Category: Directors

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017

The 31st Archive Festival presented by the Cineteca di Bologna ran from Saturday June 24th until Sunday July 1st. The Festival has expanded rapidly in recent years. During the day there were screenings in four auditoria – The Salas Mastroianni and Scorsese at the Cineteca and the Arlecchino and Jolly cinemas. And there are smaller salons for supporting events. In the evenings these four screens are added to by the Piazza Maggiore in the city centre and the Piazzetta Pasolini at the Cineteca.

My friend Peter Rist worked out that there were 250 titles in this year’s festival, and only a fifth of these had repeat screenings. Thus even the most dedicated cineaste could see even a fraction of the Festival programme. This year those cineastes exceeded 3,000. So popular titles nearly always involved queues and sometimes a fairly crowded auditorium. My strategy for coping was to focus on 35mm; these composed just under half the programme. I managed 30 35mm prints and then ten digital (titles described were in 35mm unless noted otherwise). Even then one had to make choices between interesting and even fascinating films.

‘A Hundred Years Ago: 50 films of 1917 in 35mm’ offered a series of daily programmes, with both short and feature-length films. One that caught a crowd was Abel Gance’s early masterwork, Mater Dolorosa. One of the finest was Thomas Graals Bästa Film / Thomas Graal’s Best Film ((Sweden). Directed by Mauritz Stiller, this was a  delightful comedy centred on a scriptwriter working on his next  film. The writer and title character was played by Stiller’s fellow-filmmaker Victor Sjöström. And as was often the case in Swedish films of this period there was a strong and independent minded female lead, Bessie (Karin Molander). We also enjoyed a film directed by Sjöström, Tones Fran Stormyrtorpet / The Girl from the Marsh Croft (Sweden). The film was based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf, whose writings provided stories for a number of Swedish films in the silent era. The plot was familiar, focusing on class, bigotry and the restraints of religious morality. The put-upon young heroine Helga was played with real power by Greta Almroth, whilst future star Lars Hansen played Gudmund. The film made great use of contrasting spaces and offered that exceptional use of natural locations that grace the silent Swedish films.

‘Thomas Graal’s Best Film ‘

Also in the programme was a rare Triangle western directed by Frank Borzage, Until They Get Me ; a Lyda Borelli vehicle directed by Carmine Gallone, Malombra; and a German ghost film directed by Robert Wiene with a young Conrad Veidt and distinctive tinting, Furcht / Fear. Needless to say they all proved popular, generating queues of expectant admirers and full auditoriums.

The programme that I managed to see in its entirety was ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’. This was another programme curated by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström. The titles all came from between 1937 and 1941 when Japan was under the control of a militaristic regime: all were jidai-geki or period films. In their introduction Alexander and Johan explained that the series of films selected all explored,

“how to present the past . . .”

and that all these films in some way

“challenge the samurai values . . .”

which were central to the regime.

The opening title was a film that I have read about often but which I had to wait until now to see, Ninjo Kamifusen / Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937). The film was directed by a promising young filmmaker Yamanaka Sadao, who sadly died in the war against China the following year. The film opens with a Samurai suicide and then follows the effects as they work through a small tenement community. The film has a substantial group of central characters and represents the class divisions underlying conflicts through the use of spatial difference. It also offers one of the great endings on film. There were seven others films in the programme, two of which, Hana Chirinu / Fallen Blossoms (1938) and Sono Zen’ya / The Night Before, are set in the crucial year of 1877 when a samurai rebellion attempted to stopped the modernisation led by the Meiji Restoration. And Kyojinden / The Giant (1938) was an impressive though not completely successful adaptation of Victor Hugo’s great French novel ‘Les Misérables’. All the films were interesting and worth watching. However, the print quality of some of these films, dating back decades, was mixed. Several did not have great definition or contrast: in the case of one film this meant that it was difficult to identify all the characters and their actions. The projection accentuated this because it mainly used the sub-titles as a point of focus, and on 35mm there is a slight difference in the plane.

‘Humanity and Paper Balloons ‘

The Film Foundation’s World Cinema project is now an established event in the Festival. The Foundation has now embarked on a project to restore fifty key films from Africa. So, as a real treat, we were able to see three films by Med Hondo. Born in Mauritania Hondo worked elsewhere in Africa and then in France. He took up acting and founded his own company in 1966. Then, working in television and film, he moved into cinema. Like some other notable filmmakers he has funded his film direction by his work as an actor. Since 1967 he has been able to make eight films. The Foundation has produced a digital restoration of his first, Soleil Ȏ (Mauritania, 1970 – DCP). Shot in black and white the film uses avant-garde techniques but it is better described as an ‘agit-prop’ documentary. Whilst it has a dramatised plot line the film presents the experiences of black people in Paris in this period.

“All the scenes were based on reality. Because racism isn’t invented, especially in film. It’s like a kind of cloak put on you, that you’re forced to live with.” (Med Hondo, 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

It is powerful document and stands up as relevant forty years on.

The programme also included two of Hondo’s later films in 35mm prints from the Harvard Film Archive. West Indies (France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979) could be described as a period musical. The film presents

“a giant slave ship that symbolizes the triangular relationship between Africa, Europe and the Caribbean – as it explores the parallels between the forced migration of the Atlantic slave trade and the contemporary migration of Afro-Caribbean subjects to former colonial metropoles.” (Aboubakar Sanogo in the Festival Catalogue).

Sarraounia (Burkino Faso, Mauritania, France, 1986) dramatised the historical record and the successful resistance to a French colonial expedition in the late C19th. The film  had a more conventional linear narrative and was shot in colour and Technovision. Using African locations (but Burkino Faso not Niger), African songs, griots and cultural artefacts , the film celebrated both African culture and resistance. It also inverted the stereotypes of mainstream cinema with the psychotic French commander reduced to brutal sectarian violence.

‘Sarraounia’

Med Hondo was present to his introduce his films. He was clearly moved by his reception and by the re-emergence of his cinema. Hondo also was passionate about his films and the radical political content. The writings of Franz Fanon would seem to be central to his standpoint whilst stylistically the films use montage, both visual and aural, to create their effect. But seeing them in the UK (and likely elsewhere) has always been difficult. Soleil Ȏ, Les ‘Bricot Négres’ vos voisons (1974) and Sarraounia have been screened cinematically in the UK. Channel 4 screened the three films shown in Bologna in its ‘Africa Film’ season in the 1980s, but Sarraounia was cropped to Aacademy ratio.

The Foundation also continued its work in restoring Cuban classics. This year we had Lucía (1968). The film directed by Humberto Solás and also scripted  by him together with Julio Garcia Espinosa and Nelson Rodriguez, is a fairly epic work with three stories and running 160 minutes (DCP). The three tales present three women of the same name, from 1895, 1933 and in the present.

Lucia is not a film about women, it’s a film about society. But within society, I chose the most vulnerable character, the one who is more transcendentally affected at any given moment by contradictions and change. ” (Humberto Solás, quoted in the Catalogue).

There were also two films by Tomás Gutiérrez Aléa restored by the Academy Film Archive: Una pelea Cubana contra los demonios / A Cuban Fight Against Demons (1971 – DCP) and Los Sobrevivientes / The Survivors (1970). The programme was rounded off by a selection of ICAIC Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano (1960 – 1970): the complete series has been restored and digitised by the French INA and is available on their website. This is clearly a welcome archival source: my main  reservation is that it seems that INA have bought and hold possession of the archive, which would be better retained and controlled in Cuba.

‘The Survivors ‘

There was a programme of films related to the French writer, ‘Colette and Cinema’. This included documentaries about her; films based on her writing; films that she reviewed  as a critic; and films that she worked on providing French sub-titles for foreign language films. One of the famous films from her writings is Gigi: but the festival screened the 1949 French version, directed by Jacques Audry.  This seems closer to the spirit of Collette’s writing than the Hollywood musical.

Gigi opened the way to films focused on the subordination of make characters to female ones ….” (Émilie Cauquy in the Catalogue).

A popular treat was Divine (1935), based on her novella and  with dialogue by Collette. The film has a rich representation of the French music-hall, but it was the stylish direction of Max Ophuls that made the film stand out. Her critical work was represented by Mater Dolorosa, directed by Abel Gance, another film from 1917. Collette had some reservations about the style and characterisations but

“I applaud a new use of the ‘still life’, the touching use of props, as in the fall of the veil on the floor.” (College quoted in the Catalogue).

The film is a marital melodrama and was relatively successful on release,. The cinematography of Léonce-Henri Burel is reckoned one of the films outstanding qualities.

The regular programme ‘The Time Machine’ focused on the year of 1897, right back in the pioneer days of cinema,. Both the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès featured here. The notable Lumière programme was ‘Palestine in 1896’, a ‘land without Zionists’. And there was a programme of film originated on 68mm by American and British Mutoscope Biograph, now presented on 35mm.

Another regular programme ‘The Space Machine’, included both Mexican and Iranian films of the past. The Mexican programme included Dos Monjes / Two Monks from 1934 (DCP). The restoration also involved The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. Most of the film was flashbacks prior to the monastery setting that opened the film. What stood out in a melodramatic tale was the style, which was at time expressionist and at time surrealist: visually potent. The stand-out film in the programme was Maclovia (1948), the name of the heroine played by Maria Felix and opposite Pedro Armendáriz as José Maria. The film is set on the Island of Janítzio where an indigenous people have their own mores and also suffer the contempt and oppression of the European élite. The film was directed by Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández working with the great cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. The latter’s use of the camera and lighting, together with what seemed to be all the fishing nets from around Mexico, was beautiful, especially as we happily had a 35mm print.

‘Maclovia ‘

I was less struck by the ‘Teheran Noir: The Thrillers of Samuel Khachikian’. Working in the developing days of the Iranian film industry Khachikian was clearly seeking out the conventions of film production and a style appropriate for the Iranian world of the time. The only title I watched was Chahar Rah-E Havades / Crossroad of Events (1955). The story follows a young man tempted into crime by his desire for a young woman. The tale was fairly conventional and the style did not really seem to suit the melodrama.

The Festival offers all sorts of other pleasures. One of these are the evening screenings in the Piazza Maggiore. A large screen offers open air cinema to thousands of people. There is a screening every night, unless the weather intervenes. The opening night saw the presentation of Jean Virgo’s classic L’Atalante (1934) accompanied by A propos de Nice (1930), part of a programme on this French filmmaker. By the end of the week a fellow French filmmaker Agnès Varda introduced her new film Visages Villages (2017). In between there were a number of digital screenings and two on 35mm; the famous Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosec Potëmkin (1925) with a full orchestral accompaniment; and then in a lighter vein The Patsy USA 1928) starring Marion Davies.

On three evenings the Piazzetta Pasolini was the site of screenings projected from a 1930s Carbon-Arc projector,. Therese events are equally popular and the particular palette from carbon arc through 35mm prints is a delight. The opening screening featured Addio Giovinezza! / Goodbye Youth (Italy 1918). The film was directed by Augusto Genina who was the subject of a programme of screening at the Festival. This was, as the title suggests, a bitter-sweet comedy. The young protagonist leaves his small town to attend Turin university. Not an engaging figure though, he exploits both his student friend and a young woman with whom he has a romance.

‘Goodbye Youth ‘

There were all sorts of other exciting and/or interesting films in the Festival. There was a retrospective of the US independent filmmaker Bill Morrison. I had seen many of the films when he visited the Bradford Film festival, so this was one of the choices I missed. One recurring programme is ‘The Cinephiles Heaven’. This included the fine restoration of Kean ou Désordre et génie / Edmund Kean, Prince Among Lovers (1924) from the Cinémathèque française which I had seen at the 2016 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. I was able to revisit Trouble in Paradise (USA 1932). This is one of the most delightful comedies by Ernst Lubitsch, with Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis offering beautifully modulated performances. I also watched The Asphalt Jungle (USA 1950, on 4K DCP), John Huston’s fine crime/noir thriller, with an outstanding characterisation by Sterling Hayden.

‘Una Dominica a Bologna’. This was a varied and fascinating selected of ‘Sunday’ titles. I had to forgo seeing Menschen am Sontag / People on Sunday (Germany 1930) another time. But I did recommend to an Italian friend that he must see It Always Rains on Sunday (UK 1947, DCP).

‘Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years was a follow-up to the first programme in 2016. There were films directed by Lois Weber, Tod Browning, James Whale and Frank Borzage. ‘The Two Faces of Robert Mitchum’ included the classic film noir Out of the Past (1947) and Home from the Hill (1960). ‘In Search of Color: Kinemacolor and Technicolor’ featured films from as early as 1907 right up to the 1950s: there were the classic Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Rancho Notorious (1952), plus three of the melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk in the same decade. And there was a programme dedicated to William K. Howard ‘Rediscovering a Master Stylist’. These were films from C20th Fox, including the much written about The Power and the Glory (1933, 4K DCP). The other featured filmmaker was ‘Watchful Dreamer: The Subversive Melancholy of Helmut Käutner’. His first film was an actor in 1932, then he took up scriptwriting and direction in 1939. He worked through the war years and on into the post-war industry up until 1977.

Unter den Brücken / Under the Bridges (1945/49 – one of those films which was released after the end of the war). There was little sense of the conflict going on around the filming. The story was fairly conventional, two friends running a barge were both attracted to a young waif who fell in their way. However, the film was finely constructed and there were excellent sequences by cinematographers Igor Oberberg and M. Wolfgang Webrum of the canals and especially the bridges that cross them. Ludwig !!. – Glanz und Ende Eines Königs / Mad Emperor: Ludwig II looked good but suffered by comparison with the Visconti film. And there was no Romy Schneider and no dog. Das Glas Wasser / A Glass of Water (1960) was set in C18th Britain, the reign of Queen Anne. It was very much in the style of 1960s tongue-in-cheek period comedy: reminiscent in some ways of The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (UK 1965).

‘Under the Bridges ‘

This only gives a sense of part of the Festival but you can check out the complete programme of titles.

The final screenings saw rounds of applause for the organisers and volunteers who worked on the Festival. It ran remarkably smoothly given the complexity of the venues and programming. There was also applause for the team of musicians who provided accompaniments for all the films from the Silent Era. The majority added to the films without overpowering them. There was one guitar accompaniment which I found rather over-the-top. And the projection teams did pretty well with the range of formats for screenings.

The weather, 30% some days, and the queues were an inevitable part of a summer festival. Less acceptable were problems with people using electronic gadgets. There were merciful few ring tones in the auditoriums but there were quite a number of members who seemed to need to check their phones/tablets for the time or something similar; or even for texting. The worst culprits were a few recalcitrant’s who used their machines to take pics during the actual films. One person took something like 20 stills or video clips during a two reel film running only 28 minutes. I did report her but I was disappointed that she did not appear in the stocks in the Piazzetta Pasolini rather in the manner of Maud Hansson in 1957. Mariann Lewinsky, a redoubtable programmer presence in the Festival, did ask patrons to desist before the Carbon Arc screenings, but I think this was the only example of warning given during the Festival. I think for the future they organisers need to introduce some notices before screenings to try and prevent this.

So we now await for 2018. Apart from Battleship Potemkin we only had four pre-revolution features from Russia and a short Danish animation in the 1917  ‘Film and Politics’ section. I hope we will get a revisiting of Soviet films as we pass the Centenary year of the Great October Revolution.

Dunkirk (UK-Netherlands-France-US 2017)

Despite Christopher Nolan’s well publicised advocacy of ‘reel’ film and large format production the critical response is something of a lottery. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian did not bother, or forgot, to tell readers in what format he saw the film. Mark Kermode, as one would expect, was more careful, spelling out the formats and advising would-be viewers to pick their venue and screening carefully. The choice is likely also affected by aspect ratios; 70mm IMAX is predominately 1.43:1; digital IMAX is partially in 1.90:1; 70 mm and DCPs are in 2.20:1 though the DCPs will likely screen with not quite black bars at top and bottom; and 35mm prints are in 2.35:1; all in colour.

Given the film was shot on ‘reel’ film 65mmIMAX and 65mm cameras the choice would appear obvious. However, here in West Yorkshire, the choice is limited. A couple of venues are screening digital IMAX; others are using DCPs; so the best option is the Hyde Park Picture House where they are screening a 35mm print. Otherwise you can trek to Manchester and see the film in 70mm IMAX or wait and hope: the Barnsley Parkway  will screen the film on DCP from the 28th and plan to screen a 70mm print when one of the five available in the UK is bookable.

It is not just a film to be seen in a ‘reel’ film format, it is a film to be seen and seen in the cinema. I was impressed, as were other members of the audience. I saw it at the Hyde Park in 35mm; I hope I will get to see a 70mm version.

The film not only looks superb, it has a fine soundtrack and an excellent score by Hans Zimmer: give him his due, he credited Elgar who provides one of the key accompaniments in the film. The music runs through much of the film, though mostly it is a subtle background music, occasionally swelling for dramatic moments.

Christopher Nolan not only directed the film but also wrote the screenplay. It offers his usual preoccupation with ‘time slip’. Essentially the film offers three intertwined stories/experiences of the mythic evacuation. A one-week odyssey by a private soldier caught on the beaches; a one-day sailing journey by as civilian boat which is part of the rescue flotilla; and a one-hour flight by a RAF spitfire pilot offering aid to the 350,000 troops stranded on the beaches.

In what is effectively montage, and eschewing more traditional parallel cutting, the film takes the viewer back and forth between these small-scale stories. At times it does so with great rapidity. Mark Kermode suggested that viewers will clearly find their way through this complex structure. I found it took time for me to identify the strategy and I suspect audiences will take time to crack this as well.

As the relationship between these individual stories falls into place the film produces a real sense of the complexity of the experiences in the ten days of the evacuation. It also enables a climactic moment, as a fine widescreen shot takes us to a the mythic moment in the story, bringing it from the personal to the epic. There are lacunae in the script, but I only noticed those after the film had finished. At 106 minutes in length there is not the space to dot every ‘i’ or tick every ‘t’.

There are also influences apparent from earlier films dramatising this key British disaster-cum-victory. The definitive version has been that produced at Ealing Studio in 1958 (also Dunkirk), in black and white standard widescreen. That film combines moments of action and drama with periods when the beach is quiet, and the listless soldiers watch and wait. This ‘Dunkirk’ has more action but does retain some sense of the passive as opposed to the active  moments. Both films, as also does Atonement (2007), open with soldiers making their way onto the beach to be confronted by the waiting multitudes and the ships vainly trying to take them off the beaches. Visually this ‘Dunkirk’ also shares some aspects of that panorama with the 1997 version. But there is no giant Ferris Wheel to counterpoint the settings in peace and war.

The film has great pace, excellent performances and very fine cinematographic and production work. Whilst Nolan deserves serious praise for this fine film it is also equally due to the craft people who worked with him. Notably this includes the Cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema; the Production Design by Nathan Crowley aided by a team of Art Designers; and  the Film Editing by Lee Smith.

The cast are excellent. Most are fresh faces like Fionn Whitehead as Tommy,  Aneurin Barnard as Gibson and Barry Keoghan as George. But there are also several familiar faces in key roles: Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, Tom Hardy as  Farrier and Kenneth Branagh as Commander Fulton. These are aided by a fine variety of small characterisations that fill out the picture.

The print that I watched was excellent. At times the image was in soft focus and had a relatively shallow depth of field: I do prefer enough definition to watch deep staging. Presumably these effects were due in part to shooting much of the film in natural light and also because the production opted for actual settings and extremely little CGI. The soundtrack was fine though some of the dialogue was muffled. I expect that this will be less noticeable in IMAX screenings which apparently have higher decibels as well. Note, there are also four different soundtrack formats to choose from: IMAX 6-track, 12 track Digital Sound, Datasat and Dolby digital.

I should mention the trailer in the UK. Modern trailers are frequently edited with pace, so the one for this film (in that fashion) does not really give a sense of how the stories actually work together. It also contains one really corny line of dialogue, played over a series of shots. But this is a misconception: in the actual film, as the troops come home this line is presented with real effect, by a character, in a series of close-ups and mid-shots. And that is where the film leaves us, with one more variation on the recurring line of ‘Lets go home’.

Additional Notes:

I have now seen the 70mmIMAX version at the Printworks in Manchester. This is definitely the way to see the film. I am not a great fan of IMAX but the quality of the image and the immersive screen and soundtrack give the film an epic quality.

I have also read Roy’s comments on the film. I gather he saw it on a 2K DCP. I found the sound quality better on IMAX than  on 35mm and I assume that would also be the case with a DCP. The accompaniment is continuous but much of it does not use musical instruments but organised sound. It is part of the immersive experience. The visual quality, both of IMAX and 70mm [the latter nearly all on the small boat, ‘Moonstone’] is awesome. The colour palette looks fine. There is a lot of blue/grey sky and green/grey sea: perhaps that accounts for Roy’s comment. The colour palette on 2K DCPs does not match 35mm, let alone 70mm. I do remember the tracking shot in Atonement but whilst there are not that many long takes in this film much of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is equally impressive. There are some stunning high-angle shots of the action and the aerial sequences are the best that I have seen since Battle of Britain (1969).

The 1958 film does give a more informed over-view of the event, but [like all the versions that I have seen] it is partial. What it does fail to offer is the epic quality that is apparent in this version. All the film versions rely on familiar/star performers as lead characters. Perhaps a version on the Soviet model or in the manner of Abel Gance’s silent epics would offer a greater mythic presentation.

On the myth I was puzzled by Roy’s comments on ‘Brexit’. Have comments on this been made? The film is not isolationist which is often the case with Hollywood war films. Right at the end Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) stays on to evacuate the French. These are the soldiers we saw at the opening who are defending the perimeter as the troops make their escapes.

The narrative does take time to fall into place but the overlapping time zones come together in an exhilarating manner at the climax. Here the various rescues form a tapestry that dramatises Nolan’s prime focus, survival.

I should add that watching the credits a second time I realised that the variation on Elgar in the film used by Hans Zimmer is by Benjamin Wallfisch after Elgar. The credits also demonstrate the contemporary army of craft people who made this great film possible. This is not strictly ‘auteur’ but large scale film production orchestrated by Christopher Nolan.

And the good news is that Barnsley Parkway are screening the film in 70mm from August 28th until the 31st. So I shall get to see all three ‘reel film’ versions.

 

Caravaggio (UK 1986)

This is a biopic of the famous C17th painter Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio. It was written (with  Nicholas Ward Jackson) and directed by Derek Jarman. One can see why the gay sensibilities, homoeroticism and fine colour and design of the paintings would appeal to Jarman. As you might expect from this avant-garde artist this is not a conventional biopic. Jarman’s experimental and challenging style might seem a little daunting.

But the Hebden Bridge Picture House, where it is screening as part of their ‘reel’ film series, notes:

“Dexter Fletcher, Nigel Terry, Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton star in perhaps Derek Jarman’s most accessible and substantial film. A biopic of celebrated Renaissance painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, it offers profound reflections on art, sexuality and identity through his storied life, his brilliant, nearly blasphemous paintings and his flirtations with the underworld.”

My own thoughts when I saw the film a few years back was:

“The film has a stronger plot than is usual in a Jarman film, but its overall effect is one of a series of tableaux. The film displays homoerotic imagery but also explores the social and economic side of the artist’s life. And the film explores the labyrinthine recesses of church and church patronage in the period.”

Then it was screened at the National Media Museum in a 35mm print, presumably the same one screening on Saturday. The print was in good condition and looked great, especially in Jarman’s design and Gabriel Beristain’s colour cinematography [Fuji film stock processed by Technicolor] in presenting the artists and the art works.

The BBFC gave it a 15 certificate, down from the original 18.

“Contains strong language, sex references and bloody images.”

Derek Jarman has dropped out of sight a little: I think the last retrospective was in 2014 in London. He remains a major contributor to British cinema and his best work, like Caravaggio, stands out and stands up to time.

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The print had a few more scratches but the definition, contrast and colour were all very good. An audience of seventy turned up for the film, which seems pretty good these days.

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

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.