This is a film I have wanted to watch for a long time. I think I once caught it on TV but abandoned the ‘pan and scan’ screening. I finally caught up with it via Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray disc in its full Black & White CinemaScope glory. I was knocked out by what Douglas Sirk could achieve with limited resources and a small cast with four terrific leading players. The film was produced by Albert Zugsmith and written by George Zuckerman and the same pairing had been responsible for Sirk’s previous film Written on the Wind (US 1956). Three of the leads, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack were all in the previous film and again gave everything for Sirk, alongside Jack Carson, who will for me always be remembered for his role in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (US 1945).
The Tarnished Angels was adapted from the 1935 William Faulkner novel Pylons. Set in the early 1930s in New Orleans during Mardi Gras celebrations, the plot concerns Hudson’s alcohol-fuelled newspaperman who sees a human interest story in the tragic trio of Stack, Malone and Carson and the ten year-old boy who rumour suggests might be the son of either man. Stack is ‘Captain’ Roger Shumann, the World War One ace married to Malone’s LaVerne and Carson is the mechanic Jiggs who has followed his captain after the war. Shumann earns a living flying planes kept in the air by Jiggs in what is effectively a circus act – taking part in dangerous races around three pylons on a makeshift airfield (which in this case is by the sea in the delta). LaVerne also performs a thrilling parachute and trapeze act. Hudson’s character, Burke Devlin, is inevitably attracted to LaVerne but doesn’t initially realise quite how volatile the relationships between the three characters are. Setting what a melodrama in this milieu is picked up again in two later Hollywood films, John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths (US 1969) with Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman and Deborah Kerr and George Roy Hill’s The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) with Robert Redford. (I’m sure there are other earlier titles as well – and other Depression era narratives with similar ingredients.)
I think what surprised me most was just how ‘expressionist’ the film was and how much it resembled classic films noirs in several nighttime scenes. I note that producer Zugsmith went on next to put together Touch of Evil (US 1958), often quoted as the ‘final’ noir of the classic period. Sirk had one outdoor set of the airfield, several studio interiors of offices/hotel rooms/hangars/newspaper room and a restaurant and then some presumably stock footage of the Mardi Gras. The giant heads of the Carnival are a gift to expressionist mise en scène and Sirk also makes good use of the fairground rides on the airfield on which the boy Jack ‘flies’ a plane while his father is in the air. The cinematographer is Irving Glassberg, about whom I know little except that he seems to have mainly shot Westerns (including one for Anthony Mann). He was born in Warsaw so perhaps he had a Central European feel for noir. He previously shot Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot (1955). He may not have credits for well-known noirs but his work on this film is excellent and is beautifully rendered on this MoC disc.
The visual qualities of the film are well-served by the casting. Stack is wonderfully stern, dark and brooding. I’m surprised that I don’t know that many others of his film titles – but as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (US 1959-63) he was an essential part of my childhood TV viewing. Dorothy Malone is the revelation of the film. It’s a sensational performance in which her long hair, seemingly platinum blonde, is matched by a loose white dress for the parachute scenes. One of the extras on the disc reveals how uncomfortable the good Catholic girl from Texas felt about being ‘exposed’ in her costume. If she felt uncomfortable she doesn’t show it. She seems perfectly suited to Sirk’s 1950s films but after The Tarnished Angels, only Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (US 1959) offered her a memorable role. Rock Hudson is also very good, though he does seem rather larger and more powerful than the standard representation of the newspaperman (although he reveals the character’s vulnerabilities very well). I would also have to agree with one comment I read which suggested that Sirk’s usual control was usurped by the wordy script which gives Devlin/Hudson a rousing speech in the last few scenes of the film.
The other clever aspect of the script is to introduce Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia to the narrative. LaVerne is a country girl seduced by the excitement of Shumann’s appearance as the ‘barnstorming pilot’ when the air circus hits her Iowa farm country. Cather’s novel of 1918 was seen as introducing ‘Western’ lives to the literary world. The link between LaVerne and Devlin is made through the novel which she discovers in his room. The farm life promises something much more secure that LaVerne has abandoned to follow Roger (though agrarian life in the US would suffer greatly during the Depression).
But what’s the narrative really about? (Spoilers coming!) Sirk was certainly interested in flying and he’d tried to adapt Faulkner’s novel when he was at Ufa in the 1930s. For the Stack character, flying is not only exciting but also provides both a means of escape and possibly a means of displacement for his love for Laverne. The central moment of the narrative is when Roger searches for a replacement plane after a crash. He needs a new plane for the big race but the only one available needs an overhaul and it belongs to Matt Ord (Roger Middleton) the big-time sponsor. For Roger to fly requires Jiggs to work all night on the plane’s engine – but only if LaVerne can ‘persuade’ Ord to let Roger have the aircraft. Roger in effect ‘uses’ both of the people who love and respect him. This is a melodrama and we know what will happen. It is Sirk’s brilliance that makes the ensuing drama so compulsively watchable. In his interviews with Jon Halliday (Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997) Sirk discusses the concept of échec which he argues means more than simply ‘failure’ and conveys the sense of being ‘blocked’ with no way out. Sirk’s characters can’t be ‘redeemed’ with a happy ending. Roger can only attempt to ‘save’ LaVerne and Jack by taking away what they most want – his love. Poor old Jiggs seems to be discarded completely. The irony is, too, that the ostensible star of the film, Rock Hudson, is in effect only the narrator (whose interventions move the story forward) – the real protagonists are Roger and LaVerne. From my perspective it seems like Dorothy Malone’s film and she emerges as the noir melodrama survivor.
The Tarnished Angels runs a little over 90 minutes and the Blu-ray is packed with extras, all worth exploring. It looks wonderful in Black & White ‘Scope, the perfect format for this melodrama. I’m tempted now to go back to other Sirk B & W melos.
This is a very accomplished film that I found disturbing to watch, especially since the director and co-writer was present – and the story was inspired by her own experiences. Daniela Féjerman answered questions after the screening (the UK première) when around half the audience stayed on and raised a wide range of questions. The film carries a strong emotional punch and the questioners were generally very supportive.
The ‘adoption’ of the title is set in motion by a Spanish couple, Natalia (Nora Navas) and Daniel (Francesc Garrido), who arrive in an unnamed East European country where they are met by an intermediary who they have paid to help them adopt a child under 3 years-old. The process they must go through is bureaucratic and extremely stressful – not helped by the fact that it is Christmas (with offices closed and family rituals) and very cold. It soon transpires that they need the intermediary for more than just interpreter duties – is she to be trusted? At the beginning of the narrative Natalia and Dani appear to have a strong loving relationship, but as the adoption process begins to hit all kinds of snags and they are faced with extremely difficult decisions, the two react in different ways and their relationship begins to suffer. In an interview with Cineuropa, Féjerman describes the film as “like a Christmas tale told by Kafka” – which seems a very good description of the narrative as well as of the real problems of producing the film.
The production had three Spanish companies, two Lithuanian companies and support from tvE (the Spanish public service broadcaster) and took several years to put together. It was a multiple language film – the Spanish language dialogue sections being shot twice with the second version in Catalan. L’adopció is the Catalan title. The film is also known by the international English title Awaiting. The Castilian Spanish title is La adopción. This is one of the increasing number of European films in which people from different European countries must speak English in order to negotiate bureaucracies. And this in turn creates divisions since the ability to speak a second (or usually third) language denotes either a good education or opportunities to travel and/or work abroad. The film uses Spanish/Catalan, English, Lithuanian, Russian and Italian. The local actors are mainly very experienced Lithuanian theatre actors (everything was shot in Lithuania). The English dialogue seemed to me very impressive and I was slightly surprised that though she introduced herself in English, Daniela Féjerman (herself Argentinian) answered questions via an interpreter. It says much for Ms Féjerman’s directorial skill that she accomplished so much on a multilingual shoot.
I said at the beginning of this post that I found the film disturbing. By this I mean that the film provokes strong audience responses which will be different for each audience member. I could certainly identify with the Spanish couple and I did indeed think about how I would react faced with the same circumstances and difficult decisions I was reminded of similar stresses on my travels, but associated with less important decisions. The two central performances are excellent. It took me some time to realise that Nora Navas had appeared in a previous ¡Viva! festival screening, Tots volem el millor per a ella (We All Want What’s Best For Her, Spain 2013). She was excellent in that role as well. I liked Natalia whereas I gradually began to turn against her husband. The central issue is international adoption as a practice. Personally, I find the whole idea problematic, but I appreciate that for some couples it becomes their only viable option for a child. In this case there is also the issue of making out that a whole country is corrupt – from the baggage-handlers at the airport, through civil servants and the medical profession to relatives who might view children as ‘for sale’ to people from Western Europe with money to spend. The latter point works both ways – why shouldn’t they earn extra money while seeing the child have a ‘better’ future in the West? In this case, Daniela Féjerman told us that the story was based on her own experiences adopting a child from Ukraine and that the circumstances in her film are commonplace – or so the Spanish Embassy told her. I’m not sure what my reaction was to that announcement. She also said that the Lithuanian production partners were happy with the script. The country isn’t named and in fact doesn’t allow international adoption. The titles do, however, announce the co-production.
But this is a fiction film narrative and much depends on how we might classify the film. On the whole, the film presents itself as a social drama, focusing on the adoption process and what it means for the participants. There are moments of wry humour and moments of heightened emotion about the couple’s relationship such as when they dance to a romantic Italian song in a Vilnius bar. The bar has Murphy’s stout on tap, but does it have Italian songs on a jukebox? Mostly, however, the approach is social realism with rather muted and cold cinematography making some kind of ironic comment about the emotional stress for the couple during the Christmas period. It’s small things like this which made me think about melodrama. In the Cineuropa review Féjerman tells us:
“it was essential to maintain a certain tone: I had to prevent it from becoming melodramatic, which I was tempted towards, and it’s something that could easily have happened. I had such a brutal vision of the experience that I just couldn’t make a movie with violins playing in the background, because there were certainly none to be heard there.”
I suspect that I don’t have the same ideas about melodrama as this director. I understand what she is saying, but during the film she includes scenes and lines of dialogue which hint at typical relationships within a family. We never find out what Natalia and Dani do for a living, but we do know that Natalia has a father who is a high status and wealthy doctor and that Dani is perhaps affected by this. We also wonder what has happened in the couple’s attempts to conceive. I can see that it is difficult to decide how much back story to give to the central characters, but the narrative does offer the potential of two intertwined stories, one about the adoption and one about the marriage. This could be a melodrama with Natalia as its centre without resorting to the violins that the director worries about. The film actually has a carefully worked score and includes children’s songs as well as the Italian song described above.
L’adopció is certainly a film to talk about and others will feel differently about the issue of international adoption and about melodrama. As far as I am aware the film has only been released in Spain (in both Catalan and Castilian) and up till now only in Spanish festivals. It deserves a wider audience and we should thank ¡Viva! for bringing it to the UK. L’adopció plays again at ¡Viva! on Thursday April 21 at 18.20.
International trailer (with English subs):
I didn’t think much of American Hustle, but I liked The Fighter and David O’Russell’s 1999 film 3 Kings. Joy seems to have had very mixed reviews and has been treated as almost an independent film with a reduced release. It hasn’t been a massive box office success and its IMDB rating reflects audience disappointment. I wondered about seeing it but it does feature Jennifer Lawrence in the lead and she’s always watchable. So, I ended up as the sole audience member in a tea-time showing in my local 300 seat cinema. The manager even came into the auditorium to see if I was OK and to offer me blankets for the cold. And it was cold. But I still had a good time.
I’d heard radio reviews and read press reports that this was a mish-mash – several films jumbled up etc. etc. But I thought it was totally coherent with great narrative drive and 124 minutes sped by. Perhaps I was simply mesmerised by Ms Lawrence? I guess the film is a form of biopic about Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop and other products for her company Ingenious Designs and subsequently an important presenter on the Home Shopping Network. I knew nothing about this so I think I followed the narrative that Russell and Bridesmaids writer Annie Mumolo created without every worrying about its ‘fidelity’ as a biopic.
What did strike me was the way in which Jennifer Lawrence completely controls the narrative – and dominates every scene. Given the strength of a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd and Virginia Madsen (and later Bradley Cooper) that’s no mean achievement. At one point I thought to myself, “she’s got it” – the star image of the great female icons of Studio Hollywood. This could be Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. I was pleased to find these thoughts echoed by Graham Fuller in Sight & Sound (February). As Fuller points out, Russell presents a strong woman without the need of a love interest (the suggestion of how she might feel about the Bradley Cooper is at the end of the film and doesn’t drive the narrative). There is a brief moment where crime/physical/judicial jeopardy is a threat but other wise she is Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce sans sex and crime – and still riveting to watch. What does drive the narrative is her dysfunctional family and the shenanigans of small-scale manufacturing as an entrepreneurial activity. Since the ideological discourse of the film is about entrepreneurs and the American Dream (with an anecdote about David O. Selznik and Jennifer Jones underpinning Joy’s determination to make it) I should feel antipathy towards the film, but identification with Joy takes over. Fuller is again on the money with his reference to Erin Brockovich and perhaps what is attractive is the class struggle embodied in the narrative. The time period of the film did not feel very specific to me, partly because Russell uses such a wide range of popular songs and music from TV and films. I was quite happy watching the film as if it was a 1970s blue-collar film. The factory that Joy sets up reminded me of various films, including The Pajama Game (1957) with Doris Day and, much more recently, the sweat shop in Real Women Have Curves (2002). Watching various trailers and online promotional features, it’s evident that Russell had the rights to a lot of music material, some of which he uses very well. I was most affected by his use of ‘Expecting to Fly’ by Buffalo Springfield, but also puzzled by the preponderance of music from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Is there some kind of commentary on Joy’s story in this?
I’m not sure why the film has been criticised for jumbling different genres. Perhaps it is the narrative strategy that allows Joy’s grandmother to have a voiceover narration or her mother to dominate the narrative at times via her immersion in soap opera worlds as a form of escape. Both these seemed fine to me as aspects of the influences, positive and negative on Joy’s story. The film is frequently referred to as a comedy. I suppose it is, but for me it was more like a melodrama. Two other thoughts that don’t seem to have got much attention elsewhere. One is the confirmation of the ‘women’s picture narrative’ via the best friend, Jackie (Dascha Polanco) whose action at a crucial point saves Joy. The other is just to mention Édgar Ramírez, the Venezuelan actor who plays Joy’s ex-husband. I knew I’d seem him before and I later realised he was Carlos in the Olivier Assayas film about Carlos The Jackal.
I’m sure that there is a lot more to say about Joy and I would be interested in it as a student text – except it’s rather long at 124 minutes (though it isn’t too long as a narrative). In the third image above, you can get a flavour of the ‘overdetermined’ nature of Russell’s imagery. Having dealt with the opposition, Joy in her aviator shades, leather jacket and rough cut hair peers in a Christmas shop window in downtown Dallas. She looks at a Christmas display of a trainset with scenery and models as artificial snow falls from above the window (an interesting invention in itself). Joy is thinking about the world she created out of paper cut-outs, damaged in a row between her parents. I think it was Nat King Cole on the soundtrack and for me snowflakes always make me think of Citizen Kane. There are many commentators online who thought that Joy was boring. I despair.
Keith reported on Sunset Song after its inclusion in the Leeds Film Festival. Seeing it now on general release, I recognise several of the points he raises and it is certainly a ‘flawed’ film in several respects. However, as Keith suggests, as a Terence Davies fan I find much to admire. I haven’t read the novel(s) (A Scots Quair Trilogy) by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, but I’ve done my research and some interesting issues arise that are worth discussing. Sunset Song is the first and most widely praised (and presumably most widely read) of the three novels written in the early 1930s when Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was in exile in Welwyn Garden City where he died just short of 34 years old in 1935. Although the film is relatively long at 135 minutes, Davies, as his own adapter, has cut several characters and attendant narrative lines from the central story – which will/has alienated some fans of the novel (a novel seen as central in the canon of Scots literature).
One of Keith’s main reservations was that the film does not deal sufficiently with the two central themes of the modernisation of the rural economy/agriculture in the 1900s and the socialist politics of some of the characters. Unfortunately, the screening I attended had sound problems for the first ten minutes and I couldn’t follow some of the dialogue. I think I missed some of the arguments around education. Chris, the central character played Agyness Deyn is a bright young woman, encouraged by her otherwise brutal father (Peter Mullan) to become a teacher. But I suspect Keith has a valid point about the politics in the novel that doesn’t get much of a mention in the film. Davies is not really interested in politics. However, I disagree about the importance of the land, especially to Chris. There is a distinct discourse about the land and what it means to her. I was also struck by some of the similarities between the narrative and Thomas Hardy’s novels such as Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Unlike Hardy’s fictional ‘Wessex’ a few decades earlier however, the similarly fictional Kinraddie Estate in The Mearns inland from Stonehaven does have access to the railway but the claims to mechanised farming seem less secure. I did though find one scene particularly symbolic when Chris’s father has a stroke while he is in the process of preparing a cart to receive a horse. It is almost as if he is the horse being felled.
The issue about Davies’s adaptation is that this isn’t a ‘filmic version of the book’, but instead it is another auterist work by the creator of Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and succeeding melodramas, usually focusing on central female characters (often as witnessed by the young Davies himself). Distant Voices includes some of the most stunning and disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen and the same approach is taken here for many of the domestic scenes. The static camera views various tableaux head on. During a wake the assembled male mourners are gathered around a table and then we look through a doorway to see the women in a separate room, further back from the camera with shafts of light creating dark shadows around them. These are images like old Dutch paintings and from interviews we know that Vermeer is a favourite for Davies. But he also tells us about a Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) whose work on interiors was introduced to Davies and his cinematographer Michael McDonough by production designer Andy Harris. At this point I should say that one of the great achievements of the production is the way in which Davies and his production crew have managed to bring together three completely different production set-ups and meld them into a single coherent visual narrative. Keith suggested that: “It was shot on film but the transfer to a DCP is very good”. I need to correct and amplify that statement.
I think I’m correct in saying that in contemporary filmmaking, the original footage, whether it on film or digital, is first processed to create a ‘Digital Intermediate’ which is used for post-production. When this is complete, the print for projection is created, usually now via a digital master copy which is used to create a DCP, Blu-ray, DVD etc. In a sense, all films, even those that started on celluloid will be ‘digital’ at some point. For Sunset Song, the production went first to New Zealand for the summer harvest scenes which were shot by McDonough on 65mm film using an Arriflex 765 camera. 65mm gave McDonough the chance to film in very deep focus. There were just four days in New Zealand, followed by twenty days in a studio in Luxembourg for the interiors that were shot digitally on the Alexa XT Studio. Finally the production moved to Scotland to Gibbon/Mitchell’s chosen location for the fictional Kinraddie and completed the shoot after thirteen more days, combining 65mm film and digital for both exteriors and interiors. McDonough (a Scot trained in the US whose best-known film work is perhaps on Winter’s Bone) explains how he ‘matched’ the film and digital sequences in an interview for the ARRI Rental website. He also spoke about what Davies wanted in terms of visual style:
Terence has a very precise style. His frames are classically composed and he loves the camera to flow – to move elegantly and always with a clear justification. I knew going in that there would be no Steadicam or handheld shots; this would be classically lensed with tripod, dolly and crane. Our production designer, Andy Harris, had introduced the idea of taking the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi as our main inspiration for the look of Sunset Song. The paintings are illuminated by a soft, directional, northern light; there was a coolness to them that suited our Scottish setting perfectly. The only variation from this was the summer harvest scenes, which were much warmer and more romantic in tone.
Sunset Song used the latest anamorphic lenses for a ‘Scope presentation and the care taken in the visual style means you should try to see this on the biggest screen possible. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the audience looking for a literary adaptation or for a straightforward romance or drama will recognise the artistry of the presentation. The film has received a number of negative reviews and it may be that it will attempt to find its audience on TV and video which will struggle to show it in all its glory. I’ve already indicated that I think the adaptation is flawed. For me the final part of the film that refers to what happens to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) when he enlists in the Great War just doesn’t work. I’ve read what Davies says in interviews and his logic and arguments are sound but it didn’t make sense to me on a first viewing. It felt to me that the ending had been foreshortened and the events didn’t seem to go together – the timescale seemed wrong.
The other criticisms of the film seem unwarranted. Inevitably there are arguments about ‘authenticity’ of accents etc. There are some local actors, specifically Ian Pirie as Chae, but many of the Scots are from the West Coast (Mullan, Guthrie and Daniela Nardini as Mrs Guthrie). I’ve seen some comments from North East Scotland both pro and anti. But of course it’s the casting of Agyness Deyn which is most controversial. Ms Deyn is a Lancashire lass and she makes a brave stab at the local accent but to see how far off she sometimes gets (especially in her voiceover narration) just go to the 1971 BBC TV serial of the books on YouTube (mind you, I don’t know how authentic that is!). Does it matter? Not at all for me. I was very impressed with Agyness Deyn. I’d never seen her before and I thought she moved well, used her modelling training and conveyed her spirit through her sparkling eyes. Most of all she conveyed what I take Terence Davies to have wanted from his heroine – which is all that matters really. I enjoyed all the other performances as well – although I do understand why many audiences might be tired of yet another angry and violent man portrayed by Peter Mullan. I feel that I do have to mention the pairing of Agyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie. I like Kevin Guthrie but he is shorter than his co-star (as was the case in Sunshine on Leith as well). I can’t work out if Davies thought that having Chris taller than Ewan said something in terms of the narrative or whether the height difference is irrelevant – but it is there and I increasingly find casting decisions interesting.
I’m not going to attempt to deal with the music and the singing in the film, even though they are a crucial element in any Terence Davies film. The choice of songs – and versions of the songs has been quite controversial, but information on the soundtrack is difficult to find. I need to see the film a few more times. But to go back to Keith’s review, he mentions the Glasgow Orpheus Choir (I’m assuming it’s them singing ‘All in the April Evening’ during a sequence in which the villagers ‘flock’ to the church). This is a good example of Davies creating an image that doesn’t refer to realism. People would not trample through the barley field as depicted in the film and it is very strange to have the scene in the church with the choir singing. Is it diegetic or non-diegetic? I kept wondering if the choir would emerge from the shadows at the back of the church. My knowledge of Scottish religious practice is limited and didn’t allow me to recognise what kind of church it was. But I don’t go to a Terence Davies film for authenticity, I go for art.
Sunset Song is absolutely worth seeing on a big screen and some of the points discussed above are illustrated in the trailer: