The First Film (UK 2015)

Louis Le Prince

Louis Le Prince

This is a new study of Louis Le Prince, who in 1888 shot three short sequences of film in Leeds in West Yorkshire. Two were filmed in a garden in the Roundhay suburb and one on the Leeds Bridge in the City Centre. Le Prince designed and constructed his own camera. He used a paper strip combined with cellulose. At the time he was also working to use the new celluloid material and it seems he had also solved the problem of projecting his film. These films precede the far more famous Thomas Edison in New York and the Lumière Brothers in Paris. Yet Le Prince is far less well known than the other pioneers of cinema.

The director, David Nicolas Wilkinson, wants to change this and give Le Prince [and Leeds} their proper place in the early history of film and cinema. His film provides a biography of Le Prince and a study of the technology and techniques he developed and the short films that he made. The film also addresses the fact that he only made these three films – a mystery surrounds the failure to follow on his pioneering work. The mystery is also investigated in the new study.

The area does offer memorabilia to Le Prince: there are blue plaques on Leeds Bridge and alongside the old BBC building where Le Prince had a workshop. Both the Armley Industrial Museum and the National Media Museum have displays about Le Prince and the Museum has a series on on-line pages.

The film itself has a Charity première at the Hyde Park Picture House, another historical film site, on Wednesday July 1st at 8 p.m. The event will include a presentation on Le Prince, examples of early film technology on display: and the added bonus of a DVD and the seminal book on Made In Yorkshire [by Tony Earnshaw and Jim Moran]. I suspect the event will sell out quickly, recognition that seems to have eluded Le Prince in his own lifetime. There is another screening at the National Media Museum on July 2nd at 6.30 p.m.

The Missouri Breaks (US 1976)

Kathleen Lloyd and Jack Nicholson in THE MISSOURI BREAKS

Kathleen Lloyd and Jack Nicholson in THE MISSOURI BREAKS

The latest ‘Matinee Classic’ at HOME in Manchester is the 1976 Western The Missouri Breaks. It has been programmed as part of a mini-season of offbeat Westerns to accompany the release of Slow West, the new film by John Maclean shot in New Zealand and Scotland and starring Michael Fassbender.

The ‘Missouri Breaks’ are the clefts in the landscape gouged out by the Missouri river in Montana close to the Canadian border. In the late 1880s this is the setting for a ‘twilight Western’ featuring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson and directed by Arthur Penn. The film was both a commercial and critical flop in 1976 – partly because of the hype which surrounded the casting of two of the period’s major stars, each of whom earned a hefty fee and a cut of the gross once box office passed $10 million. Researching it now I see that Western film scholars such as Ed Buscombe and Phil Hardy rated the film highly and watching it again, nearly 40 years after I first saw it, I can see why.

The Missouri Breaks is both a ‘twilight film’ because the 1970s was the last decade of regular Western production and because its setting is the in the twilight of the ‘real’ Western frontier. The films of this period are all revisionist of the early certainties of the genre – more realist, more violent, more reflexive, more questioning. In this particular case the narrative also veers towards comedy, while maintaining the violence and sense of loss for the passing of an era. The overall ‘feel’ of the film comes from the novelist Thomas McGuane who wrote three screenplays in the 1970s as well as adapting one of his own novels and directing it himself. McGuane grew up in Michigan but moved to Montana in 1968 and his three Western screenplays all feature the same three characters locked in a deadly game – a rancher, a rustler and a detective or ‘regulator’. I loved Rancho Deluxe (1975) at the time with Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston as the rustlers and Slim Pickens as the detective but was less taken by the biopic/drama Tom Horn (1981) with Steve McQueen as the regulator. The Missouri Breaks is arguably a more complex character study than either of those two films. Nicholson is the leader of a group of horse thieves and Brando (with a wandering accent) is Robert E. Lee Clayton, a notorious regulator brought in by rancher Braxton (John McLiam).

The film’s central theme is often seen in the twilight Western – the closing of the frontier and the pretensions of the cattle barons before Eastern capital comes in to take over. Montana was one of the last territories to be formally constituted as a state in 1889 when the ‘basic legal structure’ of the territory became more organised. Up until that point the newly powerful cattle barons like Braxton were able to dispense summary ‘justice’ (at least in the mythology of the Western). The Missouri Breaks thus begins with a hanging/lynching of a rustler carried out by Braxton’s men as a public event with picnicking women and children – some of them ‘sporting women’ according to the dialogue. Braxton justifies his action – an execution without trial – on the basis of the high percentage loss of cattle to rustling. He sits in his library surrounded by his works of ‘English literature’ like a country gentleman. Yet the northern trans-continental railway had already seen the final spike hammered in by President Grant in Montana in 1883. A train robbery features later in the film. The railway would both increase the efficiency of cattle transportation and bring in more aspects of East Coast culture. Braxton is already at the start of the film a ‘doomed man’ in terms of his business empire and his de facto judicial authority. This is the theme that is expanded in Heaven’s Gate (1980) perhaps the film that most clearly signalled the ‘end of the Western’ for Hollywood.

But The Missouri Breaks is arguably more interested in the personal stories of Braxton, his daughter, the horse thieves and the regulator. One of the elements in many twilight Westerns is the presence of two, usually male, characters who embody in some way the Western hero, the cowboy figure. It seems obvious to identify the film’s two stars as playing these characters from the twilight Western (though Harry Dean Stanton’s character is perhaps closer to the generic character). The point of these two characters is that they will have some kind of relationship and that through this they will define themselves in some way in relation to the ‘end of the West’. A classic example of this is in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) in which Garrett has accepted his fate and sided with the cattle interests whereas Billy feels that he has to remain an outlaw. In The Missouri Breaks, Brando’s character is so attached to his ‘job’ as a regulator that eventually he will pursue the rustlers even though Braxton attempts to end his contract. By contrast, Nicholson’s character, Tom Logan, shows every sign of adaptability in developing new relationships and new interests. The regulator will soon be replaced not just by local sheriffs and courts but also by private agencies like the Pinkertons (Logan warns that robbing trains will bring in the Pinkertons, employed by the railroad). Another clue to this historical change is the sequence in which the horse thieves cross the border into Canada – and are pursued by the North West Mounted Police, in some ways a more ‘modern’ law enforcement agency than what was in operation in Montana.

For me the most enjoyable part of the film involves the romance between Logan and the rancher’s daughter, Jane, played by Kathleen Lloyd (mysteriously this was her first and last major cinema appearance). I think she is very good here and she seems to be a modern woman in many ways – resisting her father, taking something of a lead in seducing Nicholson (in a couple of enjoyably complex sequences) and ending the narrative confident and assertive. She quotes Samuel Johnson and utters the immortal line for a twilight Western: “Let’s just talk about the Wild West and how to get the hell out of it”. Jane is a recognisable McGuane woman, a character handled with skill by Arthur Penn. For me this is a good match between script and direction. I’m also impressed by Michael Butler’s cinematography (who had begun his career with Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick in 1973 and who had also lensed McGuane’s own 92 in the Shade, 1975). John Williams turns in a score that also worked for me. In fact, all the production credits are top notch. This is a production well worth re-visiting.

¡Viva! Mexico #2: En el último trago (One for the Road, Mexico 2014)

The three friends first take a taxi (from left, Benito, Emiliano and Augustin)

The three friends first take a taxi (from left, Benito, Emiliano and Augustin)

I knew this film was going to work from the first few minutes of the opening scene. Four men in their late 70s or older are sat round a table in a café-bar playing dominoes and squabbling. Suddenly one orders 5 shots of tequila. Consternation amongst the other three since none of them drink any more. The drinker explains that they are all for him and that he is ‘out’ – he has colon cancer and he hasn’t got long. He then makes the other three promise that they will deliver his most prized possession to its final resting place when he is gone. This object is a paper napkin on which are written the lyrics to a new song by the famous singer José Alfredo Jiménez. The lyrics are dedicated to the dying man and signed by the singer. This is indeed a historical document that is dated and in the handwriting of the star. The three survivors are charged with taking this sacred object to the museum in Dolores Hidalgo where the singer is buried – a trip of over 250 kilometres from Mexico City. That doesn’t sound very far, but these are old men with very little money.

The ‘three amigos’ are great performers, each very different, and I knew I would enjoy their company. The film was briefly introduced by Yossy Zagha Kababie, co-writer and producer (and brother of the director) who featured in a Q&A after the screening. He confirmed that all four of the old men are experienced performers from TV, theatre and film – some primarily working in comedy sketches or telenovelas but others as character actors. One of them, José Carlos Ruiz (Emiliano) has appeared in Hollywood films including Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965). Luis Bayardo (Augustin) reminded me at times of Stan Laurel with a quizzical expression and a general air of innocence.

Augustin and Emiliano meet a village 'witch' on the journey.

Augustin and Emiliano meet a village ‘witch’ on the journey.

The plot develops a road movie with a clever script that finds numerous ways of delaying the trio on their journey so that it takes several days for just one of them to reach Dolores Hidalgo and deliver the napkin. (UK readers will possibly remember a similar trip in Last Orders, UK 2001, a Fred Schepisi film based on a Graham Swift novel.) Each of the three men who start the trip has a family issue to deal with. One is a widower being forced into a nursing home by his daughter-in-law, one has a wife with dementia and one is constantly finding the ghost of his dead wife popping up and criticising him. These are universal problems for men of a certain age but the appearance of the ghost also refers us to the ways in which the film tries to connect with Mexican culture and the nostalgia for the trio in thinking about the Mexico of their youth. One of the men ‘sees’ a white horse on a couple of occasions – a reference (Yossy told us) to one of  the 1,000 songs written by Jiminéz. The men also meet a ‘witch’ and survive a dangerous premonition that involves another ghost. As one of the audience questions highlighted, the role of women in the film is quite interesting in this film about four men – the women have quite small parts but they are often characters with real ‘agency’ – assertive, organised and ‘active’. Yossy agreed that the script had tried hard to achieve this.

Yossy Zagha Kababie responds to a question from Andy Willis

Yossy Zagha Kababie responds to a question from Andy Willis

This is a genuinely funny film with laughs aplenty but also a social commentary and a moving drama. It’s a major achievement. In answering questions during a lively Q&A conducted by Andy Willis, Yossy Zagha Kababie made many revealing statements. He explained that there is a big growth in film production in Mexico, but small films (this cost just US$1.5 million) find it difficult to get screened in Mexico despite the box office boom in admissions (Mexico now rates as the fifth biggest film market in cinema admissions). Most cinemas screen American films and the 100,000 admissions for this film is a sign of success in a difficult market. He argued that as a producer with his brother they aimed to make films about Mexican culture that weren’t about drugs gangs. Comedy is popular in Mexico but mainly ‘simple’ comedy and not the character stuff as in this film. Comedy is also a harder sell to international film festival programmers. So, it’s difficult but worthwhile work that the filmmakers enjoy. The focus on music and the town of Dolores Hidalgo – one of Mexico’s official ‘Magic Towns’ with a historical role in the struggle for Independence – is part of this ‘reclaiming of Mexican culture’. I think any festival would benefit from including this film and I just wish a distribution deal was possible in Europe – it seems that a Mexican comedy like this doesn’t even travel to other Spanish language markets elsewhere in Latin America, but the Hispanic market in the US may be a taker of both DVD and TV rights? If you stumble across this film, take the plunge and you’ll have a great time.

¡Viva! Mexico #1: Hilda (Mexico 2014)

Susanna and Hilda wearing identical dresses from Oaxaca

Susanna (Verónica Langer) and Hilda (Adriana Paz) wearing identical ‘indigenous’ dresses from Oaxaca

I puzzled over this film for some time but then discovered that its script was based on a 1999 play by Marie NDyiae, the French writer with a Senegalese father. I came across her as the co-writer of White Material (France-Cameroon 2009) directed by Claire Denis. This revelation didn’t explain everything but it did confirm the European ingredients in the narrative mix and the politics of race and class. During the screening I couldn’t help thinking about Luis Buñuel and some of his Mexican as well as his Spanish films. Although the overall narrative is not Buñuelian there are certainly recognisable elements including the disruption of an upper middle-class formal dinner and the whole concept of relationships between ‘masters’ and ‘servants’. That said there is also a distinct Latin American interest in ‘the maid’. I remember a Bolivian film Zona Sur (South District, Bolivia 2009) and La Nana (The Maid, Chile 2009).

‘Hilda’ is the name of a young woman recruited (reluctantly) as the maid/nanny for the Le Marchands, a very wealthy Mexico City family. Hilda is married to Francisco who was previously the gardener for the same family. Senora Le Marchand has a hold over Francisco to whom she has lent money to buy a house. He is now in the process of paying back these loans – which gives the Senora leverage to coerce his wife into the maid’s job. Senora Le Marchand (Susanna) is a woman in her 60s and the nanny role refers to her grandson. Her son has returned from America with his wife and child. Meanwhile Senor Le Marchand is in cahoots with the local police chief and is attempting to acquire an American business partner in order to expand his manufacturing business. He ignores and humiliates his wife (he gives her a new passport in which she is described as a housewife and a high school graduate). In fact she was at university in 1968 and she joined the radical students. Later she became a charity organiser. Now she is feeling nostalgic for those days and increasingly alienated from her husband. When she is asked for an interview about her 1968 activities by current students she becomes obsessed with her memories. She has always tried to be ‘fair’ to her servants and to include them ‘in the family’. But this time she becomes obsessed with Hilda – the maid works hard and is very efficient but displays no emotion until Susanna forces her to become enthusiastic and ‘passionate’. But Susanna gradually becomes ever more obsessive and we realise that she is out of control . . .

The film’s writer and director, Andres Clariond has explained that the film is a response to the great inequalities of Mexican society based on wealth, social class and ethnicity. Many of the Mexican films that make it into international distribution use the same themes to some extent. Y tu mamá también, for example makes some of the same points and La Zona emphasises the increasing alienation caused by the rise of gated communities and the security guard culture. Indeed the setting for the action rarely steps outside the Le Marchand house in which Hilda is virtually a prisoner. The film is presented in CinemaScope and I did wonder if we were heading for a full-blown family melodrama. That doesn’t really develop and instead we get more of a psychological study of Susanna, a woman who is representative of those ‘children of Marx and Coca-Cola’ (as Godard once put it) who have reached their 60s and begun to wonder what exactly they’ve achieved. By contrast we never learn that much about Hilda. Veteran actor Verónica Langer as Susanna and Adrianna Paz as Hilda do well with the script they have been given but my impression was that there was something missing – perhaps this is because of the opening out of a play? I felt that the climactic section of the narrative developed too quickly and at only 89 minutes I wondered if something had been left out. There is a sub-plot about the son of the Le Marchand family as well as the impact of his father’s attempt to join up with American business. These narrative threads add to the overall structure but don’t completely mesh with the Susanna-Hilda story. Even so, the film worked for me, offering a mix of political satire, social commentary and psychological study.