Tagged: Documentary style

The Chambermaid (La camarista, Mexico 2018)

A striking promo image for The Chambermaid

This UK release from the always reliable New Wave distribution company has been gathering a great deal of support from UK critics and programmers. It is certainly an impressive film but I do wonder what audiences are making of it. There are currently only three responses on IMDb, two of which are negative, but the ‘User Ratings’ suggest a very positive response. I’m struggling to find words to describe my own overall response and I’ll try to be as objective as possible.

As the title suggests, the film focuses on Evella (‘Eve’), a chambermaid in a 5 star hotel in Mexico City. Eve is a 24 year-old Indigenous woman who has clearly made good progress in her time at the hotel. She is now responsible for the 21st floor and has her sights set on the 42nd floor, the penthouse suite. Later we will learn that she has a small boy being looked after by a child-minder and that a further promotion will help her pay for this child care and to find more suitable accommodation in the city. The narrative doesn’t actually move out of the hotel until the final scene and all we know about Eve’s life outside work is gleaned from the phone calls she manages to make to the child-minder.

A rare close-up of Eve that begins to explore her humanity

The writer-director Lila Avilés (b. 1982) has a background in theatre, TV and film, writing, directing, producing and acting. She has formed her own film production company which carries this statement on its website:

Limerencia Films is a Mexican independent film producer founded by Lila Avilés and the film La Camarista. Limerencia Films intends to continue producing author films with deep themes, searching new cinematographic narratives with international projection. Avilés is currently in the development stage of her next film, which is an autobiographical story.

A sister company is concerned with stage productions. It’s important to note that the two other features that Alivés has made are documentaries. La camarista is presented, in CinemaScope (2.35 : 1), almost like a documentary study of Eve’s working life in the hotel and the Press Notes reveal that the film started from a documentary approach. The whole film has a subdued colour palette of whites, blues and greys enlivened only occasionally by more dramatic colours. The hotel itself is ‘tastefully’ decorated. Significantly, perhaps, Eve is hoping to claim a bright red dress left behind by a guest. She is ‘top of the list’ if the owner doesn’t claim the dress after a few weeks have passed. I didn’t notice much music in the film, though as one reviewer has pointed out there is a sophisticated sound design by Guido Berenblum incorporating all the sounds of the building which is sealed off from the roar of the city outside. The film lasts for just over 100 minutes and the plot is minimal. We spend a significant amount of the running time accompanying Eve on her cleaning, bed-making and re-stocking of what the subtitles refer to as ‘amenities’ (soap, towels etc.). The film’s ‘action sequences’ comprise Eve’s interactions with other hotel staff and a handful of guests. Sometimes these meetings are quite dramatic, perhaps seeming more so because of the observational sequences which proceed them. When I reflected on the film’s aesthetic, the term that kept coming to me was ‘austere’, but perhaps it should have been ‘controlled’. There is enormous care in the presentation of what is a wonderful performance by Gabriela Cartol as Eve via the cinematography of Carlos Rossini, the editing of Omar Guzmán and the art direction by Vika Fleitas.

Eve in the staff canteen. She interacts with only a few of the other staff

What are we invited to take from this meticulous observational study? Perhaps inevitably, critics have referenced Roma (2018) because of the parallel of Indigenous women working as maids/housekeepers in Mexico City. I’m not sure that is very helpful. In Roma, as in many other Latin American film narratives, the maid is part of a household with distinct relationships with a family and events are often played out as part of a family melodrama. Any Latin American film focusing on a maid is going to have a clear discourse about both social class and ethnicity in unequal societies – and not just in Latin America. La camarista is almost like an ‘anti-melodrama’ in its observational style, yet it does have its melodrama moments. Eve, once out of her uniform and with her hair down is an attractive young woman as well as a working mum. But just as importantly, the script develops a critique of the economic plight of the hotel workers in this hotel and symbol of global capitalism. There is a narrative tension in the film. Will Eve get her red dress and her promotion? Will she be able to improve her chances by gaining a high school diploma while studying in an improvised cramming class for hotel workers?

Eve with Miriam (Teresa Sánchez) who offers to help her work the system

The hotel is a community, a form of family perhaps, for all the hotel workers. But it is also a factory in which workers are in danger of exploitation. Eve is understandably wary of getting closer to fellow workers and her immediate superiors. Managements invariably divide and rule. Eve will meet other workers who try to sell her things, pressurising her to buy. They may discriminate against her because of her background – yet she needs them and they may know more about the job and ways around problems.

I certainly recommend The Chambermaid, but audiences need patience and sharp observation to get everything from the narrative. Eve is definitely worth getting to know and I will look out for future films by Lila Avilés. I hope she doesn’t lose her documentarist’s eye, but I would like to see a little more narrative development in future projects. The film continues for a third week at HOME in Manchester, demonstrating how a 5 screen cinema can nurture an audience for films like this. The film is also available on Curzon’s streaming service in the UK and it is still touring venues in the US.

GFF19 #9: Medium Cool (US 1969)

Police attacks on demonstrators photographed by Haskell Wexler

By 1969 I think I considered that my interest in cinema was more than just the enjoyment of ‘entertainment cinema’. I hadn’t yet discovered the full range of the diverse film offer in London, but I’m pretty sure I was aware of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool. However, I can’t remember if I actually watched it on release. I was intrigued to see it in GFF’s programme and now I feel very grateful for the opportunity to see it on the big screen.

John (Robert Forster) posing beneath a poster of Jean-Paul Belmondo

Allan Hunter gave his usual entertaining and informative introduction to this screening, suggesting that the cinematographer Wexler making his first film as a director was influenced by Jean-Luc Godard. I think that this might be a reference to Godard’s 1967 film Weekend. Certainly there is an important use of car crashes in both films, but Wexler’s film is much more structured and ‘narrativised’ in its use of different elements than most of Godard’s work from 1967 onwards. Wexler is also credited with the screenplay and the cinematography on Medium Cool. In the interview shown below, Wexler tells us that his film began as a literary adaptation of a 1967 novel by Jack Couffer titled The Concrete Wilderness. This novel traced the adventures of a freelance photographer and naturalist who meets a boy with a dog in the New York city storm drains. The two discover the wide range of animals living in the city. This storyline remains at the centre of Wexler’s film but the location moves to Chicago. When Wexler returned to his home city in 1968 there was so much going on in the streets re Civil Rights, the anti-war movement and Mayor Daley’s attempts to hijack the Democratic convention that he realised that the ‘background’ in his film had to come forward and merge with the original story.

John with Eileen (Verna Bloom)

Harold (Harold Blankenship)

The central character becomes a TV news camera operator/reporter, ‘John’ played by Robert Forster, who with his sound recordist attempts to collect material that will represent the tumultuous events in Chicago at the time. But when John learns that the TV station regularly sends his footage to the FBI to help in identifying people he ‘wakes up’ and starts to to investigate stories as a freelance. At the same time, he changes in his personal life as well when he meets Harold, a young teenager who he thinks is stealing his hubcaps. Harold (a remarkable performance by Harold Blankenship, one of several non-professionals in the cast) lives with his mother, Eileen (Verna Bloom), who has brought her son to Chicago from West Virginia where she was a teacher in a rural school. In Chicago she works for Motorola. Harold has homing pigeons and roams the streets of Chicago with a young friend. John and Eileen are similarly on the streets looking for each other and for Harold as the clashes between police and National Guard on one side and demonstrators on the other spread across the city.

Eileen in her yellow dress searches for Harold in the park during the police action

Watching the film now, the mixture of fictional story, documentary footage of the convention, Wexler’s own footage recorded as part of the real event and ‘staged’ documentary sequences doesn’t seem that unusual. Several commentators suggest Wexler is a pioneer of ‘ciné-vérité’ camerawork. They may be correct about a studio film at this point but ciné-vérité dates back to Jean Rouch in France in the early 1960s. The North American equivalent, ‘Direct Cinema’, though slightly different in approach, was already a staple of TV news documentaries in the US and also featured in Nation Film Board of Canada films. Looking back at reviews from the time does however reveal the impact of the film. Roger Ebert, for instance, thinks that the film marks the real turning point in Hollywood films and he abandons his usual approach to write more generally about how Hollywood had changed, picking out the earlier film The Graduate (1967) as the beginning of the process. Vincent Canby in the New York Times is perhaps more clear-eyed in his analysis of the film, suggesting that it is

a film of tremendous visual impact, a kind of cinematic ‘Guernica’, a picture of America in the process of exploding into fragmented bits of hostility, suspicion, fear and violence. The movie, however, is much less complex than it looks.

Canby also recognises that the film’s title is a reference to Marshall McLuhan’s work on television, though he thinks that the film’s use of colour and editing could diminish the horror of the real events being shown live on TV. (McLuhan suggested that TV was a ‘cool’ medium because it offered relatively little stimulus to the viewer and required ‘participation’ by the viewer to fully understand its meanings. This he contrasted with a ‘hot’ medium like cinema film which stimulated the visual sense above all else.) Ebert and Canby don’t however mention the film’s use of music which is distinctive and which in a way links Medium Cool to both The Graduate and Alice’s Restaurant. The music was the responsibility of Mike Bloomfield, the great Chicago guitarist who was also a relative of Wexler’s. Bloomfield use a mix of traditional protest songs and strong guitar pieces, one from Arthur Lee’s Love and a number of Frank Zappa’s early compositions for the Mothers of Invention. The other major Chicago figure who was important in the film’s production was Studs Terkel, the legendary ‘people’s historian’, actor, journalist and radio broadcaster. Wexler explains that without Terkel’s support he would not have been able to film the scenes with black militants in Chicago who were understandably reluctant to engage with white Hollywood filmmakers in 1968.

John with his sound recordist go to a police station to cover the story of an African-American man who has handed in money he has found. (Grab from dvdbeaver.com)

Wikipedia suggests that the film was profitable for Paramount, suggesting rental income of $5.5 million and an original budget of $800,000. This suggests that the studio knew what it was doing, which if true was unusual for the time. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been made at the time at any other studio. Wexler says in the interview below that he was offered the chance to make The Concrete Wilderness by Peter Bart who was then a producer at Paramount. This was also the period when Robert Evans was Head of Production and between 1967 and 1974, Paramount was a ‘hot studio’ with hits like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Godfather (1972), both in their different ways groundbreaking films.

Haskell Wexler made only three more films as director and none as high-profile as Medium Cool. However, he did continue to be a highly acclaimed cinematographer. He had already won an Oscar for his work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966) and he won a second for his work on Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory (1976). Later he shot four John Sayles movies with Silver City in 2004, his last major feature. Wexler was clearly a fascinating man and died aged 93 in 2015.

 

LFF 2012 #1: Memories Look at Me (China 2012)

Song Fang and her mother in Memories Look at Me

Memories Look at Me was a good place to start my visit to the 2012 London Film Festival. Writer-director Song Fang is known to arthouse audiences in the West as the young Chinese film student who appears in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Paris-set Flight of the Red Balloon (France/Taiwan 2007). In this, her first feature, she has Jia Zhangke as executive producer. With two of the leading masters of Chinese cinema as mentors, it isn’t surprising that she has absorbed something from both filmmakers and that this feature seems so confident and composed. Inhabiting that territory between fiction and documentary that features in much of Jia’s work, Memories Look at Me is a meditation on growing up and growing old – and also a critique in many ways of the changing China and, in particular, the one child policy.

Song plays a character like herself, on a visit home to her parents’ small flat in Nanjing. Her real family play themselves (though, presumably, as fictional characters). Almost all the ‘action’ takes place in the flat and this, for me, was the only disappointment in that I would have liked to see more of Nanjing. It was frustrating to be peering through the rain-spattered windows of a car and to be told that a decaying building was the cinema where Song’s parents often went, only for her doctor father to receive an emergency call part way through the film. But then, the film deals with the interior lives of the family members and what they remember as they talk in the confined space of the house.

The film is almost an exercise in restraint and it works very well in allowing us to begin to understand the characters and their circumstances. There are relatively few moments of real drama such as when a neighbour brings the family a chicken which seems then to be kept temporarily in the shower room. Song proves inept at securing the chicken’s legs and we see no more of the bird. I presume that somebody must kill it so that they can eat it?

There are several references to Song as an unmarried woman who has passed 30 and I confess that it might have been interesting to see how she got on with the blind date that her brother and sister-in-law were keen to arrange for her. But this is one of the moments of restraint – nothing more is heard of the idea. The ‘one child’ policy crops up several times, e.g. when Fang asks her mother why she seemed so old when Fang was a child and her mother explains that she was five years older than the other mothers in Nanjing because she had already had Fang’s brother – and all the other mothers only had the one child. Fang’s uncle had no children and so Fang’s brother was important to him and later Fang visits her parents’ friends who are worried about the health of their only child.

I think it is remarkable that a woman in her early 30s should make such a mature film about getting older and realising that you have simply not taken in the import of the things that have happened to your parents’ generation. I wish that I had been that aware and mature at her tender age. Not a film I would recommend for a rollicking Friday night out, but definitely one to savour at a more sober time of the week. I hope this gets a wide distribution.