Category: Hollywood

The Post (US 2017)

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.

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Downsizing (US 2017)

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.

Feud (US 2017)

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford

Feud is unusual and intriguing. I’m not sure it works, but having started watching it, I found myself hooked and watching all eight episodes over six days. It’s important, I think, that I never usually watch any US TV. The last American TV I watched with any interest was The West Wing ten years ago (and the Anglo-American serial Humans more recently), so I’m approaching Feud from a different position than most audiences. The narrative is set over the ten years from 1962 to 1972, which was a period when I was much more involved with American film and TV.

Feud is described in reviews as an ‘anthology TV series’. I vaguely remember this term from the 1950s, used to describe shows like The Dick Powell Show (1961-3) and, most famously perhaps, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65). These series comprised single dramas of 25 mins or 48 mins performed by the same actors (or a selection from a ‘pool’ of actors) and/or introduced by a host like Powell or Hitchcock each week. The shows were written and directed by both the developing stars of TV and some of the directors who moved between cinema and TV, such as Sam Peckinpah, Blake Edwards or Ralph Nelson. The actors were often well-known Hollywood names.

The new anthology series like Feud seem to me rather different. Feud is produced by Fox TV for the FX cable channel. The same ‘showrunner’, Ryan Murphy, has already set up two anthology series called The American Horror Story (2011- ) and The American Crime Story (2016- ) which are now both into multiple seasons. The first season of Feud, titled ‘Bette and Joan’ ran for eight 45-58 minute episodes in March-April 2017 in the US. It has recently been broadcast on BBC2 in the UK. The eight episodes recount the supposed ‘feud’ between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, centred on the production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 and continued over the events of the next few years. The series is designed to be an anthology in the sense that the next serial will be concerned with the story of the marriage of Charles and Diana and its aftermath. It seems more sensible to me to call it a serial, a long-form narrative or simply a form of televisual biopic. But US TV has its own terminology. More to the point, the BBC decided to follow the Netflix model and release all eight episodes on iPlayer before the end of the broadcast transmission run of two episodes shown as a double bill each week (following the precedent of Scandinavian drama serials on BBC4).

Outline (no spoilers as such – the story is based on real events)

Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) in 1962 were A List Hollywood stars in their fifties struggling to find roles worthy of their talent in Hollywood (Davis had actually returned to the stage). Crawford found the novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and persuaded Jack Warner (whose studio had made successful films with both Crawford and Davis) to agree to distribute a film adaptation. The film was made by director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) using his own production company, The Associates and Aldrich. Warner (Stanley Tucci) believed that Psycho had introduced mainstream audiences to shock/horror films and he gambled on an unusually wide release. The film proved to be a significant hit and was nominated for several Oscars. This caused further problems between Crawford and Davis. A sequel was then suggested . . . Joan Crawford died in May 1971 and was remembered during the 1972 Oscar ceremony. (Davis continued working until her death in 1989, but the serial ends in 1972.)

Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich in conversation with Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford

Commentary

The narrative is supported by the insertion of a quasi documentary element in the form of a series of interviews which on-screen titles date as conducted in 1978. The interviewees include characters directly involved in the story such as Aldrich’s assistant Pauline (Alison Wright) as well as two other leading actors who knew Crawford and Davis – Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) – and others involved in the events depicted. This re-inforces the sense of a tension in the presentation of the mise en abîme – the ‘making of’ not just the films, but also the Oscar ceremonies. We are familiar in biopics with current well-known actors playing Hollywood figures from the past, but in Feud this becomes overwhelming. At the centre of the narrative, Sarandon and Lange are very good indeed – and like Davis and Crawford, they both have a producer credit on the serial. Sarandon could pass for Davis, although she’s actually about 15 years older than Davis was in 1962. Lange doesn’t have anything like Crawford’s eyes so her performance has to create an illusion of Crawford’s look (she’s also much older than Crawford was in 1962). Lange also has a role in one of Murphy’s other anthology titles – The American Horror Story – and has played two other celebrity figures, Frances Farmer, the 1930s Hollywood actress in Frances (1982) and country singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams (1985). I’m not sure what this means, except that I think I ‘read’ Lange/Crawford differently than Sarandon/Davis. I’m more familiar with Davis’s work than Crawford’s but while I admired and respected both stars, my own preference was always for Barbara Stanwyck – not mentioned in Feud, perhaps because she was still successful after moving into TV in the 1960s.

Feud is very ‘self-enclosed’ and most of the action takes place on set, in the homes and offices of the principals, or in exclusive restaurants. There is little awareness of the world outside Hollywood itself. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? actually opened a few days after the Cuban Missile Crisis in the US, which is not mentioned. I didn’t notice any references to the Civil Rights movement (I don’t actually remember any African-Americans in the whole serial) or Vietnam. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation about the enclosed world. One sequence in which Crawford travels to the UK to make a horror film for Herman Cohen Productions looks very strange. As far as I’m aware this horror film was shot in Berkshire, but the set is by the Thames in East London and there are other strange elements in the presentation of characters. The final episode of Feud includes some hallucinations suffered by a central character.

Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper

The focus, as the title emphasises, is on the feud between the two stars, but how much of this was invented to suit the publicity for Baby Jane and how much was ‘real’ isn’t clear. The serial also uses the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) as a device to increase the animosity between the two actors. In reality, Hopper died in 1966 aged 80, so this is possibly a fanciful presentation? Hopper’s rival Louella Parsons doesn’t feature in Feud – she retired in 1965. Overall, I feel that the serial is an odd mixture of ‘feud’ (which is accessible to any audience), a presentation of the dying days of ‘studio Hollywood’ and a rather intimate drama about two ageing stars. I found these two latter narratives more interesting than the feud – but both are frustratingly restricted in the overall mix. Bob Aldrich’s story features quite promisingly in the opening episodes but then disappears – a real shame.

As is usual in American TV, this serial is written and directed by a large group of people. There are five writers and five directors who mix and match across the episodes. Some write on one episode and direct another. Interestingly, in the present climate, four of the episodes are directed by (different) women and one woman was involved in writing three episodes. Despite this large number of creative inputs, I didn’t notice an inconsistency of styles – which is either a tribute to the showrunner’s overall control or a comment on a conventional TV drama approach. I’m not really able to tell which!

What Feud does have is some snappy one liners which recall those ‘women’s pictures’ of the 1940s and some great performances. Catherine Zeta-Jones is especially good.

Here’s the official trailer:

The Snowman (UK-US-Sweden 2017)

Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to watch a new film that has been so heavily criticised and denounced by both critics and audiences. It isn’t the total disaster those reviews suggests, but given the array of talent in front of and behind the camera, it isn’t great. Something has clearly gone wrong and I’m still struggling to see where the blame lies.

The Snowman is an adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s 2007 ‘Harry Hole’ novel. There are now 11 crime novels featuring the maverick cop. The Snowman is No7 in the series, though numbers 1 and 2 were translated into English after The Snowman. So, for UK readers it was number 5. The first question then is, why start with No. 5? The response has been so poor that it seems unlikely any more will be adapted in English. Why it was adapted at this point seems to be a consequence of the usual crap which surrounds studio pictures. The novel appeared in English in 2011 – at the peak of ‘Nordic Noir‘ in the UK/US. A quick glance back through my posts and the various events I organised on that topic suggests that this was indeed the case.

Nesbø has always been ripe for adaptation. His self-confessed love of American culture pushes his crime fiction away from the ‘Nordic Noir’ ideal that developed from Mah Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (though he claimed his own links to the Martin Beck books with an introduction to one of the re-issued novels). His hero Harry Hole likes rock music (Nesbø played in a band) and American films and there is much more of a Hollywood thriller feel to the novels. Perhaps he is like Stieg Larsson to a certain extent – but far less overtly political. Harry is like Larsson’s characters though – in the sense that he is personally involved in the narratives. Either he is targeted by the villain or the narrative is introduced by something out of his past. In The Snowman, the Harry-Rakel-Oleg triangle is central in more ways than one.

My memory is that Scorsese was named quite early on as interested in making a Harry Hole movie, but instead the first Nesbø film was Headhunters (Norway 2011), adapted from a standalone novel and followed by Nesbø’s involvement in a TV series, Okkupert (2015), a political thriller imagining Norway occupied by the Russians. The Snowman arrives perhaps four or five years too late. I don’t think Nordic Noir is finished but it doesn’t have the same ‘must see’ cachet any more.

Rebecca Ferguson as Katrine, Harry’s new partner

The next issue is comprehension. The Harry Hole novels are in a distinct series – they have the overall narrative ‘arc’ that we now have to acknowledge for long form narratives and in that sense they match both the Beck and Wallander books – though I find Harry a less appealing character than either of the other police officers. Each novel draws on what has happened before so The Snowman relies on audience knowledge about Harry and about Rakel and her son Oleg. Harry is not married to Rakel, yet she is the love of his life. Oleg is not his son, but Harry tries to act like his father. If you don’t know this – and Harry’s history of alcoholism and his loner status within the Oslo Police – you can’t understand him. The script (which has some input from Nesbø, some from Søren Sveistrup, the Danish writer of The Killing and some from the Brits, Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini) seems to me something of a lash-up – as if it has been re-written many times. It does include the information about Harry, but not in an easily understandable way. The book is 550 pages so a great deal has to be left out or dealt with in different ways. Some of the changes are puzzling. The novel opens with a prologue in 1980, in which the date is signalled by a radio announcement about Reagan’s election victory over Jimmy Carter. It then comes forward to 2004 and victory for George W. Bush. In the film, ‘the past’ features a boy being quizzed about Norwegian modern history and there are no American references.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, under-used as Rakel

The need to reduce and select the narrative data explains why, even for someone who knows the Harry Hole novels reasonably well, the narrative seems complex. Against this, the cinematography offers us plenty of snowbound landscapes and there is a very talented cast. Alas, the way they are used is also problematic. I was watching out for Sofia Heflin, the Swedish star of the Nordic Noir series The Bridge and it was only at the end of the film that I realised she had been a character who was quickly killed off. Similarly, the Norwegian actor Jakob Oftebro, a star from Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) and many other films, has a minor role. There are some Nordic actors in bigger roles and I enjoyed the irony of Jonas Karlsson playing the villain in this film and the despised police ‘manager’ in the Swedish Beck TV series. But mostly it is British and American actors filling the lengthy cast list. Apart from a child with an American whine, most of the actors use what might be described as unaccented ‘International English’ and I can live with that (although a Norwegian pronunciation of ‘Hole’ might have worked better). The tragedy of the film is to see a director such as the Swede Tomas Alfredson, internationally lauded for Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008) and the English language Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), lose control of a production which also boasts Dion Beebe as cinematographer and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor, not to mention Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the leading cast members.

Michael Fassbender is a fine actor and it sounds like great casting, but he isn’t my idea of Harry Hole – and that’s always the problem with adapting a novel with a ‘known’ character. Audiences who revere Fassbender but don’t know Nesbø’s character will also be puzzled I think. Val Kilmer and Toby Jones just seem odd as Bergen police officers and Anne Reid as a next door neighbour in Oslo is a surprise for British audiences (she has been an important TV actor in the UK for many decades). Working Title, the most successful British film production company through its long relationships with Universal and Studio Canal, succeeded with Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor . . . , but that was a StudioCanal project. The Snowman is a Universal picture and I wonder if that is the problem. The Snowman seems similar to David Fincher’s Hollywood version of The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo (US 2011) – but at least that film proved popular with audiences. I’ve rather lost interest in Harry Hole since Book 9 and now it looks like there won’t be any more film adaptations. Now, if they’d started with The Redbreast (Book 3, the first to be translated) it might have worked, but it would probably have been too ‘Norwegian’ for a big budget international thriller. Such is the film business. Instead of a distinct Nordic Noir, Hollywood wants another snowbound police thriller. Here’s the trailer for The Snowman, which is visually intriguing – but the dialogue is terrible. Pretty much sums up the film I’m afraid.

Wind River (US 2017)

Grahame Greene and Elizabeth Olsen

I think I must be in the prime target audience for Wind River. It certainly ‘works’ for me but I’m a little wary of certain aspects of the narrative – so, a good film to write about? The film’s pedigree is good as written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, whose earlier writing on Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016) was certainly appreciated in these parts. It also has a strong cast, music by Nick Cave and a snowy landscape (Utah masquerading as Wyoming). It also has antecedents. The idea of a murder investigation on Native American lands was explored in Thunderheart (US 1992), directed by Michael Apted and including in its cast Graham Greene (Canadian First Nations actor) who repeats his role as a tribal police officer in this new film. Jurisdiction on land designated for Native American tribes is a complex business and that becomes one aspect of this story alongside the familiar issue of indigenous peoples and how they suffer through poor education, lack of employment opportunities and loss of cultural identity. A third element that features strongly is the potential ecological/environmental damage to the land via oil exploration and wildlife issues.

The narrative sees an 18 year-old young woman dying as she runs barefoot through the snow on a winter’s night. The explanation of how cold bursts the blood vessels in the lungs and causes the victim to drown in their own freezing blood is a lesson I won’t forget. But what has caused her to do such a thing? She’s found by Cory Lambert, a wildlife ranger played by Jeremy Renner. The local tribal police chief who is, coincidentally, Cory’s father-in-law, does not have the manpower or authority to conduct a murder investigation, so the FBI, who have jurisdiction on tribal lands via the Department for Indian Affairs, is called in. When she arrives, agent Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) from Fort Lauderdale via Las Vegas is certainly unprepared for what she is expected to do.

What follows seems like a carefully calculated attempt to cover the bases and confront the issues. The choice of Agent Banner by the FBI seems not to be thought through – not because she’s a woman, but because she’s relatively young, doesn’t know this kind of territory and its culture and is poorly equipped for outdoor work in freezing temperatures. But the decision does open up several narrative opportunities. She can easily offend people, not through malice but through lack of specific experience and knowledge and she needs to rely on the help of wildlife ranger Lambert. Lambert knows the territory, the snow hazards and the people – and he’s closely connected to the victim’s family. He married into the community and his backstory is skilfully woven into the narrative. But he is a white man whose status still raises questions. Against that, one of the most affecting scenes sees Lambert and the dead girl’s father Martin (played by Gil Birmingham from Hell or High Water) in one of those almost silent intimate male relationships found in the best Westerns.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) with Martin (Gil Birmingham) who has invented his own warpaint since he’s forgotten the old ways?

I was struck by how much the narrative reminded me of Indigenous Australian films and I’m sure there are Canadian narratives that cover similar issues. The policing of these communities is problematic. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but I did find the long final sequence (or rather the penultimate sequence) slightly disappointing in the way the murder mystery was ‘solved’. All the performances by the leads were good, though the heavily typed secondary characters were just too predictable in their behaviour. Andy Willis at HOME in Manchester told me he thought Renner’s role was Nietzschian with its emphasis on survival and the kill or be killed philosophy. I can see this and I was also concerned by the presumably legal killings of predators that Lambert is required to carry out as a ranger. (Wolves are being re-introduced in many parts of Europe but Lambert is sent out to dispatch the wolves on Wind River reservation for killing a steer.) The narrative also seemed to suggest connections (direct or metaphorical) between the animal predators that Lambert shoots and the humans who pose a threat to Agent Banner. I’m still trying to figure out what worries me about this but I guess it’s that everyone in the territory seems to have guns (and often high-powered automatic rifles) and the assumption that a wildlife ranger (or a police officer) can use a gun with so little obvious regulation or restraint. Having said that, the UK government sanctions killing badgers when scientific opinion says it achieves nothing.

Is it a Western? I think so, yes. It’s a ‘contemporary Western’ but I’m not sure it is a ‘twilight Western’ since it has a very different kind of narrative structure and set of characters. In some ways it is quite a traditional Western story as oilmen from Texas arrive on Native American land in Wyoming – and a loner, the hunter, has to deal with them. The revisionist twist is to add the female FBI agent.

Wind River has been widely praised and in the UK it has been a surprising success on a limited release. It is distributed here by STX Entertainment, a new name in cinema for me but I see that in North America it has been active in cinema and TV distribution for a few years. It has significant Chinese investment and is targeting growth in East Asian markets. In the UK and Ireland, Wind River is one of its first releases and the release pattern seems to have been idiosyncratic – in some chain multiplexes, but not others. Even so the film reached the Top 5 in midweek, suggesting a skew towards older audiences. It’s worth keeping an eye on STX I think.

The Spiral Staircase (US 1946)

Elsa Lanchester as Mrs Sloane descends the stairs to the basement with George Brent as Professor Warren behind.

Elsa Lanchester as Mrs Sloane descends the stairs to the basement with George Brent as Professor Warren behind.

I watched this recently in preparation for an event on film noir and enjoyed it very much. It’s a significant film in many ways, though its short running time (82 minutes) seems to indicate a ‘B’ picture. The cast and crew and the sheer artistry of the film do, however, point to an ‘A’ picture from RKO. Researching the film, I came across a fascinating website, The Film Noir File: A Dossier of Challenges to the Film Noir Hardboiled Paradigm written and compiled by Dan Hodges. I should have been aware of this site because it explores the arguments against the conventional academic film histories of film noir and also the supposed American uniqueness of the genre/style. I would tend to support both of the main aims of the website.

The Spiral Staircase challenges the ‘paradigm’ of film noir in one sense and ‘fits’ it in another. It is not based on the kind of ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction of the 1930s/40s, but it is directed by an émigré German director, Robert Siodmak and photographed by another, the Italian Nicholas Musaraca (who had worked in Hollywood since the 1920s). In fact, Siodmak and Musuraca were two of the principal ‘creators’ of film noir as later described by Hollywood film scholars. Musaraca worked under Val Lewton in RKO’s ‘B’ unit in the early 1940s on films such as Cat People (1942) and would later shoot the film noir classic Out of the Past (Build My Gallows High, 1947). Siodmak came to RKO after early noirs such as The Phantom Lady (1944) and The Suspect (1944). He would go on to make another recognised noir classic, The Killers, also in 1946.

So, how does The Spiral Staircase challenge the paradigm? The first films noirs to be studied extensively in retrospect were based on hard-boiled crime stories, often featured a ‘doomed man’ and a femme fatale and were contemporary in setting (though they might update 1930s stories to the 1940s). The Spiral Staircase is based on a novel by Ethel Lina White, a British writer who turned to crime fiction in the 1930s. Three of her novels were adapted for cinema, beginning with The Lady Vanishes in 1938 (UK, Alfred Hitchcock). She died in 1944 and didn’t see either The Spiral Staircase or Unseen (1945). The Spiral Staircase was adapted by a radio drama writer Mel Dinelli.

In the first murder a young woman is dressing when she is strangled, creating this strong composition . . .

Ethel Lina White was born in 1876 in Abergavenny so it isn’t surprising that she set her 1933 novel Some Must Watch in the Welsh borders. It was adapted as The Spiral Staircase and transposed to early 20th century New England, but still featuring an isolated country house. Though the adaptation sees a few characters altered, the important point here is that the central character is Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a young woman who has lost her voice after a childhood trauma and is now the ‘ladies companion’ of the bed-ridden Mrs Warren (the formidable figure of Ethel Barrymore). The local town is experiencing the terror of a serial killer and the film opens with the murder of a young woman in a hotel while below an audience (including Helen) watches an early film screening. When Helen returns to the isolated country house (in a rainstorm), Siodmak reveals the shoes and single voyeuristic eye of the murderer hiding in the shadows on the stairs of the great old Victorian gothic mansion. The film’s title refers to the staircase down to the extensive basement/cellar. If you want more background on the book and film (with possible SPOILERS) there is an interesting post on ‘Le curieux Monsieur Cocosse | Journal’.)

. . . the murderer was hiding in the walk-in clothes closet

. . . the murderer was hiding in the walk-in clothes closet

We can guess what will happen, but the film is highly engaging with its narrative twists and turns and the superlative camerawork, lighting and set design make it always watchable. Helen is both ‘damsel in distress’ and investigator (and arguably the ‘final girl’ as identified in the horror films of the 1990s). As well as Helen and Mrs Warren, the film also features two other significant female roles played by Rhonda Fleming (who went on to lead roles in the 1950s) and Elsa Lanchester (wife of Charles Laughton and dogged by her early Hollywood success in The Bride of Frankenstein). The narrative draws primarily on the suspense thriller repertoire. The visual style suggests the horror film as much as the film noir and it is supported by a strong soundtrack mix of effects referring to the terrible storm outside, the banging of windows and shutters and the sound of the wind and rain. Horror and film noir arguably have roots in common in German expressionism of the 1920s and the same roots also apply to the particular cycle of female-centred melodramas that became popular in the 1940s. Many of these reveal a certain kind of paranoia about being in the ‘old dark house’. In Gaslight (UK 1940 and US 1944), both films adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s play, a woman in London becomes fearful that her house is subject to strange events. Her relative was murdered in the house some time ago but is her present husband trying to frighten her? Ingrid Bergman is the frightened woman in the Hollywood version with clear film noir links. The Spiral Staircase also links to the Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in distress’ film Sorry Wrong Number (1948) in which she plays a woman who is bed-ridden, like the Ethel Barrymore character in the Siodmak film and similarly fearful of an attack. These melodramas are also films noirs.

Ethel Barrymoore as the bed-ridden Mrs Warren with Dorothy McGuire as Helen

The view in the mirror which shows downstairs.

The view in the mirror which shows downstairs.

Melodrama implies other familiar conventions. Helen is affected by her trauma so that she can’t speak – and therefore can’t ask for help or convey what she knows quickly. In the scene above she looks at herself in the mirror, a common image from melodrama that might suggest that there are two Helens or that she has something to hide that might not be revealed to the other characters. The mirror also allows the composition of images which are ‘disrupted’ in their presentation of narrative space. Here the deep focus which operates throughout the film shows the dining room below. In this case, the mirror image helps conjure up Helen’s fears that being unable to speak will be dangerous in the febrile atmosphere of her gothic surroundings. This image also gives an indication of the detailed set design and ‘set dressing’ which adds greatly to the power of the images. The art direction duties are credited to Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey. D’Agostino worked on 27 films released in 1946. The Spiral Staircase certainly benefits from the experience and expertise of personnel working within the studio system. Helen’s ‘lack’ of a voice is also a feature of certain melodramas where such ‘lacks’ are often seen as symbolic.  In this film, the lack is also imagined by Helen in a sequence representing her internal thoughts and in another where a visual effect obscures her mouth.

I think that Dan Hodges is right to challenge the ‘paradigm’ of American film noir. So many different kinds of films have benefited from the application of themes and style features associated with noir. I think I’d describe The Spiral Staircase as a noir melodrama melded with the suspense thriller/horror film.

Why Dunkirk? Thoughts on Nolan’s version of the myth

Kenneth Branagh’s character of the naval Commander on the Mole in Nolan’s Dunkirk is based on a historical figure

Keith has already written about his response to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and I don’t really want to repeat or contest any of the points he raised. Keith is very concerned about formats for viewing and since Dunkirk exists in several different formats, I should note that I saw it at the Dukes Cinema in Lancaster in what I believe is the most commonly seen format, a standard DCP. I reviewed the 1958 version a few weeks back and immediately after the Lancaster screening I watched the BBC documentary The Other Side of Dunkirk from 2004 (see below for a YouTube link) and tried to explore the evidence about what actually happened in late May/early June 1940.

I’m not as much of a fan of Christopher Nolan as it seems most film critics and many ‘frequent cinemagoers’ clearly are. I’ve previously seen three of his films and none of them won me over completely, though I recognised the talent and the vision of the filmmaker. I don’t think his version of the  Dunkirk story has changed my view very much, though it is clearly a technically well-produced and well-researched film and some of the action sequences show real visual flair. Nolan was interviewed by Nick James in Sight & Sound last month (August 2017 issue) and his answer to the question “Why ‘Dunkirk’?” seems to be because it is a British story that hasn’t been told on the big screen “in the vernacular of modern cinema”. James seems then to have inserted in parentheses “since the Leslie Norman version in 1958”. Later he does it again. Does Nolan not know about the 1958 Ealing Studios version? Perhaps it isn’t ‘modern’ enough to count? More pertinent perhaps is that Nolan doesn’t mention Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel Atonement released in 2007. Though that film isn’t about the ‘Operation Dynamo’ (the British codename for the evacuation) as such, there is a lengthy sequence set during the wait for evacuation from the town which Wright re-created on the beach at Redcar, including a sequence shot in the Regent cinema which juts out onto the beach. The sequence included one of the most audacious tracking shots I’ve ever seen, across the whole beach and lasting more than 5 minutes. It helped Seamus McGarvey win an Oscar Nomination for Best cinematography and Atonement went on to make over $100 million worldwide. Nolan must remember it? In a recent post I discussed Their Finest (UK 2016) in which the ‘film within a film’ was about two women who took their father’s boat to Dunkirk to help in the evacuation. This fictitious film production to a certain extent refers back to an Ealing film of 1942 called The Foreman Went to France, which again, thought not directly about Dunkirk was about rescuing equipment during the retreat by the BEF (the British Expeditionary Force) in 1940.

Christopher Nolan seems very much a part of Hollywood and has never really been identified with British cinema – but it would be good if he knew more about it. Instead, his reference point seems to be Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, a film which certainly changed expectations about how the Second World War could appear on screen. Many veterans have attested to the ‘emotional realism’ of the scenes on the beaches of Normandy. This, they said, is how it felt to be there. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t seem to have achieved quite as much, but since I’ve not watched it all the way through I’ll resist making any other comments. The important point is that Nolan has done his own research on the evacuation at Dunkirk and has written his own script. He has also enlisted a military historian as an adviser. His intention appears to be to offer audiences an ‘immersive experience’ using IMAX and 65mm film (and keeping CGI to a minimum). Audiences are invited to experience the action from different viewpoints: the soldiers on the beach, the pilot in his Spitfire, the naval commander on the bridge and the ‘citizen sailors’ in the small boats. Nolan has also said that he isn’t aiming for Spielberg’s terrible violence but instead for the suspense of survival. Will the men get away? What does it feel like on the exposed beach looking out for your rescuer? Nolan isn’t making a war movie as such and he isn’t interested in the generals back in their operations rooms. Ironically, it seems like his approach is in certain ways not unlike that in the Ealing film 60 years earlier (which was based on two novels). In other ways it is very different.

An archive photo (Hulton Picture Archive) of evacuated soldiers arriving in London by train. Nolan’s images frequently use compositions drawing on such images

The Dunkirk myth

The central question for me concerns the myth of Dunkirk – the initial ‘spinning’ of defeat into a propaganda victory and the persistence of aspects of that initial spin that have remained in British culture for seventy years and have been utilised by the Brexiteers. ‘Myth’ plays an important role in film and media studies as a concept referring to those stories that become embedded in the culture of specific communities. The concept originally referred to the stories of gods and heroes in classical civilisation but modern myths have a similar function in keeping certain values and ideals in circulation but now more often through mass media circulation (and now social media circulation) instead of an oral tradition. Because myths develop through repetition, the original stories/histories may still be retained in terms of core meanings, but much of the contextual meaning is lost. The myth of Dunkirk becomes reduced to a ‘united British people, prepared to fight on alone, having escaped from Europe despite betrayal by allies’ in the cause of Brexit rather than the triumph of co-operation between allies’.

Nolan’s claims for a suspense film rather than a war movie has some justification, though at times I felt that the best generic description might be the ‘disaster movie’, especially during the sequences in which men jumped from sinking ships. There are indeed no generals and politicians, but I was surprised by the film’s resolution which achieved some emotional moments which lead into the myth. The opening half of the film has relatively little dialogue but the closing stages seem quite wordy, especially around the evacuated soldiers’ sense of  wonder that instead of being seen as ‘failures’ their survival makes them ‘heroes’. I’m not suggesting that this suggestion about how the survivors felt isn’t ‘accurate’ or ‘true’ and the 1958 film includes some of the same sentiments, but in the Nolan film’s case it sits alongside the lack of any political or historical context. It is these omissions which help to shore up the myth. The film is a co-production, shot on the main beach at Dunkirk and also including studio and location work in the UK, US and the Netherlands, but apart from a single ship’s captain, the Dutch don’t appear and the French, though present in some scenes, are acknowledged only by Kenneth Branagh’s Naval officer as needing to be evacuated. In reality, out of the 330,000 men evacuated, more than a third were French and other nationalities (Belgians in particular). It was a French force of 40,000 that protected  the outer perimeter of Dunkirk and had to be left behind leading to surrender to German forces.

Tom Hardy plays one of just two RAF pilots shown in the film. (A third is quickly shot down)

One of Nolan’s problems is that, having decided on the ‘authenticity’ of using the modern Dunkerque and its main beaches as his principal location, and eschewed too much CGI, it became very difficult to convey the complete devastation of the town during the ten days of evacuation. As a result (and this also applies to the UK locations) the film seems to exist in a kind of limbo land between ‘realism’ and the fantasy more familiar in Nolan’s other blockbusters. The lack of World War Two aircraft available to filmmakers is another problem, so the aerial warfare is presented as almost a personal battle (which it no doubt was for individual pilots) involving two or three aircraft rather than representing the frequent bombing raids on the beaches by groups of aircraft. The RAF lost around 150 aircraft during Operation Dynamo and a similar number of German aircraft were downed.

The 1958 film faced similar problems but its greater length (134 minutes against Nolan’s 106 minutes, but watch out for severely cut versions) allowed director Leslie Norman to stage scenes in the UK and in Northern France before the retreat to Dunkirk. These sketched in British attitudes to the ‘phoney war’ up to May 1940 and at the end of the film he managed to undercut the myth-making to some extent by emphasising the military defeat as well as the spirit of resistance. Nolan includes several scenes within the chaotic events on the beach which suggest how British soldiers felt (e.g. the soldiers who try to board a hospital ship and are thrown off), but the focus on the individual stories and the ‘immersion’ of the audience in the action scenes through music and cinematography works against a distanced take on the context.

My main fear is that American audiences and younger audiences in the UK will not learn the history of what happened from Nolan’s film and that the myth of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ will be understood in its narrowest sense of ‘Britain alone’ in defiance of Hitler – which will sustain the Brexiteers.  The real context, in which Britain became a base for troops (and crucially for airmen and women) from other European nations and from the British overseas empire, will not be understood. The ‘little ships’ and the civilian sailors were at the centre of the myth-building because their stories appealed directly to the British public. But though they certainly played a vital role, especially in the shallow waters of the beach evacuations, the majority of men were evacuated by British and French naval ships or requisitioned ships sailed by crews commanded by Royal Navy officers. The myth was important for British propaganda in maintaining morale in a crucial period of the war, but its persistence is not helpful in the modern context.

For the record, in the format I watched, I enjoyed some of the cinematography (though I don’t understand the seemingly blue-green emphasis in the colour palette) but the music irritated instead of drawing me in. Nolan’s well-known penchant for playing with narrative time I found confusing and ultimately self-defeating. None of the soldiers on the beach are introduced and though the young actors were very good in their roles, I couldn’t easily tell one from another (and I have seen some of them before). In yesterday’s Guardian, the Northern Editor Helen Pidd says the film was a ‘snooze’ in the tiny cinema where she saw it. Perhaps Nolan’s film is really an IMAX entertainment? I wonder how it will work on TV? Since it looks like breaking a few box office records, it will have to be taken seriously, but I think the 1958 film is better at representing the story of the evacuation.

YouTube and other internet sources offer several interpretations of Nolan’s Dunkirk, several setting out the problems with the film and addressing them from sometimes widely different political positions. I was also interested to see the Indian claims that Indian Army involvement in the evacuation is not mentioned – I haven’t been able to find the evidence for this apart from one archive photo. The BBC documentary is useful in discussing the way the British myth has been seen by a range of French and German historians as well as the British. In my research I’ve also come across the story of a young Royal Canadian Navy officer, Sub-Lieutenant Robert W. Timbrell, who made several trips across to Dunkirk as the master of a requisitioned yacht. He was responsible for saving 900 men and his exploits sound even more fantastical than Nolan’s script. There is a lot more to say about the myth of Dunkirk and at least Christopher Nolan’s film has started a conversation.

Victor/Victoria (US 1982)

Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening this M-G-M film in 35mm on Saturday August 5th. This is a delightful musical comedy starring Julie Andrews as Victoria (the key club performer in the film), James Garner as King Marchand (a Chicago Club Owner visiting Paris) and Robert Preston as Toddy, (a Paris night club performer). What makes the film especially effective is the way that it plays with cross-dressing, a classic source of comedy on film.

The film was scripted and directed by Blake Edwards with music by Henry Mancini. The production is presented with excellent style and captures a certain image of Parisian night life. The cast, both leading players and supporting actors, are excellent and convincing in the role-playing within role play. The musical numbers are performances in Parisian night clubs including the raunchy Chez Lui.

In fact the film is adapted from a successful 1933 German musical comedy, Viktor und Viktoria, produced by UFA. It was written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel, who later left for Hollywood. Another to-be émigré in a supporting role is Anton Walbrook.  This original version is

a musical comedy greatly influenced by the American model, with its choreographed sequences and parades, clusters of pretty girls that open up like bunches of flowers, . . . (Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue 2004).

But it also retains some of the ironic treatment of gender representations that was rife in the earlier Weimar cinema, though more discreetly. The 1982 American version has little of the 1930s musical treatment, its offerings more like that of then contemporary musicals such as Cabaret (1972).

There was a English-language remake in 1935, long before this form became a staple of Hollywood output. The film was directed by Victor Saville for Michael Balcon and starred Jessie Matthews. Set in the British Music Hall the film is less risqué than either the German original or the later Hollywood adaptation. It was screened earlier in the year at the National Media Museum, but from video. A shame as the BFI do have a 35mm print. The publicity was also feint, hence I missed it. There was an interesting accompanying exhibition using photographs from the Daily Herald archive, but that was also little publicised.

Hopefully people will pick up on the screening of this latest version and turn up for what will be a very entertaining two hours plus. (134 minutes in colour and ‘Scope ratio).