Category: Hollywood

Selma on UK Television

This film was among my top titles for the year and I would thoroughly recommend it. It is a widescreen film so it will lose significantly on television but if that is the only way to see it then it is worth watching. Unfortunately whilst it is screening tonight [April 14th] on BBC 2 [including HD] it is not being presented properly. The BBC WebPage lists the running time as ‘2 hours 1 minute’: this despite it also showing a link to IMDB where the running time is given as 128 minutes, [exactly 128m 29s S&S]. Presumably this is because the BBC is squeezing it into a two-hour slot from 9 p.m.

I sent in an enquiry to the BBC about this and the first reply I received advised that the film would be ‘cut’: in which case I reckoned this would involve about three minutes missing. So I followed up by asking what was being cut. The I received the following:

” Having looked in to this further we can clarify that there were in fact no scenes cut from the film ‘Selma’ and therefore no content was missing.

The running time for this film (including credits) is 122 minutes and we broadcast a version nearing 119 mins. We simply speed up the end credits to fit the slot allocated and this accounts for the difference in running time.”

I am not sure where the running time of ‘122 minutes’ comes from. Even if they are confusing video with film the number still seems incorrect. Film runs at 24 fps whilst video in the UK runs at 25 fps: so in this case it would be five, not six, minutes shorter.

As for ‘speeding up the end credits’! The credits of Selma commence over the final rally in Montgomery with King’s speech; there follows reprisals of the key characters in the film accompanied by the Aacademy Award winning  song Glory performed by Lonnie Lynn and John Stephens.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences treated this film poorly. Only one award and trailing behind the inferior Birdman (2014). This is the sort of disdain that the actual Martin Luther King and the many protesters at that time suffered: [and of course, a lot worse].

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The actual transmission ran 118 minutes. As threatened the BBC channel ‘speeded up the credits, but not all of them. So we had the frames with the cast and the initial rendering of ‘Glory’ at normal video speed: but then the rest of the credits, and the accompanying song, went by too fast for either the text or the music.

And then, despite the claim in their email, part of the content was cut: about three minutes of credits and the rendition of ‘This Little Light of Mine’ sung by ‘workers in Selma’. All this to ‘fit in’ the schedule which followed the video film with ‘Later… with Jools Holland’. The latter was allowed to continue till 1205 a.m.

The logic of this escapes me. What seems clear is that the film was programmed because the 14th was what is commonly called ‘Good Friday’ and the subject and characters seemed appropriate to that religious day.  Presumably when we get The Passion of the Christ on BBC its protagonist will have to expire right on the hour!

Sergeant Rutledge (US 1960)

The ‘noble’ Sergeant Rutledge, seen from a low angle (Screengrab from dvd.beaver.com)

Given that John Ford was the most lauded director of the studio era with four Academy Awards and one of the most critically appraised filmmakers during the development of contemporary film studies in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s perhaps surprising that some of his films have not been given more attention. Ford was prolific and ‘independent’. There are a lot of films to choose from, so perhaps that’s the reason, but the more I think about it – and the more I enjoy watching Ford’s films on TV – the more I wonder about how his films have been studied. Sergeant Rutledge certainly deserves more attention.

This 1960 release is unusual in several ways but primarily because it puts Woody Strode as the Cavalry Sergeant of the title at the centre of the narrative. As one blogger has pointed out, it gives us an African-American character in a courtroom drama accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman a couple of years before the more celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird. For John Ford it marks something of a change in his representation of both African-American and Native American characters (though he seemed to slip back again in later films). The Apache in the film generally appear to be ‘authentic’, though the narrative does not give them speaking roles. But at least we are spared the conventional speeches in English. Overall, I don’t think Sergeant Rutledge is ‘coherent’ as it mixes genres and Fordian elements such as casting and acting styles in unusual ways, but this is possibly a good thing. It’s certainly worth investigating.

The film begins with the arrival of Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) and  the opening of a military trial in the 1880s when Arizona was still a ‘territory’. As the first witness Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) begins her testimony we flash back to her return from the East after many years away. She is heading for her father’s remote ranch and on the train she meets Lt. Cantrell who reluctantly drops her off at a lonely station. A band of Apache warriors have broken out of their ‘reservation’ and Mary is rescued from danger by Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge, who appears from the darkness, wounded but still able to attack the two warriors who approach her. We realise that Rutledge was escaping a crime scene and now he has been brought back to the fort where Cantrell is representing him. The rest of the film narrative unfolds through flashbacks as each of the witnesses give statements. At first, we don’t know what Rutledge is supposed to have done and Ford uses the courtroom drama mixed with the suspense story. Gradually the story unfolds and we see that Rutledge is taken into custody but then, along with Mary Beecher, is taken on Cantrell’s mission to return the Apache to their reservation. This then introduces the third genre repertoire of the action stories of the ‘Indian Wars’.

Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) with Cpl Krump (Rafer Johnson?) (uncredited)

Woody Strode (1914-94) was a football player and imposing athlete (6’4″) who began to get bit parts in films and then later TV from the early 1940s onwards. By the 1950s he had regular screen work, but mainly in action adventure films, several set in Africa. In 1956 he played the King of Ethiopia in The Ten Commandments. Sergeant Rutledge was his first film for John Ford and one of his first leading roles. He would go on to appear in three more of Ford’s late films followed by other major Westerns (famously in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)). It is significant that Ford had not used Strode before, especially as Strode had Native American as well as African-American ancestry. Because of his imposing physique, Woody Strode would struggle to escape the confines of stereotypical roles. He was both ‘imposing’ and also ‘noble’. It’s worth noting that the other significant Black role in the film, Sgt. Skidmore, is played by Juano Hernandez (1901-70) an actor from a Puerto Rican background who doesn’t have the same physical presence as Woody Strode, but whose credits suggest a more varied range of roles. His first role was in an Oscar Micheaux ‘race’ film (i.e. an all Black cast and intended for a Black audience) in 1932.

The release of Sergeant Rutledge came at a crucial time for the progress of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the possibilities for African-American actors. Major stars such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were still mainly involved in social or crime dramas/melodramas/musicals at this point. It was still unusual to find African-American actors in Westerns. In one sense, Sergeant Rutledge was undoubtedly progressive in featuring a ‘Negro troop’ in the 9th Cavalry based on the historical records of two such cavalry regiments (and four, later two, regiments of infantry) in the US Army after 1865. The troop presented a variety of ‘types’ and provided small roles for several uncredited Black actors. This didn’t go far enough for cultural activists but it was a start. Tag Gallagher in John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986) is one of several scholars who repeat the words of Woody Strode quoted in Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington’s John Ford (1975) in which the actor says he will never forget Sergeant Rutledge and how Ford “put classic words in my mouth . . . You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before . . . I carried the whole black race across the river”. Strode is referring to the long sequence in which the Sergeant first escapes and then returns to help the troop under attack.

Sergeant Rutledge was not a commercial success in North America. I’m not sure how the film played in Europe but as with The Searchers (1956), the European film posters shown below are interesting. The French title of The Searchers translated as ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ which always struck me as more acute than the US version. Sergeant Rutledge appeared in two guises, both of which highlighted the Black soldier. One uses the title Le Sergent noir and the other Capitaine Buffalo (this is the Belgian poster with the Flemish title listed as well).

Captain Buffalo was in fact the working title of the film in Hollywood and the film opens with the Captain Buffalo song. The reference here is to ‘Negro soldiers’ who were known as ‘Buffalo soldiers’. The name is said to have come from the Native Americans who fought Black soldiers in the Indian Wars after 1866. Although the name was commonly used in the US Army, it didn’t circulate quite so widely in the mythology of the Hollywood Western. Although I have been reading and watching Westerns on TV and at the cinema since the 1950s, I don’t think I heard the term until the 1970s and it was really Bob Marley’s song, released in 1983, which popularised the history outside the US. ‘Captain Buffalo’ is an ironic title, referring to Rutledge’s leadership qualities in a troop which was ‘all Negro’ but with a white officer. The French poster is more explicit in its reference to the ‘Black Sergeant’ and both posters announce the controversial elements for a film from 1960 – the Black fist in handcuffs and the frightened white woman seemingly running from the sergeant – depicted in ‘noirish’ lighting. Compare this explicit representation with the UK ‘quad’ poster, which I believe was based on the US poster (UK posters have generally been ‘landscape’ rather than ‘portrait’ shaped).

UK poster

This poster tells us nothing about the story as such. Rutledge is simply ‘a MAN’ and Woody Strode is listed as a secondary star to Billie Burke (who has a minor role as the judge’s wife). The sergeant in the poster has a skin tone very similar to Hunter’s Lt. Cantrell – you have to look closely for signs of ‘blackness’. Why is he shown with unfastened handcuffs? The contrast to the French poster is remarkable. Sergeant Rutledge was a commercial flop despite its similarity to The Searchers in terms of setting. It was based on a novel by James Warner Bellah whose short stories had formed the basis for Ford’s earlier ‘Cavalry trilogy’ of the late 1940s – She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande. He would also write the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the best reviewed of Ford’s later works. Why did Sergeant Rutledge flop? I can’t help feeling that besides the lack of confidence shown by Warner Bros. in their promotional material, the film’s uneasy mixture of drama, suspense and comedy might have created poor ‘word of mouth’. Comedy is nearly always present in Ford’s films but it is usually better integrated in relation to the drama. I wonder too if the film suffers from the lack of a strong central performance from John Wayne or one of Ford’s other familiar leading men. Willis Bouchey as the Colonel and courtroom judge is a good character actor, but doesn’t dominate the group of officers who run the trial. It’s no surprise that the action sequences with Jeffery Hunter and Woody Strode holding the action together work more successfully. It wasn’t until after the screening that I realised that Constance Towers had been in Ford’s previous film The Horse Soldiers, the 1959 cavalry picture set during the Civil War and not written by Bellah. In Sergeant Rutledge she seems to be older (or perhaps more mature) than the young women linked to the young officers in the earlier cavalry films, but on reflection she seems well cast. Later she would appear as the lead in two strong Sam Fuller films, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).

As well as a film of its time, indeed of its ‘moment’, Sergeant Rutledge has to be read as a film in the final third of John Ford’s long career. One aspect of this is its role in confirming Ford’s long attachment to the ideals of the American military. It is important that the Rutledge character is finally exonerated by the Army and through the Army’s procedures. It may be the last such film in Ford’s list. The last few films seem to offer evidence of a director either being deliberately playful with some of those traditions among groups of men. The second aspect of Sergeant Rutledge is more problematic in representing Ford’s ideas about race and identity. I think the film stands up alongside The Searchers as an attempt to question the attitudes in most Westerns of the 1950s, but I don’t think it’s possible to make any judgements without referring back to Ford’s earlier films about Judge Priest, and especially The Sun Shines Bright (1953) which needs to be my next task. It also requires a return to Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), two films which revert to the practice of casting Europeans as Native Americans, while still questioning representations.

Citizen Kane (US 1941)

CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspaper

CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspapers

This is the film that was voted top in the Sight & Sound ten-yearly critics’ polls from 1962 until 2002. Even when it was toppled by Vertigo (USA 1958) it still secured the second spot. Top or ‘greatest’ films are conjecture rather than indisputable masterworks. But the sheer longevity of Kane speaks to its capacity to be seen and re-seen; for me at least ten cinema screenings. So now, thanks to the Hebden Bridge Picture House, cineastes in West Yorkshire have an opportunity to assess or re-assess the film. And it is screening as it should be experienced, on 35mm.

The film was directed by Orson Welles, his first outing with a feature film. Welles’s career is often seen as a series of failures. If so, what artist would not relish such failure. He also directed The Magnificent Ambersons (USA ), which, despite being cut by the studio, remains a fine and beautifully realised adaptation. Then we have the three great adaptations of William Shakespeare, Macbeth (USA 1948), Othello (USA, Italy, Morocco, France 1951) and Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff, Switzerland, France, Spain 1965). There is one of the finest film noirs Touch of Evil (USA 1957) – with the memorable opening combined track and crane shot that Robert Altman homaged in The Player (USA 1992 ). In between he filmed a memorable adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (France, West Germany Italy 1962). And then right at the end of Welles’ career the delightful, playful F for Fake (France, Iran, Germany 1975). Then there are his 123 screen appearances, plus many more on television. Some were pastiches, some were very poor films. But the outstanding performances, including Kane, Touch of Evil and that other classic The Third Man (UK 1949), are up there with the other greats.

Welles cinema was full of innovations. If you doubt that, after Kane, watch any Hollywood sound film from 1930 to 1940. This was in part because as a director Welles recruited the best talent he could find and both inspired and challenged them. He was, like many directors, similar to a conductor of an orchestra, providing the overall interpretation and offering the players scope for their individual talents. But it was also because Welles bought imagination to his art work.

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Citizen Kane has an original screenplay, produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz working with Welles. Mankiewicz had started in Hollywood in the 1920s and worked right through the 1930s. He had a background in newspaper work and bought an ability to write fast, witty dialogue and to provide a satirical view of human foibles. Both are apparent in Kane: there are many memorable lines and the rise and partial fall of the protagonist is delivered with great aplomb. Mankiewicz had addiction to alcohol and during the writing phase he was kept in line by Welles’s talented producer John Houseman who also contributed to the script.

The Art Design was supervised by Van Nest Polglase with Perry Ferguson; Set Decoration by Darrell Silvera; Costume Design by  Edward Stevenson, all members of the RKO Art Department. The film involves an incredibly varied range of sets and period costumes. It also involved settings that even by Hollywood standards were large, impressive and [at times] overbearing. The opening sequence as the camera tracks in on Kane’s fabulous Xanadu exemplifies the range of materials and props and the use of special effects. The film was unusual for the period as most of the sets have visible ceilings, an aspect that Hollywood films tended to avoid because of the need for the lighting rigs.

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Welles and Toland on set.

One of the outstanding features of Kane is the cinematography by Gregg Toland. He started on camera work in the 1920s and worked through the 1930 and it was then he developed his skills in ‘deep focus’ techniques where the image has a noticeable depth of field. Kane is full of remarkable depth of field: there are impressive long shots of characters ‘lost’ in the vast grandeur of Xanadu. Toland used the latest film stock and lenses to innovate in filming. The film has impressive camera movements and angles, emphasising the vastness of Kane’s empire. There is also a strong expressionist feel in the use of chiaroscuro, something that is a Welles trade mark. Toland wrote up his work on the film for the ‘American Cinematographer’.

The Special Effects with the cinematography were by Vernon L. Walker, an experienced and skilled professional in the field. Two of the key sound engineers were John Aalberg Sound Supervisor and Harry Essman Special Sound Effects. Welles’ films are notable for their use of sound, a skill he bought with him to Hollywood after his extensive work in radio.  The original Kane enjoyed the high fidelity RCS Sound System.

The editing was by Robert Wise who went on to direct his own films. The film is beautifully put together, often relying on dissolves rather than cuts. But there are fine transitions and rapid montage: notably the sequences depicting the failing marriage of Kane and his first wife Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick). However, Wise later blotted his copybook when he worked on the studio ‘version’ of Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

Integral to the film and the soundtrack is the music of Bernard Hermann. Welles bought Hermann to Hollywood where he enjoyed a long career as one of the greats of Hollywood music. His core for Kane is Wagnerian, especially in the specially composed opera excerpt, ‘Salammbo’.

Welles also bought a number of the players from his Mercury Radio Theater. Joseph Cotten is Kane’s friend Jedediah Leland; Everett Sloane is Kane’s manager Berstein and Agnes Moorehead, in only one short scene, is Kane’s mother Mary. Another key character is Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander player by Dorothy Comingore. There are numerous other supporting players, the cast credits run to over a hundred. William Alland offers an excellent investigate reporter Jerry Thompson and Paul Stewart is memorable as the oily manservant Raymond.

The quality of the film owes much to this supporting cast, including many minor roles only seen and heard in one or two scenes. Equally the production values owe much to the supporting technicians who worked with the director and his team leaders. The film enjoys the high quality of a Hollywood studio production coupled with an adventurous and innovative approach.

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Thompson’s instructions.

There is one other star in the film, a single word ‘Rosebud’. This invention by either Welles or Mankiewicz is a brilliant trope in the film, both binding the narrative together and providing an audience hook for the film’s exploration of Charles Foster Kane. It is also a ‘cheat’: watch the first sequence of the film carefully and then pay attention to the instructions to Thompson by his producer.

Some commentators suggest that ‘Rosebud’ is one factor in the campaign against the film by William Randolph Hearst, the great newspaper proprietor. Certainly, despite disclaimers. Kane’s character and career offer a number of parallels to that of Hearst in real life. Citizen Kane‘s relatively poor box office showing owed much to the campaign against the film in Hearst’s newspapers. And despite several nominations its only Academy Award was for Best Original Screenplay. In a long interview for the ‘BBC Arena’ Welles claimed that on the night of the films’ premiere, at RKO’s Radio City in New York in May 1941, he got into the hotel lift and saw before him W. R. Hearst. Both recognised the other. Welles claims that he offered Hearst a ticket to the film premiere which Hearst declined. Welles then quipped

“Kane would have taken it.”

Follow his example.

Check out the film in detail at the American Film Institute.

Silence (US-Mexico 2016)

Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) forced to witness the torture of Christians . . .

Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) forced to witness the torture of Christians . . .

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel Silence by Japanese Christian (and Roman Catholic) Endō Shūsaku (1923-1996) follows a Japanese film adaptation, Chinmoku directed by Shinoda Masahiro in 1971. There was also a Portuguese film in 1996, Os Olhos da Ásia, which featured similar historical events. Scorsese thus finds himself in the same position as with his previous remakes, Cape Fear and The Departed – what can he add? I need to see the Japanese version of Silence to judge whether his close personal interest has been a bonus or a burden in interpreting the narrative. My verdict on The Departed was that he didn’t match the Hong Kong original. At the moment I’m ambivalent as to whether or not his most recent remake works.

The background to the narrative is the attempt by both traders and missionaries to ‘open up’ Japan to the West (i.e. the maritime nations of Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands and England) in the 16th and 17th centuries. These European incursions coincided with the period of civil wars in Japan, the final triumph of the Tokugawa clan and the beginning of the long Shogunate which would only finally succumb to American trade (and military power) in the 1850s. Silence begins in 1640 when the Shogunate has banned Christian missions and forced up to 300,000 converts to deny their Christian beliefs. Two young Portuguese Jesuits set off from Macau (the Portuguese colony on the Chinese coast) to find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) one of their teachers/mentors who is rumoured to have renounced his faith and who is now living as a Japanese. The two young men, Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Garrpe (Adam Driver) land secretly in Japan and are hidden by Christian villagers on the coast near Nagasaki (the port where Dutch traders eventually negotiated sole trading rights for the next 200 years). The two Jesuits face an almost impossible mission. They wish to prove that Fr. Ferreira couldn’t/wouldn’t commit apostasy but very quickly they see that the local governor acting as ‘inquisitor’ is willing to adopt various strategies involving torture to force renunciation. Both Jesuits are eventually captured. How will they withstand torture, mainly in the form of watching the villagers die, if the Jesuits refuse to renounce their faith?

Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) with one of the Christian villagers

Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) with one of the Christian villagers

This is a very long film (161 minutes) and there isn’t as much ‘action’ as I expected. I confess that my attention lapsed at times. I thought I had stayed with the narrative all through but watching the trailer and some of the clips available online, I’m beginning to think I missed some moments. The film is beautifully photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and designed by Dante Ferretti – so it looks great. This is especially true of the scenes in the mists that shroud the priests’ journeys by small boat or through the mountains – classical Japanese cinema (especially Mizoguchi) comes to mind. Much of the film was actually shot in Taiwan, though I noted from the credits that some work was based in Kyoto, the home of Japanese historical drama. But no matter how great the film looks, I have problems with the narrative.

This is really Andrew Garfield’s film – Adam Driver (looking almost skeletal) becomes almost a secondary character. Garfield is presented as almost a Christ-like figure (i.e. like the conventional 17th century images of Christ in Europe) and indeed this seems to be the central narrative theme. Is Fr. Rodrigues too concerned with seeing himself as the image of Christ and therefore unable to see the wider picture? As a non-believer I can be reasonably objective about this tendency, but because I find the Japanese history so fascinating and because I see the missionaries as part of mercantilist/capitalist attempts to colonise, my sympathies are generally with the Japanese characters. This should be one of the strengths of the film. The two most engaging characters for me are the interpreter (the wonderful Asano Tadanobu, last seen by me in Harmonium (Japan-France 2016)) and Ogata Issei as the governor/inquisitor. Ogata is remarkable and I perked up whenever he appeared. Yes, he is responsible for torture and death, but at least there is a reason behind his actions, which he explains in a tale about a daimyo (feudal lord) and his four concubines – a clear allegory about the four foreign powers squabbling among themselves and causing unrest in Japan. By contrast, what do the Jesuits offer in a country that already has both Buddhism (imported via China) and Shinto? Why do they need another religion? It’s not as if these Christians have liberated Europeans from feudal rule. I’m intrigued as to how the Japanese version by Shinoda handles this. Scorsese’s script (with Jay Cocks) has the Japanese inquisitor argue that Japan is a ‘swamp’ in which Christianity can’t put down roots. ‘Swamp’ as a description seems to come from the novel, but to me sounds rather demeaning. The suggestion is that Japanese converts simply grasped the hope of this new religion to assuage the misery of their lives in a feudal state without ever understanding it. Christians have always believed in the universality of their beliefs and the righteousness of the gospel teachings. But from the perspectives of other cultures, as the interpreter comments, this looks like arrogance.

During the screening, I did wonder why the Catholic Church successfully grew a large community of adherents across Latin America but had relatively little success in Asia. I note that some reviewers refer to The Mission (UK-US 1986) with Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro as a comparison film for The Silence. I haven’t seen that film, but I understand that the Spanish missionary priest and his lay companion positively help the local people in their fight against Portuguese slave traders. Perhaps Catholicism is not necessarily ‘universal’? Is faith universal? Must it always be contextualised in relation to different cultures? It’s often said that the Catholicism of filmmakers like Hitchcock and Scorsese helps to explain their fascination with guilt, self-doubt etc. I can see that I should have been open to these questions in watching Silence, but the film didn’t move me as I hoped. I can see though that if you believe in a supreme God, the ‘silence of God’ in the face of the suffering must be hard to accept. The narrative provides a ‘way in’ to understanding this by offering us a Judas-like figure, Kichijiro (Kubozuka Yôsuke) who is present throughout, ‘testing’ Fr. Rodrigues.

The Silence is presented with most of the lead characters speaking English and with subtitles for the Japanese speech. The Japanese speak English with accents that reveal the class distinctions between peasants and nobility. I suppose this makes sense but I do wonder why, when non-Anglophone directors can make films in English, Americans (and Brits) won’t use the appropriate languages for the characters in their films. Portuguese-speaking Japanese actors in 2016 is a bit of a stretch (though there are many Japanese-Brazilians) but the principle remains sound. Silence is an impressive film and Catholic audiences may find the questions of faith more riveting than I did, but some kinds of personal projects are always likely to be problematic. It would be good if Marty returned to a neglected genre that he has conquered before. How about a decent female-centred melodrama?

Bells Are Ringing (US 1960)

Dean Martin and Judy Holliday

Dean Martin and Judy Holliday (in that red dress – see below)

Our Christmas Day treat this year involved putting up the screen and projector and downloading Bells Are Ringing. It was only later that I realised the coincidence that we had been watching the last classic MGM musical produced by the ‘Freed unit’, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and directed by Vincente Minnelli. In the next few weeks La La Land, the ‘new Hollywood musical’ is expected to arrive in the UK. I wonder if it will kickstart a revival or even do enough to sit alongside the Freed triumphs? Bells Are Ringing comes from the same three creative talents as The Band Wagon (1953), possibly my favourite musical. Bells Are Ringing isn’t such an instant ‘wow’ but it does have several things going for it, beginning with a terrific central performance by the fabulous Judy Holliday in her last film before a tragic early death from breast cancer just five years later.

Ella at her switchboard in attempted disguise when Jeffery calls

Ella at her switchboard in attempted disguise when Jeffery calls

I fear Ms Holliday will not be known by modern audiences. She was first a stage performer before getting her big break in the Hepburn-Tracey comedy Adam’s Rib (1949). This was followed by her Oscar-winning performance in Born Yesterday (1950), two notable films with Jack Lemmon and a handful of other film projects before this, her last appearance. On stage she had a hit run for Born Yesterday on Broadway and won a Tony as best actress in a musical for the stage version of Bells Are Ringing in 1957. In 1952 Holliday had appeared before one of the Senate Committees during the anti-Communist hysteria. She avoided ‘naming names’ and is said to have charmed her interrogators with a ‘dumb blonde’ routine. This was part of her star persona but in reality she was one of the most intelligent and cultured performers in American theatre and film. She escaped an official blacklisting and during the 1950s was an ‘A’ star for Columbia, but there is a suggestion that she didn’t appear on TV as much as might be expected for such a talented performer – a comedian who could sing and dance and had the potential to develop into a fine ‘serious’ actor. Some critics have suggested that she wasn’t ‘beautiful enough’ to be a big star in Hollywood, but she was vivacious and attractive and someone who audiences could relate to very easily.

Gangsters and the police descend on the answering service

Gangsters and the police descend on the answering service

The ‘bells’ in this romantic comedy musical are not primarily wedding bells. Ella (Judy Holliday) works for ‘Susanswerphone’, a telephone messaging service housed in a run-down building, the last one standing in an area of re-development. The central plotline involves her attempts to solve her clients’ personal problems, notably the stalling career of playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin). She does this while trying to hide her identity with predictable results. Two subplots involve an attempt by a new client to use the answering service to run an illegal betting system and a comic police surveillance of the business based on a misapprehension. The betting scam introduces gangsters to the mix and this strand reminded me of Guys and Dolls. The stage origins of the narrative are clear in the limited number of sets (all studio-based) and one of these, a complex street sequence, proved to be a striking attempt to re-create the realism of ‘Hollywood New York’ while retaining the control offered by a studio set. Otherwise, locations such as glamorous New York apartments and park settings are reminiscent of earlier MGM musicals (with a cinema marquee for Gigi reminding us of the legacy).

The songs had music by Jule Styne (with arrangements by Andre Previn) and lyrics by Comden and Green – who had started their careers in a revue troupe with Judy Holliday in 1938. While many of them are enjoyable but forgettable, at least two have subsequently become standards and I recognised ‘Just In Time’ and ‘The Party’s Over’. 1960 is an odd point in time, certainly in popular music but also in stage musicals and in Hollywood. Rock ‘n roll had softened dangerously by 1960 and stage musicals wouldn’t receive the ‘shock’ of West Side Story until 1957 – which followed Bells Are Ringing into film production. Bells Are Ringing feels like the end of something rather than a beginning. It was the end for MGM’s Freed Unit and it came towards the end of Vincente Minnelli’s career as a director of musicals (the last was On A Clear Day You Can See For Ever in 1970 with Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand). I didn’t have time to study Minnelli’s use of mise en scène, but the colour schemes are certainly bold with strong primary colours. The gowns are promoted in the trailer below and some are certainly extraordinary. There is a strong echo of The Band Wagon and, as one commentator noted, the performance of one song, ‘The Midas Touch’ could easily have featured in the earlier film. Just as in The Band Wagon, Minnelli’s film seems to seek to undermine ‘artistic pretension’. When Ella is invited to a cocktail party she wears an extravagant red dress given to her by one of her clients. She is then teased by her friends who correctly relate it to the opera La Traviata. Because the dress is not in the current fashion she then tears off much of the ‘fancywork’ on the frock and reveals a simpler and more attractive dress – which is also suits her much better.

Some comments on Judy Holliday’s performance suggest that she was depressed and conscious of being overweight during the filming. All I can say is that she made the film for me (ably assisted by Dean Martin). Bells Are Ringing is otherwise a conventional MGM musical, perhaps a little below the best 1950s output of the studio. All the same, La La Land will have to be very good to displace the Freed musicals in my preferences. I think the BBC should be required to show a season of them every Christmas.

The Birth of a Nation (US-Canada 2016)

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This film is now getting a general release in the UK. I saw it at the Leeds International Film Festival. The Catalogue quoted ‘The Playlist’,

“In script and performance, the film is an articulate howl of anguish and rage given depth by a discerning comprehension of the ways various communities can rely on faith for very different means.”

However, Nick Pinkerton in Sight & Sound took a rather different tack, savaging the film in his review. Pinkerton has form as he equally savaged Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. In both cases he has a certain amount of justification and I agree with many of his criticisms. But I also have strong reservations about his critique. For one he mixes ‘art’ and ‘artist’ in his comments: and the relevance of this escaped me. More importantly he does not discuss the substance of the film, concentrating on its form and style.

But it is the substance of the film that makes it both very interesting and important.

“Nate Parker’s directorial début is a searing account of the life of Nat Turner, the enslaved African-American who spearheaded an insurrection in 1831. Turner believed that revolutionary violence would awaken others to the infernal mistreatment of slaves, and he died for this cause.” (LIFF Catalogue).

I would think that this slave rebellion is not that well known in the UK but it would be in the United States. I read an account some years ago in William Styron’s fine but controversial novel ‘The Confessions of Nat Turner’ (1966). Turner was born into slavery but grew up literate and with an intimate knowledge of the bible. He frequently had what he believed were visions and was an influential figure among the slaves. In August 1831 he led a rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. About 60 white people were killed before the rebellion was suppressed by armed whites supported by troops. About 50 black rebels were killed but subsequently several hundred black slaves were murdered by outraged and fearful white mobs.

Styron’s novel concentrated on the rebellion and presented this through the voice of Turner himself. The Birth of a Nation works as a biopic presenting Turner’s life from childhood to the actual rebellion. The insurrection only comes at the end of the film and I was expecting it to be treated in much greater detail than the film offers. We only see a couple of deaths until the confrontation with the armed whites and the military. Much of the film is given over to Tuner’s life and his religion. The visions that he experienced are not really adequately presented. And there is an amount of screen time devoted to his romance and marriage to a  fellow slave. There are plot motivations for his turn to violence but the film does not really evoke the apocalyptic drive that seems to have motivated the historical Turner.

thebirthofanationweb3

The film is conventional in form and style: note the film is presented by Fox Searchlight. Whilst there is onscreen violence it seems aestheticised by the widescreen cinematography and production design: emphasised by the accompanying score which is often rather lush. The acting also seems conventional and dutiful rather than impassioned.

The director, Nate Parker (who also plays Turner), references 12 Years a Slave in an interview. One can see the influence but whilst that film tended to anaesthetise the violence it also had a strong sense of place and character. Farther back there is the influence of the televisions series Roots but that drama offered a much stronger representation of the grim reality of slave life.

The Festival Catalogue quotes Parker:

“The thing I wanted to get right was Nat Turner’s humanity. That this was a man. In history he’s painted as a religious fanatic that just wanted to kill people. I think that was the narrative that was important for white supremacy and the safety and conservation of racism in that time.”

Certainly my memory of the Styron novel is not that of a religious fanatic. And in ‘humanising’ Turner, Parker seems to have reduced him to the conventional. So the film is a disappointment. However as far as I am aware this is the only film or television version of the important historical event available in the UK. And the film is sufficiently well done to hold the attention.

It does not though live up to its title. This is presumably a riposte to the seminal but racist film by D. W. Griffith from 1915 of the same title. But a riposte already exists in the form of Oscar Micheaux’s masterwork Within Our Gates (1920). As far as I am aware there have not been theatrical screenings of this film in the UK. I have been fortunate to see it twice at European Festivals. Perhaps the BFI could arrange for a theatrical format version as part of its ‘Black Stars’ programme. And it would be good to also be able to see the documentary directed by Charles Burnett for Public Television in the USA, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003).

 

The Girl on the Train (US 2016)

The world from the train window . . .

The world from the train window . . .

The Girl on the Train proved to be much more interesting than the majority of reviews suggested. I was fully engaged by a film that may have flaws but also many pluses that reviewers seem to have overlooked. I arrived early for my multiplex seat, able to watch the rest of the audience file in. I was struck by the overwhelming majority of women (of all ages) over men. Since the novelist whose work has been adapted, the scriptwriter, the cinematographer and the film’s three leads are all women, my first thought was “Why is the film directed by a man?”. I also wondered if this was a modern version of the ‘woman’s picture’?

Tom (Justin Theroux) and Rachel (Emily Blunt), the divorced couple . . .

Tom (Justin Theroux) and Rachel (Emily Blunt), the divorced couple . . .

The two aspects of the film that are most commented on are the adaptation’s relocation of the narrative from the Home Counties in the UK to New York State and a direct comparison with the similarly themed and structured Gone Girl by David Fincher. These weren’t in fact the two aspects of the film that intrigued me but perhaps I need to confront them first. I haven’t read Paula Hawkins novel and I’m not interested in valuing novels over film adaptations or vice versa. I did read Gone Girl before seeing Fincher’s film adaptation and so I had a different reaction to that film and its ‘unreliable narration’. The Girl on the Train also employs some ‘unreliable narrators’ but unlike in Gone Girl, the ‘unreliability’ is not deliberate for much of the time on behalf of the lead character Rachel (Emily Blunt). If you haven’t read the novel or the many reviews of the film, Rachel is a (barely) functioning alcoholic who can’t help torturing herself by thinking about her ex-husband Tom’s new marriage and his new baby daughter Evie. Rachel is unable to have a child and each day she travels on a commuter train past her old house looking for her successor Anna and her baby. (The train conveniently stops at the same signal near her old house.) She also becomes interested in another young couple Megan and Scott living close by in a house equally observable from the train window. Rachel frequently passes out when she has drunk too much and one day she wakes to discover on the TV news that Megan has gone missing. Rachel is disturbed by a vague feeling that somehow she is connected to Megan’s disappearance. Eventually she finds herself under suspicion by Police Sergeant Riley (Allison Janney) and decides to do some investigating, especially since she thinks she saw Megan kissing another man.

Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) with her baby, Evie – trapped in the town which is a "baby-making factory"?

Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) with her baby, Evie, trapped in the town – which is a “baby-making factory”?

I understand that in Hawkins’ novel, the commuting journey is from a fictional town in Buckinghamshire. Transferring the narrative to Metro North along the Hudson River makes sense I think. Commuting into Marylebone or Euston is rather different to the jam-packed commuter trains and stations of South and East London and is closer to the commuting experience in New York. The Metro North trains are slower, less crowded and have the big windows which link this film to classics like Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest. It also struck me that by shooting in the Autumn in Westchester County, the filmmakers also conjure up the feel of classic melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows (1955) and its re-working Far From Heaven (2002). On another level, it made me think of The Stepford Wives (1975). I realise that these are references to New England rather than upstate New York, but the central point is around the milieu of the middle-class commuter town and the aridity of a culture which develops tensions between work in the city and domesticity in the small town. Like the Sirkian melodramas, the central characters are the women, trapped in a community with little vision and subject to domestic abuse and conventional norms of child-bearing. (I remember Megan’s line about the town as a ‘baby-making’ factory.) Rachel’s response to pressure is to become an alcoholic.

The psychiatrist, Dr Abdic (Edgar Ramírez) and Megan (Haley Bennett)

The psychiatrist, Dr Abdic (Edgar Ramírez) and Megan (Haley Bennett)

The major flaw in the film seems to me to be in the narration. I understand from the novel that there are meant to be three narrators – Rachel, Anna and Megan. Rachel is often drunk. Megan does have a ‘voice’ in the narration and she discusses her life with Dr Abdic, a local psychiatrist but Anna seems much less of a ‘narrator’. The film uses titles to inform us that it is ‘Six months ago’ etc. I confess that I found these titles somewhat confusing. I still followed the story but clearly I became mixed up about the plot. I suspect that because I treated the narrative as a melodrama with Rachel as the central subject, I didn’t bother too much about the plotting of the thriller elements and I certainly didn’t worry about contrivances or ‘excessive’ emotional responses. Emily Blunt is terrific in the film and the other two women are also very good. It’s interesting that two out of the three are Brits (or Swedish Brit in the case of Rebecca Ferguson). Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen is particularly good at presenting Emily Blunt on screen.The best line of the film for me was when Rachel challenges the psychiatrist played by Edgar Ramírez (the Venezuelan actor who speaks several languages fluently – see Carlos (France-Germany 2010)). “You have an accent”, she says. “So do you” he responds – touché! I like Ramírez a lot. I’m not sure that it matters, but he has more charisma than the other two male leads. On the other hand Justin Theroux plays Tom Watson very well as the rather dull guy with something lurking underneath. Luke Evans (another Brit!) plays Megan’s partner Scott and his macho tendencies seem more obvious. I was intrigued to see that the scriptwriter on the film, Erin Cressida Wilson, began her career with Secretary (2002) starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, a very effective film. I’d forgotten, before I wrote this review, that I’d seen the James Brown biopic Get On Up (2014) by director Tate Taylor. When I re-read my posting on that film I noticed that one of my issues with it was the narrative structure. Taylor handles the actors and the action well. It’s mainly the narration that I have problems with in Girl on the Train.

The Girl on the Train is still on release and it’s worth seeing in a cinema. At the very least it has three lead roles for women, no car chases or explosions and no super-heroes. It’s a movie for grown-ups. The next day I watched Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1950) with Gene Tierney as a woman who falls prey to a hypnotist. I enjoyed both films.

Seven Samurai (Japan 1954) and The Magnificent Seven (US 2016)

Kurosawa's original with Mifune Toshiro in the foreground

Kurosawa’s original Seven Samurai with Mifune Toshiro in the foreground

The new 'Seven' led by the man in black (Denzel Washington)

The new ‘Seven’ led by the man in black (Denzel Washington)

The new version of The Magnificent Seven is an entry in a major global franchise. The universal elements in the film’s story have been around for a very long time. Robin Hood, for instance, is a story in which a group of outlaws protect villagers from the Sheriff’s men. But the specific story structure of seven ‘professionals’ recruited to protect a village comes from the imagination of Kurosawa Akira and his collaborators and the folk tales and history of 16th century Japan that created the 1954 film Seven Samurai, widely regarded as a classic action film. Seven Samurai prompted the original Hollywood remake in 1960 and several sequels. In his chapter on ‘Remaking Seven Samurai in World Cinema’ in East Asian Cinemas (eds Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai, I. B. Tauris 2008) David Desser explores the influence of the film on a range of productions in Hong Kong and India as well as in the US. My interest is in the extent to which the new film draws on Kurosawa and how much is lost through the process of adaptation. The scriptwriters of the new film, Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, are credited alongside the original writers Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo. I note that Pizzolatto is a novelist who has written for the TV serials True Detective and the US remake of The Killing, and that he has also taught writing – all of which might give some hope that he could make good use of the original script.

There are certainly aspects of the original script still present, but the new film is 133 mins long, roughly 65% of the running time of the Kurosawa film, so quite a lot is missing (there is no ‘padding’ in Seven Samurai). The location of the story has moved north from the 1960 version and re-located in the Sierra Nevada (“three days from Sacramento”) in 1879. This makes sense since Seven Samurai was similarly based in the mountains in an isolated village. The date and setting make the new film a ‘mountain Western’ with gold mining. Here is the first problem in that the townspeople of Rose Creek don’t have a visible farming community and their attachment to the land is symbolic rather than being portrayed realistically. (In the original, the bandits have already been to steal the rice harvest and are expected again for the barley harvest.) The new script isn’t quite sure what to do with the gold miners and it doesn’t have time (or enough imagination?) to represent farming. Instead it introduces the villain as a capitalist exploiter and the main motivation of the townsfolk to be expressed through Emma (Haley Bennett), a woman who wants “righteousness” after her husband was killed by the exploiter “but will take revenge”. A similar figure was a minor but important character in the original. Apart from the preacher, none of the other townspeople is given a narrative function as such. Because of this, Kurosawa’s main theme is lost.

Seven Samurai is about a distinctive clash of caste and class presented as a humanist epic. The farmers in the isolated village normally despise the samurai, whose societal role as warriors employed by feudal lords is under threat during the 16th century when many of them are unemployed, becoming ronin or ‘masterless samurai’. The samurai who are recruited to help the farmers are poor and hungry – they will fight for three bowls of rice a day. But they are also men of honour, so they will fight to maintain that honour. Kurosawa makes this explicit and deeply moving by a decision to employ what was already becoming his trademark, the ‘master and apprentice’ roles within the group of samurai. Shimura Takashi as Kannei is the ‘master’, the older man who is a wise warrior, a skilled fighter and a leader of men. Katsushiro (Kimura Isao) is the young man, the devoted follower and the one with most to learn because he is distracted by a young woman from the village. Shimura was the actor used most by Kurosawa. But he isn’t the star of the film. That’s Mifune Toshiro. Mifune plays Kikuchiyo, the man who would be a samurai. His secret will only emerge later when we learn that he was a farmer’s son and that he had been abandoned as a baby during a raid by pirates. Kikuchiyo forms the bridge between the samurai and the farmers. He understands both and despises both, yet supports both. It is his human story that reveals the film’s theme. The genius of the Seven Samurai script is that we learn about a wide range of characters – so there are individual stories – but those stories also inform the overall narrative about a society in which both farmers and samurai/bandits are suffering (but in which the farmers will be the long-term winners).

Emma (Hayley Bennett) becomes a sharpshooter – and the effective leader of the town.

Emma (Hayley Bennett) becomes a sharpshooter – and the effective leader of the town.

The script for the new film struggles to find the same sense of coherence. We do learn something of the ‘back stories’ of ‘Chisolm’ (Denzel Washington) Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and a few others, but these stories don’t relate to the overall narrative in the same way as they do in Kurosawa’s film. Chisolm does have a personal reason to fight, but like Emma’s motivation it is about revenge against the villain, not about honour. Revenge is not a motive to trigger carnage on the scale depicted here. At the end of the Seven Samurai, the three survivors are the ‘master’, the ‘apprentice’ and the second in command. The other four samurai have been killed and the master observes, as planting begins for a new crop, that the farmers have won. I suppose I shouldn’t spoil the ending of the new version, save to note that what it seems to do is to highlight the new ‘diversity’ amongst the defenders of the village. Yet the weirdest thing about the whole film is that presence of a black law enforcement officer (Chisolm), an East Asian gunslinger, a Comanche warrior and a woman leading the townspeople is never really commented upon. Director Antoine Fuqua has said that he wanted to make the kind of Western that he watched as a child with his grandmother. In this sense his film is ‘colour-blind’. But this is a film set in that period of Western history when the four ‘minorities’ he presents in the narrative were actively engaged in conflicts in the ‘real West’ as well as the Hollywood ‘revisioned’ West of movies from the 1970s onwards. It’s as if movies like Harry Belafonte’s Buck and the Preacher (1972) never happened. In The Magnificent Seven we see the gamblers and saloon girls leaving town when the attacks begin, but in McCabe and Mrs Miller (1973), the brothel-keeper played by Julie Christie is a new kind of female entrepreneur to stand alongside the school teacher and the homesteader as a new female type – and a representative of capitalist enterprise. Instead of running away she would consider selling out to the kind of capitalist exploiter who threatens the town in the new Seven. The East Asian character is again not investigated in any way, even though 1879 was some 10 years after Chinese workers had helped build the first transcontinental railway in the US. Chinese migrants (and therefore East Asians generally) would have been part of the life of many Western towns. I’m not sure how a Korean would have got there, but the point is that Fuqua seems fairly cavalier about both ‘real’ history and the myths developed during the declining years of the Western as a mainstream genre. By contrast, Kurosawa’s historical representations were essentially ‘realist’ with careful research to get things ‘right’.

Kurosawa famously built his village in the mountains, for the most expensive film in Japanese history at that point. He built it to specifications with the various action sequences in mind. Fuqua presumably built his own town on location for the same reasons. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have thought so much about how to shoot the action scenes. The only thing I remember from the great battle is the bizarre sight of Denzel Washington performing a riding stunt worthy of a Roy Rogers movie in order to shoot a bad guy. Fuqua did choose to have a church at the centre of the action and this was a good decision, conjuring up a whole host of Westerns, but again I don’t think it was thought through fully. Kurosawa set his battle in the midst of howling winds and torrential rain with swordsmen struggling in a sea of mud to great effect. Nothing as exciting happens in the new film. However, I should record that I actually enjoyed watching Denzel and co. even as I was ticking off the missed opportunities. The film was entertaining, it just wasn’t ‘special’. Seven Samurai still stands at No 19 on IMDb’s all-time list of the Top 250 movies and for good reason. It has a great story, human values, engaging characters, terrific performances, photography and editing rarely bettered, a wonderful score and Mifune on fire. See the trailers below for a quick summation of the differences.