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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.

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’.

An Introduction to Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno Spain-Mexico-USA, 2006)

Cover copy

I’ve recently published a study guide (you can buy it here). Here’s the introduction: 

Pan’s Labyrinth  is set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish civil war, when the last of the resistance to the fascist forces of General Franco were being crushed. However the inspiration for the film was the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks on America. In his illuminating ‘Director’s commentary’ Guillermo del Toro states his perception of “brutality, innocence and war” changed after the destruction of the ‘two towers’ in New York. He saw that the response in America to the attacks was one of fear and obedience to a national authoritarian mandate. An example of this was when the American press failed to challenge President George W. Bush’s insistence that Iraq had to be invaded because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of ‘mass destruction’. This proved to be a lie and although the military intervention deposed the dictator it resulted increased conflict in the region. More recently the authoritarian instincts of President Trump have further tarnished America’s reputation in the world.

In his commentary del Toro was emphasising that the film is not specifically about Spain in 1944, although it has much to tell us about the psychology of fascists. By using the tropes of the fairy tale the film juxtaposes the worldview of an 11-year-old girl, who is open to new experiences, and the restricted mind-set of her fascist stepfather. By mixing the ‘innocent’ world of the pre-pubescent girl with the grim realities of Franco’s repressive Spain, del Toro shows that the brutality inherent in the authoritarian mind-set has no place in civilised society.

Del Toro’s film blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy and illustrates how close-mindedness and self-interest corrupt the human spirit. There is a feeling of doom hanging over the film because we know the resistance, who fought against the fascists, lost their battle and Spain suffered over 30 more years of Francoist rule. Because of this we may feel that Ofelia is better off dead as Princess Moana than alive in a corrupt world. Whether she is dead or actually transformed into a princess is a key question in the film. As we shall see for del Toro there’s no doubt that she survives but the film itself is more ambivalent.

Although the film isn’t about the Spanish civil war only it is helpful to understand the historical context.

The Spanish Civil War

The Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931 and in 1936 the Popular Front, a coalition of left wing organisations, won power in an election. Later that year a coup d’etat was thwarted however this led to the start of the civil war where right wing groups, led by the military, rebelled against the democratically elected administration. In Morocco, part of which was at the time a protectorate of Spain, General Franco emerged as the rebel’s leader and, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, was victorious after nearly three years of war. The Catholic Church, highly influential in Spain, supported the fascists.

Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. Afterwards, the monarchy was restored and democracy returned though only at the cost of burying the past. The ‘Pact of Forgetting’, instituted during the transition to democracy, meant that there could be no recriminations for crimes committed during the Franco years but also that memorials to Franco were no longer maintained. It wasn’t until the Law of Historical Memory was enacted in 2007 that it became possible to officially exhume the past, both actually and metaphorically. Attempts were made to identify victims buried in mass graves and to acknowledge the crimes of the Franco era. However, when a conservative government was elected in 2011 support for the law was withdrawn. When, in 2018, the socialists regained power they proposed a ‘truth commission’ to ensure, amongst other things, those with criminal records for opposing Franco would have their names cleared.

Unsurprisingly a number of Spanish films from these years focused on the theme of coming to terms with the past and ghosts were often used as a metaphor:

Their here-but-not-here borderline existence, between the dead and the living, blurs the binary divide that constructs our perception of reality. Ghosts remind us that we need to confront our past if we want to move ahead and construct a better future. (Colmeiro 2011)

Del Toro was responsible for two of these: his third film as a director, The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo, Spain-Mexico-France-Argentina, 2001), and The Orphanage (El orfanato, Spain, 2007), which he produced. The blurred ‘binary divide’ between reality and fantasy is important in Pan’s Labyrinth too. This film reminds us of those who fought a losing battle against fascism to ensure, hopefully, we do not allow fascists to take power again. 

Although del Toro is Mexican, tens of thousands of Spaniards went into exile in his country so the war is also part of his heritage. This no doubt helped him represent a Spanish perspective on the war convincingly unlike Ken Loach whose Land and Freedom (UK-Spain-Germany-Italy-France, 1995), whilst a gripping film, is more obviously one made by an outsider.

Conclusion

Pan’s Labyrinth was a considerable box office success, even outside Spain. The hegemony of Hollywood in the west means that, generally, non-American films struggle to make an impact outside their home markets. Pan’s Labyrinth was successful because of the emotional engagement audiences had with Ofelia’s plight and the supreme craft of the film. It is a terrible state of affairs that his warning against the fascist mind set is even more relevant today than it was when the film was released. After the failure of ‘free market capitalism’, seen most obviously in the financial crash of 2008, right wing populism has made strides at the ballot box in many countries. Del Toro’s humanism is a potent antidote to this inward-looking politics and his film can be read as a warning, through Ofelia’s death, that we are in danger of giving in to the fear whipped up by demagogues.

Devotion (US 1946)

The ball scene with (from left) Anne Brontë (Nancy Coleman), Emily (Ida Lupino), Charlotte (Olivia de Havilland) and Rev. Nicholls (Paul Henreid)

Devotion is a film seemingly disowned by Warner Bros and derided by critics – but enjoyed by many audiences (though perhaps not devoted fans of the Brontë Sisters). Warner Bros. was a studio known for biopics and this one features the best known members of the Brontë family, starring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland as Emily and Charlotte. It was potentially a prestige production with Paul Henreid as the curate Rev. Collins, Sidney Greenstreet as William Thackeray and Arthur Kennedy as the dissolute brother, Branwell. Olivia de Havilland was at this point in dispute with Warners over her contract and Jack Warner, in a typical move, ‘punished’ her by giving her third billing. For the second time (after High Sierra), Ida Lupino found herself with top billing by default – which is equally demeaning. She does however, come out as the best performer in the cast (and that’s not just my opinion). Whether Jack Warner’s action was also the reason for holding back the film’s release until 1946 (it was made over the winter months of 1942-3) is not clear, but in his biography of Ida Lupino, William Donati states that Warner Bros. did not even tell Olivia de Havilland about the film’s première. She only learned about it when Ida Lupino phoned her to compliment her on her work on the picture. There is a new biography of de Havilland by Victoria Amador, entitled Lady Triumphant, University Press of Kentucky, 2019. Perhaps this will reveal more of exactly what happened when de Havilland took Warner Bros to court in August 1943? She won her case and the so-called ‘De Havilland Law’ of 1944 restricted the studio’s contractual hold over players to seven calendar years. Since de Havilland signed in 1936 she was thus free of Warners’ control. Lupino benefited from this when she left the studio in 1947.

Rather than a Warners biopic, it is more likely that the studio saw Devotion as a response to Goldwyn’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939) with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier and also as competition for Fox’s Jane Eyre with Orson Welles’ and de Havilland’s sister Joan Fontaine (which opened in the UK and Ireland on Christmas Eve 1943).

Donati, like many others felt that it was a mediocre picture that doesn’t work. But is it that bad? To add to the prestige cast, the film was photographed by the great Ernie Haller and it had an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score. Director Curtis Bernhardt had an impressive back catalogue in Germany, the UK and France but he had only been at Warner Bros since 1940 so perhaps he wasn’t able to stand up to Jack Warner or to demand changes to the preposterous script. Presumably, to fit the Brontë story into a mainstream generic narrative, the script contrives a scenario whereby Emily falls for her father’s new curate but cannot express her love and in effect becomes involved in a contest with Charlotte (who did actually marry the historical figure of Arthur Nicholls). The other historical events are moved around to suit the construction of a conventional narrative. This is not necessarily a problem for most audiences but the way the conflict between Emily and Charlotte is represented surely is. I feel that there is a strange contradiction in the casting. In one sense Lupino and de Havilland are cast as characters who do match each star’s own screen persona. Ida Lupino is the passionate and intense Emily and Olivia de Havilland is the colder, more rational Charlotte. That’s fine and so is the age difference. Olivia de Havilland was a couple of years older than Lupino and that fits with Charlotte as the older sister. But the performances contradict this.

For me Lupino feels older, or more precisely, more ‘mature’. Olivia de Havilland comes across as a head girl type, a little prissy and certainly bossy but not really aware of what she is doing. Lupino is more ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’. She also has a deeper voice and, as several commentators have pointed out, although the script is not very good, Ida Lupino manages to handle it much more effectively – it seems to make some sense when she speaks the lines. Other aspects of the production seem to confirm the distinction. Olivia de Havilland was at this point much more experienced in historical roles (all those prestige adventure pics with Errol Flynn) and her hairstyle and dresses in Devotion are not unlike those of a cavalry officer’s wife in They Died With Their Boots On (1941). Lupino’s hair and dress are more simple and more appropriate for a young woman on Haworth Moor – though the dress that laces up the front looks like a costume from The Adventures of Robin Hood.

An unlikely pose for the Brontë siblings on the studio set for Haworth Moor

The script is indeed terrible, but the cinematography, of mainly studio sets, is excellent and all the performances are better than the script deserves. It’s interesting to see Arthur Kennedy as Branwell. He seems to have spent a long time as a ‘junior’ figure in Hollywood films even though he was 29 when he took on this role. In one of his later roles, in The Lusty Men (1952), he plays the novice to Robert Mitchum’s ‘veteran’ rodeo rider (Mitchum was three years younger). It makes me wonder if the delayed release of Devotion held Kennedy’s career back. Nancy Coleman as Anne Brontë is marginalised by the script. Anne was herself a novelist, possibly the first of the three sisters to complete a book (Anne Grey, published in a ‘triple volume’ with Emily’s Wuthering Heights). Later she wrote the Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Presumably the intention was to streamline the biopic narrative so that Anne’s position in the family is diminished. Again the casting seems odd. Anne, the youngest sister, was played by the eldest of the three actresses, although the one with least experience.

Everything comes back to the script. It appears to derive from a story written by the Romanian-born Theodore Reeves which was then worked into a screenplay by Keith Winter and Edward Chodorov. There is no reason to question the good intentions of these two writers. Winter was Welsh and had already worked on Forever and a Day which included a Lupino cameo in 1943 (though, because it was a ‘compendium film’, they might not have met). Chodorov would later become the writer for one of Ida Lupino’s most successful films, Road House in 1948. I can only assume that it was ‘front office pressure’ that produced such a strange script. Looking at the cast in 1943, it may have been that Warner Bros thought an ‘English story’ using several of Hollywood’s pool of British acting talent would work well in the context of America’s entry into the war.

One of the intriguing compositions featuring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland

I shouldn’t end without some praise for Curtis Bernhardt’s direction. I enjoyed the film despite the silly script and read it as a ‘romance melodrama’ edging towards the ‘woman’s picture’ of the period. There is a Region 1 DVD from Warner Brothers – see the second trailer above. If you are in the UK, the Parsonage Museum in Haworth puts on screenings of the US DVD fairly regularly. I saw it in Haworth a few months ago.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (UK-Malawi 2019)

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The boy who challenged his dad

‘True life’ stories are invariably uplifting and the title gives away the film’s denouement. While that’s not a reason to avoid a film I was feeling a little uneasy about the prospect of being made to feel good about a film set in rural Africa. Was the purpose of the film to salve my western guilt about those less privileged than I?

There was no need to worry because director-star and scriptwriter Chiwetel Ejiofor has ensured that there’s enough realpolitik about, in this case, rural Malawi that the uplifting ending can’t disguise the privation suffered by the people. The film is based on the titular hero’s book and we duly get the end credits filling in what happened to William Kamkwamba next. But the journey there is truly tough as Ejiofor ensures we understand the problems of education, politics, climate change and capitalism that beset the village community. Most striking of all is the need for free education for all children.

Ejiofor plays William’s dad I wondered whether his charisma was a little too powerful for his character, the melodramatically named (and presumably actually named too), Trywell. Obviously his star wattage was essential to getting the movie made and he, creditably, even learned to speak the local language, Chichewa, though much of the film is also in English. However, he is such a fine actor, and patriarchy is so strong in the African community, that ultimately the casting worked because it made clear how hard it was for William to challenge his dad.

Ejiofor defended the decision to distribute via Netflix (see here) but his hope that it would also be seen in cinemas appears to have been dashed (apart from some festival screenings). Obviously much is lost on television when the cinematography, courtesy of Dick Pope, is widescreen. Presumably the BBC’s involvement means it won’t be too long before it appears on terrestrial television.

As Extinction Rebellion activists make their presence felt, it’s important to see the impact climate change is having on communities who live on the verge of starvation. It might give some perspective to the whingers who have been complaining about the prospect of having to change their lives or face annihilation. It seems some believe that climate catastrophe will only affect poor countries (I spoke to an American who was relaxed about the idea that Bangladesh will disappear), not understanding that there is only one ecosystem on planet Earth.