The Homesman (France-US 2014)

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank on the trail (the three women are sleeping under the blankets).

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank on the trail (the three women are sleeping under the blankets).

I missed this on release so I was pleased to catch a showing by my local film club in Keighley’s Picture House. I love Westerns and this is a good one. It is another of the current crop of ‘international’ productions and it did seem odd to see ‘Luc Besson’ in the credits as producer for his Europa company. The French connection helped the film to get a place in the Cannes Palme d’Or line-up in 2014 but it doesn’t seem to have gone down too well in the US. This is a surprise since Tommy Lee Jones is a major figure in American cinema and his previous (modern) Western directorial credit for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) was very well received.

The Homesman has a good pedigree, being an adaptation of a novel by Glendon Swarthout whose other great Western novel was adapted as The Shootist (1976) with Don Siegel directing John Wayne for his last film. This new film is an ‘early Western’ – set in the 1850s before the Civil War and involves a perilous journey through the Nebraska ‘territory’ and across the Missouri River into the state of Iowa. It falls to a ‘spinster farmer’ (she’s all of 31!) to transport three women who have become mentally ill (because of the deprivations of the settler’s life) to possible recovery in the East. It is a daunting prospect so Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) hires (‘dragoons’?) a drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones to help her. In a way this is a miniature Wagon Master (US 1950) in reverse and because of its female leadership it’s also connected to Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010).

Jones certainly took a lot on to make the film, co-writing the script, directing and co-starring. He comes out of the production very well. The relative failure of the film with audiences seems to hinge specifically on a shocking turn/twist in the narrative about two-thirds through. I too found this shocking but I think there were enough narrative cues – revealed story data if you like – to make this event credible. Apart from this the narrative up to this point was harrowing and perhaps too ‘real’ for mainstream audiences. The ending of the film is also not conventional and may fail to satisfy some audiences. Surprisingly there are some anachronisms in the production design and the script suggesting that Jones was more interested in the look of the film than historical accuracy, But then, when you have a cinematographer as gifted as Rodrigo Prieto (responsible for Brokeback Mountain‘s wonderful landscapes) it’s tempting to just let him rip. The film does indeed look very good and the whole cast is excellent. I must pick out Hilary Swank – she would have got my vote for an Oscar ahead of Julianne Moore – and in the supporting cast the Danish actress Sonja Richter produces the most dramatic representation of anguish in her portrayal of one of the three women.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) with her washboard – keeping up appearances on the plains.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) with her washboard – keeping up appearances on the plains.

This is a ‘revisionist Western’ (cf the recent ‘traditional’ Western, The Salvation). The revision here is concerned with the ‘myth’ of the West and modes of representation. Jones makes a number of aesthetic choices which on the one hand appear highly stylised and at one point almost surreal, but which at the same time refer to aspects of the ‘real’ West not explored in many Hollywood Westerns. So, for instance, the journey across Nebraska was actually shot  in North-East New Mexico on a plain that is in effect a continuation of similar landscapes over the border with Nebraska. But this real location is made mysterious in the snow and wind – when Mary Bee loses her way on horseback and appears to be circling the same spot. The terrain is so featureless that it becomes almost an abstract space and the experience of passing through it is dreamlike. Later on a solitary building appears on the plain, almost like an oasis. It is a kind of show house for speculators hoping to ‘open up’ and exploit the potential of the territory. During the final sequence the action switches across the river and there is a palpable sense of shock that a town could be so ‘civilised’ and behaviour so decorous. The Missouri River literally becomes the ‘frontier’ between the ‘garden civilisation of the East and the ‘desert’ of the West.

The film has only recently appeared on DVD in the UK and my advice is not to miss it. This is a serious and ‘grown-up’ Western – a new approach to a fine tradition. But it isn’t what was once called a “shoot-em-up”. Most of all it’s a Western in which women are not required to be only the schoolmarm or the bar girl. You’ll have to decide whether representing the strong character of the lone female farmer and the mental illness of farmers’ wives is progressive or not.

Notes on Screen Acting: Jessica Chastain

Screen acting and 'less is more' control:  Chastain in 'Zero Dark Thirty' (2012)

Screen acting and ‘less is more’ control: Chastain in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012)

Jessica Chastain was recently voted MVP by Broadcast Film Critics’ Association and received the award at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards Ceremony in January 2015.  It is the first time this award has been given. Chastain was chosen because of the diversity of screen acting work she has achieved in 2014, namely Miss Julie, the directorial debut of Liv Ullmann; her work on The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (in which she acts, but she also contributed to the writing); supporting roles in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. 

Chastain took the opportunity to deflect the award to her collaborators.  She used the rest of her time, on Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday and in the face of the (then) current controversy about Selma and its lack of Oscar nominations, to quote King and ask for a time of ‘speaking up’ when injustice is seen. Chastain is an actor who does not feel she has to conform to the expectations of her industry, particularly those demanded of female actresses. You can see the whole speech here.

I first saw her alongside Michael Shannon in Take Shelter (2011), a post 9/11 examination of American sense of insecurity and paranoia written and directed by Jeff Nichols (who went on to greater visibility with Mud (2012)). It’s an eerie and unsettling film, in which Chastain had to be reactive to Shannon’s character’s increasingly erratic behaviour and to embody her character’s uncertainty even as she challenges his belief in a coming apocalyptic storm.  It showed that Chastain, who has strong, well-defined as well as a beautiful face, could be the emotional centre in the scene without having to dominate it. This is a quality she brought to Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life (2011) in which Chastain (alongside Brad Pitt) had to both be symbols – ‘mother’ or ‘father’ – in this epic (Kubrickian) examination of love and family and a believable, emotional presence. Mallick’s famous control as a director, moving them around within a frame, can lead to an underestimation of what those actors are actively doing to contribute to the overall poetic force of non-conventional cinema. Robert Bresson famously controlled actors’ movement as part of his highly aestheticised approach. Mallick’s use of improvisation – as I remember the butterfly moment (included in the trailer) is one example in The Tree Of Life – shows the freedom and responsibility performers have to understand and direct the action on screen by moving and embodying what they believe the director is trying to achieve.

Chastain is worthy of attention for her screen acting because she is so versatile, encompassing a number of styles for different genres and directors. She has worked in television and theatre, including playing in Wilde’s Salome with Al Pacino, of which a documentary was made. She works on the minutiae – any screen actor such as Michael Fassbender featured earlier on this blog takes on this kind of detail – in order to bring a character into some reality.  Chastain, though, distinctly separates herself from the idea of ‘The Method’ which she alludes to here, in a Variety-sponsored discussion between actors here.  Her comments call to mind Laurence Olivier’s (apocryphal) exhortation to Dustin Hoffman as the latter suffered for his art on Marathon Man (1976): ‘Try acting, dear boy.’  Acting, for Chastain, is a matter of working together in an area of trust and skill (not the self-absorption that ‘living’ the part demands).

She has, despite this visibility, a tremendous understanding of the kind of restraint that is necessary onscreen to communicate a character who has an inner life, as well as an outer expression. Her second Oscar-nominated performance was for Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA operative who moves to be at the centre of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  Chastain, working with Kathryn Bigelow as director, seems to recognise that playing this woman has to negotiate the stereotypical gender expectations with a greater finesse than just challenging them head-on. As Maya, the key CIA agent in the search for Osama Bin Laden, she has to embody a character who is strong, analytical, determined and fixated.  The gender of the character is significant since these qualities have a greater impact as held by a female rather than a male character. However, if Maya were represented as a driven, emotionless being then no audience could ultimately relate and empathise with her search.

A brief analysis of the film’s opening scene shows how Chastain balances a lot of these conflicting needs even when she has little to say or do onscreen. Zero Dark Thirty became a very controversial film in its depiction of torture.  This sequence features the torture by the CIA operatives of a prisoner, it is possible to see how Chastain controls her physical movements in the frame. As we watch, we’re not sure which way this woman will go as regards the torture happening in front of her. This has to be conveyed through very short phrases of dialogue and by small physical gestures. The film opens in the prisoner’s cell and then creates a ‘reveal’ as she takes off a suit outside to show she is, as Dan (Jason Clarke) says, ‘rocking her best suit’ for her first interrogation. The dialogue suggests Maya is the ingénue. As she replies ‘I’m fine’ in an emotionless tone, her body language acts contrapuntally to that statement (main picture above). Chastain also has to work within her placement in the frame (see screen grab below). In the sequence outside, Clarke has all the movement in the frame – crossing in front of Chastain, who is relatively still. In the interrogation room, Clarke and Reda Kateb (the prisoner, Ammar) are in the foreground and frequently shot in medium close up. Clarke and Kateb do a different, difficult acting job working in a much higher emotional register.  Chastain stands in the background of the frame or is shown in a cutaway. (Although, importantly, Bigelow and DP Greig Fraser light her in a warm glow whilst leaving Clark’s face in ambiguous shadow).

Chastain:  'Zero Dark Thirty' - small gestures in frame background.

Chastain: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ – small gestures in frame background.

Chastain builds a picture of a woman who is both determined to make a difference and quite prepared to take part (without a mask) but someone who recoils at the brutality and violence. The cutaway (below) shows her swallowing hard as the interrogation intensifies and she demonstrates her discomfort by averting her eyes with an involuntary movement. The early ambiguity is important since it will playback later in the film – when Maya takes greater charge in a similar situation and when certain events have a strong emotional impact on her.  The groundwork for a complex character has been laid immediately.

Chastain as Maya - swallowing back her responses.

Chastain as Maya – swallowing back her responses.

Chastain, as a female actor, has achieved – and suffered – great visibility. In looking for the Critics Award film again, I found a number of celebrity reports of it, including this critique of her dress entitled: “At least her hair looks good! Jessica Chastain misses the mark in white Asian-inspired frock as she receives MVP honour at Critics’ Choice Awards.” She has also resisted the cat fight that the media wished to inflame between her and Jennifer Lawrence when they were both Oscar-nominated in 2013. Chastain wrote on her Facebook page, in response to these media reports, “I find it very sad that the media makes up bogus stories about women fighting in this industry.  Filming The Help [her first Oscar-nominated role] was the most amazing experience and yet, that is the film I’m most asked about in regards to ‘fighting on set’. Why do we support the myth that women are competitive and cannot get along?” Chastain seems unafraid to have her own opinions and to see social media as an outlet for her own (unmediated) views, a feature which became quickly unusual for celebrity accounts in these times of self-branding.

This is significant, since certain kinds of star image and publicity can blight an actor’s ability to do good work and inhabit characters fully onscreen.  What are the models for Chastain’s future career? Here, she discusses her influences and her experiences and is clearly in thrall to the art of filmmaking and has humility in understanding her role within that (see this interview). She is a visible star, but like Julianne Moore (for example) she still seems to have the ability to be credible as a particular type of person, more ordinary than extraordinary. Last year’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is an experiment in narrative structure, credited to Ned Benson (although an article I have read that Chastain was strongly involved in the writing process) which tells the story of a relationship breakdown from two perspectives. It was produced as two films – Him and Her.  It has had very limited release so far (not in the UK, except at the London Film Festival) and is on European DVD as Them, a film recut out of the first two. In each, Chastain and James McAvoy play the character and then the other character’s perspective of themselves, an opportunity as Chastain says to play different nuances on the same person. The trailer gives some indication of how, in altering from ‘her’ perspective to ‘his’ it is a question of changing small gestures to infer a different emotion. It’s not had strong reviews (and they contain huge spoilers, in case you want to avoid these). However, the New York Times review ends with this strong endorsement of Chastain, despite its misgivings about the film:

She is an actress who short-circuits conventional distinctions between tough and vulnerable, showing exquisite control even when her character is losing it, and keeping her balance even when the movie pitches and rolls toward melodrama.

The Falling (UK 2014)

Female frustration

Female frustration

I recommend going to see this film even though I was ultimately disappointed by it and there’s plenty of spoilers following so beware.

A film about females is a rare event in our Oedipal-riddled world and so The Falling immediately has novelty going for it; it is written and directed by Carol Morley and brilliantly shot by Agnes Godard. It draws upon a true story of fainting girls in a school in the late 1960s; nothing was found to be wrong with them. I experienced similar ‘fits’ in my first year of teaching when up to three lasses would keel over in the middle of my English class. Being male I didn’t attribute this to my teaching.

Morley indirectly diagnoses their complaint to be patriarchy; of course it didn’t need the late ’60s setting for females to be suffering from that disease however things were worse then. It focuses on the friendship between Abbie (newcomer Florence Pugh, on the left above) and Lydia (Maisie Williams familiar from Game of Thrones); the former’s sexual experiences unsettle their relationship. They are at a girls’ school full of repression, exemplified by Greta Scacchi’s Miss Mantel; a great piece of casting as Scacchi was known for libidinous roles earlier in her career. The acting is fabulous throughout the film.

Morley’s previous feature was the effective dramadoc Dreams of a Life (UK-Ireland 2011) which recreated the life of a woman whose body was found years after it had expired in a London flat. The Falling is extremely ambitious and there is so much to like: its obtuse take on nature, the brooding tree and autumnal pond; the inclusion of rapidly edited ‘subliminal’ montages that might be flashbacks; the male voice of the therapist questioning the girls is mixed  to feel as though it’s emanating from your own head (emphasising the hegemony of patriarchy); Maxine Peake, who plays Lydia’s mother, barely has a line but conveys pent-up frustration with the quivering fag in her fingers. All this is brilliant but . . .

For me it didn’t hang together. It could be the film needs a second viewing but I think the incest was pointless and detracted from the representation of repressed females through sensationalism and pathologising the protagonist. I’ve tagged the film as horror though it’s certainly not conventionally horrific; it’s only toward the end the genre makes its presence felt. It might have been better if horror iconography had been introduced earlier. Incidentally, the credit sequence at the end is terrifically designed.

As I said, it is a film that needs seeing because it deals with female experience and too many of western narratives (and those of other cultures) assume the male experience is paramount. Hopefully Morley will get to make another film soon; too many of our great female directors (Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold for example) struggle to get their films made. Maybe in the next one Morley will be able to more successfully integrate form and content. If this sounds critical then I am being unfair as it is far from shameful to ‘fail’ (if that’s what she has done) when aiming so high. I’m interested in what female viewers make of the film . . .

Films by Allan Sekula, Noël Burch & Peter Hutton.

forgotten-space

This was a Pavilion event presented at the Hyde Park Picture House. Pavilion events are always interesting and offer disitntive areas of contemporary and recent cinema and culture. This was the case on this occasion with a feature length documentary and two experimental films addressing

The poetic potential of river and sea…

The documentary by Peter Sekula was The Forgotten Space (2010). This was lengthy and complex film and I feel the need to give it lengthy consideration: so these are brief introductory comments to which I will probably return. We had introductions from Will Rose and Gill Parks. Sekula worked at the University of California and was interested in both photography and film. He was described as a critical realist, a term which sets him off from those who saw photography as a ‘high art’ exercise. His collaborator Noël Burch is better known for his critical writings on film, but he has also been involved in other films, usually with an eye to avant garde techniques.

The film

‘approaches the sea as a crucial site within capitalism’s global supply chain.

And the central motif is the container ship. We see numerous examples of this technology at seas and at various sites of arrival/departure in North America, Europe and South East Asia. There is a major port facility alongside Los Angeles: Antwerp is a major port for the European Community. And Hong Kong, both under British colonialism and now as part of modern China, is another key site.

The film looks at the development of the technology and it impact on the global organisation of capitalist production and distribution. It pays equal attention to impact on the working classes and the value of their labour power. And there is attention to the impact on communities both immediately affected by this technology and the wider cultural impacts. We hear interviews with representatives of the industries, of the workers, of the communities which home them, and analysts who study the industries.

The film develops an accumulating understanding of the immediate and more distant effects. The plotting constantly returns to this central technology, but this intercuts with particular examples: including the displacements of people in Europe, in California and across the Asian mainland and archipelagos.

In line with Sekula’s stance on ‘style’ for much of the time the images and sounds present their subjects and objects without drawing attention to themselves. But at key moments rather more unconventional techniques draw attention to the texture of the film and to the contradictions therein. Thus at one point studying effects around Antwerp the commentary offers the ‘discussions’ surrounding the displacement of a town and community, whilst an edit brings visual attention to police in riot gear. At another point as the camera pans across a landscape to the sounds of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, both sound and image are disrupted by a passing of a speeding train. At various points there are also shots in slow motion, speeded up shots, jump cuts and overlapping sound. All these techniques reminded me of some used in earlier films involving Noël Birch. And at another point shots of a line of trains are reminiscent of the films of James Benning: but whilst a boy’s voice counts the trains a series of wipes bring an effective disruption.

At other points there are some visually impressive camera shots: one a series of images taken across modern Hong Kong, using the reflections of doors and windows. The other, close to the end, offers a series of vistas around a ‘golden’ Guggenheim Museum erected in Bilbao.

Whist the films uses a range of locations and [presumably] filming it also uses extracts from recognisable features. Two of these, Michael Powell’s Red Ensign and Robert Aldrich Kiss Me deadly are cropped to fit the 1.85:1 frame. However, a separate extract from Joseph von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York is in the correct 1.33:1. This is odd and rather unsatisfactory.

As you might guess from some of the terms above, the film is informed by the seminal analysis of capitalism by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, though neither gets an actual reference. There are however a number of phrases which are immediately familiar: the container

‘contains the seeds of its own destruction.’

This is very effective but the analysis does not use the full range of Marxist concepts. Two important points are not presented: the actual nature of the value of labour power and the declining rate of profits. Of course, the analysis of Marx and Engels is long and complex. Even so, both of these points are essential to an understanding of the recent global crisis, which the film does reference.

The programme then screened two films by Peter Hutton, a cinematic artist working in North America. These are some way from the form of Sekula’s film. Shot and presented on 16 mm the films offer a series of shots and sequences of the Hudson River in New York State. These fit into a recognisable pattern of aesthetically orientated and independent filmmaking. At various points there are parallels with the work of Stan Brakhage and James Benning. However, Hutton has his own preferred tropes and thematic interests. The shots are discrete and at some points similar to the tropes of film roman. At times the shots are ethereal and beautiful but one also senses a social comment beyond the objects in some of the placements and sequencing.

Study of a River (1997) is in black and white and runs for 16 minutes. Time and Tide (2000) is in both black and white and colour, and runs for 35 minutes. The latter film has a series of shots through the portholes of a barge. These are especially evocative. Recurring shots of a particular scape or building, like a power station, suggest further reflection.

1293630824176_study_of_a_river

Time and Tide also uses film shot by the veteran pioneer cinematographer Billy Bitzer in 1903. I had, happily, seen this footage before at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Bitzer famously was cinematographer for D. W. Griffith, both on the early one and two-reelers at Biograph and the later feature films. I was intrigued when a shot followed of ice flows in the Hudson River: was this a subtle reference to Way Down East (1920)?

The whole programme provided both a challenging and thought provoking essay and a more aesthetic, almost dreamy film reverie. However, Hutton is not merely the aesthete criticised by Sekula. All three films provided both stimulation and cinematic pleasures.