Category: People

Tony Garnett, 3 April 1936 – 12 January 2020

We have lost one of the major radical voices in British film and television. I more or less grew up on a diet of the trailblazing television dramas produced by Tony Garnett; most often with writer Jim Allen and director Ken Loach. Cathy Come Home (BBC 1966) was both an emotional and political clarion call. The Wednesday Play, dramas like Rank and File (1971) coincided for me with my political education into Marxism. And I was studying Labour History when I saw Days of Hope  ( 1975). Later there was a film like Kes and more impressive television work like Spongers (1978). Recently, in 2016, I had the pleasure of hearing Garnett live as he introduced his ‘Memoir – The Day the Music Died. A life behind the lens’. This a fine autobiography, interweaving the political and the personal with everything that is needed for an obituary..

Garnett was an intelligent, analytical and engaging writer and speaker. At the meeting we had a tribute to writer Barry Hines with whom Garnett worked. Garnett was passionate about working class culture, something that he and Jim Allen, Barry Hines and Ken Loach did so much to represent on the large and small screens. Garnett was also the most intelligent voice in the film Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach (2016), a work that really did not do justice to Loach’s radical films.

Jim Allen

This ‘Memoir’ details both Garnett’s personal life and his professional life as a producer on British television and in both British and Hollywood cinemas.

The early chapters record his family life in Birmingham in the 1930s and 1940s. It was then that the family tragedy represented by ‘the day the music died’ occurred – the trauma of his mother’s death after a back-street abortion, followed nineteen days later when Garnett’s grief-stricken father committed suicide and Tony was sent to live with other family members. This clearly marked Garnett throughout his life. However, the portrait of life in the urban Midlands in this period is finely described and makes for fascinating reading.

When Garnett moved on to London he initially worked as an actor, with limited success. In this period he also experienced a further tragedy. He met and married Topsy Jane. She gave a memorable and sensitive portrayal as Audrey, Colin’s (Tom Courtenay’s) girlfriend in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). She then had a nervous breakdown and suffered a severe mental illness from which she never really recovered. This tragedy too marked Garnett life.

Then, in the most significant move in his professional life, Garnet was invited by producer Sydney Newman to work on a new series of television dramas. This led to the famous partnership with Ken Loach and some of the most outstanding productions in British television history. These were watersheds in a number of ways. This was not just because of its quality and politics but because they became test cases for the conservative reaction against such work. The responses included the withholding a title from screening, BBC’s first use of a ‘’balancing’ programme and that bourgeois tribute, fulminations in a ‘Times’ editorial.

Garnett discusses some of the productions in some detail in the book;, including Cathy Come Home and his famous collaboration with Barry Hines and Ken Loach on Kes (1969) in individual chapters. He also pays tribute to the particular contribution they brought to these films along with Jim Allen. All of them would be termed left-wingers, though there are variations in their political stances.

Barry Hines

All were formed to some degree by the heightened activities and debates of the 1960s. In one fascinating chapter, ‘Protest and Confusion’, Garnett records his experiences in this area. These were centred round the influential (at that time) Workers’ Revolutionary Party with their leader Gerry Healey. Trevor Griffith, also involved in these activities at the time, has a witty portrait of these events in his play The Party (1988).

Garnett went on to produce further work for British television and for a period worked in Hollywood, though I find this the least successful output in his career. The best known title is Handgun (1983), a film that draws parallels between US gun  culture and sexual molestation. Garnett’s work on this film was re-edited by the production company, EMI. As Garnett acknowledged, the BBC, where he produced so much, became an inhospitable environment for his type of drama. Up until 2017 he ran World Productions where he produced Between the Lines (1992 – 1994).

The earlier years at the BBC, as was later the case with the young Channel Four, saw Garnett as a key protagonist in many memorable achievements. His memoir combines the story of these years with his own personal odyssey and he recounts this with a distinctive personal voice. I found the book fascinating and informative. It remains essential reading for people interested in the British media in the late twentieth century. So read the book whilst we wait for enterprising exhibitors to re–screen some of the classics.

The Day the Music Died, A Life behind the Lens – A Memoir, Tony Garnett, Constable 2016, 306 pages, (illustrations, no index). ISBN 978147212273S

Parts of this post are from a review in the Media Education Journal.

My Hindu Friend (Brazil 2015)

My Hindu Friend is the last film of Hector Babenco (1946-2016). It was screened at the Montreal World Cinema Festival in 2016 where Willem Dafoe won the Best Actor award for a role based on Babenco’s life experiences. In the same year it was on release in Brazilian cinemas but nowhere else. Now it has been acquired by Rock Salt Releasing for a release in the US on 17th January. On that date it will start a theatrical presentation lasting one week in selected cities ((NY, LA, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Minneapolis, ATL, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago) and will be available from a wide range of digital sites.

Diego improvises from his hospital bed, creating a camera eye view of his wife

At first I was worried that I might find the film difficult to review since I don’t really like medical dramas and I thought that the narrative was primarily concerned with the director’s own experience of cancer treatment. Once the film started, however, it quickly became clear that the impact of cancer on Diego Fairman (Willem Dafoe) was not the whole narrative and also that it wasn’t going to be presented as a social realist or Hollywood realist drama. There are other challenges for the contemporary viewer, but first I need to explain some of the background to Hector Babenco’s career since the film carefully weaves the director’s experiences throughout the narrative.

Hector Babenco was born in Argentina to parents with Eastern European Jewish heritage in 1946. Aged 18 he moved to Europe and found work in the film industry ranging from appearing as an extra in features to roles as Assistant Director. In 1969 he settled in Brazil (in Sao Paulo) and became established as a director, first of documentaries and then features. In 1981 his film about the ‘marginal’ street children of Brazil, Pixote, won him international recognition. In 1985 his profile was raised once again with the international success of Kiss of the Spider Woman adapted from the novel by Manuel Puig and starring the Hollywood actor William Hurt. After this Babenco made more films with Hollywood stars in North America and also films set in Latin America. Many of his films are referenced in the different sequences of My Hindu Friend as well as aspects of his personal life. He was married four times. He was what some commentators called a ‘womaniser’ but he was also recognised as an artist interested in social issues and marginal groups.

Diego and his ‘Hindu friend’ re-enact a scene from a war film

My Hindu Friend begins with Diego and his partner Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido) learning from Diego’s doctor (and friend) that his lymphoma has spread and that the only possible treatment is now a bone marrow transplant for which he must travel to Seattle. The donor will be his estranged brother Antonio (Guilherme Weber). From this point the narrative develops partly as family melodrama and partly as an imaginative autobiographical memoir. The medical treatment makes possible drug-induced dreams and gradually a fantasy narrative takes hold with scenes depicting how Babenco was seduced by the movies and how he got started as a filmmaker. Inevitably this includes sequences imagining the coming of death in filmic terms. His sense of himself as a story-teller is very important. The title ‘My Hindu Friend’ refers to the brief sequence in the narrative when Diego shares a recovery room in the hospital with a young boy who he helps distract by telling him stories. There is also a possible connection to Asian religious beliefs in the narrative but otherwise the title is misleading about the film’s content. The boy’s presence as a mostly silent figure is symbolic of the audience as a key part of creating cinema. But he does join Diego in re-creating a scene from a war movie.

The film makes direct references to Babenco’s love affair with cinema – to Laurel and Hardy with Ollie singing ‘Shine on Harvest Moon’ from The Flying Deuces (1939) and using Gene Kelly’s song from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) as the soundtrack for an erotic dance. Federico Fellini is name-checked as perhaps the best-known director who used his own biography in many films, but My Hindu Friend also reminded me of Yousef Chahine’s trilogy of films about his own life and the history of modern Egypt especially in An Egyptian Story (Egypt 1982) which also uses medical treatment as metaphor. Claude Lelouch is another director (also with Jewish heritage) who uses his own life experiences in a film like What War May Bring (Ces amours-là, France 2010).

An erotic dance to ‘Singin’ in the Rain’

Anyone who loves cinema should find enjoyment in watching My Hindu Friend. The challenge for audiences in 2020 may be that this is a film by a man approaching 70 depicting his slightly younger self and his love of women and struggles with his own sexuality. The narrative positions all of the female characters as helpers, carers or sexual beings realised through the male gaze. There are three sexual encounters in which the women are fully naked but Diego is positioned so that Willem Dafoe is never ‘full-frontal’. On the other hand, Dafoe’s performance is very strong and he must have prepared his body carefully for the shoot. Diego’s final sexual encounter is with ‘Sofia’, an actor and performance artist played by Bárbara Paz who was married to Hector Babenco from 2010 to 2014. Presumably they parted on good terms and she plays her role with gusto.

Babenco enlisted strong support to make his film. The music score is by the Polish maestro Zbigniew Preisner and the cinematography by the distinguished Brazilian, Mauro Pinheiro Jr. My Hindu Friend is an English language film made in Brazil. The largely Latin American cast speak accented English. I don’t think this is a problem. Here’s the new trailer:

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (UK-Canada 2019)

Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen on Hydra with baby Axel

This is a ‘Nick Broomfield film’ – an auteurist announcement by a documentarist who appears in his own films and adopts, using Stella Bruzzi’s term, a ‘performative mode’ of documentary presentation. This rang alarm bells when I contemplated watching Marianne & Leonard, but I have watched two of Broomfield’s fiction features, Ghosts (UK 2006) and Battle for Haditha (2007), both of which are worth watching. Since I tend to insert myself into my blog posts, I can’t really complain about Broomfield. In any case he limits himself to three or four appearances only in this film.

If you don’t already know the story, SPOILERS beware!, the Canadian poet and tyro novelist Leonard Cohen met Marianne Ihlen, a young Norwegian mother with a small son from her first marriage, on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s. The two lived together for a time in an expat community of writers, artists and musicians who all indulged in ‘free love’, retsina and various drugs of choice. Broomfield himself, aged 18, met Marianne and stayed with her while Leonard was away. Marianne was Cohen’s ‘muse’ and for several years they lived together for a few months at a time. In between times on Hydra, Leonard Cohen pursued his new career as a musician and rock star poet and slept with many women, having two children with one. Eventually Marianne lost hope that she could live with Leonard and they parted. Forty-odd years later, Marianne lay dying and Leonard sent her a letter of love, telling her he would join her soon. He died in 2016, three months after Marianne.

Marianne archive photo (on a visit to the UK?)

Broomfield has three main sources of material from which to fashion a documentary narrative. Leonard Cohen was a high profile, if poorly paid, poet in Canada from the late 1950s onwards and there is considerable TV and archive film material available. Once he became successful as a musician, coverage expanded considerably. Many of the friends on Hydra had super 8 cameras and, with still photographs, Broomfield could construct a visual narrative about both the Hydra community and aspects of Marianne’s life (some of this material he provided himself). ‘Witness’ interviews with various people close to both Leonard and Marianne comprise the third major source. The quality of archive footage varies considerably but some of the early stuff has survived well. It is skilfully edited by Marc Hoeferlin and presented in something close to 16:9. I didn’t really notice the cropping and nothing was ‘squashed’ or ‘squeezed’ that I could see (but the image below looks a bit dodgy). The narrative flows partly because of voiceovers taken from archive recordings of both Leonard and Marianne (who speaks in both English and Norwegian) and others remembering the period.

The problem for Broomfield is that the narrative promised by the title would make roughly a 45 minute film based on the material available. This documentary runs for over 100 minutes and the extra time is taken up largely with an exploration of Leonard Cohen’s career and a discussion of what he was doing, even when notionally still with Marianne. This has been one of the criticisms of the film with accusations that Marianne’s voice is overwhelmed by the material featuring Leonard. There is also a suggestion that Marianne’s memory has been exploited by Broomfield and that scenes at the end of the film featuring a very sick Marianne are intrusive. It is also likely that audiences wanting to know more about Cohen’s music and poetry may feel frustrated that the coverage of both is in a sense quite shallow.

Leonard as a young man in Montreal

I find it difficult to distance myself from my own emotional response to the archive footage. As a teenager I discovered the poetry and novels of Cohen and a few years later in the early 1970s I was a fan of the early albums – in the face of derision by many of my friends. I then lost touch with what Cohen was doing in the eighties and nineties before ‘re-discovering’ him in the last ten years of his life, partly through the use of his songs in films. There are several biographies of Cohen and I can recommend the one by Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man, The Life of Leonard Cohen (Vintage 2012). After the screening I looked for archive material on YouTube. I recommend the excellent National Film Board of Canada documentary Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Mr. Leonard Cohen (directed by Donald Brittain & Don Owen, 1965). If you check it out on the NFB’s YouTube channel, you can also find other fascinating Cohen material via YouTube’s algorithm. In fact you’ll soon realise that much of the footage in Marianne & Leonard is actually included in a range of other documentary films. The ‘extras’ in Broomfield’s film are some of the ‘home movie’ material, Broomfield’s own material and the interviews. Some of these are very entertaining, particularly Aviva Layton who was married to Irving Layton, the leading Canadian poet who was Leonard’s early mentor. Aviva deserves a film of her own.

Leonard Cohen was an extraordinary figure and the film certainly triggered all my responses to his genius and spirituality. But as Aviva says, he was both alluring to women and a terrible partner, but which great artist, writer or creative person isn’t both hugely attractive and seemingly hopeless about relationships? Marianne, as she comes across in the film, was a young woman who loved Leonard but felt out of place among the artistic community. She was damaged by her first abusive marriage and so was her son ‘little Axel’. The film also reveals other aspects of Marianne’s life which don’t show Leonard in a good light. Eventually Marianne returned to Norway and a job and a new and happy marriage. I was very emotionally engaged with the narrative, but whether that was because of the relationship between Marianne and Leonard or because of my own memories of Cohen’s songs I can’t say. I’ve seen several reviews of Broomfield’s film which seem most interested in criticising the 1960s culture on Hydra (which was certainly problematic for many of the expat artists) and denigrating Leonard Cohen because he slept with so many women and took so many drugs. For a more measured, but still negative, critical response, this Indiewire review is worth looking at. I can see all these criticisms but they don’t make me any less disposed to Leonard Cohen’s art.

If you are a Leonard Cohen fan, you will enjoy seeing the film on a big screen and it is still playing around the UK. You can find screenings through the official website. Since the BBC is a co-producer, it will no doubt appear on BBC4 at some point as well as on DVD.

D. A. Pennebaker, 1925 to 2019

D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Donn Abe Pennebaker died last Thursday. So we have lost another of the outstanding film-makers whose work, particularly in the 1960s, both changed and defined cinema.  His series of documentaries were both acclaimed and widely influential. The US Library of Congress selected several of his films for the National Register and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2913.

The first film with which he was associated that I saw was Primary  (1960), made together with Robert Drew and Richard Leacock. This was a chronicle of a contest for the Democratic nomination for Presidential candidate between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. There was intense interest in Britain, partly because of the importance of the USA, but also because Kennedy was seemingly a radical candidate for change. The film imbued the coverage of a Primary context with a freshness and élan that stood out. Years later I remember Richard Leacock describing a sequence of a haircut at the Barbers: possibly inconsequential but completely engaging. This was  a pioneer work in what became ‘Direct Cinema’. And Pennebaker was a key contributor in developing the lightweight camera and sound equipment that made immediate and often hand-held camera and sound possible.

In 1967 came Dont Look Back, combining observational cinema with the then young but musically charismatic Bob Dylan. The tour was famous for several reasons, including ‘treachery’. But the film bought a breath of life into the music documentary. Pennebaker later in life called his films ‘moments of record’ and this partly described the film. It was also equally applicable to the 1968 Monterey Pop. This, a record of a popular music festival with key stars of the period, was filmed by a crew of cameramen under Pennebaker’s direction. It stills stand out in what is now a crowded field. Its influence, like the Dylan film, is to be widely seen. Among those who have followed in the footsteps of the first is Martin Scorsese. One obituary remarked that the famous opening sequence of Dont Look Back, with Bob Dylan singing and presenting [not always in sync] his lyrics, was a pioneer of music videos. Very few of the latter have the panache of the Pennebaker original.

It was only in later years that I finally saw Daybreak Express (1953), presenting a New York elevated subway station with dazzling music from Duke Ellington. Pennebaker had a particular skill in working with popular music artists, which included Janis Joplin, John Lennon, The Who and David Bowie.

He also worked with Jean-Luc Godard, possibly still the most important film-maker in Western Cinema. However, Godard not being the easiest of collaborators no joint work appeared.

Pennebaker continued to film important aspect of political and cultural life. The 1979 Town Bloody Hall set in New York bought together a panel of feminists with the writer Norman Mailer. He had distinctive views on women’s liberation with some of the problematic male values. The debate is fascinating and offered illumination on the wider US political culture, a discourse that is sometimes seems baffling in Britain.

The 1993 War Room, filmed with Chris Hegedus, returned to political campaigning and that of the future US President Bill Clinton. Like the earlier Primary this both offered a portrait of lesser known aspects of Presidential campaigns and offered revealing portraits of the team aiming for the White House.

Pennebaker made some 40 odd films, all in some sense documentaries. They were not always easy to see in a Britain with a very limited distribution world. Presumably now, with the new emphasis on documentary, they would appear more regularly. They would certainly provide object lessons in how to present observational cinema in both an intelligent and absorbing manner. Many are studies of popular music and it culture. But there are the political studies and portraits of other aspects of US Culture. He was one of the key chroniclers of the four decades of the USA at the end of the C20th. Some of the TV channels are already revisiting his classic films. Let us home that some of these will also appear in cinemas in Britain.