has said that he wanted to make a film for adults. I was surprised by the film’s lack of prurience in showing a naked Sally Hawkins, but I’m sure she agreed to it because it is beautifully presented and completely in line with the character’s other actions. The film does have its moments of violence and I felt that the most violent actions were those with direct cultural references – such as the use of the electric cattle prod by Strickland (Michael Shannon) and arguably the most ‘difficult’ scene, the same character’s violence in making love to his wife. Perhaps an ‘R’ rating isn’t as excessive as I thought? On the other hand, the film has a ’15’ in the UK with 15/16 common across Europe (lower still in France) and the highest rating of 18 can be found in Russia and South Korea. I’m not sure what all of this means, except possibly that Guillermo del Toro has more of a European sensibility than a Hollywood one. I wish he’d make Spanish-language films again.
My constant referencing of del Toro doesn’t mean that I under-estimate the other creative contributions to the film. Vanessa Taylor was the co-writer and Dan Laustsen the cinematographer. All the design team deserve congratulations and Doug Jones and the VFX team create a wonderful creature based around the concept introduced in Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (US 1954). All these contributions are important but it is del Toro’s overall vision which holds the film together. I’ve no idea how the film is performing with younger audiences. Perhaps they prefer the fast action of superhero movies, but the slower pace of del Toro’s narratives is more to my taste.
I’m amazed to see that IMDb lists the estimated budget at $20 million. I would have guessed twice that amount (is it lower because there are no so-called ‘A list’ stars?). Even if it was $40 million, the film is heading for profit – and seemingly for an International Hit. North American box office has been less than stellar but overseas the film is starting to rack up good figures and it should reach at least $170 million in total worldwide. Another triumph for Canadian facilities I see, since the whole film was made in Ontario in 2016. Sally Hawkins must know quite a bit about filmmaking in Canada by now as she was in the Maritimes the year before shooting Maudie.
I realise that I haven’t acknowledged that The Shape of Water is a fantasy drama. I don’t like most pure fantasy films, but I love del Toro’s films because they speak about the ‘real world’ so elegantly.
The success of The Shape of Water has raised the possibility that Guillermo del Toro may be able to find a studio prepared to support him with the $35 – $40 million he needs to make his ‘darker’ version of Pinocchio set during the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s. It’s intended to be an animation for adults. It still seems unlikely that an American studio will come though with the money but it would be good if they did.
For the Friday free screening in GFF’s ‘Rebel Heroes’ strand, the selected title was the Steve McQueen ‘action policier‘ Bullitt. I saw this film on release nearly 50 years ago and I’ve watched it a few times since on video. But I was up for another stab at the film on a big screen. All the previous archive films I’d seen at GFF were film prints in reasonable condition but Bullitt turned out to be what I assume to be a poor digital transfer to a DCP from a very dark 35mm original. As I remember the film, it offers a contrast between sunny exteriors and almost noir interiors. What we watched was just ‘dark’. I have a widescreen VHS video copy that would probably have looked better on the screen of GFT1. Since the catalogue listed this as coming from Park Circus (the company with most archive prints available in the UK) this is quite disturbing.
So, instead of settling down to simply enjoy the screening I was pushed into trying to find something new in the narrative to grab my attention. If by any strange chance you don’t know the plot of Bullitt, Steve McQueen is the titular hero who is assigned to protect a witness in San Francisco whose evidence could enable slimy politician Robert Vaughn to gain credibility before an election. Everything goes wrong and Bullitt needs to sort out the situation. The script is adapted from a novel by Robert L. Pike, Mute Witness (1963). What is surprising is that the film feels more like 1963 than 1968. Jacqueline Bisset is cruelly under-used as Bullitt’s girlfriend when an English beauty in mini-dresses driving a Porsche – and working as a designer in a large SF agency – might be considered as a major asset in the cast. The film’s score by Lalo Schifrin is very good and memorable but again it does it reflect the changing times? It’s worth thinking about The Graduate (1967) which I’ve argued is also a film that seems a little ‘out of time’ (apart from its soundtrack). Around the late 1960s Hollywood studios were beginning to think about how to attract and retain younger audiences with films that recognised the growing ‘alternative culture’. Easy Rider, when it arrived in 1969, gave the major studios something of a shock. The film I’ve always wanted to see, also set in San Francisco, is Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968) with Julie Christie. This doesn’t seem to get revived. In San Francisco in 1968 you might expect some evidence of the developing Haight Ashbury scene.
Alan Hunter in his introduction emphasised that it was McQueen’s own company Solar Productions who took up the rights and increased McQueen’s role while trying to keep the locations as ‘real’ as possible, enabling shooting in both a hospital and San Francisco airport. In the end, the film stands or falls on McQueen’s performance – and he’s still cool. The car chase at its centre is still exciting. There are also some enjoyable moments when Robert Vaughn finds his imperious commands thwarted by McQueen’s silent insolence and stubbornness. The British director of the film, Peter Yates, had just come from making Robbery (UK 1967) and IMDb informs me that he had been a professional racing driver. McQueen had chosen Yates and he certainly delivered the kind of film McQueen must have wanted. Bullitt is really a testosterone-fuelled police chase movie and though Bullitt gets his man it is at the expense of the collateral death of several others. Audiences have always enjoyed the car chases and McQueen’s star presence. It’s a pity the print didn’t allow us to see them both more clearly.
This year’s Glasgow retrospective strand is devoted to Ida Lupino as Hollywood star and director on the centenary of her birth. Given the structure of the programme, I could only catch one of the screenings. I was happy though because it was a film in which Ms Lupino appeared as a twin lead with Jean Gabin in his first Hollywood role. I was then knocked back to discover the ‘troubled’ nature of the production – but as Alan Hunter observed in his introduction, the film has been gradually exonerated over time. I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it had many fine features.
Moontide was screened from a National Film Archive 35mm print which seems to be in pretty good nick. It was a 20th Century Fox production for Mark Hellinger initially to have been directed by Fritz Lang who jumped ship after a few days of shooting to be replaced by Archie Mayo. Hunter suggested that Lang and Gabin were at odds over their interest in Marlene Dietrich. Archie Mayo proved to be a ‘safe pair of hands’ and with a script by John O’Hara from a novel by Hollywood actor Willard Robinson, a fine cast got the chance to shine. Ida Lupino was often suspended by Warner Bros and therefore available for loans and that is presumably why she ended up starring alongside Thomas Mitchell and Claude Rains as well as Gabin. I have to agree with Alan Hunter, however, in picking out the cinematography by Charles G. Clarke (which received an Oscar nomination).
The plot involves Gabin and Mitchell rolling into a small Southern Californian port as a pair of itinerants looking for work (or more accurately a fast buck). Bobo (Gabin) gets roaring drunk (a drunken binge celebrated by an expressionist sequence with the remnants of Salvador Dali’s work on the picture) and next morning there are clues to his possible involvement in the murder of an old sailor. Did Bobo do it? Meanwhile ‘Tiny’ (Mitchell) wants the pair to head north to San Francisco where work is more plentiful. But Bobo saves a young woman, Anna (Lupino), from the waves and seems to want to set up house with her. ‘Nutsy’ (Claude Rains), as a kind of ‘intellectual night-watchman who never sleeps’, becomes an all-seeing guardian angel.
It sounds nonsensical, but Clarke presents it as a Hollywood take on the ‘poetic realism’ of Gabin’s films with Carné and Duvivier in the late 1930s and, not surprisingly, the film has been hailed as an early Hollywood noir. Gabin and Mitchell make typical show-stopping entrances into the dockside bar at the start of the narrative but Lupino is not outshone and her gamin character has plenty of vim as well as a radiant beauty in a tawdry environment. She was only 24 when she made the film, but already a veteran of British and Hollywood cinema having started at 15, I’m going to have to go back and re-watch some of the classic Ida Lupino flicks. They would include High Sierra (1941) and They Live By Night (1940) both with Bogart (and both produced by Hellinger) and the later Nick Ray film On Dangerous Ground (1951) with the always dangerous Robert Ryan. Towards the end of her film career, she was Steve McQueen’s ma in one of my favourite melodramas, Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972). Lupino’s centenary was the prompt for the retrospective, but the current outrage about the lack of directing opportunities for women in Hollywood has pushed the Lupino celebrations way up the agenda. In the late 1940s and early 1950s as the studio system began its slow descent into obsolescence, Lupino became the only female feature director of the period and eventually directed six features. She also went on to direct many TV episodes in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. IMDb lists over 100 acting credits – not bad for a girl from Herne Hill, South East London, though she did go to RADA and had the support of an acting family with centuries of work behind it. I must also praise the work of Gabin. What a great star and what a shame he made only one other film in Hollywood (which I haven’t seen but must look for). Mitchell and Rains are terrific character actors. Gabin and Lupino are stars.
This new title directed by Steven Spielberg has been nominated for ‘Best Picture’ at the Academy Awards and one of its stars, Meryl Streep, has a nomination for ‘An Actress in a Leading Role’. She is supported by Tom Hanks and both by the music of John Williams. So this promises to be big box office and is screening at nearly every venue in town.
The film revisits the leaking of secret papers to the Washington Post in 1971. Thus there followed a conflict between the Media, the White House and the Pentagon, a conflict of historic importance in recent US history. A couple of my students suggested after seeing the film that some knowledge of the events helps in the early stages of the film, so there is a detailed page on Wikipedia on ‘The Pentagon Papers’. As always in recounting history the film would seem to offer a partial view and dramatisation of events: does it include the New York Times?
So the Hyde Park Picture House is providing an important service with a screening of the film this Sunday followed by a Q&A with Granville Williams. Granville is the editor of FreePress, the newsletter of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.
Just to whet your appetites here are the notes prepared by Granville on the film and some of the issues.
The Post in an honourable addition to Hollywood films (All The Presidents Men (1976), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Spotlight (2015)) which portray journalists and journalism in a positive way, as opposed to grubby hacks chasing squalid, sensational headlines .
When I see films like these I wonder why UK film directors haven’t tackled such subjects. Couldn’t the dogged work of Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, as he probed and finally exposed the industrial scale of phone-hacking at Murdoch’s News of the World, be a suitable subject?
The credits for The Post say it is ‘based on a true story’ and whilst I can quibble with the way the film modifies some of the facts about the way the Washington Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, finally came to back publication of the Pentagon Papers, I think the film captures perfectly how enmeshed she was in the Washington elite and the political and commercial pressures on her to take an easier route, and not publish the papers.
I will talk more about this in the Q&A session following the 5.00pm showing of the film on Sunday 28 January at the Hyde Park Picture House. Here I just want to develop a couple of points about two aspects of the film.
One is the way that Spielberg focuses on the old hot metal printing press scenes and the workings of the Linotype machines assembling the lines of type for the stories. It’s very evocative.
In 1975 after Watergate there was a ferocious strike by printers which set her and the newspaper on a conservative course. Graham devoted dozens of pages in her autobiography Personal History to vilifying Post press operators who went on strike in 1975. She stressed the damage done to printing equipment as the walkout began and “the unforgivable acts of violence throughout the strike.”
John Hanrahan, a Newspaper Guild member at the Post, wouldn’t cross the picket lines and never went back. He pointed out,
“The Washington Post under Katharine Graham pioneered the union-busting ‘replacement worker’ strategy that Ronald Reagan subsequently used against the air-traffic controllers and that corporate America — in the Caterpillar, Bridgestone/Firestone and other strikes — used to throw thousands of workers out of their jobs in the 1980s and the ’90s.”
The other point is on the role of Ben Bagdikian in the film – he’s the journalist who gets access to Daniel Ellsberg and persuades him to hand over 4000 pages for the Post to use. He was national editor on the Post, a man who the editor, Ben Bradlee, in his autobiography, A Good Life, describes as ‘thorny’. Bagdikian had a big influence on me, and others interested in media reform. He wrote a key book The Media Monopoly (1983) which warned about the chilling effects of corporate ownership and mass advertising on US media. Fifty corporations owned most of the US media when he wrote the first edition. By the time he wrote The New Media Monopoly (2004) it had dwindled to five.
This title receives its release across Britain on January 24th and should get a wide distribution: Picturehouse and Cineworld both have the film listed. I saw it at a preview screening by Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. This is the new film co-written and directed by Alexander Payne. His earlier films, like Sideways (2004) up to Nebraska (2013), have been relatively successful and critically praised. However, for me this film fell between two stools: it opens as a social satire (and is also science fiction) but in the last third changes into a socially conscious drama. It was that last third that I found increasingly less interesting and less entertaining.
The basic idea that drives the plot has been well aired in reviews, in the trailer and in publicity, so it is not a spoiler to explain this. [But some plot is discussed below]. In the pre credit opening we discover that Rolf Lassgård as Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen has developed a new scientific technique that shrinks living beings, including humans, approximately by a twelfth: humans are reduced to about five inches. At a scientific conference this new technique is presented as solution to global problems,including over-population, excess waste and climate change.
Ten years on 3% of the world population have faced this challenge, reduced their size and now live in special cocooned communities. But full-size human society has bought in facilities so that the different types of humans can, to a degree, interact. Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, an occupational therapist, with Kristen Wiig as his wife Audrey Safranek. They sign up for the transformation. Part of their motivation is that they discover that after the operation they can move to one of the reduced gated communities and that their resources will transform in an inverse ratio to that of their size reduction: they will be wealthy there and have an affluent lifestyle.
Predictably things go wrong and Paul finds himself alone in Leisureland and minus a sizeable amount of his promised wealth. He works in the Leisureland equivalent of a Call Centre. Then he meets his neighbour Dušan Mirković (Christopher Waltz), who throws great parties and makes money in what is the ‘downsized’ black economy. Paul also meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist forcibly downsized and who ended up as an illegal migrant in the USA. Through Tran, a proper ‘Good Samaritan’ in the New Testament sense, Paul discovers the other side of the track/wall at Leisureland.
In the final third of the film Paul, Dušan and an associate, together with Tran, travel to the original ‘downsized’ community set in a Norwegian Fjord. Here they meet Doctor Jørgen and discover his latest plan to save humanity. The first two-thirds of the film struck me as a very funny satire. There are some very witty lines and some delightfully comic scenes like the opening ‘scientific’ conference. The contrasts between the world of five footers and fives ‘inchers’ is well drawn and makes great play with these. However, the last third, involving the trip to the Norwegian community, is increasingly dramatic rather than comic. The film’s tone changes from satire to a sort of ecological/religious representation. Dušan comments that this community is like ‘a cult’. I agreed with him but the film treats this seriously.
The film is well produced. The cast are fine and Hong Chau is particularly good. The production design, cinematography and editing worked well. I thought some of the soundtrack music was interesting but the credits ran by so fast I did not pick out the songs. The film relies on extensive CGI and special effects but this is well done, and most of the time I was not especially aware of the techniques.
In the early stages of the film my main pre-occupation was with the economic strand. Paul and Audrey find that their limited middle class means soar in value in Leisureland. The rationale for this appears to be that the much smaller commodities there are reduced in monetary value equivalent to their human owners. At one point Dušan point sought that the Cuban cigar that he is smoking costs 50 dollars in the full-size world but only a dollar here. I do not remember seeing a ‘downsized dollar’ but presumably it is one twelfth the size of the standard bill. It would appear that the plot assumes that the cost of reproducing labour power, which determines exchange value, is reduced in the same proportions in the downsized world. That might be so. But, in fact, the commodities in this world rely to a great degree on production in the full size world. And, Leisureland. which seems to be commercial company, operates there. Its source of income is not explained but the exchange values it deals in are ‘full-sized’. It did not add up: not just in Marxist terms but in terms of classical economics. I think someone like Ricardo would have found this puzzling. In the film this is not just a motivation for Paul and Audrey but the basis for the class divisions in the Leisureland complex. Other aspects of the plot are treated with greater care. So only organic matter can be downsized. We see that before the operation people’s fillings and such-like are removed. And we learn that people who have had hip operations cannot undergo the operation.
Even so I found the film very funny, at times witty, at times sardonic. There are accurate shafts at a number of deserving targets. Leisureland is surrounded by a wall, beyond which the proletarian servant class live. Their dark, dingy tower blocks are reminiscent of other dystopian settings. Given that the bulk of this class are Latinos I assume that this was a salvo at Donald Trump’s much lauded ‘wall’. The contrast between the predominately white inhabitants of Leisureland, with some middle-class African-Americans as well, and the ‘proles’ who perform the still necessary junk jobs is notable.
But the film has limitations. Early on, in a throw-away line, we hear that the Israelis are downsizing Palestinians. But the only victim of forcible downsizing central to the plot is Tran, the victim of the Vietnamese. I rather thought this one more barb against Vietnam by the losing side in that historic conflict.
And for the last third of the film the humour dissipates and the film seems to get serious about the ecological issue. But given downsizing would appear to be a fantasy I thought that the story needed something more ambitious that the solution proposed by the film. It does essay a romantic resolution, in fact reversing the break-up of earlier. But the increased level of sentiment in these final sequences does not fit with the satirical tone of the earlier segments.
The film was scripted by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor and their previous work includes Sideways and The Descendants (2011), It seems that they were working on this script between those two productions, seven years apart. This might explain matters. Much of Downsizing offers the wit and humour that made Sideways such a success. But the final third of the film is closer to the drama of The Descendants, including the larger does of sentiment in that film.
The film was shot digitally and is distributed as D-Cinema. It is in colour and a 2.39:1 ratio. The dialogue includes English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Icelandic and Norwegian. Only parts of this have English subtitles but I did not have any problems following the plot on other occasions. I found Downsizing entertaining for much of its two hours plus, and the final sequences are interesting because of what has gone before. But with a darker and still satiric resolution I think the overall film would have been better.