Janis: Little Girl Blue (US 2015)

This recent music doc/biopic offers an interesting comparison with 20 Feet From Stardom (US 2013). Whereas that film seemed to me to have wonderful material but lacked a clear focus, this documentary knew exactly what it was doing and achieved a great deal with the limited material available. I have to confess a strong sense of nostalgia watching the film about the brief career of Janis Joplin which lasted not much longer than four years. The performances on film look better now than I remembered from earlier films and I learned quite a bit more about the difficult life that Janis had – and the tragic circumstances of her death.

This Janis Joplin doc arrived in cinemas just a few months after Amy, the Amy Winehouse doc. Both films must have been in production at the same time so I don’t see one prompting the other. It is remarkable though that the ‘last acts’ of the two films feature the same event. Both young women died from an overdose at the age of 27 (Winehouse in 2011). Janis died in 1970 a few weeks after Jimi Hendrix and a few months before Jim Morrison. Both these young men were also 27. The big difference between the Joplin and Winehouse docs is that the latter includes lots of ‘found footage’ , including social media footage as well as ‘mainstream media’, whereas there are relatively few filmed recordings of Joplin apart from the three well-known festival films.

Janis Joplin was born in the Texas town of Port Arthur, close to the Louisiana border, in 1943 into a middle-class family. She was a misfit at school who discovered she could sing at 17. Her singing career started in Austin but didn’t really begin to develop until she moved to San Francisco in 1963. Even then she lasted only two years before returning to Port Arthur to ‘clean up her act’. She finally made it when she returned to San Francisco in 1966. Over the next four years she sang with three bands and recorded four LPs, the last one, ‘Pearl’, being released posthumously (a double LP of live recordings then appeared in 1972). Joplin was first signed as the singer for Big Brother & The Holding Company (first two LPs) and then became a solo artist backed by first the Kozmic Blues Band and then the Full Tilt Boogie Band. She died in her motel room during the recording of ‘Pearl’. The cause of death was an overdose of heroin, assumed to be accidental (the drug may have been more potent than she expected).

Three of Joplin’s festival performances at Monterey (1967), Woodstock (1970) and on the Festival Express train across Canada (1970) were filmed and subsequently appeared as theatrical documentaries, the first two a few months after the festival in question. The Festival Express material was released as a documentary film in 2003. Various live footage sequences appeared in a Canadian documentary, Janis in 1974 and this is the film I saw in the cinema in 1975. There are numerous other DVDs of her performances but only the four cinema features, I think. There was a fictional biopic The Rose (US 1979) directed by Mark Rydell. This commercially successful film is only loosely based on Joplin’s story (it was initially known as ‘The Pearl’) but was recognised as such by audiences (without taking anything away from Bette Midler’s star-making performance in the lead role).

The director of Janis: Little Girl Blue is Amy Berg, an experienced documentarist and director of at least one interesting-sounding fiction feature. The film also has a host of producers including Alex Gibney, known for high-profile docs such as Finding Fela (2014) and Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015). It’s not surprising then that this Janis doc works so well. Berg’s focus is clearly on Janis as a young woman finding her way in the world and this forms the narrative spine using the letters that Janis wrote home and a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings and still photos (which seem to jump out from the screen when set in the context of grainy home movie footage and 1960s TV news and features shot on 16mm). The authorial voice of Janis is provided very effectively by Chan Marshall (a.k.a. the singer Cat Power). Events back in Port Arthur are narrated by Janis’ younger siblings Laura and Michael and by one or two old schoolfriends. Events in San Francisco are covered by a slew of taking heads including friends and lovers and band members plus other media figures such as CBS CEO Clive Davis, talk show host Dick Cavett and documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker (who made Monterey Pop and tells us how he deliberately sought out Cass Elliott in the audience because he knew about the rivalry between the LA and SF acts – Mama Cass was suitably impressed by Janis). The one recurring image in the film is the single line railway track, presumably seen from the Festival Express train as it moves across Canada. This occurs at regular intervals in the film, seemingly functioning as a marker for the change from one sequence to another. I’m not sure if the symbolic readings of this image are intentional but it might refer to the trajectory of the short life of Janis Joplin – straight down the line as if decreed by fate.

Janis as hippy momma

Many of these films about performers and celebrities seek out the flaws in character or attempt to find those responsible so that a life becomes more like a mystery in a film noir. I don’t think this happens with Little Girl Blue, which feels like a humanist drama. Most of those interviewed are appreciative about Janis’ talent and her dedication to her art. She was let down by the men in her life and the party girl was more often the lonely girl. The film doesn’t analyse the music but presents it (with access to rights agreed by Sony) in ways which enable us to understand why it generated such interest. It certainly sent me back to the performances (and I realised that I knew some of her ‘between songs’ tales almost by heart on the live album). It is this sense of the rapport Janis had with her audience that stands out. She seems to have been happiest on stage – and lonely when the show ended. There is also a strong feminist sub-text about a young woman whose confidence was undermined by the cruel jibes about her looks made by university students in Austin when she first began to perform. She must have welcomed the chance to take on the guise of the hippy mama who could dress as she pleased – partly as a release from the restraints of her conventional home background.

Coming from a town with its own Klu Klux Klan chapter, Janis would have been conscious of her other identity shift which involved discovering Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin and being wowed by Otis Redding. Perhaps this where the film’s lack of deep analysis of Janis’ musical career is a weakness. I think you need to know a lot about American popular roots music in the 1960s and 1970s to understand the changes in the music Janis Joplin made and what she was most comfortable with.

After I’d seen this documentary, I came across a 2000 BBC documentary about Janis from the ‘Reputations’ series narrated by Tracy Macleod. At 48 minutes it is much shorter but actually much more informative about Janis’ life as a teenager in Port Arthur and her time in San Francisco. I think that I’ve also left out the Joplin parents in my account above. They didn’t take to the music Janis was producing or her lifestyle, but they were still supportive when she needed them. I recommend watching the shorter documentary (link below) in conjunction with Little Girl Blue.

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Feud (US 2017)

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford

Feud is unusual and intriguing. I’m not sure it works, but having started watching it, I found myself hooked and watching all eight episodes over six days. It’s important, I think, that I never usually watch any US TV. The last American TV I watched with any interest was The West Wing ten years ago (and the Anglo-American serial Humans more recently), so I’m approaching Feud from a different position than most audiences. The narrative is set over the ten years from 1962 to 1972, which was a period when I was much more involved with American film and TV.

Feud is described in reviews as an ‘anthology TV series’. I vaguely remember this term from the 1950s, used to describe shows like The Dick Powell Show (1961-3) and, most famously perhaps, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65). These series comprised single dramas of 25 mins or 48 mins performed by the same actors (or a selection from a ‘pool’ of actors) and/or introduced by a host like Powell or Hitchcock each week. The shows were written and directed by both the developing stars of TV and some of the directors who moved between cinema and TV, such as Sam Peckinpah, Blake Edwards or Ralph Nelson. The actors were often well-known Hollywood names.

The new anthology series like Feud seem to me rather different. Feud is produced by Fox TV for the FX cable channel. The same ‘showrunner’, Ryan Murphy, has already set up two anthology series called The American Horror Story (2011- ) and The American Crime Story (2016- ) which are now both into multiple seasons. The first season of Feud, titled ‘Bette and Joan’ ran for eight 45-58 minute episodes in March-April 2017 in the US. It has recently been broadcast on BBC2 in the UK. The eight episodes recount the supposed ‘feud’ between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, centred on the production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 and continued over the events of the next few years. The series is designed to be an anthology in the sense that the next serial will be concerned with the story of the marriage of Charles and Diana and its aftermath. It seems more sensible to me to call it a serial, a long-form narrative or simply a form of televisual biopic. But US TV has its own terminology. More to the point, the BBC decided to follow the Netflix model and release all eight episodes on iPlayer before the end of the broadcast transmission run of two episodes shown as a double bill each week (following the precedent of Scandinavian drama serials on BBC4).

Outline (no spoilers as such – the story is based on real events)

Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) in 1962 were A List Hollywood stars in their fifties struggling to find roles worthy of their talent in Hollywood (Davis had actually returned to the stage). Crawford found the novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and persuaded Jack Warner (whose studio had made successful films with both Crawford and Davis) to agree to distribute a film adaptation. The film was made by director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) using his own production company, The Associates and Aldrich. Warner (Stanley Tucci) believed that Psycho had introduced mainstream audiences to shock/horror films and he gambled on an unusually wide release. The film proved to be a significant hit and was nominated for several Oscars. This caused further problems between Crawford and Davis. A sequel was then suggested . . . Joan Crawford died in May 1971 and was remembered during the 1972 Oscar ceremony. (Davis continued working until her death in 1989, but the serial ends in 1972.)

Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich in conversation with Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford

Commentary

The narrative is supported by the insertion of a quasi documentary element in the form of a series of interviews which on-screen titles date as conducted in 1978. The interviewees include characters directly involved in the story such as Aldrich’s assistant Pauline (Alison Wright) as well as two other leading actors who knew Crawford and Davis – Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) – and others involved in the events depicted. This re-inforces the sense of a tension in the presentation of the mise en abîme – the ‘making of’ not just the films, but also the Oscar ceremonies. We are familiar in biopics with current well-known actors playing Hollywood figures from the past, but in Feud this becomes overwhelming. At the centre of the narrative, Sarandon and Lange are very good indeed – and like Davis and Crawford, they both have a producer credit on the serial. Sarandon could pass for Davis, although she’s actually about 15 years older than Davis was in 1962. Lange doesn’t have anything like Crawford’s eyes so her performance has to create an illusion of Crawford’s look (she’s also much older than Crawford was in 1962). Lange also has a role in one of Murphy’s other anthology titles – The American Horror Story – and has played two other celebrity figures, Frances Farmer, the 1930s Hollywood actress in Frances (1982) and country singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams (1985). I’m not sure what this means, except that I think I ‘read’ Lange/Crawford differently than Sarandon/Davis. I’m more familiar with Davis’s work than Crawford’s but while I admired and respected both stars, my own preference was always for Barbara Stanwyck – not mentioned in Feud, perhaps because she was still successful after moving into TV in the 1960s.

Feud is very ‘self-enclosed’ and most of the action takes place on set, in the homes and offices of the principals, or in exclusive restaurants. There is little awareness of the world outside Hollywood itself. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? actually opened a few days after the Cuban Missile Crisis in the US, which is not mentioned. I didn’t notice any references to the Civil Rights movement (I don’t actually remember any African-Americans in the whole serial) or Vietnam. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation about the enclosed world. One sequence in which Crawford travels to the UK to make a horror film for Herman Cohen Productions looks very strange. As far as I’m aware this horror film was shot in Berkshire, but the set is by the Thames in East London and there are other strange elements in the presentation of characters. The final episode of Feud includes some hallucinations suffered by a central character.

Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper

The focus, as the title emphasises, is on the feud between the two stars, but how much of this was invented to suit the publicity for Baby Jane and how much was ‘real’ isn’t clear. The serial also uses the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) as a device to increase the animosity between the two actors. In reality, Hopper died in 1966 aged 80, so this is possibly a fanciful presentation? Hopper’s rival Louella Parsons doesn’t feature in Feud – she retired in 1965. Overall, I feel that the serial is an odd mixture of ‘feud’ (which is accessible to any audience), a presentation of the dying days of ‘studio Hollywood’ and a rather intimate drama about two ageing stars. I found these two latter narratives more interesting than the feud – but both are frustratingly restricted in the overall mix. Bob Aldrich’s story features quite promisingly in the opening episodes but then disappears – a real shame.

As is usual in American TV, this serial is written and directed by a large group of people. There are five writers and five directors who mix and match across the episodes. Some write on one episode and direct another. Interestingly, in the present climate, four of the episodes are directed by (different) women and one woman was involved in writing three episodes. Despite this large number of creative inputs, I didn’t notice an inconsistency of styles – which is either a tribute to the showrunner’s overall control or a comment on a conventional TV drama approach. I’m not really able to tell which!

What Feud does have is some snappy one liners which recall those ‘women’s pictures’ of the 1940s and some great performances. Catherine Zeta-Jones is especially good.

Here’s the official trailer:

Sapphire (UK 1959)

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This social problem film is fascinating and shocking. It was scripted by Janet Green, who also wrote Victim (UK, 1960), an important film about male homosexuality which was illegal at the time. Both were directed by Basil Dearden. Sapphire’s social problem is race and was released a year after the Notting Hill ‘riots’ caused by white racists and it is framed as a detective story about who murdered the eponymous character. The film starts with a gripping shot, unusual for Dearden whose direction is prosaic, of Sapphire’s body being disposed of so we don’t get to know her other than through other characters. SPOILER ALERT: she is mixed raced but is passing for white and is pregnant by her white boyfriend.

The film is fascinating because it shows us the liberal viewpoint on race at the time; shocking because it is in many ways illiberal. Whilst the protagonist, Nigel Patrick’s investigating officer, Hazard, is shown to be non-racist, in contrast to his assistant (Michael Craig), he still is accepting of racist attitudes. For example, a landlady says she runs a ‘white house’ and Hazard is shown to be understanding when she explains that it’s for economic reasons as she doesn’t want to get a reputation for housing blacks. Such discrimination was criminalised by the Race Relations Act 1965 and shows how important it is to legislate agains bigoted behaviour. I’m sure one of the reasons the racist right are emboldened is because they can enjoy the ‘echo chamber’ of their own views on social media. The old racist complaint, ‘I’m only saying what you’re all thinking’, probably seems to be true in their filter bubble.

As David Olusoga’s brilliant book Black and British: A Forgotten History shows, during the post-war period black people were increasingly demonised as responsible for economic problems which has more than a few echoes of recent years. Whilst the ruling classes view tended toward the importance of racial purity, hence the fear of miscegenation, the general public were apparently more tolerant. However, scapegoating minorities for the failure of others, fanned by a right wing media, is nothing new.

Sapphire’s problem in representing race is most apparent when Hazard interviews ‘lowlifes’. It is in this scene that the racist tropes, developed by Hollywood, are most evident. The eye-rolling villain, and giggling sidekicks, suggest degenerates and one (black) character states that even though some can pass for white “once they hear the beat of the bongos” they give themselves away.

Racist trope

On the other hand Earl Cameron (the ‘ebony saint’ of British cinema and like Sidney Poitier born in the West Indies), who plays Sapphire’s brother, is represented simply as a grieving brother. He tells Hazard that, “I’m staying at the Dorchester. They take us there.” The line is almost thrown away but is a telling slight on the times.

‘Ebony saint’ Earl Cameron

Finally a note on the detectives. Patrick’s performance is perfectly one note as he’s meant to play the patriarchal, unruffled copper; there’s one incoherent chase sequence but otherwise it’s the plod of his brain cells. The film suggests we can completely trust the Metropolitan Police to prosecute cases without fear or favour. It was barely 20 years later that the Met’s treatment of black people led to the Brixton riots and so Sapphire stands as an example of propaganda as well as a liberal period piece.

2017 in Review

I did not think that this was a great year for new releases. There were some very fine films, though often one had to seek them out.

I thought that the Palestinian film 3000 Nights / 3000 Layla (2015) was a powerful portrait of the effects of occupation.

Certain Women (2016) was another fine film from Kelly Reichardt with four excellent performances.

I am Not Your Negro (2016) was a very good documentary though I thought it was weakened by not directly addressing James Baldwin’s homosexuality.

After the Storm / Umi yori mo mada fukaku (2015) was another fine family drama from Kore-eda Hirokazu.

Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan patriotic epic, is here in its 70mm/IMAX version: a true cinematic experience.

Sally Potter’s The Party was one of the wittiest films of the year, standing out from some of the more heavy-handed satires.

Happy End was typical of Michael Haneke and of equal quality to his earlier films.

And Mountains May Depart (2015) was a distinctive but finely made Chinese drama.

Praise for Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (2016) and for  Sallie Hawkins in Maudie (2016).

The year was improved by quite few classics re-exhibited and/or in Festival programmes. However, some of these were transferred to digital formats and that is a lottery for viewers. So I seek out those on 35mm prints.

Odd Obsession / Kagi (Japan, 1959] was a discovery, a sardonic family drama from Ichikawa Kon.

Humanity and Paper Balloons / Ninjô kami fûsen, directed by Yamanaka Sadao in 1937, was a film I knew of but only now had the opportunity of seeing: it has one of the great endings in world cinema.

West Indies (1979) is Med Hondo’s exhilarating take on slavery, the African Diaspora and European racism.

And one film that transferred to digital with such care and attention that it retained its cinematic qualities was The Bride of Glomdal / Glomdalsbruden, directed in 1926 by Carl Theodor Dreyer.

I was fortunate to see Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky / Aleksandr Nevskiy (USSR, 1938) in a nitrate print which gave a luminous edge to the famous ‘battle on the ice’ sequence’.

At the opposite end of the scale there were a number of filmic duds but the title that seemed the most interminable was The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Interesting directors from national cinemas tend to lose that interest when they move into English-language International co-productions.

The wooden spoon goes to The Lost City of Z (2016). It was a rare 4K DCP distribution but the files that I saw included digital break-up and colour distortion. Friends had the same problem with different exhibitors. But the distributor Studio-Canal, declined an explanation for this.

But equally reprehensible is whoever controls the policy at the BFI of access to archive prints. I saw both Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potemkin (USSR 1925) and The End of St. Petersburg / Konets Sankt-Peterburga (USSR 1927) in 35mm prints with excellent musical accompaniments, but the prints were copies of sound transfers rather than the proper silent prints with the correct frame rate and framing. Lenin’s adage about cinema clearly falls on death ears despite the Centenary of ‘The Great October Revolution’.

‘Waiting to see …’

Mountains May Depart (Shan He Gu Ren – Mountains and Rivers, Old Acquaintance, China-Japan-France 2015)

Tao and her son listen to a Cantonese pop song on the sleeper train in 2014.

The latest film by Jia Zhang-ke to reach the UK has taken two years since its appearance at Cannes in May 2015. I’m not sure why it has taken so long but it certainly seems to have confused a few critics. Jia has made several different kinds of films over his career and this one looks back to his earliest films, but also forwards to the future. I found it fascinating, not least in its use of popular music – the film begins and ends with the Pet Shop Boys version of ‘Go West’ which Jia has said was a favourite at the height of the disco boom in China in the late 1990s. In some ways, the film is quite straightforward as a story narrated over three distinct periods. But it’s easy to miss some of the important underlying ideas. I recommend reading the Press Notes which can be downloaded from the Cannes website.

Outline (trying not to give too much away)

The story begins in 1999 with a triangular relationship in Fenyang, Shanxi province in Northern China, with Tao (Zhao Tao) attempting to decide between two suitors. She will marry one and the other will leave the city. Several years later Tao has a son.

In 2014 Tao has separated from her husband and doesn’t see her son who lives far away. Tao helps her old friend and former suitor when he returns to Fenyang. A family event brings her small son back to the city for a visit.

In 2025, Tao’s son is living in Melbourne and as a 19 year-old is adrift and not sure what he wants out of life. Does he want to find his mother? What has happened to her?

Tao meets one of her suitors in Fenyang in the 1999 section.

Commentary

The outline doesn’t sound very much but I’ve purposively kept it simple. Here’s the director’s explanation of what the film is ‘about’:

From the very start I conceived Mountains May Depart as a film about ‘love and relationships’. In China, we generally put those two words together in the word qingyi: the component qing means emotional affection, and the component yi means bonds of loyalty and obligation. In Shanxi, though, we’ve tended to distinguish between qing and yi; for us, yi has more to do with commitment and responsibility. Even when people grow apart over time, yi of some kind can still exist.

Reflecting on the film (which I saw before reading the Press Notes) this statement makes a lot of sense. What Jia appears to be doing is going back to Fenyang to rediscover qing and yi and then ‘testing’ the characters and their relationships to see whether economic growth and the lure of individualistic capitalism can break those bonds of yi. It isn’t just money, but also the prospect of migration that causes change. It seems significant that Jia originally thought of setting the third section of the film in the great migrant communities of Vancouver, Toronto or New York, but in the end opted for Australia. He explains that it isn’t so much the distance to Australia, but more the different seasons in the Southern hemisphere that make it seem more ‘on the edge of the world’. He does, however, include an important character in the last section who originated in Hong Kong, but has lived in Toronto before arriving in Melbourne. Australia and New Zealand are certainly important destinations for Chinese migration today.

Tao’s son ‘Dollar’ (Dong Zijian) grows up in Australia and eventually needs a Chinese teacher (Sylvia Chang) to help him with the language he’s forgotten

The three sections of the film are presented in different aspect ratios. I’m not sure if it’s quite as strictly defined as that (I noticed that the ratio had changed, but not necessarily when it changed.) 1999 is presented in Academy, 2014 in 1:1.85 and 2025 in 1:2.39. The reason for this appears to be completely pragmatic (though it also ‘marks’ a change in technologies over time). Jia grew up in Fenyang and made his first three films there with cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai. These films (Xiao Wu, Platform and Unknown Pleasures) are very much concerned with the ‘feel’ of the city and its youth and Jia and Yu shot quite a lot of footage using early digital equipment with a 4:3 image format. Some of this is used in the 1999 sequences and again in the 2014 section (when the documentary material was shot on an Alexa in 1:1.85). It then seemed logical to present the third section in ‘Scope. The use of documentary footage certainly enhances the sense of place – but it also disrupts or ‘makes strange’ the narrative with the insertion of odd events – a plane crash, an old truck nearly losing its load.

I’ve seen several several reviewers refer to Mountains May Depart as a melodrama. I’m not sure that is the most helpful categorisation here. It’s true there is music and there is a symbolic use of colours (the film tending to move from reds to blues and greens) and objects such as sets of keys – and there is a family drama. But Jia tends towards films that refuse conventional descriptions. This is perhaps closer to an ‘essay film’ about the Chinese future. It is the last sequence that has exercised Western critics most. The section is mostly in English and has a focus on language and identity (and in which the Taiwanese and Hong Kong star, actor-director Sylvia Chang plays a significant role). There is only a minimal concern with ‘futuristic’ objects, including some very attractive translucent tablets (complementing the moment in the 2014 sequence when iPhones are ceremoniously given as wedding presents). The concept of a Chinese community struggling with identity in Australia seems quite plausible to me. I’ll be thinking about this film for a long time and it may well send me back to looking again at Jia’s earlier films. I’m beginning to think that it is the links between films that need to be foregrounded and I was struck by how this film links to Wrath of Silence (China 2017) in selecting the private ownership of coal mines as an indicator of potential problems for Chinese society. On the other hand, several critics have suggested that Jia deliberately courted the Chinese government by including various lines of dialogue in this film after they banned the release of his previous feature A Touch of Sin (China-Japan 2013). Zhao Tao is extraordinary in this film, offering a performance that spans 26 years and convincing the audience each time. I’m always impressed by the work of Yu Lik-Wai, who has also worked on three films by the Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui.

Here’s the US trailer (note that the trailer doesn’t use the three different aspect ratios):

(It has been pointed out to me that the Australian scenes in the last section were shot in Western Australia as well as Victoria. I took the location to be Melbourne because of what I thought was a reference in a subtitle for a line of dialogue. It doesn’t really matter as long as it signifies Australia since the last section is an imagined future.)

State of Siege (État de siège France-Italy-West Germany 1972)

The vehicle in which a body is found at the beginning of the film (from DVD Beaver)

State of Siege is the third film of a loose trilogy of political thrillers made by the French-based Greek filmmaker usually known as Costa-Gavras. Z (1969) deals with the rise of the military junta in Greece in the 1960s, L’aveu (The Confession, 1970) focuses on the repression of Czech dissident politicians in the late 1940s/early 1950s and State of Siege is set contemporaneously in Uruguay with the struggle of Tupamaros guerillas against a repressive right-wing regime. In each case, Costa-Gavras ‘personalised’ the struggle and cast the major French star (and well-known socialist) Yves Montand as the figure at the centre of a political thriller. Z and State of Siege are two of the films that are central to the HOME season of ‘States of Danger and Deceit: European Political Thrillers in the 1970s’. They were also shown at the Leeds International Film Festival where I saw both in the same afternoon. It was well worth spending over four hours on the uncomfortable seats of the Victoria Hall in Leeds City Hall. I did see L’aveu on its initial UK release in the early 1970s and I remember it made an impact on me as a personal story, but at the time my knowledge of East European history was limited. Z was a huge success internationally but State of Siege had a lower profile. Seeing them together more than 40 years after their first appearances, I enjoyed both films but found State of Siege more impressive as a political film.

Both the films seem to have been restored with Costa-Gavras’ involvement in 2014. The restorations were projected digitally in the correct 1.66:1 ratios and I thought they both looked very good. Both also have a music score by Mikis Theodarakis. State of Siege was photographed by Pierre-William Glenn who had at that time been working for both François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette. The film’s script was written by Franco Solinas (writer on Battle of Algiers) and Costa-Gavras. The story is set in Uruguay in the early 1970s but filmed in Valparaiso in Chile, standing in for Montevideo. The events depicted in the film were based on real events and with the same regime still in power, filming was not possible in Uruguay. The script never refers to Uruguay but various signs make clear that the action is meant to be set in Montevideo (see the car number plate above).

Outline

The narrative is based on real events in 1970 when an American official posing as a ‘communications expert’, but in reality a senior police officer and expert in torture techniques, is captured by Tupamaros guerrillas. He is one of three kidnap victims who the guerrillas hope to use in negotiating a release for political prisoners. The narrative begins with a police search which finds the body of the American who has been executed. The story of how the execution became inevitable is then told in flashback, mainly through a focus on the interrogation by the guerrillas of the American, who eventually agrees that all the evidence collected by the guerrillas about his activities is indeed genuine. Meanwhile the Montevideo police are closing in on the Tupamaros and their ‘People’s Prison’. Will they find the kidnap victims before the government is forced to resign? We know the answer is that the American dies and the government survives, but the point of the film is to expose the methods of the police and the role of US ‘advisors’.

One of the flashbacks during the interrogation shows the display of torture techniques for an audience of police and military personnel

Commentary

Watching State of Siege in 2017 is interesting because we have learned a great deal about what actually happened across various Latin American countries in which US foreign policy supported fascist regimes during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The filming in Valparaiso is particularly ironic since Allende’s democratic government was ousted by Pinochet, with US backing, in the same year that State of Siege opened in the UK and US and in the last few years we have seen the documentaries about the period made by Patricio Guzmán (Nostalgia For the Light 2010 and The Pearl Button 2015). I also realised that the street scenes in State of Siege reminded me of Argentinian films about the same horrors and how the references to Brazil in the 1960s made me think back to some of the films in HOME’s Brazilian ‘Weekender‘ in 2016. I mention this simply because what is most interesting about this new restoration is that it sends us back to the context of the State of Siege‘s first release in 1972-3.

Yves Montand as the US ‘advisor’ being interviewed by the Tupamaros

When I looked back at the reception of the film in 1973 in the UK, I was amazed at the critical response. In Monthly Film Bulletin (August 1973), Tom Milne dismisses the film, claiming it simply doesn’t work. One of his main gripes is that everyone speaks French in this French co-production! To be fair, he points out that Yves Montand playing the American agent speaks fluent French but the other Americans speak English. I didn’t really think about this. Montand is made up to look like a suave agent (the real agent was seemingly less so). Making Montand the villain does, I think, help to make the narrative work. Milne’s point might be linked to the regular complaint about films set in various European countries where everyone seems to speak English – some with accents, some without. But for an English-speaking audience, watching subtitled French films is more or less the same as subtitled Spanish films and I doubt Milne’s concern was widely shared. More important is the clear inference that mainstream critics are keen to dismiss the film because of their own political backgrounds. (This isn’t a personal criticism – most leftist critics dismiss much of Hollywood’s output for similar reasons.) Another odd objection to the film was the appearance of O.E. Hasse, the German actor known for many international films such as Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953). I can’t remember if he is dubbed in the subtitled but it didn’t bother me. His role is to act as a senior newspaperman who acts as the typical investigative reporter, asking the awkward questions about government policy and responses to the kidnappings. 

O. E. Hasse as the questioning journalist

Two of the Tupamaros leaders meeting to decide on the fate of the American

The American reception of the film was quite complex and requires careful analysis. The history of the film’s release in the US is recounted by Costa-Gavras in a Cineaste interview in June 1973 when he was in New York to work on the American dubbing of State of Siege. (Most cinema screenings were subtitled so I’m not sure where the dubbed version would be shown.) He recounts how the first reviews in the US from Judith Crist and Vincent Canby were very positive. Even Time magazine was favourable – but not Newsweek. From other things I’ve read, there was opposition to the film but it also clearly got support. Costa-Gavras also reveals that support came from two American businessmen, Max Palevsky and Dun Rugoff. These were partners in a production company Cinema 10 and Rugoff was also President of Cinema 5, a company that distributed and exhibited films, including Z and State of Siege. What is noticeable is that over the next forty years, while Z remained in the public consciousness, evidenced by the relatively large number of IMDb entries on the film, State of Siege seems to have disappeared from view in the US. Z with an IMDb score of 8.2 and 68 external reviews (88 ‘user’ reviews) contrasts with a score of 7.9 for State of Siege and 16 external reviews (25 ‘user reviews’). The simple explanation may be that Z received five Oscar nominations, winning two. In addition, it received a cinema re-release in 2009 alongside its Criterion DVD release. State of Siege did not appear on Criterion DVD until 2015. So, perhaps it was these distribution factors that restricted access to State of Siege? Or did it disappear in the 1980s when American covert operations and support for right-wing regimes in Latin America was so widespread? My memory of US films and TV is that there were significant examples of filmmakers eager to criticise US policy so I don’t think that was an issue (though I don’t discount the possibility of such ‘conspiracies’). More important is the decision by Costa-Gavras not to copy the the thriller structure of Z. In the same Cineaste interview quoted above he tells us that his political aim was:

Simply to present a situation, a specific example of neocolonialism, and in doing so to show the faces of events that are hidden to the public.

That simplicity is key to the film’s political impact.

An essay on State of Siege by Mark Danner is included on the Criterion website for the BD/DVD of the film. The short clip below is from the Criterion series ‘3 Reasons’ to buy this film.

Notes on Key Concepts for teachers and students: Arrival (US-Canada 2016)

Dr Banks (Amy Adams) starts a language campaign with the aliens

These extensive notes (over 7,500 words) were written as a guide for teachers who might consider using the 2016 film Arrival with students. They were originally published in the Media Education Journal No 61 in Summer 2017. The MEJ is published by the Association for Media Education in Scotland (AMES) and the notes refer to the ‘Key Aspects’ of the Scottish Media specifications set out by the Scottish Qualifications Agency. In practice the Key Aspects are very similar to the Key Concepts addressed by similar specifications in England and Wales and in other countries that have adopted similar approaches.

Outline (Spoiler warning)

I’m going to assume that anyone reading this has seen the film and especially that they have experienced the unusual narrative structure. If you haven’t seen the film, but you are looking for a study text, try to watch the film first and then read on. Please don’t ignore this advice because once you know how the narrative works, it will certainly alter the way you read the film and you need to be aware of how your students are likely to respond to a first reading.

Arrival is a science fiction film adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang, first published in a science fiction anthology, Starlight 2, in 1998. Under the title ‘Story of Your Life’ it runs to 61 pages in the film ‘tie-in’ paperback book published in 2016.

Re-titling the story as Arrival for the film is significant in altering how ‘readers’ approach the story. The film stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist with an international reputation. On the day when alien spacecraft hover over locations in different countries, Louise is approached by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and asked for advice on communicating with one of the alien ships ‘moored’ over Montana. She joins a team with another leading academic, Ian Donnelly, a physics specialist played by Jeremy Renner.

The team have to work under pressure from government and military advisers, but eventually Louise convinces Weber that the best strategy is to use simple technology to show written words (in English) and to demonstrate their meanings with actions. She prompts the aliens to respond and this leads to an understanding at a basic level of the aliens’ use of a form of ‘writing’ using ink sprayed into circular shapes with slight variations. Louise is able to build up an inventory of these different ‘logograms’. (Chiang uses the term ‘semagram’ – both words refer to graphics that represent words or phrases creating specific meanings)

At various points in the film we are offered scenes ‘inserted’ in the narrative that seem to be flashbacks. (In fact the film begins with such a sequence, suggesting that Louise has been grieving over the death of her daughter.) In the final third of the film we suddenly understand that Louise is beginning to see that the aliens’ form of communication implies a different understanding of time: its ‘circularity’ suggests that time as a dimension is non-linear. What we thought were flashbacks were in fact ‘flashforwards’. They refer to a later time when Louise and Ian have developed a relationship and produced a child, a girl who will be bright and intelligent but who will develop a fatal condition and die as a teenager. Louise will go ahead with her pregnancy even though she knows her daughter will die as a young teenager. Ian will be unable to deal with this knowledge and will leave Louise to cope alone.

When the team are close to the final breakthrough, their dialogue with the aliens is interrupted by a botched attempt to destroy the aliens locally. Despite this, Louise, aided by flashes/’memories’ of her future self as a linguist who ‘solved’ the problem, is still able to decipher the aliens’ message. They have come to earth to offer the gift of their knowledge. They know that many years in the future, they will need humanity to help them.

But is Louise too late? Governments around the world appear to be abandoning dialogue and taking their lead from the Chinese who have amassed forces around an alien craft. At this point Louise gets a clue from a more extended flashforward (1.16.00 on the DVD) in which her 12 year-old daughter asks a question which serves to educate us, the audience, about the concept from game theory of the ‘non-zero sum game’ – the possibility that two competitors could both win in a game, one doesn’t have to ‘lose’ for the other to win. This little sequence is significant because Ian has used maths to recognise the aliens’ strategy and the ‘family flashforward’ complements his discovery.

In the final section of the narrative Louise again uses her knowledge from the future and phones the Chinese military leader, General Shang. She is able to give him some personal information which convinces him to act to stop any attack on the aliens – who then take off and the crisis is averted. The film ends in much the same way it began, but now we know how Ian and Louise came together and how Hannah, their daughter was conceived.

Categories

It seems sensible to start an analysis by addressing questions about ‘categories’. The Key Aspects are a little problematic here since two rather different kinds of categories are central to the distinctiveness of this film. It is an example of a film that falls between the concept of ‘Hollywood mainstream’ and ‘independent cinema’ and therefore fits into a specific institutional category. This appears to be an issue in relation to ‘context’ rather than ‘content’, so here we’ll just note that the context also profoundly affects the generic nature of the film.

Arrival is ostensibly a ‘science fiction film’, a genre that is utilised for both studio blockbusters and low-budget independent films. Big budget studio films are often described as ‘sci-fi’ and feature considerable amounts of ‘visible’ CGI (i.e. effects that we are meant to see and wonder at rather than effects which enable scenes difficult or dangerous to perform as ‘real’ events). These CGI sequences are likely to feature elements of action genres. The studios sometimes attempt to avoid using the ‘sci-fi’ label because this might alienate some audiences. Such films might be classified as ‘futuristic adventures’ or similar. Low budget science fiction films are often recognised by their derivation from (or adaptation of) ‘hard’ science fiction literature, signifying less emphasis on action and more on ideas, characterisation, commentary on society etc. These films might be termed ‘SF’, a term which also refers to ‘speculative fiction’ – fiction which is rooted in the known world but which speculates on what might happen if aspects of social, political or economic life were to change in a significant way.

In the interviews/’extras’ on the UK Region 2 DVD, Ted Chiang says that for him science fiction is not about “special effects or giant battles between the forces of good and evil”, but is concerned with “speculative scenarios as a lens to examine the human condition”. In the same short film, director Denis Villeneuve sometimes refers to ‘sci-fi’ films, but explains that he doesn’t like the ‘unreality’ of ‘green screen’ work and that the alien craft in his film is represented by physical sets as far as possible. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who adapted Chiang’s story, specifically refers to ‘hard science fiction’. He also introduces the difficulties that producers and audiences might have with ‘hard SF’. Unlike the action scenarios of sci-fi blockbusters, ‘hard SF’ films don’t have the same easy-to-sell story ideas. Instead, they rely on audiences being prepared to work through ‘learning sequences’ such as understanding why the linguist in this case has to start with simple words and phrases.

It is this ‘difference’ in appeal that might be the reason why some audiences don’t like Arrival. (Other audiences may have objections about how scientific ideas are presented or religious beliefs are marginalised.) The appearance of the alien spacecraft over various parts of the Earth immediately conjures up the genre trope of ‘first contact’ and the fear of alien invasion. When nothing ‘exciting’ happens (i.e. aliens blasting Earth/capturing humans or Earth’s armies attacking aliens) the blockbuster audience may feel let down. They weren’t expecting a calm, measured investigation into the methods linguists must use when there are no translators available.

But science fiction is not the only genre repertoire that the film draws from. The narrative is a form of romance, albeit one that is not signalled clearly until the closing scenes – or perhaps it’s a drama about grief or what we most value in a relationship. The ‘what if?’ question, familiar from most SF scenarios, is “If you knew that you would have a wonderful child, but you also knew that she would die in her teens, would you still want her to be born?”. It’s a difficult and disturbing question which arises directly from the film’s narrative. Intriguingly, when Louise poses the question to Ian in the form, “if you knew the future, would you choose to do anything differently?”, he answers that he might say how he feels about things more often. This then leads to his declaration that meeting Louise is the most surprising thing that has happened to him, even after his contact with aliens. SF and romance are enmeshed as emotion is equated with science.

Adaptation

Before we consider the other Key Aspects, it’s worth mentioning the adaptation process. Eric Heisserer had a difficult task in writing a script based on the original short story. His major task was to find a dramatic ending to the story. The Chinese dimension is his invention. In the original, the heptapods (so called because they have seven limbs) simply leave after an attempted ‘exchange of gifts’. The original features more physics and more of the family drama. Otherwise the changes are more concerned with improving the ‘spectacle’ of the alien craft etc. For some reason ‘Ian’ was originally ‘Gary’ and there are other minor changes. It isn’t necessary to read the original to make an analysis of the film. But it may be interesting for students to explain why the original story was seen as ‘unfilmable’ – or at least not as a commercial venture costing $50 million.

Narrative

We could argue that the narrative structure of Arrival is both unusual and potentially difficult for audiences – but also relatively straightforward. It offers two separate stories covering different time periods but presents them both within the same linear procession of sounds and images. One is the story of the aliens’ ‘arrival’, the other is the ‘family drama’ of Louise, Ian and their daughter Hannah.

Arrival is the kind of narrative that benefits from the narrative possibilities of film as a medium. Film narrative refers to at least three concepts of time which can be manipulated by filmmakers. The most easily understood is ‘screen time’ – the actual time taken to present those sounds and images on screen. However, even that is malleable. In the cinema and on Blu-ray, the film lasts 116 mins but on a PAL DVD or on UK broadcast TV, because of the ‘speed-up’ to 25 fps, it only takes around 110 mins. On a home digital video device it is also possible to watch chapters twice, to return to earlier chapters or to pause the playback and return much later.

The second concept is ‘plot time’ which refers to the length of time signified by the explicit presentation of events represented on screen. In Arrival, it is quite difficult to determine when the plot actually begins. When is the first event in the plot taking place? Louise’s voiceover gives us a clue when she refers to the day that the aliens arrived – and we see her walking towards the lecture theatre. When is the last event depicted? Is it when she walks down the hospital corridor at the beginning of the film, after she has said her goodbye to Hannah? If so, it is perhaps 13 or 14 years after the ‘arrival date’ (Hannah is listed as being 12 for the third young actor to play the role).

The third concept is ‘story time’. This is a much looser definition since it includes events that are not presented on screen but which are ‘inferred’ from the explicitly presented plot. For instance, Louise is a respected academic in her field. We learn that she has previously worked with US intelligence in counter-terrorism. She still has security clearance. She also has a long-standing rivalry with another academic in Berkeley – and she wrote a linguistics book that Ian has found. These events inform the narrative through dialogue references but they aren’t presented on screen. Similarly, Louise tells Ian that “you can be a good communicator, but still be single” implying that she has sought romantic partners in the past, but without success. Again, this latter remark informs the romance narrative. It’s more difficult to pin down future events that are inferred, but we are asked to consider a time well into the future when knowledge of the aliens’ language (their gift to humanity) might be useful.

Denis Villeneuve with Amy Adams in Louise’s university office

Denis Villeneuve’s task as director is to work with his creative team to manipulate time in relation to these three concepts as well as manipulating the narrative space available to him to stage the events he wishes to record and present. (It’s worth remembering that film is often referred to as a ‘time-based’ medium.) An important tool here is narration – how is the story told? Is there a specific narrator or are we asked to ‘observe’ the events as they unfold (as in an observational documentary)? Or are we offered the ‘point of view’ of different characters at different times – or in extreme cases, a subjective view (i.e. the camera becomes the eyes of a specific character). In contemporary cinema there is much discussion of ‘immersive’ cinema in which audiences lose themselves in the action and spectacle on screen. Conversely, in some art films and classic popular films (e.g. films noirs) there is extensive use of spoken narration. In Arrival, the film begins with Louise’s voiceover. From then on Louise is in nearly every frame and we could argue that even though she only directly narrates her ‘family story’, she effectively narrates the aliens’ story since most events are presented as she experiences them.

Another important point about the narrative structure is that it is palindromic, like the name ‘Hannah’. So the film begins and ends with the same mournful music by Max Richter and in the same location of Louise’s house by a lake. In a sense, the narrative is also circular, distinguishing it from the linear ‘goal-orientated’ narratives so common in mainstream Hollywood. Students will be familiar with the idea that a narrative begins at an equilibrium point at which the narrative world is ‘in balance’. When this balance is disturbed, by what some screenwriting manuals call the ‘inciting incident’, a conflict or a ‘loss’ develops and the goal of the hero is to resolve the conflict or recover the loss – or ‘reach their goal’. When this is achieved, equilibrium is restored – although not the same equilibrium, something will be changed. At the end of Arrival, we are actually back at the beginning of the film (which after all was the end of the story!).

Louise reaches her goal, but in doing so she learns to see time differently and in so doing gives up much of her free will since she now accepts what will happen to Hannah. There is one point at which Louise does ‘change history’ when she learns something valuable from General Shang after the aliens’ departure which she can then use prior to their departure avoiding conflict. It’s very difficult to think this through. Perhaps it reveals a flaw in the narrative construction? Or perhaps it is allowable because it doesn’t affect Louise’s ‘personal’ story?

Compared to conventional action film narratives, Arrival is very different. Louise is an unusual kind of ‘hero’ and there are no real ‘villains’ who she must fight. At worst, characters like the CIA agent or the rogue soldier who tries to explode a charge inside the alien’s craft, are ‘blockers’ rather than full-blown villains. (The concept of a ‘blocker’ comes from Vladimir Propp’s work on Russian folktales. It refers to a ‘character function’ which serves to slow down or delay the hero on their quest.) Perhaps Arrival is closest to the family melodrama in which a stranger enters the family and effects a change in family relationships? Melodrama narratives are sometimes said to be circular since there is a concerted attempt to restore order and ‘return’ the family to equilibrium. The melodrama is not driven forward by direct conflict but by circling around a problem, much as Louise circles round the problem of communication.

Denis Villeneuve’s problem is how to try to ensure that the various flashforwards that break up the linear flow of the aliens’ arrival are, at least initially, presented in such a way that audiences will assume that they are flashbacks. How does he do this? This leads us into a discussion of the Key Aspect of ‘Language’

(Film) Language

Each flashforward is located in relation to the house by the lake – except for the hospital scenes. The scenes indoors are often quite dark, perhaps to link to the later scenes in the alien spacecraft or in the tents used for analysis. All the shots, both indoors and out, make use of very shallow fields of focus – a conventional sign of a flashback or memory/dream? Sometimes the focus is so soft that it is, for instance, impossible to see who receives baby Hannah from Louise immediately after her birth. Could it be Ian? We haven’t yet seen him, so we are unlikely to ask this question on a first viewing. The flashforwards include Louise’s voiceover at the beginning and later other voices (e.g. Hannah). The dialogue is written so that it seems to contradict the images. Which do we take most notice of and what do we do if we sense the contradiction?

In the first words we hear at the beginning of Arrival, Louise says:

“I used to think that this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by it’s order.”

Louise is seemingly speaking to Hannah, who we quickly learn has died. She is actually narrating Hannah’s story for us and if we had read these words at the start of a novel, we would have a clear idea of what kind of story would be revealed. She tells us openly to be aware of problems associated with linear narratives. But we don’t think about that because, despite the skilled narrator’s voice, we respond emotionally to the music, the slow-moving camera, the dark fuzzy images and the overwhelming sadness of the scenes that follow.

At the end of the opening sequence Louise walks down the hospital corridor and the image fades to black before fading up again to reveal Louise walking down a different corridor towards her lecture theatre. Her voiceover (over the black screen) actually tells us “But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings”. Surely we now know what is happening?

Villeneuve and his editor Joe Walker know that the conventions of film editing mean that most of us will now assume that Louise has returned to work after her daughter’s death. We are wedded to what Bordwell and Thompson have referred to as the ‘cause and effect chain’ of narrative events in classical Hollywood storytelling. There is no on-screen title to tell us where we are or what the date is, so our assumption is that Louise goes back to work (perhaps believing that work will help to distract from introspection). The cinematography and mise en scéne of the university campus present Louise seemingly still deep in her mourning for Hannah. Yet her voiceover tells us that “There are days that tell your story beyond your life”. We don’t have time to puzzle out what this means because it’s the day of the ‘arrival’ of the aliens.

From now on, for most of us, Hannah’s story slides into the background as Louise becomes involved in ‘talking to the aliens’. It’s some 40 mins later (47.18) when the next, almost subliminal, flashforward (accompanied by that shallow focus field) reminds us that we think that Louise had a daughter she lost. Why is she suddenly remembering her heartbreak at this specific moment? It will be some time before the increasingly more frequent flashforwards actually register as glimpses into the future. It would be a good exercise for students to log each of the flashforwards and then work out when it becomes clear that the future is informing Louise’s work in the ‘present’.

The same elements of film language that ‘disguise’ the real narrative structure also serve to alert us to the type of film we are going to see. Throughout Arrival the colour palette is muted with only the orange of the hazmat (protective clothing) suits worn by the scientists and soldiers meeting the aliens providing much colour. Lighting is subdued, both indoors and often outside. The aliens (who never venture outside their ship) are almost monochrome in appearance and the craft’s technology is invisible.

The house by the lake where many of the flashforwards are set

Sound is a very important element in the film’s presentation and is carefully mixed. The non-diegetic score composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson comprises electronic music and human voices plus ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ written and performed by Max Richter which begins and ends the film. The short pieces by Jóhannsson are complemented by diegetic sound effects representing the sounds made by the aliens and by their technologies. By contrast, the work of the military and science personnel at the Montana site is a babble of voices in different languages via television and radio feeds being deciphered by translators.

Cinematography is also crucially important and the film’s visual signature does seem to involve some of the more expressive elements seen in director Denis Villeneuve’s earlier films. These include use of long shots and tracking shots and the device of tilting the camera through 90°. This is used effectively inside the alien spacecraft where gravity adjustments need to be made for the human investigators. Unfortunately, Denis Villeneuve’s two earliest features have not been released in the UK, otherwise we would recognise the early scenes on the university campus and the 90° tilts as Louise and Ian move through the alien ship, as coming from Polytechnique (Canada 2009). Students might, however, check out Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015), both of which demonstrate Villeneuve’s techniques for creating tension.

Louise has her ‘moment’ in the alien spacecraft

Throughout most of the film Louise is dressed in utilitarian or functional clothes and her hair is tied back. But in the crucial scene when she finally realises that she is being given the gift of the aliens’ language, she has what might be construed as a ‘spiritual experience’ (elsewhere I’ve argued that the film marginalises religion). As the flashforwards increase, Louise is alone, looking up at the huge heptapod (1.22.52). At one point she seems to be suspended in mid-air. Her hair has come free and is flowing around her head, her eyes are staring and unusually large with the pupils constricted. This is clearly a moment when something extraordinary is happening.

It’s worth noting too that the restricted colour palette of the interior of the alien craft and the ‘ordinariness’ of Louise’s university office and lecture theatre are matched by the ‘functional’ location of the group of tents where the analysis takes place. This latter suggests the SF category rather than the hi-tech gadgetry of a sci-fi film. In turn this ‘ordinary’ background shows up the ‘difference’ when Louise has her moment in the alien craft.

Representation

There are several different lines of enquiry possible in considering representation issues but two that stand out are Louise Banks as the central character and the aliens as ‘heptapods’. The DVD extras confirm that Amy Adams was the unanimous choice of the producers and the director to cast as Louise and she agreed immediately on reading the script. It’s worth considering why this was an obvious choice.

Abigail Pniowsky as Hannah aged 8

Gender

Amy Adams is the kind of A List Hollywood star who is comfortable working in both blockbusters and smaller independent films. This isn’t unusual in contemporary American/International cinema but her status as an actor in her forties with five Oscar nominations and hundreds of other awards and nominations since 2000 means that she is a weighty presence for audiences. Her beauty is not conventional – strawberry-blonde hair (closer to auburn in Arrival?), a strong profile and large blue eyes mean that in conjunction with her acting skills she can play ‘ordinary’ characters and still command the screen. In Arrival she is seen mostly in fairly drab costumes as a university lecturer and then often in hazmat overalls in the alien craft. A useful exercise is to compare her performance with the other role she took in 2015 in Nocturnal Animals, the Tom Ford film in which she plays the director of a high-profile avant-garde art gallery. That role presents her in harsh ‘high fashion’ outfits in a role which didn’t really extend her acting talents and caused several critics to see her as miscast.

As Louise Banks, Amy Adams is able to convince us that she could be any age from mid thirties to early forties (her true age), so that initially we think that she had a child ten or twelve years earlier – and later that she might have a child a year after the appearance of the alien craft. We also have to believe that she is a linguistics expert with a doctorate and considerable research experience. She must have the strength to stand up to the primarily male military and scientific establishment and to be convincing in this role, as well as that of a mother. Students must make up their own minds about whether she succeeds.

Whatever we think of Amy Adams’ performance, the character is presented in such a way that she controls the narrative – not just through her own voiceover, literally narrating parts of the story, but also because she dominates virtually every scene in the film. Ironically, because there are no other major female roles (apart from her young daughter in the flashforwards), Arrival fails the Bechdel Test, now widely used by feminist film critics. This is because Louise does not “discuss a subject other than her relationship with a man, with another woman”. Even so, it would be difficult to argue that Louise is anything other than a ‘positive’ female representation.

Any discussion of the major role played by Amy Adams should also attempt to define it in gender terms in relation to Ian Donnelly as played by Jeremy Renner. Renner (who played alongside Adams in American Hustle, (2013) has a similar profile in independent and blockbuster films, but perhaps a higher proportion of recent blockbuster roles in the Marvel franchises. Does this sit uneasily with his role in the more cerebral Arrival?

Louise and Ian in the analysis tent with the semagrams of heptapod language

Renner’s academic physicist seems typical in presenting a slightly eccentric and passive/submissive man in the face of the competence and determination of Dr. Banks. It’s almost that the weaker he appears to be, the stronger Dr. Banks becomes – and this is carried through to the parenting of Hannah. The two roles are in some ways ‘gendered’ by the conventional roles encountered in academic life. Girls/women are seen as more likely to prosper in ‘soft’ sciences like biology or social sciences such as psychology, or in this case linguistics, and boys/men with ‘harder’ sciences such as physics. Students could explore what a reversal of roles might do – Renner as the linguist, Adams as the physicist. They could also look at Jodie Foster’s performance as a ‘hard scientist’, an astronomer, in Contact (see below). Ian’s role in Arrival appears as slightly underwritten and it may be one of the weaknesses of the film.

Alien life

The representation of the aliens derives partly from Villeneuve’s determination that they should be unlike aliens in other science fiction films. This is very difficult to achieve. There have been so many ‘alien representations’ that some similarities are inevitable. However, by keeping the aliens behind a screen and by clever use of sound effects and the unique spray writing, these are certainly unusual/mysterious aliens, difficult to read in terms of both humans and other creatures on Earth. Consider for instance the monstrous alien in the Aliens series of films which is recognisable as reptilian or insect-like (the most used forms for aliens in science fiction?).

Students might discuss the decision to name the two heptapods after the US radio and film comedians Abbott and Costello from the 1940s/50s. Although at first this might seem like a little joke related to US popular culture, Wikipedia makes interesting comments about links to wordplay and the possible pitfalls of language. The most famous sketch performed by Abbott and Costello was ‘Who’s on first’ in which Abbott attempts to tell Costello about the team for a baseball match. ‘Who’ is the name of the player on first base, but the phrase could equally be a question about which player appears first. The sketch in turn refers to Louise’s explanation to the military of how a simple phrase like “What is your purpose on Earth?” could be interpreted in several different ways (40:29).

Forest Whitaker, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in the tents used for analysis

Other representation questions

The third lead character after Louise and Ian is Colonel Weber played by Forest Whitaker. Is there any significance in the casting of an African-American star? Again, Whitaker is well-known for roles in independent films and fits the role well. More noticeable is the film’s restraint in typing the various foreign commentators/scientists/translators etc. who mostly appear via TV screens and in the way in which the important figure of the Chinese military leader is presented. It’s worth noting that many recent Hollywood blockbusters have cast Chinese stars in secondary roles in the hope of gaining favour with the Chinese popular audience. The Chinese box office is now the second most important source of profit for Hollywood, but such casting has been heavily criticised in China (see Koehler 2017). It is unlikely that the Chinese character in Arrival has received such negative responses (although the Mandarin that Louise speaks has been criticised).

One ‘absence’ in Arrival is the political authority in the US, represented instead by the CIA agent played by Michael Stuhlbarg. The US president (along with the senior military leaders) is kept at the end of a radio/telephone link. Is this simply in order to focus directly on the linguistics work without too much high level blather? It does seem odd that Weber, a relatively low level commander, has so much power.

In the background in the scenes in the ‘front line’ tents, we are offered two other representations that seemingly have contrasting effects in relation to the central narrative. One is the impact of a right-wing TV talk host who editing suggests may influence the rogue attack on the aliens. The other is the reporting of actions by religious cults in North America. One TV report is seen briefly but doesn’t seem to affect the narrative. Arrival largely ignores the very powerful religious lobbies in the US. This is in direct contrast to films like Contact (see below) and other earlier films. Again, is this simply a pragmatic decision (e.g. to save time or to streamline the narrative) or a deliberate ploy to emphasise the rational science in the communication process?

One contemporary issue that the film represents is the explosion in communication media since the early 2000s. Students will no doubt wonder why we should pick this out since they are so familiar with cable TV, mobile phones and social media. They were not so much in evidence when Chiang wrote his original story. Sight and Sound’s reviewer remarks on how effective the announcement of the aliens’ arrival is on the university campus, especially in the lecture theatre where Louise sees one student after another turn to their phones and laptops and is then asked to turn on the TV. Later it is the array of TV screens from around the world that feeds data into the tents where Ian and Louise are working. Villeneuve’s skill is in treating this aspect of contemporary culture as realistic background and seamlessly melding it with the scenes in the flashforwards (which actually seem to ignore social media and are quite joyful in their traditional references to cowboy suits, clay modelling and crayon drawings) and inside the alien craft.

Typing

The SQA specs refer to ‘stereotyping’ and ‘cultural assumptions’. I think I’ve covered at least some of the possibilities in Arrival, but there are other aspects of ‘Representation’ such as ideology which seem to have been placed under Media Contexts, so I’ll deal with them there.

Comparisons

The most obvious text to use in making a comparison with Arrival is Contact (US 1997) based on a story by the astronomer/astrophysicist Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (who later became his wife). In this story it is another single woman, Ellie, with a doctorate in astrophysics, who picks up an extraterrestrial radio signal. This turns out to be a set of instructions on how to build a spacecraft that can travel at the speed of light. Ellie is played by Jodie Foster and there are two important differences in ‘contact with alien intelligence’, compared to Arrival. First, the ‘language of communication’ in the radio message is mathematics with the signal initially sending sequences of prime numbers. Secondly, the response by Earth governments is heavily influenced by religious beliefs.

Contact was directed by Robert Zemeckis and it had almost twice the budget of Arrival, even though it was made 19 years earlier. Zemeckis is very much a Hollywood mainstream director and students should quickly recognise that, apart from the religious aspects of the plot, the film is very much ‘Hollywood sentimental’ with a conventional soundtrack and various conventional/typed characters. (But Bill Clinton plays himself as President.) Even so, there are some common elements that might make us question whether Eric Heisserer ‘borrowed’ some ideas from Contact’s script. For instance, the first confirmation of the radio signal comes from contact with Australian tracking stations and later the first attempt to launch a spacecraft from Cape Canaveral is thwarted by a terrorist attack – by a (heavily-typed) religious zealot who makes direct eye contact with Ellie.

Jodie Foster in the 1990s was an iconic figure for women in film after a somewhat difficult transition from child star via a degree at Yale to both adult star and director. Her later roles did not always use her star persona well and Contact presents an uneasy narrative about an intelligent woman in a stereotypically male world.

Contexts: Institution

Arrival has an interesting production history that serves as a good example of how films get to be made. The origins of the film go back to producer/director Shawn Levy of Lap 21 Entertainment whose company had been successful in pitching family comedies to the major studios, most notably the Night at the Museum series. Levy is originally from Montréal and as part of a plan to extend the range of the company’s projects he became interested in fellow Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. The latter’s French language film Incendies (Canada-France 2010) was picked up by Sony for North American distribution and was then Oscar-nominated. Around the same time (2010-11), Levy began to discuss possible projects with screenwriter Eric Heisserer who was building a reputation based on scripts for horror films. Heisserer suggested a film based on ‘Story of Your Life’. The rights were available and Levy, Villeneuve and Heisserer agreed that the story had great possibilities. But when Levy took it to 20th Century Fox, where he had a ‘first look’ deal, they were not interested. He met a similar response from the other majors.

“It was too complex. It had the husk of a conventional commercial big studio movie, but the content of an intellectually challenging indie.”

Undeterred, Levy sought finance elsewhere and found David Linde, the then CEO of finance and production outfit Lava Bear Films, and Aaron Ryder of international sales and finance company FilmNation Entertainment. Both Linde and Ryder boarded the project as producers and set about raising the finance.

At this point, Villeneuve was completing work on Prisoners, his first English language film, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, which was released in September 2013. A big critical and commercial success for a non-studio film, Prisoners proved that Villeneuve could work on a large-scale production with a $46 million budget. Suddenly he was ‘hot’ for many producers and studio heads and he was already working on a similar kind of project in budget terms – Sicario with Emily Blunt for a 2015 release. When Levy took the Arrival ‘package’ (rights, script, director) to the Cannes film market in May 2014 he found that, because Villeneuve’s name was attached, he was able to generate a bidding war from the studios for ‘pre-sale’ distribution rights. Paramount paid $20 million for North America and China (a record Cannes deal at that time), Sony bought many ‘international’ territories and the UK and Australia went to eOne and Village Roadshow. These deals supported a $47 million budget which was very tight for a science fiction film on a big scale, but for the three producers was mercifully free of studio interference. They could make the film as they wanted to with guaranteed distribution.

A Canadian shoot

Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps Entertainment is just one of many companies based in Los Angeles that regularly make films in Canada. The advantages include lower costs, excellent facilities in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, skilled crews, a large pool of acting talent and the possibility of support from Téléfilm Canada and/or various regional funds. Arrival was scheduled for a 55-day shoot in Québec which meant that all the locations were accessible within the province including both the university buildings in Montréal and mountain country in the province standing in for Montana. Villeneuve was able to use many of his local Québécois crew and shoot in Mels Studios, Montréal. With over 40 vfx companies, Montréal is one of the largest post-production hubs in the world. US cinematographer Bradford Young (who shot Selma in 2014), British film editor Joe Walker and Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (working with Icelandic and Danish voices) made the production team properly international. This kind of production away from Hollywood enabled Villeneuve to keep to the original budget.

Cinematographer Bradford Young

Arrival was Villeneuve’s third anglophone film in the $45-50 million budget range and like Prisoners and Sicario it was very well-received, attaining a worldwide box office of over $200 million. Villeneuve later completed Blade Runner 2049 for a group of production companies (including major studios) with a reported very large budget (i.e. over $150 million). The later film received plenty of studio support but struggled to please fans as well as the general audience in North America (see below).

Contexts: Audiences

We’ve already noted above that the producers of Arrival were aware from the beginning that the film would ‘challenge’ audiences and that it was unlikely to play well for those audiences seeking more action-orientated entertainment. The film has been described as ‘cerebral’ by many commentators.

Although the film was given a 12A Certificate in the UK and a PG-13 in the US, it is unlikely that the distributors believed that they would attract an audience of families with young children (i.e. 10-14). The film would be too slow and dialogue-driven for audiences more used to Star Wars or Star Trek-type films. Instead, the film would be designed to attract or ‘target’ older audiences 15+. Students could investigate the poster designs for the film, as well as the trailers on YouTube to see whether this is evident in the promotional materials.

In the UK, Arrival was released ‘wide’ to 561 cinemas, topping the charts with nearly £3 million and seemingly justifying eOne’s decision to promote it as a mainstream blockbuster. But a week later Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them demonstrated what a ‘real’ blockbuster could do, generating seven times the weekend box-office of Arrival’s opening (at more cinemas – 666).

Reading and interpreting the box-office data (details of the Top 15 each weekend are available from the BFI website) is an important task for distributors on a Monday morning. What they would have noted is that although Arrival didn’t do the ‘boffo’ business of Fantastic Beasts, it attracted a very healthy audience who must have given good ‘word of mouth’ which in turn allowed Arrival to have the ‘legs’ for a long run. Arrival dropped 49% with £1.5 million for its second weekend. This is not unusual for any release and the third weekend showed a 48% fall. More importantly, the figures show that, compared to most mainstream films, Arrival fared quite well on weekdays. Cinemas are traditionally busiest from Friday to Sunday which is why the distributors use a ‘weekend chart’. Monday to Thursday are quieter because families and younger audiences are less able to go to screenings. Older audiences, however, tend to prefer midweek screenings and they may have boosted Arrival’s figures. The overall result is that Arrival eventually made over $11 million in the UK – in line with the general industry expectation of 10% of the North American box office of $100 million (see more on the US release below).

Arrival’s performance in international markets is odd in the sense that it seems to have underperformed compared to North America. Most Hollywood films now have earnings split 40:60 between North America and ‘International’ but, according to Box Office Mojo, Arrival managed only $102 million in the ‘international’ market. Perhaps this is an example of a film in which spoken language plays a major role, restricting potential audiences in some territories? The more ‘visual’ and ‘action-orientated’ Blade Runner 2049, also directed by Villeneuve didn’t make $100 million in North America, but made $166 million in ‘international’. A comparison of the two films’ performance at the box office might be very interesting.

What we don’t know is the audience profile of the film. This kind of data is now quite difficult to find without paying the large fees demanded by cinema audience research agencies. I’ve suggested that the audience might skew ‘older’ and there is also the possibility that it might skew towards women. The industry fear that science fiction is not ‘female friendly’ has been proved wrong on many occasions. As well as Contact, recent science fiction successes with female leads have included Gravity with Sandra Bullock, Passengers with Jennifer Lawrence and recent Star Wars series films with Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones. The romance/family element may also have skewed the profile towards women.

Traditional approaches to audiences have tended to focus on the extent to which audiences are ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ in their responses to a text. We now tend towards the ‘uses and gratifications’ approach. What kinds of ‘pleasures’ does Arrival offer? Is there pleasure in working out the narrative structure? Do some audiences enjoy the idea that linguistics and physics might be more helpful in dealing with alien encounters than nuclear weapons? Do audiences get ‘cognitive pleasure’ from understanding ideas about language? Do others get ‘affective pleasure’ – emotional satisfaction from the way in which Louise deals with the ‘what if?’ question about Hannah’s life and death?

Social context

Ted Chiang’s short story was first published in 1998. The film was released on 11th November 2016 just a couple of days after Donald Trump was elected president. A lot has changed since 1998, both in the US and the UK. In the time of Clinton and Blair (pre the Iraq War) the story may have resonated with many readers. It’s hard to imagine a film less likely to appeal now to conservative Republicans or to voters who were convinced by Trump’s campaign statements.

Let’s pick out just a few aspects of the ideological underpinnings of the film. First, it’s a film that pursues negotiation ahead of any kind of military action. Second, it has a message of international co-operation (in the face of CIA attempts to prevent it). Third, it promotes scientists as ‘experts’ and ‘heroes’. Fourth, it has a single woman as its protagonist and lead expert. Fifth, it marginalises religion and critiques right-wing TV news. Sixth, it presents a sympathetic and rounded character as a ‘representative’ of Chinese leadership. It seems unlikely that it will be a White House favourite for Trump. But it also seems likely that it might challenge Brexiteers in the UK who want to ‘go it alone’. (We should also note that the Russian authorities are typed as brutal in their treatment of a dissident scientist – how would this play for Trump?)

The release of Arrival offers the possibility of a ‘conjunctural’ study (i.e. looking at the perceived ideologies of the film in terms of the events at the time of its production and then release) based on the points above. It also suggests a moment when the conventions of mainstream cinema are being challenged. The North American release through Paramount was a business venture designed to maximise returns and the film went wide to 2,300 cinemas, but it did so with a film that didn’t promise the usual box-office attractions. A week later, Warner Bros. launched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in over 4,000 cinemas, heavily promoting its J.K. Rowling connections. Fantastic Beasts, an effects-laden fantasy, is clearly an ‘entertainment’ text.

Ted Chiang’s comments about ‘Story of Your Life’ and reviews and literary criticism about the story all suggest that its objectives are to explore concepts of free will, effective communication, variational physics etc. Students could test out whether this is equally true of Arrival. If so we might argue that the film is as much about ‘education’ as about entertainment – or, perhaps more likely, that it is an unusual entertainment which requires repeat viewings to fully understand what it is saying.

References and further resources

Grater, Tom (2017) ‘Denis Villeneuve, Arrival producers on making their $50m sci-fi outside of the studio system’ ScreenDaily.com, 13/1/17

Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin (1985) Film Art: An Introduction (2nd ed.), New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Koehler, Robert (2017) Review of Arrival, Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2, Spring

Nayman, Adam (2017) Review of Arrival, Sight and Sound, December

bfi.org.uk/education-research/film-industry-statistics-research/weekend-box-office-figures

kftv.com/news/2017/02/21/oscars-2017-arrival-filmed-in-quebec

https://youtu.be/xzEPU2PTjT4: Science vs. Cinema: ARRIVAL

20 Feet From Stardom (US 2013)

(from left) Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer

Film 4 in the UK began a week of documentary screenings, kicking off with this Oscar-winning film about some of the most revered ‘backing singers’ of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I enjoyed the film which features some of the faces and the lives of the great singers who are often in the background as performers. Viewed objectively, however, it seemed to me that the film’s narrative was poorly constructed and we didn’t learn as much as we might about the dilemmas facing such singers, the industry in which they worked and the technical details about their performances. Later, I also came across the claims that some of the testimonies by the singers were perhaps misleading.

The film’s director, Morgan Neville, is a very experienced director of popular music documentaries, mostly for US TV, I think. He has explored a range of popular music forms – different genres, eras, stars etc. so I was a little surprised by some of the film’s missed tricks. The film focuses on a group of mainly African-American women, many the daughters of families rooted in gospel music and the church. Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer provide the main focus but there are others as well. We find out something about the stories of each of these women and also hear the commendations of stars like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting as well as record producer Lou Adler and various other industry personnel. My suspicion is that Neville and his team got carried away with some of the great stories that these women could tell and didn’t spend long enough working out what kind of narrative they wanted to construct. The film as a whole lacks a clear focus. Darlene Love has the longest and most emotional story – and she bears the brunt of the negative comments about her time contracted to Phil Spector. I did know about her problems with Spector (shared by many others) and she may well have ’embroidered’ her account a little, but she certainly deserves to be cut some slack.

Claudie Lennear reflecting on her career

One possibility might have been to explore the questions about race and gender in the industry a little more overtly. There is plenty of material but the only reference that is underlined is when Merry Clayton describes her own reaction to being asked to sing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ (the film shows a Skynyrd performance with a Confederate flag as a backdrop). Later Ms Clayton is shown singing her version of ‘Southern Man’, the Neil Young song that prompted the Skynyrd backlash. There are also two references to white performers seeking out black backing singers to give the music more ‘soul’. The first explains that white backing singers were known as ‘readers’ because they could perform any song – but not necessarily ‘feel’ the music. The second reference is to the British singers like Mick Jagger and Joe Cocker who might need an addition of ‘authentic’ voices as white boys singing black music songs. Both these statements needed more examination, I think. The film uses rock for many of its examples and there is a familiar suggestion that while Spector, Ray Charles and Ike Turner may have exploited attractive young black women as singers (and dancers), the British acts tended to treat them more as professional performers. This matches similar claims about Tamla and Stax performers who were more appreciated by white UK audiences than white US audiences in the early years – and the claim that bands like the Stones helped to resurrect the careers of some of the blues acts (and made sure that they earned royalties). This may be just a romantic notion promoted by British journalists, but needs investigating. More pertinent is why none of the well-known black music journalists and scholars are interviewed about the racism in the industry.

Darlene Love

The other central issue in the film is the question about why these performers, who clearly have great voices and great musical skills, have not become stars in their own right as solo performers or leading members of vocal groups. There are suggestions and the issue is explored. The one moment when a visual image seems to comment on the argument is when some of the industry personnel and Sting (who appears in awe of Lisa Fischer’s voice) suggests that the real ‘kick’ in singing together with other people is the feeling that your voice is melding with others and the experience becomes ‘spiritual’. We then see a flock of birds (are they starlings?) swarming together in a night sky and then breaking up again, only to reform their ‘murmurations’. This seems the moment when we really might get to an understanding of why some singers emerge as stars and sustain a career. We might argue that although some of the great backing singers have got better singing skills than the stars, they perhaps haven’t got the ego or the drive to be the star out front – or they recognise what to do but don’t want to ‘play the game? Sting is a singer whose music doesn’t always work for me and he has an image that suggests pretentiousness, but in his comments in this section he makes a lot of sense and is worth listening to. He argues that success depends on more than having the talent, the voice and the performance skills. He suggests that sometimes it’s just circumstances, chance/luck – his point is that those who succeed recognise this and deal with it. But just when this kind of analysis gets interesting it stops when someone suggests that it is autotuning that has changed the industry and record producers no longer need great singers if they can digitally manipulate the voice of someone who works as a celebrity/star.

I think this film operates at the level of a standard TV music documentary, albeit with a high level of performance clips and talking head interviews. The subject could also have been explored in relation to a wider range of industry practice issues. For instance, nearly all the examples derive from either rock music or major acts of R+B/soul music. It might be interesting to compare the use of other voices in aspects of traditional country, country-folk and country rock where typically backing vocals are supplied by other singers of equal status. Why is this? I remember a BBC4 documentary on the recordings by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris as ‘Trio’. The three voices came together beautifully but the three albums of material were spread over many years because each singer was contracted to different record labels. For live performances there were not as many problems perhaps? I suppose I’m saying that the film stimulates lots of debates but doesn’t know which is the focus and can’t cover them all in a satisfying way.

20 Feet From Stardom inhabits similar territory to Standing in the Shadows of Motown (US 2002) and also Secret Voices of Hollywood (UK 2013) about the dubbing of Hollywood musicals by singers who were not credited at the time. All these films are worth watching, but for an emotional documentary narrative about a singer who struggled for years to achieve the acclaim that her performances deserved, I’d go for Miss Sharon Jones! (US 2015), the story of the late Miss Jones and the Dap Kings.