Category: Directors

In Defence of Ken Loach

In 2018 I posted defending Ken Loach from the slander of being a ‘holocaust denier’. The campaign against him bore all the signs of supporters of Zionism and the Israeli state. Now unfortunately we have another instance of this.

Jewish Voice for Labour finds it deeply regrettable that the Board of Deputies of British Jews is seeking to disrupt the work of a leading anti-racism football charity by demanding the removal of an internationally respected cultural figure as a judge for its children’s design competition.

Show Racism the Red Card (Strict) is under attack by the Board for choosing campaigning filmmaker Ken Loach to help judge the charity’s 2020 Schools Competition. Thousands of young people in hundreds of schools across the UK take part in the project, designed to stimulate discussion and understanding about issues around racism. Winners are invited to an awards ceremony with special guests, including current and former professional footballers.

SRtRC Chief Executive Ged Grebby announced on Tuesday Feb 4 that Loach and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen were to be this year’s judges. Grebby commended both men as valued supporters of the charity, saying they were “ideally qualified” to help choose the most inspiring and original creative designs produced by young people on anti-racist themes.

However the Board of Deputies has challenged this appointment saying that Loach “is a poor choice to judge a competition on anti-racism”. The grounds for this extraordinary allegation against an anti-racist with Loach’s record have not been made public. We note however that the flurry of online abuse targeting Loach and Show Racism the Red Card since the Board’s intervention, has consisted mainly of unfounded (and potentially libellous) allegations of antisemitism or Holocaust denial. A scurrilous report in the Jewish Chronicle suggested that Michael Rosen too is an unsuitable competition judge, because he has rejected charges of antisemitism against Jeremy Corbyn. (Article].

In fact a statement by the Board of Deputies does specifically mention ‘holocaust denial’; a hoary old charge that was featured in the pages of The Guardian newspaper. The dubious nature of this attack was revealed when the same newspaper refused to print Loach’s response. Unfortunately that newspaper, along with nearly all the other mainstream press, television and radio, treat fraudulent claims against supporters of the Palestinian Struggle completely uncritically. If you want some critical reporting than I commend The Jewish Voice for Labour Web pages, Al Jazeera, R.T. and Media North.

Ken Loach, apart from his politics, has also frequently treated football in his films. There is the now famous football sequence in Kes (1969). More recently his film Looking for Eric (2009) presented football as sport and as culture rather than a capitalist commodity. Presumable this is what made him such a suitable figure for the Show Racism the Red Card competition.

Attacks on Ken Loach in the media are nothing new. They commenced back in 1966 when he, together with his colleague and mentor Tony Garnett, produced and delivered the now classic Cathy Come Home. It continued over a number of programmes and films scripted by the late Jim Allen and directed by Loach. A particular germane example was the play ‘Perdition’ by Allen and Loach which was forced from the stage of the Royal Court in 1987. And it has continued with the script-writing work of Paul Laverty for Loach’s films. An example of this can be found on the post on The Wind that Shakes the Barley [‘shakes the critics’].

The early television work of Loach, Allen and Garnett dramatised the class struggle in Britain; a Britain that still occupies lands belonging to other peoples. In the 1980s all three found that they could no longer work on British television because of the official and unofficial censorship. The axe fell on Loach’s fine and poetic film supporting the miner’s strike, Which Side Are You On (1985). Something that also befell the black workshop Ceddo’s The People’s Account (1985) and the Derry Film and Video Workshop’s Mother Ireland (1988), both banned from Channel 4 .

The more recent films for cinema by Ken Loach which have not only addressed the struggle in Britain, but the struggles elsewhere in Ireland, in Central America (Carla’s Song, 1996) and in the United States (Bread and Roses, 2000), have been honoured by Europeans but often slated in Britain.

It is a real irony in this case that the campaign around what is falsely called ‘anti-semitism’ relies mainly on rhetoric, misquotations and unsubstantiated allegations. Loach’s films rely on detailed research and an understanding of the actual social relations and conditions in Britain today and over the recent decades. So we have a dominant media where the real world is constantly misrepresented by officials purveyors of news; whilst what are fictional representations of our world are much closer to reality and the underlying social forces.

One of the aphorisms of Mao Zedong was,

To be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing.

His rationale was the enemy was forced to take action by the strength of opposition. As other writers have pointed out, the recent campaigns orchestrated by Israel [see Al Al-Jazeera ‘The Lobby’] follow on from the successes of the Boycott and Divestment Movement, in which Ken Loach has played a vigorous role. However, the weakness of some responses to the Zionist campaign have only fuelled it. So it is important that all people with progressive views defend artists and activists like Ken Loach. From early dramas like The Big Flame (1969), through excellent films like Riff-Raff’ (1991) and Jimmy’s Hall (2014), Loach and his collaborators have celebrated people who resist and struggle.

UPDATE: Ken Loach has been withdrawn from the ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ 2020 School competition. The SRtRC  web pages have posted a statement which includes:

“Show Racism the Red Card and Ken Loach have together agreed that he will not act as judge for the SRtRC School Competition. A significant factor in Ken Loach’s decision is the abuse online and in person that he and his family have received. It is profoundly distressing, and he is very concerned to protect those closest to him.

This entire issue threatens to overshadow this year’s Competition and together we agree that the key focus must be where it truly belongs: on the creativity of our young people and their own positive anti-racism messages.”

Since the decision involves Ken Loach it seems it should be respected. But the accusations remain fraudulent. See a demolition at this blog:

Flimsy and vindictive: the ‘case’ against Ken Loach

Removing Ken Loach as  a judge is a completely unsatisfactory outcome: it seems likely that it can only encourage this sort of reaction: a reaction which is an attack on the National Liberation Struggle in Palestine and the wider world. The response of major institutions and the mainstream media in Britain to these fraudulent allegations has been dismal; one explanation being that Britain remains a colonial and imperialist state.

Fitzcarraldo by Lutz Koepnick

Fitzcarraldo, Lutz Koepnick, German Film Classics by Camden House, ISBN 9781640140363, £12.99, 92pp

An exciting new series for enthusiasts, students, and scholars of German film. Each concise volume analyses a single classic film, delving into such factors as genesis, production, reception, and key personnel. Each book entails archival research and provides not only an introduction to the film but the author’s own ‘take’ on it.

To date the series offers this volume and Wings of Desire, Phoenix and The Golem.

The author is the ‘Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of German, Cinema and Media Arts’ at Vanderbilt University. This ‘private research university’, was founded by the famous or even infamous C19th ‘robber baron’ magnate who specialised in railways and shipping. Gertrude Conaway was a member of the Vanderbilt family in the C20th and a ‘socialite and philanthropist’. So there is an ironic connection between this academic setting and the representation of C19th capitalism in Werner Hertzog’s film.

Lutz Koepnick appears to be a skilled linguist. He has published on film, media theory and aesthetics, including German cinema. Intriguingly one of his other publications is on the US director Michael Bay; ‘World Cinema in the Age of Populism’.

I found this a difficult book to read, taking it slowly and in sections. It is also a difficult book to review. This is partly because of the approach taken by the author..

It draws on recent writing on the Anthropocene to probe the relationship of art, civilization, and the natural world in Fitzcarraldo. (Publishers’ description).

Anthropocene is a relatively new discourse in academia. Helpfully, Wikipedia offers the following:

The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.

The important word is ‘proposed’. There is not a consensus regarding this concept. And it has quite varied meanings; some argue that as an epoch it dates back to the earliest engagement between humans and the rest of nature. Others see it as a modern phenomenon which is only relevant to recent decades. What will be clear is that this is a concept that ties in to concerns about changes in nature and the climate and the whole issue of ‘climate change’.

Koepnick opens with ‘Spectacle in the Forest’ where the author discusses the production and release of the film. He notes the chronicle of the production in Burden of Dreams (1982) which detailed the treatment of indigenous communities and which created a volume of criticism of the director Werner Herzog. Koepnick also discusses how this and other issues around the film fed into its reception. An important aspect is his discussion of Herzog’s public statements and interviews on the film. Herzog has a tendency to talk in broad rhetorical terms rather than in concrete detail; and this did not always play well in the media.

In ‘Dreams (That Money Can’t Buy)’ Koepnick lays out the overall narrative of the film. He also introduces an aspect that in part structures his analysis; the idea that Herzog’s film work is centred on dream worlds. This is something that is found all over discussions of cinema. However, in Herzog’s film world,

. . . [it] is to think of dreams not as Freudian ciphers of repressed desire and distorted wish fantasies but as alternate realities, as engines of world building.

‘Beyond Nature and Culture’ discusses the film in its geographical aspects. Koepnick sets out how the protagonist, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), as an entrepreneur, relates to the these American lands and the way his venture impacts on these. Here Koepnick set out his sense of the Anthropocene;

The Anthropocene, as the reunion of human (historical) time and Earth (geological) time, between human agency and non-human agency, gives the lie to this – temporal, ontological, epistemological and institutional – great divide between nature and society that widened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This gives a sense of the generally academic style in the book. In terms of Herzog, Koepnick sees his film as an early example of an art work that critically dramatises the problems of what he calls the ‘anthropogenic’.

Throughout the book Koepnick focuses on particular sequences to illustrate his analysis and he frequently accompanies these with specific stills from the sequence. Here he looks at an exchange between Fitzgerald and the captain of the ship in which they sail up a river in pursuit of rubber wealth. The ship has been renamed the ‘Molly Aida’, a tribute to Fitzgerald’s amour, the owner of a bordello, and to opera. Here the author points up the disjunction between Fitzgerald’s use of maps and his awry sense of the lands. And here, as he does often, Koepnick draws a parallel with an earlier Herzog film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). This film was also set in the Amazonian regions though back in the C16th, and it also starred Klaus Kinski as the main protagonist. In addition, as with Fitzcarraldo, there were problems about how Herzog used people and resources. He released monkeys featured in the final and famous sequence live into the jungle. And the film was shot on a camera that Herzog had purloined from the Munich Film School. Something, as with his behaviour on Fitzcarraldo, Herzog later justified.

Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God

‘Flow’ addresses the central setting of the river and the broader category of water. This discussion takes in comments on the ‘historical moment’ of the film and, importantly, Herzog’s psychology as it affects the film and the parallels between Herzog and his fictional creation. He references the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The latter’s idea of ‘historical greatness as individuals who followed:

an unconscious impulse that occasioned the accomplishment of that for which the time was ripe.’

This gives a sense of the driven nature of Fitzgerald but also his domination not by the actual settings and situations but a personal sense of imminent possibilities. In this, Koepnick argues, the character attempts to use the existing world for a rather different purposes. In this story Fitzgerald’s navigation of the river ends not with his stated intent but the film’s finale when he returns to the town of Iquitos with an operatic troupe. Despite what appears to be failure Fitzgerald is ecstatic, apparently feeling that he has achieved a historical moment.

‘The Sounds of Music’ addresses the distinctive treatment of opera in the film.

It is finally time to address what Fitzcarraldo at heart is all about, namely the power of sound and music to express emotions, channel desire, connect different bodies, minds, and souls, and – most importantly – build alternate worlds within and in opposition to the dreary routines of the real.

Koepnick discusses this central plot and motif and focuses onto particular sequences. One is the famous moment when Fitzgerald plays a record of Caruso on the wind-up gramophone to the watching Indians.

The other is the final sequence with the operatic troupe arriving in Iquitos. Koepnick recognises how central is opera to Hertzog’s output; indeed his films have a strong operatic feel. But in term of this film he suggests whilst opera is an expression of the driven and romantic nature of the protagonist he also argues that it serves an alienating impulse which critiques the film itself.

‘On Dangerous Ground’ continues this as one aspect in discussing the way that Herzog and his team actually produced the visual spectacle of the film. The most famous sequences are those when Fitzgerald leads and cajoles the indigenous Indians into hauling a large steamship over an isthmus us between two rivers. It is well recorded that the production used an actual ship on an actual setting, eschewing some of the techniques of special effects to achieve this.

A lot of comment has been made on this, including the toll on the people involved. Koepnick notes these but then argues that for Herzog this ‘real’ effort both creates spectacle but also creates a reflexive take of the spectacle. He quotes from Herzog’s ‘Minnesota Manifesto’ (1999).

There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylisation.

‘In the Wake’ is the final section. Koepnick retreats to take an overview and to look back at the film. Here he uses several other artworks that have been influenced by the film. One is a Polish video construct, Halka /Haiti (2015) and a novel ‘Stromland’ (2018). I have not seen or read either. I could see the parallels that Koepnick drew between them and the film but I did not find this illuminating. This was another point when I found the academic stance of the book tricky to navigate.

Overall the book has an amount of stimulating commentary on the film. The author relates Herzog’s vision to the vision that the film presents of its protagonist. As you might expect there is a lot of discussion of the environmental aspects. Much of this is convincing though I did feel at times that whilst the comments revised the film for the present it was debatable how much all of this was in the minds of the filmmakers when the production took place. My other reservation was that the overall sense of the film that is presented is tied closely to the sense of an authorial vision. I think aspects of the film, for example the way the title privileged actual production over effects, is also a reflection of the times of the film. And the author does seem to accept Herzog’s later rationalisation regarding the way the production treated people; in particular the indigenous peoples. It has to be written that Herzog has a unacceptable record of this type of approach. Apart from Fitzcarraldo, there is the aspect of Aguirre the Wrath of God already mentioned; and there is the scandal that erupted over the rats used in the 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre / Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht.

I also wondered about the choice of the title directed by Werner Herzog, presumably made by the publisher. Technically the film is a West German production, but whilst it addresses European C19th colonialism there is very little in the film which offers a sense of Germany. This reflects my personal estimation of Herzog output; I think the first six titles, ending with the 1977 Stroszek, are his best work. Since then I think his work has allowed uncontrolled expression of his vision; and indeed he has become a film wanderer across the globe. And I think the early films are more expressive of the New German Cinema.

The volume is quite brief, ninety pages. It includes detailed credits and notes, the latter are very helpful. There are sections rather than chapters and no index. There are 40 excellent film stills, well above the usual quality in contemporary publications,. They are in colour and either half-page or quarter page illustrations. And they are well chosen and carefully related to the discussion on the accompanying pages.

I noted this was a slightly tricky book to read but it is illuminating on the film. I suspect that the keener the reader is on this film the more they would take from the book.

Wings of Desire by Christian Rogowski

9781640140370

Wings of Desire, Christian Rogowski, German Film Classics: Camden House 2019, ISBN 9781640140370, £12.99, 96pp

I was pleased to receive a review copy of this book, in the German Film Classics series, as I was interested if it could persuade me that a film I’d failed to complete viewing twice was actually the classic critical opinion suggested. It must be 15 years since I’d last failed to get through Wim Wenders’ film but since then I have visited Berlin so I was looking forward to re-viewing the film; but first I read the book.

Wings of Desire debuted at Cannes in 1987 and won Wenders the Best Director award. It is a portrayal of life, and Berlin, before reunification when the director was at the top of his arthouse reputation; his previous feature had been the well-regarded Paris, Texas (West Germany-France, 1984) and his role in the New German cinema of the ’70s was feted. Paris, Texas was filmed in America and one of the constant themes in Wenders’ work was the (his) relationship between Germany (Europe) and America in the post-war era. Like Godard, in the ’60s, there was a love-hate tension: the love of American culture and democratic values and the hate of its imperialism. For Godard, there was a linear progression from one half of the dichotomy to the other during the 1960s; Wenders remained conflicted, as the protagonist of Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976) said, “The Yanks have colonised our unconsciousness.” This film was the third of the road movie trilogy; the others were Alice in the Cities (West Germany, 1974) and Wrong Turn (West Germany, 1975), all starring Rüdiger Vogler as Wenders’ ‘stand in’. Wrong Turn was scripted by Peter Handke, who also contributed to Wings of Desire and, after the revelation of Handke’s support for Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia, which hit the news again recently after his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, casts something of a shadow over the film.

Alice in the Cities, Wenders’ best fiction film in my view, is set both in America and West Germany but of Wings of Desire, as Rogowski says:

. . . the decision to film in (West) Berlin, in German, to address specifically German issues in a highly poetic, literary, manner and to enlist the help of none other than Peter Handke . . . the film seeks to reclaim something that is authentic, significant, and unique, both to the (divided) nation as a whole and to the individual person. (18)

The ‘poetic’ emphasises the arthouse elements to Wings of Desire, where being obtuse is anything but a problem. So it is helpful that Rogowski diligently unpicks the references and offers enough context, for those who are younger, about Berlin just before the Wall came down. Although he obviously admires the film, that doesn’t prevent him having a critical gaze. The climax of the film, where Bruno Ganz’s (fallen) angel finally meets Marion (Solveig Donmartin) in the flesh, is dissected in some detail showing the problems in Handke’s script (the attempt to recoup Nazi discourse) and the uncritical celebration of heteronormative union. Rogowski is fair to Wenders as he acknowledges the last point is not something that would have been widely understood in 1986.

Donmartin and Wenders were a couple at the time of the film and (from 2020) it does look to me like an indulgent love letter to her, utilising the trope of the ‘mysterious woman’ who will ‘save’ the man (Handke names her Woman in the script but at least Wenders humanises her in the film with a name). Although I did get to the end of the film this time it was only because I forced myself. Much of my irritation was rooted in the constant reverse shot of the angel Damiel watching the world go by; Ganz is an actor I admire but I found his patronising smug smirk insufferable.

Screenshot 2020-01-16 at 09.53.05

Insufferable smug smirk

The gender politics has (inevitably) dated but that is no reason to condemn any text as all are of their time. However, I didn’t like the film when it came out so my view hasn’t changed.

Monographs on individual films are a popular publishing format; the BFI Classics and Modern Classics have been running since 1992. Their obvious strengths are offering an in-depth consideration of a film; which, of course, are also its weakness for although the monographs usually contextualise the film, the focus has to be on the text. Exactly what breadth of scope is ideal for writing about film I wouldn’t like to say; it depends upon the film, genre, director, producer and so on.

As noted, Rogowski offers an excellent guide to the film and an example of how useful he is can be seen when he points out that there is a key reference to Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history that could be “lost on English-speaking viewers, since it is not translated in the subtitles . . . ” (68). This refers to Benjamin’s concept of the ‘Angel of History’ which witnesses (as does Damiel and his companion Cassiel, played by Otto Sander) “history as perpetual catastrophe” (69). Hence the guide does more than contextualise in that it offers clarity for non-German speakers.

Rogowski is also generally sound in his analysis of the specifically filmic elements but betrays his background, as a Professor in Language and Literature, when he questions whether two pairs of men walking in the same frame, one pair in the background, was intentional (72). Film students know that everything is assumed to be of significance.

The quality of the film stills in the book is superb; they are large enough to be seen clearly and printed on high quality paper. However, the book isn’t structured by chapters, so there’s no Contents (or index), which compromises its use as a reference book. Recommended if you (think you’ll) like the film.

My Hindu Friend (Brazil 2015)

My Hindu Friend is the last film of Hector Babenco (1946-2016). It was screened at the Montreal World Cinema Festival in 2016 where Willem Dafoe won the Best Actor award for a role based on Babenco’s life experiences. In the same year it was on release in Brazilian cinemas but nowhere else. Now it has been acquired by Rock Salt Releasing for a release in the US on 17th January. On that date it will start a theatrical presentation lasting one week in selected cities ((NY, LA, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Minneapolis, ATL, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago) and will be available from a wide range of digital sites.

Diego improvises from his hospital bed, creating a camera eye view of his wife

At first I was worried that I might find the film difficult to review since I don’t really like medical dramas and I thought that the narrative was primarily concerned with the director’s own experience of cancer treatment. Once the film started, however, it quickly became clear that the impact of cancer on Diego Fairman (Willem Dafoe) was not the whole narrative and also that it wasn’t going to be presented as a social realist or Hollywood realist drama. There are other challenges for the contemporary viewer, but first I need to explain some of the background to Hector Babenco’s career since the film carefully weaves the director’s experiences throughout the narrative.

Hector Babenco was born in Argentina to parents with Eastern European Jewish heritage in 1946. Aged 18 he moved to Europe and found work in the film industry ranging from appearing as an extra in features to roles as Assistant Director. In 1969 he settled in Brazil (in Sao Paulo) and became established as a director, first of documentaries and then features. In 1981 his film about the ‘marginal’ street children of Brazil, Pixote, won him international recognition. In 1985 his profile was raised once again with the international success of Kiss of the Spider Woman adapted from the novel by Manuel Puig and starring the Hollywood actor William Hurt. After this Babenco made more films with Hollywood stars in North America and also films set in Latin America. Many of his films are referenced in the different sequences of My Hindu Friend as well as aspects of his personal life. He was married four times. He was what some commentators called a ‘womaniser’ but he was also recognised as an artist interested in social issues and marginal groups.

Diego and his ‘Hindu friend’ re-enact a scene from a war film

My Hindu Friend begins with Diego and his partner Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido) learning from Diego’s doctor (and friend) that his lymphoma has spread and that the only possible treatment is now a bone marrow transplant for which he must travel to Seattle. The donor will be his estranged brother Antonio (Guilherme Weber). From this point the narrative develops partly as family melodrama and partly as an imaginative autobiographical memoir. The medical treatment makes possible drug-induced dreams and gradually a fantasy narrative takes hold with scenes depicting how Babenco was seduced by the movies and how he got started as a filmmaker. Inevitably this includes sequences imagining the coming of death in filmic terms. His sense of himself as a story-teller is very important. The title ‘My Hindu Friend’ refers to the brief sequence in the narrative when Diego shares a recovery room in the hospital with a young boy who he helps distract by telling him stories. There is also a possible connection to Asian religious beliefs in the narrative but otherwise the title is misleading about the film’s content. The boy’s presence as a mostly silent figure is symbolic of the audience as a key part of creating cinema. But he does join Diego in re-creating a scene from a war movie.

The film makes direct references to Babenco’s love affair with cinema – to Laurel and Hardy with Ollie singing ‘Shine on Harvest Moon’ from The Flying Deuces (1939) and using Gene Kelly’s song from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) as the soundtrack for an erotic dance. Federico Fellini is name-checked as perhaps the best-known director who used his own biography in many films, but My Hindu Friend also reminded me of Yousef Chahine’s trilogy of films about his own life and the history of modern Egypt especially in An Egyptian Story (Egypt 1982) which also uses medical treatment as metaphor. Claude Lelouch is another director (also with Jewish heritage) who uses his own life experiences in a film like What War May Bring (Ces amours-là, France 2010).

An erotic dance to ‘Singin’ in the Rain’

Anyone who loves cinema should find enjoyment in watching My Hindu Friend. The challenge for audiences in 2020 may be that this is a film by a man approaching 70 depicting his slightly younger self and his love of women and struggles with his own sexuality. The narrative positions all of the female characters as helpers, carers or sexual beings realised through the male gaze. There are three sexual encounters in which the women are fully naked but Diego is positioned so that Willem Dafoe is never ‘full-frontal’. On the other hand, Dafoe’s performance is very strong and he must have prepared his body carefully for the shoot. Diego’s final sexual encounter is with ‘Sofia’, an actor and performance artist played by Bárbara Paz who was married to Hector Babenco from 2010 to 2014. Presumably they parted on good terms and she plays her role with gusto.

Babenco enlisted strong support to make his film. The music score is by the Polish maestro Zbigniew Preisner and the cinematography by the distinguished Brazilian, Mauro Pinheiro Jr. My Hindu Friend is an English language film made in Brazil. The largely Latin American cast speak accented English. I don’t think this is a problem. Here’s the new trailer:

D. A. Pennebaker, 1925 to 2019

D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Donn Abe Pennebaker died last Thursday. So we have lost another of the outstanding film-makers whose work, particularly in the 1960s, both changed and defined cinema.  His series of documentaries were both acclaimed and widely influential. The US Library of Congress selected several of his films for the National Register and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2913.

The first film with which he was associated that I saw was Primary  (1960), made together with Robert Drew and Richard Leacock. This was a chronicle of a contest for the Democratic nomination for Presidential candidate between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. There was intense interest in Britain, partly because of the importance of the USA, but also because Kennedy was seemingly a radical candidate for change. The film imbued the coverage of a Primary context with a freshness and élan that stood out. Years later I remember Richard Leacock describing a sequence of a haircut at the Barbers: possibly inconsequential but completely engaging. This was  a pioneer work in what became ‘Direct Cinema’. And Pennebaker was a key contributor in developing the lightweight camera and sound equipment that made immediate and often hand-held camera and sound possible.

In 1967 came Dont Look Back, combining observational cinema with the then young but musically charismatic Bob Dylan. The tour was famous for several reasons, including ‘treachery’. But the film bought a breath of life into the music documentary. Pennebaker later in life called his films ‘moments of record’ and this partly described the film. It was also equally applicable to the 1968 Monterey Pop. This, a record of a popular music festival with key stars of the period, was filmed by a crew of cameramen under Pennebaker’s direction. It stills stand out in what is now a crowded field. Its influence, like the Dylan film, is to be widely seen. Among those who have followed in the footsteps of the first is Martin Scorsese. One obituary remarked that the famous opening sequence of Dont Look Back, with Bob Dylan singing and presenting [not always in sync] his lyrics, was a pioneer of music videos. Very few of the latter have the panache of the Pennebaker original.

It was only in later years that I finally saw Daybreak Express (1953), presenting a New York elevated subway station with dazzling music from Duke Ellington. Pennebaker had a particular skill in working with popular music artists, which included Janis Joplin, John Lennon, The Who and David Bowie.

He also worked with Jean-Luc Godard, possibly still the most important film-maker in Western Cinema. However, Godard not being the easiest of collaborators no joint work appeared.

Pennebaker continued to film important aspect of political and cultural life. The 1979 Town Bloody Hall set in New York bought together a panel of feminists with the writer Norman Mailer. He had distinctive views on women’s liberation with some of the problematic male values. The debate is fascinating and offered illumination on the wider US political culture, a discourse that is sometimes seems baffling in Britain.

The 1993 War Room, filmed with Chris Hegedus, returned to political campaigning and that of the future US President Bill Clinton. Like the earlier Primary this both offered a portrait of lesser known aspects of Presidential campaigns and offered revealing portraits of the team aiming for the White House.

Pennebaker made some 40 odd films, all in some sense documentaries. They were not always easy to see in a Britain with a very limited distribution world. Presumably now, with the new emphasis on documentary, they would appear more regularly. They would certainly provide object lessons in how to present observational cinema in both an intelligent and absorbing manner. Many are studies of popular music and it culture. But there are the political studies and portraits of other aspects of US Culture. He was one of the key chroniclers of the four decades of the USA at the end of the C20th. Some of the TV channels are already revisiting his classic films. Let us home that some of these will also appear in cinemas in Britain.

Now on Release: Varda by Agnès (Varda par Agnès, France 2019)

Agnès Varda revisiting locations for Vagabond (1985)

Keith reviewed this film at Berlin earlier this year. Here are my thoughts on the film now in UK cinemas.

Agnès Varda’s last film opened locally with a ‘seniors’ morning screening. I wonder if many of those in the audience were watching their first Varda screening. All seemed to enjoy the show so Agnès judged her delivery well. She died earlier this year just a couple of months short of her 91st birthday, but as this film demonstrates she had lost none of her creative powers starting her tenth decade. In this personal statement about her own work she addresses us directly as part of the audience seated in several different auditoria. The film is an illustrated lecture taking us through nearly 70 years of work as a photographer, filmmaker and finally ‘visual artist’ (an English term she endorses). It isn’t a straightforward chronology. She jumps around a little but as far as I can see she covers all of her feature films and most of the shorts. The only disappointment for me was the short sequence on her photography (which preceded her first film in 1954) which comes towards the end of the film. I’d of liked to know a little more about this and how it informed her filmmaking. Her talk began with a statement about her three key ideas about filmmaking – here is how she describes them in the Press Notes:

INSPIRATION is why you make a film. The motivations, ideas, circumstances and happenstance that spark a desire and you set to work to make a film.

CREATION is how you make the film. What means do you use? What structure? Alone or not alone? In colour or not in colour? Creation is a job.

The third word is SHARING. You don’t make films to watch them alone, you make films to show them. An empty cinema: a filmmaker’s nightmare!

People are at the heart of my work. Real people. That’s how I’ve always referred to the people I film in cities or the countryside.

This gives you a good idea of how she set about ‘creating’ her story. In fact she made a statement at the Berlin press show when the film was screened saying that this film would now do her talking for her as personal appearances were becoming tiring. Varda’s presentation lasts nearly two hours and I could have taken double the time listening to her commentary and watching the clips. I’ve seen around half of her 23 features and now I feel more encouraged to seek out the shorter films, especially the earlier ones in California. The key to appreciating Varda is to tune in to her own fascination with the world and what she can do with her camera. Varda was true to the idea of the artisanal artist-filmmaker. She remains the definition of an auteur, developing her own company Ciné-Tamaris which has retained control of her films (and those of Jacques Demy and others) and re-released them on restored digital versions. She’s kept much of her filmmaking literally ‘in house’ with various production roles for her daughter Rosalie Varda and son Mathieu Demy and partnerships with a series of actors and crews. One of those who appears in this film is Sandrine Bonnaire, who reveals just how hard she was pushed as a 17 year-old in the lead role for Vagabond.

Varda on a beach of île de Nourmoutier, a location for several of her films

I would have liked to have seen a bit more about Varda’s marriage to Jacques Demy and how these two, in some ways very different, creative people bounced ideas off each other. She does discuss her documentary biopic Jacquot de Nantes (1991) made when Demy was very ill, but not the two documentaries she made after his death. The two were in California together during the 1960s but made very different films there.

Venice Biennale 2003:
“This triptych is in celebration of the world’s most modest vegetable: the potato. On the central screen: heart shaped potatoes breathe. They are old wizened crumpled potatoes but that have sprout. On the side screens, variations of sprouts. Roots, blossoms. On the floor, 700 kg potatoes.“

Varda adapted to the possibilities of new technologies and embraced the use of digital cameras. Varda by Agnès is presented in two parts so that the early career is ‘analogue’ and the later career is ‘digital’. The split is also one of 20th and 21st century practice. The revelation for me was the ‘installation’ work in the second period when Varda became a visual artist. I wish now that I’d made more effort in 2018 to get to the Liverpool Biennial where there was a photographic exhibition, a new installation and a season of her films. As far as I can see this is the only time that Varda was received in the UK as a ‘visual artist’ and we might never get to see some of the intriguing installations glimpsed in Varda by Agnès such as Patatutopia from 2003 or the Cinema Shacks she built from old cans of her celluloid films in 2013.

“My nostalgia for 35mm cinema turned into a recycling whim…
I build shacks with the waste reels of my movies. Tossed aside because no longer screened, the silver stock of the composite print itself becomes a shack. I build them on a metal structure and we carefully chose the images at eyesight level.
The last one made from a print of my film HAPPINESS is a greenhouse full of sunflowers.”

Agnès Varda was one of the great filmmakers, photographers and visual artists of the last 70 years. We will be lucky to see her like again. All I can do is to urge you to see this hugely enjoyable current release and to dig out any DVDs or VODs from her catalogue that you can find. There are some posts you might find interesting on this blog.