An Open Letter to Christopher Nolan

Dear Christopher

I have enjoyed your earlier films but the new Dunkirk has given me the greatest pleasure. I found the organisation of the narrative fresh and inventive. The cast are good. The soundtrack is effective. But it is the visual quality of the film that is really awesome.

I saw the film first on 35mm at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds. As far as I could make out this was the only cinema screening the 35mm print. I realised later that both the colour palette and the sound are not quite up to the 70mm versions. I wonder how much this is due to the prints distributed in the UK?

I saw the 70mm version at the Parkway Cinema in Barnsley. This was impressive. And I think the cinema’s dedication to screening 70mm is admirable: they were the only venue in the region to screen The Hateful Eight in 2016. I gather there was only one 70mm print of that film in the UK: it seems there are four of Dunkirk, which is an improvement. And only last month the cinema screened Interstellar in 70mm. I do question how effectively the distributors are handling these films. The other 70mm exhibitor [in Bradford] are not screening Dunkirk in the 70mm print until October?

Most impressive, I watched the 70mm IMAX at The Printworks in Manchester. Visually stunning and the image, colour and sound were all of real quality. I also got my head around all of the time zones in the film.

However I am becoming increasingly concerned. I now understand that The Printworks is replacing the 70mm projectors with Digital Imax. Apparently there will be a laser projector, which will be superior to other digital IMAX. But my technical friends assure me that it will not be equivalent to 70mm. The Printworks [which was run by Odeon] is now run by VUE. I remember a couple of year ago that ‘The Guardian’ profiled the Chief Executive of VUE, who was quoted as stating that he was’

“passionate about film.”

I suspect that the quotation was abbreviated and that the full version ran something like,

“passionate about film as a commodity with sufficient surplus value to generate profits.”

So I worry whether I will be able to see see your future productions using ‘reel film’ in their proper format: or those by your colleagues who also privilege this superior film format. Our distributors and exhibitors are so disinterested in this that hardly any of them bother to detail formats in their publicity or programmes.

Seeing these films in their proper form is almost as hard as getting off the French beach into those heroic little boats in 1940.

Regards and thanks

Keith

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Scalarama 2017

So this unique Film Festival is back and running for the whole of September.

“Since 2011, every September, cinemas, film clubs and film festivals plus various organisations and individuals who have a passion for movies, have united to celebrate and encourage watching films together. This annual celebration, started in the UK, sees September transform into a month of amazing films, screened in various locations and by all different types of people – from established picture palaces to newbies, completely new to screening films.”

There are details of where and when, film screenings and the exhibitors and groups involved on the WebPages.

Leeds is, once again, a major player in the Festival. And now the organisers have their own WebPages and their is also a printed flier to be found at the main venues.

There is something just about every day this month. There are silent’s with live music, classics from the past, recent successes and oddball and unconventional films. The formats range from 35mm to VHS video. So film lovers should be spoilt for choice.

A Change in the Weather (UK 2017)

This is a new film from the husband and wife team of Jon Sanders and Anna Mottram. There previous three films known as ‘the Kent trilogy’ were low key features, with rather downbeat stories. The plots of the films however seem not to be the prime focus. That is very much character, relationships and a sense of a particular time of life: one that mirrors their own.

I saw this title at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum (renamed ‘Science + Media) and introduced by Bill Lawrence of ‘Reel Solutions’ who have been promoting the film.

The film is in colour, an anamorphic format of 2.35:1 and runs 99 minutes. It is an ambiguous and elusive film. It takes time to identify the characters and to understand the story it tells. The film is set in the ‘Cathar’ region of southern France. The action takes place over a week, though that information only surfaced well into the film. A small group of people are involved in a workshop as a prelude to a written play.

The writer is Dan (Bob Goody) who also plays a writer, Bernard, in the drama they are working on. His wife Lydia (Anna Mottram) is one of three actors who play Elsa [Bernard’s wife] in the workshop, in older age, The other being Kalle (Meret Becker) who plays the youngest manifestation of Elsa;  and Monica (Maxime Finch) who plays Elsa in her thirties, In addition Lydia’s daughter Debbie (Seonaid Goody) is there with her baby daughter Constance: Debbie is a puppeteer. James (Stephen Lowe) is a widowed friend.  His dead wife Bea (Tanya Myers) appears as a ghost, but only appears to Lydia and the viewers. And Jo (Emma Garden) is a friend of Lydia with whom she talks via Skype on her laptop. There is Aidan (Douglas Finch) who I assume is the pianist that we see and hear. And there is an unnamed sound recordist in some of the workshop scenes.

The film opens with a single woman sitting in a chair in front of a painted backcloth: we realise later that this is Lydia playing the character of Elsa. Off-screen several people fire questions at her. She answers these for a while then rises and walks off the stage: the camera continues on the empty chair.

There follows a scene in a bathroom, with Dan lying naked in the bathtub whilst Lydia studies her face in the mirror. This is one of several conversations between the pair. It is always uncertain to what degree the characters portrayed are Dan and Lydia or Bernard and Elsa.

A fairly short exterior sequence follows. The exteriors tend to be shorter than the interiors though there are several which include conversations. At this stage of the film the light suggests autumnal sunshine.

Now we see one of several sequences where a character playing Elsa dances with a puppet. We start with Lydia but eventually we will see all three characters playing Elsa in a dance routine with the puppet. Debbie controls the puppet here by hand, later she moves the puppet by the control bar.

We see two conversations between Lydia and Jo on her laptop. She talks to Jo in order to gain support. There is an evening of what seems to be entertainment, Kalle performs a rendition of ‘Melancholy Baby’ with Aiden at the piano and joining in the second chorus. And Bea appears mysteriously sitting amongst the spectators.

As the film develops the relationships between characters emerge to a degree. Dan and Lydia’s marriage has unexpressed tensions. Kalle has a long-term friendship with the couple and she is the only (apparently) non-English member of the workshop. Monica is possibly flirting with Dan. James would seem to be still mourning Bea. Bea appears to Lydia a number of times, though what causes her appearances – Lydia’s need or some other factor – is not explained. And Aidan only appears as a pianist.

At the end of the film a couple of characters leave. Debbie leaves because her work is finished. Lydia leaves because of the tensions in the marriage, only partly explained by a long discussion between her and Dan. We assume that the other participants leave as the week appears to have run its course. Bea makes a final appearance overlooking the buildings but not apparently seen by anyone except the audience.

The film relies extensively on long takes. And there are a number of pans over the cast. Early in the film the camera offers a restricted view; later pans present the audience with more of the set and characters. Thus in the opening shot the camera sticks to a fix position even when Lydia walks off-camera. Later in the film, in similar settings, a pan will reveal the characters who are watching or listening or questioning. The camera tends to a mid-height angle, but there are occasional high and low-angle shots. And there are some tracks in the exteriors. In line with the developing narrative there are more exterior long shots later in the film so that viewers start to acquire a sense of the settings and the buildings.

The music, of which there is a substantial amount, is predominately played on the piano, but there are at least two sequences where the accompaniment is on a harmonium. I suspected the change of instrument signified something about those sequences but I am not sure what?

The film’s opening sequences appear to be in autumnal sunshine. There are also a few evening or night-times scenes with chiaroscuro. As the film and the relationships develop the sunshine diminishes and the sky becomes clouded. In the later stages the sound of wind is audible on the soundtrack and there is an evening storm at one point.

It will be clear that I found that the film required close attention and a lot of input by myself. This was clearly part of the strategy embodied in the film. As the characters acquired identities I found I could start to comprehend the relationships. Interestingly the character easiest to place was Bea as a ghost, because she disappears mysteriously at the end of her first appearance.

It was equally so with what one might term the plot. It took time to work out about the workshop and its point. And it took time to see what sort of situations the developing relationships were creating. There were themes that i found suggested rather than fully realised. One was the relationship between the sexes. At one point Bernard abruptly changes the focus in a ‘hot seating’ session, possibly because of what the answers to question suggest about him. And there is an unexpressed question: why is only the female character played by more than one actor? It was probably just me, but when I saw the shot of Dan naked in the bath I was irresistibly reminded of Jean-Paul Marat and Charlotte Corday.

However I felt that the film repaid this care and attention. By the end of the film the resolution illuminated the themes that seemed to be embodied in the story. The cast are excellent. When I worked out the main points in the film their performances fitted exactly. The settings were well chosen and the music was appropriate and enjoyable. The cinematography in  particular was excellent and I was happy to sit there watching the settings and the performers.

Lydia with Bea

After the screening Jon Sanders and Amma Mottram talked about the film and answered questions. Jon Sanders has worked as a sound engineer and editor as well as directing films. Anna Mottram has worked extensively as an actor and has three screenwriting credits on their joint films. Bill Lawrence started by filling in some background and then asked them about their approach to filming and how they made the film.

Jon Sanders explained that their first film, Painted Angels (1998) a UK/German co-production set in a Western ‘bordello’ and filmed in Canada, was not a success. It had a limited release and only made it onto video in the USA. So they gave some thought to alternative ways of making film that were relatively cheap and quick. involving small casts, inexpensive production  values and avoiding the logistical requirements of mainstream film,.

They have made four films in twelve years. The approach involves long takes, filmed quickly and relying on a degree of improvisation by the actors. For this film they worked out the characters and a bare bones plot, written out on 32 cards, one for each scene. The credit reads ‘devised by . . . ‘. Friends offered the use of a rural house with a barn in France for a location. The devised story included an ending but much in between depended on the improvisation of the actors. The film was then shot chronologically.

The cast and crew had worked with the filmmakers before and some were personal friends, which is mirrored in the story. Merit Becker had met the filmmakers years before as an exchange student, which is also mirrored in the plot., Since then she had become an established actor in the German film industry and wanted to work on one of their films.

Anna Mottram explained how the improvisation worked in the creative process. So the opening scene was an example of ‘hot seating’, [Hot-seating is a way of developing (or deepening) character. If you are in the hot-seat you answer questions from others in the group while you are ‘in role’.] And the acting also worked on the ambiguities, as scenes where it was unclear which character actors were performing. Jon Sanders explained the directors main task was to keep the actors to ‘the sub-text’.

I asked about the way the technical crew worked with improvised scenes. Jon stated that how it worked varied, some scenes were completed in one take, ‘Melancholy Baby’ actually took nine takes. For the cinematography they relied on the camera work of David Scott and his grip Glyn Fielding. Scott had experience in documentary filmmaking which stood him in good stead with this approach. As an example Jon cited the scene where an actor danced with a puppet. Scott was given the start and end positions for the shot and then followed the action ensuring these were achieved. For sound they used two boom microphones which served well. And, as noted, the sound recordist is part of the plotting, and seen in scenes where recording takes place: I think this is Mike Duffield. Jon also noted that as the filming progressed some planned scenes were left out, seeming unnecessary.

A this point they asked the audience about their responses to the film, which were generally positive. I had noticed that two or three people left during the screening, presumably not taken with the film. But the remainder appeared to have enjoy it.

I asked the filmmakers about themes in the film, noting that stories about older couples reaching a crises point in their relationship seemed a frequent issue recently. Jon responded that probably this was ‘something in the air’ these days. But he also explained that their approach lent itself to domestic dramas and that ‘marriage, love and death’ were central themes in life.

Another audience member asked about the ghost, Bea. Anna talking about the first scene in which Bea appears. She suggested that Bea could be seen as a way of Lydia ‘talking to herself’; i.e., working through the tensions that appeared in the story.

I had to leave before the end to catch a train. As I left Jon was referring to the ghost and his admiration of Mizoguchi Kenji, the great Japanese director: his film Ugetsu Monogatari‘ had two ghosts and an ending that might be described as transcendental. A Change in the Weather is not a melodrama like that film, it is more mundane and downbeat but well executed. And the title, which is part of the visual narrative, also offers metaphor. It is a quote from a poem by W. H. Auden.

“Will love come and surprise him, knock on his door, step on his feet, or turn up like the weather, mildly or roughly?”

This struck me, like the film, as a very English approach. And whilst filmed in France the film really carries that sort of cultural character. It definitely stands out among recent releases produced in the UK. The film m is slightly challenging but repays the effort. To date there have been four screenings and it certainly deserves far more outings,. If you have a local independent cinema it would be worth asking them to feature the film. I, for one, would watch it again.

A Change in the Weather

I Am Not Your Negro (Switzerland-France-Belgium-US 2016)

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‘What is your problem?’

This superb documentary on James Baldwin, who died in 1987, is timely in the light of the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville earlier this month. Baldwin was an important figure in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He refused to align himself with the radical Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, NAACP (which he deemed middle class) or Malcolm X but, through his articulate arguments and his feted novels, offered an intellectual perspective on racism. Raoul Peck’s film intermingles archive footage, much of it of Baldwin speaking for himself, with Samuel L. Jackson’s (beautiful) voiceover speaking Baldwin’s words.

The film uses the unfinished Remember This House as its starting point. Here Baldwin was trying to come to terms with the deaths of King, X and Medger Evers who was murdered by white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith; it took 30 years for Beckwith to be convicted. Whilst this may seem to be dilatory justice the American judicial system, as the Black Lives Matter campaign illustrates, is still highly reluctant to convict when the victim is black. One of the most notorious incidents in recent years is Trayvon Martin, shot in the chest by a vigilante, George Zimmerman, who was unbelievably found ‘not guilty’ of murder. Peck intersperses the film with examples such as Martin’s to illustrate that racism is still destroying lives. At Charlottesville, social media footage shows, a supremacist shouted “Nigger” and then fired a gun at protestors; the police did not intervene.

During the 1960s it must have seemed that, through the Civil Rights protests (see Selma for example), things were going to get better for minorities. However, what has become clear, although there have been improvements in equality with the abolition of Jim Crow laws, racism is still endemic (see 13th) and the increased profile of neo Nazis is symptomatic of this. In the film there is footage of 1960s racist protests which include banners emblazoned with the swastika . I’m not sure what is most shocking, the neo Nazis of today or those of the ’60s, just 20 years after the end of the war in which Americans had died fighting against fascism.

Baldwin’s sophisticated analysis of racism, including much on cinema from his book The Devil Finds Work (1976), concludes with the statement that black people know more about whites than whites do about black because white people don’t see blacks as people. Whites are the ones who invented the ‘nigger’ and, Baldwin asks, what is it about white people that led them to do this? What is their problem?

L’odyssée (The Odyssey, France-Belgium 2016)

Jacques-Yves Cousteau (Lambert Wilson) and his two young sons in 1949. Simone (Audrey Tautou) is operating the tiller in the background.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997) was one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century. Even at just over two hours, L’odyssée struggles to cover only the middle stretch of a career that lasted over fifty years. The film focuses on the highlights of the most productive period of the life of Cousteau when he gained international fame through his undersea exploits, television programmes and eventual turn to environmental concerns. I think it will be difficult for younger audiences in the UK to comprehend what kind of international following Cousteau was able to attract – he won major civil honours in several countries and only David Attenborough has ever reached the same profile as a celebrity associated with the natural world. The surprising omission for me was any mention of Louis Malle who as a young man co-directed the Academy award-winning The Silent World (1956) with Cousteau. Fans of Wes Anderson and Bill Murray will however recognise that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) is based on the exploits of Cousteau and his crew.

The Cousteau family using the aqualungs that Cousteau developed.

L’odyssée is a major production with an estimated budget of €20 million – large by European standards, even if France is the major European film production centre. Director Jérôme Salle seems to specialise in large-scale productions with major stars but as far as I can see his films have not previously appeared in UK cinemas (though two have been released on DVD). According to IMDb, L’odyssée is being screened in a 2.66 : 1 ratio and it was shot digitally on a 6K Red camera. I’m not sure about the ratio at the screening I attended, but you’d expect an epic presentation for Cousteau’s story of exploration and overall the film doesn’t disappoint. There are three major stars (perhaps two of them are ‘star actors’). Lambert Wilson has the trickiest job as ‘JYC’ (Cousteau) and since the action begins around 1949 when Cousteau was approaching 40 and finishes when he is approaching 70. Wilson himself is in his late 50s. Audrey Tautou faces a similar long haul but she has the advantage of being nearer in age to Cousteau’s wife Simone in 1949 and with make-up and wigs she approaches 60 more easily. She also doesn’t appear on screen as frequently (one of the major minuses of the film for me). The third major character is Cousteau’s younger son Philippe played as an adult by Pierre Niney, highly praised on this blog for his role in Frantz (France-Germany 2016). Sporting very fetching 70s facial hair, Niney is a strong presence in the second half of the film.

Pierre Niney as Philippe Cousteau in the 1970s.

As I’ve indicated, this is a partial biopic, but that is only one of the genre repertoires that Salle draws on. Perhaps just as important is the mix of epic adventure/exploration and natural history film/environmental polemic. I was struck with the similarity in parts to the Norwegian film Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) with Cousteau seeking funding for his expeditions and then risking everything in physical encounters with seas, storms and sharks. The underwater scenes in the film are definitely one of its attractions and the budget was partly spent on location shooting in the Bahamas, Croatia, South Africa and Antarctica. The weakness of the narrative is the final genre repertoire, the family or personal drama. Perhaps not surprisingly, ‘JYC’ was unable to be the father and husband that his wife and sons expected. The narrative also suggests that his desire to succeed in his ambitious ventures led him to become too interested in the money that could be earned and that he exploited his family and loyal crew members. (At the same time, he is unaware just how expensive his ambitious plans have become.) There isn’t time to explore this and there is quite a telling moment when Cousteau is in the US for his television commitments and his elder son phones to tell him that his father has died. JYC refuses to return to France immediately. This feels like an insertion of a little shorthand scene to stand in for a whole sub-narrative. The film’s script was written by Salle and Laurent Turner and is based on two books, one by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the surviving older son who has carried on the family business and the other by the captain of the Cousteau ship, the Calypso. On this basis, there must be a strong factual starting point to what appears on screen. I think I would argue that despite its flaws, there is a great deal to commend about L’odyssée. It boasts wonderful cinematography by Matias Boucard and a music score by the celebrated Alexandre Desplat. You should seek out the biggest screen you can find.

We watched the film at the new arts centre in Halifax, the Square Chapel, in the smaller ‘Copper’ auditorium which is also used for theatrical productions. It’s good to be in a new cinema space and we were impressed to see how busy it was for a Friday morning screening. The downside is that films are presented without masking – the CinemaScope film was shown on a standard widescreen ratio screen so there were visible white bars above and below the image. Someone once tried to tell me that nobody notices this, but sitting two rows from the front they were clearly visible to us. Please, cinemas – bring back masking!

The Spiral Staircase (US 1946)

Elsa Lanchester as Mrs Sloane descends the stairs to the basement with George Brent as Professor Warren behind.

Elsa Lanchester as Mrs Sloane descends the stairs to the basement with George Brent as Professor Warren behind.

I watched this recently in preparation for an event on film noir and enjoyed it very much. It’s a significant film in many ways, though its short running time (82 minutes) seems to indicate a ‘B’ picture. The cast and crew and the sheer artistry of the film do, however, point to an ‘A’ picture from RKO. Researching the film, I came across a fascinating website, The Film Noir File: A Dossier of Challenges to the Film Noir Hardboiled Paradigm written and compiled by Dan Hodges. I should have been aware of this site because it explores the arguments against the conventional academic film histories of film noir and also the supposed American uniqueness of the genre/style. I would tend to support both of the main aims of the website.

The Spiral Staircase challenges the ‘paradigm’ of film noir in one sense and ‘fits’ it in another. It is not based on the kind of ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction of the 1930s/40s, but it is directed by an émigré German director, Robert Siodmak and photographed by another, the Italian Nicholas Musaraca (who had worked in Hollywood since the 1920s). In fact, Siodmak and Musuraca were two of the principal ‘creators’ of film noir as later described by Hollywood film scholars. Musaraca worked under Val Lewton in RKO’s ‘B’ unit in the early 1940s on films such as Cat People (1942) and would later shoot the film noir classic Out of the Past (Build My Gallows High, 1947). Siodmak came to RKO after early noirs such as The Phantom Lady (1944) and The Suspect (1944). He would go on to make another recognised noir classic, The Killers, also in 1946.

So, how does The Spiral Staircase challenge the paradigm? The first films noirs to be studied extensively in retrospect were based on hard-boiled crime stories, often featured a ‘doomed man’ and a femme fatale and were contemporary in setting (though they might update 1930s stories to the 1940s). The Spiral Staircase is based on a novel by Ethel Lina White, a British writer who turned to crime fiction in the 1930s. Three of her novels were adapted for cinema, beginning with The Lady Vanishes in 1938 (UK, Alfred Hitchcock). She died in 1944 and didn’t see either The Spiral Staircase or Unseen (1945). The Spiral Staircase was adapted by a radio drama writer Mel Dinelli.

In the first murder a young woman is dressing when she is strangled, creating this strong composition . . .

Ethel Lina White was born in 1876 in Abergavenny so it isn’t surprising that she set her 1933 novel Some Must Watch in the Welsh borders. It was adapted as The Spiral Staircase and transposed to early 20th century New England, but still featuring an isolated country house. Though the adaptation sees a few characters altered, the important point here is that the central character is Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a young woman who has lost her voice after a childhood trauma and is now the ‘ladies companion’ of the bed-ridden Mrs Warren (the formidable figure of Ethel Barrymore). The local town is experiencing the terror of a serial killer and the film opens with the murder of a young woman in a hotel while below an audience (including Helen) watches an early film screening. When Helen returns to the isolated country house (in a rainstorm), Siodmak reveals the shoes and single voyeuristic eye of the murderer hiding in the shadows on the stairs of the great old Victorian gothic mansion. The film’s title refers to the staircase down to the extensive basement/cellar. If you want more background on the book and film (with possible SPOILERS) there is an interesting post on ‘Le curieux Monsieur Cocosse | Journal’.)

. . . the murderer was hiding in the walk-in clothes closet

. . . the murderer was hiding in the walk-in clothes closet

We can guess what will happen, but the film is highly engaging with its narrative twists and turns and the superlative camerawork, lighting and set design make it always watchable. Helen is both ‘damsel in distress’ and investigator (and arguably the ‘final girl’ as identified in the horror films of the 1990s). As well as Helen and Mrs Warren, the film also features two other significant female roles played by Rhonda Fleming (who went on to lead roles in the 1950s) and Elsa Lanchester (wife of Charles Laughton and dogged by her early Hollywood success in The Bride of Frankenstein). The narrative draws primarily on the suspense thriller repertoire. The visual style suggests the horror film as much as the film noir and it is supported by a strong soundtrack mix of effects referring to the terrible storm outside, the banging of windows and shutters and the sound of the wind and rain. Horror and film noir arguably have roots in common in German expressionism of the 1920s and the same roots also apply to the particular cycle of female-centred melodramas that became popular in the 1940s. Many of these reveal a certain kind of paranoia about being in the ‘old dark house’. In Gaslight (UK 1940 and US 1944), both films adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s play, a woman in London becomes fearful that her house is subject to strange events. Her relative was murdered in the house some time ago but is her present husband trying to frighten her? Ingrid Bergman is the frightened woman in the Hollywood version with clear film noir links. The Spiral Staircase also links to the Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in distress’ film Sorry Wrong Number (1948) in which she plays a woman who is bed-ridden, like the Ethel Barrymore character in the Siodmak film and similarly fearful of an attack. These melodramas are also films noirs.

Ethel Barrymoore as the bed-ridden Mrs Warren with Dorothy McGuire as Helen

The view in the mirror which shows downstairs.

The view in the mirror which shows downstairs.

Melodrama implies other familiar conventions. Helen is affected by her trauma so that she can’t speak – and therefore can’t ask for help or convey what she knows quickly. In the scene above she looks at herself in the mirror, a common image from melodrama that might suggest that there are two Helens or that she has something to hide that might not be revealed to the other characters. The mirror also allows the composition of images which are ‘disrupted’ in their presentation of narrative space. Here the deep focus which operates throughout the film shows the dining room below. In this case, the mirror image helps conjure up Helen’s fears that being unable to speak will be dangerous in the febrile atmosphere of her gothic surroundings. This image also gives an indication of the detailed set design and ‘set dressing’ which adds greatly to the power of the images. The art direction duties are credited to Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey. D’Agostino worked on 27 films released in 1946. The Spiral Staircase certainly benefits from the experience and expertise of personnel working within the studio system. Helen’s ‘lack’ of a voice is also a feature of certain melodramas where such ‘lacks’ are often seen as symbolic.  In this film, the lack is also imagined by Helen in a sequence representing her internal thoughts and in another where a visual effect obscures her mouth.

I think that Dan Hodges is right to challenge the ‘paradigm’ of American film noir. So many different kinds of films have benefited from the application of themes and style features associated with noir. I think I’d describe The Spiral Staircase as a noir melodrama melded with the suspense thriller/horror film.

Maudie (Ireland-Canada 2016)

Everett (Ethan Hawke) and Maud (Sally Hawkins on their wedding day

Maudie is the kind of film that as a young person I might have given a miss but now I’m older, and I hope wiser, I appreciated it a great deal. In simple terms Maudie is a partial biopic of Maud Lewis from Yarmouth in Nova Scotia who in later life found fame as a well-known ‘folk artist’ in Canada. Actually, however, it is mainly a moving love story about two people both too easily seen as marginal in their contemporary world.

Maud/Maudie (Sally Hawkins) comes from a ‘good’ background but she has developed severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and then, a different kind of social ‘disability’ sees her mistreated by her family. Determined to live her own life in small town Nova Scotia of the 1930s, she applies for an unlikely job as what is really a ‘scivvy’ (a maid, hired to do menial tasks) for a lonely fish peddler. His home is a small shack out of town on the main highway. There is barely room for him to live in the shack and she has to find a space alongside the dogs and chickens. Everett (Ethan Hawke) is an uncouth man who has struggled in the economic hardship of the Depression and he has no idea how to treat Maudie. When she starts to paint on pieces of card with any materials she can find his interest is only really aroused when he realises that there are people willing to pay a few cents for Maudie’s ‘art’. That’s the opening of a story we follow through to 1970 by which time Everett has mellowed and Maudie’s fame has spread nationally, though it will be many years before her paintings are traded at prices that reflect her importance for Canadian art.

One of the landscapes by Maud Lewis

There are two main reasons why Maudie works so well. First, it is a very beautiful film in its use of landscape and in the presentation of Maud Lewis’s art. Aisling Walsh is an Irish director who trained at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology and then the National Film and TV School in the UK. She has made several features and also worked extensively in UK television for over twenty years. I note that she made one of the BBC’s Wallander films and I wonder whether the location shooting in Sweden in any way informed Maudie. She has said that she found Maud’s story familiar in some ways because of its connection to landscape and small-town life in the West of Ireland. Her vision is presented in the film through the lenses of Guy Godfree who trained in the US but is himself a Nova Scotian. I was struck by the light in the film, the skyscapes and long shots (of the arthritic Maud walking long distances). I was also struck by the music organised by Michael Timmins of the Montreal band Cowboy Junkies. Three distinctive singing voices come from Michael’s sister Margo Timmins, the magical Mary Margaret O’Hara and the Irish singer Lisa Hannigan providing a mix of Irish/Canadian folk/country/rock. The script was written by Sherry White from Newfoundland and in one of those quirks of funding, a film featuring distinctive landscapes was actually shot in Newfoundland because the Nova Scotian authorities decided to withdraw funding support for film productions. Labrador and Newfoundland stepped in to fill the gap. I can’t tell if that makes a difference but I’ve read that the landscapes are similar. Either way the film looks terrific.

The film’s beauty is complemented by two stunning central performances by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. They are quite different performances with Sally Hawkins studying carefully how to represent the impact of arthritis (which constricted the size of paintings Maud Lewis could attempt) and trying to learn the subtleties of a Canadian dialect. Her performance includes a lot of ‘external work’ to represent the twisted limbs of the arthritis sufferer but she definitely ‘inhabits’ the character and it never feels like simply ‘putting on an act’. By contrast, Ethan Hawke seems to be much more instinctive in his presentation of Everett. There are several interviews online in which Hawke seems to tease his audience by pretending to have done no preparation and praising Hawkins for her diligence. Both performances worked for me, but I think that Sally Hawkins was able to ‘age’ more convincingly over the course of the narrative which ends when she is in her late 60s. The real Everett was older but Ethan Hawke still seems middle-aged by the end. This is a common problem with biopics but it didn’t worry me in this case.

I’ve seen criticism of the film because of the way Everett treats Maud, especially when she first moves in. There are claims that this is domestic abuse and that the film isn’t critical enough of Everett’s behaviour. I can see that this might be a reading but I think that the narrative presents Everett as a man who has learned to live alone and is ignorant of how to treat anyone he has to share a house with. Maud must quickly see however that despite his rough demeanour he does not treat her differently because of her physical difficulties and social position. As their love slowly develops it builds towards a beautiful relationship.

I’m probably biased because I’m a sucker for this kind of narrative about small-time Canada in the 1930s-60s. This will go down as one of my favourite films of the year. It’s still on release in the UK and well worth seeing. In the first clip below you can watch a short National Film Board documentary about Maud Lewis and her paintings and then catch a glimpse of Sally Hawkins as Maud in the trailer for the film.

Documentary, truth and eagle hunters

Father and daughter in the Altai hills of Mongolia – one of the promo images from THE EAGLE HUNTRESS

We saw The Eagle Huntress back in January and though I enjoyed the film there were several things about it that made me circumspect. It purported to be a documentary about a young teenage girl in Mongolia training an eagle, flying it at a festival and taking it on a hunt. The film was ‘presented by’ Daisy Ridley and championed as an example of ‘girl power’. When I began to research the background to the film I realised that it would make an interesting case study for film and media students and I wrote a short piece for the MediaMagazine (a publication for 16-19 year-olds taking A Level Film/Media Studies). Unfortunately MediaMagazine is only accessible online to subscribers and its production cycle is quite long. I feared that the film might disappear from view before the magazine reached schools and colleges.

Issue 60 of MM includes my short piece on The Eagle Huntress

What I hadn’t realised was just how strongly some of the film’s critics felt about what they were beginning to discover about the film’s production and distribution. After my original posting I began to receive tweets from one of the principal investigators, Meghan Fitz-James in Vancouver, and from others. I found myself re-writing the original post and also publishing some of the comments I received. You can find the post and comments on https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/the-eagle-huntress-uk-mongolia-us-2016/. Since then, Meghan has kept working and kept exposing more aspects of the story. You can access all of her work via her twitter feed @MeghanfjFitz. What she has discovered is another example of a familiar story that has been told about supposedly ‘documentary’ filmmaking going back 100 years or more, but in 2017 is seen in the context of social media and a new level of globalised exploitation of people and cultures.

The background to the controversy is neatly set out in the (English language) clip from France TV above. I’m not surprised  by the evidence that has been uncovered but I am amazed by what it is possible to find using social media and internet searches (and a great deal of effort and no little expense). The research also includes visits to Mongolia and direct contact with some of the key figures in the story. Thinking about the ways in which the filmmaker Otto Bell and his various collaborators on the production and subsequent distribution of the film have gone about their business, I’m conscious of the failure of film studies to properly educate audiences about what they are watching.

Film studies has explored how documentaries have been made and has classified the different documentary modes that have developed since the 1920s. We’ve known and accepted for a long time that documentaries may include ‘re-constructions’. It’s not the practice itself that’s an issue, it’s the deception – the attempt to pass something off as ‘real’. In the last twenty to thirty years, two things have happened alongside the development of digital technologies. Firstly, the explosion of forms of ‘reality TV’ and ‘infotainment’ have undermined the sense and purpose of traditional documentary practice. Secondly, the ability to create digital images that appear ‘real’ but have actually been created not through a camera but by photo software has discredited ‘photographic realism’ so that for many, ‘realism’ is no longer an issue.

Alongside this undermining of documentary as a practice that can inform as well as create art is the gradual de-politicisation of film and media education. In this respect, the furore created by the investigators of the production of Eagle Huntress has demonstrated that film studies needs cultural studies and social anthropology to engage with the subjects of this kind of documentary narrative. It is also important to confront the adoption of ‘girlpower’ as a promotional and marketing tool rather than a liberating ideology for young women in different cultures and to recognise the perils of an ‘orientalist’ approach to stories set in parts of Asia that are not regularly represented in western media. What saddens me also is that a public agency such as the British Film Institute should have helped to fund distribution of a film like this without first investigating the story behind it. At least the BBC has carried reports that contest aspects of the film’s story. We all need to be careful as we watch and enjoy films and then sit down to write about them.