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The Adjustment Bureau (US 2011)

Anthony Mackie (nearest camera) and John Slattery (in focus)

I’ve been asked to run a day event on ‘dystopias’ – especially as envisaged by the American SF writer Philip K. Dick. A good excuse then to catch The Adjustment Bureau which may become my study text. It’s interesting to note that most of the films based on Dick’s work have drawn on the short stories that he wrote as a ‘pulp’ writer for various magazines in the 1950s (the exceptions are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (as Blade Runner), A Scanner Darkly and Confessions of a Crap Artist). Radio Free Albumeth is awaiting a distributor, I think. This short story focus may be because some of the early 1950s work is now in the public domain or was acquired cheaply some time ago – Dick only saw a few dollars from many of his stories.

Orbit Science Fiction was published for just five issues in 1953-4

The Adjustment Bureau is ‘freely adapted’ from a story called ‘Adjustment Team’ (written in 1953 and published in Orbit Science Fiction in 1954). Writer-director George Nolfi has expanded the 24 pages offered by Dick to a full length feature script. In the process he has changed the central character from an ‘ordinary Joe’ into a potential Presidential candidate and placed him in a romance and a form of ‘conspiracy thriller’. Dick’s story was much simpler – but more terrifying in its exposure of the ‘unreality of the everyday’. It begins with a talking dog – Dick wrote several ‘fantasy stories’ in the early 1950s – and finishes with an open ending but one that is definitely not part of a romance. Witnessing an ‘adjustment’ is a much more terrifying experience than is depicted in the film. Dick’s protagonist is married and his wife doesn’t trust him. Having said that, Nolfi appears to know his Dickian stories and several aspects of his film work in recognisably ‘Dickian’ ways. Overall, I’m not sure that the film works completely but it is an enjoyable diversion and as Dick adaptations go it sits alongside Imposter and Screamers as one of the better ones. (I would agree that the narrative also resembles those of classic TV shows such as The Outer Limits.)

The simple premise of this dystopia is that a mysterious group of ‘adjusters’ are able to ‘fix’ future events by carefully nudging individuals into particular meetings and situations. At various points of history and geography they can then ‘stop’ time and re-arrange the world to ensure that events follow a set pattern. This is a perfect scenario for speculative fiction since some schmuck somewhere will inevitably fall through the gaps in the planning. In this case it is an adjustment operative who dozes off and fails to stop David Norris (Matt Damon) from boarding his morning bus to the office. As a consequence, Damon not only meets again the young woman who inspired him to make a great speech after he lost a senatorial election but also to arrive at his office in the middle of an ‘adjustment’.

Norris now finds himself trapped in a situation where he will risk forcible ‘re-adjustment’ (or a ‘lobotomy’ as he terms it) if he pursues Elise (Emily Blunt) the woman who has stolen his heart. The Adjustment Team warn him in no uncertain terms about what might happen. They appear to be like ‘angels’ in their powers and motives. At this point astute film fans might think of A Matter of Life and Death (or Stairway to Heaven in the US), the classic Powell and Pressburger film in which David Niven defies Heaven in order to pursue his love for Kim Hunter. Unfortunately, Matt Damon isn’t David Niven – or Roger Livesey. He’s a good actor and clearly a bright guy but for me he doesn’t have any charisma. I’ve read that some think he is the ‘sexiest man in America’, but I can’t see it. Emily Blunt on the other hand is terrific in this film. I’m not quite sure if she’s meant to be a Brit in the script but she doesn’t attempt a strong American accent and her dialogue is peppered with colloquial British English. I don’t think I’ve heard someone dismissed as a ‘tool’ (i.e. a ‘prick’, a ‘dick’, a penis) since the 1970s. (I realise ‘tool’ means something else in modern American slang, but this is Elise/Blunt speaking.) And to hear an actress in a Hollywood movie saying ‘bugger’ is a joy. In fact there seems to be quite a lot of swearing that’s got past the censors for a 12A. The image below is quite suggestive of all kinds of possibilities for Nolfi’s mise en scène and the overall look of the film lensed by John Toll (New York locations in particular) is attractive but I’m not sure it all adds up to much.

Elise (Emily Blunt) and David (Matt Damon) meet 'by chance' at the start of the narrative.

In some ways Damon is perfect as a Dickian ‘ordinary Joe’ – rather than as Presidential material. The possibility that the adjusters are some kind of divine intervention also fits in with the Dickian sense of paranoia and interest in various religious ideas which is there in most of the stories but comes to the fore in the later work. Dressing the adjusters with coats and hats like 1950s/60s FBI agents (see the image at the start of the post) is a stroke of genius and casting Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terence Stamp is also a good move. Overall then this movie has things going for it. Of course, a lot of the latter part of the narrative is based on chase sequences. But if that draws in audiences and makes a Dickian adaptation more successful, I guess that is a positive.

The reviews/user comments on the film are interesting, partly because of the divergence towards science fiction or romance rather than both and for the inevitable claims that the film is ‘Inception lite’. The truth is that Inception was inspired by Dick, as are dozens of contemporary films. In fact the Dickian view of the world has now almost become the norm – in itself a Dickian outcome. Dick wrote over a period of thirty years or so. He was amazingly prolific in terms of story ideas and his writing developed during major changes in American society – and dramatic changes in his own personal situation. Adapters are able to take the ideas and attempt to fashion them into workable narratives for contemporary audiences but I’m not sure that mainstream Hollywood is the best place for such adaptations. Presumably Nolfi needed Hollywood to stage his story and this meant that he needed a star like Damon. An adaptation of the original story closer to Dick’s intention would have worked well without stars in a low-budget flick. It’s the terror of discovering that behind the façade of everyday reality there is a team of adjusters that should be the draw, not the excitement of a chase or the possibility of a fulfilled romance. Dick did feature strong emotional relationships in some stories – but rarely are they fulfilled.

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A Day in the Life – Four Documentaries by John Krish (UK 1953 and 1961-3)

John Carter Ronson, the subject of ‘I Think His Name is John’

These four short documentaries make up a 93 minute programme, part of the ‘Boom Britain’ project showcased at BFI South Bank in November and now on a short tour around the UK. They are also available alongside many other fascinating titles in a box set of 4 BFI DVDs with the title Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-77. Since the box set costs £34.99, I suspect that its audience will be limited to academics and documentary fans. That would be a shame. Some of the films discussed here are also available free in the UK, streamed to computers in libraries and educational institutions via screenonline. If you teach film or media studies you really should watch these four films and show them to your students – I watched them with Nick Lacey and we were knocked out by both the technical expertise and the artistic vision on show.

Each of the four films was written and directed by John Krish (born 1923) whose main career achievements were in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. He appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme Front Row discussing his work when the films screened again in London and he is interviewed on the BFI YouTube Channel. The four films have been restored and are presented on a 2K digital print for cinema screenings.

The first film is The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953) (11 mins). This tells the story of the last tram to run in London in 1952 (trams have since returned in Croydon and Wimbledon). ‘The Elephant’ refers to the Elephant and Castle which lay on the old route ’36’ between Central London and New Cross via the Old Kent Road. Made for British Transport Films, this got Krish the sack for making his own ‘people-centred’ documentary rather than simply recording the end of an ‘outmoded’ transport system on behalf of a ‘forward-looking’ public transport body.

They Took Us to the Sea (1961) (26 mins) was made for the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). It shows a day out for quite a large group of children from the poorer districts of Birmingham, involving a train trip to the seaside at Weston-super-Mare.

Our School (1962) (28 mins) was made for the National Union of Teachers and focuses on a new secondary modern school in Hertfordshire called the Francis Coombe School.

I Think His Name is John (1964) (28 mins) is a beautifully realised portrait of a widower, a retired miner, living a solitary life in a block of flats. It was made for the Samaritans.

There is a great deal of reference material and both scholarly and fan discussion of these films readily available, so rather than duplicate many of the arguments, I’ll just list the sources and make some general remarks.

A good starting point is the website for Illuminations, the independent TV company making arts programmes. This is actually the blog of the company’s founder John Wyver and it’s an excellent source and well worth exploring. There are links here to many of the other sources on the Krish films and a great deal of background and discussion.

There is an interesting forum discussion of the DVD box-set on the Criterion forums.

Boom Britain is introduced on this BFI webpage (with further links).

Krish is interviewed at BFI Southbank by Patrick Russell, the Archive Curator of Non-Fiction Film and author of the book, Shadows of Progress. This is a gem.

This BFI YouTube clip gives some indication of the Krish method. (I don’t think I can embed BFI clips)

Our School is an extraordinary film for several reasons. It’s a fascinating social document simply on a level of how the teachers and students are dressed, their hair styles and ways of speaking etc. It also represents a very specific ideological intervention by the NUT, showing a ‘modern’ school with what were then quite radical ideas about changing teaching methods. This is a model school in many ways but that doesn’t invalidate its presentation of new education ideas in 1963. Viewers outside the UK should be aware that the school shown was at this time part of the national selective system. The most academically able students were ‘creamed off’ for the grammar schools. The students in the Francis Combe school in Hertfordshire were mostly expected to leave school at 15 and go straight into work (at a time of ‘full employment’). Such schools still exist in some parts of England (and across Northern Ireland) but most were replaced by comprehensive schools. The subject matter of this clip was highly topical and may seem now to present a rather authoritarian teacher position. But there is good humour and informality in the mix as well and the other classroom scenes in the film suggest a new breed of confident, articulate and dedicated teachers with the students’ needs paramount in their approach (I hope the NUT were impressed!).

But in some ways, the most extraordinary aspect of the film is the shooting method devised by John Krish. If you look carefully at the clip, you’ll quickly notice that it is very different to the direct cinema films of the time in the US or the so-called ‘fly on the wall’ techniques of later UK TV documentaries which claimed to be unobtrusive ‘observers’. Krish worked for many hours to get these shots with their beautiful framings (all four films present stunning portraits in close-up of all kinds of characters). The students behave in a seemingly natural way and Krish worked hard to get his subjects used to the presence of the camera. He was producing ‘art’ from ‘reality’ and in his Southbank interview he makes this very clear. This particular clip involves a small group discussion but other parts of the film involve wider shots, some stunning tracking camera and a range of classroom situations. Films like this, part of what was a major sector of ‘industrial’ and ‘sponsored’ films up to the 1970s, were not usually seen in cinemas. They were much more likely to have been seen as 16mm films in education, training or business contexts. (The last tram film was very popular and showed at the Odeon, Leicester Square, the most prestigious UK cinema.) But the four films here are so well made that seeing them on the big screen in High Definition in a cinema is akin to watching a contemporary art film. This is certainly the case with I Think His Name is John.

Film history has focused on the ‘Free Cinema’ movement of the 1950s/early 1960s as the important manifestation of documentary filmmaking in the UK in the post-war period. ‘Free’ in the sense of being ‘independent’ of studios, government or industrial sponsors as well as the conventions of the form, the movement helped the careers of major feature directors such as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and some of the European auteurs who came to the UK in the period. Krish is quite disparaging about what he saw as a fairly ‘amateurish’ bunch. You can see his point (and anyway, Anderson and Reisz both worked first in ‘industrial films’). As in quite a few other cases, film history has been only partial in its coverage. We can’t any longer ignore the talents associated with industrial and sponsored films in this period and as well as the films of John Krish, there are plenty of other filmmakers whose work can be ‘tasted’ on the BFI YouTube Channel. I recommend Anthony Simmons and his 1953 film Sunday by the Sea.

Fifty Dead Men Walking (UK/Canada 2008)

Dead men

This co-production has a Canadian director, Kari Skogland. It deals with what the British quaintly call ‘The Troubles’, the British occupation of northern Ireland. Unfortunately, distance does not lend detachment, and the film recycles the stereotypes of earlier British films that purport to deal with the conflict.

The film’s story is ‘inspired’ by a recounting by a republican informant (Martin McGartland) for the northern Ireland Special Branch. The ‘inspired’ indicates that the film deals fairly freely with the events recounted in the book. Certainly the film has a number of serious factual errors. Most bizarre, an end title claims that the British Army has now left northern Ireland. The director cum scriptwriter clearly has not been watching the news recently.

The film is engaging, mainly due to fine performances by Jim Sturgess as the informant Martin McGartland and Ben Kingsley as Fergus, his intelligence handler. However the style of the film rather gets in the way of their characters. The film opens in Canada in 1999 as McGartland is shot by a masked assassin, [this actually occurred in the UK]. There follows an extended flashback of his earlier activities. By the end of the film we discover that he actually survived the shooting. I was puzzled as to what an audience was meant to draw from the flashback structure. It does help provide a noir feel, but does not add to character or development. There seems contemporary tendency to use flashbacks without necessarily adding to the story experience. There are also frequent passages of rapid editing, presumably designed to give the feel of a thriller. However, much of the film is closer to a noir story and the changes give a discordant feel. This is accentuated by an amount of over-the-top music tracks.

But the serious problems with the film are political, or to be exact the absence of politics. Unfortunately this is the norm for this subject. Typically there is hardly any engagement with the actual political relations of the conflict. And the characterisation offers over familiar stereotypes. Martin and Fergus are fairly sympathetic, but this is mainly due to the negativity of the characters that surround them. Fergus’s Special Branch and British Intelligence are presented as manipulative and more concerned with intelligence turf wars than the enemy. But that is fairly positive compared with the republican characters, who are violent and tend to the psychotic. Martin’s IRA friend, Sean (Kevin Zegers), reminded me of Cal’s friend Crilly (Stevan Rimkus) in the earlier film (1984), both treating the violence as ‘fun’. The IRA organiser, Mickey Adams (Tom Collins), is reminiscent of Skeffington (John Kavanagh) the IRA leader in the same film. John Hill’s analysis of that and other films set in Northern Ireland (Cinema and Ireland, Routledge, 1987 Images of Violence) is applicable to this film. Hill comments on the sexuality and repression in the earlier films. In Fifty Dead Men Walking we also have a female IRA intelligence officer, Grace (Rose McGowan), who seems pre-occupied with both ‘guns and cocks’. Revealingly she is listed fifth among the cast, ahead of performers who appear more often on screen. This character is reminiscent of the psychotic Jude  [Miranda Richardson) in The Crying Game (1992). In what I take to be a sub-Freudian twist Martin plants her with an unloaded gun and she is seized by the British intelligence.

The film recycles noir style and northern Ireland stereotypes with depressing familiarity. I found it did not really maintain a strong interest, what kept me watching was checking out how it recycles the old and now tired representations.

Truffaut and his women: Anne, Muriel and Catherine

A couple of weeks ago in the Guardian Review, Germaine Greer wrote an interesting analysis of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (France 1962), based on the novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. A week later Xan Brooks gave the re-released film a 5 star rating and several other commentators have reminisced and reflected on Truffaut’s work (not least since Cannes 2008 inevitably prompted memories of Cannes 1968 when Truffaut was one of those leading a walkout by young French directors).

Jules et Jim is arguably now the most revered Truffaut film and it only seems to be a few years since it was last re-released. I remember introducing the film in a cinema and feeling slightly uncomfortable because although I was a Truffaut fan in the early 1970s, I had for some time felt that I couldn’t cope with his portrayals of women. I seemed to have grown up, but Truffaut somehow remained within a kind of adolescent fantasy. Greer’s essay is well worth reading and she has some interesting things to say about the formal and emotional appeal of the film and the strange representations of sexuality and sexual behaviour shown in the ménage à trois between the three central characters, Jules, Jim and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). Greer argues that, bowled over by Catherine in 1962, she now sees all the problems associated with both that character and all the other representations of women in the film. She also worries what a 2008 audience might make of the film 46 years on.

I don’t always find myself agreeing with Greer, but on this we are as one. By chance, however, I picked up another Truffaut in a DVD bargain bin last month. This was Les deux anglaises et le continent (Anne and Muriel) (France 1971) and it’s Truffaut’s adaptation of the other novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. As with Jules et Jim, Roché wrote this late in life, referring back to his days as a journalist and art collector in the early 20th century. (The novel was published in 1956 when he was 76.) This time, the ménage à trois involves two (Welsh not English!) sisters and a man who collects artworks in Paris (he is given the name ‘le continent’ by the two girls). The man meets Anne in Paris, then visits Wales where Anne helps to shift his interest towards Muriel. The two fall in love, but Muriel’s widowed mother suggests that they should have a trial separation to see if they are really in love. From this point, things start to go wrong.

In style terms, Les deux anglaises is a very different film to Jules et Jim. The freewheeling Black and White ‘Scope photography by Raoul Coutard of the former is replaced by painterly colour images composed by Néstor Almendros in 1.66:1. These are very beautiful, but not in the chocolate box style of a Merchant Ivory. The landscape (actually Normandy) is well handled. It’s an altogether quieter film with voiceover narration and slow fades between scenes instead of the lively montage and decoupage of Jules et Jim. The rather serious tone is also emphasised by the performance of Jean-Pierre Léaud as the Frenchman. Léaud is Truffaut’s alter ego in the Antoine Doinel films and also the earnest young man in some of Godard’s more political films. I confess I now find him rather irritating, though in 1971 I identified with him quite closely. In this film his acting style is contrasted with that of the two English actors, Kika Markham and Stacy Tendeter, both of whom are terrific. The character, Claude, is of course Roché and he is Truffaut.

The film is introduced on the DVD by Serge Toubiana (there is also a commentary by the screenwriter Jean Gruault). Toubiana helpfully explains that the film was a flop on its release and that Truffaut was wounded by its failure. Toubiana suggests that audiences post 1968 were ready for sexual ‘permissiveness’ and that they were not interested in a film in which three characters fell in love, but instead of consummating passion, wrote about it at length in diaries and letters (which give the film its narrative flavour through voiceovers). Truffaut is reported to have said that Les deux anglaises is not so much a film about physical love as a ‘physical film about love’. (And indeed, in some ways the film is more realistic and ‘physical’ in its discussion of sex – but not in ways that might be expected in this kind of story.)

I’m not a big fan of the biographical/auteurist approach to films, but it does seem relevant that Truffaut embarked on this film after his break-up with Catherine Deneuve. He had been close to both Deneuve and her sister, Francoise Dorleac who was tragically killed in a car crash. Deneuve went on to have a child with Marcello Mastroianni. These two events are to a certain extent echoed in Les deux anglaises.

The film is essentially a tragedy in which love makes the three characters ill because of the moral quandaries and self-questioning it invokes. For me, this film has survived and now seems a timeless tale, whereas the ‘celebration’ of love in Jules et Jim seems to be questioned by the representation of Catherine.

Here are some slightly different views of the film.

Filmsdefrance

Senses of Cinema

Outline development of Chinese Cinema

In the late 19th century, China was a large country with a big population and a long cultural history. It was ruled almost as a feudal medieval state and was open to exploitation by Western powers who controlled much of the trade from major port cities such as Shanghai and Canton. At first, cinema was confined to these cities and to Peking (Beijing).

Chinese cinema drew upon earlier theatrical forms – in this case Chinese opera (‘classical’ in Peking, more ‘popular’ in different regions away from the capital). With a concentration on melodramas, Shanghai was the main producing centre up until the 1930s, but development was slow and limited. For most of the first part of the 20th century, China suffered from some form of civil war between political factions attempting to seize control after the collapse of the last imperial administration. The Communists and the ‘Nationalists’ fought each other and the local warlords and after 1931 they began to fight the Japanese invasion forces as well. In these circumstances, cinema inevitably became ‘political’ – either by offering an ‘escape’ or by attempting to offer political messages as the basis for simple narratives. Chinese filmmakers have struggled with the political implications of film narratives ever since. With the success of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949, the political dimension became even more central and filmmakers (of both the left and the right) fled mainland China for either Hong Kong or Taiwan. Most peasants in the Chinese countryside still hadn’t seen a film at this point.

1949–1966
Zheng Junli’s Crows and Sparrows (1949) was started before, but finished after, the revolution. This transitional period film focuses on the residents of an apartment block, literally the crows (right wing decadents) and the sparrows (honest, hard-working peasants). The Communist Party, aware of the potential propaganda power of cinema, in the years after the revolution nationalised the industry and phased out all foreign films except those from the Soviet bloc. They also sought to expand exhibition through mobile units and to make films that would appeal to the rural masses. Filmmakers were forced to adopt Soviet ‘socialist realism’ as their model, and the industry became dependent upon Soviet training and equipment. The resultant films, with their noble heroes, ‘bad’ characters who betrayed the revolution and stirring soundtracks, made use of Hollywood ideas in presenting their relatively simple messages.

Just as in Eastern Europe, there were periods of ‘thaw’ (less restrictive e.g. during the Hundred Flowers movement) when quality production increased, and periods of ‘freeze’ (heavily restricted e.g. during the Great Leap Forward) when production could not meet the targets and expectations. Chinese films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, such as those of Xie Jin, display high production values and a polished look that belies their political agenda. Also in this period, the government opened the Beijing Film Academy, regional studios and a national archive, whilst severing their links with the Soviet Union and thus losing equipment and expertise. The filmmakers who emerged from the Film Academy in this period were later termed the ‘Fourth Generation’.

1966–1976
The Cultural Revolution was Mao Zedong’s attempt to recapture the spirit of the revolution from the 1940s in Yunan – to revitalise the process of building the people’s republic. This was to go spectacularly wrong, not least in the attacks upon the intellectuals and the cultural workers.
The first signs of the effect of the Cultural Revolution on film were the extended official criticisms of certain films from mid 1964. Then fiction filmmaking was stopped altogether from 1966 to 1970, and after that only the limited production of ‘revolutionary model operas’ was permitted. many of the creative artists from the traditional centres of the film industry in the big city, and especially their children, were sent out into the countryside to learn about the revolution at first hand. For young people born in the same period as the ‘baby boomers’ of the West (i.e. 1946-54), experience of forced work in rural areas and a disrupted education were fundamental to their approach to filmmaking in the 1980s. Compare the formative years of Steven Spielberg (born 1946) and Zhang Yimou (born 1951).

1976–present
The film industry began to recover in the years after Mao’s death, following the introduction of reforms by Deng Xiaoping. The Beijing Film Academy reopened in 1978, and the ‘Fifth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers enrolled.

Western scholarship of Chinese cinema has primarily been interested in the Fifth Generation, through a canon of films and directors who have brought international acclaim to contemporary Chinese cinema. The most well known directors are Chen Kaige (Yellow Earth, 1984), Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, 1987) and Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite, 1993). Again, as with the film industry in Eastern Europe, state support was withdrawn from filmmakers who were seen to be critical of state ideology and film studios were forced to find private funds. This created contradictions for both the state and the filmmakers. Some of the early films of Zhang Yimou were very popular at home, but increasingly they were appreciated by overseas audiences. This brought both prestige and income to the Chinese state, but it was also threatening in allowing the filmmakers more freedom to ‘make statements’ – hence censorship. Different filmmakers reacted in different ways. Zhang Yimou’s career offers a fascinating case study of a filmmaker twisting and turning in order to negotiate the opportunities to make films. Currently he is the director of traditional ‘martial chivalry’ blockbusters which sell well in China and in Asia generally, but he has also made more intimate, almost neo-realist drams such as Not One Less and The Road Home (both 1999).

The Sixth Generation of filmmakers are those who have emerged since the early 1990s (although the term has been dismissed by some of the directors to whom it has been applied). Their emergence signals a new era in China’s modern history, with filmmakers appearing to work with increasing freedom even though censorship is unpredictable at best. The generations do overlap, Fourth Generation director Xie Jin made the epic The Opium Wars in 1997, and all of the above mentioned Fifth Generation directors have released films in recent years. Leading Sixth Generation directors include Zhuang Yuan (Beijing Bastards, 1993), Wang Xiaoshai (Frozen 1997, Beijing Bicycle 2002) and Lou Ye (Suzhou River, 2000). This generation has built up a reputation for headstrong independence, and their films often reflect the poverty and marginalisation of China’s urban masses whilst demonstrating an international cinematic influence.

Increasingly, as new technologies in production, distribution and exhibition open up the possibilities of a global film industry, the role of Chinese filmmakers changes. China is the site of both legal and illegal advances in digital cinema. International film companies now operate across China and Hong Kong and also Taiwan, Korea and Japan. The huge potential of the Chinese film market is not lost on the major Hollywood studios either. None of this will ensure a place for new Chinese filmmakers but there will be opportunities. It will be interesting to see if the legacy of twentieth century concerns with political and cultural ‘memory’ survive into a ‘Seventh Generation’.

MUBI and streaming

Paul Thomas Anderson’s documentary Junun available for rental on MUBI

Netflix and Amazon don’t interest me as subscription services – except that not being a subscriber means that it isn’t possible for me to fully understand what they mean for other cinephiles because I don’t know the full extent of what they show. I have used both iTunes and Curzon World to watch films, paying a fee each time, but MUBI represents something different. After 30 days of free viewing with a promotional voucher I’m now a subscriber at £1 per month for three months. They are certainly prepared to give me a long taster before charging me the standard £7.99 a month. At this point I do feel I’ve got a reasonable idea of how the service works and whether I would recommend it.

The MUBI model is to offer a new film (i.e. added to the current slate) each day. Once added that film is then available for the next 30 days. These titles are free to watch and re-watch over the 30 days for all subscribers. In addition, MUBI offers a rental section which is much more select than the big providers – just 128 films are currently available. These titles are available for rent for as little as £2.49 with a handful of current films costing £4.49. The rental period is standard – once you’ve paid you have 30 days to organise a viewing which must be completed in 48 hours once you start viewing. What kinds of films are on offer as rentals and as selected ‘film of the day’? On the whole these are definitely cinephile offerings. Many are ‘festival films’ – films which you are unlikely to find easily on a cinema release or even on DVD or Blu-ray in the UK. MUBI operates in several territories and has deals which enable it to put films in front of UK subscribers that could not otherwise be seen. I’ve already blogged on films by Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec that certainly fall into that category. All of the titles are ‘curated’ in some way, selected in accordance with various criteria according to auteur status, avant-garde, documentary etc. There are American independents and Hollywood auteurs such as the melodramas of Douglas Sirk at Universal or Jacques Tourneur’s Technicolor Western Canyon Passage. There are films from Europe, Latin America and Asia with a couple from Africa, but nothing so far that I’ve noticed from India. There is a small selection of films that MUBI has distributed itself  – to cinemas and online. What else does MUBI offer? Curation means that you can dig quite deep into MUBI’s archives to find pieces written for its ‘Notebook’ on a wide range of films and topics. These pieces by writers, some of whom are familiar to me, are of varying lengths and complexity/access. MUBI’s sense of community is also fostered by its Twitter feed (and subscribers receive email alerts). One feature that is both useful and annoying is the provision of pages on lots of films that have been available in the past, may be available on other MUBI sites in different territories – and may return to the UK site. To give an example, there are eight films for rental from Walerian Borowczyk, but all 40 of his films have a page on the MUBI site. On these pages are cast lists and user reviews as well as links to appropriate Notebook articles.

I’ve actually been registered with MUBI since 2010 (it was previously known as The Auteurs), but have not subscribed up until now. I always understood that the idea behind MUBI was to generate a ‘conversation’ about films that was properly global, something this blog is obviously going to support. For a long time though I thought that I could be satisfied by the films on offer in my local cinemas. Alas I’m increasingly beginning to despair at what’s on offer and to worry that as I become more decrepit I won’t want to travel so far to watch films in cinemas. I haven’t actually reached that point yet, but it is comforting to know that there is a service out there. In the last thirty days I have watched around eight films on MUBI and dipped into a few more without as yet finishing them. The service is clearly worth £7.99 per month. My home broadband signal (very fast by UK standards produces a very efficient streaming service and I’ve no complaints about the quality of the image. I want to watch around a third of the films on offer, perhaps another third I’ve already seen and the rest don’t interest me that much, though I’m game to try some of them. The problem remains that watching on my TV doesn’t equate to seeing the films in the cinema – but the possibility of re-watching them is very appealing. Overall, I’d say that it is a worthwhile service that I look forward to exploring further.

MUBI was founded in 2007 by Turkish engineer and entrepreneur Efe Çakarel. It has had partnerships with several film-related organisations over the last eight years and is now available in several parts of the world via Mac and PCs, iOS and Samsung Smart TVs. In 2015 it was reported to have a global subscriber base of over 7 million.

By The Time It Gets Dark (Dao Khanong, Thailand 2016)

One of several compositions looking out through windows

This Thai film is exceptionally beautiful and invites the viewer to experience something at once universal but also highly specific. I had two different personal responses to it which I’ll quickly get out of the way, but which are both germane. The film’s English title makes me think of a song written and performed by Sandy Denny which was recorded in 1976 but not released until several years after her death in 1978.

Yesterday’s gone and will be forgotten
And today is where every new day starts
Got to be free as the leaves in autumn
You may be sad but it never lasts.

And maybe, by the evening we’ll be laughing
Just wait and see
All the changes there’ll be
By the time it gets dark.

It’s a beautiful song and has since been covered by Mary Black and others. It doesn’t appear in this film but the year 1976 is key. That was the year in which the film’s director Anocha Suwichakornpong was born. It was also the year that an infamous massacre of students by the Thai military took place at a university in Bangkok. This incident is central to the ideas behind the film. I’ve only visited Thailand once, for a few days in Bangkok en route to Japan in 1977. I’m ashamed to think that I don’t remember anything about that massacre (or even whether I was aware of it at the time). And in a sense that is what the film is about too – the impossibility of representing history through film as an art form. (The Thai title refers to a district of Bangkok but the filmmaker has said that it isn’t a ‘destination’ as such.) Anocha Suwichakornpong trained as a filmmaker in the US. She might have heard the song title there.

The young political activist from the 1970s

The film has no conventional plotting but it does have a narrative. It opens with compositions of individual women looking out of windows. One of them has a camera and we are looking at them from behind. Such framings through windows and doorways, sometimes emphasised by mirrors, occur throughout the film. We soon realise that this will be a film about filmmaking and that it will include a form of mise en abîme – a film within a film, or rather, different versions of the same film? A conventional film narrative appears to begin when two women arrive at a spacious and elegant country house. The younger woman, ‘Ann’ is a film director and she has invited the older Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), who was a student in 1976, to accompany her to the house and to be interviewed about her life. Before this moment we have seen what appears to be a re-staging of a military assault on young people. Ann is played by Visra Vichit-Vadakan who directed Karaoke Girl in 2013. The conversations between the two women skirt around Ann’s motives in making the film and Taew’s reluctance to see herself as an important historical figure. But the significant comment is made by a much younger woman who serves the couple breakfast at a forest café. This character, Nong, is played by Atchara Suwan, and she will appear in many scenes in the film. She’s a kind of ‘every working woman’ in Thailand – a waiter on a river cruiser with a restaurant, a cleaner in a hotel and head-shaved Buddhist novice. When she meets the two women in the café and learns why they are there, she tells the director that Taew should write her own story.

‘Ann’ has a mystical moment in the forest

The events of the past with the political activity of the students and the repressive actions of the military are played out at various points. Later in the film an almost documentary study of workers on a tobacco plantation slides into a study of a young actor and pop musician, Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri). This shifts the focus away from the countryside to the city and the modern world of the celebrity. Ann and Taew re-appear but played by different and more ‘starry’ actors. Finally, we are in an edit suite. Is this the film about Taew about to be completed? There is a possible narrative twist in this sequence, but equally important is the focus on the artificiality of the filmic image. The final shots of the film reminded me of the extraordinary colours of The Tears of the Black Tiger (Thailand 2000), Wisit Sasanatieng‘s fabulous tribute to the Western and the romance film. During the sequence in the edit suite, which features some English dialogue, one of the characters appears to be named ‘Pang’. The Pang Brothers, Danny and Oxide Chun, grew up in Hong Kong before becoming well-known filmmakers sharing the main creative work on actions films and horror films in Thailand since 2000. I don’t know if this is a deliberate reference. I also noted the use of a simple but very emotional piano and string arrangement of a musical piece to accompany footage of Peter and his girlfriend and this reminded me of various East Asian romance films.

Colour grading in the edit suite

If all these seemingly disparate elements make this film sound as if it is difficult to watch or that it might feel incoherent, nothing could be further from my experience of watching it. What is surprising, perhaps, is that the film seems so calm and thoughtful, despite dealing with what is an almost despairing argument about a society which seems to be unable to confront its own history and narrativise and narrate it so that succeeding generations can learn how not to repeat the mistakes. But perhaps the calm approach is ultimately more fruitful? It isn’t really a problem solely for Thai cinema. We all have problems with our history and how it is represented. I should watch this film again and look out for more work by Anocha Suwichakornpong. I probably also need to learn more about Thailand’s history – as an Asian country that wasn’t colonised by the West, but has had close ties with Japan and conflicts with its neighbours (before and after colonialist periods). There are a couple of scenes in the films of almost deserted roads, some at night, which some reviewers have referred to as nods towards ‘Lynchian surrealism’. I didn’t get that, but I did think about Thailand as a ‘left-hand drive’ country, like Japan and India (and Hong Kong), despite the influence of the US and the switch to right-hand drive by the country’s neighbours. I guess what I’m saying is that By The Time it Gets Dark feels like more than an art film and that it appears to be saying something about Thai culture. But the film is a product of the festival circuit. Electric Eel Films is the Thai producer looking to make quality films but support also comes from Rotterdam and Doha Festivals, the Hubert Bals Fund and producers in several countries.

 

Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, Hungary 1982/4)

Juli (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi) is shown her new room in Budapest by Magda (Anna Polony)

This was my fourth selection from my MUBI free trial and I realised that I’ve been waiting to see it since my first encounter with Mészáros Márta’s films in Kolkata in 2009. Mészáros, born in 1931, is one of global film’s major directors of documentaries and fiction features but it is difficult to see her films in UK cinemas. (Second Run, the East European specialist DVD label in the UK, do have this Mészáros film on offer, but none of the director’s other films.) Diary For My Children is an important film for several reasons. According to John Cunningham in his Hungarian Cinema book (Wallflower 2004) it was the director’s most popular film in her home market. It was also very controversial with its release delayed by two years because of problems with the Hungarian censors (because it portrays the ‘Stalinisation’ of Hungary in the late 1940s?). Mészáros had always been more popular in the international market up to this point and the film did win the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1984. It was also an important personal statement for the director as a semi-autobiographical film and the first of a four-part series of films over the next 15 years.

The central character is Juli, a teenage young woman flying back to Budapest in 1947 from the Soviet Union. Like Mészáros herself, Juli was born in Hungary and then taken to the Soviet Union as a child. Her mother is dead and she doesn’t know what has happened to her father. She is accompanied by an older couple who were friends of her parents and in Budapest she will be fostered by Magda, someone else who knew her parents and who is now in a senior position in the Hungarian Communist Party.

Bunking off to watch Garbo in the cinema.

I enjoyed the film very much. Juli is played by Zsuzsa Czinkóczi. She had been a child star and had appeared in three films for Mészáros and two for Márta’s former husband Jancsó Miklós. Czinkóczi was 15 when Diary was completed. In the narrative she ages from 15 to 21. It is an extraordinary performance and it is because of her performance that I sometimes felt that I was watching a 1960s New Wave film. Juli has that mixture of vitality and confidence mixed with moments of immaturity and vulnerability that I associate with the young women of 1960s films. She finds herself living in the midst of Party privilege in a large house taken from the bourgeoisie. She is enrolled in the top school in Budapest. But she doesn’t want either of these privileges. Instead she wants to find out what has happened to her father and her other relatives. Magda keeps her on a very tight rein and she has to ‘borrow’ Magda’s pass to indulge her only vice – bunking off school to go to the cinema. Meanwhile, around her, the Stalinists increase their control over Budapest. I felt at a disadvantage because of my limited knowledge of Hungarian politics in 1947-49. At one point, Magda is firm in condemning Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia who broke away from the USSR, leading to banishment from the Cominform – the association of socialist states. Magda preaches the Stalinist line promoted by Rákosi Mátyás, the Hungarian leader whose image is central to government events in Budapest alongside those of Lenin and Stalin.

Juli and her mother in the USSR when the heavily pregnant woman reaches the village hospital

As the film’s title suggests, it is like a personal diary. Juli’s ideas, her fears and her desires are central and we see the political environment in the background. It isn’t until she begins digging that she uncovers clues to what happened to her parents. She has her own intimate memories which Mészáros inserts into the narrative without any warnings or clues. These are scenes that Juli is remembering or daydreaming about when she sees her father in a quarry selecting stone and working on a sculpture or when she accompanies her pregnant mother to the hospital. These are personal memories for Mészáros and she emphasises this by casting the Polish actor Jan Nowicki as both Juli’s father during the dream/memory sequences and János, her father’s friend who escaped to France in the 1930s but returned to Hungary after 1945. Mészáros later married Nowicki. Diary was photographed by Jancsó Miklós Jr., her son from her second marriage to the director Jancsó Miklós, perhaps the best-known Hungarian filmmaker of the period.

Little sense of Hungary as a defeated Axis supporter came across to me, but perhaps that is the point – everyone has to survive in the new system and the past is quickly forgotten if bringing it up would mean criticising the Russians. János does talk about the war and the (British?) air raids which killed his wife and disabled his son. He will become the character through whom Juli learns about the past. Juli’s ‘adopted’ grandparents are an odd couple. The man does provide Juli with some clues about the past, but the woman is a very sketchily-presented figure.

Juli (centre) tries to leave Budapest but the police search for her with orders from Magda

Juli’s story is in one sense a ‘coming of age’ story, though some of the most common elements of that genre are not followed up and the story is complicated by the political struggle. Juli changes when the evidence of how the system really works is brought home to her. At other times she does the kinds of things teenagers do. She has a boyfriend who she met at school, but she tells him from the start that she doesn’t love him. What she wants at this time is a friend of her own age. Mészáros Márta is an immensely important female filmmaker but there have been debates about the extent to which Diary for My Children is a feminist film. In one sense, simply making the film in the patriarchal Hungarian system, which still seems to have prevailed in the 1980s, is a feminist statement. In the next film in the series, Diary For My Lovers (1987) Juli travels to Russia to go to the Moscow Film School because the film schools in Hungary don’t admit women. This is again an autobiographical statement. Here is an extract from an essay by Catherine Portuges on the Second Run website (the full essay comes with the DVD):

 . . . the film is neither purely fictional nor entirely autobiographical, nor, for that matter, strictly speaking a product of what has been called ‘women’s cinema’. Rather, by maintaining an intricate balance between personal exploration on the one hand and historical investigation on the other, Mészáros’ cinematic method transforms and expands its autobiographical dimension by alternating sequences in which the historical context, marked by the use of archival footage, is dominant. This structure positions the viewer in a way that avoids both the more complete distancing of documentary and the more individually-motivated conventions of autobiographical cinema. . . . Diary for My Children transcends traditional categories of genre, yet it functions as a kind of history . . . in which different angles of vision operate to analyse micro-history in order to generate ideas about a larger, macro-historical vision – a private message, in other words, which, in the public mind, becomes a collective one. (Catherine Portuges is the author of Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Marta Meszaros (Women Artists in Film), John Wiley and Sons, 1993

This is quite a persuasive argument, though for me the archival footage wasn’t so noticeable until towards the end of the film, by which time Juli is ‘aware’. In fact, I identified with Juli so strongly that the division didn’t really bother me. Juli stretches Magda’s patience and won’t listen to the older woman’s justifications – or at least her behaviour means Magda thinks that she just won’t listen. (It is this refusal to engage with Magda’s perspective which is perhaps the disadvantage of the ‘diary’ narrative. I was strongly reminded of a similar narrative in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013). Ida is set in the 1960s and an 18 year-old young woman leaves a convent to meet her aunt who has been a judge in communist Poland. Juli could easily be in that 1960s-set film. I’d like to see what happens to her in the other three films, but availability looks a real problem. Perhaps MUBI can find them as well?