Category: Directors

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:

Sixteen (UK 2013)

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This film was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House and followed by a Q&A with the writer and director, Rob Brown. Unfortunately there was a relatively small audience for what was [I believe] a rare screening. We started a little late as there were problems getting the HD version to screen correctly. My friend Cheryl asked wishfully if the team had not ‘bought their cans with then’. (i.e. 35mm) The film runs for eighty minutes and is in colour and the New Academy ratio.

The events in the film run over a period of three days. The central character is Jumah (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva). Just coming up to his sixteenth birthday, Jumah lives with his adoptive mother Laura (Rachel Stirling) in West London on a housing estate. He goes to a local comprehensive school and has a girlfriend there, Chloe (Rosie Day). What marks out Jumah is that he comes from the Congo, and his earlier years have left him marked physically and psychologically by the ravages of the continuing neo-colonial wars there. He has a problem with what is nowadays called ‘anger management’. Other important characters are his friend Alex (Deon Williams) and a school colleague Josh (Fady Elsayed) who is involved with a local drug dealer, Liam (Sam Spruel).

It is the violence associated with this criminality that creates the problems of the story. The film works well: it looks good, and the cast offer a convincing portrayal of the milieu and the characters. The audience was overwhelmingly positive when we came to talk about the film. A number were affected by the film’s sense of realism: i.e. by presenting recognisable characters and situations whilst managing to create a dramatic story. Wendy Cook from the Hyde Park introduced Rob Brown and asked him to talk about the making of the film. Impressively the overall budget was only sixty thousand pounds, though the film looks far more expensive. It also had a long gestation period, though the actual shoot took only 18 days. The length of the process can be seen in the production date being in 2013, when it featured at the London Film Festival.

It is Rob’s first feature though he has already directed six short films, some of which have featured in the Leeds International Film Festival. Rob talked about how he developed his idea into the film. He said he starts with a character and then he adds the issues and events that occur in the film’s plot. One item that fed into his imaginings was a photograph from Rwanda (alongside and involved in the conflicts in the Congo). He also said that he deliberately made aspects of the film sketchy, for example, the characters are not provided with clear ‘back stories’. He wanted audiences to respond and interpret the characters and events as the story developed. For the same reason he avoided flashbacks. Members of the audience ask questions and commented on this. There was praise for the way the film develops the central character and the conflicts that he faces. One issue that came up was the ending, which is relatively positive. Rob referred to an earlier independent UK film with a black protagonists, Bullet Boy, which has a very downbeat ending. He said he wanted to offer something that was more refreshing. One of my reservations about the film was the ending. Not the decisions and actions of the characters but the way it was plotted. I found this far more conventional than most of the film. Rob remarked that one of the films that impressed him was Boyhood (2014), and I had a similar feeling regarding the ending of that film, which in other ways was extremely impressive. I felt the scripting for Sixteen was very strong on character and developments – the penultimate sequence is very effective. I was not so happy with the dialogue, which I found somewhat conventional: some scenes lacked conviction. In his comments Rob stressed that even working with another writer he wanted to make the work ‘mine’. This is the emphasis on a personal vision so fondly held in auteur commentaries. I tend to think that many fine films work well with an interaction of visions; certainly like many other recent films I thought the writing could be developed. One intriguing aspect of the main character is his interest in hairdressing, clearly unconventional for a boy. I failed to ask Rob about this. But it occurred to me later that this is a motif that develops interesting aspects on the characters in the film. One scene that particularly struck me was set at evening as Jumah cuts Chloe’s hair. The film also had two stylistic tropes which I felt were unhelpful. One was the frequent use of hand-held camera. This is rapidly becoming de rigueur for ‘realists’ films, but I was not convinced that it served a function here. The other trope was more intrusive, the use of noticeable music/sound accompaniment at particular moments of intensity. I felt this distracted from the generally naturalistic feel of the film. Though a friend said she did not particularly notice this. Even with those reservations this is a strong and effective drama. It is one that addresses serious issues and offers these through really interesting characters. I am not sure how easy it will be to catch the film at a cinema. Rob and his team are ‘self-distributing’ the film. Jake Hume, Nic Jeune – producers.  Music by John Bowen. Cinematography by Justin Brown: Arri Ariflex. Film Editing by Barry Moen. Production Design by Jonathan Brann. BBFC Certificate 15.

See – http://www.seizefilms.co.uk/

Selma (US/UK 2014)

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

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

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

Martin and Coretta

Martin and Coretta

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

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

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

Protesting the right to vote

Protesting the right to vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marching towards a victory

Marching towards a victory

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

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

American Sniper (US 2014)

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

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

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

Pinkerton’s main point is to argue that:

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

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

This is about us, not them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinkerton thinks that

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

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

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

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