World Cinema lost one of it luminaries in October this year when the iconic career of this filmmaker came to an end. Wajda was one of the celebrated graduates of the Łódź Film School. This training ground for film actors as well as crafts people had a deservedly outstanding reputation.
Wajda first drew attention with his trilogy A Generation (Pokolenie, 1954), Kanał (1956) and Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i diament 1958). These were founding works in what developed into the European art cinema. I saw them, as did many at the time, in a Film Society in 16 mm prints. I have since been able to revisit them again in 35mm prints. All remaining outstanding but the key film is Ashes and Diamonds with the character of Maciek played by the young iconic Polish actor Zbigniew Cybulski. There is a terrific sequence with fireworks lighting up the sky and a sequence which I have seen copied a number of times with sheets billowing from a clothesline.
Wajda turned out fine films decade after decade, and I still have to see a number of them. One that stood out was Landscape After the Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, 1970), a film that deals with a Holocaust survivor and which includes some stunning exterior sequences. Two other memorable films that addressed the repressive regime that ran Poland in the 1960s and 1970s are Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977) and Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza, 1981). I saw at least one of them at the Academy Cinema in London, a fine but now lost venue for quality film.
More recently Katyń (2007), dealing with the Soviet massacre of Polish Officers in 1941, was extremely well done. I was able to catch The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, 1975) as part of the programme ‘Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’. It was screened at the Sheffield Showroom in a good quality 35mm print. The film chronicled the development of the C19th capitalist textile firms in Łódź. There narrative was fascinating as were the characters and it included many fine sequences, one being an impressive factory fire.
We can still look forward to his final film Afterimage ( Powidoki, 2016), though it does not yet have a UK release date.
I haven’t seen writer-director Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (Sweden-France-Norway-Denmark 2014), one of the most feted arthouse films of this year, but my anticipation has increased after watching (experiencing?) the film which preceded it, his second feature. There are at least two levels of ‘play’ going on in the film: there’s the ‘play’ of the boys (though it’s actually bullying rather than the ‘innocent’ kind); and the play with the spectator’s head, which makes for an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable, experience.
Based on actual court cases in Gothenburg, Sweden, the film follows a group of black lads as they part con/part bully two white, and one lad of East Asian extraction, out of their stuff. The racial politics could, in the eyes of the ‘wrong’ (racist) audience, be quite incendiary as the film represents the black lads in a (negative) stereotypical way. As an arthouse film (in both Sweden and elsewhere given the film’s visual style – more below), however, we might expect it to be seen by the ‘right’ (middle class) audience who may be appalled by the racist stereotyping presented.
However, it all happened so it’s not racist is it? These questions might give you some idea of the way Östlund teases (plays) his audience. It’s a bit like near the start of Crash (US, 2004), where two African-Americans talk about negative stereotyping before robbing two middle class white people on the street. It’s shocking to see obvious racist stereotypes in modern cinema (there are plenty of non-obvious ones). Östlund, who co-wrote and directed, doesn’t offer the emotional catharsis of entertainment, which we get in Crash, but the unnerving camera eye, most commonly utilised by Michael Haneke, with which to observe events. The film virtually forces us to ask the question whether we are watching a racist film or not; it is a good question.
The camera is mostly still, with some pans, and uses long takes and long lenses to observe the action from a distance, which often appears to be taking place on location with passers-by oblivious to the filming. This ‘dispassionate’ distance puts us in the position of an onlooker who can only observe and not intervene. Very little intervention from passers-by actually goes on. In one scene, where the black gang beat up one of their own members, a man who saw what was going on tells the victim he’ll be a witness in court for him. While this scene is obviously completely staged (please let it be!), it’s still shocking to think people won’t get involved; though the passivity of people, when confronted with problems on the street, is well documented.
Östlund does not simply ‘have it in’ for the gang, as a coda the dads of the white lads take out their revenge in a quite outrageous way; presumably this too happened. Two women do intervene at this but didn’t call the police!!! Sorry for the exclamation marks but that’s how the film works: ‘call the police!’ was bellowing in my head.
Assuming it all happened, an absolutely key issue for if it hadn’t then the film would be read differently, Play brilliantly questions our morality. The Telegraph reviewer, who gave the film 5*s, felt the film was ‘partly about a kind of paralysis wreaked by political correctness’. That’s to be expected from a right wing newspaper that doesn’t understand that ‘political correctness’ is a term of abuse aimed at attempts to avoid discrimination. For me the film’s about voyeurism and interrogates our values; or rather encourages us to interrogate our values. And I don’t think the film is about race, rather it is suggesting that class is the key social factor. The gang have little, compared to their middle class victims, who we first see shopping in an anonymous mall; one of whom has just lost 500 kroner to no great distress. Their parents, barely seen, seem more interested in work and only belatedly respond to a distress call. In a materialist society, materialism is the source of conflict. Östlund doesn’t take sides he just shows us uncomfortable truths.
A mostly non-professional cast are brilliantly marshalled though I am still puzzled by the scenes on a train with a cradle which seems to show up near the end, but the point is lost on me. Enlightenment welcome in the comments below please.
There is a great deal happening in in the global film industry, most obviously in China and in the responses to Chinese developments seen in Hollywood. In the UK, while we are affected by those developments, there are also specific issues concerning local production, distribution and exhibition. In this post I want to focus on just one company – but what it is doing has wider implications for the rest of the industry.
‘Curzon’ (or more properly, ‘Curzon World’), is the brand name for a company which is now a significant player in UK distribution and exhibition. Its current operation is the result of the merger between what was once two separate companies, the distributor Artificial Eye founded by Andi and Pam Engel in 1976 and the Curzon cinema group named after the original Curzon cinema in Mayfair that first opened in 1934. Artificial Eye had itself acquired a mini-chain of art cinemas in Central London comprising the Renoir and the Chelsea Cinema, both taken over in the 1980s and the Lumière (closed in 1997). Access to these three cinemas, all in prime positions, enabled an art cinema distributor to ensure that their titles would get time on a first run to establish a profile before moving to VHS and later DVD releases. In 2006 Artificial Eye, for some time the leading distributor of art cinema in the UK, merged with Curzon adding the most prestigious art screen in Mayfair and the most influential (the three screen Curzon Soho) to the two Artificial Eye venues. Immediately, the newly-merged company had a total of 9 screens in London (the tiny Curzon Richmond was formerly owned by Philip Knatchbull, now the CEO of Curzon). This meant that Curzon became an important gatekeeper for art cinema in the UK since specialised films are dependent on a strong London opening and no other exhibitor could match the Curzon screens in terms of Central London location. However, Curzon’s future expansion was still hampered by its lack of screens outside London where City Screen/Picturehouse was starting to develop a lucrative chain in university towns and other middle-class centres.
Over the last few years, led by Knatchbull, the newly-branded Curzon World group has pursued several policies which have significantly altered its market position:
1. Acquisitions and new builds have seen the group acquire an existing cinema in Knutsford (the former LEA-owned cinema) and new cinemas in Ripon (North Yorkshire), Canterbury, Sheffield and London Victoria, all branded ‘Curzon’. (More are in the pipeline.)
2. ‘Partnership’ schemes have seen Curzon take on the programming of existing cinemas and part-time cinemas in various arts centres in West Sussex, Devon and Aberdeenshire as well as at Mondrian (Southwark), Soho (Ham Yard Hotel), Pinewood Studios and a digital initiative with HMV at their Wimbledon store. Curzon also books films and shares events with Cornerhouse in Manchester (but doesn’t programme directly). It is also seeking new partners for its ‘Curzon Connect’ scheme which offers programming and the Curzon ‘brand’ to part-time operators. Digital distribution and the increasing range of ‘live’ opera, theatre, ballet and art exhibitions makes small cinemas more viable in country towns with wealthy middle-class populations.
3. Curzon has become an online exhibitor – VOD rental – as a complementary activity to its DVD and cinema operation. Artificial Eye’s films are available online as soon as they are in cinemas, the justification for closing this distribution ‘window’ being that audiences who live far from a Curzon cinema will still be able to see new films during the initial promotional period when the title’s profile is still high.
The latest Curzon expansion sees the re-opening of one of its original properties, the Renoir in Bloomsbury on March 27 as ‘Curzon Bloomsbury’. The extensively re-designed cinema will have 6 screens (4 with 30 screens or less, 1 with 55 and 1 with 139). When the cinema was first opened in 1972 it had a single screen seating 490, before twinning in the late 1970s. I’ve known the cinema across all its incarnations and I suspect it will remain the ‘Renoir’ for me. It’s importance is that it looks as if Curzon intend it to be their prime site for foreign language films (or, more likely, the main support to the larger Curzon Soho, now seemingly threatened by Crossrail developments). The new Bloomsbury will open with a festival of ‘Auteur cinema’ and one of the first releases to feature on a long run will be Roy Andersson’s Venice-winner A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. The 55 seat screen (named ‘Bertha DocHouse) offers conference facilities and is intended to be a ‘home’ for documentary features.
The Bloomsbury will bring Curzon’s full-time screen count up to 27, 18 of which are in London. However, it looks as if no more than 10 of these screens will regularly programme foreign language cinema – or indeed English language ‘art cinema’. Curzon is the best of the three major specialised cinema chains in terms of subtitled films, but in its new cinemas it is clear that mainstream films and live events are the main part of the programme. On my trawl through Curzon’s 21 screens today I found not a single subtitled film playing. Screens are dominated by Still Alice, Second Best Marigold Hotel and X+Y, none of which are ‘art films’. How on earth can distributors of foreign language and art cinema expect to build a profile for their titles when the most important exhibitor in London for their product behaves in this way?
The other major disturbing feature of the new Curzon operation is its focus almost exclusively on the wealthy white middle-class market. The emphasis is on small luxurious screens, bars and restaurants and very high ticket prices. It will be interesting to see the new Bloomsbury prices. The screen sizes in some of the new cinemas are around 40-50 seats and in Curzon Victoria a ‘peak’ time ticket will cost you £15 or £18 for a ‘Pullman’ seat. Working people in London can perhaps afford these prices. But how about Curzon Sheffield where the equivalent ticket is £11.50? This is almost twice the price of the smaller independent cinemas in Yorkshire. At least in Sheffield there is a choice (The Showroom price is £8.10) but in Ripon, the Curzon is the first cinema in the town for some time. This new era of specialised cinema is not for the likes of me – I enjoy lower prices and a nice cup of tea at several venues.
Curzon are changing the face of specialised cinema alongside the other two chains Picturehouse and Everyman. We’ll try to look at them soon.
Abbas Kiarostami shoots his subjects tangentially; that is, he doesn’t necessarily place the camera in the obvious position to tell the narrative. Behzad Dorani plays the ‘engineer’, which is what the villagers in a remote location of Iran think he is, and we come to know the place through his observations. On a couple of occasions Kiarostami’s favoured long take simply focuses, from the position of the mirror, on the engineer shaving. The narrative, at this point, is carried by his conversations with the rest of his film crew; they are in the village to secretly film an ancient sacrament. Similarly, the opening sequence watches them arrive (see above) in extreme long shot, with the telephoto lens flattening the landscape; it makes strange what we recognise. We here the men in car trying to navigate via agrarian directions such as ‘turn left at the big tree’. Dorani, by the way, according to imdb, has only appeared in one other feature, which is remarkable given how brilliant he is in carrying this film.
For much of the film we are not clear what the protagonist is after; he seems to be waiting for someone to die. He spends his time wandering the village and, increasingly hilariously, rushing up the mountain to get a mobile signal. Not a lot is happening in a village where not a lot ever happens; except it does. The film covers birth, life, marriage, death, friendship, education, childhood. All of life in an exotic location is there for the spectator and it is beautifully shot; the colours are quite stunning, both the village, and its surroundings, occasional look like an Impressionist painting.
Making films in Iran is difficult unless they are treading the party line. Kiarostami’s success, and this film won the Palme d’Or, is rooted in his ability to appeal to the western art house audience. There is a slightly uneasy opposition set up in the film between the ‘town’ (the ‘engineer’ is from Tehran) and the apparently simple ‘country’ of the village. Despite the fact the film-maker is indigenous I think we are still being offered an ‘orientalist’ portrayal of a society we know very little of. The place is portrayed extremely sympathetically but we are no more than tourists. To be fair to Kiarostami, he probably feels that way too. Hence the village is ‘strange’ to my western eyes and is shot in a strange (arty) way; but what we learn is that, essentially, the strange is very much the same.
It might not be the same, though, I cannot tell from the film.