Category: Directors

Dear White People (US 2014)

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This is a satirical film on ‘race’ in contemporary USA that was produced, scripted and directed by Justin Siemen. So on that basis he presumably bears the major responsibility for the final product. It is certainly interesting, and has a number of distinctive qualities but I also found it fairly flawed. This seems to be an example of the influence of the contemporary meaning of the concept ‘auteur’; young filmmakers want to produce a ‘personal work’. One certainly gets a sense of a personal edge to the film. However I thought that the film would have benefited from a separate and critical view of the script. A friend at the Hyde Park where I viewed the film thought that the director is a ‘developing talent’ and that should allow for flaws. I thought a much sharper focus and delivery would have enhanced both the comedy and the satire.

The film began its career through crowd funding. On completion it won an award at the 2014 Sundance Festival. So it falls into the tradition of US independents, but also relies on developments in the industry. The basic setting is an Ivy League University with problems about ‘race relations’. So on one hand this places it in a cycle of films that followed on from John Landis’ campus-based National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and also, more explicitly, Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988). Both films are mentioned in reviews but the most important influence cited would be Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2011). Spike Lee is referred to in the film’s dialogue: one character bowdlerised [badly] the title of his film production company and another provides the line ‘by all means necessary’. A film within the film reminded one of an early Lee short. Lee’s influence can also be seen in the form of the film, drawing on his Do the Right Thing (1989). For me unfortunately, this only highlighted the greater quality, cinematically and in terms of content, of Lee’s films.

Even so the film has a lot to offer in terms on interest and entertainment. The primary focus are four Afro-American students at the fictional Winchester University. These are Sam White ((Tessa Thompson) whose campus radio slot is titled ‘Dear White People’. There is her ex and the current House President Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), whose father is the University Dean of Students. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is gay, has an impressive Afro-hair style and is a developing journalistic talent. Finally ‘Coco’ (Teyonah Paris) is a would-be TV name, and an expert blogger. All have media ambitions, which are a key target in the film. All four come from relatively comfortable backgrounds, obviously have talent but are all conscious of the demeaning and often disadvantaged experience of being black. It is worth noting that the film also has quite a gallery of key characters, and one of its merits is the way that it handles this. There is among the characters a certain amount of sexual activity across the ‘racial’ divide, though much less evidence of any across class divides.

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Given the genre, it is not a great spoiler that the film’s contradictions come to a head at a House Fraternity party. The film here explicitly foregrounds the often implicit but not always recognised contempt for black people amongst sections of the white population, including the so-called intelligentsia. And, in a montage of stills, the end credits draw attention to the actual scandals that have demonstrated this in the higher Education world in recent years.

One of its debts to Do the Right Thing is to offer a clearly staged structure, with a prologue, a number of chapters and finally an epilogue. The film also essays a certain style [often termed Brechtian] offering some distance for viewers. Thus the style of much of the film is almost observational and then becomes very much almost ‘blog-on-the wall‘ for the party. However, like the satire, many of the techniques seem over emphatic. The film uses positioning of characters, often with deep staging, in the mise en scène. But whilst some of this is very effective – a couple of sequences involving Lionel: at other times when it uses the University architecture I rather wondered what the intended point was. This also applies to the editing, there are some very effective cuts between parallel scenes, for example in the office of the Principal and Dean cutting to characters in the student halls – which suggest both comparisons and contrasts. But at other times, cuts between – say a group of black and a group of white students – seems to be for effect, but with little added meaning.

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I should note that I did not pick up on all the references in the film. A couple of friends at the screening had similar problems. This presumably relates to the language in the USA, in use by Afro-Americans and in the college system. I was also bemused by the music. There is a seemingly important reference to Taylor Swift but the credits do not seem to feature her music. What was immediately recognisable were extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Bizet’s Carmen. Their relevance escaped me, though the choice of music may well have been dictated by cost as much as by choice.

My major reservations were to do with the values inscribed in the film. Satire is a tricky form to take: it tends to be over-the-top which can make some of the views and positions grotesque. This is a problem, but not the major problem in this film. That I think is how it tackles the interests and prejudices at the University and amongst its characters. The film clearly addresses ‘race’ and class in the contemporary USA: to a lesser degree gender and sexual orientation. And when we reach the epilogue the writing presents the cynical collusion of interests between academia and the representative of the media and Capital. But at the personal level, amongst the key characters, we get a more or less satisfactory resolution of their personal lives. It seemed to me that the contradictions that had arisen in the course of the film were not amenable to such a pat closure. And there seem to be a couple of lacunae in the resolution of the plot. This is where Lee’s Bamboozled stands out: with a final sequence that is both cinematically and politically devastating. I would recommend re-visiting this film if you are able: I intend to revisit School Daze as well.

I would reckon Dear White People is definitely worth seeing. A note of warning, the distributor is Curzon Film World and judging by exhibitor’s experience in West Yorkshire it is hard work to get the film. The film was shot on a 4K Red digital camera: but it seems to be circulating in a 2K DCP, which is not that complimentary to some of the exteriors and long shots. It runs for 106 minutes, in colour and 1.85:1. In terms of entertainment, two of the people I talked to after the screenings really enjoyed it and found pretty funny: two others were less impressed but still very interested by what the film had to offer. And it is a film and a treatment that is still relatively uncommon on British screens.

Otto e mezzo (, Italy / France 1963)

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This classic film is going round on a reasonably good DCP. However, the opportunities are limited. Picturehouse at the National Media Museum and the Hyde Park Picture House both restricted their programme to one screening. This is becoming something of the norm for art and foreign language films, as it is also for classics and silent films. The last group, of course, often involve live music which explains that. But I do find single showings problematic. Presumably, like myself on occasions, there are a group of prospective viewers who cannot make that particular time or day. I can understand the policy to a degree. Both Picturehouse and the Hyde Park, (who book through Picturehouse], have a particular ‘discover’ or ‘wonder’ on Tuesdays. And they have regular Sunday slots for ‘Vintage’ films. I heard an interview on Radio 4 with the manager of the ‘Little Bit Ritzy, (a Picturehouse venue), who explained that they tried to make each film an event: modern marketing. This appears to work. At the Hyde Park recently an Italian documentary drew 120 people on a Tuesday evening.

However, this tactic also undermines word-of-mouth for individual films: important in the art and foreign language areas. And in the case of Tuesdays, one is often faced with a horrible choice, at least here in Leeds and Bradford. I went along to the Hyde Park for . There were about 90 in the audience. However I know that several friends missed this screening. And I was not able to make the screening at the National Media Museum.

Otto e mezzo is not just a film praised by critics and audiences. It is one of the seminal films in World Cinema. The publicity for the film has frequently pointed to it being among the Top Ten films chosen in the 2012 Critics Poll. More significantly, it was chosen fourth in the parallel Poll by Film Directors. The latter speaks volumes. Federico’ Fellini’s masterpiece defies simple description, as do other great movies. Stephen L. Hanson in The International Dictionary of Film writes:

. . . this study of a filmmaker’s creative and personal crises is now recognised as  masterpiece, and one of the very small number of cinematic efforts to utter a clear statement on the intricate nature of artistic inspiration

I suspect many film fans would want to see the film more than once. I certainly wished to see the film both at the National Media Museum and the Hyde Park. At least I saw the trailer four times, and that is great fun. So my felicitations to the Hebden Bridge Picture House who are showing the film twice: on the evening of Sunday June 21st and then on the evening of Tuesday June 23rd. Of course, this cinema is not accessible for all – too far for me I am afraid. However, if you can – go – and take friends. After the screening of the film at the Hyde Park there were people discussing it in the auditorium, in the foyer, and outside the cinema. That is the sign of a great movie.

NB The Showroom in Sheffield is unfortunately following the single screening practice for this film.

Films by Allan Sekula, Noël Burch & Peter Hutton.

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This was a Pavilion event presented at the Hyde Park Picture House. Pavilion events are always interesting and offer disitntive areas of contemporary and recent cinema and culture. This was the case on this occasion with a feature length documentary and two experimental films addressing

The poetic potential of river and sea…

The documentary by Peter Sekula was The Forgotten Space (2010). This was lengthy and complex film and I feel the need to give it lengthy consideration: so these are brief introductory comments to which I will probably return. We had introductions from Will Rose and Gill Parks. Sekula worked at the University of California and was interested in both photography and film. He was described as a critical realist, a term which sets him off from those who saw photography as a ‘high art’ exercise. His collaborator Noël Burch is better known for his critical writings on film, but he has also been involved in other films, usually with an eye to avant garde techniques.

The film

‘approaches the sea as a crucial site within capitalism’s global supply chain.

And the central motif is the container ship. We see numerous examples of this technology at seas and at various sites of arrival/departure in North America, Europe and South East Asia. There is a major port facility alongside Los Angeles: Antwerp is a major port for the European Community. And Hong Kong, both under British colonialism and now as part of modern China, is another key site.

The film looks at the development of the technology and it impact on the global organisation of capitalist production and distribution. It pays equal attention to impact on the working classes and the value of their labour power. And there is attention to the impact on communities both immediately affected by this technology and the wider cultural impacts. We hear interviews with representatives of the industries, of the workers, of the communities which home them, and analysts who study the industries.

The film develops an accumulating understanding of the immediate and more distant effects. The plotting constantly returns to this central technology, but this intercuts with particular examples: including the displacements of people in Europe, in California and across the Asian mainland and archipelagos.

In line with Sekula’s stance on ‘style’ for much of the time the images and sounds present their subjects and objects without drawing attention to themselves. But at key moments rather more unconventional techniques draw attention to the texture of the film and to the contradictions therein. Thus at one point studying effects around Antwerp the commentary offers the ‘discussions’ surrounding the displacement of a town and community, whilst an edit brings visual attention to police in riot gear. At another point as the camera pans across a landscape to the sounds of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, both sound and image are disrupted by a passing of a speeding train. At various points there are also shots in slow motion, speeded up shots, jump cuts and overlapping sound. All these techniques reminded me of some used in earlier films involving Noël Birch. And at another point shots of a line of trains are reminiscent of the films of James Benning: but whilst a boy’s voice counts the trains a series of wipes bring an effective disruption.

At other points there are some visually impressive camera shots: one a series of images taken across modern Hong Kong, using the reflections of doors and windows. The other, close to the end, offers a series of vistas around a ‘golden’ Guggenheim Museum erected in Bilbao.

Whist the films uses a range of locations and [presumably] filming it also uses extracts from recognisable features. Two of these, Michael Powell’s Red Ensign and Robert Aldrich Kiss Me deadly are cropped to fit the 1.85:1 frame. However, a separate extract from Joseph von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York is in the correct 1.33:1. This is odd and rather unsatisfactory.

As you might guess from some of the terms above, the film is informed by the seminal analysis of capitalism by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, though neither gets an actual reference. There are however a number of phrases which are immediately familiar: the container

‘contains the seeds of its own destruction.’

This is very effective but the analysis does not use the full range of Marxist concepts. Two important points are not presented: the actual nature of the value of labour power and the declining rate of profits. Of course, the analysis of Marx and Engels is long and complex. Even so, both of these points are essential to an understanding of the recent global crisis, which the film does reference.

The programme then screened two films by Peter Hutton, a cinematic artist working in North America. These are some way from the form of Sekula’s film. Shot and presented on 16 mm the films offer a series of shots and sequences of the Hudson River in New York State. These fit into a recognisable pattern of aesthetically orientated and independent filmmaking. At various points there are parallels with the work of Stan Brakhage and James Benning. However, Hutton has his own preferred tropes and thematic interests. The shots are discrete and at some points similar to the tropes of film roman. At times the shots are ethereal and beautiful but one also senses a social comment beyond the objects in some of the placements and sequencing.

Study of a River (1997) is in black and white and runs for 16 minutes. Time and Tide (2000) is in both black and white and colour, and runs for 35 minutes. The latter film has a series of shots through the portholes of a barge. These are especially evocative. Recurring shots of a particular scape or building, like a power station, suggest further reflection.

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Time and Tide also uses film shot by the veteran pioneer cinematographer Billy Bitzer in 1903. I had, happily, seen this footage before at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Bitzer famously was cinematographer for D. W. Griffith, both on the early one and two-reelers at Biograph and the later feature films. I was intrigued when a shot followed of ice flows in the Hudson River: was this a subtle reference to Way Down East (1920)?

The whole programme provided both a challenging and thought provoking essay and a more aesthetic, almost dreamy film reverie. However, Hutton is not merely the aesthete criticised by Sekula. All three films provided both stimulation and cinematic pleasures.

 

The Tales of Hoffman (UK 1951)

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The new DCP of the digital restoration of The Tales of Hoffman was the final matinee screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester before the move to HOME. The post-screening discussion was led by Andrew Moor of Manchester Metropolitan University. Andrew wrote a piece on the film for Criterion’s website and also co-edited a book on Powell and Pressburger’s films with Ian Christie. The discussion was dominated by the audience members who were primarily music/ballet/opera fans. Since I know little about any of these art forms I found this illuminating but slightly frustrating and here I want to focus on the film as an Archers production from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The Tales of Hoffman is interesting for several reasons. It represents in some ways the fruition of Michael Powell’s long-held desire to make the ultimate ‘composed film’ – to marry music, dance, theatre and film as a single coherent work. But to do this Powell had to work quickly and cheaply at Shepperton in order to comply with the Archers’ contract with Alexander Korda’s London Films. The film was really Powell and Pressburger’s last attempt to deal with Korda and after this production they bought themselves out of the contract and took three years off – a long ‘rest’ for such an active partnership.

Powell commissioned a new English libretto for the opera. Emeric Pressburger had less to do on the script this time – although unlike Powell he had actually ‘experienced’ the opera, playing “second fiddle in the orchestra in a production in Prague”. Powell’s plan was to record an opera performance conducted by Thomas Beecham (the originator of the project) and then to ‘compose’ the film on a silent stage with actors miming to the playback. He thus created one of the earliest forms of ‘music video’. This approach also helped him to use ‘real’ ballet dancers, ‘real’ singers and ‘real’ actors. Only two of the cast, the Americans Robert Rounseville and Ann Ayars, were both singers and actors in the narrative.

The Tales of Hoffman was the only opera written by Jacques Offenbach (who mainly produced operettas) and he died a few months before the completed work was first performed in 1881. The story is based on three tales written by the German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffman between 1814 and 1818. The opera uses a fictionalised version of Hoffman himself as the hero of each story with the framing device of the ‘telling’ of the tales in a tavern. For the film the Archers added a ballet sequence at the beginning and the end, placing the tavern sequence as a potential meeting place for Hoffman and the ballerina. There are many descriptions and analyses of the opera and the BFI website features an extensive look at the restoration with images from the film and other materials (which they don’t want to offer for download – the images on this blog were obtained from other sources).

Moira Shearer as the doll in the tale of 'Olympia' with (from left) Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann and Leonid Massine

Moira Shearer as the doll in the tale of ‘Olympia’ with (from left) Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine (© StudioCanal)

The great coup for the production was to persuade Moira Shearer to dance in two sequences. Made into a star by The Red Shoes, Shearer was sought by many film producers but refused them all, only agreeing to work with Powell. Alongside her the Archers were able to cast many leading figures from the ballet world. Just as important for the production was the creative team of Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson in production design and art direction, Reginald Mills as editor and Chris Challis as DoP with Freddie Francis as operator.

I think this screening completed my ‘set’ of Powell and Pressburger films. Although I can’t really appreciate the music or the dances, I can admire the cinematic ‘composition’ that the Archers created and especially the genius of the set design, performances and camerawork/editing. In a sense the film takes us back to Powell’s early experience with Rex Ingrams in Nice in the 1920s and to Pressburger’s early career in Germany. What is most fascinating for me is to see all the links to the Archers’ early Technicolor successes. The final tale is set on a Greek island and the designs reminded me to some extent of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (the Western Front battlefield) the prologue also reminds us of the meeting of British and German officers in the bar café at the early part of Blimp. Elsewhere we had overhead shots and a staircase reminiscent of A Matter of Life and Death and the whole film referred constantly to techniques developed for Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. The casting too includes many of the ballet stars from The Red Shoes (Shearer, Tcherina, Helpmann and Massine) plus the third of Powell’s great loves of the period, Pamela Browne as Niklaus, Hoffman’s companion (a male part usually played by a woman in the opera).

The ballet star Ludmilla Tcherina plays Giulietta, the courtesan in the second story set in Venice

The ballet star Ludmilla Tcherina plays Giulietta, the courtesan in the second story set in Venice

Perhaps the most important outcome of watching The Tales of Hoffman for me was that it sent me back to reading the second part of Michael Powell’s long autobiography Million Dollar Movie. I first read it on publication in 1992 and I had forgotten many of the stories. He gives rare insights into the production process and the battles with Korda. All lovers of P&P’s work must have mixed feelings about The Tales of Hoffman. In one sense it represents the peak of their achievements in ‘composed’ films. Powell himself rates it as a ‘bulls-eye’ for The Archers in their four Korda productions of 1949-50. I think I prefer A Small Back Room (1949). Hoffman does not have the same glorious melodrama feel of The Red Shoes and it did seem to me that the camera felt slightly more constrained in its movements during the ballet scenes. Sadly the last three Archers films though all interesting and entertaining did not raise the spirits in quite the same way as their 1940s’ films. Nevertheless it would be interesting to see digital restorations of Oh Rosalinda! (1955 in ‘Scope), The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) – the last two both in VistaVision.

Here’s the trailer for the Hoffman restoration. Even if you don’t know opera or ballet, it’s a real treat for the eyes: