It was a real treat to revisit Dead End as it was a reminder that Hollywood, via independent producer Sam Goldwyn here, didn’t always ignore working class poverty. Adapted by Lilian Hellman from Sidney Kingsley’s hit play, Dead End focuses on a day in the life of a poor neighbourhood in New York. It melodramatically mixes poor and rich; road works necessitate the latter using the service entrance for their ‘high end’ apartments. While the focus is on the ‘dead end kids’, teens who are already delinquent (played by members of the original Broadway cast), the generation before them is where the real interest lies. Joel McCrea and Sylvia Sydney are the leads playing decent folk being worn down by the lack of opportunity; the Depression was still causing economic ruin. Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor play the gangster returning to his roots to see his old girlfriend.
Goldwyn often employed William Wyler to direct and Dead End is also graced with Gregg Toland’s cinematography. There are scenes of chiaroscuro lighting that suggest film noir – years before the genre started – and a few years later he was photographing Citizen Kane. The film has quality everything: script, stars, direction, cinematography and great set design by Richard Day. Kudos to Sam Goldwyn for pulling it all together.
Although we unsurprisingly get a hopeful ending it’s not exactly happy and the rich are shown for the heartless leaches that they are. If McCrea and Sidney are a little too nice there’s no missing the menace of Bogart’s wanted man who’s found a life on the run is not good enough despite his wealth. The brief scene where he and his old flame are reunited is electric; Trevor easily matching Bogart’s understated brilliance. She’s had to become a prostitute and has one of those coughs that signify the character is dying. The joy they feel at seeing one another again after many years shows what might have been but their poverty ‘insisted’ instead that they lead lives of degradation. The scene is cinematic brilliance.
Apparently there’s some deep focus cinematography in the film, which Wyler was to become well-known for, but that didn’t strike me. The shootout between McCrea and Bogart, the chiaroscuro I noted earlier, is brilliantly done. They don’t make ‘em like this any more. Film noir was about to enter Hollywood and became the darkness on the edge of its town.
The screening was preceded by brief talking heads, the director John Trengrove and lead actor Nakhane Touré, giving some insight into the film. Interesting though this is, I don’t want ‘insight’ into a film just before I’m watching it; I prefer sometimes to see films with no preconceptions. I’m not sure what the point of this preface is, A Fantastic Woman had one also, because it’s not selling the film as the audience are already in place.
Whilst I’m on a moan: I understand cinemas need to show adverts and trailers for economic reasons but it’s always a relief to see the BBFC certificate as that means the marketing messages are over. Except before this film after the certificate another promo – for Selfridges – appeared. Unlikely as it may be, if any marketing person for this shop is reading: the effect of this on me is to make me think ‘fuck off’ to the company that is further delaying my pleasure of the film!
I knew nothing of The Wound before sitting down in the cinema other than it was a South African film. The number of producers in the credits indicated a heavy European involvement which is presumably why the film has managed to get distribution in the UK. It’s a good film so deserves to be seen but I’m sure there are many good films from Africa that we never get a chance to watch. The fact that The Wound won best first feature at the London Film Festival also would have helped.
Although it is an international co-production this seemed an entirely African film; it focuses on the initiation rites of the Xhosa people where boys become men after being circumcised and spending a week on a mountain tended by a carer. The portrayal seemed authentic to me and there’s an ethnographic (to an ignorant westerner) fascination at seeing a portrayal of this rite. But there’s more to the film because the protagonist, superbly played, is a closeted homosexual and so he fails to be a ‘man’ in the traditional sense. Another outsider is the ‘city boy’, a place that is defined as effeminate by the rural tradition that the ceremony derives from. At the same time, it’s clear the ‘country boys’ envy urban wealth.
There’s plenty of melodramatic conflict in the narrative and it is shot in the beautiful ‘cradle of life’ World Heritage Site in Eastern Cape. Trengrove tends to keep his camera close to the men and boys which makes for some vertiginous wobbling when they are running but there are some artful compositions to enjoy too.
Trengrove’s introduction tells us the film was controversial because of its depiction of gay Africans; homophobia is, it seems, a traditional value too. Touré stated he had to withdraw from a film because of death threats. Hence The Wound is a brave film as it confronts a taboo subject and it does it with style.
This film was screened in Bradford as part of the UK’s ‘China Film Week’. Bradford was the first UNESCO ‘City of Film’ and is now linked to the similar UNESCO City of Film in Qingdao. The screening was introduced by David Wilson, Director Bradford City of Film and then by the film’s writer Li Chunli. I wasn’t sure what to expect but after watching it, I think When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair was in some ways the right choice, but in other ways an unfortunate choice.
Ms Li told us that this was a ‘family film’. It was advertised as a comedy and it came across as a family melodrama with a strong comedy element. I’m not sure why a film from 2014 should be chosen, but the film’s theme is certainly contemporary and, perhaps surprisingly, it is shared with Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart (China-Japan-France 2015) and has a long history going back to Clara Law’s Farewell China (HK 1990) and earlier. I’m referring to the aspiration of many middle-class Chinese families to emigrate to the ‘West’ for various reasons – and in particular to think about taking their children (or more likely ‘child’) with them to receive a ‘good’ education. This desire has been caught by Qin (Xu Fan), who after fifteen years of marriage to Su (Chen Jianbin), decides that she must prepare to get a job abroad and that her small daughter Pipi (Chen Yinuo) would benefit from the presence of an au pair who speaks English – help with Pipi is also needed because both parents work long hours. Interviewing candidates from around the world she selects Natalie (Gianina Arana), a bubbly young woman from Colombia who speaks good English and passable Mandarin. The problems begin soon after Natalie arrives.
Pipi is being brought up like a little ‘princess’ who is only allowed out in taxis, never public transport. She has organic fruit and her soup is filtered to remove fish bones – and so on. Natalie is a free spirit who likes to play with children and to ‘set them free’. Qin is a make-up artist for film and TV. Her husband (who often sides with Natalie) earns less than his wife as a producer of traditional Peking Opera. Together their salaries can barely pay for the extravagant style of Pipi’s upbringing. It gets worse when Qin signs on with an agency that promises to find her a job abroad (for a substantial fee). At one point Qi meets an old friend who is briefly home after migrating and who tells Qin of the stress she suffers.
The comedy comes from the clash between Qin and Natalie and their ideas about how to raise children – and the mayhem that Pipi is capable of creating as a result. Dad remains in the background but the marriage is clearly suffering and this provides the drama alongside some of the dangerous consequences of the au pair situation. As Natalie points out, if Pipi is always wrapped in cotton wool, she won’t be able to survive in the real world outside. Shu does however chide Natalie at times, pointing out that there are reasons why Chinese families do things that she doesn’t understand. Natalie is a ‘typed’ foreign character and mainstream Chinese films suffer from this kind of typing in the same way as Hollywood and European films. It’s useful, I think, that UK audiences are able to reflect on this. As well as the migration issue, the film picks up on other topical issues like the traffic jams in Beijing, but overall this is the tourist view of affluent China which says little about the rest of the country. It also demonstrates how Chinese comedy films exaggerate awkward situations to develop broad comedy potential with forms of slapstick. I didn’t notice any reference to Natalie’s racial difference but she is typed as being materialistic and individualistic in her approach to life – wanting to be the richest and most successful. Qin acts as if she wants to be the same but recognises that this might be unacceptable. There is an interesting set of questions about ideology here.
But while the content of the film may be a useful insight into aspects of the lives of the Beijing middle classes, the presentation of the film might be more of a shock for UK audiences. I’m familiar with DVDs of Chinese and Hong Kong films and the practice of subtitling in English and Simplified Chinese and I’m used to subtitling generally. But in this case, the very rapid cutting between characters speaking quickly was at first difficult to follow. Overall, the editing in the film seemed to struggle to hold the narrative together. This is odd because as far as I can see the film’s editor, Zhou Xinxia, is the only really experienced head of department in a crew working with an inexperienced director and writer. Perhaps it is the use of music which underlines all of this. Every scene is scored to underline the changes of mood from comedy to romance to drama. The non-diegetic music is relentless and the abrupt changes of musical style are jarring. I’m afraid that the film doesn’t represent the high quality of much of the mainstream (and arthouse) cinema produced in China today. Perhaps the industry has just grown too quickly? We were told that the film featured many well-known Chinese star actors. As far as I can see, most of them are in minor roles. The exception is the lead pair Xu Fan and Chen Jianbin as the parents in the family. Xu Fan has a thankless role as the mother but I found the father to be the most interesting character. Chen Jianbin once featured in Jia Zhang-khe’s 24 City (China-Japan-France 2008). When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair has shown twice now in the UK and I found another screening advertised in Belgium. I’m assuming that the Chinese cultural agencies have sanctioned these screenings for the China Film Office whereas an independent Chinese film would not have been deemed suitable. (Ironically the music recording in the film was listed as being carried out in Singapore and Taiwan.) We might at least have been offered a Feng Xiaogang film (in which Xu Fan has played leading roles in the past) or something from another mainstream director of standing. Still, I’m glad I attended the free screening and I hope for good things from the Bradford-Qingdao partnership.
Here’s the Chinese trailer (no English subs):
A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Foreign Language film earlier this month. The award is usually reserved for either a complex art film from an acknowledged auteur or a more conventional film that deals with a subject with which Academy voters can readily identify. A Fantastic Woman leans towards the latter in terms of its narrative. The voting seems to reflect a change in the constituency of Academy voters, so that a film focusing on a transgender woman receives support in the same way that a film about a gay African-American boy growing to be a man won Best Picture in 2017. Having said that, the director of A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio, had already won recognition for his earlier film Gloria in 2013 which was nominated and won prizes at many international film festivals. He also invests his new film with melodrama symbolism that wouldn’t appear in a mainstream film. I make these observations because when a film makes a splash in the global market place like A Fantastic Woman it becomes subject to a different range of critics and reviewers as well as general audiences and I’ve noted a few odd reactions in this case.
I saw A Fantastic Woman in a preview screening a couple of weeks before its UK release. I deliberately avoided reading about the film before the screening. All I knew was that the woman of the title was transgender. I was then surprised that the film screening was preceded by the director introducing his film direct to camera. The screening was in Picturehouses’ ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot so I wondered if this was a satellite transmission to Picturehouses cinemas around the country (the sound levels were very high). If so, I was bemused to discover that A Fantastic Woman was distributed in the UK by Picturehouses’ rival Curzon Artificial Eye. Anyway, I tried to ignore the director’s statement because I wanted to experience the film ‘cold’. My cool response soon warmed up. As the star of the film, Daniela Vega is indeed ‘fantastic’.
I enjoyed the film very much. I haven’t seen many of the growing number of recent films that feature transgender characters and I’m not particularly aware of transgender issues, so my response to the film is mainly based on my reaction to the prejudice displayed towards Marina and the character’s strength and determination to live her life. I’ve seen some criticism that the prejudice seems to be simply ‘too much’. Would people really act like that? But perhaps this view doesn’t take into account the situation in Chile?
The narrative structure of the film is straightforward. We watch a couple – a younger woman and an older man – out for a celebration of the woman’s birthday. They return home and make love but early in the morning the man becomes unwell and then dies in hospital. When the woman brings her lover to the hospital she is treated with suspicion – the hospital won’t accept her name, ‘Marina’, because it must be her nickname, not her ‘real’ name. What follows are a series of humiliations for a woman who has just experienced the death of her lover. From here on in, the narrative follows the logic of a neorealist film. Marina is barred by her lover’s family from attending his funeral and his cremation. She must try to assert her right to be there and to physically make her presence felt. That’s the story, with a coda when we discover how she acts once the cremation has taken place.
The level of distrust of Marina (is she a gold-digger?) added to the prejudice of ignorance about her sexual identity might seem excessive but Chile appears to be a country with a great contradiction at the centre of its modern society. The legacy of the Pinochet years of fascist repression lingers in a country which also seems visibly caught between the sparkling new modern architecture of parts of Santiago (where the film is set) and other parts of the same city which represent earlier times. Marina is a ‘new woman’ faced with her lover’s family who reveal the prejudices of a traditional society with young men who display machismo and Orlando’s ex-wife who displays her class hatred for Marina (which is arguably misplaced anyway). Not everyone in Orlando’s family is so aggressively anti but the vitriol and violence of the younger males is the most disturbing element. Outside the family, it is the response of hospital and police staff (‘following orders’) that most invokes the Pinochet years. I won’t spoil the narrative further, but there are conscious humiliations designed to unsettle and throw into doubt personal identity.
Sebastián Lelio presents Marina’s story as a melodrama, which is fine by me, but risks alienating some modern audiences. He himself declares that
” . . . It’s a romance film, a ghost film, a fantasy film, a film about humiliation and revenge, a document of reality, a character study (from the Sony Classics Press Notes).
It is all of these, but its presentation is via melodrama. The film uses music carefully and its score is by the British electronic music composer Matthew Herbert (see this webpage to listen to the main title). Marina herself is a singer, training to sing operatic arias such as Handel’s ‘Ombra mai fu’ from his 1738 opera Xerxes. It was written for a castrato but I’m not sure how to classify Daniela Vega’s voice in the film’s version of her performance – it is presumably some form of soprano voice? There are several fantasy sequences but the most obvious melodrama symbolism is in the repeated ‘mirror shots’, some of which are very inventive. The mirror image, especially when Marina looks into the mirror and sees her ‘split’ identity.
Daniela Vega, who ‘transitioned’ when she was an older teenager, was originally approached as a transgender ‘consultant’ for the film’s production before taking up the role of the central character. I’m so glad she got the chance to perform in this role which I suspect will go down as a highly significant role in global cinema. Go and see the film – you won’t be disappointed. And if you don’t have a tear in your eye when the scene below plays out, I’ll be very surprised:
If you need any more persuading, here’s the official trailer:
Ciambra is a small settlement in Calabria in Southern Italy (close to Gioia Tauro) with a large extended Roma family involved in various ‘marginal’ and ‘illegal’ activities. The youngest son in the family is 14 year-old Pio (Pio Amato). Not much older than his own nephews and nieces, Pio is conscious of needing to grow up quickly to be like his much older brother and to get away from the scrutiny of his mother, the matriarch of the family. This sounds like it will be a conventional coming-of-age story, but there is more to it than that. This isn’t a Mafia/Cammora/’Ndràngheta story. Ciambria is an isolated community – more like an isolated encampment than part of a city. Pio goes into the town or to other small communities but avoids mainstream criminals. The Roma boy is concerned about territories and identities. (The real Gioia Tauro is only a small town but it has been associated with ‘Ndràngheta and it has the largest container port in Italy.)
Writer-director Jonas Carpignano (born & schooled in New York, lives in Italy) made a big impression with his first feature Mediterranea (Italy 2015) about the problems of two African migrants coming to Italy. His reward was to be selected as one of the first to benefit from Martin Scorsese’s fund for younger filmmakers and a subsequent offer of support from Sundance. His starting point was to go for the ‘authenticity’ of non-professionals and the whole Roma family appear to be playing themselves if the credits are to be taken at face value. Fairly early on it becomes clear that Pio is not quite like the older members of the family – though he may be a throwback to his grandfather, the man who established the community in the area and who is still around at the start of the narrative. After the screening and after researching Mediterranea (which only got a DVD release in the UK and which I haven’t seen), I realised that Pio and his African friend Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) feature in both films, though whether as the same characters I’m not sure.
A Ciambra was screened in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes and was chosen as the Italian entrant for the Foreign Language Film Oscar so it has clearly made an impact. A good starting point might be to consider the extent to which the film refers back to neorealist studies of specific communities. Carpignano himself refers in this interview to his childhood memories of De Sica and Rossellini and the kids in their films. Jonathan Romney has referred to Visconti’s La terra trema (1948) because of that film’s similar focus on a tightly-knit community in Sicily. Many critics have tried to place the film in relation to that Italian tradition and more recent approaches. The Dardenne brothers post Rosetta (1999) is one touchstone but I’ve tended to see them as slightly removed from classic neorealism. Carpignano uses his non-professionals filmed on authentic locations and he inserts some traditional neorealist ‘lacks’ (problems) that need to be sorted. This mainly means finding sources of money from increasingly ambitious petty crimes to solve various problems faced by the extended family. Unfortunately, Pio’s education is in stealing credit cards and copper wire and trying to grow up to be like his brother. He has to get another young person to read the messages on his phone because he hasn’t had time to learn to read. There isn’t a great deal of plot but Pio’s ‘coming of age’ comes in a final sequence which I found very distressing. But as my viewing partner pointed out what we were offered is a reality in Italy.
Jonas Carpignano has an Italian father and an African-American mother. This may be a reason why he began his feature film career with a story about African migrants and why in his second film he shows both the mixed race children in the Roma family and the African community in another small community that Pio is drawn towards by his friend Ayiva. The Africans are mainly from Nigeria and Ghana and they speak English as a common language, that is also used by Ayiva from Burkina Faso. The reality is that in the pecking order in Calabria, the Roma come below the Italians and the Africans are below the Roma. Neorealism can be developed as melodrama and this true to a certain extent in A Ciambra which has plenty of music on the soundtrack and a range of emotional relationships. But it also has its own element of ‘magic realism’ in the hallucinations that Pio experiences concerning his grandfather. I thought at first these came from heavy dope smoking – when Pio first sees the horse I thought of a similar moment in La haine (France 1995) when Vinz sees a cow in his housing estate. But then it occurred to me that the fantasies came because of the pressure suffered by Pio. There is a sense that Pio is his grandfather re-born and that he could rise above his misdeeds. I hope so. It’s very difficult not to warm to Pio as a character. He’s 14 years-old and frightened of travelling on a train – he’s not a gangster.
A Ciambria is photographed by Tim Curtin who also lensed Mediterranea and was in the camera unit on Beasts of the Southern Wild (US 2012), another film I haven’t seen. I mention it here because Jonas Carpignano was an assistant director on that film which also included in its crew the film editor and music composer of A Ciambra, Affonso Gonçalves and Dan Romer. I’m pleased to report that Peccadillo Pictures has picked up A Ciambra for a UK release in May. It’s well worth a watch. IFC/Sundance Selects released the film in the US in January:
Custody is quite a difficult film to write about without giving away too much. It’s scheduled for release by Picturehouses in the UK in the near future, so no spoilers! The screening at Glasgow Film Theatre was attended by the director Xavier Legrand and lead actor Denis Ménochet. The nearly full house was very enthusiastic during the Q&A and had clearly ‘enjoyed’ the film despite or because of its intensity, shocks and strong emotions.
I think I was thrown by the opening sequence which comprises a ‘mediation meeting’ between a husband and wife struggling through the dissolution of their marriage and custody of their children, both speaking through their legal representatives who deliver their cases in rapid (French) legalese. They are seated in close proximity around a table. The judge barely speaks and goes away promising a verdict some time later. The couple’s daughter is about to become 18, but her younger brother is only 12 and what happens to him is seemingly the focus of the drama. Watching the sequence, I thought of the opening to Asgar Farhadi’s film, A Separation (Iran 2011) and wondered if Custody was going to turn into that kind of family melodrama with dramatic intensity and legal/social/moral questions. I was wrong and I clearly misread or didn’t notice the clues to a different kind of drama. I can tell you that the director was inspired by three films (all American). One was Kramer v. Kramer. The other two were more suprising, but to name them would give the game away.
I can’t tell you what kind of narrative develops without saying too much about the plot and I think the power of the film depends on not knowing what will happen – in fact, creating uncertainty about the characters was a deliberate ploy by the director. The performances of Denis Ménochet as the father Antoine, Léa Drucker as the mother Miriam and, especially, Thomas Gioria as their son Julien are all excellent. Perhaps I can simply say that the audience is offered the same evidence/testimony in the opening as the judge. What do we think? And what will we find out over the next 90 minutes?
One of the perceptive comments in the Q&A was that the film has more female than male characters in important roles, so during the mediation, the judge and both advocates are female. The director pointed out that this was to be expected in urban areas because as mothers the three legal professionals were less likely to take jobs outside the strong childcare network in the city. But it’s also the case that Miriam has a sister and her daughter has friends but Thomas is more on his own. You might take from these observations that this is a film aware of gender issues and that it is in tune with its times. If the Glasgow audience is anything to go by, the film should receive press coverage and strong word of mouth. I think I would have liked to see the story take a different turn, but that doesn’t mean that I think the narrative presented here is not of supreme importance. Rather I have a preference for melodrama and for the sociology of the situation. I was amused that some of the action takes place on the ‘Rue Winston Churchill’ in what the subtitles called ‘the projects’, but these were more middle class than les cités familiar from banlieue films in France. I would have liked to ask questions about the setting (suburban Paris or a city in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, listed as giving support) and the social class positions of the characters during the Q&A, but this clearly wasn’t what the majority of the audience was interested in. I think this might be classed as a social realist melodrama, though there is little music in the film. This is odd since Josephine, the daughter, is a music student who sings two versions of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Proud Mary’, which could be a commentary of some sort on the action. I hope the film finds its audience on release.
Sometimes you find that your selection criteria for festival screenings goes awry. Mobile Homes started late because though we were told the lead actors had arrived they didn’t actually appear in the cinema until 15 mins past the advertised screening start time. I’d chosen the film thinking it was a Canadian film with a French co-production partner. I was bemused that it should have two British leads, Imogen Poots and Callum Turner, but I assumed that the director was French-Canadian. Wrong.
Vladimir de Fontenay won a prize with his short film Mobile Homes in 2013. He is a French director who has lived and worked in the US and studied at New York University Film School which gave him considerable support to help make this extended/’opened out’ version of his short as his first feature. He originated the story based on his experience of areas in upstate New York. Why did he end up shooting over the border with a Canadian crew? The obvious answer is that a France-Canada co-production would be official and would be eligible for both Canadian and French support from public agencies, but there is no indication of this. Does any of this matter, you may well ask. I think so.
The film’s title is both metaphorical and actual. Ali (Imogen Poots) and her son Bone (Frank Oulton) have teamed up with Evan (Callum Turner), a hustler dealing drugs and roosters for illegal fights. The trio move from one motel to the next or squat somewhere overnight. They have no ‘home’, either in terms of a permanent residence or as ‘a place to call their own’. When they become separated, Ali and Bone find themselves in a wooden house which is being transported on a low loader by Robert (Callum Keith Rennie) who runs a small ‘park’ of these wooden buildings. This is confusing for Brits as we tend to think of a ‘mobile home’ as a trailer, a caravan or a van with sleeping accommodation. These are bigger buildings without wheels of their own. They are assembled in a factory and then moved to a ‘park’. Evan, having lost Ali and Bone will come looking for them in the last section of the narrative.
The film is fast-paced in the opening section with the camera whipping about as the trio try to make money from various deals. The cinematography is by Benoit Soler who also shot Ilo, Ilo (Singapore 2013), a very different kind of film that I liked a lot. When the ‘split’ takes place, the pace slows a little but I was dreading the return of Evan. Imogen Poots does very well with her role and Frank Boulton as Bone is excellent. This part might have been a social realist drama. I’ve seen Poots in several roles and she’s always been impressive. There is music in the film, but the most important song (the only one I recognised) was Etta James’ version of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ – an odd choice, especially as it’s a live version. You may have noticed that I’m being rather down on the Evan character who is described in some promotional material as ‘intoxicating’. I don’t think so. The actor Callum Turner has a list of credits in TV and mainly mainstream films, none of which I’ve seen, but he clearly has a fan following and star potential. He and Imogen Poots offered a rather ‘starry’ Q&A which went down very well with the festival audience. The fourth major character Robert is a potential balance for Evan and as played by the Alberta-raised actor Callum Keith Rennie he adds further weight to the central section of the narrative.
I suspect it is my (old) age (and interest in Canadian cinema) that made me less than sympathetic about the film overall. The lack of Canadian identity in the film (no recognisable Eastern Canada accents or distinctive locations) made it feel like it could be happening anywhere. The whole narrative didn’t seem to hold together – the third section includes a dramatic action sequence which in some ways matches the earlier scenes. What starts off as an odd crime melodrama transforms into a social drama/melodrama and then a road movie of sorts. You’ll be able to make up your own minds later this year in the UK with a release via Thunderbird (a Canadian company I think).
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.)
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.
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: