Kimuak – Basque Short Films

‘Above 592 metres’

This was a programme of short films at the Hyde Park Picture House with the support of the Cervantes Institute. The programme was organised by ‘cinemaattic’ and screened in a number of major cities. An annual event, the ‘Kimuak’ [Basque word for ‘sprout’] encourages film-makers to work in the shorter length format. We enjoyed seven films in a variety of forms and subjects from 2018. I have seen a few feature length Basque films in the past but this was an unusual and welcome opportunity.

Above 592 Meters (592 Met’roz Goiti, director Maddi Barber). In colour and 1.85:1, with English sub-titles.

This is a documentary about the construction of a dam in the Pyrenees which flooded seven villages. The title is the level of the water in the dam. The film opens with footage of the landscape and wildlife around the completed dam. Then the film explores the impact of the construction on one family that was displaced. There is some fine cinematography included a night-time electric storm. And the family are articulate with a photograph record of the displacement. I think the screening ratio was different from the original footage as there seems to be some cropping in the frame.

Mother (Ama, director Josu Martinez). In colour and 1.85:1 with English subtitles.

This is a short drama set during World War I. A wife and mother waits for a letter from her husband fighting on the Western front. When the letter comes she has to ask a neighbour to read this for her. Finely done with the cinematography and design creating the sad world of the past.

Still Fireflies (Ancora Lucciole, director Maria Elorza.) In colour and 1.85:1 with English subtitles.

The film opens with a reference to 1972 and Pier Paulo Pasolini lamenting the disappearance of fireflies. Then the title combines a voice-over addressing the possible extinction of fireflies whilst a child plays with an example in a jar. The ‘fireflies’ in the film are digitally produced and are vibrant against the varied settings, ranging from light to darkest shadows.

The Great Expedition (Espedizio Handia, director Iban del Campo). In colour and black and white and academy ratio.

This title combines images in a tapestry that contrasts heavenly images with more mundane human characters.

Kafenio Kastello (directed by Miguel Ángel Jiménez) In colour and 2.35:1 with English subtitles.

The title is set in Athens and the background is one of the frequent demonstrations against ‘austerity’ with street conflicts between protesters and police. However the characters in focus are a small group in an urban quarter concerned with more mundane problems of their relationships. The characters and plot are treated in a somewhat surreal manner with references to (amongst others) Tarkovsky and his Andrei Rublev (1966).


Do Not wake Me Up (No me Despertéis, director Sara Fantova), In colour and 2.35:1 with English sub-titles.

Set in the Basque city of Bilbao in 2009 the story follows a school student caught between nationalist activism in her school and her father’s role in the regional Government. The title catches the teenage milieu and the emotional contradictions experienced by this young woman.

Waiting (Zain, director Pello Gutiérrez). In colour and 1.85:1 with English subtitles.
This is a rather surreal presentation that reminded me most of the style and tone of the Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. This title has the deadpan humour and ironic style found in his films. A singer with a deadpan delivery is seen first with a musical group and then a solo musician. Meanwhile the audience watching gradually grows smaller. An enjoyable tone portrait.
An entertaining and fascinating two hours with an introduction from people and filmmakers involved in the programme.

An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji, Japan 1962)

The school reunion dinner with Chisu Ryu (extreme right). The character third from left is the old schoolteacher, now down on his luck.

The school reunion dinner with Ryu Chisu (extreme right). The character third from left is the old schoolteacher, now down on his luck.

(This post is based on my notes for an introduction to a ‘classic matinee’ screening of the restored print at Cornerhouse, Manchester in Summer 2014.)

An Autumn Afternoon was the last film to be completed by the Japanese master Ozu Yasujiro who died on his 60th birthday in December 1963. Not well-known in the West at that point he was revered in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia as the consummate director of films known as ‘home dramas’ or ‘tales of ordinary people’ (shomingeki). Since his death, Ozu’s reputation has gradually grown in the West, particularly in the US. Today it arguably surpasses that of Mizoguchi Kenji and Kurosawa Akira, the two directors whose international prizes in the 1950s introduced classical Japanese cinema to European and North American audiences.

Anyone who has seen several films by Ozu will be aware of the claims made about the director’s style and the assumptions made about what an ‘Ozu film’ is like. Given that Ozu made his first films in his mid 20s (i.e. in the 1920s) and that some of them have been lost and others from the 1930s and 1940s have been difficult to see outside Japan, it isn’t surprising that our assumptions about the films are based on what is sometimes called Ozu’s ‘late period’ from 1949-1962. This period begins with Late Spring in 1949, one of the most celebrated of his films and one which perhaps ‘informs’ An Autumn Afternoon. The period also includes the most well-known of all Ozu’s films in the West, Tokyo Story (1953), voted No 1 film by international film directors in Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll.

Visual style

If we focus simply on the post 1949 films, Ozu did appear to develop a very distinctive visual style. His aim seemed to be to strip away any expressionist flourishes associated with camera movement or framing. His camera (under the control of cinematographer Atsuta Yûharu) is usually stationary and fixed at a low height which means it nearly always looks up at characters and their actions. The camera also looks down corridors, through doorways and straight ahead in rooms – and occasionally obliquely like an observer. Each image is carefully composed within the frame with close attention to geometrical shapes and the positioning of simple objects. When characters speak, they are often given the whole frame in what would conventionally be a medium shot, but since they are often sitting or kneeling it becomes a long shot (i.e. we see the whole body). Ozu sometimes seems to dismiss the so called ‘rules’ of continuity editing found in Hollywood classical cinema. But in An Autumn Afternoon he actually uses the full range of conventional shots – it’s just that the unusual shots stand out.

An iconic interior shot with the golf clubs as part of the rectangular grid?

The human figure, to camera in mid shot . . . dressed in red

One of Ozu’s framings and compositions has been described as the ‘pillow shot’, a distinctive ‘cutaway’ that occurs between scenes  (and sometimes during scenes) and often shows a (deserted) street scene, a landscape or sometimes an empty corridor, a line of washing, a shop sign etc. What do these shots ‘mean’? There are many suggestions – just Google “Ozu pillow shots” and you will find discussions and examples. One thing we can be sure of. Each individual pillow shot is beautifully composed and no one is likely to begrudge Ozu the few seconds these images occupy the screen. Sometimes they just seem to allow us to ‘rest’ and contemplate what happens in the story – but sometimes they also seem to carry specific meanings and somehow they always seem to intensify the emotional quality of the narrative. In the later films Ozu’s compositions benefitted from better filmstock and then, from 1958, colour. All of the framings and compositions (i.e. the position of objects within the frame) are governed by Ozu’s use of the traditional ‘Academy’ screen shape (1.33: 1). Ozu stuck to this shape (like Satyajit Ray in India in the same period) despite a general move to the wider screen shapes of CinemaScope etc. in the West. Widescreen began to become common in Japan in the late 1950s, but Ozu’s meticulous compositions retained their own shape.

A pillow shot with square and rectangular shapes . . . less red, but still there

The bar scenes are included in the same style as the home but with a different emphasis on colours and music

The use of colour also allowed Ozu to supplement his focus on rectangular patterns with a similar focus on specific colours. There are many examples of bright red objects and blocks of colour in this film. The vivid colours and the use of music, the jaunty strings in particular, give these later Ozu films a real sense of texture and a richness in the representation of ‘ordinary lives’.

Family drama

The stories of Ozu’s late period films are often very similar. They use a ‘stock company’ of actors from Shochiku, the major studio for whom Ozu worked for most of his career, playing similar roles in different films. The most familiar of these actors is Ryu Chisu who often plays the head of a family. The families in the stories sometimes have the same name but they are all slightly different – genre is often about ‘repetition and difference’. Over the 13 years from 1949 to 1962, Japanese society was transformed, moving from the misery and austerity of Occupation through rapid economic growth to the beginnings of ‘consumerism’. Part of that transformation involved changes in opportunities for young women in particular. These changes in society enable Ozu and his regular scriptwriter Noda Kogo to subtly alter the family dynamic from one film to another. An Autumn Afternoon has one narrative thread about the money problems of the oldest son in the family as he and his wife juggle their desires to buy essential household goods (a vacuum cleaner and TV set) or personal items (a leather handbag or a set of golf clubs). 

Social class is presented in a nuanced way. Social class descriptions are perhaps slightly different in Japan compared to the UK but they are just as important. In Ozu’s first films after 1945 his characters are sometimes struggling under the Occupation conditions but by the late 1940s the family groups have become quite ‘ordered’. Patriarchal families are headed by doctors or university teachers. These are not wealthy men as such but in the later 1950s films the central male characters have often become businessmen of various kinds. Mothers generally stay at home but gradually the younger women gain independence through employment in offices. While some of these characterisations might seem to be linked to the sociology of the modern Japanese family, Ozu and Noda also deal in nostalgia. Families often seem to have young boys, often cheeky and mischievous (e.g. in Early Summer (1951) and Ohayo! (1959) – harking back to some of Ozu’s earlier comedies. In the same way, the later films feature middle-aged men remembering their student days – and sometimes drinking too much in Tokyo’s little bars.

Ozu’s families don’t have ostentatious wealth but they are ‘comfortable’. In some ways the families might be compared to the ‘solid’ middle-class families of classical Hollywood in the 1950s. In An Autumn Afternoon, Mr Hirayama (Ryu Chisu) is an office manager of some kind and his oldest son has become a ‘salaryman’ – the new breed of office worker. But when Hirayama goes to meet his old schoolteacher he discovers that he now runs a noodle bar in a poor district – and this makes Hirayama uncomfortable. The tension involved in meeting people whose status has changed is palpable in these scenes. It’s also worth noting that the old schoolteacher enjoys eating a fish dish he hasn’t encountered before. Fresh fish has always been an important part of the Japanese diet and the Japanese title of the film, Sanma no aji, translates as ‘the taste of sanma‘, a type of mackerel particularly enjoyed in late Summer – suggesting a different tone to the film than the English language title.

Despite the economic changes, there is still an expectation that a father will help to find his daughter a suitable husband. In fact the story here is quite similar to that of Last Spring in 1949. Ryu Chisu as Hirayama faces some of the same questions about his daughter’s marriage as his 1949 character. But there is a change in that the representation of memories of the wartime period here are prompted by the ‘Warship March’ played in Tory’s bar (music and songs are important in Ozu’s films). There is a nostalgia here (partly for Ozu’s early films) but also an acceptance of recent Japanese history. Hirayama also comments on the relationship between Japan and America. Although Ozu’s style is seen as very different to the Hollywood films of the 1950s and 1960s, Ozu was in fact a big admirer of classical Hollywood. Ozu never really travelled outside Japan. He lived with his mother for most of his life and in his later years indulged his fondness for alcohol like his characters in the later films. The schoolboy humour of his own youth appeared in his early films and there are elements that re-emerge here in Hirayama’s meetings with his old school friends.

An Autumn Afternoon is a joy to watch, partly because everything functions so smoothly and the combination of camera, production design, performance and sound/music appears to be achieved effortlessly. There is humour in the film and an awareness of a changing society outside this controlled world, but also some sadness in the closing scenes.

(An Autumn Afternoon comes in a bfi Blu-ray dual format edition which includes Ozu’s 1948 film A Hen in the Wind (strongly recommended) and a print booklet with essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Hirano Kyoko

Sunset (Napszállta, Hungary-France 2018)

Juli Jakab as Írisz Leiter, bravely taking on Budapest

Sunset won the Critics’ Prize at Venice in 2018. László Nemes, the writer-director, won both the Cannes Grand Prix and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his previous film Son of Saul (2015). (He has two co-writers on Sunset.) However, the two films have been received differently by some reviewers and some audiences. I haven’t seen Son of Saul but I know it offers a narrative about the experience of a Jewish-Hungarian man in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. I suspect that whereas most audiences would at least recognise that story, the world of Sunset must be unknown to many modern audiences. I doubt many mainstream audiences in the UK or US would be able to tell you much about the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1913. The elderly couple sat next to us in the cinema, were, I think Hungarian and they would know, but not perhaps one of the reviewers in Britain’s leading film journal Sight and Sound who is completely dismissive of the film. But the culture of pre-1914 Central Europe is very difficult to grasp and Nemes refuses to use  conventional approaches to presenting it. This Milan Kundera quote from 1984 is used in the introduction to one book on Central European Cinema:

Central Europe is not a state: it is a culture or a fate. Its borders are imaginary . . . (quoted in The Cinema of Central Europe, Peter Hames (ed) 2004)

For those of us in the UK and North America, the history and culture of the former ‘Holy Roman Empire’ seems so alien because we haven’t experienced such a shifting sense of identity within territories that experienced occupations and changing borders over decades and over centuries. In 1913 when Sunset is set, the three connected kingdoms/territories of Austria, Hungary and Croatia-Bosnia, the remnants of the former empire after 1867, still constituted a powerful economic and military force and a highly-developed and sophisticated culture in Vienna, Budapest and Prague, but its citizens did not share an identity, a language or a religious identity. This multinational, multi-ethnic conglomeration would be torn apart after 1918 and the repercussions of the ‘end of empire’ are still being felt in the ‘New Europe’ of today. The original Hungarian title of the film is translated by Google as ‘eventide’ which seems more poetic and perhaps hints at foreboding. The film narrative offers a metaphor for the collapse of empire. This is hinted at in the opening titles but not made explicit. In the Press Pack, Nemes reveals the influence of F. W. Murnau:

This film is my personal testimony to the love of cinema, almost a century after the hopefulness of Sunrise by Murnau – a movie to which we pay homage. I hope that Sunset carries in itself something of the interrogations embodied by Murnau’s film.

What plot there is in Sunset focuses on a woman in her twenties who turns up at the most fashionable milliner’s emporium in Budapest (extravagant hats for women are the ultimate status symbol in the society). She is quickly revealed to be Írisz Leiter, the daughter of the founders of the Leiter brand who set up the shop. We learn that the parents died and that the infant Írisz was sent to Trieste where she eventually became an apprentice milliner. Now she is back, to the consternation of the current owner of the business Oszkár Brill. What does she want? What should he do with her? In the next few days the Leiter brand is celebrating 30 years in business with parties and dancing and visits by royalty and local aristocracy. Brill attempts to send her back to Trieste but Írisz is stubborn and will not be deflected from her mysterious purpose, especially when she discovers that she has a brother who is notorious and lives outside ‘society’ in Budapest. The more Írisz is refused answers or told to keep out of something the more she ploughs on. Is she some kind of angel figure? Or is she a ‘monstrous’ woman – the original meaning of monster being derived from ‘warning’. This extraordinary character, at once beautiful and resolute but also confused, requires a strong performance and Juli Jakab certainly provides it. Her ‘journey’ through the world of Budapest is presented by Nemes and his cinematographer Mátyás Erdély in long, carefully choreographed tracking shots with the camera often focused on the back of Írisz’s neck and with the city environment blurring through pulled focus (the lack of focus increases towards the narrative climax). This technique, which I understand worked well in Son of Saul, seems to have irritated quite a few commentators this time round.

Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov) tries hard to return Írisz to Trieste – but then bows to the inevitable

Budapest is a bustling city and the aesthetic choices that Nemes makes help to give a us a sense of the contradictions. Vlad Ivanov gives an impressive performance as Brill and in one sense he seems to represent a multi-lingual élite who are in confident control of the city. But the empire is vulnerable, it may have modern technologies, arts and music but it also has ‘darkness’ and various dissident groups of socialists, anarchists and nationalists. The blurred backgrounds and different voices and sounds emphasise how disturbing it must be for Írisz. The empire has religious differences, persecuted minorities and traditional ideas. There are hints about the development of psycho-analysis. Írisz steps down from an electric tram but it looks like Nemes was unable to represent the Budapest underground railway, the second oldest in the world after London, opened in 1896.

Irisz steps down into the darkness at the end of the tramline and into a disturbing Budapest ‘underworld’

Another criticism of the film is that it is too long at 142 minutes. I found it a riveting watch and it didn’t seem a minute too long, though because of the unusual approach to narrative, I sometimes did wonder whether a resolution would be signalled and when finally it came I was relieved to find it that it made sense and confirmed what I though the film had been ‘about’. That doesn’t mean that I understood everything. Far from it, but at least I felt I had a purchase on it, however tenuous. Reading the detailed director’s statement in the Press Pack has been very helpful. I should re-watch Murnau’s Sunrise and think about the other films that popped into my head during the screening. The film’s aesthetics require more study too. My viewing companion pointed out the fantastic sound design which I’d noticed but not thought about as there was so much going on with the camerawork, set design (physical sets built in Budapest), music and performances. We watched the film in one of HOME Manchester’s smaller auditoria (but with a big screen and excellent sound) and you should seek out the biggest cinema screen you can find. This won’t be easy in the UK since this is a Curzon release and it looks like it isn’t playing at Picturehouse venues which sometimes have larger screens because of the dispute over closing distribution ‘windows’. This does mean it is also available on Curzon’s VOD service, but you’ll need a quality home cinema system to do it justice. The film did tour various independent venues in May with both 35mm screenings and a Q&A with the director. It is showing at The Hyde Park in Leeds today and again on July 14. It is also showing at the Showroom in Sheffield and still on at HOME. Don’t miss it. The trailer doesn’t give away spoilers but it shows some of the sumptuous camerawork.

Phantom Lady (US 1944)

I think I must have first seen Phantom Lady on TV in the 1970s. In those days my TV screen was small and all I remember from that first viewing was a bar, high heels clacking on the dark streets and Elisha Cook. Everyone knew poor Elisha would never make it to the last reel in any of the dozens of films in which he appeared and he certainly didn’t in this one – he’s also playing a drummer in a jazz group! Other than that and that the film was directed by Robert Siodmak, the director of that remarkable German film Menschen am Sonntag (1930), I could remember nothing. My recent viewing via MUBI proved to be a revelation on a larger TV screen in HD it sets up a whole range of interesting questions as well as providing much visual pleasure.

The ‘phantom lady’, Ann Terry (Fay Helm) with Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) in the opening scenes

Elisha Cook as the drummer, the first witness

Phantom Lady is an adaptation of a ‘breakthrough’ novel by Cornell Woolrich published under his cover name ‘William Irish’. Woolrich was immensely prolific and IMDb lists 42 film titles based on his stories and novels. He’s best known as the writer of the short story that became Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and for the stories adapted for Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969). He’s also known as one of the key sources for Hollywood films noirs of the 1940s alongside Hammett, Chandler and James M. Cain. After watching the film I looked up two detailed studies of the film, one by Michael Walker in an essay simply titled ‘Robert Siodmak’ in the MovieBook of Film Noir (ed. Ian Cameron, 1981) and the other, ‘Strange Pursuit: Cornell Woolrich and the abandoned city of the Forties’ by David Reid and Jayne L. Walker in Shades of Noir edited by Joan Copjec (Verso 1993). One of the most important revelations of these two pieces is that Woolrich wrote in such detail about scenes that Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell with art directors Robert Clatworthy and John B. Goodman were able to form very clear ideas about how to put them on screen. The narrative is set in New York City but filmed on Universal Studio lots in Los Angeles which are used to conjure up streets very effectively. There is definitely a feel of German Expressionist Cinema about them.

Two shots of the studio sets as Kansas’ (Ella Raines) tails the witnesses. This one is from DVD Beaver’s Blu-ray review

As Walker points out, the narrative structure is clearly defined in three sections. In the first a professional engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) visits a bar feeling depressed and buys a drink for a woman who seems similarly down. He persuades her to join him at a variety show as he has two tickets. At the end of the evening they part and she leaves him without revealing her name. When Scott returns home expecting to find his wife with whom he quarrelled earlier, he finds her dead and a trio of police detectives waiting for him. He believes the ‘phantom lady’ will provide him with an alibi, but although she was wearing a very distinctive hat, none of the obvious witnesses remembers her with Scott. He is arrested and later convicted. In the second section one of Scott’s employees (her role in his office is not clear), Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman (Ella Raines), is convinced that he is innocent and sets out to find the ‘phantom lady’. But the witnesses she questions tend to disappear. At the end of this section she meets Scott’s close friend Marlow (Franchot Tone) back from South America and in the third section she and Marlow seek the final witness, the ‘phantom lady’ herself. They are supported by Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) who by this stage believes that Scott Henderson may have been framed. In between each section, a bridging scene sees Kansas visiting Scott in prison awaiting execution. It’s apparent that she is in love with him. There is a clear resolution to the narrative with a ‘happy ending’ – something which many viewers find banal after the mystery/suspense twists and the look and feel of the film overall.

The ‘bridging’ narrative in which Kansas visits Henderson in prison

Kansas, picked out by the light, is determined to break the barman’s testimony

Kansas, as played by the wonderful Ella Raines, is an unusual female lead. She acts something like a femme fatale at one point in order to get information off a witness. Towards the end of the film she needs to be rescued, but for much of the film she is an intelligent and resourceful investigator. Although her role in Henderson’s business is never clearly defined, she is a professional office worker and independent woman – unfortunately rare in Hollywood narratives of the 1940s. Ella Raines had a film career which was probably not that unusual for talented and attractive young women in the mid 1940s. She was ‘discovered’ in a drama school stage production by Howard Hawks and put into The Nelson Touch (Corvette K-225 in the US) in 1943. Over the next few years, she appeared in several films, usually in the lead film role and opposite major male stars such as Randolph Scott, John Wayne and Charles Laughton and directed by name directors. She made three films in all for Robert Siodmak, two for Preston Sturges and Brute Force (1947) for Jules Dassin. But after 1950 her film career petered out and she moved into television. She virtually retired from film and TV aged just 36. I had always thought of her as a B picture player, but her films were, I now discover, A features. Robert Siodmak didn’t suffer the same fate and I’m going to dig out some more of his work.

Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez), Kansas and Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) now back from South America