I’ve noted from several film festival experiences that the ‘Opening Night film’ is often prestigious but not always very good. Tiempo después was the opening film of ¡Viva! 25. It had the largest audience of the three films I saw on Saturday, but I rated it the least interesting/enjoyable of the three. That doesn’t mean that it is a ‘bad film’ and it may well be my failure as an audience rather than an issue with the film itself. I note that the writer-director José Luis Cuerda was the director of La Lengua de las mariposas (Spain 1999) which Nick raved about on this blog. I also note that the array of excellent actors on screen in this recent film includes several who have worked with Pedro Almodóvar, including one, Carlos Areces, who was one of the camp air stewards on I’m So Excited (Spain 2013) – the most poorly-received of Almodóvar’s films in the UK. This may be significant. Is this an issue about Spanish comedy? Perhaps it is – but I really liked I’m So Excited and La Lengua de las mariposas. I think the problem here might be defined as ‘political satire’, which is very hard to pull off, especially for international audiences. (Cuerda also produced the first three films by Alejandro Amenábar, Tesis (1996), Abre los ojos (1997) and The Others (2001) – which is another reason to make him an important figure.) His last film as director before this one was the well-received The Blind Sunflowers (Los girasoles ciegos) in 2008. The new film has been widely seen as a form of development/updating of Cuerda’s comedy Amanece, que no es poco (1989) with his comedy style described as ‘surrealist rural comedy’.
The idea for the film is to present a future world (‘9177, give or take a thousand years’) in which civilisation on earth has been reduced to one imposing building plonked down in a landscape that evokes Monument Valley, Utah, aka ‘John Ford’s American West’. Outside this building which houses the rich and powerful is a rural trailer park in a woodland clearing where the ‘ordinary people’ live. The simple narrative involves one of those from ‘below’ attempting to enter the ‘palace’ above (which operates more like an office block or a conference hotel) and to sell fresh lemon juice door-to-door. This is not allowed since the King alone licenses traders, of which there must be three (no more, no less) for each service or commodity. Eventually our frustrated hero will lead an insurrection and fall in love. I won’t disclose how this works out.
The script is full of interesting ideas, perhaps too many interesting ideas, which can’t all be carried through. Everything you know about the history of Spanish culture, history and politics and probably quite a lot more that most of us non-Hispanics may miss, is referenced here. It is essentially a political satire about Spain’s past and possible future. There are many enjoyable characters and devices. I particularly enjoyed the small group of men who have learned how to fly simply by flapping their arms at different speeds. These characters are all dressed in flight overalls, goggles and helmets like extras in a Miyazaki anime about the 1930s Italian airforce. The King appears to be speaking Spanish in an English accent and, of course, there is an evil fascist priest in the palace. You know it is only a matter of time before somebody ‘below’ begins to speak about Don Quixote. Cuerda had originally written a novel using the same material and perhaps he might have invited someone else to do the adaptation?
I’m not sure I laughed out loud but sometimes I definitely smiled. I also confess to closing my eyes and then trying not to drift off into a mid-afternoon snooze. So, I wasn’t the best critical reviewer. I think, perhaps, that if you come to this film with less political baggage than I carry around, you might enjoy it more than I did. It seems to have been reasonably well received in Spain and if you are in the mood to spot the references you could have a good time. Here’s a trailer (without English subs, I’m afraid.) I note it is distributed in Spain by the Canadian multinational eOne, so it must have had a reasonable release in Spain last December.
The film is showing again at HOME on April 5th at 16.05.
By 1969 I think I considered that my interest in cinema was more than just the enjoyment of ‘entertainment cinema’. I hadn’t yet discovered the full range of the diverse film offer in London, but I’m pretty sure I was aware of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool. However, I can’t remember if I actually watched it on release. I was intrigued to see it in GFF’s programme and now I feel very grateful for the opportunity to see it on the big screen.
Allan Hunter gave his usual entertaining and informative introduction to this screening, suggesting that the cinematographer Wexler making his first film as a director was influenced by Jean-Luc Godard. I think that this might be a reference to Godard’s 1967 film Weekend. Certainly there is an important use of car crashes in both films, but Wexler’s film is much more structured and ‘narrativised’ in its use of different elements than most of Godard’s work from 1967 onwards. Wexler is also credited with the screenplay and the cinematography on Medium Cool. In the interview shown below, Wexler tells us that his film began as a literary adaptation of a 1967 novel by Jack Couffer titled The Concrete Wilderness. This novel traced the adventures of a freelance photographer and naturalist who meets a boy with a dog in the New York city storm drains. The two discover the wide range of animals living in the city. This storyline remains at the centre of Wexler’s film but the location moves to Chicago. When Wexler returned to his home city in 1968 there was so much going on in the streets re Civil Rights, the anti-war movement and Mayor Daley’s attempts to hijack the Democratic convention that he realised that the ‘background’ in his film had to come forward and merge with the original story.
The central character becomes a TV news camera operator/reporter, ‘John’ played by Robert Forster, who with his sound recordist attempts to collect material that will represent the tumultuous events in Chicago at the time. But when John learns that the TV station regularly sends his footage to the FBI to help in identifying people he ‘wakes up’ and starts to to investigate stories as a freelance. At the same time, he changes in his personal life as well when he meets Harold, a young teenager who he thinks is stealing his hubcaps. Harold (a remarkable performance by Harold Blankenship, one of several non-professionals in the cast) lives with his mother, Eileen (Verna Bloom), who has brought her son to Chicago from West Virginia where she was a teacher in a rural school. In Chicago she works for Motorola. Harold has homing pigeons and roams the streets of Chicago with a young friend. John and Eileen are similarly on the streets looking for each other and for Harold as the clashes between police and National Guard on one side and demonstrators on the other spread across the city.
Watching the film now, the mixture of fictional story, documentary footage of the convention, Wexler’s own footage recorded as part of the real event and ‘staged’ documentary sequences doesn’t seem that unusual. Several commentators suggest Wexler is a pioneer of ‘ciné-vérité’ camerawork. They may be correct about a studio film at this point but ciné-vérité dates back to Jean Rouch in France in the early 1960s. The North American equivalent, ‘Direct Cinema’, though slightly different in approach, was already a staple of TV news documentaries in the US and also featured in Nation Film Board of Canada films. Looking back at reviews from the time does however reveal the impact of the film. Roger Ebert, for instance, thinks that the film marks the real turning point in Hollywood films and he abandons his usual approach to write more generally about how Hollywood had changed, picking out the earlier film The Graduate (1967) as the beginning of the process. Vincent Canby in the New York Times is perhaps more clear-eyed in his analysis of the film, suggesting that it is
a film of tremendous visual impact, a kind of cinematic ‘Guernica’, a picture of America in the process of exploding into fragmented bits of hostility, suspicion, fear and violence. The movie, however, is much less complex than it looks.
Canby also recognises that the film’s title is a reference to Marshall McLuhan’s work on television, though he thinks that the film’s use of colour and editing could diminish the horror of the real events being shown live on TV. (McLuhan suggested that TV was a ‘cool’ medium because it offered relatively little stimulus to the viewer and required ‘participation’ by the viewer to fully understand its meanings. This he contrasted with a ‘hot’ medium like cinema film which stimulated the visual sense above all else.) Ebert and Canby don’t however mention the film’s use of music which is distinctive and which in a way links Medium Cool to both The Graduate and Alice’s Restaurant. The music was the responsibility of Mike Bloomfield, the great Chicago guitarist who was also a relative of Wexler’s. Bloomfield use a mix of traditional protest songs and strong guitar pieces, one from Arthur Lee’s Love and a number of Frank Zappa’s early compositions for the Mothers of Invention. The other major Chicago figure who was important in the film’s production was Studs Terkel, the legendary ‘people’s historian’, actor, journalist and radio broadcaster. Wexler explains that without Terkel’s support he would not have been able to film the scenes with black militants in Chicago who were understandably reluctant to engage with white Hollywood filmmakers in 1968.
Wikipedia suggests that the film was profitable for Paramount, suggesting rental income of $5.5 million and an original budget of $800,000. This suggests that the studio knew what it was doing, which if true was unusual for the time. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been made at the time at any other studio. Wexler says in the interview below that he was offered the chance to make The Concrete Wilderness by Peter Bart who was then a producer at Paramount. This was also the period when Robert Evans was Head of Production and between 1967 and 1974, Paramount was a ‘hot studio’ with hits like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Godfather (1972), both in their different ways groundbreaking films.
Haskell Wexler made only three more films as director and none as high-profile as Medium Cool. However, he did continue to be a highly acclaimed cinematographer. He had already won an Oscar for his work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966) and he won a second for his work on Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory (1976). Later he shot four John Sayles movies with Silver City in 2004, his last major feature. Wexler was clearly a fascinating man and died aged 93 in 2015.
Most of the critical attention given to Vice has focused on Christian Bale’s remarkable performance as Dick Cheney in this biopic, of sorts, about the American politician. It is an extraordinary performance, not least in dealing with all the prostheses and make-up necessary to represent the older Cheney. Equal praise should go to Amy Adams, also unrecognisable in her depiction of Cheney’s life partner Lynne. But I think the real questions to ask about this film are to do with its purpose. As I used to suggest to media students, the best starting place is to discuss the purpose of a media text and also to examine who made it.
I should point out that I watched this film with a group of friends on a social night out (screening and meal) and it wouldn’t have been my choice, but I went along with a group decision. I therefore watched the film with a slight prejudice and the knowledge that I have mainly avoided films about US politicians and especially about Republican politicians. But here I’ll try to be objective. This film, written and directed by Adam McKay focuses on Dick Cheney’s rise to become arguably the most powerful Vice President in US history during the two George W. Bush administrations from 2001-9. It begins with a brief look at Cheney as a student thrown out by Yale and then given a dressing down by Lynne before a recovery at the University of Wyoming and an eventual internship in Washington DC. Cheney’s starts a political career during the 1968 Nixon presidency.
Is this meant to be ‘entertainment’ or is it first and foremost a political satire aiming to expose Cheney’s shenanigans? I guess that many audiences (apart from die-hard Republicans) will find it entertaining. I did laugh, but mainly ironically at the acute analysis. Mackay adopts an approach utilising a range of devices which arguably ‘distance’ us from the realism of events. There are some surreal moments of editing, there is a character who talks to camera and there are some bravura casting decisions which I took to be deliberate exaggerations. The comic actor Steve Carell plays Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell gives a performance as George W. Bush, both of which seem broad satire to me. There are some animated characters plus the use of archive footage and there are other ‘whacky’ devices that I won’t describe so as not to spoil your possible enjoyment. But do all of these devices and the coherent satire of monsters like Dick and Lynne add up to a politically challenging exposé? I’m genuinely not sure.
Political satire has become a difficult business. The film opens with a statement along the lines of “This is all true, or as true as is possible in discussing someone as secretive as Dick Cheney. We did our fucking best!” And that seems a reasonable statement. But when you consider that Cheney is not in prison and that he still has the millions he ‘earned’ as a result of Halliburton’s commercial interest in the post-invasion clear-up in Iraq – and that Donald Trump is still the current President despite all the charges against him – the reality of American political life seems beyond satire.
I will admit that I learned things about the foundation of Fox News and the de-regulation of American broadcasting that I didn’t know and I should have known and for that I’m grateful. Perhaps there is an argument that the film is ‘educational’? When it comes to who made it, the film appears to be a Hollywood ‘art film’ production as an ‘independent film’ that cost $60 million according to IMDb. I wonder if the huge budget for an ‘independent’ undermines the credibility of the film? Personally, I found the casting of Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell and the bizarre presence of Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, a neocon academic and politician, each fitted in with the satire but also drew attention away from the exposé. I realise that I’m probably guilty of criticising this film for things that I would find acceptable in other, non-American, films, but that’s my problem with American politics.
Perhaps the main problem with Vice is that in trying to cover such a long period of American politics (and aspects of Cheney’s personal life) it’s inevitable that some issues are left out or dealt with in a perfunctory way. That is in its own way quite proper when the major issues need more time.
I know audiences will have enjoyed the film. I wonder what they will take away from it beyond the laughs and the performances of Bale and Adams? In North America audiences are holding up after 8 weeks on release but I think the film will need to do well in the international market to at least cover its costs if that budget estimate is correct. So far, it is doing well in many territories. What I don’t know is whether the audience in the US is only the ‘libtards’ (a term used in the film) or whether audiences outside the US are thinking ‘OMG!’ or laughing nervously at the thought that someone like Cheney could discover ways of gaining so much power. Seeing an archive clip of Tony Blair supporting the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq is possibly the worst moment in the film for many of us Brits.
I missed this film when it premiered at the end of the Glasgow Film Festival last year. It is now slowly making its way around the UK and if it comes it appears anywhere near you, please make an effort to see it. You won’t be disappointed. On a wet windy evening in Hebden Bridge it was a rare treat to be confronted with a queue outside the Picture House – and applause at the end of the screening. It is showing again in West Yorkshire at the Shipley Community Cinema on 18th January (other venues for the ‘rolling’ distribution are listed on the website).
The film’s title neatly encapsulates its political and comradely subject matter. ‘¡Nae pasaran!’ has become familiar with resistance to fascism across the Hispanic world. The slogan, “They shall not pass!” was associated with the Basque Republican fighter La pasionaria (Dolores Ibárruri) during the Battle of Madrid in 1936. In its current context it refers to the actions of Scottish engineering workers at the Rolls Royce factory in East Kilbride who ‘blacked’ the Avon aero engines sent to the factory for overhaul in 1974 after the military coup in Chile in September 1973. This action meant that the workers (in a totally unionised plant) refused to work on engines that the Pinochet regime in Chile might use in their Hawker Hunter aircraft to suppress any opposition to the new fascist dictatorship. The action was prompted by one of the workers appointed as an ‘inspector’ of the engines. Eight engines were placed outside the factory where they slowly deteriorated until four of them were ‘spirited away’ one night using blackleg transport. The story may have remained an ‘anecdote’ but for the investigative work of the filmmaker Felipe Bustos Sierra, the son of an exiled Chilean journalist in Belgium who first made a successful short film and then expanded it into this feature-length documentary.
Sierra interviewed the surviving workers involved in the strike/boycott and then went to find witnesses in Chile. I think he began the project in 2013 (the first of the Chilean interviewees died in 2014 according to the closing credits). The worker who began the action, Bob Fulton, is I think 90 when we see him in the film. It’s impossible to watch this true working-class hero (and his two colleagues) without welling up. Sierra has found some truly shocking footage to illustrate the horrors of the coup. I’ve seen the two Patricio Guzmán documentaries in recent years, Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and The Pearl Button (2015) both of which explore the horrors of the dictatorship but I’m still shocked with the ferocity and inhumanity of what happened on September 11th 1973. Some of the footage in Nae Pasaran was new to me. I think the shots of the nun who waited by the river to fish out the floating corpses of workers and activists murdered in the night will remain with me.
Sierra discovers some of the Chileans who survived incarceration, possibly as a result of the Scottish workers’ action which was part of an international campaign of solidarity. Labour returned to power in the UK in 1974 and the new ministers, Judith Hart and Alex Lyon both helped to make the UK a possible place of exile for Chileans. Even so they ran up against civil servants and military chiefs who made it difficult to clear the exiles and to grant refugee status. The British military would seemingly still rather listen to the CIA, who allegedly helped Pinochet mount the coup against a democratically elected government, than to refugees who had witnessed murder and torture. A credit at the end of the film tells us that Rolls Royce and the RAF were not prepared to make statements to the filmmaker. Sierra also interviews some of those who worked for the junta, including a retired Air Force General who still seems incapable of remorse.
Most of all though, many audiences will be moved by the humanity and solidarity expressed through the contacts between the East Kilbride workers and the Chilean survivors. Felipe Bustos Sierra is based in Edinburgh and he has an easy rapport with the retired workers in the pub, showing them his interviewees in Chile expressing their gratitude for the solidarity of the Scottish workers and explaining what it meant to them. Some were convinced that it helped them be released and travel to Europe. The film ends with a public presentation of honours granted to the three leaders of the strike action in 1974. Go and see this film. It is well-made and tells its story powerfully. It will make you feel better and remind you of what solidarity means – and why trades unions are an essential part of any democracy. I certainly feel humbled and wished I had done more to help in 1974-5.
I was lucky to catch Roma on the big screen after a mad dash from Kings Cross to Leicester Square and then to the Curzon Soho – I was briefly in London with three hours to spare. I refuse to subscribe to Netflix so the only other option was a trip to tiny screens in Curzons in Sheffield or Ripon. (See Keith’s earlier posting on the difficulties of seeing the film in West Yorkshire.) I didn’t worry though. I knew the effort would be worthwhile and it was. A great deal has already been written about Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘memoir’ and I wonder if I can say anything new? I’m not one, I hope, to be taken in by all the hype that surrounds a Golden Lion winner at Venice. So I’ll try to be dispassionate.
Much as been made about Cuarón’s multiple roles as writer-director, co-producer, cinematographer and editor. Roma‘s camerawork has plenty of attention. Cuarón shot the film on an Alexa 65 digital film camera. This means that he recorded more visual data via the ‘capture chip’ in the camera than most digitally shot films. The projected film is shown in black & white in a CinemaScope 2.35:1 ratio and it looks very good. There are possible ‘flaws’ however. Cuarón is fond of both tracking shots and pans to construct scenes in long takes. Because much of the film is set in an upper middle-class district of Mexico City (‘Roma’) in streets and inside a family home using only ‘available’ light, there is often a quite shallow field of focus and several shots throw characters out of focus or distort the image as the camera pans and tracks (I assume that this is a function of the lenses and the focal length). This in turn offers a comment on the neo-realist qualities of the cinematography. Occasionally, Cuarón swings the camera up and catches a jet airliner flying high over the city but most times that a wide vista offering the deep focus of classic neo-realist imagery in long shot is developed is in the scenes set outside the city centre such as where a large group of young men are practising martial arts moves in a form of parade ground setting or when the family travel to the beaches near Vera Cruz. I mention neo-realism simply because it is one of the cinema aesthetics mentioned by critics writing about the film, but Roma is not a neo-realist film. It does, however, achieve the emotional impact of some of the classic neo-realist melodramas.
The look of the film has been seen as very important for several reasons. Cuarón has said that he went to Netflix because traditional Hollywood studios would question a project on this scale presented in black and white and without a conventional genre-based narrative or recognisable international stars. Cinephiles also have expectations of the camerawork and staging which were so important in the closing scenes of Children of Men (2006 US-UK-Japan) and throughout Gravity (UK-US 2013). Cuarón himself has further generated expectations by promoting 70mm film screenings and making claims about the details in the projected image. (Screen 1 at Curzon Soho has both 35mm film and 4K digital projection. I assume what I watched was a DCP but whether it was 2K or 4K, I don’t know.) But while the image (visual and aural) attracts cinephiles, several film fans on IMDb complain that “there is no story”. I don’t agree, but I can see where the complaint comes from.
The film is a ‘memoir’. It is set over roughly one year from the summer of 1970 to the middle of 1971. Alfonso Cuarón had his 9th birthday in November 1970 in a similar house in the same district of Mexico City. His younger brother Carlos was 4 at that time and I believe Alfonso also has a sister Christina. Mexico hosted the Olympic Games in 1968 and the World Cup in 1970. Large scale student demonstrations in Mexico City broke out in 1971 resulting in the ‘massacre’ of 120 student protestors in June. The latter, known as the ‘Corpus Christi massacre’ features in the film. The civil action was part of a protest during the so-called ‘Dirty War’ in Mexico. The fictitious family presumably mirrors the social class position of the Cuarón family at this point.
[I should guide any readers at this point to the dossier of essays on Roma published by Mediático “a collectively authored media and film studies blog, which showcases a diverse array of research, news, views and perspectives on Latin(o/a) American, Spanish and Portuguese media cultures”. The dossier can be found at http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2018/12/24/introduction-to-the-special-dossier-on-roma-alfonso-cuaron/ These experts on Latin American cinema know far more than I do. I’m still going to make my comments, but you can use the dossier to explore the issues in more detail.]
The family comprises the mother Sofía, the father (who moves out in the early part of the film), three young sons and a daughter ranging in age from 4 to young teenager and Sofía’s mother, Sra. Teresa. The household also includes a large dog kept in the closed driveway and two house servants who live in an annex. One of these is Cleo who acts as a maid/nanny and she is the main protagonist of the story. The other is Adela who seems to be mainly concerned with cooking, cleaning and laundry. There is also a male handyman who works mainly as a driver but I don’t think he ‘lives in’. Cleo is based on Alfonso Cuarón’s own nanny, Liboria or ‘Libo’, to whom the film is dedicated.
The narrative follows the daily lives of the household through the period in which the father absents himself, first on a plausible trip to a conference which is then extended. Sofía will at first keep up the pretence that he will return but will eventually be forced to tell the children. Cleo is part of the household but on her days off she has a boyfriend and we follow the course of her relationship with him. If this sounds like an intimate family melodrama, Cuarón makes it into something more akin to an epic ‘city symphony’ using CGI to fill in the period details in the street scenes including memorable visits to cinemas and a theatre, the government hospital (where the father is a senior figure), a New Year house party with relatives in the outer suburbs (Mexico City covers a vast area) and the activities of ‘Profesor Zovek’ (a showman performer played by a famous wrestler known as ‘Latin Lover’ – wrestlers in Mexico are celebrity figures and feature in popular films). So there is a story, which in its final act becomes highly emotional and delivers the punch of a superior melodrama. But, in an important sense, there is much more to the film and it is the wealth of detail and the richness of allusion which makes the film so compelling.
I was struck quite early in the film by the importance of its relationship to Y tu mamá también (Mexico 2001). I’ve written quite extensively on this film in various places and therefore it has stayed with me. I think that audiences who aren’t familiar with the earlier film will miss something because they won’t be prompted to think about the different ways in which the two films approach some of the same ideas. (The dossier quoted above suggests that other Cuarón films are also important but I’ll stick with the one that is most closely connected.) There is too much to analyse in a single post but I should explain that the first film is set in the 1990s and is a form of road trip in which two young Mexican men take a road trip to the coast from Mexico City with an older female cousin of one of them. There is sex, drama and comedy along the way (and a narrative twist) but the film also acts as a social/political commentary on Mexico as a ‘teenage country’ (Cuarón’s term). The two young men Julio and Tenoch come from different social class positions. Tenoch is the character with the Cuarón family characteristics, coming from an upper middle class (in Mexican terms) family. His maid/nanny in the film is played by the real Liboria. Cuarón uses a device in the film borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard in which the ambient sound is cut and a voiceover comments on the action and on Mexican society/polity. So, for instance, when the boys drive through a village, the voiceover tells us that this is Leo/Liboria’s village. In Roma, Cuarón places similar information in the dialogue of the family melodrama. In a way this is more direct, but actually it requires more work to make the connections. For instance, although it is not said explicitly, we can deduce that the family has done very well under the long-running PRI government. They are the beneficiaries of state-supported ‘professionalisation’ – the father is a senior physician, the mother is a bio-chemist and university lecturer. At the same time, government policies have impoverished rural Mexico and encouraged the peasantry to migrate to the city where, like Cleo, they are forced to work as servants. Later in the narrative, Cleo will learn that another government initiative has taken her mother’s land rights away from her. Given the structure of society, the class system is also based on race. The family belong to the 9% ‘European’ population of Mexico. The rest of the population is Mestizo (‘mixed race’) at 60% and Indigenous at 30%. Cleo and Adela speak at various points in the Mixtec language of the peoples of Western Oaxaca (which is on the Pacific coast but is actually not far from the Caribbean coast of Vera Cruz given that Mexico is at its narrowest in this South-Eastern region). The UK print of Roma has two separate subtitle texts with the translation of the Mixtec dialogue shown inside square brackets.
In the dossier referenced above, Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado refers to the distinction above in the two ways of delivering the social/political commentary and suggests that in Roma it is ‘sensorially conveyed’. This is achieved in two ways, first in Cuaron’s approach to the cinematography – i.e. using camera movement, composition and framing to signify the lived culture of the family in the city – and secondly through the soundtrack:
. . . the sound design, Roma’s most brilliant technical feat, building on the territory explored by directors like Lucrecia Martel in La ciénaga, turns the noises and utterances of everyday life, along with the mediascape of Mexican and global popular culture, into a constant set of signifiers related to the affective and social environment of 1970s modernity.
Sánchez Prado is not the only one to single out the film’s sound design and many critics have commented on it. I found it quite disconcerting in the Curzon cinema and it reminded me of the dramatic sound design of films like Apocalypse Now (Walter Murch, 1979). I was sat in the third row of 250 seat cinema and I was conscious of sound from behind me and from the sides of the auditorium. Background chatter and traffic noise were so subtly rendered that I thought for a moment that a door had been left open in the cinema. I can’t imagine the same experience is available via Netflix. I don’t think I could process all the sounds and visual images that I was offered – this is an incredibly rich text. But I would need to go back to a cinema and that looks very difficult. What have you done, Alfonso? I understand that Netflix enabled your creative freedom, but it’s important that audiences can see your film in a cinema. Thank you for this remarkable film, but I want to watch it again.
The triumph of the film is to place us in a position from where we can attempt to understand a world from the perspective of Cleo – played in the film by a non-professional actor, Yalitza Aparicio. Some critics have remarked that Cleo says very little and that the family members treat her badly. But I think that the aim is for us to work out for ourselves what Cleo is thinking about what she sees. I don’t think that the family treats Cleo badly out of malice. I think that they behave towards someone who is very important for them emotionally in ways that have developed within a society structured around race and social class divisions. I enjoyed the film immensely and in the dramatic scenes in the latter part of the film I was unable to stop the tears which were shed for Cleo. The film is 135 minutes long and at the end of the screening, including the long credit sequence, the woman behind me said to her friend: “Gosh, is that the time? It’s hard to believe we’ve been here that long.” That’s the result of watching a great film in the cinema.
This is an African-American Independent film that has received significant support for a début feature. The director Boots Riley appears on IMDb with a smattering of different credits as a writer and performer and he has had a successful musical career through the rapping collective The Coup, but for his first feature he has recruited Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker and Rosario Dawson in small parts and has Tessa Thompson in the lead female role. His protagonist Cassius (Cash) Green is played by Lakeith Stanfield, also an established actor, and Riley finds himself as the cover story for Sight and Sound‘s December issue. Inside, the interview conducted by Kaleem Aftab reveals that Riley comes from a family of left-wing activists in Oakland, that he went to film school and that he was inspired by Spike Lee. His film was also supported by the Sundance festival and is distributed by Focus Features/Universal in the UK.
I found the film interesting throughout, but there were also moments when I thought it wasn’t working. Adam Nayman’s review in Sight and Sound makes a couple of points that seem relevant to me. The first is to compare Sorry to Bother You to a film like Black Panther (which I haven’t seen) and to suggest that whatever the flaws in Boots Riley’s film, it is straightforwardly honest in its attempt to expose several different but connected political issues. This is quite different from the political impact of a ‘branded blockbuster’ which requires critical attention to reveal its possible political discourses. Secondly, Nayman suggests that Sorry to Bother You bears a resemblance to Jordan Peele’s Get Out from 2017 and that certainly did occur to me (Peele was also to be offered the role of Cassius until he had his own big success). These two connections go some way towards explaining why Sorry to Bother You has attracted attention.
In attempting to ‘read’ Sorry to Bother You, I did feel caught between a sense of missing some cultural references (e.g. rap music) but also being sidetracked by other filmic references. Our hero ‘Cash’ starts the film broke and living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist who earns some money as a ‘human billboard’ advertising local businesses. Cash needs a job and is hired by a ‘telemarketing’ company. This explains the title which is the opening line of a standard script for ‘cold calling’. Riley makes the intrusive nature of the business clear by literally throwing Cash into the same frame as the poor unfortunates who answer their phones. Very quickly, Cash learns from an older colleague (played by Danny Glover) that he will be more successful if he uses his ‘white voice’. He also learns that if he shows promise by hitting high sales targets he might be promoted to ‘power caller’ and ascend to the top, exclusive, floor of the building. Meanwhile, references on local TV and billboards to a new social work/housing programme suggest that this is in fact an ‘alternate Oakland’ in which private enterprise is developing a new quasi-fascist system of communal living and working – mostly it seems for African-Americans.
At this point we realise that this isn’t a simple social comedy but some kind of absurdist satire on US capitalism and its dependence on racial divisions. The narrative then has to bring together the telemarketing scam and the work programme and develop Cash’s role as the seeming innocent who will be drawn into the process and will be offered inducements that will persuade him to betray his friends and co-workers. We know that Cash is an intelligent and generally likeable character who could resist, but the lure of riches is strong when you are broke. Riley chooses to develop a plot involving unionisation of the telemarketing drones and Detroit develops a performance piece which savagely critiques the exploitation of African resources and points the finger at US policy and all individuals who buy phones and other technologies dependent on coltan from the Congo (DRC). The stage is set when Cash is promoted and meets the figure behind the work programme (played by Arnie Hammer). At this point the similarity to Get Out becomes apparent.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative but from this brief plot outline it should be clear that Riley is ambitious in his targets and that’s no bad thing. But political satire is very difficult to pull off and the melding of comedy, politics and fantasy is particularly difficult. In the Sight and Sound interview, Riley says that he spent some time with Spike Jonze and Kaleem Aftab the interviewer later suggests that the film is ‘Brechtian’. Pushing together these two sources of ideas about how to present a narrative gives an indication of the problem Riley faces. I’d add a third in that I was reminded of David Cronenberg’s Existenz (Canada 1999) described by some commentators as a ‘science fiction-body horror film’. I might also add that several lesser American independent films flashed briefly across my mind. And for me that is Riley’s biggest problem – a lack of a consistent tone to his film so that it retains its control over an argument. I can see that there is an argument that this very lack of consistency is itself Brechtian, pushing the audience away and making us think about the film’s construction, but I think other elements work against this idea and that overall the narrative is conventional even as it draws on various genre repertoires.
The supporting roles in the film are interesting. The union organiser in the telemarketing company is ‘Squeeze’ played by the Korean-American actor Steven Yeun. I don’t know whether this has any significance in an Oakland context but it does make the multi-racial union of workers a more potent political force. On the other hand, I think that Tessa Thompson as Detroit is under-used apart from her very disturbing performance piece. I thought she was very good in Dear White People (2014) but again under-used in Creed (2015). She’s also featured strongly in a wide range of other major films. Women generally don’t figure strongly in Sorry to Bother You. They are often simply background figures necessary to present a comic sequence (Rosario Dawson is the voice in the lift to the exclusive floor) and that is definitely a weakness. The sense of (in)coherence is my main concern with the film. But perhaps this can be forgiven in a début film? There are enough well-made political points alongside the visual inventiveness and successful comedy scenes plus music performed by the Coup to make this a film to be recommended and to push forward Boots Riley as a filmmaker to look out for in future. It’s an intelligent film and I’ve deliberately not mentioned some of the links to other specific satires to avoid spoilers.
The trailer doesn’t give away everything – which is a relief:
Mike Leigh was quite right to say that the Peterloo massacre should be taught in schools and he should be credited with bringing it to the screen; however it would have been better with a different writer and director. Leigh allows the film to be carried, up to the massacre, by speeches made by reformers. In the way of middle class Victorians, who never used one word if they could squeeze in ten, there’s a lot of rhetoric. This does give a sense of authenticity, Leigh made his name with ‘realist’ portrayals of the working class, but it also induces extreme torpor in the spectator.
Worse, Leigh’s weakness for caricature, which always marred his representations of the working class for me, leads to distracting characters such as Tim McInnerny’s Prince Regent. Caricature is used for humorous satire and whilst I don’t doubt that the Prince was a buffoon his words are sufficient to damn him; his presentation as a preening peacock is distracting and Ian Mercer’s Dr. Joseph Healey is straight out of the Leigh’s catalogue of the ridiculous grotesque. Worse, to ensure we understand the Salford Yeomanry were drunk before they commenced to slaughter the demonstrators, we are shown them toasting by flinging their beer into the air three times. Apart from the fact that I doubt Northerners would waste their ale in such a way, it has the impact of a sledgehammer entirely unnecessary for the narrative point. Sure, melodrama is about exaggeration and excess but this was plain stupid.
In addition, just as the slaughter is about to commence, Maxine Peake’s character complains she can’t hear the speaker. Fair enough, but the way it is shot evokes Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (UK, 1979) (‘blessed are the cheesemakers’); to introduce farce at this moment was farcical.
There’s more: Leigh cannot direct an action sequence, a large failing at the climax. His constant use of long lens, which foreshortens the perspective and fails to give a convincing sense of space, and placing his camera in ways that seemed to be chosen as the most convenient position (rather than an expressive position) serve only to sow confusion in the audience. It’s not giving a sense of the characters’ confusion and then panic so the horrendous slaughter fails to emotionally engage, a shocking failing when portraying a disgraceful moment in British history.
Dick Pope’s cinematography and Suzie Davies’ production design are good; as are most of the performers. But the result is a massive wasted opportunity to educate in an engaging way a shameful event. Of course the ruling classes don’t slaughter the poor with weapons any more but repress, with sometimes fatal consequences, through institutional means such as Universal Credit. We’re left with a film that will ensure no one makes one about the Peterloo massacre for many years to come and it would have been better if Mike Leigh had never made it.
It’s difficult to write objectively and dispassionately about A United Kingdom. I invested a great deal emotionally in watching the film on its release in 2016 and I wasn’t disappointed. For the film to be made at all and with a generous budget and good promotion is in itself a triumph. In fact, my only disappointment was in reading some of the mealy-mouthed and borderline offensive comments about the film submitted to IMDb. I hesitated about publishing my post but now, during something of a furore about Black History Month in the UK it seems appropriate to put my thoughts on record.
A United Kingdom presents a ‘real life story’ about a personal relationship which began in London in the late 1940s and which became the focal point of a story about international diplomacy, ‘End of Empire’ and racism in Southern Africa (and in the UK). While the film’s narrative is constructed mainly from historical facts, there are some instances of ‘artistic licence’ in scriptwriter Guy Hibbert’s version of events. But I don’t think these departures and other slight inaccuracies in any way undermine the thrust of the film’s message. This is a mainstream feature melding elements of romance, adventure, biopic and political thriller with a satisfying dose of social comment. It is also a personal statement by Amma Asante, a British director of African descent, working with David Oyelowo, a British star actor, also of African heritage, both of whom recognised the importance of putting this story on screen. Add to this a passionate and committed performance by Rosamund Pike and here is a film to savour.
In 1947 the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland in Southern Africa covered a large area of mainly arid plains (and desert areas) and mountains with a tiny population of under 150,000. As a ‘protectorate’ rather than a colony the local population had certain land rights vested in hereditary rulers, the most important of whom was Seretse Khama. In 1947 Seretse was studying to become a barrister in London while his uncle acted as regent after Seretse’s father died. In London, Seretse met and later married Ruth Williams, a clerical officer at Lloyds and the younger daughter of a lower middle-class family in South-East London. Ruth was a grammar school girl who had driven ambulances as a WAAF in the war. The newly-married couple faced a great deal of opposition. In London a de facto ‘colour bar’ existed in parts of society. In Bechuanaland, Seretse’s uncle opposed the union because he thought it inappropriate for a future king and when Seretse and Ruth arrived in the country they faced a difficult future. The British government opposed the marriage because of the situation in Southern Africa. Bechuanaland Protectorate was administered locally by a British representative on the ground who was answerable to a Commissioner for Southern Africa – who was actually based in South Africa. South Africa had been a ‘dominion’ in the British Empire since 1910 and a sovereign state since 1931 as a constitutional monarchy with a Governor-General representing the British monarch. In 1948 the Nationalist Party of South Africa returned to power under D. F. Malan with the intention of building an apartheid state – institutionalising segregation and ‘separate development’ for racial groups. The British Government faced the dilemma of accommodating the apartheid state or losing any influence in South Africa at a time when UK foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War was designed to retain British military bases and allies overseas in a time of austerity. A United Kingdom‘s script neatly demonstrates the insidious nature of apartheid in showing a hotel in Bechuanaland which requires Black Africans to use the back door – with just the one exception of the king, Seretse Khama. There was a real danger of South Africa attempting to annex large parts of the protectorate. The requirement to keep the Nationalists ‘on side’ in the early 1950s meant that Seretse and Ruth Khama were exiled and forced to live in London for several years in the early 1950s.
The key to the political/diplomatic narrative of A United Kingdom is in the land rights vested in the Khama family’s history, so that when diamonds are discovered in the territory, Seretse Khama has a legal claim in the British courts. This would eventually lead to a valuable resource becoming available for the people of Bechuanaland which moved to a peaceful independence in 1966 as the Republic of Botswana – with Seretse Khama as its first President. Botswana has since become a stable state with high levels of ‘human development’. It’s fascinating to see the role of Labour MP Tony Benn in all of this (the Khamas named their second son ‘Tony’). Benn’s role in the film is based on historical fact, but I’m not sure about some of the other Westminster political events depicted. In researching this background I realised that there was a second similar ‘scandal’ in 1956 when the daughter of the senior Labour Party politician Stafford Cripps married a Ghanaian politician just before the country’s independence from the UK in 1957. So, A United Kingdom is actually representative of many stories associated with ‘End of Empire’ – many African leaders of the 1950s and 1960s were in London in the late 1940s and 1950s.
But this is also a romance and a moving family story. I realise now that there is a great deal of similarity between A United Kingdom and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House released a few months later. Both films are proudly emotional and passionate about the ‘personal stories’ that represent the struggles of ‘colonial subjects’ in the dismantling of the British Empire. In both cases their directors are shining an important light on episodes of British foreign (and colonial) policy that very much need to be exposed. Both films should become staples in UK education about Empire history. What they also have in common is a criticism in terms of nitpicking about historical accuracy from the right and sometimes disdain from middle-class supporters who refuse to recognise the genre-based cinema of Amma Asante and Gurinder Chadha. There are those who still dismiss popular cinema but both films need to be supported in placing ‘popular’ stories before us.