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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’.

Loveless (Nelyubov, Russia-Germany-France-Belgium 2017)

Breakfast – Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) has little time for her son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), being more interested in what’s on her phone. Soon after breakfast, Alyosha will disappear.

Loveless is the fifth feature directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. For some critics, he has become the successor to Andrei Tarkovsky. Every film has won a major prize. With Leviathan (2014) he fell foul of the Russian government and this latest film comes as a co-production in which Zvyagintsev has attracted support from French-German cultural TV channel arte and fellow filmmakers the Dardennes Brothers among others. Cannes prizewinners stick together. In the UK, the film is released by the small independent Altitude rather than one of the larger arthouse brands like Curzon Artificial Eye. I hope this doesn’t restrict audience access – it doesn’t seem to have done so far.

I’ve been surprised by some of the reviews for the film in the UK and there has been a lot of discussion about how harrowing the film is etc. I’m somebody who weeps easily in any sentimental film and copiously for a finely wrought melodrama. I sat through Loveless unmoved, but always closely engaged. This isn’t callousness on my part but rather a function of the film’s address to audiences (it may also be because I’m not a parent). The film doesn’t aim to manipulate emotions but to observe a situation. The style is ‘hyper realist’ with a camera eye that is cold and unblinking, observing, often head-on, a marriage disintegrating. The camera is often still and the digital image is pristine but desaturated, emphasising the bleakness of the coming Russian winter in the opening and closing shots of the film. I think it is a kind of anti-melodrama and I enjoy the visual splendour of a film which some critics seem to feel is too heavy-handed. I’m sure there are things I missed or haven’t thought through, but I’m confident that there is intelligence behind every move Zvyagintsev makes.

Alyosha in the woods on his way home from school at the start of the film.

The story is carefully set in 2012 (referenced via news reports and later on posters). As someone in another review has pointed out, the figure at the centre of the narrative (even if he appears only fleetingly), is 12 year-old Alyosha who was born in 2000, the first official year of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. The appraisal of society that the film offers could be argued to be a statement about ‘Putin’s Russia’. Alyosha is unlucky to be the son of Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), parents who are in the process of divorcing, having both found new partners. There doesn’t seem to be a place for Alyosha in either new relationship, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he disappears one day. The narrative then becomes about the search for Alyosha and what this does (or doesn’t do) to Zhenya and Boris. In various interviews Zvyagintsev has said that the idea for the film came when he visited America in 2015 and that Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (Sweden 1973/4) was a filmic starting point. This implies a kind of universalist approach. The tragedy could actually happen anywhere. But Zvyagintsev is an artist who believes that universal stories have to be rooted in a specific place and he’s chosen different Russian settings for his films. In this sense Loveless is most like Elena (2011) in focusing on social class difference in suburban Moscow. Not many critics have noticed that Aleksey Rozin as Boris, also appeared as Elena’s son Sergey in the 2011 film. There are several other parallels between the two films, e.g. the potential pathway which leads boys from school into the armed forces. 

The family in Loveless, though upwardly mobile, lives in a flat/apartment in a high-rise block in suburban Moscow. Boris has a desk-job in a company owned by a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian, who Zhenya refers to as operating a form of ‘Sharia Orthodox Law’. Perhaps it’s a good thing that Boris’s new partner Masha is already heavily pregnant, so he won’t lose face in his company if he divorces and remarries before anyone notices. Zhenya has some kind of interest in a beauty salon – but she has also snared a wealthy older businessman with a grown-up daughter. Both parents have their materialist concerns sorted out, but they don’t have much idea about parenting. I wondered about ‘spoilers’ at this point, but this film is not heavy on plot. It turns into a kind of police procedural when Alyosha goes missing and I need to analyse some moments to make any meaningful comments.

Boris and Zhenya with the head of the volunteer search team.

The look of the film

Zvyagintsev has worked with the same key ‘creatives’ on several films. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman has photographed three out of four (but not Elena). Production designer/art director Andrey Ponkratov has also been on three out of four shoots (including Elena). I mention Elena for two aesthetic reasons. One is the use of opening and closing sequences without actions but heavy with a sense of something – and I’m not sure exactly what it is. We know from interviews that in Elena, the shots (outside an apartment) were shot in a studio. Loveless was supposedly all shot on location, but the complex compositions inside apartment buildings feel like they too were studio shoots – perhaps Ponkratov constructed sets inside empty apartments? In both films there is significant action outside the apartment blocks, especially in the wooded areas. Moscow appears to be like Paris with high-rise blocks some distance from the centre of the city. This kind of development is not often found in the same way in the UK (though the architecturally-famous high-rises of the Alton Estate in Roehampton that featured in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 make an interesting parallel). Particularly resonant are shots through the windows and over the slopes below the high-rise where the disintegrating family live. As my viewing companion remarked, the images towards the end of the film, with families enjoying tobogganing on the snowy slopes, looks almost like a Breughel painting. The three images above show the complex mise en scène of the apartment and the more naturalistic shots of the woodland walk home that Alyosha makes from school. The trailer below also has shots of the landscapes around the high-rises.

The static head-on camera is quite disturbing in its ‘immersive’ effect. At one point it is almost like we are sitting on the other side of the works canteen table as Boris and his immediate boss eat their lunch. Boris explores issues about the firm’s moral codes as his colleague eats noisily, occasionally dropping food from his fork. As one reviewer has pointed out, we become complicit with the ‘bad parents’ when we realise that we’ve been so wrapped up in watching and criticising them that we too have failed to notice that Alyosha has disappeared. Zvyagintsev and his collaborators use the ‘Scope frame very well. Several scenes are so detailed that we feel forced to look around the screen and in one delicious shot in the open-plan office space, we notice that somebody is playing Solitaire on their desktop – a moment of frivolity in the oppressive work space.

Commentary

When Boris and Zhenya finally go to the police, the narrative does change to the extent that an element of both ‘mystery’ and ‘procedure’ takes over. The procedure structures the narrative, not through the police, but through the appearance of the volunteer search group comprising volunteers who are incredibly well-organised. The group is modelled on a real life organisation called ‘Liza Alert’, formed after the tragic conclusion to the disappearance of a 5 year-old girl. This is discussed in an excellent piece by Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound, March 2018. The police are not incompetent or uncaring as such, but simply overwhelmed by the number of missing persons and the paperwork required to progress anything. Inevitably, we make the comparison between the ineffectiveness of the police under Putin and the model of efficiency and common sense portrayed by the volunteers. They represent the possibilities of disinterested but public-spirited groups of citizens who care. They give their time and effort to a worthwhile cause. I’m tempted to think of them as representing what was good about the socialist state destroyed by rampant capitalism. Zvyagintsev shows us not just Boris and Zhenya, but many others in the worlds that they inhabit, trapped within a materialist world of screens, phones and selfies. This is presumably the ‘heavy-handedness’ some critics don’t like, but I find it a very powerful when I re-edit the film in my head and juxtapose the volunteers searching the forest and an abandoned Soviet era building with the selfie takers in a restaurant. I do have to agree, however, that Zvyagintsev tends make the women responsible for the worst excesses. Zhenya is hard, selfish and grasping. Boris is weak and at times pathetic and looks as if he has learned nothing as he moves into his new family set-up. The gender split is then repeated in other groups we see.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) is the poised, well-dressed modern woman – freed of the strains of motherhood when her son disappears?

Whereas Aleksey Rozin is an actor, like some others in the cast familiar from other Zvyagintsev films, Maryana Spivak as Zhenya is appearing in only her second cinema feature. She is tall and athletic. Zvyagintsev has chosen to show off her body, not I think in a fetishised sexist way but perhaps as an example of consumerist obsession. We see her in the beauty parlour for a waxing and then in bed with her new partner. Similarly we see Boris making love to his heavily pregnant new partner. The scenes are shot quite differently. Boris and Masha are shot from some distance away in a darkened room. Zhenya and her new partner are in a modernist apartment with a dividing panel with a large mirror. Sex for Boris and Masha seems enthusiastic, sweaty and straightforward. Zhenya is presented in more studied poses. At the end of the film we see Zhenya’s athleticism expressed now as exercise on a running machine and she dressed in a shiny new ‘Russia’ tracksuit.

A final image of Zhenya

In some ways the ‘procedural’ leads us into thinking about the very successful long-form crime narratives of recent years – except that we understand that Loveless is an art film and we don’t necessarily expect a dramatic resolution. Instead we are returned to the mystery. I’d like to finish by referring again to Jonathan Romney’s piece ‘The Lost Boy’. Romney is one of the best of the current batch of critics and even when I might disagree with him, I can see that his arguments make sense. He comments on Zvyagintsev’s use of symbolism and how contemporary (younger?) audiences seem now to be impatient with it because of their experience of the excessive ‘wash’ of media images from so many sources. They resent the arrogance of someone who challenges them to spend time thinking about what might be being symbolised. This certainly makes sense. There seems to be a rush now to read images in a superficial way and for films to be enjoyed and celebrated if they have easily understood messages. That’s not the case with Zvyagintsev and I look forward to the next five films and their presentation of a complex world with few easy answers.

The previous four films by Zvyagintsev:

Leviathan (2014)

Elena (2011)

The Banishment (2007)

The Return (2003)

The Post (US 2017)

This new title directed by Steven Spielberg has been nominated for ‘Best Picture’ at the Academy Awards and one of its stars, Meryl Streep, has a nomination for ‘An Actress in a Leading Role’. She is supported by Tom Hanks and both by the music of John Williams. So this promises to be big box office and is screening at nearly every venue in town.

The film revisits the leaking of secret papers to the Washington Post in 1971. Thus there followed a conflict between the Media, the White House and the Pentagon, a conflict of historic importance in recent US history. A couple of my students suggested after seeing the film that some knowledge of the events helps in the early stages of the film, so there is a detailed page on Wikipedia on ‘The Pentagon Papers’. As always in recounting history the film would seem to offer  a partial view and dramatisation of events: does it include the New York Times?

So the Hyde Park Picture House is providing an important service with a screening of the film this Sunday followed by a Q&A with Granville Williams. Granville is the editor of FreePress, the newsletter of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

Just to whet your appetites here are the notes prepared by Granville on the film and some of the issues.

The Post in an honourable addition to Hollywood films (All The Presidents Men (1976), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Spotlight (2015)) which portray journalists and journalism in a positive way, as opposed to grubby hacks chasing squalid, sensational headlines .

When I see films like these I wonder why UK film directors haven’t tackled such subjects. Couldn’t the dogged work of Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, as he probed and finally exposed the industrial scale of phone-hacking at Murdoch’s News of the World, be a suitable subject?

The credits for The Post say it is ‘based on a true story’ and whilst I can quibble with the way the film modifies some of the facts about the way the Washington Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, finally came to back publication of the Pentagon Papers, I think the film captures perfectly how enmeshed she was in the Washington elite and the political and commercial pressures on her to take an easier route, and not publish the papers.

I will talk more about this in the Q&A session following the 5.00pm showing of the film on Sunday 28 January at the Hyde Park Picture House. Here I just want to develop a couple of points about two aspects of the film.

One is the way that Spielberg focuses on the old hot metal printing press scenes and the workings of the Linotype machines assembling the lines of type for the stories. It’s very evocative.

In 1975 after Watergate there was a ferocious strike by printers which set her and the newspaper on a conservative course. Graham devoted dozens of pages in her autobiography Personal History to vilifying Post press operators who went on strike in 1975. She stressed the damage done to printing equipment as the walkout began and “the unforgivable acts of violence throughout the strike.”

John Hanrahan, a Newspaper Guild member at the Post, wouldn’t cross the picket lines and never went back. He pointed out,

“The Washington Post under Katharine Graham pioneered the union-busting ‘replacement worker’ strategy that Ronald Reagan subsequently used against the air-traffic controllers and that corporate America — in the Caterpillar, Bridgestone/Firestone and other strikes — used to throw thousands of workers out of their jobs in the 1980s and the ’90s.”

The other point is on the role of Ben Bagdikian in the film – he’s the journalist who gets access to Daniel Ellsberg and persuades him to hand over 4000 pages for the Post to use. He was national editor on the Post, a man who the editor, Ben Bradlee, in his autobiography, A Good Life, describes as ‘thorny’. Bagdikian had a big influence on me, and others interested in media reform. He wrote a key book The Media Monopoly (1983) which warned about the chilling effects of corporate ownership and mass advertising on US media. Fifty corporations owned most of the US media when he wrote the first edition. By the time he wrote The New Media Monopoly (2004) it had dwindled to five.

Hostiles (US 2017)

Rosalee (Rosamund Pike) and Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), looking glum – as they might in the circumstances

Sometimes I feel sorry for film reviewers. If you have to respond with a tight deadline to watching a film like Hostiles it must be very difficult. Here is a film which is beautifully presented with some excellent performances but also with a very iffy script and some equally questionable didactic urges. Do you slam the film or try to justify it? An experienced reviewer like Philip Kemp in Sight and Sound (January 2018) can just about get away with a negative response slightly sweetened by discussion of the good points. But I’ve also seen some 10/10 user reviews on IMDb. I confess that I was a little suspicious when the ads for the film in the UK quoted glowing reviews from several publications I didn’t recognise.

Fortunately, I don’t have to score the film. Instead, I’ll try to explain what I think it’s doing and what the problems are. However, I am intrigued by the US companies who financed this $40 million independent film. It was picked up by Entertainment Film Distributors for selected UK multiplexes but I fear that its pacing alone will deter the popcorn crowd.

Wes Studi as Yellow Hawk tries to give advice about dealing with Comanche rebels

The first issue with the film is its location in the history of the West and the Western. We are supposedly in 1892 in New Mexico, which seems rather late to be dealing with Comanche rebels and a journey to escort a Cheyenne warrior and his family from prison in the South West to his homeland in Montana after seven years in captivity. The prisoner is Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) who has terminal cancer and the escort is to be led by a reluctant veteran ‘Indian fighter’, Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) on a last mission before his retirement. Soon after the party leaves the fort, they come across Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the only survivor of a raid by those Comanche rebels on a settler family’s homestead. The party will gather (and lose) members as it encounters various groups on its way to Montana and a final showdown. The party that left the fort included a ‘Buffalo soldier’, another hard-bitten Indian hunter, a raw French recruit and a greenhorn Lieutenant – a generic grouping for a Western narrative. The whole set-up seemed wrong in terms of historical period to me and when I came across some pre-publicity for the film which dated the events as 1882 that made more sense. To put this in context, the major battle of Little Big Horn and its consequences covers the period from 1876 to 1881 (the Northern Cheyenne fought with the Lakota of Sitting Bull). After that the focus on the final acts of the Indian Wars was on the Apache and the tribes of the South West.

Rosalee (who has lost her family to Comanche rebels) becomes protector of Cheyenne women and child

But perhaps this doesn’t matter. Much more important is the exploration of the guilt of the coloniser which in this film seems to be represented in ways which are perhaps easily dismissed as anachronistic. Several of the (white) characters seem to perform an abrupt volte face, switching from hatred of ‘savages’ to true respect for Cheyenne culture. These questions are the fulcrum for readings of the film which veer from condemnation for being too politically correct and turning away from the genre towards being accepting of our contemporary views and a denial of historical perspective. The film takes itself very seriously and is in many ways wedded to gloom. It begins with a D. H. Lawrence quote about the American soul – “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted” (Studies in Classic American Literature, 1923). Characters discuss their faith and one concludes that “God is blind” to what has happened in the West. Before I saw the film, somebody described it as violent. Many people are killed in the film, but not as many as in some other Hollywood action pictures. It is the film’s own seriousness (emphasised by sparse and spare dialogue and a Max Richter score) which gives the deaths a proper importance in the narrative.

The film is written, directed and produced by Scott Cooper. I did see Cooper’s first film, the country music romance Crazy Heart (US 2010), but not his next two, Out of the Furnace (2013) and Black Mass (2015). Reading reviews, it would appear that Cooper is interested in strong character-driven narratives with a measured pace (Cooper was first an actor). He certainly uses genre narratives but appears not want to consciously work with or against genre expectations. On this basis, the meaning of Hostiles is to be found in Christian Bale’s character (Bale was also the lead in Out of the Furnace). But in relation to a genre as deeply embedded in the American psyche as the Western, Bale’s character is inevitably going to be read in terms of specific earlier Westerns and their characters. On this score, Cooper, in an interview with MovieMaker magazine seems to be confused in his understanding of the Western and what he is trying to achieve (though the interview is not well sub-edited):

I don’t think much in terms of genre . . . while it is set in the American West, in 1892, I wanted it to be more about a human journey, a psychological journey. If anything it’s a psychological western in the vein of Anthony Mann. There were a couple of shots where I paid homage to John Ford’s The Searchers. I don’t think it’s a western, it has more in common with Joseph Conrad or Larry McMurtry or Louis L’Amour.

It’s that last part that baffles me. Perhaps he said “Conrad not McMurtry or L’Amour”, since the latter are two of the best-known writers of Western novels.

The five soldiers who start the journey. “Who will survive?” might be the genre question.

At this point I should state that the real strength of the film is the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi who worked on earlier films by Cooper and also Spotlight, the 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner. Here in an interview he recounts how he and Cooper worked only on location and how he changed film stock to deal with dramatic changes in weather conditions. The results are stunning and they immediately lead us to think about Anthony Mann Westerns and possibly the Peckinpah of Ride the High Country (1962). But as Cooper suggests, the central emotional trigger is John Wayne’s performance as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956). Cooper even goes as far as claiming that the end of his film in some way responds to the famous ending of The Searchers. I won’t spoil what happens in Cooper’s film. It is interesting, but doesn’t have the power of Ford’s ending. Ethan Edwards is one of the great creations of the Hollywood Western. As Martin Scorsese says about him, he’s not a villain but he’s despicable. Ethan’s hatred of the Comanche is deeply rooted but it is accompanied by cultural knowledge about his enemy. He can keep his anger under control when faced with Martin Pawley and his own niece Lucy, both of whom are ‘tainted’ in his eyes by their links to Native Americans. But control is not enough to allow Ethan back into the American family/community. He remains as the French title of the film suggests, a ‘Prisoner of the Desert’.

Here is what Cooper says about his narrative (the script was worked up from an original by Donald E. Stewart, a well-known screenwriter who died in 1999:

I placed the action from New Mexico to Montana. It would allow me to speak to what’s happening in America today, in terms of race. The racial divide in our country is widening. We’re living in polarized times, and I wanted to speak to this notion that we need to better understand one another and to reconcile. I think America needs to heal. My characters’ journey from New Mexico to Montana becomes an enlightenment. I wanted to speak to what I see is an America looming down a dark and dangerous path.

Blocker at the Cheyenne burial ground. Like Ethan Edwards, he knows something of his enemy’s culture – and his language

Ethan Edwards in 1956 was a complex character stirring up questions about race and racial difference in an America still to experience the full force of Civil Rights. Bale’s Captain Blocker faces similar questions in 2017 when America is a very different (but still conflicted) society. I don’t feel that Blocker, as written, can carry or express the emotions that Cooper has in mind. Here is a final extract from Cooper’s interview, in response to those comments about the violence in the film:

. . . the American West, while majestic, was very violent. As wars generally begin, it’s all about resources and land. The United States government was trying to impose its will on Indigenous peoples. There is a dark and unforgivable past of attempted genocide. I wanted the movie to be punctuated by moments of extreme violence. I abhor violence, but these very violent and vivid encounters on the road end up informing the characters emotionally and psychologically in a way that really spoke to the difficulties in trying to achieve Manifest Destiny.

‘Manifest Destiny’ was the belief in the United States that ‘Americans’ (i.e. of white European stock) were destined to spread across the United States, settling the land and creating a free society which persecution had denied them or their forefathers in Europe. This would inevitably mean annexing the lands of Native Americans. Ironically, in 1892 when Captain Blocker’s orders come directly from Republican President Benjamin Harrison, the Republican platform for the November presidential election re-affirmed a belief in that ‘Manifest Destiny’ which was beginning to fade. The Republicans lost the election but returned in 1896 when the ‘Western frontier’ was effectively ‘civilised’. American expansionism then turned overseas to the Spanish-American Wars and the pursuit of American power across the rest of the Americas.

I think my final thoughts are that Scott Cooper may be sincere in what he is attempting, but that he is trying to do too much and perhaps he needs to spend more time watching Westerns. But then is possibly better to attempt too much rather than to succumb to the limited aims of much of contemporary American filmmaking. I was never bored by Hostiles and those landscapes are amazing. The trailer below does include a ‘Searchers moment’ and some of the terrific ‘figures in a landscape’ cinematography.