Category: Politics on film

¡Viva! 25 #2: Tiempo después (Some Time After, Spain-Portugal 2018)

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 lemonade seller (Roberto Álamo) drags his cart up to the palace where the receptionist (Carlos Arece) tells him he won’t be allowed to sell his wares

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 characters ‘below’ (with some helpers from ‘above’)

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.

GFF19 #9: Medium Cool (US 1969)

Police attacks on demonstrators photographed by Haskell Wexler

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.

John (Robert Forster) posing beneath a poster of Jean-Paul Belmondo

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.

John with Eileen (Verna Bloom)

Harold (Harold Blankenship)

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.

Eileen in her yellow dress searches for Harold in the park during the police action

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.

John with his sound recordist go to a police station to cover the story of an African-American man who has handed in money he has found. (Grab from dvdbeaver.com)

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.

 

Vice (US 2018)

Christian Bale (left) as Dick Cheney and Sam Rockwell (right) as George W. Bush, photo by Matt Kennedy © Annapurna Pictures 2018

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.

Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld who inspires Cheney when addressing interns in 1968

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.

The remarkable performances of Christian Bale and Amy Adams are at the centre of the film. Only the eyes tell me this is Bale?

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.

¡Nae pasaran! (Scotland 2018)

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.

The three workers honoured by the current Chilean government

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.