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:
The latest film by Jia Zhang-ke to reach the UK has taken two years since its appearance at Cannes in May 2015. I’m not sure why it has taken so long but it certainly seems to have confused a few critics. Jia has made several different kinds of films over his career and this one looks back to his earliest films, but also forwards to the future. I found it fascinating, not least in its use of popular music – the film begins and ends with the Pet Shop Boys version of ‘Go West’ which Jia has said was a favourite at the height of the disco boom in China in the late 1990s. In some ways, the film is quite straightforward as a story narrated over three distinct periods. But it’s easy to miss some of the important underlying ideas. I recommend reading the Press Notes which can be downloaded from the Cannes website.
Outline (trying not to give too much away)
The story begins in 1999 with a triangular relationship in Fenyang, Shanxi province in Northern China, with Tao (Zhao Tao) attempting to decide between two suitors. She will marry one and the other will leave the city. Several years later Tao has a son.
In 2014 Tao has separated from her husband and doesn’t see her son who lives far away. Tao helps her old friend and former suitor when he returns to Fenyang. A family event brings her small son back to the city for a visit.
In 2025, Tao’s son is living in Melbourne and as a 19 year-old is adrift and not sure what he wants out of life. Does he want to find his mother? What has happened to her?
The outline doesn’t sound very much but I’ve purposively kept it simple. Here’s the director’s explanation of what the film is ‘about’:
From the very start I conceived Mountains May Depart as a film about ‘love and relationships’. In China, we generally put those two words together in the word qingyi: the component qing means emotional affection, and the component yi means bonds of loyalty and obligation. In Shanxi, though, we’ve tended to distinguish between qing and yi; for us, yi has more to do with commitment and responsibility. Even when people grow apart over time, yi of some kind can still exist.
Reflecting on the film (which I saw before reading the Press Notes) this statement makes a lot of sense. What Jia appears to be doing is going back to Fenyang to rediscover qing and yi and then ‘testing’ the characters and their relationships to see whether economic growth and the lure of individualistic capitalism can break those bonds of yi. It isn’t just money, but also the prospect of migration that causes change. It seems significant that Jia originally thought of setting the third section of the film in the great migrant communities of Vancouver, Toronto or New York, but in the end opted for Australia. He explains that it isn’t so much the distance to Australia, but more the different seasons in the Southern hemisphere that make it seem more ‘on the edge of the world’. He does, however, include an important character in the last section who originated in Hong Kong, but has lived in Toronto before arriving in Melbourne. Australia and New Zealand are certainly important destinations for Chinese migration today.
The three sections of the film are presented in different aspect ratios. I’m not sure if it’s quite as strictly defined as that (I noticed that the ratio had changed, but not necessarily when it changed.) 1999 is presented in Academy, 2014 in 1:1.85 and 2025 in 1:2.39. The reason for this appears to be completely pragmatic (though it also ‘marks’ a change in technologies over time). Jia grew up in Fenyang and made his first three films there with cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai. These films (Xiao Wu, Platform and Unknown Pleasures) are very much concerned with the ‘feel’ of the city and its youth and Jia and Yu shot quite a lot of footage using early digital equipment with a 4:3 image format. Some of this is used in the 1999 sequences and again in the 2014 section (when the documentary material was shot on an Alexa in 1:1.85). It then seemed logical to present the third section in ‘Scope. The use of documentary footage certainly enhances the sense of place – but it also disrupts or ‘makes strange’ the narrative with the insertion of odd events – a plane crash, an old truck nearly losing its load.
I’ve seen several several reviewers refer to Mountains May Depart as a melodrama. I’m not sure that is the most helpful categorisation here. It’s true there is music and there is a symbolic use of colours (the film tending to move from reds to blues and greens) and objects such as sets of keys – and there is a family drama. But Jia tends towards films that refuse conventional descriptions. This is perhaps closer to an ‘essay film’ about the Chinese future. It is the last sequence that has exercised Western critics most. The section is mostly in English and has a focus on language and identity (and in which the Taiwanese and Hong Kong star, actor-director Sylvia Chang plays a significant role). There is only a minimal concern with ‘futuristic’ objects, including some very attractive translucent tablets (complementing the moment in the 2014 sequence when iPhones are ceremoniously given as wedding presents). The concept of a Chinese community struggling with identity in Australia seems quite plausible to me. I’ll be thinking about this film for a long time and it may well send me back to looking again at Jia’s earlier films. I’m beginning to think that it is the links between films that need to be foregrounded and I was struck by how this film links to Wrath of Silence (China 2017) in selecting the private ownership of coal mines as an indicator of potential problems for Chinese society. On the other hand, several critics have suggested that Jia deliberately courted the Chinese government by including various lines of dialogue in this film after they banned the release of his previous feature A Touch of Sin (China-Japan 2013). Zhao Tao is extraordinary in this film, offering a performance that spans 26 years and convincing the audience each time. I’m always impressed by the work of Yu Lik-Wai, who has also worked on three films by the Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui.
Here’s the US trailer (note that the trailer doesn’t use the three different aspect ratios):
(It has been pointed out to me that the Australian scenes in the last section were shot in Western Australia as well as Victoria. I took the location to be Melbourne because of what I thought was a reference in a subtitle for a line of dialogue. It doesn’t really matter as long as it signifies Australia since the last section is an imagined future.)
I’m not sure Gloria Grahame ever got top billing in a film (except in the long-forgotten Prisoners of the Casbah (1953)), but she was undoubtedly a real Hollywood star for roughly a decade from 1947-59. I remember the book, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool being published in the late 1980s. Peter Turner told the true story of how as a young actor he met Grahame in London, became her lover and friend and then two years later took the dying actor home to his family in Liverpool. I haven’t read the book, but according to readers and what Turner himself says, the new film keeps the main elements of the story and its nonlinear structure – moving backwards and forwards in time and place, sometimes seamlessly so that a dreamlike tone is achieved. The real events took place between 1979 and 1981 and it is has taken some thirty years to put the story on screen since David Puttnam took the first option on the rights. Apart from cinephiles and Golden Age film fans, most contemporary cinemagoers won’t necessarily know much about her films and Turner himself admits that he saw her films on DVD after her death. There were seven people in the audience for the screening we attended on a wet Sunday night. That’s a shame because it is a good film about an iconic figure.
Ms Grahame became trapped within a persona which was read by audiences as a sexy young woman who circumstances placed in unfortunate situations. There was an intelligence associated with the character, a skill with dialogue delivered in an unmistakeable voice and there was both a cheeky stance and an edge to her performances in several classic films noirs. In her best performance, in In a Lonely Place (1950), she matched Humphrey Bogart stride for stride. This was the role in which the reality of life in Hollywood seeped into the film’s narrative in several ways. Bogart’s company produced the film and Grahame was cast because Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall couldn’t be released from her studio contract. Grahame was then directed by Nick Ray, the husband she was in the process of divorcing. Ironically in today’s febrile climate, that film was about male abuse of women and Gloria Grahame certainly knew about what that could mean in Hollywood. Contracted to RKO, she feared Howard Hughes as the studio boss and felt that because of him she lost the opportunity to appear in Born Yesterday, the film that made Judy Holliday a star. It was another two years before she made her Oscar-winning performance in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (as Best Supporting Actor). She appeared in several major films including the terrific Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959 with Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan (the villain from Crossfire in 1947 in which her film noir persona was first developed). After that, the good roles dried up for an attractive woman and an accomplished actor who was only 36. But Gloria was a trained actor and she could move into TV and back to the stage. She had made two films in the UK in the 1950s and it was during a small-scale theatrical run that she met the jobbing actor Peter Turner in London in 1979.
The story goes that Annette Bening was asked by Stephen Frears, director of The Grifters (1990), to look at Gloria Grahame’s performances in her films noirs in preparation for her own role in a neo-noir. Now Bening is the same age as Grahame was in 1979-81 and she can play her for real. And she is very good indeed, not in the sense of mimicry, but in representing Gloria Grahame as she may well have been in later life. Jamie Bell is also excellent as Peter Turner. It’s a difficult role to play in order to make the romance and friendship work. It isn’t just a difference in age that marks the relationship but also the differences in social class and celebrity. Bell negotiates all of this believably. Some of the other casting decisions seemed a little more questionable to me. Peter Turner came from a large Liverpool family which in the film is represented mainly by brother Joe (Stephen Graham) and mum (Julie Walters) and dad (Kenneth Cranham). All three are well-known faces in the UK (less so in the US, perhaps). Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is not a realist film but I found the trio distracting. Graham, a genuine Scouser, sports what appears to be a comedy wig, recalling jokes about bubble perms for Liverpool footballers in 1981. Walters too appears to have a rather prominent wig. Both Graham and Walters are great performers but didn’t work for me here. By contrast, in a California sequence, we see Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s mother (a teacher of actors) and Frances Barber as her sister Joy (once married to Robert Mitchum’s younger brother, John). This made sense.
I’m a big Gloria Grahame fan and I liked the film very much and yes, the tears came at the end. But what intrigued me about it most of all was the look and tone of the film. At its most extreme this was apparent in the California sequence in which Gloria takes Peter to her home by the beach in a spacious trailer. The whole of this sequence, including a drive down an ocean road that might have come from In a Lonely Place, was shot on a Pinewood stage where director Paul McGuigan was able to use the largest film screen ever built for a back projection exercise. The images were created by multiple digital projectors and the results can be seen in the clip below:
The intention was to evoke the style of the films noirs in which Gloria made her name. It certainly worked for me and I found the same sense of slight surrealism in many of the location shot sequences back in the UK. Liverpool in 1981 was characterised by ‘uprisings’ in Toxteth and a certain amount of desolation as industry collapsed and housing was not ‘regenerated’. Many parts of the city have changed considerably over the last twenty years. I kept thinking about the autobiographical films of Terence Davies such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). These invoked the Liverpool streets of the 1950s. Paul McGuigan’s film is probably quite different and I’d see this if I put them side by side, but the tone took me back to these representations of an earlier period. The ‘head-on’ image of Peter and his Dad in the local pub, with all the Labour posters on the wall works very well.
Director Paul McGuigan has had a career of ups and downs in cinema features with some high profile TV work to keep him busy. I hope this film at least pushes him back towards the limelight. It’s also a useful credit for Matt Greenhalgh who stuttered with The Look of Love after a strong beginning with Control and Nowhere Boy. He’s got back some of his Lancashire credentials for me. I was also impressed by the cinematography of Urszula Pontikos and the production design of Eve Stewart (assuming she wasn’t directly responsible for those wigs!).
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate and I’m not sure of what to make of their decisions about its release. The film opened on 150 sites with a screen average of £1,500 and No. 6 in the Top 10. However, after the second weekend and a drop of 54%, the longevity of the film in cinemas is in doubt. It hasn’t done badly and Lionsgate might be correct in thinking their strategy has maximised its potential. Still, it’s an odd approach in the current climate – neither a ‘wide’ mainstream release or a limited specialised release. The film has had plenty of coverage on Radio 4 and in the broadsheets and I think it is aiming for an older audience. It might do well on DVD. It’s the kind of film that perhaps doesn’t fit the current Picturehouse/Curzon audience (though they have probably sold the most tickets for it). Distribution in the UK is in such a state of flux that I guess ‘nobody really knows what to do with a film like this. My recommendation is to go and see it if it appears near you. The BFI have also re-released In a Lonely Place and The Big Heat, but only on a handful of screens. These are the two best films that Gloria Grahame appeared in (and two of her best performances). See them first, if you can, then this film. Ms Grahame was a great Hollywood star who deserves to be remembered. There is a Sight and Sound essay by Serena Bramble in the December 2017 issue and a video essay here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/video/in-her-eyes-notes-gloria-grahame
Here are trailers for The Big Heat (1953) and In a Lonely Place (1950):
The BFI’s Gloria Grahame season continues on the South Bank until 30 December.
Sheikh Jackson is a mainstream popular Egyptian film that entertains and has something to say. For its LFF screening on a Saturday lunchtime, the Mayfair in Curzon was the perfect choice because of the area’s long-term status as important for London’s Arab population. I arrived just in time as the director and his crew were introduced. There were plenty of empty seats but they all got filled in the next few minutes. The audience obviously enjoyed the film and the Q&A revealed that there were indeed many Egyptian groups present.
As the film’s title implies, the narrative involves a fascination with Michael Jackson as experienced by someone who has the honorific title ‘sheikh’ which in this case has a religious connotation as a title for a young man leading prayers in his mosque and training to become an imam. The narrative begins with the family life of a devout young father discovering his daughter’s fascination with music videos on YouTube and then crashing his car when he hears about Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. This appears to trigger a crisis of identity and the narrative reveals itself as a fascinating mix of interior psychological fantasy and more conventional family melodrama. The first strand is developed through a series of hallucinations and disturbances, some of which directly reference Michael Jackson and lead the young man (played by Ahmad El-Fishawi) to eventually consult a psychiatrist, an attractive and confident woman who unnerves the sheikh. The second strand, the family melodrama takes us back to the boyhood and adolescence of Khaled, the sheikh, through a series of extended flashbacks. We see the teenage Khaled (Ahmed Malek) defy his macho father (Maged El Kedwany), a former bodybuilder and now the owner of a gym. Money for music lessons is used instead to secretly enable Khaled to be the coolest kid in school with his Jackson cassettes and original posters. How he gets from Michael Jackson dancing to leading the prayers in the mosque is via familiar tropes of the family melodrama narrative which I won’t spoil.
There are important female characters in the story – Khaled’s mother, his first girlfriend, his wife, his daughter and the psychiatrist – but this is a male-centred melodrama as directed by Amr Salama and co-written by the director and Omar Khaled. Salama (born 1982) has several features to his name already and has attracted major talents in Egyptian cinema to this production which is generating a lot of interest. (It has been chosen as the Egyptian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar competition.) The film is ‘personal’ since the director was a teenager when Jackson was still a global figure and he says it is “almost autobiographical”. During the Q&A there were questions about how the film had been received by Egyptian censors and Salama assured us all was well and no-one was offended when the censors actually saw the film. He suggested that in Egypt audience responses have been positive in the majority of cases.
Western reactions to the film after its Toronto screenings seem to me a little bemused by the central issue of identity and the film is judged to stand or fall on its Michael Jackson sequences. Salama answered a question about this, saying that initially they had tried to get permission for genuine Jackson material but they had only negative responses. In the end he thinks this was good for the film. It meant that they only used their own re-workings of materials. Although this means the sequences aren’t as slick as they might be, they don’t overwhelm the central issue about identity and the personal issues about how important a global icon might be in a relatively ‘closed’ society like Egypt. (It was also interesting to hear how strongly Egyptians in the audience at the Curzon Mayfair identified with Khaled, especially post recent events in the region.) I was very grateful to get this chance to see Sheikh Jackson. I think it is unlikely to get a UK release, but since Clash eventually made it from last year’s LFF, I live in hope.
Equilibrium is a low-key social melodrama filmed in a style that suggests a Loachian realism, but also a more expressive use of tracking cameras alongside long shots and the midshots of social melodrama. It’s a modest film about an important issue, but for me its modesty gives it great power. Written and directed by Vincenzo Marra, Equilibrium is a questionable concept or ideal when it refers to the role of a parish priest in a difficult area. At the start of the film we meet Fr. Giuseppe who has returned from a mission in Africa and is now working in a hostel for migrants (asylum seekers?) in Rome. He’s a rather solemn man, still with youth and vigour, who is clearly capable but he is also disturbed by his feelings towards a young female teacher/social worker helping in the hostel. Fr. Giuseppe approaches his bishop and requests a transfer. He is sent to the suburbs of Naples to replace Fr. Antonio, a parish priest who is moving on after 15 years. Fr. Antonio shows the new man the smouldering heaps of refuse that are poisoning the atmosphere locally and causing many cancers and other life-threatening diseases. This is the battle to be fought – to persuade the authorities to do something about the pollution. But Fr. Giuseppe soon learns that other battles are not being fought, especially with the local drugs business since it is controlled by a Camorra clan based close to the parish church.
Fr. Giuseppe reveals himself to be emotionally open and also impetuous in attempting to find solutions to the misery experienced by certain parishioners. He seems somewhat naïve in the way he ignores warning signs and barges straight into situations. He wants to save people but is in danger of making life much more difficult for them. This isn’t to say that the status quo should be maintained or that Fr. Giuseppe shouldn’t do anything. Rather, he should think first and look at the various possible ways of acting. I should stress that this is how I read the narrative – I’m not necessarily making a moral judgement. The film’s presentation is key here. Marra, during an interesting Q&A, told us that he decided to use non-professional actors and theatre actors, mainly I think because they would do what they were asked to do and not what they thought was conventional for a film, based on their experience of previous films. Fr Giusseppe is played by Mimmo Borrelli who, if I’ve interpreted Google Translate properly, is a major figure in Neapolitan theatre. His role in this film (his only credit on IMDb) seems far removed from the flamboyance of his theatrical persona. Here he is mournful and moves slowly for the most part (except when he is determined to act). His casting, indeed the whole casting process seems to echo the Loach/Laverty approach and in the Q&A Marra told us that he thought the situation in Naples was similar to other conurbations in Europe, picking out Glasgow and saying that he had visited the locations for Loach’s Sixteen Films productions around Clydeside. During the film I had thought about Sweet Sixteen (UK 2002), made in Greenock on the Clyde and starring the then unknown Martin Compston. I’m not sure why this film came to mind because the situation and characters are quite different. I guess that both films use local non-film actors who play characters who are up against some kind of organised crime in a district with little hope for significant groups in the population. Overall, Liam in the Loach film achieves more and the narrative is slightly more optimistic. The new ‘Equilibrium’ in the Italian film doesn’t seem to offer the locals much more than the old – but there is a glimpse of hope from one character in the closing shot and perhaps that is enough?
I’ve enjoyed all the Italian films I’ve seen at LFF in the last few years. Some have been flawed but all have been worthwhile, so thanks Adrian Wootton, the former Festival Director who now acts as the ‘Regional Adviser’ to the festival on Italian Cinema. Unfortunately, the one thing the films have in common is that none to my knowledge have received UK distribution. All foreign language films struggle in the current climate, but Italy is the major producer that seems to suffer most.
This trailer doesn’t have English subs, but gives a good idea of the style:
Rajat Kapoor is known in the UK as an actor (having appeared in more than 40 films) across mainstream Hindi and independent features. But in India he is also recognised as a director of low budget independent films. This busy actor-filmmaker made the trip to the North of England to make appearances at both Sheffield Showroom and HOME in Manchester as part of ‘Not Just Bollywood’. He accompanied his most recent feature as director (and supporting actor), introducing his film and staying on for a Q&A after the screening. Ankhon Dekhi is a remarkable film. I left the screening intrigued, slightly bemused and realising I needed to think more about it.
The film’s title translates roughly as ‘Seeing with your own eyes’. It only dawned on me later that ‘dekko’ is another Hindi loan word that no doubt crept into English usage during the colonial era– as in “Have a dekko at this”. The central character Bauji, a fifty-something man living with his extended family in old Delhi, decides to follow the philosophical position of believing only what he can see with his own eyes as closely as possible and in doing so turns upside down his own family and his group of friends in the local community. Everything kicks off with an event both shocking and mundane at the same time. The whole of Bauji’s extended family overreacts when it is revealed that Bauji’s daughter is seeing a young man who is assumed to be a ‘bad lot’ and certainly not appropriate as husband and son-in-law. But is he that bad? Or indeed not bad at all? Bauji is not convinced that the young man is a villain, but at first his daughter’s life takes a back seat as Bauji himself becomes known as a philosopher, giving up his job and acquiring a circle of followers, mainly from the local barber’s shop where men gather (a link to African-American culture I hadn’t thought of before).
Some time after the screening, I had a revelation about what Ankhon Dekhi might be reminding me of when I read a viewer’s comment on IMDb: “Rajat Kapoor’s refreshingly eccentric yet gimmick-less (even hype-less) Ankhon Dekhi is kind of a déja vu of Malgudi Days. The film revolves around Bauji who lives in his own ideological world and believes in the inherent goodness of people” (‘rangdetumpy’ from India). I came across the charming and beautifully written novels (in English) of R. K. Narayan around forty years ago. Narayan, a southern writer born in Madras, invented his own fictional town of Malgudi. His stories deal with everyday and mainly inconsequential events which reveal everything about a small community of characters. There is definitely a link between Bauji and Narayan’s world. Ankhon Dekhi is set in Old Delhi and Rajat Kapoor told us that finding the particular dwelling with its interconnected rooms and communal spaces to serve as the film’s central location was one of the most important aspects of the film’s production. The extended family includes Bauji’s brother (Rajat Kapoor) and his family and the closeness – which has benefits and disbenefits – becomes another factor. Ankhon Dekhi works because it is both specific in its Old Dehli milieu and ‘universal’ as a family comedy melodrama. It also suggests another Indian genre – that concerned with the ‘guru’ or ‘pandit’. Bauji attracts followers and it isn’t too difficult to see that both guru and followers are ripe for some form of gentle satire. Alternatively, perhaps his philosophy works and we are the ones to be gently mocked? Again, Narayan had a similar story, The Guide (1958) which follows a character, a tour guide, who will eventually become seen as some kind of spiritual guide by his followers. Like Narayan, Rajat Kapoor ends his narrative with an open question about Bauji’s status and whether he can survive the journey he seems to be making.
Ankhon Dekhi is a lovely film with a great ensemble cast who present scenes about life in their neighbourhood that allow us to reflect on love and friendship and the fascination of daily life. Rajat Kapoor explained that he grew up in this kind of family in a similar part of Old Delhi. It is clearly a film that ‘Not Just Bollywood’ curator Omar Ahmed holds very dear, as was apparent in the Q&A that followed the screening. Omar asked questions which referred back to his own earlier presentation on the ‘Hindies’ phenomenon and Rajat Kapoor explained how, seemingly ‘out of the blue’, someone appeared who was prepared to find the half a million dollars required to make the film. This was Manish Mundra. Ankhon Dekhi was the first production for Drishyam Films, the company Mundra set up. Four years and several other productions later (including Newton (2017)). Mundra was able to announce a $20 million fund to finance 8-10 new Indian independent films. This development promises new films but how these films will be distributed and how they will find audiences remains an issue. Rajat Kapoor told us that Ankhon Dekhi has still not covered its production costs. But he also suggested that the new possibilities offered by Netflix and other streaming services might help indie films to be seen outside the big metros (a question from the audience queried whether this would mean that films like Ankhon Dekhi would never get into cinemas). At the moment, a film like Ankhon Dekhi is still likely to be seen mainly at film festivals (in India and abroad) – and not in local cinemas on release. Rajat suggested that it doesn’t really matter if Netflix don’t allow films they produce to get into cinemas if it means that audiences can still see small independent films on their TV sets or online. He admitted that the biggest success of Ankhon Dekhi, for him, was that every day somebody new would see his film on the various outlets and that he could feel the love for the film when people stopped him on the street to congratulate him.
Ankhon Dekhi won awards in India but Rajat Kapoor is still struggling to fund one of the four new scripts he has completed. His next film will try for crowd-funding and we were all invited to contribute. In a final response to a question by Omar Ahmed about the potential for this new ‘wave’ of Indian independents, Rajat Kapoor was not optimistic. “There are perhaps 5 films each year that are interesting independents – and we make 1500 films a year.” I’m not sure I agree that only 5 are examples of new ideas, but Rajat did finally relent by agreeing that, slowly Indians are getting more access to ‘world cinema’ and tastes are changing. Let’s hope so if we are going to get more films like Ankhon Dekhi. Rajat himself is a link to the ‘New Cinema’ of the 1970s and 1980s since he was inspired by two of the directors of the period, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, while he was at the Film Institute in Pune and they are both acknowledged at the end of Ankhon Dekhi.
A short interview with Rajat Kapoor has been posted on HOME’s website:
Identity is everything in Israel and Palestine – nationality, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, tradition and modernity all demand that individuals must make decisions and then expect their choices to be defining. I’ve got in trouble before for describing films and characters from the region in ways that people find objectionable, so I’m treading carefully. In Between is officially an Israeli film (receiving public funds, eligible for awards etc.). The writer-director Maysaloun Hamoud was born to Palestinian parents living in Budapest where she grew up before going to university in Jerusalem and then film school in Tel Aviv. The three young women at the centre of her film are variously described as ‘Palestinians’ and ‘Israeli Palestinians’ in interviews, reviews and promotion materials for the film. Asked about her influences, Hamoud plays the game citing Guy Ritchie and Hollywood B movies in one interview and Ken Loach and Egyptian cinema in another. She sees herself as challenging ideas about Arab cinema. But most tellingly she identifies with Ajami (Israel-Germany 20o9) the film made by an Arab-Jew pairing about crime on the streets of Jaffa (the ancient Arab port city, now engulfed by Tel Aviv) where Hamoud now lives. “I was criticised for taking Israeli government funding to make [In Between]. But that money is ours, we should take more. We don’t take what we deserve.” This is what she told the Guardian last week in London where she has been creating a stir promoting the film. It has all paid off, she says, because young people are contacting her about the film.
As the title implies (I think its Arabic title means something like ‘Land and Sea’), this film is about identities ‘caught between’. The three central characters are young women. Leila (Mouna Hawa) is a secular Muslim with a job as a lawyer dealing with rights claims. Salma (Sana Jammelieh) is a Christian Arab whose dream is to be a DJ and who survives by working in kitchens and bars and Noor (Shaden Kanboura) is a religious Muslim from a conservative village who is studying computer science at university. It is the arrival of Noor as a flatmate, arranged through a family friend, that kicks off the narrative. How will she get on with these two ‘modern’ women who smoke, drink, take drugs and have affairs? More to the point, perhaps, how will Noor’s fiancé Wissam deal with the new situation? It’s not difficult to guess, but this isn’t really a plot-driven narrative. More important is to enjoy the interrelationships between the women and to see how they develop a response to their different situations. The three actors (two with little or no experience) are totally convincing in their roles. For a first feature this is a staggering achievement for Maysaloun Hamoud and her crew.
The film succeeds so well because Hamoud has managed to judge just how much she has to show to represent the challenge to each of the women. Leila thinks she has found a soulmate and Salma starts a lesbian affair with a trainee doctor. Both flatmates have yet to see how their new relationships will be judged by family members. Restraint in this case works better than excess and the open ending of the film means we leave the screening thinking about what these women have achieved, but also aware of what else they might face. Add to this the subtle way in which each of the central characters (who are each in some way representative of different identities) is ‘humanised’ and allowed to become rounded and we can recognise Hamoud’s skill. She also gives us one shocking scene, handled with sensitivity, that highlights the whole struggle.
The film is low budget but still gets across the vitality of Tel Aviv and this is partly through the use of music, another of Hamoud’s passions. She tells us that she has tried to convey the type of underground music scene that is enjoyed by many of the different groups in Israel and Palestine.
In Between has won several awards at international film festivals and it is an important as well as enjoyable film. There is an excellent UK website for the film presented by distributor Peccadillo Pictures, including videos, music and information about where it is playing. In the North of England you can catch it in Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle this week. I hope you can find it.
This screening was part of an ongoing tour of new Fassbinder prints (DCPs) from the Fassbinder Foundation. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) was certainly the most prolific and arguably the most inspiring filmmaker of the last fifty years. He made over 40 features for film and TV. Only a minority got a formal release in UK cinemas but more have become available on DVD over the last few years. Restorations by the Foundation have been produced at regular intervals. The film here has a 2015 restoration credit. I went to see it in a cinema despite having a DVD at home (one of very many as yet unwatched). I’m glad I did.
The English title doesn’t tell us much about the film’s narrative. Though not directly translatable, the German title does indicate more. It conveys the awkward combination of ‘freedom’ and ‘the law of the jungle’. ‘Fox’ is the central character played by Fassbinder himself as a working-class gay young man whose real name is Franz Biberkopf. Fassbinder appeared in many of his own films and often took the name ‘Franz’. Here the whole name is taken from the central character of the 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin which Fassbinder adapted for a major German TV series in 1980.
During a very entertaining title sequence we learn that Franz/Fox has been working in a fairground show as ‘Fox the talking head’ (separated from his body, emphasising, as one commentator put it, the disconnect between his brain and his penis), but with the showman arrested by police Franz is now back on the street. Hustling for money and ‘cottaging’ (is there a specific German word for this?) he hooks up with Max, a suave antiques dealer played by Karl-Heinz Böhm (famously seen as the eponymous character in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in 1960). Convinced he will win the lottery, Franz persuades Max to help him buy a ticket and with his winnings of half a million DMs, he joins the group of wealthy gay men who are Max’s friends. The remainder of the film sees Franz alienated from his own circle of working-class (or at least petty bourgeois) gay men while he is being carefully parted from all his money by his new sophisticated associates. This latter is largely achieved by involving Franz in a bailout of his new lover Eugen’s family printing firm. Franz isn’t just fleeced, he is humiliated on a daily basis. It can only end badly.
I was struck by many aspects of this film but I was most surprised to read about the contemporary critical reaction to it in the 1970s, much of it coming from gay critics such as Andrew Britton who apparently suggested that the film should be ‘denounced’ because of its representation of gay men. Fassbinder argued that the film (his first to present a gay male community in such detail) wasn’t really ‘about’ gay culture – it was simply the backdrop and the narrative would have been the same if these were groups of heterosexuals. I think Britton might have had a point in the context of the 1970s, but now Fassbinder’s argument seems more acceptable. I suspect the main issue for mainstream critics and audiences is that, though still a low-budget film, Fox and His Friends looks more like a glossier mainstream drama than Fassbinder’s earlier 1960s films – but it doesn’t deliver the same kind of narrative pleasures. A common complaint is that it starts in quite a humorous vein and then darkens and becomes ‘pessimistic’ before the tragic ending. Mainstream Hollywood this ain’t. But anyone who knows Fassbinder wouldn’t be expecting anything other than a coruscating satire on the German bourgeoisie and that’s what we get throughout. The society is poisoned by the attitudes of the wealthy and the poor have to eventually tread on each other just to keep their heads above water. The naïve and guileless Fox/Franz is the perfect guide to this corruption of human values.
It should be pointed out that by 1975 Fassbinder was a well-established director in West Germany with half his output already produced, but that in the UK and US his films didn’t receive a release until 1974’s Fear Eats the Soul – the review of which by Laura Mulvey in Spare Rib was a significant moment in the study of Douglas Sirk and the feminist interest in melodrama. New and old films then began to appear out of chronological order. I don’t remember the release of Fox and His Friends but Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Monthly Film Bulletin review suggests that its UK release was in early 1976. It was classified as an ‘X’ Certificate (over 16s only) film with a running time of 123 minutes, suggesting no cuts compared to the current version. The film has a series of full frontal male leads in a bath house which must have been unusual at the time.
The Mulvey interest in Fassbinder is significant since Fassbinder himself had become very interested in Douglas Sirk’s melodramas since viewing several at the start of the 1970s. Fear Eats the Soul (Angst Essen Seele Auf) was generally accepted as Fassbinder’s re-working of elements of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). I was consciously seeking throughout Fox and His Friends to find any ‘Sirkian’ elements. It did seem to me that though the context and the characters are very different, there are some elements that seem familiar from Written On The Wind, Sirk’s 1956 feature. At the centre of Sirk’s delirious melodrama about a Texas oil family are alcoholic family members, illicit relationships and problems for outsiders in the family group. I think it is significant that Fassbinder chose a small printing company for Eugen’s family – a German industry as nationally symbolic in some ways as the oil industry in Texas. Much more important though is the general aesthetic approach in Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas – the use of colour, camerawork and mise en scène as well as music. I was struck most of all by the camerawork of Michael Ballhaus and the production design of Kurt Raab – both Fassbinder regulars. I’ve included here a selection of screengrabs from a film that is presented in such a carefully constructed way.
Perhaps I’m so obsessed with how satisfying I find the overall aesthetic qualities of the film that I haven’t come to any firm conclusions about what it all means. In the images above I’m impressed by the two familiar melodrama/noir tropes of mirror reflections and compositions dominated by doorways/windows and diagonals. The camera observes this world and offers us these signifiers of the ways in which it oppresses characters. Others have suggested that Fassbinder has taken Sirk’s ideas about directly presented emotions presented through a stylised ‘soap opera’ aesthetic. It does feel to me that this is ‘art’ that perfectly serves Fassbinder’s critique of West Germany’s bourgeois society. But I’m also conscious that Fassbinder is also arguably indulging or ‘working through’ his own personal concerns in this film. It is dedicated to his then current lover Armin Meier – and to ‘all the others’. In addition, he found a role for his former lover El Hedi ben Salem (the male lead in Fear Eats the Soul) as a gay man in Marrakesh when Franz and Eugen go on holiday. Fassbinder had a difficult childhood which if not working-class was not ‘comfortable’ middle-class and some commentators have argued that his insecurity with his working-class gay partners manifested itself in this film through the masochistic way in which as a filmmaker he organised Franz’s downfall.
Here are two helpful clips in gaining an understanding of how Fox and His Friends works. The first is gay filmmaker Ira Sachs giving his personal response and analysis of the film and the second is the film’s trailer (no English subtitles). This shows the range of compositions similar to the stills above which define the aesthetic: