Red Tails (US 2012)

David Olewoyo as Joe 'Lightning' Little

David Olewoyo as Joe ‘Lightning’ Little

This played on BBC2. I missed it on its very brief appearance in UK cinemas. The two observations that spring immediately to mind are firstly that it is a story that deserves a big mainstream film release and secondly that what actually appears in the film is something of an insult to the talent on screen and the audience watching. The ‘Red Tails’ were a substantial group of African-American fighter pilots who formed the 332nd Fighter Group in WWII. In the context of the Jim Crow laws in the US at the time and the segregated American armed forces these pilots were extremely successful, especially in their role of escorting daylight raids on Germany by American heavy bombers. The ‘Red Tails’ were those painted on the tail fins of the P51 Mustangs they used on bomber escort duty.

The pilots involved were all trained at Tuskegee Alabama and aspects of their story and related stories have been covered in an HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen (1995) and various documentaries and independent productions. In 1988 George Lucas started thinking about an epic three hour film that would tell the story complete with detailed action sequences of the air war in Europe. Lucas appears to have been sincere in his attempts to put the story on the screen and to draw on the knowledge of surviving members of the group. However, in the long process of getting the project into production several dubious decisions were taken. The result is a two hour film that focuses mainly on the CGI/green screen dogfight scenes (remarkably similar in their choreography to the dogfights in Star Wars). Most of the ‘back story’ about the experiences of the men in training and their interaction with white officers and airmen is left out. And, as Film Comment‘s reviewer Ina Diane Archer (daughter of one of the surviving airmen) points out, there is nothing about the families at home or the African-Americans who followed the exploits of the airmen in the US media. There are one or two lines of dialogue that convey the backgrounds of individual flyers (the pilots were mainly officers with college degrees or professional training), but in the most part the dialogue doesn’t expand far beyond banter and war-whoops.

The film’s director is listed as Anthony Hemingway, an experienced TV director, but many commentators suspect that Lucas himself is responsible for the action scenes. The tragedy is that the film has a stellar cast with Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the senior officers and David Oyelowo as the most glamorous ‘ace’ pilot. Howard’s character has to deal with the racist postures of the top military and Oyelowo gets the romance with a beautiful Italian girl. The main setting is an Italian air base which at times reminded me of Mike Nichols’ Catch-22. Unfortunately there is nothing of either the absurdist satire or the psychological depth of that film in Red Tails.

It’s generally agreed that the action scenes in the film are exciting – but I also find them ludicrous. It’s partly a fault of the script by John Ridley (who scripted 12 Years a Slave) and partly the other-worldliness of the digital creation. It does a disservice to brave airmen to depict them as so successful immediately. They are highly trained but have no experience of combat – yet they easily out-manoeuvre German fighter pilots who are veterans. This a film where bombers and fighters fly in tight formations of equal spacing through clear blue skies as if in a manga or anime presentation. The damage to American aircraft and the loss of pilots is minimal compared to the total devastation they cause on German airfields, trains and shipping as well as in the air. The ‘real’ results for the 332nd were impressive but the exaggerations here diminish those achievements.

Rather than watch this film, I recommend the Spike Lee film The Miracle at St Anna (2008) and Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story 1984. These are films about African-Americans in the US Army (rather than USAF) in World War II, but they deal with the realities of the war-time experience that are missing in Red Tails. The CGI aircraft catch fire, explode etc. in dramatic fashion in Red Tails but I don’t believe a frame of it. I think I prefer the realism and pathos of David Niven in a burning Lancaster bomber limping home to the UK in A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven, UK 1946).

The Duke of Burgundy (UK-Hungary 2014)

Sidse Babett Knudsen as the 'mistress' Cynthia and Chiara D'Anna as Evelyn the 'maid'.

Sidse Babett Knudsen as the ‘mistress’ Cynthia and Chiara D’Anna as Evelyn the ‘maid’.

As Rona said after the screening: “This will divide audiences”. I agree but it’s interesting to conjecture why. On the one hand, the film’s references are very obscure if you are a) under 45, b) not interested in European exploitation films c) unaware of what happens in D/S relationships. On the other hand, most intelligent audiences will recognise that this film is a) beautifully made and b) a humanist love story. My hat is off to all concerned from writer/director Peter Strickland to the ‘human toilet consultant’ listed in the credits and everyone else in between.

It helps if you have seen Strickland’s two previous remarkable films, Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio. The former was made in Hungary – and so is this new film. The latter was an attempt to explore the giallo, the Italian exploitation genre best-known in the UK via the 1970s works of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. The Duke of Burgundy riffs instead on the 1970s sexploitation films of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. If you don’t know these filmmakers I recommend Kim Newman’s Sight and Sound review.

‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is a (rare, English) butterfly and the study of insects is the only public activity in the strange community invented by Strickland – a community existing in a 1970s ‘mittel-Europe’ and made up solely of adult women. In this sense the relationships are not ‘lesbian’ as defined in majority heterosexual communities since all relationships are between women. The relationship at the centre of the narrative is between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). Fifty Shades of Grey has recently attracted huge audiences. I haven’t seen it, but from what I read in reviews, it doesn’t understand domination/submission in sexual relationships. The Duke of Burgundy gets it right. Evelyn the submissive is the real controller in this loving relationship and Cynthia tries to do what she asks until the ‘human condition’ becomes apparent and Cynthia develops a bad back. La bella Sidse proves to be a real trouper as Cynthia, wearing fetish gear that seems ugly to me but which supposedly does something for Evelyn. She has to appear as both the authority figure ‘dominant’ and the frump in comfy pyjamas and she does it movingly. Unfortunately, her English, though beautifully enunciated, occasionally has the wrong pitch or intonation. Where that worked for the Prime Minister of Denmark in Borgen, speaking English as part of international diplomacy, here only the slightest nuance is noticeable in the delicate soundscape. Perhaps it’s just me and I’m being hyper-critical?

In the UK the film has been given an 18 certificate and the BBFC ‘advice’ shown before the screening explains that this because of its ‘sexual fetish theme’. I can only assume that there is some kind of ‘health and safety’ warning implied here, perhaps concerning bondage. There is no explicit sexual activity on screen and ‘no nudity’. Despite what some reviewers imply, this is not an S&M relationship and the sexual ‘play’ is mostly off-screen. Does this mean the film isn’t erotic? Not really, much of the pleasure/arousal associated with D/S comes from the dialogue between the partners and the acting out of the assigned roles. I certainly found some scenes erotic. But the film is also very funny at times and raucous laughter emanated from the back of the cinema when some members of the audience clearly recognised the scenarios. It’s the humour that makes the film for me – or rather the delicate balance that Strickland and his collaborators achieve between eroticism, moments of humour, social observation and the emotional intensity of a genuine loving relationship.

The wonderful faux 1970s titles for the film.

The wonderful faux 1970s titles for the film.

It’s important to recognise the collaborators. Nic Knowland the cinematographer has vast experience, much of it in television and since he was working in the 1970s he certainly knows how to recreate the look. Several of the creative team have worked with Strickland before on Berberian Sound Studio and on international film and TV productions using Hungarian facilities. The music by Cat’s Eyes is excellent and evokes atmosphere well. Listen to extracts here. Overall, the look and ‘feel’ of the film reminded me of Nic Roeg’s work with a film like Don’t Look Now from 1973.

Peter Strickland’s films aren’t for everyone, but he is a unique talent to be nurtured and appreciated. Here’s a clip from The Duke of Burgundy:

The Banishment (Izgnanie, Russia 2007)

Alex (Konstantin Lavronenko) with Vera (Maria Bonnevie)  'caught' in the mirror's reflection.

Alex (Konstantin Lavronenko) with Vera (Maria Bonnevie) ‘caught’ in the mirror’s reflection.

The second film by Andrey Zvyagintsev in 2007, five years after the completion of The Return, certainly confirmed the emergence of a major filmmaker and, in its Biblical allusions (and running time), in some ways looked forward to Leviathan seven years later. Like Leviathan, its inspiration was an American story, but in this case a fictional story by William Saroyan. I don’t know how much of that story made its way into The Banishment, but it is striking that there is a balance between relatively short, sharp sequences that might be generic in their references to familiar crime/thriller/melodrama narratives and much longer introspective pieces in which landscapes and interiors come into prominence.

The story involves a couple with two small children, a boy and a girl. Alex is played by Konstantin Lavronenko (the father in The Return) and Vera by the Swedish actress Maria Bonnevie. We first see Alex in ‘the city’ tending to his brother who has been shot. The family then take the train to the isolated country house that belonged to Alex’s parents. During their time in the country it becomes clear that the marriage is under great strain. The crisis point is reached when Vera announces that she is pregnant. Alex’s reaction to her announcement becomes the trigger that ‘fires’ the rest of the narrative.

SUMMERHOURS_QUAD

As in all great cinema, the power of this film resides in the meticulous creation and manipulation of narrative time and space. Zvyagintsev spent three years trying to get exactly what he wanted in terms of locations and dressed sets. According to the interview on the DVD he found landscapes in Moldova and the city locations in Charleroi in Belgium. The sets erected in Moldova were dressed with materials from German flea markets. The intended result was to suggest an environment that is not specifically ‘Russian’ and this it certainly does. When I first saw the film I thought of Ukraine for the landscapes and the industrial centre of Sheffield for the city, so I wasn’t a million miles away. The rural location also evokes American landscapes and even specific Hollywood films. There is a cemetery on a hill-top above a church and the family home with its verandah looks out over the valley. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think your way into a Ford film or perhaps Malick’s Days of Heaven. In the DVD interview Zvyagintsev refers to the ‘American painter Andrew White’. What he then describes can only, as far as I can work out, refer to Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting of ‘Christina’s World’ (1948) which I last discussed in relation to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. The house in this painting became in the director’s words “. . . colour and texture-wise our reference point in our designs for the film”.

Wyeth's 'Christina's World'

Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’

The original Saroyan story was published in 1953 and set in California. Having created a non-specific location, Zvyagintsev also set out to create a world ‘out of time’, so though clearly updated from the 1950s, there are no indicators as to when the story is taking place. Given the thin plot for a film lasting 157 minutes, much of the narrative of the film is carried by the richness of the images, both in terms of narrative space to be explored by the viewer and also the possibilities of symbolic meanings or intertextual references embedded in the mise en scène. It is perhaps this aspect of the film which has so split critics and audiences.

The great success of The Return in 2002 built up an enormous expectation for The Banishment which was screened in competition at Cannes. The film did win the Best Actor prize for Konstantin Lavronenko but in retrospect this seems a strange award. Not that it is a bad performance, but that it doesn’t seem like the most striking aspect of the film. A good example of the critical reaction to the film when it was released in the UK can be found in Neil Young’s review from 2008:

There’s a definite sense that, in straining so hard for auteur-style greatness, Zvyagintsev has ended up merely aping the cinematic giants who have come before him – emphasising his own shortcomings in the process. But there are sufficient compensations and distractions here to suggest that he is a genuine talent – albeit one who needs a firmer editorial hand if he’s to fully maximise his considerable potential.

Young’s review is fair and the ‘cinematic giant’ he refers to is Tarkovsky. He argues that a new Russian auteur inevitably gets called the new Tarkovsky and that Zvyagintsev is in this film making the Tarkovsky gestures but not yet achieving the results. What The Banishment does for me is to send me back to Tarkovsky, a filmmaker I only know from his earlier films, determined to find out more. In the process it occurs to me that though Young’s review is quite even-handed it misses two points. First, I think it requires several viewings and some very close textual analysis to determine how Zvyagintsev’s use of interiors and landscapes matches up to Tarkovsky. Second, the critical context, the social institution of cinema – the festival structure, the veneration of certain types of cinephilia, the scholarship, the availability of DVDs etc. – has changed enormously between the appearance of Tarkovsky’s Venice-winner Ivan’s Childhood in 1962 and Zvyagintsev’s The Return in 2002. And, of course, Russian cinema is very different from how it was in the Khrushchev years of the early 1960s.

When Zvyagintsev speaks about his work he seems aggressive but possibly this also masks a defensiveness. He isn’t a trained filmmaker (instead a trained actor) and he had little experience before directing his features. He sees himself as ‘self-trained’ through exposure to those ‘cinematic giants’ whose work he watched in Moscow when acting jobs were scarce. Like many directors interviewed for festivals and DVD releases he quotes many different directors but often comes back to Bresson, Antonioni etc. Those are two directors I don’t know well so I’m probably seeing different references. I’ve recently watched Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974) and there seem to be several ‘borrowings’ and ‘celebrations’ of Tarkovsky’s image-making. For instance a key scene between husband and wife is played out amongst trees in a scene which uses a similar setting and camera techniques seen in the opening of Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. We could find other Tarkovskian moments (and the casting of Maria Bonnevie as the wife seems to evoke Tarkovsky as well). Personally, I don’t have a problem with this. Zvyagintsev, his cinematographer Mikhail Krichman and designer Andrey Ponkratov, seem in complete control of what they are doing and with the music of Andrey Dergachev and Arvo Pärt they create a melodrama of great power. I think I’ll watch it again.

This clip shows what I take to be a dream sequence heavily influenced by Tarkovsky and, according to a colleague, Antonioni. Either way it is a terrific piece of filmmaking:

Je, tu, il, elle (Belgium 1974)

'Julie' on the mattress with her 'letters' on the floor.

‘Julie’ on the mattress with her ‘letters’ on the floor.

This is the first full-length feature from Chantal Akerman, made in 1974, a year before her best-known work Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It showed in Picturehouse Cinema’s ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot last night. Much of the time I think the ‘Discover Tuesdays’ programming idea is an insult to audiences and a general excuse to show foreign language films just once. However, on this occasion it offered a genuine opportunity to see a film which would otherwise not appear in UK cinemas. The selection of Chantal Akerman films is possible because of ‘A Nos Amours’ – the partnership of Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts – who have negotiated a deal with Picturehouse. Their programme of Akerman’s films continues at the ICA.

Chantal Akerman was born in 1950 and she was only 23-24 when she made this 90 mins feature – which in itself is an outstanding feat. After just a year at a Belgian film school she left and took off for New York where she became an experimental filmmaker in the thriving New York avant-garde community. Something of American structural film of the 1970s is evident in Je, tu, il, elle, but so is something of European cinema.

Je, tu, il, elle comprises three parts of roughly equal length – that is my assumption, I didn’t time them but I suspect the first part seems longer. It features ‘Julie’ (Akerman herself) as a young woman seemingly trapped in a room where she performs four sets of routine operations – she re-arranges the furniture, writes pages of a letter which she then revises and shuffles the pages several times, she eats sugar straight from a bag in spoonfuls and dresses and undresses – often lying naked on her mattress with her clothes draped over her. Eventually someone passes by the full-length windows and she seems to want to expose herself. A little later she opens the windows and walks out. The structuralist element of this for me comes from the repetition of actions and the weird way in which eventually a kind of narrative rhythm emerges, complete with a kind of hermeneutics – what will happen in the end? What will she do next? Is there a pattern etc.? In themselves the actions are not very meaningful, but as a structure they fascinate. This section also reminds us of Godard’s play with sound an image. Akerman offers us ‘direct sound’ from the street and then she deliberately ‘mismatches’ a voiceover describing the actions with the actions themselves which happen well before or after they are described. I assumed that the voice was the director’s. It sounds like a young girl’s voice and doesn’t match the physical presentation of the mature woman.

'Julie' observes the truck driver at his ablutions.

‘Julie’ observes the truck driver at his ablutions.

The second episode, by contrast, sees ‘Julie’ hitching a ride with a truck driver (a young Niels Arestrup). I found this quite a conventional narrative sequence (at least, conventional for European art cinema). It reminded me of some of Wim Wenders’ films from the late 1960s, early 1970s – but without the pop music on the soundtrack! There is a sequence in which the driver (or Julie?) flicks through the channels on a radio which mainly seem to be American, another example of the sound/image split? The scenes in the cab and various bars do evoke an intensity and an intimacy in which it is the male character who is the subject of the gaze and who talks about himself. Julie feels like kissing him and seems quite happy with herself as she watches him shave and wash – and earlier when we barely see her at the edge of the frame as she fulfils his request for sexual relief as he drives.

In the third episode Julie visits a young woman – her friend or former lover? Her host says she can’t stay but then gives in to Julie’s demand for food and drink. Julie is aggressive in what is I think an eroticised encounter – she feeds with a lascivious voraciousness. Before long the couple are naked and making love in the sequence for which the film is best known. Like much of the rest of the film, this encounter is filmed in three or four long takes over the ten minutes or so of the whole session. The two young women are shown in long shot (so the whole body fills the frame) on the bed but not beneath the sheets. The standard viewpoint on this sequence is that Akerman has ‘de-eroticised’ the lovemaking. We hear the sounds, the grunts and exclamations, the sounds of flesh on flesh and flesh on sheets. It is too ‘real’, too ‘raw’ to be eroticised or for us to enjoy a voyeuristic gaze. I’m not sure about this. These are two attractive young women. Chantal Akerman is not conventionally beautiful perhaps but she has personality and a voluptuous figure. Her partner is more willowy. How challenged do we feel presented with their urgent sexual needs? I’m sure some audiences would be aroused by this couple’s lovemaking no matter how it was shown. Annette Foerster (see below) states that “we see only the lust and the violence of this love, and it is an uncomfortable experience”. But this is not accurate: we see moments of tenderness as well and I was moved by these.

A moment of tenderness in the midst of frenetic love-making

A moment of tenderness in the midst of frenetic love-making

I think that if I’d seen this in 1974 I would have felt ‘challenged’. Now the context has changed. It occurs to me that when I saw avant-garde and counter-cinema films in the 1970s/1980s it was usually in an academic context and so it was odd to watch Je, tu, il, elle in a commercial cinema. Taboos have also changed. The most shocking aspect of the film for me was Julie eating sugar by the spoonful – I couldn’t bear to watch it.

Researching the film after the screening I was surprised to discover that several of Chantal Akerman’s later films were released in the UK and I would be interested to see how her work developed. She clearly has been an important director for feminist audiences and scholars. Judith Mayne brackets her with Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren, Agnès Varda and Trinh T. Minh-ha in ‘Women in the Avant-garde’ (in Experimental Film, The Film Reader, Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (eds), Routledge 2002). She quotes Akerman as saying that she wouldn’t have had such a clear idea [in making Jeanne Dielman] if it wasn’t for the women’s movement. Yet in her entry on Akerman in The Women’s Companion to International Film (Annette Kuhn with Susannah Radstone (eds), Virago 1990), Annette Foerster tells us that “Akerman does not want to call herself a feminist”.

The film ends with a song that plays on on after the brief credits have rolled. This was not subtitled but from the few words I caught it sounds like some kind of commentary. Is it a children’s song, a folk tale? – I picked up ‘dancing’ and ‘the woods’ and I’m sure I know the song. Does anyone know what it says?