Category: People

John Berger 1926 to 2017

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This seminal writer and cultural critic passed on early in January at the ripe old age of 90. Is Marxism, like Jazz, good for a long life, at least in relation to natural causes? I remember watching the original ‘Ways of Seeing’ programmes on BBC television and later on buying the book. I was impressed with the critical acumen on display, the effective and very up-to-date style and techniques in the programmes, and with John Berger’s taste in colourful shirts. The book remains a classic and over the years he added to this with fictional, documentary, theatrical and poetic works. It influenced my view and reading of art, photography, advertising and, indeed, film. And among all his other verbal and writing skills Berger also produced very fine screenplays.

The best known of these were produced in partnership with the Swiss film-maker, Alain Tanner. It is a sad reflection on British film that whilst Tanner continued working up until 2004 the last film that he directed to get a release in Britain was The Diary of Lady M / Le journal de Lady M (1993). Yet in my time as a film society member and regular at art cinemas I saw a number of fine films directed by him. One title that I only saw once but still wait to see again is Le retour d’Afrique (1973, West Germany).

Tanner and Berger collaborated on four films together, jointly working on the script with Tanner directing.. The first was a documentary, A City of Chandigarh (1966), the regional capital in the Punjab designed by Le Corbusier. I have never seen this film.

Le Salamandre / The Salamander (Switzerland / France 1974)) was the first feature collaboration between Berger and Tanner. I saw this film at a Film Society in the late 1970s and I have not been able to see it since. Shot in black and white it runs for just over two hours. The film  is centred on a triangle. Pierre (Jean-Luc Bideau) and Paul (Jacques Denis) ‘investigate’ Rosemonde (Bulle Ogier). She is possibly involved / responsible for the wounding of her uncle. Inevitably both men are increasingly attracted to Rosemonde, an attractive and vital working class young woman. Bulle Ogier I remember as enthralling as Rosemonde. The two men are would-be writers who expect Rosemonde’s story to be their ticket to success. Whilst Rosemonde is both engaging and mystifying, [hence the title], the men are satirised for their bourgeois pretensions. A female voice-over provides both narration and comment. The film is shot in black and white, with a number of exterior free-wheeling camera sequences. The film also uses the popular music of the time.

Their next feature together was The Middle of the World / Le Milieu du monde (1974). The title referred to a town in the film where the Rhine and Rhone rivers meet. However, the ‘centre’ or ‘middle’ also referred to a restaurant of that name in the town. But the focus in the film is the self-centred world of the bourgeois protagonist Paul (Philippe Léotard). Paul is a successful engineer and manager. He is asked to run as a ‘non-political’ candidate for a bourgeois party in local elections. However, during the campaign he meets Adriana (Olimpia Carlisi) who works in a local café and begins an affair with her. Adrian is an Italian migrant worker, [also a widow], so the affair both offends susceptibilities about marriage and home and plays to prejudice about migrant workers in Switzerland.   Paul’s self-centred complacency means that he allows the affair to disrupt his election activities and it quickly becomes public knowledge. But it also means that he fails to consider the situation of Adriana. Finally she ends the relationship, moves north and is last seen working as a machinist in a textile factory.

The film uses the form common in counter-cinema of the period, designed to disrupt linear narratives. A narrative voice, that of a woman (Claire Dominique) , both provides contextual information but also passes comment on the characters. The story sequences are frequently inter-cut with shots of landscapes. These are mainly rural and empty of people and animals. These sparse and empty frames , rather than fitting into the plot, seem to offer metaphors for the characters: Paul self-absorbed and Adriana isolated.

The issue of migrant workers is one that is found in other works by Berger, especially in ‘A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe’ (1975). There is also his sensibility to landscape, something that comes across in his fiction writing, his poetry and his works with other artists, especially photographer Jean Mohr with whom he worked with on the above book. It is also there in the scenes of sexual intimacy, Adriana is seen as partly or fully naked, not nude, a concept Berger interrogated ‘Ways of Seeing’. Most of all there is the view of the of the bourgeois class, no longer progressive but self-absorbed with personal relationship as liable to lead to alienation as to union.

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Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000 (Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000, (Switzerland / France 1976) was the third and final feature by the pair. The film follows four couples, eight characters, whose lives cross and intertwine. An important date in the story is May ’68 and one factor in several of the lives on-screen is how they continue when the radical options of 1968 have failed to materialise.

Marguerite (Dominique Labourier) and Marcel (Roger Jendly) run an organic market garden. Mathieu (Rufus) is n unemployed typesetter. His wife Mathilde (Myriam Boyer) works as a machinist. When Mathieu gets work at the market garden she is able to turn to having a baby. Max (Jean-Luc Bideau) works as a proof-reader on a Geneva paper. He strikes up with Madeleine (Myriam Mézière) from whom he learns of a development that threatens the market garden and he warns Marcel and Marguerite. Their neighbour is Marco who works, unconventionally, as a teacher in a local school. Marco develops a relationship Marie (Miou-Miou), a supermarket cashier who subverts the pricing policy at work,. The film carefully develops the interaction among these key characters, demonstrating a command and narrative complexity that rivals that of the US independent film-maker John Sayles.

Over the course of the film the characters politics and situations illustrate and comment on contemporary society. As in the earlier ‘The Middle of the Earth’ Marie is effectively a migrant worker who has to return to her resident in France every night. Her dereliction of the law and her work rules leads to a jail term. Marco offers the school students radical and political lessons which lead to his dismissal. Mathieu progressively opts out of work at the market garden and develops a ‘free school’ for his and Mathilde’s children, including Jonah of the film’s title. This leads to Marguerite firing him, though she allows him to retain the apartment that came with the job. Whilst these events develop the children constructs a mural on as wall at the garden which features the eight adult characters.

The film does not offer a solution to the post-68 society but is does offer a regrouping and a sense of a way forward: to be realised by Jonah in the titular year 2000. The sense of the alternative political world that is still on the agenda is signalled by the frequent references to important and radical thinkers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau [whose statue we see several times], Pablo Neruda and Jean Piaget. And at one point we see Mathieu reading a copy of ‘Lotta Continua’.

Like the earlier films this production plays with narrative form. However here we see sequences in black and white rather than the film’s dominant Eastman colour, and these appear to present the characters’ thoughts, fantasies and alternative visions. They care carefully spaced through the film encouraging viewers to think through the characters situations and developments. This is a film that stands up to several viewings so, sadly, it is now two decades since I was able to see it at the cinema.

Berger had other credits as a writer and also one as a director of a short film: 12.Août.2002, a 12 minute short. His distinctive style and voice have been heard in range of television programme and documentaries and [to my surprise] in a video game. The most recent documentary John Berger: The Art of Looking [BBC 2016], produced for his 90th birthday, is still on the BBC I-Player.

Andrzej Wajda 1926 to 2016

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World Cinema lost one of it luminaries in October this year when the iconic career of this filmmaker came to an end. Wajda was one of the celebrated graduates of the Łódź Film School. This training ground for film actors as well as crafts people had a deservedly outstanding reputation.

Wajda first drew attention with his trilogy A Generation (Pokolenie, 1954), Kanał (1956) and Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i diament 1958). These were founding works in what developed into the European art cinema. I saw them, as did many at the time, in a Film Society in 16 mm prints. I have since been able to revisit them again in 35mm prints. All remaining outstanding but the key film is Ashes and Diamonds with the character of Maciek played by the young iconic Polish actor Zbigniew Cybulski. There is a terrific sequence with fireworks lighting up the sky and a sequence which I have seen copied a number of times with sheets billowing from a clothesline.

Wajda turned out fine films decade after decade, and I still have to see a number of them. One that stood out was Landscape After the Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, 1970), a film that deals with a Holocaust survivor and which includes some stunning exterior sequences. Two other memorable films that addressed the repressive regime that ran Poland in the 1960s and 1970s are Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977) and Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza, 1981). I saw at least one of them at the Academy Cinema in London, a fine but now lost venue for quality film.

More recently Katyń (2007), dealing with the Soviet massacre of Polish Officers in 1941, was extremely well done. I was able to catch The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, 1975) as part of the programme ‘Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’. It was screened at the Sheffield Showroom in a good quality 35mm print. The film chronicled the development of the C19th capitalist textile firms in Łódź. There narrative was fascinating as were the characters and it included many fine sequences, one being an impressive factory fire.

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We can still look forward to his final film Afterimage ( Powidoki, 2016), though it does not yet have a UK release date.

Chi-Raq (US 2015)

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This is the new Spike Lee film set mainly in Chicago (or Chi-Raq) and which ‘The Guardian‘ review praised with four stars. It added a comment

“magnificent, rage-filled drama.”

I saw the film at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Catalogue quoted the director, who commented

“I think that we have the same indignation and hatred and anger when we do it to ourselves . . . “

on the ‘black-on-‘black violence that is the subject of the film.

I was underwhelmed by the film and found it rather scattergun in its treatment of the important topic. A couple of friends at the Festival offered similar opinions and one of them only gave it one star out of five.

The problem seems to be that the parts are better than the whole. The film uses rap-style dialogue, dramatic scenes, large scale set pieces including musical numbers and sequences that are predominately realist and other sequences that are fantastic even fanciful. I thought the set-pieces worked best, with Lee’s usual panache. The realist drama is based on actual figures in Chicago, a woman campaigner and a male priest. Replaying actual people and events can be tricky and I found some of the dramatic scenes somewhat ineffective.

Peter Bradshaw’s review adds

“It interestingly looks like a filmed stage play in the Aristophantic or maybe Brechtian style.”

Those two playwrights were skilled at balancing drama, irony and satire. Moreover, they worked in the theatrical medium and translating their ideas and practices to the medium of film is often problematic. This only works well when the filmmakers can translate these into the distinctive form of film. Spike Lee did this in a masterful fashion with his seminal Do the Right Thing (1989). Chi-Raq never achieves that level.

Peter Bradshaw also comments that

“it shows women of different ages banding together, organising, taking action.”

I found this aspect less than convincing. There are a series of short sequences where the activists in Chicago are supported by women in other lands and cultures, but there are not really convincing factors to explain this.

And Bradshaw also draws a comparison with Spike Lee’s own

Bamboozled (2000) or Kevin Willmott’s CSA: The Confederate States of America (20034).”

The first is a masterful satire and one of the exceptional US films of the last couple of decades. The latter is cartoonish and heavy-handed. Though Chi-Raq is better than that it does suffer from the same weaknesses.

I really like Spike Lee’s work so I was seriously disappointed on this occasion

Bob Dylan – poet, singer, song-writer, performer

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And now we can celebrate the addition of Nobel Laureate. I am playing my favourite albums in celebration. But there are also a number of films that would add pleasure to this.

A good start is Don’t Look Back (1967), D. A. Pennebaker’s classic documentary. Even in a time when music documentaries are often mainstream this stands out. He can also be seen in Martin Scorsese’s very fine The Last Waltz (1978) and in much greater detail in the made for television No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005). Wonder Boys (2000), for which Dylan won an Academy Award for Best Original Song ‘Things Have Changed’, is very good, with a fine performance by Michael Douglas. Even better is I’m Not There (2007), with the multiple variations on Dylan: the best for me being Cate Blanchett.

However, my key moment of Dylan on film is ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’, as in the original release version of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Dylan is not a consummate actor, but the haunting music over the near tragic death of Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) watched by his wife (Katy Jurado) is beautifully rendered. It would also provide a suitable elegy for Dylan as he (eventually) bows out.

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Sembène! in UK cinemas

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Sembène! is the new documentary about the great Senegalese director, Sembène Ousmane. It first showed in the UK at last year’s London Film Festival, but is now getting a limited UK release courtesy of the Africa in Motion Festival, based in Scotland. Screenings are listed on the film’s website and they begin in Edinburgh at the Filmhouse on Thurs October 6th followed by Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle on the 7th, HOME, Manchester on the 8th, Hyde Park, Leeds on the 9th, Showroom, Sheffield on the 10th and Broadway, Nottingham on the 11th. Each screening is accompanied by a personal appearance by the film’s co-director Samba Gadjigo. He then gets a couple of days rest before his London appearances. The website gets a little surreal at this point since he is listed as ‘in attendance’ at both Picturehouse Central and Brixton Ritzy at the same time on Friday October 14th. Perhaps there will be a satellite link between the two cinemas or he will introduce the film in the West End then get the tube to Brixton? Best check the cinemas for the details.

Pictured: Fatoumata Coulibaly as Colle Gallo Ardo Sy and Director Ousmane sembene.

Sembène Ousmane directing Fatoumata Coulibaly on the set of his last feature MOOLAADÉ

I’d like to urge you to see this wonderful documentary. If you know Sembène’s work you’ll discover some fascinating insights into his background and his life behind the camera. If you don’t know his films and aren’t aware of why he is such a revered figure, then this is an excellent introduction. His films themselves use great music and the documentary adds some interesting graphics. These documentary screenings are, in most of the cinemas, part of the BFI-sponsored mini-tour Rebel With a Camera: The Cinema of Ousmane Sembène which comprises the documentary plus three key films from Sembène’s career, Black Girl (La Noire de, Senegal-France 1966), Xala (Senegal 1974) and Moolaadé (Senegal-Burkina Faso-Tunisia-Cameroon-Morocco 2004). These films are showing on various dates at different cinemas, so best to check with the cinema nearest you.

I feel privileged to be able to chair the Q&A at HOME in Manchester which is screening all four films during October – dates here. Sembène has been called ‘The Father of African Cinema‘ and I’ve written a brief survey of his work here. The blog post dates from 2008 and I’ll be updating it when I can.

Here’s the trailer for Sembène! – I hope you can get to see it:

Seven Samurai (Japan 1954) and The Magnificent Seven (US 2016)

Kurosawa's original with Mifune Toshiro in the foreground

Kurosawa’s original Seven Samurai with Mifune Toshiro in the foreground

The new 'Seven' led by the man in black (Denzel Washington)

The new ‘Seven’ led by the man in black (Denzel Washington)

The new version of The Magnificent Seven is an entry in a major global franchise. The universal elements in the film’s story have been around for a very long time. Robin Hood, for instance, is a story in which a group of outlaws protect villagers from the Sheriff’s men. But the specific story structure of seven ‘professionals’ recruited to protect a village comes from the imagination of Kurosawa Akira and his collaborators and the folk tales and history of 16th century Japan that created the 1954 film Seven Samurai, widely regarded as a classic action film. Seven Samurai prompted the original Hollywood remake in 1960 and several sequels. In his chapter on ‘Remaking Seven Samurai in World Cinema’ in East Asian Cinemas (eds Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai, I. B. Tauris 2008) David Desser explores the influence of the film on a range of productions in Hong Kong and India as well as in the US. My interest is in the extent to which the new film draws on Kurosawa and how much is lost through the process of adaptation. The scriptwriters of the new film, Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, are credited alongside the original writers Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo. I note that Pizzolatto is a novelist who has written for the TV serials True Detective and the US remake of The Killing, and that he has also taught writing – all of which might give some hope that he could make good use of the original script.

There are certainly aspects of the original script still present, but the new film is 133 mins long, roughly 65% of the running time of the Kurosawa film, so quite a lot is missing (there is no ‘padding’ in Seven Samurai). The location of the story has moved north from the 1960 version and re-located in the Sierra Nevada (“three days from Sacramento”) in 1879. This makes sense since Seven Samurai was similarly based in the mountains in an isolated village. The date and setting make the new film a ‘mountain Western’ with gold mining. Here is the first problem in that the townspeople of Rose Creek don’t have a visible farming community and their attachment to the land is symbolic rather than being portrayed realistically. (In the original, the bandits have already been to steal the rice harvest and are expected again for the barley harvest.) The new script isn’t quite sure what to do with the gold miners and it doesn’t have time (or enough imagination?) to represent farming. Instead it introduces the villain as a capitalist exploiter and the main motivation of the townsfolk to be expressed through Emma (Haley Bennett), a woman who wants “righteousness” after her husband was killed by the exploiter “but will take revenge”. A similar figure was a minor but important character in the original. Apart from the preacher, none of the other townspeople is given a narrative function as such. Because of this, Kurosawa’s main theme is lost.

Seven Samurai is about a distinctive clash of caste and class presented as a humanist epic. The farmers in the isolated village normally despise the samurai, whose societal role as warriors employed by feudal lords is under threat during the 16th century when many of them are unemployed, becoming ronin or ‘masterless samurai’. The samurai who are recruited to help the farmers are poor and hungry – they will fight for three bowls of rice a day. But they are also men of honour, so they will fight to maintain that honour. Kurosawa makes this explicit and deeply moving by a decision to employ what was already becoming his trademark, the ‘master and apprentice’ roles within the group of samurai. Shimura Takashi as Kannei is the ‘master’, the older man who is a wise warrior, a skilled fighter and a leader of men. Katsushiro (Kimura Isao) is the young man, the devoted follower and the one with most to learn because he is distracted by a young woman from the village. Shimura was the actor used most by Kurosawa. But he isn’t the star of the film. That’s Mifune Toshiro. Mifune plays Kikuchiyo, the man who would be a samurai. His secret will only emerge later when we learn that he was a farmer’s son and that he had been abandoned as a baby during a raid by pirates. Kikuchiyo forms the bridge between the samurai and the farmers. He understands both and despises both, yet supports both. It is his human story that reveals the film’s theme. The genius of the Seven Samurai script is that we learn about a wide range of characters – so there are individual stories – but those stories also inform the overall narrative about a society in which both farmers and samurai/bandits are suffering (but in which the farmers will be the long-term winners).

Emma (Hayley Bennett) becomes a sharpshooter – and the effective leader of the town.

Emma (Hayley Bennett) becomes a sharpshooter – and the effective leader of the town.

The script for the new film struggles to find the same sense of coherence. We do learn something of the ‘back stories’ of ‘Chisolm’ (Denzel Washington) Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and a few others, but these stories don’t relate to the overall narrative in the same way as they do in Kurosawa’s film. Chisolm does have a personal reason to fight, but like Emma’s motivation it is about revenge against the villain, not about honour. Revenge is not a motive to trigger carnage on the scale depicted here. At the end of the Seven Samurai, the three survivors are the ‘master’, the ‘apprentice’ and the second in command. The other four samurai have been killed and the master observes, as planting begins for a new crop, that the farmers have won. I suppose I shouldn’t spoil the ending of the new version, save to note that what it seems to do is to highlight the new ‘diversity’ amongst the defenders of the village. Yet the weirdest thing about the whole film is that presence of a black law enforcement officer (Chisolm), an East Asian gunslinger, a Comanche warrior and a woman leading the townspeople is never really commented upon. Director Antoine Fuqua has said that he wanted to make the kind of Western that he watched as a child with his grandmother. In this sense his film is ‘colour-blind’. But this is a film set in that period of Western history when the four ‘minorities’ he presents in the narrative were actively engaged in conflicts in the ‘real West’ as well as the Hollywood ‘revisioned’ West of movies from the 1970s onwards. It’s as if movies like Harry Belafonte’s Buck and the Preacher (1972) never happened. In The Magnificent Seven we see the gamblers and saloon girls leaving town when the attacks begin, but in McCabe and Mrs Miller (1973), the brothel-keeper played by Julie Christie is a new kind of female entrepreneur to stand alongside the school teacher and the homesteader as a new female type – and a representative of capitalist enterprise. Instead of running away she would consider selling out to the kind of capitalist exploiter who threatens the town in the new Seven. The East Asian character is again not investigated in any way, even though 1879 was some 10 years after Chinese workers had helped build the first transcontinental railway in the US. Chinese migrants (and therefore East Asians generally) would have been part of the life of many Western towns. I’m not sure how a Korean would have got there, but the point is that Fuqua seems fairly cavalier about both ‘real’ history and the myths developed during the declining years of the Western as a mainstream genre. By contrast, Kurosawa’s historical representations were essentially ‘realist’ with careful research to get things ‘right’.

Kurosawa famously built his village in the mountains, for the most expensive film in Japanese history at that point. He built it to specifications with the various action sequences in mind. Fuqua presumably built his own town on location for the same reasons. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have thought so much about how to shoot the action scenes. The only thing I remember from the great battle is the bizarre sight of Denzel Washington performing a riding stunt worthy of a Roy Rogers movie in order to shoot a bad guy. Fuqua did choose to have a church at the centre of the action and this was a good decision, conjuring up a whole host of Westerns, but again I don’t think it was thought through fully. Kurosawa set his battle in the midst of howling winds and torrential rain with swordsmen struggling in a sea of mud to great effect. Nothing as exciting happens in the new film. However, I should record that I actually enjoyed watching Denzel and co. even as I was ticking off the missed opportunities. The film was entertaining, it just wasn’t ‘special’. Seven Samurai still stands at No 19 on IMDb’s all-time list of the Top 250 movies and for good reason. It has a great story, human values, engaging characters, terrific performances, photography and editing rarely bettered, a wonderful score and Mifune on fire. See the trailers below for a quick summation of the differences.

 

The Confession: Living the War on Terror (UK 2016)

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I saw this film at the Hyde Park Picture House: there was also a Q&A with the subject of the film, Moazzam Begg, and the director, Ashish Ghadiali, following the screening. The film centres on a long interview with Moazzam Begg as he recounts his experiences: radicalised by events in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s: harassed by the British Security Services and a move to Afghanistan; with the US invasion he moved with his family to Pakistan; and then the kidnapping and imprisonment at the US air base at Bagram and whisked away (illegally) to the Guantánamo base in occupied Cuba. There he was interrogated and tortured in the company of hundreds of other illegally detained men under the euphemism of ”enemy combatants’. Finally released Moazzam Begg has become an active Moslem and an activist in anti-imperial struggles. So predictably the UK government attempted to charge him again in 2014: and as with much on the so-called ‘war on terror’ pursued this incompetently.

The interview is absorbing and Begg is fluent and clearly has considered his experiences carefully and intelligently. The interview is well filmed by Director of Cinematography Keidrych Wasley: for much of the time we watch Begg and his reflection in a darkened mirror, occasionally changing to a large close-up for emphasis. The interview is supplemented by found footage, some of related people and places, some other interviews and much television and film footage of the events in which Begg has been involved. Some of the media footage is well judged, illuminating the topic or being illuminated by Begg’s voice over. Some of it feels like the visual padding that is so common on television news. There were a couple of over familiar sequences of Bush and Blair where I almost groaned out loud.

All of this is edited together in a predominately linear narrative which develops its themes and commentary into a coherent overview. The Film Editors Nsé Asuquo and Simon Barker have done this in excellent fashion. The sound is effective and there is frequent commentative music by Nitin Sawhney, well composed but at times a little intrusive.

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The Q&A that followed was interesting, especially the added comments by Moazzam Begg. And Ashish Ghadiali added some background to the film. But we then had several questions taken together before any response, which did not make for clarity. I had a couple of queries which I did not get an opportunity to put to the filmmaker. One was concerning the opening titles which included one that noted that Moazzam Begg and been imprisoned in ‘Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cuba and Britain’. This is not really correct and is misleading: The Guantánamo Detention Centre is in a part of Cuba occupied by the USA. A point that one would hope an independent film offered clarity on. Of more concern  to me was the use in the film of two unidentified interviewers, one heard briefly with Moazzam Begg’s father, but the other (or perhaps the same person) on several occasions with Begg himself. We do not actually see him but it did not seem to be the director in this role. But it was clear that the style of questioning determined to a great degree how Begg presented his experiences and therefore on the form of the film itself. What we saw and heard was rather similar to the approach one finds on the BBC (who were part of the production), requiring Begg and his supporters to justify their position. It should be obvious especially with the critical volume from bourgeois critics, that the justification lies entirely with the US and UK Governments and security services.

This produced a strong reservation for me about how effective this approach is. I certainly think the film and Moazzam Begg deserve full attention. But it needs to be supplemented by a more radical approach. I thought that The Road to Guantánamo (2006) had that. It seems that the screenings of Confession with an accompanying Q&A have finished but the film is still screening nationwide.

Barry Lyndon (UK-US 1975)

The opening shot of Barry Lyndon presenting Redmond Barry's father's death in long shot

The opening shot of ‘Barry Lyndon’ presenting Redmond Barry’s father’s death in long shot

The BFI’s release of a 4K restoration print of Barry Lyndon is now doing the rounds of UK specialised screens. After my recent viewing of the new Blu-ray of Novecento/1900, I wondered how Stanley Kubrick would measure up to Bertolucci with a similarly long and meticulously created historical drama. I didn’t see Barry Lyndon on its 1975-6 UK release but I vaguely remember its poor reception by critics and its lack of commercial success (i.e. compared to Clockwork Orange in 1971-2). Since that first release Barry Lyndon‘s stock has risen considerably and now it is taken by some critics to be Kubrick’s masterpiece. Intrigued by this change of heart I went back to the extended review article by Penelope Houston in Sight and Sound, Spring 1976. She sets out what reads now as a calm and measured view on the film and one which seems ‘spot on’ to me. Sight and Sound gave the film a 3 star (out of 4) rating. I also checked Monthly Film Bulletin in which Richard Combs also gives a positive/constructive review, so the critical reception was not all negative. Houston does quote some of the negative comments by UK and US press reviewers and says that she herself was puzzled by the film, but then uses the space available to her (as the editor of Sight and Sound) to produce a more measured response.

Background to the production

Barry Lyndon is argued to be the eventual outcome of Kubrick’s frustrated attempt to make a film set during the Napoleonic Wars. After a lukewarm response from Warner Bros. he turned instead to an early work by Thackeray, first published as a serial in 1844 and later re-issued as a novel. Set in the second half of the 18th century, the story (based on a real biography) involves a young Irish ‘gentleman’ named Redmond Barry with limited prospects who seeks to better himself and who, after adventures in Prussia and across Europe, marries a wealthy widow, Lady Lyndon, with land and a small son (who inherits his birth father’s title). Barry becomes ‘Barry Lyndon’ but ultimately fails to establish himself as a member of the aristocracy and is effectively defeated by his own stepson. The story is in some ways a precursor to Thackeray’s much more well-known Vanity Fair (1847) with Becky Sharp as its protagonist. Kubrick appears to have altered significant aspects of the narrative of Barry Lyndon, including changing the narrator from Barry himself to an unseen ‘omniscient’ narrator voiced by Michael Hordern. The suggestion is that Kubrick loses something of Thackeray’s comedy and changes the nature of his satire. For some audiences this means it is more difficult to understand what it is that Kubrick wants to say about 18th century British life or about the aristocracy of Europe. The two charges against the film are therefore that it is ‘cold’, ‘distant’ and ‘static’ and that Kubrick’s intention is difficult to define.

One of Alcott's interiors lit by candles. Lady Lyndon ( Marisa Berenson) at the card table with her son's tutor and the family chaplin Rev. Runt (Murray Melvin)

One of Alcott’s interiors lit by candles. Lady Lyndon ( Marisa Berenson) at the card table with her son’s tutor and the family chaplin Rev. Runt (Murray Melvin)

The outcome of the film’s Oscar nominations seems to have been influenced by these charges so that its four Oscar wins were all ‘technical’ – Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design and Music Scoring. Kubrick himself was nominated in three categories – Best Picture, Direction and Adapted Screenplay – but didn’t win for any of these. I’m not sure about the music (an acknowledged strength of Kubrick’s productions) – it is certainly noticeable and there are some excellent choices but sometimes it seems heavy-handed. The other three awards are richly deserved. Cinematographer John Alcott worked with Kubrick to produce interiors lit only with candles and the long shots of landscapes and several of the interiors evoke the fine art painting of the 18th century masters. It’s hard to deny that the film is wondrous to behold on screen. But what does it all mean?

Analysis

Kubrick followed the (eminently sensible) roadshow convention of inserting an intermission so there is a part 1 of 102 mins and a Part 2 of 82 minutes. Part 1 is the picaresque adventure and Part 2 is the failed attempt to become an aristo. Richard Combs argues that by removing Barry’s ironic narration and presenting the action in such a distanced way Kubrick creates a character who is first passive and then compliant as an agent in the cold, harsh world of 18th century Europe. He sees a connection to Kubrick’s own Paths of Glory and he argues that Ryan O’Neal as Barry is “not perverse casting against type, but essential to the way Kubrick has revised the character of Thackeray’s swashbuckling braggart”. Combs goes on to carefully sketch out how this works. He may well be right but I’m afraid I’m still stuck with O’Neal as miscasting.

One of the beautifully-composed scenes from Part 2 with Barry drunk in his club. The image recalls a Hogarth etching and signals the beginning of Barry's fall.

One of the beautifully-composed scenes from Part 2 with Barry drunk in his club. The image recalls a Hogarth etching and signals the beginning of Barry’s fall.

Ryan O’Neal was undoubtedly a star in the early 1970s with lead roles in Love Story, What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon – films which did very well at the box office, pleased many critics and won awards. In most of these roles O’Neal is the romantic/passive/idealist figure. I certainly see these elements of his star persona in Barry Lyndon but the role also demands cunning/deceit and a form of courage which is less in evidence for me. I’m not suggesting that this is ‘bad acting’ but rather that O’Neal brings ‘star baggage’ that works against the other performances, mostly by British character actors. Leonard Rossiter offers one of his gurning comic turns but generally the rest of the cast fits Combs’ overall description of the world Kubrick creates. I wondered how Barry might have come across played by Malcolm McDowell. I was thinking not only of Clockwork Orange but also of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973). Penelope Houston points out that McDowell also appeared as an early 19th century scoundrel/cad in Royal Flash (1975) and argues that he might have portrayed Thackeray’s original Barry – but not Kubrick’s revised version. I think the point here is simply to recognise that in ‘reading’ Kubrick’s film it is too constricting to take it as either an auteurist project or a literary adaptation. The approach to cinematography, set design and costumes places the film in relation to a long history of attempts to represent British landscapes and rural life in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was reminded of Chris Menges’ work on Ken Loach’s Black Jack (1979) (set in Yorkshire in the 1750s) and in my post on that film I discuss many of the other titles to which Kubrick’s film alludes, if only tangentially, via its concern with landscape and forms of realism.

I’m pleased to have seen Barry Lyndon. I think that what I most enjoyed was the array of British character actors as well as the sheer beauty of the film. I did feel distanced from the narrative but I think with a second viewing I would fully appreciate the Houston/Combs readings and understand Kubrick’s project. But I don’t think I would be moved by it. I’d like now to go back to Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair (2004), a film I did enjoy at the time despite its generally poor critical reception and indifferent box office. Both Nair and Kubrick represent attempts to use Hollywood money to make ‘international films’ based on British literary texts by the same author. Their very different approaches are worth exploring.

Barry Lyndon new 2016 trailer: