Category: Directors

Sunset Song – A Second View

Chris (Agyness Deyn) risesin the field of barley in the opening shot of Sunset Song

Chris (Agyness Deyn) risesin the field of barley in the opening shot of Sunset Song

Keith reported on Sunset Song after its inclusion in the Leeds Film Festival. Seeing it now on general release, I recognise several of the points he raises and it is certainly a ‘flawed’ film in several respects. However, as Keith suggests, as a Terence Davies fan I find much to admire. I haven’t read the novel(s) (A Scots Quair Trilogy) by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, but I’ve done my research and some interesting issues arise that are worth discussing. Sunset Song is the first and most widely praised (and presumably most widely read) of the three novels written in the early 1930s when Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was in exile in Welwyn Garden City where he died just short of 34 years old in 1935. Although the film is relatively long at 135 minutes, Davies, as his own adapter, has cut several characters and attendant narrative lines from the central story – which will/has alienated some fans of the novel (a novel seen as central in the canon of Scots literature).

One of Keith’s main reservations was that the film does not deal sufficiently with the two central themes of the modernisation of the rural economy/agriculture in the 1900s and the socialist politics of some of the characters. Unfortunately, the screening I attended had sound problems for the first ten minutes and I couldn’t follow some of the dialogue. I think I missed some of the arguments around education. Chris, the central character played Agyness Deyn is a bright young woman, encouraged by her otherwise brutal father (Peter Mullan) to become a teacher. But I suspect Keith has a valid point about the politics in the novel that doesn’t get much of a mention in the film. Davies is not really interested in politics. However, I disagree about the importance of the land, especially to Chris. There is a distinct discourse about the land and what it means to her. I was also struck by some of the similarities between the narrative and Thomas Hardy’s novels such as Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Unlike Hardy’s fictional ‘Wessex’ a few decades earlier however, the similarly fictional Kinraddie Estate in The Mearns inland from Stonehaven does have access to the railway but the claims to mechanised farming seem less secure. I did though find one scene particularly symbolic when Chris’s father has a stroke while he is in the process of preparing a cart to receive a horse. It is almost as if he is the horse being felled.

The issue about Davies’s adaptation is that this isn’t a ‘filmic version of the book’, but instead it is another auterist work by the creator of Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and succeeding melodramas, usually focusing on central female characters (often as witnessed by the young Davies himself). Distant Voices includes some of the most stunning and disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen and the same approach is taken here for many of the domestic scenes. The static camera views various tableaux head on. During a wake the assembled male mourners are gathered around a table and then we look through a doorway to see the women in a separate room, further back from the camera with shafts of light creating dark shadows around them. These are images like old Dutch paintings and from interviews we know that Vermeer is a favourite for Davies. But he also tells us about a Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) whose work on interiors was introduced to Davies and his cinematographer Michael McDonough by production designer Andy Harris. At this point I should say that one of the great achievements of the production is the way in which Davies and his production crew have managed to bring together three completely different production set-ups and meld them into a single coherent visual narrative. Keith suggested that: “It was shot on film but the transfer to a DCP is very good”. I need to correct and amplify that statement.

Hammershøi

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior, Strandgade 30, 1908 (oil on canvas, 79 x 66 cm) Photograph: Ole Hein Pedersen/PR (from http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2008/jun/25/art.denmark)

Chris in the wash-house

Chris in the wash-house

I think I’m correct in saying that in contemporary filmmaking, the original footage, whether it on film or digital, is first processed to create a ‘Digital Intermediate’ which is used for post-production. When this is complete, the print for projection is created, usually now via a digital master copy which is used to create a DCP, Blu-ray, DVD etc. In a sense, all films, even those that started on celluloid will be ‘digital’ at some point. For Sunset Song, the production went first to New Zealand for the summer harvest scenes which were shot by McDonough on 65mm film using an Arriflex 765 camera. 65mm gave McDonough the chance to film in very deep focus. There were just four days in New Zealand, followed by twenty days in a studio in Luxembourg for the interiors that were shot digitally on the Alexa XT Studio. Finally the production moved to Scotland to Gibbon/Mitchell’s chosen location for the fictional Kinraddie and completed the shoot after thirteen more days, combining 65mm film and digital for both exteriors and interiors. McDonough (a Scot trained in the US whose best-known film work is perhaps on Winter’s Bone) explains how he ‘matched’ the film and digital sequences in an interview for the ARRI Rental website. He also spoke about what Davies wanted in terms of visual style:

Terence has a very precise style. His frames are classically composed and he loves the camera to flow – to move elegantly and always with a clear justification. I knew going in that there would be no Steadicam or handheld shots; this would be classically lensed with tripod, dolly and crane. Our production designer, Andy Harris, had introduced the idea of taking the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi as our main inspiration for the look of Sunset Song. The paintings are illuminated by a soft, directional, northern light; there was a coolness to them that suited our Scottish setting perfectly. The only variation from this was the summer harvest scenes, which were much warmer and more romantic in tone.

Shooting in New Zealand (from the ARRI Rental website)

Shooting in New Zealand (from the ARRI Rental website)

Agyness Deyn as Chris and Peter Mullan as her father. This promotional image presumably is from the Scottish shoot.

Agyness Deyn as Chris and Peter Mullan as her father. This promotional image is presumably from the Scottish shoot.

Sunset Song used the latest anamorphic lenses for a ‘Scope presentation and the care taken in the visual style means you should try to see this on the biggest screen possible. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the audience looking for a literary adaptation or for a straightforward romance or drama will recognise the artistry of the presentation. The film has received a number of negative reviews and it may be that it will attempt to find its audience on TV and video which will struggle to show it in all its glory. I’ve already indicated that I think the adaptation is flawed. For me the final part of the film that refers to what happens to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) when he enlists in the Great War just doesn’t work. I’ve read what Davies says in interviews and his logic and arguments are sound but it didn’t make sense to me on a first viewing. It felt to me that the ending had been foreshortened and the events didn’t seem to go together – the timescale seemed wrong.

The other criticisms of the film seem unwarranted. Inevitably there are arguments about ‘authenticity’ of accents etc. There are some local actors, specifically Ian Pirie as Chae, but many of the Scots are from the West Coast (Mullan, Guthrie and Daniela Nardini as Mrs Guthrie). I’ve seen some comments from North East Scotland both pro and anti. But of course it’s the casting of Agyness Deyn which is most controversial. Ms Deyn is a Lancashire lass and she makes a brave stab at the local accent but to see how far off she sometimes gets (especially in her voiceover narration) just go to the 1971 BBC TV serial of the books on YouTube (mind you, I don’t know how authentic that is!). Does it matter? Not at all for me. I was very impressed with Agyness Deyn. I’d never seen her before and I thought she moved well, used her modelling training and conveyed her spirit through her sparkling eyes. Most of all she conveyed what I take Terence Davies to have wanted from his heroine – which is all that matters really. I enjoyed all the other performances as well – although I do understand why many audiences might be tired of yet another angry and violent man portrayed by Peter Mullan. I feel that I do have to mention the pairing of Agyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie. I like Kevin Guthrie but he is shorter than his co-star (as was the case in Sunshine on Leith as well). I can’t work out if Davies thought that having Chris taller than Ewan said something in terms of the narrative or whether the height difference is irrelevant – but it is there and I increasingly find casting decisions interesting.

Chris and Ewan meet in the village square before their banns are read.

Chris and Ewan meet in the village square before their banns are read.

I’m not going to attempt to deal with the music and the singing in the film, even though they are a crucial element in any Terence Davies film. The choice of songs – and versions of the songs has been quite controversial, but information on the soundtrack is difficult to find. I need to see the film a few more times. But to go back to Keith’s review, he mentions the Glasgow Orpheus Choir (I’m assuming it’s them singing ‘All in the April Evening’ during a sequence in which the villagers ‘flock’ to the church). This is a good example of Davies creating an image that doesn’t refer to realism. People would not trample through the barley field as depicted in the film and it is very strange to have the scene in the church with the choir singing. Is it diegetic or non-diegetic? I kept wondering if the choir would emerge from the shadows at the back of the church. My knowledge of Scottish religious practice is limited and didn’t allow me to recognise what kind of church it was. But I don’t go to a Terence Davies film for authenticity, I go for art.

Sunset Song is absolutely worth seeing on a big screen and some of the points discussed above are illustrated in the trailer:

 

Chantal Akerman 1950 – 2015

Ackerman

I was at the Pordenone Film Festival when the sad news came through that we had lost this talented filmmaker. Unfortunately, outside London, it has been difficult to view her films. The last time we had a feature locally was (I believe) when the Leeds International Film Festival screened her early masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). There has been a major retrospective at the ICA in London. Among the organisers were Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts who have also written an excellent obituary for the Guardian.

I hope that now at least we will see one of her major works  in Leeds. The ICA are screening La folie Almayer (2011) as a tribute on October 22nd.

Douglas Sirk and global film

Douglas Sirk on set with John Gavin and Liselotte Pulver during the shoot of a Time to Love and a Time to Die (1957). (photo from: http://elcinedesolaris.blogspot.com/2014/08/en-rodaje-douglas-sirk-john-gavin-y.html)

Douglas Sirk on set with John Gavin and Liselotte Pulver during the shoot of A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1957). (photo from: http://elcinedesolaris.blogspot.com/2014/08/en-rodaje-douglas-sirk-john-gavin-y.html)

Born Hans Detlef Sierck in Hamburg in 1897, Douglas Sirk was one of the many filmmakers who left Germany in the mid-1930s for political and personal safety reasons, eventually ending up in Hollywood and beginning to work on American films in the early 1940s. He died in Switzerland in 1987 nearly thirty years after his final Hollywood film Imitation of Life. In his later years, Sirk was able to enjoy the revival of interest in his films, attending the Retrospective at the Edinburgh Festival in 1972 and receiving writers such as Jon Halliday, whose book Sirk on Sirk (Secker & Warburg) first appeared in 1971 (a revised edition was published by faber & faber in 1997).

In Germany in the 1930s, Sierck had been a highly respected theatre and film director but at first in America he struggled to find the openings that would allow him to make the Hollywood A pictures that his German success and obvious talent suggested was his proper role. After a potential deal with Warner Bros. fell through, he found himself contracted as a writer at Columbia which gave him a platform to direct a number of small independent pictures released through United Artists. After briefly returning to Germany in the late 1940s he finally got a contract with Universal in 1950. Again he was mainly employed on ‘smaller’ films at Universal (like Columbia, a mini-major without much access to A list stars). However, he was able to work with long term collaborators (such as the cinematographer Russell Metty) on a range of genre films and to develop his own star, Rock Hudson. His major successes came with a series of melodramas, mainly produced in Technicolor and forms of widescreen, for the same producer Ross Hunter. These were generally seen as ‘women’s pictures’ or ‘weepies’ and as such were critically derided. But they were commercially very successful and it is these films which would be later re-evaluated by critics and film scholars in France, UK and US. These were also films seen around the world which would serve to inspire future auteurs including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar, Aki Kaurismäki and Fatih Akin.

Dorothy Malone in a melodrama composition from Written on the Wind. (This is the image that appears on the 1971 edition of Halliday's book on Sirk.)

Dorothy Malone in a melodrama composition from Written on the Wind. (This is the image that appears on the 1971 edition of Halliday’s book on Sirk.)

Sirk’s influence on younger directors is one aspect of his importance in global film. He also worked as a director in Spain, Switzerland, Holland and Ireland as well as in Germany and America. An avid reader with interests in theatre, cinema and other arts across cultures, Sirk is a major figure in film history associated primarily with the concept of melodrama, visual style and disguised social commentary. One of the most read posts on this blog is ‘What is Melodrama?’, a piece which uses Sirk’s 1954 picture All That Heaven Allows as a prime example. Many film students will know about Sirk from the revival in interest in his films in the 1970s, especially among feminist film scholars. But today it’s quite difficult to see Sirk’s films in cinemas and apart from the handful of films most often cited, the other titles don’t have much profile. To properly understand how Sirk’s later melodramas are constructed it’s important to look at the whole body of work. We’ll try therefore to discuss some of his films on the blog.

45 Years (UK 2015)

Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling). This still uses shallow focus as do several cenes in the film.

Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling). This still uses shallow focus as do several scenes in the film.

Eagerly anticipated, Andrew Haigh’s Berlin prizewinner had a very good opening weekend in the UK at No 10 in the chart with the highest screen average of £4,871 (apart from Secret Cinema’s Star Wars Event). It opened on only 68 cinema screens but also on Curzon online. This weekend it is more widely available, I think, and I’m intrigued to see what happens next. The critical coverage was also very positive and my friend asked “Will this be another King’s Speech?” I understood the question and I think that the reviews may have encouraged older audiences who have enjoyed mainstream comedies such as the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films or Quartet (which also featured Tom Courtenay). If this happens, I think some audiences will be disappointed. They might be surprised in a good way but some of the negative reviews on IMDB suggest that they might struggle. 45 Years is a traditional arthouse film which will feature on Film 4/Channel 4 at some point (Film 4 is involved in the funding). One of the ironies of British cultural life is that the theatre audience which might look down on cinema – and British Cinema in particular – would probably enjoy 45 Years.

Andrew Haigh (best known for Weekend 2011) adapted 45 Years from a short story by David Constantine (see this Telegraph feature). ‘In Another Country’, written some 15 years ago, was inspired by a news story about an 80 year-old man who had been asked to identify the body of his father that had been preserved in a glacier in the French Alps for 70 years. The father was a guide who had been lost in the mountains. In Haigh’s adaptation, Tom Courtenay is Geoff Mercer, a man in his 70s who learns that his girlfriend Katya, who fell into a crevasse fifty-three years earlier in 1962, has been spotted in a glacier after a recent snow melt in Switzerland. This revelation occurs five days before Geoff is due to celebrate the 45th Anniversary of his marriage to Kate (Charlotte Rampling). The short story (I think of only 12 pages?) has become a 95 minute feature. Haigh carefully depicts the impact of the news from Switzerland on Geoff and Kate and traces what happens in their relationship during the build-up to the anniversary party. The crucial change he appears to have made is to focus on Kate and to see the events from her perspective.

45 Years uses a highly intelligent script. Haigh’s mise en scène is rich in symbolic meaning. The two central performances are extraordinary and deserving of the prizes they have won. These three features of the film make it a ‘must see’ and the reception of the film by many audiences demonstrates how much they have enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed the film as well but I think there are issues and questions – partly related to the switch of focus. In an interview with Nick James in Sight and Sound (September 2015), Haigh suggests that he made the switch because there are relatively few ‘later age female existential crisis’ films. He preferred to see Geoff recover from the impact of the news and to see Kate repress her emotions and face a later crisis. He confirmed that as a gay man, he did perhaps favour the wife as an underdog. All this is fine and makes a lot of sense but for me it causes difficulties because of the aesthetic decisions taken by the director.

The environment 1: The Broads

The environment 1: The Broads

The environment 2: Charlotte Rampling with Andrew Haigh on location for her morning walks across the fields (in LS/long takes)

The environment 2: Charlotte Rampling with Andrew Haigh on location for her morning walks across the fields (in LS/long takes) (from bfi.org.uk)

Haigh uses the house and the local environment (close to the Norfolk Broads – a flat landscape with the tourist boats on the Broads, even in winter) almost as characters in the film. The house in particular actually looks and feels like a house an older couple may have inhabited for many years – rather than a ‘dressed set’. ( The nearest city is Norwich but there are no references to where this actually is in terms of dialogue, on-screen credits etc.) In one sense this could be anywhere. What we do get in the dialogue are little nuggets such as a reference to the Battle of Trafalgar and the hall where the wedding anniversary will take place (Nelson was a Norfolk man and his fleet was sometimes berthed at Great Yarmouth). I’ve seen one reviewer suggest that Haigh is a ‘realist filmmaker’ but this seems to me to be misleading. True, several shots by Lol Crawley as DoP use long takes and a long lens to show Kate as a tiny figure in the landscape in deep focus. But at other times she is shown in shallow focus, isolated in the centre of Norwich with the busy world around her – all out of focus in a fuzzy blur. Haigh himself describes his style as naturalism, arguing for single take two-shots for many internal scenes (i.e. avoiding the shot/reverse shot convention).

Who is Kate? We learn next to nothing about her except that she was once a teacher in the locality (she chides the postman who calls her ‘Mrs Mercer’). What did she teach? What is she interested in? (She plays the piano.) Does she have siblings? Did she have any relationships before she met Geoff, was there a ‘serious’ one? Mostly we learn about Geoff because the central plot incident concerns him. But his background is equally mysterious. What did he do in the plant that he visits for a reunion? Haigh and James seem to suggest that he was a ‘trade unionist’. But most people in large organisations were trade unionists in the 1970s. What skills/knowledge did Geoff have? Was he graduate or a trained engineer? How did he get to have a German girlfriend and to spend several weeks with her in the mountains? Perhaps it’s just me, but without knowing any of this I’m struggling to understand how Kate and Geoff have developed a relationship over 45 years. How did this leftist couple survive in rural Norfolk for so long? Did they travel a lot? Do they have other friends beyond the rather narrow group shown here?

I’m not suggesting that a romance drama needs tons of sociological detail but I do expect a few simple assumptions to make sense. I think I ought to be able to recognise the nuances of social class in a British drama. Perhaps after all it is the marriage of the colonel’s daughter to the working-class lad from Hull which offers the intrigue? That lad is still there in Courtenay’s performance which resonates with those of his 1960s prime in British Cinema. Charlotte Rampling was a heartless upper middle-class trollop in Georgy Girl (1966) but much of her subsequent success has been in European art cinema. In an interview Courtenay (in praising Rampling) suggests that she is much more attuned to the process of filmmaking (whereas he is more attuned to theatre). That might explain some of the tension in the intimate scenes, but it may also be nonsense on Courtenay’s part. I can’t imagine you can make 50 films without getting used to the process. Some commentators have suggested that 45 Years is more like a ‘theatrical play’, a ‘two-hander’. But it is also intensely ‘filmic’. The opening credits are white on a black background accompanied by the sound of an old-fashioned slide projector clicking through a carousel of slides. I tried to work out if the click was edited in time to the changing titles. Later the slide projector will become crucial to the narrative. Associated with this is a scene in which Kate returns to the house to find Geoff with a cut finger and tenderly dresses the wound for him. He says he’s been trying to fix the ball-cock on the toilet cistern. Again, later we wonder if he was actually doing something else. This is one of those moments when it would be good to know more about Geoff. Is he supposed to be good with his hands? 45 Years is a film with star actors – actors with star personae. Geoff and Kate are also Tom and Charlotte. Their star images are composites of the roles they have played and their appearances in secondary circulation. At the end of the film, Rampling as Kate conducts herself in the final scenes with the presence of an Ingrid Bergman. I’m trying now to imagine her as a younger star playing a local school teacher in Norfolk and it’s difficult. I’m going to have to watch the film again but my first viewing is still reverberating. I’m wondering about whether to see it as a melodrama – there are several songs as well as symbolic use of mise en scène. I’m intrigued as to what younger audiences (under 60!) make of the film – please let us know.

The use of Long Shots and the ‘lived in’ house are evident in this UK trailer: