Category: People

Selma (US/UK 2014)

selmaposter2

This film has already generated much interest and nominations for a number of prestigious awards. However, a major Oscar was not one of the Awards that it actually won. The Hollywood Academy is not noted for its critical acumen, but this year’s major awards really do ‘take the biscuit’. Do people really think that Birdman is a better film, has a better director and has better cinematography? Of the major award nominees Selma is the best film that I have seen, apart from Ida in the Best Foreign Language Category. It may sound banal but maybe the members of the Academy felt that honouring 12 Years a Slave last year sufficed. Perhaps more tellingly, the only Oscar awarded to Selma was for Best Song ‘Glory’. It would seem that the US discourse around “race”, ethnicity and colour still suffers stereotypes such as African-Americans only make good entertainers and sports people!

Revisiting on film the Civil Rights movement in the USA of the 1950s and 1960s is like revisiting the European holocaust or some of the brutal events of colonial and neo-colonial history – always something of a shock. The sheer violence and viciousness of the system of oppression and apartheid turns out to be even more extreme than one thought. Here the story is the organising of a march by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to pressurise President Johnson to pass a Voting Rights Act. One aspect of the film is a portrait of both the public and private figure of Dr. Martin Luther King. But it is also a portrait of an important group of black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: of some key individuals involved in that struggle: and of other key political figures involved in these events which occurred in 1965. The film presents and dramatises the conflicts between King’s public and private life: the tensions and conflicts in the black civil rights movement: and the conflicts within the US political establishment between leaders seen as liberal or reactionary.

The film has a striking opening. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) stands in front of a mirror rehearsing a speech: his wife Coretta (Carmen Elogo) helps him adjust his tie/Ascot: Dr King receives the Nobel Peace Prize. As he delivers his speech the film cuts to a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A group of children playfully descend a staircase and a violent explosion, killing four young black girls, shatters the calm. The last sequence is shot using noticeable cinematic techniques, which the film then tends to eschew later on. It provides a shocking moment, which of course, was the frequent experience of black people in the South at that time.

Martin and Coretta

Martin and Coretta

The film continues with scenes from private life of Martin and Coretta. We see the preparations by black leaders for the march, including some dissension and arguments. Cameos of ordinary black characters fill out the actual experience of the day to day for the black population. And there are high level meetings between President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King and his colleagues. One effective technique is the use of onscreen Teletype titles, which record the spying by the FBI on Dr. King and his colleagues. We also get a brief glimpse of Edgar J. Hoover.

The early parts of the film tend to the low key, with limited musical accompaniment. Church meetings, where Dr. King’s charisma electrifies and galvanises the ordinary black population, punctuate the plot.

When the film reaches the actual march the drama and the onscreen violence increase dramatically. And the musical accompaniment moves up several notches. This is the mode of the melodrama of protest, and the film very effectively uses those conventions to draw the audience and their sympathies to the courageous black marchers. Somewhat unusually in this genre, though the film ends with the torch of the struggle for Civil Rights carried forward, it does also close with an identifiable victory, the passage of the historic Voting Rights Acts. On screen titles chart the course of the central characters: the continuation of white-on-black violence: but also the effect of the right to vote for black citizens.

Protesting the right to vote

Protesting the right to vote

Whilst in this sense the film is agitational it also addresses more complex matters. So the speeches and discussions by the black leaders gradually impart to the audience the actual mechanics of the racist denial of voting rights. The politics and political manoeuvring are also apparent: and the film delineates the actuality of Non-violent protest in an extremely effective manner. The meetings with Johnson demonstrate how this ‘liberal’ politician was actually driven [like F.D.R.] by popular and organised pressure to effect the historic legislation of his Presidency. And the range of attitudes and prejudices within the political establishment are well aired. What the film does not essay, perhaps understandably given its intent, is an attempt to understand the basis of white prejudice in the way that it explores black resistance.

If the Academy’s Best Picture Award is for a film that has the highest quality in every department, [and is invariably an English language film], then I cannot think of a better candidate than Selma. Indeed, it is worthy of an Oscar in several other categories. It is beautifully produced, has an intelligent but highly dramatic approach to its subject, and this itself is an important topic and not just in the USA. I have seen the film twice now, on both occasions there were good-sized audiences who were clearly impressed by the film – you can tell by how many and for how long the audience sit through the final credit sequence.

The film is obviously well scripted, by British Paul Webb. However, in an interview in Sight & Sound (March 2015), the director Ava DuVernay explained how she had rewritten and added to the script. This was cleanly a substantial addition though she does not seem to have an onscreen credit, [she does get ‘a film by ..’]. Judging by her comments she added considerably to both the intelligent and dramatic treatment of the subject. And whilst the film is serious it has its lighter moments. At one point Mahalia Jackson renders a spiritual down the telephone to hearten Dr. King. And when activists preparing for the final march hear that some Hollywood black stars are coming to join them they break into a chorus of De.e.o.o.o.o. The film is also conscious on the issue of gender – at mealtimes and in other ways. When Malcom X appears to the chagrin of the black male leaders, Coretta King is deputised to meet and talk with him.

In addition to this DuVernay has ably marshalled a sizeable production team, all of whom should be commended for their inputs. The acting in the film has been duly praised and honoured. David Oyelowo has been singled out deservedly. Ironically along with two other fine performers, Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, we have a key ‘American film’ where major characters are performed by British actors. Carmen Elogo is excellent and so are the many performers working as colleagues of King. And the cameos are finely drawn with Ofrah Winfrey offering one as activist Annie Lee Cooper. White characters do tend to the stereotypical [excepting Johnson and Wallace], but that too is in line with the intent of the film.

The cinematography by Bradford Young is excellent. At times mid-shots and close-ups takes us into the personal drama. But longer shots and dramatic overhead shots accompany the action sequences. What struck me especially on the second viewing is the use of lighting. In an early speech Dr. King tells the congregation that they must stand up ‘in the daylight’. This becomes a theme in the film, as the lighting develops a pattern of light and shadow, reaching its culmination at the final rally in Montgomery. Just to highlight one scene. At a moment of doubt in the campaign King has a conversation with a young activist, John Lewis (Stephan James), in a car: whilst they are partly in darkness, as the conversation develops the light falls increasingly on King’s face.

The film was mainly shot on location. There is a very effective recreation of the period both in settings and costumes. And there are nice touches that set off the subject. There is King and Johnston arguing beneath a portrait of George Washington. Then we see a Southern style meal eagerly despatched by the black leadership, waited on by a female black activist. Right at the end we see Johnson, with the Stars and Stripes on either side, sitting regally in the Oval office.

And the film has a very effective and well-balanced soundtrack. Whilst the voices and accents seemed to be authentic the dialogue was mainly easy to follow. There is a judicious use of noise, which is amplified for the action sequences. And the music is minimal at times and then reaches effective crescendos at times of action.

Marching towards a victory

Marching towards a victory

The end of the film uses archive footage of the actual march intercut with the film’s recreation. Both are in the 2.39:1 anamorphic ratio – this is not a technique with which I am happy but it seems to work well here. I did have other concerns. It seems that the production could not use King’s actual speeches as they are already copyrighted: though those in the film seemed perfectly in keeping with the King I remember from television and film. The speeches have been copyrighted to Steven Spielberg, who also planned a film on Martin Luther King. I assume that this production requested their use – I would have thought Spielberg could have been satisfied with offering an effective portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Finally the film was shot on 35mm but has been digitally re-mastered for cinema exhibition [and for other formats]. The re-mastering has been done at 2K. I do not think the 2K standard does justice to good quality 35mm. The longer the shot, the greater likelihood of a lack of definition. And given the film’s play with light and shadow the dynamic contrast of 35mm or 4K digital would have served this better. When filmmakers are using 4K for digital film and exhibitors proudly advertise 4K projectors this seems an unacceptably stingy practice by producers and distributors.

Still if you see one Oscar-winning film this year, make it Selma – you will be absorbed, shocked, moved and entertained.

American Sniper (US 2014)

american-sniper

I had warnings about this film beforehand – not that great reviews and less than positive word of mouth. The film lived down to my expectations. Mainly this was because of the reactionary politics that provide its basis. The film is based on the actual career of a SEAL sniper, nicknamed ‘the legend’, fighting in Iraq where he scored over 160 kills. We follow gun-toting yanks riding round Iraq shooting down the hapless natives – be they civilians, collaborators or the opposition. The battle scenes were rather like a computer game, with bodies falling everywhere: the amount of firepower makes the film rather loud. This is nothing new: US films tend to present body counts of something like 50 or a 100 to one in their own favour. And the stereotypical and negative representation of the ‘other’ has a long track record.

On top of this the film was not that engaging. The production values are pretty good, but the protagonists do not seem to engender much sympathy or identification, though both are clearly intended.

When I returned home, as is my habit, I read the review in Sight & Sound (February 2015). This was one of the longer reviews; by Nick Pinkerton. It stimulated me to think again about the film. The comments on the film are really interesting, though finally I found them not fully convincing.

Pinkerton’s main point is to argue that:

He [Eastwood] has made a movie that embodies, with awe and horror, the national romance with firearms.

In arguing this point of view Pinkerton fails to address the main point – that the Iraq military adventure was a neo-colonial assault on an oppressed people. One of the main characters, Taya (Sienna Miller) tells her husband Chris Kyle (the sniper of the title – Bradley Cooper) that

This is about us, not them.

This appears to be the stance of a large proportion of the US population, of the book from which the film is adapted [Kyle’s bestselling memoir], of this film version, and the review itself.

The nearest the review approaches to the violence inflicted on the Iraqi people is,

While in the country, Kyle witnesses – and inflicts – horrors untold. Many people die and die badly, women and children first.

That is as close as Pinkerton gets to addressing the major silences of the film. It is clear that Kyle has little comprehension of the politics of this war. The film itself is mainly silent on these, and whilst we see atrocities committed by the Iraqi opposition, there is no mention of those perpetrated by the US military, despite much of the film being set in Fallujah.

There is a hint of criticism in the film, (overlooked in this review). Kyle’s friend and fellow SEAL is Marc (Lee Grimes). At one point he starts to voice his doubts about the war: Kyle silences him. Marc is killed in action and his last letter home is read out at the graveside by his mother. The letter appears critical of the US war: however, you cannot be sure because the mother’s voice is racked with sobs that make her words inaudible.

The review is stronger in its focus on the US gun culture. Guns are endemic in this film: not just toted by yanks in Iraq but also in the flashbacks to Kyle’s childhood and in his parenting of his own children later. However, Pinkerton’s emphasis on the film’s treatment of guns seems to me to overstate the case. The aspects of the film that he points to are mainly in the mise en scène, cinematography and editing. He may be correct in attributing this to a conscious stance on the part of Eastwood; however, I rather doubt that with a film intended for a mainstream audience that visual style alone is sufficient to carry messages. The audience has already contributed over $250 million at the box office.

One point that Pinkerton’s picks up on is the commencement of a flashback:

We are on the rooftop in Fallujah where Kyle is lining up his first kill. Then, with the sound of a rifle report, we are in a patch of wood in Texas some 20 years earlier, with Kyle – not much older than the boy he is about to kill – and his father.

His comments on the father-son chain in US gun culture are pertinent: but the equation of an Iraqi child and a deer is troubling.

Then he points out a sequence late in the film, with Kyle and Taya married with two children.

Kyle, on the morning of his death, prowls around his house with an upholstered six-shooter, playing a game of stick-‘em-up desperado with his wife . . .

This scene is disturbing. But it is followed by the onscreen title explaining how Kyle died – shot by a Vet he was helping to rehabilitate. Kyle has been working with disabled Vets, mainly taking them to shooting ranges. The prior sequences where we see a vet shooting at target seems to be played entirely straight, no hint of irony. The film implies that Kyle’s work with Vets helps him resolve his own post-conflict traumas. Cooper plays Kyle as tight-lipped; not revealing his inner troubles. The sequence where they surface is at a family garden party. Typically of Hollywood we are shown Kyle attacking, not a human, but a playful border collie: the dog survives, apparently unscathed.

We see over the final credits the funeral sequence that follows his death. It shows Kyle honoured as a hero, with innumerable Stars and Stripes visible. The endings of films usually have a special privilege in endorsing particular values in the film. Here we have the endorsement of the US adventure in Iraq and [it seems to me] Kyle’s obsession with and use of guns.

Pinkerton thinks that

American Sniper is a movie that says one thing and shows another …

He compares the film to Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Examining the apparatus of myth-making as it applies to real human lives. First you print the legend, then you bury him.

It seems to me that Flags of Our Fathers is a much better and more critical film than American Sniper. The latter film uses the flashback mode, the earlier film set around the battle for Iwo Jima, is constructed around a complex series of sequences that range back and forth between past and present: pointing up the contradictions embodied in the story. The first depiction of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima turns out to be a re-enactment. It is 70 minutes into the film that we finally see the actual event. Eastwood allows us to see the price that the characters pay in that film: and indeed to see their own awareness of the cost. Moreover, Flags of Our Fathers presents the social and economic context in the USA at the time. The film does focus on the experience of the US military and citizens, as does American Psycho. In both films Eastwood’s sympathies are clearly with the ordinary ‘grunts’: but American Sniper fails to move beyond this. And Flags of Our Fathers was accompanied by a fellow film, Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), which presented (less successfully) the Japanese experience. It is a shame that Eastwood did not care to provide a film that presents the experience of the Iraqi people during the war.

The Return (Vozvrashchenie, Russia 2003)

The family together on the day of the father's return.

The family together on the day of the father’s return.

The Return marked the first appearance of director Andrey Zvyagintsev on the international scene when it won several awards at Venice, including the Golden Lion. It is rare that a first feature (following television dramas) is so accomplished and Zvyagintsev seemed to appear fully-formed as an international arthouse director – something confirmed by the three further features during the next ten years. It’s significant that this was no young tyro but a former actor who began to work in television in his late 30s. Not trained in film school he claims to have learned his craft by watching the great auteur directors – Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Tarkovsky etc. His age is significant in that he grew up as a teenager and young adult during the last decades of the Soviet Union so he has lived through the transition to ‘modern’ Russia. Growing up in Novisibirsk in South-West Siberia, the major city of Russian Central Asia before moving to Moscow he would certainly have been conscious of landscape and climate – two of the distinctive features of The Return.

The film’s production was funded by REN-TV, the independent commercial channel that first offered Zvyagintsev directing work and the script was initially intended as a thriller. Zvyagintsev decided to jettison many of the plot elements producing instead an enigmatic arthouse narrative. Ironically, the film’s festival successes made the director into a star in Russia where there is still a great deal of prestige attached to ‘film as art’, certainly more than to commercial cinema. His win at Venice placed Zvyagintsev alongside Tarkovsky, the last Russian to win a Golden Lion in 1962. In broad outline the plot offers the ‘return’ of the father after an absence of 12 years to his family in a small coastal town. This comes as a shock to his two sons. The youngest, Ivan, was only an infant when his father left and his brother Andrey was only a couple of years older. The two boys have different personalities and this becomes important in their reactions to their father’s appearance and his subsequent actions. These include the adventure holiday he decides to take them on while leaving behind the boys’ mother and grandmother.

Arrival on the island: a sunny scene but the composition emphasises Ivan's distance from his father (as the younger son looking out across the lake)

Arrival on the island: a sunny scene but the composition emphasises Ivan’s distance from his father (as the younger son looking out across the lake)

The boys have no idea where they are going and it isn’t long before they realise that they are being ‘tested’ in some way – subject to a ‘learning by doing’ approach to father-son bonding. While Andrey tries to adjust to this, Ivan is reluctant to the point of rebellion. No explanation is given as to where the father has been for 12 years. Has he been in prison? More likely he has been in the army – his treatment of the boys seems like a military training approach. I won’t spoil the narrative, but the plot elements from the thriller that do remain (phone calls to an unknown person, what has been described as a Hitchcockian ‘Macguffin’ – a mysterious object) do ratchet up the tension. We know something is going to happen. All of this is a big gamble for the director. He is reliant on three sets of creative elements – the three central performances, the environment (landscape and weather) and cinematography/sound/music. It is because each of these three is so well handled and excellently co-ordinated that the open-ended narrative works. The budget was only $500,000 so there would be little possibility of re-shoots and CGI to correct mistakes.

The final section of the film was shot on and around Lake Ladoga (the largest lake in Europe) in the Leningrad Oblast. The lake is so large that it feels and looks like an inland sea. Although it isn’t that far from the main centres of ‘European Russia’ it can still feel like a remote location. It’s difficult to articulate the power of landscape in Russian cinema but it is central to the work of many of the great Russian directors. Characters have a long way to travel, many parts of the vast country are under-populated, the ‘continental’ climate offers extremes of weather. The enormous skies and clear vistas offer a contrast to the ‘urban’ and bring audiences closer to the mythological and religious experience – our time in the cinema becomes an experience akin to 40 days and nights in the desert.

Ivan's plea to go fishing results in being abandoned for a few hours – and caught in the torrential rain.

Ivan’s plea to go fishing results in being abandoned for a few hours – and caught in the torrential rain.

Since audiences are denied that obsession of commercial cinema that produces ‘closure’ – or at least a defined question or puzzle – in The Return, readings tend to turn to religion, mythology and allegory/metaphor. Several commentators refer to the father’s behaviour as ‘abuse’. I’m not sure that is helpful. There is no evidence that he wishes to harm his sons. On the contrary he wants to build relationships but his approach is wrong for the context. In Russian terms this might be a commentary on masculinity, on the failure of the rigid military/ideological discipline of the Soviet Union – or it may be a commentary on biblical themes whose potency is re-emerging in modern Russia. I don’t as yet have a strong view on any of these possibilities. The imagery (courtesy of DoP Mikhail Krichman, responsible for camerawork on each of Zvyagintsev’s four features) is so powerful (especially in conjunction with Andrey Dergachev’s music) that at this stage I simply want to enjoy being enveloped by it. Only The Banishment to go now and then I’ll reassess across the four films. The Return is a stunning début film.

Here’s the trailer:

Violette (France 2013)

Violette (Emmanuelle Devos) in the foreground with Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kilberlain) in the background.

Violette (Emmanuelle Devos) in the foreground with Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) in the background.

Violette was the opening title in a short season of films showing at Dean Clough, the arts facility housed in the famous woollen carpet mills in Halifax. The screenings by Reel Solutions under the banner ‘Cinegalleria‘ are held in the Crossley Gallery. Bill Lawrence of Reel Solutions chose Violette because he sees it as the kind of French film which is no longer getting the kind of release in UK cinemas that it deserves. Ironically in the same week it featured in the ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot featured in Picturehouse Cinemas. This gives the film a single showing in the chain’s weekly programme in a range of its cinemas. A few years ago Violette would have played for a week with two shows a day.

The screening was introduced by Alison Fell from Leeds University who outlined the unique profile of the writer Violette Leduc, the subject of this biopic. She told us that Leduc was a literary figure of importance in the 1950s who wrote about her own experiences in new and daring ways – unexpected ways for a woman at the time and as a consequence she fell foul of both the censors and the literary establishment.

I must confess that though I was looking forward to seeing Emmanuelle Devos as Violette, I was slightly concerned that one of the earlier films by director Martin Provost had been a biopic of the painter Séraphine de Senlis (Séraphine, France 2008). It looked like there were some similarities between the two women’s lives and though I had enjoyed most of Séraphine, I remember that I thought the director somehow lost the story towards the end of the film. I needn’t have worried that this would be the case with Violette.

The film narrative deals mainly with a twenty year period in Violette Leduc’s life from the time when she was in her mid-thirties, earning money as a black marketeer and aiding the resistance in 1944, up to her moment of triumph as a successful writer in 1964 with her novel La bâtarde. It is her struggle to become recognised as a writer in the intervening years that forms the main part of the narrative. The film suggests that Violette came across a copy of a book by Simone de Beauvoir during the war when she was living in a ‘cover’ arrangement with the gay writer Maurice Sachs. When she began writing in earnest she attempted to make a friendship with de Beauvoir, a seemingly cold and difficult woman who nevertheless felt compelled to help Violette, encouraging her writing and recognising its remarkable qualities.

In the interview below the director (and co-writer) Martin Provost describes Violette Leduc’s writing as autofiction – even though the term seems to have been coined in 1977, five years after Leduc’s death. In French literature studies it has been used to describe the marriage of autobiography and fiction. Violette Leduc wrote about her own sexual experiences and relationships as well as her struggles having been born ‘out of wedlock’. She did this in vibrant and explicit but nevertheless engaging language – so much so that her work was censored at the same time as being recognised by the French intelligentsia (or at least the coterie of de Beauvoir, Genet and Camus – Sartre doesn’t appear, which seems odd) as revolutionary in its representation of women’s lives. The narrative structure involves a triangular struggle between Violette and her potential supporters and the French literary establishment. But where de Beauvoir is steely in her resolve, Violette Leduc is both passionate about her work but also lacking in confidence and prone to undervaluing her own qualities. This is neatly presented in a scene in a bookshop when Leduc is trying to find her first published work on the shelves after de Beauvoir has got it into print via Camus – in a cheaper format that the bookshop doesn’t stock. I think that audiences who don’t know de Beauvoir (I had to look up her biography) might struggle at this point to understand her behaviour. Has she in some way ‘conned’ Leduc? No, I don’t think so. Her convent education and her Sorbonne degree at a time when academic Frenchwomen were rare, taught her to be disciplined and resolute. Violette is a very different person. There is a strong element of social class conflict in Violette’s dealings with Jean Genet and the parfumier Jacques Guerin (a wonderful comic turn by Olivier Gourmet) and there is a worry that Violette’s decline before her eventual rise might turn into a kind of ‘misery memoir’ narrative. It doesn’t happen because Provost is determined to treat Violette as a writer who should be given respect. But I do wonder if the film would work as well as it does without the two riveting central performances by Emmanuelle Devos as Violette and Sandrine Kiberlain as Simone de Beauvoir.

The two leads together

The two leads together

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir

I like both these actors very much. Kiberlain disappears into the role – I was amazed to see how much she resembles photographs of de Beauvoir – and is utterly convincing. Emmanuelle Devos is a remarkable star actor. As this American blog entry asks, why isn’t she better known in the anglophone world? The writer answers his own question by suggesting that it is the conservative, and shrinking, distribution system for foreign language films. I remember first noticing Ms Devos in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and then going back to the same director’s 2001 film Read My Lips in which she starred opposite Vincent Cassell. She has also starred  in films for Arnaud Desplechin and IMDb credits her with 76 acting credits in a career of less than 30 years. In terms of acting technique and performance skills I’m sure there are British and American actors who are similarly equipped but Ms Devos has several advantages in what is after all a visual medium. She has a body and a face (augmented in this film by a prosthesis) that are distinctive and they are deployed with terrific effect in Violette. The character bemoans her own unattractiveness and Devos can do despair as well as she can do disdain – and every emotion between them. I think she is compelling and always watchable. She’s also fearless in presenting her own physicality. This a performance not to be missed and Violette is a film that deserves much more exposure.

The performances help the film to overcome the usual problems associated with biopics and period films (here a certain kind of ‘heritage film’ that French cinema shares with the UK). This biopic works because the time period is reduced to 20 years or so and the narrative has a clear structure associated with the writer and the people with whom she had the closest relationships. Provost actually presents the narrative in chapters based mainly on the relationships with specific characters. Period films can suffer from a sense of nostalgia, a stuffiness doused in a veneer of ‘authenticity’. That’s avoided here partly because of the vitality of performance and costume design and the tenacity in finding appropriate locations and lighting them carefully. The DoP Yves Cape does an excellent job and he clearly knows how to photograph women (I note that he was the DoP on the Claire Denis film White Material with Isabelle Huppert).

Much of the discussion around the film is about how ‘difficult’ a person the real Violette Leduc was. Even Emmanuelle Devos has described her as a pain. I can say that I didn’t feel that. She had every right to be angry in most of the scenes. I haven’t analysed this film re the Bechdel Test but there are two interesting and complex women at the centre of this and if you add Violette’s mother that’s three.

This interview with the director includes references to some of the aspects discussed here and features several scenes from the film: