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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’.

Disobedience (UK-US-Belgium 2017)

The three central characters concerned with ‘disobedience’, (from left) Ronit (Rachel Weisz), Esti (Rachel McAdams} and David (Alessandro Nivola)

Disobedience is a wonderful film. It is quite a feat to make a film nearly two hours long that focuses on the intimate relationships of three childhood friends in later life plus the significant absence of a father and short sequences with assorted relatives and fellow members of a religious community. It is even more remarkable when English isn’t your first language and your film is set in a closed community that you don’t necessarily know much about. I’d read something about the film and the book it was based on, but as often happens these days, I immediately forgot who the director was. Part way through the film I thought this must be a female director who is handling these scenes so sensitively and I remembered that the film is an adaptation of a novel by Naomi Alderman. The end credits reminded me it was actually the Chilean auteur Sebastián Lelio in the middle of a run of three films made over two years. A Fantastic Woman arrived in the UK earlier this year and his English language remake of his own Gloria (2013) is released in the US next year.

David meets Ronit at the door

Time for a fag-break or an opportunity to talk in private?

Lelio approaches his task with two familiar strategies. One is a ‘don’t explain’ approach in which audiences are required to wait and attempt to puzzle out who is related to whom when Rachel Weisz as Ronit Krushka lands back in North London from New York. We work out quickly that she is the daughter of the Rabbi Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) who died during the opening sequence in his synagogue. But whose house are we now in and what do all these people mean to Ronit? Ronit has decided to live ‘outside’ this very specific Jewish community as a single woman working as an art photographer. Her single status and her professional life is a concern for her relatives. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll just say that Ronit is welcomed by Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), who she has known since childhood and who was her father’s protegé. Eventually she will also meet Esti (Rachel McAdams) who was the third member of a childhood trio. At this point I feel I need to say that Esti looks younger than the other two. In one sense this isn’t a problem but the script insists that they were together as children and Weisz and Nivola are 8 and 6 years older than McAdams. Perhaps this is a commentary on the ‘maturity’ of characters rather than actual age? I only mention this because the age difference is palpable. It also makes it more difficult to work out how the characters are related.

Ronit finds three young scholars by her father’s modest grave

The second strategy is to use a shooting style that switches between long shots and close-ups. The film was shot mainly in streets of semi-detached houses in Hendon. The close-up style at times uses a very shallow field of focus so that characters move into and out of focus very quickly. There is a tension between the ‘openness’ of the long shots of streets and the confining atmosphere of the ‘closed’ community. The author of the original novel, Naomi Alderman writes in the Guardian about how she felt watching the adaptation of her novel about the frumkeit of Hendon, the very specific Orthodox Jewish community in North London. I hadn’t realised that there are important differences between this community and those of Golders Green and other parts of North London, especially Stamford Hill, the centre of Ultra Orthodox congregations. Ms Alderman suggests her novel, written during the aftermath of 9/11 in New York, was the first to focus on this kind of Jewish community since George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda in 1876. She suggests that there have been others since. She wrote the novel while still ‘frum‘ or ‘observant’ of the teachings of her synagogue and writing it was part of the process of acknowledging her LGBT+ status. All of this is part of the film and when Esti and Ronit ‘escape’ the confines of the community, they find a hotel in Central London where they can rekindle the passion they had for each other as teenagers.

Ronit and Esti ‘escape’ to the West End. The alley-way here seems almost like an escape passage

The film’s narrative is kept almost completely within the community apart from the episode referenced above. This means that it isn’t a narrative about conflict between the community and the wider world but rather, as the title suggests, within the community itself, posing the question of the freedom to act and what pursuing or prohibiting that freedom means in terms of obedience/disobedience. There is a danger, perhaps, of treating the restraints of such a life style as ‘exotic’, but I think that is avoided in Lelio’s presentation of the story. My one disappointment with the film is that there are no subtitles for the Hebrew spoken in the synagogue. I’m assuming that there is also Yiddish spoken in the film (‘frum‘ as I understand derives from Yiddish?). I’d have liked to know more about what was being said but perhaps this ‘withholding’ of knowledge is part of Lelio’s approach as outlined above. I knew there was something odd about Esti’s hair, but I hadn’t realised that a sheitel or wig was required for a married woman in the community.

David in the synagogue where he is expected to succeed Rav. What does ‘disobedience’ mean to him?

The success of the film depends to a large extent on the performances of the three leads and the supporting cast, including Alan Corduner as Uncle Moshe. In some ways, the key role is Dovid and Alessandro Nivola manages to represent a character whose actions appear ambivalent. He is in the opening scene as his mentor makes his final speech about freedom and he is the one who makes crucial decisions about freedom at the end of the film. In between we can’t be absolutely sure what he is thinking or indeed feeling – but it is a struggle. It is the two women who seem able to be able to act, to some extent, on their emotional impulses. The film should be a melodrama but Lelio’s approach drains much of the potential for ‘excess’ in the colour and mise en scène – several scenes deal with the rituals of mourning and remembering the absent father figure. But there is music and the small group singing, especially of male voices, is very affecting.

Rachel Weisz was a producer on the film having optioned the novel. I’m not sure how much she was then involved as a producer. The crew list includes many ‘executive’ and ‘line’ producers and I suspect the major burden was borne by Frida Torresblanco of Braven Films. She is a significant figure in Hispanic films, now based in New York. I’m not generally pleased with the trend for filmmakers from smaller producing countries to move in anglophone productions but I have to admit that Sebastián Lelio is very successful with this venture and I look forward to Gloria Bell – I just hope we get it sooner rather than later.

PS. Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC1 about the history of the Jewish community in Leeds. This seemed to have a ‘Reformed’ rather than Orthodox practice but it was equally revealing about migration and a community within a community. A Very British History: The Jews of Leeds is on iPlayer for 29 days.

LFF 2018 #1: Crystal Swan (Khrustal, Belarus-Russia-Germany-US 2018)

Velya (Alina Nasibullina) in a flea market in Minsk

The first of this year’s London Film Festival offerings that I was able to catch was introduced by a festival advisor as something exotic – a film from Belarus. And indeed, Belarus does produce very few films. It’s very much an ‘in between’ part of the world – in between Poland and Russia, the Baltic states and Ukraine. Throughout history it seems to have been occupied by its neighbours and the present state dates only from the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990. It is known for its autocratic president in power since 1994 and has some of the lowest international standings for press freedom and general democracy indicators. A place to get away from perhaps? That is certainly true for the film’s protagonist Velya (Alina Nasibullina). The year is 1996 and Velya, a young woman in her early 20s is determined to acquire a US visa, allowing her to travel to Chicago, the home of ‘house music’. Velya is a law graduate but would prefer to be a DJ rather than practise law.

During a spirited intro and a Q&A after the screening the seemingly appreciative audience learned that the writer-director Darya Zhuk was actually drawing on her own experiences in the 1990s. She did get to the US to study film and has now been able to find funding outside the state system to make her début feature. Crystal Swan was programmed by LFF in its ‘Laugh’ strand. I find these strands annoying and often misleading. I certainly smirked a few times and might even have laughed out loud on occasion, but this isn’t what I would see as a simple comedy. Instead it is more akin to the kind of social satire that is often found in Eastern European cinema and I was reminded of several films, but most of all a Romanian film from 2011, Adalbert’s Dream. That film was set in 1986 before the end of Soviet-style communism but the social satire is similar.

The basic premise of the plot is that Velya attempts to forge a letter presented to the US Embassy purporting to confirm that she is a manager at a small crystalware glass factory (she buys a letterhead for the factory’s stationery). But she makes a mistake with the phone number of the factory and when the Embassy official tells her that they will phone the factory to confirm details, she realises the hole she has fallen into. She must travel to the town known as ‘Crystal’ and find the house with the telephone fitting the number on her application and attempt to intercept the Embassy’s call. Cue general mayhem in small-town Belarus, where the household in question is preparing for the wedding of the son of the house. Just like weddings in the North of England, a wedding in Belarus brings out the best and the worst of guests, especially when fuelled by vodka.

I was engaged by the film and I enjoyed it up to a point. There aren’t many dull moments and most of the time there is genuine vitality in the storytelling. For a début film it works well and there is a great performance in the lead role. Alina Nasibullina is intelligent, attractive and vivacious with her colourful outfits, but the narrative includes very dark moments as well as moments of slapstick and good humour. In this sense it is a film for the #MeToo generation. Darya Zhuk told us that when she accompanied film screenings in the East of Belarus (i.e. closer to Russia) she did get a significant number of negative comments (about insulting the Motherland), but when she screened the film in the capital Minsk and in the West of the country it was generally well-received. This makes sense. The script doesn’t pull punches. The men in Crystal behave badly after too much vodka and there is an odd sub-plot involving Velya’s mother (the curator of a Minsk museum celebrating the success of Minsk’s population in the fight against the Nazis) and Velya’s dopehead boyfriend. During the Q&A the film’s supporters were vocal in their praise and I suspect Crystal Swan might do well in the US. I doubt it will get a UK release but you never can tell. The title, by the way, refers to one of the products of the factory which since independence has laid off workers and paid compensation in the form of glassware. The only real hope in the film is that the youngest boy in the Crystal family may turn out OK. Otherwise the film has an open ending.

As the trailer below indicates, the film is presented in Academy ratio. I think the director said she thought this was appropriate to re-produce the way she saw things in the 1990s before TVs in Belarus went widescreen. The trailer also features the bright and optimistic colours that Velya wears.

Some Reflections on Agnès Varda and Visages, villages (Faces, places, France 2017)

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Figure 1: Visages villages (2017)

[This review does discuss the film’s events in some detail, including its conclusion.]

Agnès Varda’s latest film, Visages, villages (2017), is a collaboration with the artist-photographer, JR. It brings to life again the cinema she has described herself as a ‘cinéma d’auteur-témoin’, an ambiguous phrase which can be loosely translated as the ‘cinema of the author-as-witness.’ Varda discussed how she felt uncomfortable with the word, ‘auteur’, presumably recognising its cultural resonances in relation to the figure of the filmmaker filtered through the French New Wave critics’ imagination; a person who authors the text and controls a vision, through images and sound.

One of Varda’s auteurist traits has been a control of bringing other voices into her films and a deep empathy for her subjects. Her films have been consistently celebrated as they represent a different, more apparently inclusive form of cinema.  She came to a much wider audience with Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000) an odyssey through the French countryside and cities sharing and witnessing as to the activity of gleaning from the waste that others throw away. The heart-shaped potato became a powerful symbol from that film, representing the mountains of allegedly misshapen potatoes that the supermarket buyers leave behind as too unappealing to go on their shelves. Varda, through her technique of juxtaposition effects, in Mireille Rosello’s words, a ‘surrealist encounter between the word heart and the dull potato’, creating a new set of associations. The abandoned potatoes are a metaphor for the people that she meets that somehow sit outside of society or are ‘misshapen’ in terms of normal ways of living.  As with her potato art installation (Figure 2), she gives them space within her film to tell their stories, to show their accomplishments and creativity and to interact with Varda who happily stages these encounters so that they are entertaining and often very moving. Varda understands that what she is doing should appear effortless, almost ‘throw-away’ in its own technique; however, her work is tightly constructed as a piece of performance art. The little old lady she has played in her later documentaries has created a receptive context for drawing performances out of her contributors.

Later in the film, Varda films her own ageing skin (then at seventy-eight years old) and comments on the ‘horror’ of this process. Her wish to acknowledge her ageing is present in her trademark two-tone hair colour.  Varda’s deep empathy and understanding shown by her interviews and revelations generated many personal letters by return, where audiences sent her stories and images based on the heart-shaped potatoes. It was acknowledgement of how many of us feel we may really fit that allegedly marginal, misshapen category.

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Figure 2: Les glaneur et la glaneuse (2000). Ciné-Tamaris.

Similar in its structure, Visages, villages (Faces, Places (2017)) moves into slightly different territory through a collaboration with fellow artist, JR.  At ninety years old, one might presume that Varda was bringing in a companion to take away some of the burden of artistic control. In fact, this is another development of her ‘cinema d’auteur-témoin’ and a vibrant intellectual interaction between them through the film. The project arose out of the sympathetic strands of their individual projects between the young photographer-artist and the nonagenarian. JR undertakes his own kinds of odyssey in his work, making poster portraits of ordinary people in his travelling photo studio. These images are then placed on structures that relate to the subjects and their experiences. The French title, Visages, Villages indicates their plan to visit only villages on the trip (and also recalls Varda’s consistent love of rhythm and rhyme in her writing for the cinema, especially her voiceovers). The film foregrounds another series of moving testimonies, such as the image of the last inhabitant still in place in the mining village (Figure 1 above), the image of the women who work closely with their husbands at the dockyard or the face of Varda’s early model and friend, Guy Bourdin, who himself went on to be a photographer.

Varda and JR’s relationship is staged onscreen, but there is an affecting conviviality and mutual respect, often indicated by the insults directed towards each other. They joust pleasantly over a running joke about JR removing his glasses. This, as is pointed out, triggers a memory for Varda of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s propensity never to remove his glasses. Godard was a close associate of hers as part of the French New Wave, introduced to her by Jacques Demy, Varda’s future husband at the time. She has described Godard as the ‘chercheur‘, the seeker, a word she repeats on camera here and as containing a genius situated in his deep silence, a stillness that keeps him separate from others. Varda managed to persuade Godard to reveal his ‘sad eyes’, for a short film she made, Les Fiancés de Pont Macdonald (1961). It is the film that Cléo/Florence (Corinne Marchand)) and her friend, Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) watch together through the projectionist’s window at the cinema during their Parisian car jaunt in Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962).

Travelling marks many of Varda’s films. Her early films reflected her travels, after leaving home as a young women, to the south coast of France. Varda mended nets with fishermen and lived amongst them; her first feature, La Pointe-Courte (1955) records the rhythm of the lives of fishermen and their families in Sète (alongside a more surreal narrative). Varda, living in Paris, pursued topics in and among her neighbours, including L’opéra-Mouffe (1958), Daguerréotypes (1976), Ulysse (1982) and Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988)Varda went with Demy to Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s, as part of joint explorations with Hollywood studios, where she made the essay film, Oncle Yanco (1967) and the surrealist, erotic fantasy Lions Love ( . . . and Lies) (1969).  She returned to L.A. in the early  1980s, and made the short fiction Documenteur (1981) and the essay film Mur Murs (1981). In both instances, there were failed negotiations regarding projects with the American studios.

Varda’s travels, therefore, have become an integral part of her biographical and artistic narrative, continued in her third age with her television series, Agnès de ci de là Varda (2011), where she travels to other countries and encounters other people, including other artists. (Other artists have long before featured in her work, including Ydessa Hendeles’ Teddy Bear Project in Ydessa, les ours et etc (2004). Each episode of this television series began with a short verse outlining the impetus for travel, being the pruning of the trees in her courtyard at Rue Daguerre, the home she has lived in for over sixty years. The title sequence joke runs that by the time they have returned, the tree need pruning again.

In the same way, Visages villages is concerned with movement in space and questions of time and memory (a preoccupation across Varda’s work). Going on the road with another artist enables her to extend the possibilities, creating a dynamic between two ‘auteur-témoin(s)’, both sharing a fascination with the lives of others. JR is a good match for Varda, both enjoying playing with ephemera and playing with whimsical commentary. Delving into people’s histories and working in temporary materials means that time as a subjective medium is very prevalent in the film. JR’s art installations are temporary posters which will only survive until the elements wash or wear them away. His creations are always destined to be destroyed by the weather. This is particularly brutal in the case of a recovered Varda photograph of Guy Bourdin, memorialised on a beach by JR.  Its complete disappearance by the next day reminds us how much these two artists are working with time and what passes – through travelling, gleaning and recycling. It becomes less about image being constructed and more about the new practice made by JR and Varda and their interplay in the moment of recreating the photo. All that remains is the photographic and filmed record of their work together and their group photograph at its completion.

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Figure 3: Les plages d’Agnès (2008). Ciné-Tamaris.

Varda comments in Visages villages on the workings of the ‘mise-en-abyme’, which is appropriate to this and other moments in the film, when we are looking at the subjects inside or in front of the images of themselves (as in Figure 1). In some ways, it appears as if they are standing inside their own past selves. It is a trope very familiar in Varda because of her fascination with the passing of time and how we relate to our former selves. At the end of Les plages d’Agnès, she sits in her house on Rue Daguerre with her eighty brooms, delivered for her birthday by friends and neighbours. She comments at this point, the moment is already gone, as the filmed image recedes in upon itself (Figure 3).

The loose structure of Visages villages does disguise one underlying narrative, based on an echo of the past into the present, which is the movement towards visiting Godard created by his resemblance to JR. In the last scene, at Godard’s house in Switzerland, a planned visit is thwarted by the French New Wave legend’s unavailability. Godard appears to be playing against the role Varda has made up for him; he does not want to appear as part of someone else’s odyssey. He has written a message on his porch window, referring to his condolence note to Varda on the death of her husband, Jacques Demy. The note recalled happier times, dining together with Demy, placing a very personal note in the public space (window and film).

This moment could be part of the narrative construct; perhaps Varda anticipated he would not be willing to appear on camera. However, she is clearly deeply upset and takes several moments to verbally accept what Godard has done. Varda onscreen in her later films has been, in her playful words, the ‘little old lady’; however, one who has performed her unassuaged grief at Demy’s loss (in 1992), a grief she has turned into art to bear witness to an experience we all have had or will suffer. Les veuves de Noirmoitier (2006),

Other echoes in respect of Demy enter the current film. Varda filmed Demy, shortly before his death, during Les plages d’Agnès (2008), following the contours of his face and focussing on his eye.  Varda is gleaning parts of him, capturing them on film, before she loses him forever (Figure 4). Exhibiting these fragmented images in the film accentuates the loss, being all she has of Demy now.

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Figure 4: Les plages d’Agnès (2008)

Artistically, a new echo is created in Visages villages when JR photographs Varda in close-up, taking her eyes and her feet. He places these images on a train, so that she can continue her odyssey to places she cannot go to now she is the age she is.  However, this strikes a new emotional note. It is not a capturing or preserving of someone who is disappearing; instead, it affirms and celebrates his witnessing of her intellectual vigour. It sends Varda off, in virtual form, to continue to look and to travel and to create ‘surrealist encounters’, just like the one they have enjoyed together as artists. [SPOILER] JR’s removal of his glasses, brilliantly executed by the camerawork (having spoilt that part, I will avoid a further technical spoiler), is the perfect narrative conclusion as if devised from the start, having guessed at Godard’s unavailability. However, the warmth of their relationship, his obvious distress at her distress, makes the moment completely emotionally engaging as well as providing a satisfying conclusion. If Godard is to be known as a chercheur, then Varda deserves the sobriquet equally, still producing her intellectually demanding meditations on time, memory and our relationships to each other. JR knew he had to run – intellectually just to keep up.

References

Conway, K. (2010). ‘Agnès Varda at Work’, Studies in French Cinema,  10(2), pp.125-139.

Murray, R. (2015). ‘The Significance of Agnès Varda’s Old Lady Onscreen.’ in Jermyn, D. and Homes, S, (eds). Freeze-frame. Women, Celebrity & Cultures of Ageing. (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan).

Rosello, M. (2006). ‘Agnès Varda’s Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse. Portrait of the Artist as an Old Lady’, Studies in French Cinema, 1(1), pp.29-36.

Ryder, K. (2016) ‘A Piercing View of the Twentieth Century, Through the Eyes of the Teddy Bear’, The New Yorker.