Tagged: family drama

The Magnificent Ambersons (US 1942)

Produced at the RKO Studio and scripted and directed by Orson Welles; this film is a flawed classic, missing about forty minutes of the original version. It is screening on BBC 4 this coming Thursday [May 19th] as one of the titles accompanying the six part documentary, The RKO Story Tales from Hollywood’ [Hollywood the Golden Years: The RKO Story]. This is a six part series, each episode an hour long, originally produced and transmitted in 1987. It makes a welcome return to terrestrial television and is accompanied by a number of classic titles from the RKO Studio. The series was jointly produced by the BBC and RKO Pictures. The RKO studio closed in 1957 but had a reinvention in the 1980s as RKO Pictures Inc. This company controlled the archive of studio records and titles. These offer a wealth of information on RKO presented by Edward Asner. But what makes the series stands out are the interviews with surviving stars and production personnel from the studio era. This provides an impressive and fascinating account of the studio; something that is rarely offered in contemporary cinema programmes.

On Thursday May 19th part four of the series deals with the period in which Orson Welles worked at RKO. Following the seminal Citizen Kane Welles then made an adaptation of the novel ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ [Ambersons] by Booth Tarkington. Not that well known now in the early decades of the C20th Tarkington was a popular and highly respected writer; he won Pulitzer Prizes for two of his novels, ‘Ambersons’ and Alice Adams. The latter was filmed at RKO in 1935. In fact both ‘Ambersons’ and ‘Alice Adams’ were also filmed in silent versions in the 1920s.

Tarkington was the chronicler of ‘mid-western USA’; in another sense that central cultural artefact in US Americana, ‘small-town America’. As well as the two award-winning novels Tarkington also wrote a series of  ‘Penrod’ stories; following young boys growing up in a Midwestern town. Welles read these and other Tarkington works in his youth. He remained an admirer. Welles himself and his biographers frequently drew attention to the parallels between his childhood and characters and settings in the Tarkington novels. Simon Callow, in his biopic of the years leading up to Welles’ Hollywood ventures , ‘Orson Welles The Road to Xanadu’. quotes a description of a mansion in ‘Ambersons’ which was very similar to Welles’ first home.

In fact, Welles adapted the novel in his long-running series of radio adaptations; in October 1939 in the Campbell Playhouse on CBS. In this version Welles played the key protagonist, George Amberson Minafer. However, when it came to a film, with a character seen and heard, Welles settled for the narrative voice. In one of those innovations of which Welles was so fond, even the credits were voiced by Welles as narrator.

The story in the novel and the film follows the declining fortunes of the Amberson clan.

Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1878, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. Magnificence, like the size of a fortune, is always comparative, as even Magnificent Lorenzo may now perceive, if he has happened to haunt New York in 1916; and the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place. Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog.

The Amberson elders with Eugene

Times moved on and the family fortunes declined as new social movements and new technologies arose. The Ambersons’ decline was symbolised in both novel and film by the arrival and rise of the motor car. The Major’s daughter Isabel was courted by a host of ‘ineligible’ young men. Finally she chose and married Wilbur Minafer,

a steady young man and a good churchgoer . . .

The marriage dashed the hopes of another young romantic, Eugene Morgan, who left town. The Minafer marriage was passionless and Isabel devoted her love and attention to the child George Amberson Minafer. He was bought up a spoilt and arrogant child and young man; one whose behaviours caused many townspeople to wait for his ‘comeuppance’. Meanwhile Eugene returned to town, a widower and with a daughter. He became a pioneer in the new motor-car business and grew wealthy. Young George disliked Eugene and his business but found Eugene’s daughter Lucy very attractive. Minafer suffered from bad investments and died. Eugene renewed his romantic interest in Isabel but George prevented the potential union. Later Lucy turned down George’s proposal of marriage, partly because of his behaviour, partly because of his arrogance.

After Isabel’s death it was discovered that family fortune has evaporated. The great Amberson mansion was sold. George and his Aunt Fanny, who for years has carried a passion for Eugene, were forced into lowly lodgings. George, for the first time in his life, was forced to work in manual labour at Eugene’s factory; ‘comeuppance!’. Then George was injured in an accident and in both versions he is visited in hospital by Eugene, but there are different resolutions in the situation of the characters.

The film of Ambersons was shot at the RKO Studio and around Los Angeles. When production finished Welles had directed a rough cut of approximately 132 minutes. Welles, in characteristic fashion, was already involved in a new film, It’s All True; to be shot in Latin America, mainly Brazil, and a film supporting the US war effort and its ‘Good Neighbour policy’ in Latin America. Welles accepted the full-length Ambersons needed cuts and entrusted this to the editor Robert Wise. After some editing and two previews the film was seen as a likely box office failure. Welles, who had the unusual option of a ‘final cut’ on Citizen Kane, had lost this option after changes in his contract. RKO bosses took over and Wise’s editing finally produced a version running only 88 minutes. There were reshot and additional scenes, [some by Wise, some by Fred Fleck]; moreover the finale of the film was reshot to produce a clear resolution.

Welles was appalled by the cuts and changes in the release version. Film critics and later audiences have tended to see the result as an example of Hollywood ‘commercial butchery’. What remains and what is known of Welles’ original version suggest a film that would have offered an equivalence to Citizen Kane though with a very different tone and some rather different stylistic achievements. The Studio later destroyed the original negatives so that a ‘director’s cut’ was not possible. In the 1970s Welles toyed with the idea of completing the film in some way but nothing came of this. There was a rough cut with sound sent for inspection by Welles as he worked in Brazil. This has never been found, though fresh searches are regularly organised, it remains  a lost ‘holy grail’ rather like Erich von Stroheim’s earlier butchered masterpiece, Greed (1924).

Welles wrote a number of letters and memos suggesting ways of reducing the film’s length; these were mainly ignored. Peter Bogdanovich in ‘This is Orson Welles’ (1993, a series of interviews and supporting materials) provides a lot of detail and extracts. At one point Welles suggested a ‘happy ending’ which differs from that imposed on the film. Bogdanovich also includes records from the preview screenings and it is apparent that the audience responses were not as bad as suggested; a minority of comments were positive. However, there was new studio management, and as with Von Stroheim and M-G-M, there seems to have been a basic antagonism to Welles and his project.

Yet the surviving film is still a fine example of Welles’ film-making. The overall elegiac tone of the film is maintained until the changed ending; Welles reckoned the first sixty minutes were a reasonable approximation of his intent.. Cinematically it has many bravura qualities reminiscent of Citizen Kane. There are great set pieces like a sleigh ride in the snow: an Amberson grandiose entertainment in the impressive mansion: the gloom of the decline as family members die and the fortune melts away: and the settings in the changed circumstances of George and Fanny. As with Kane the sets that Welles required to be designed and constructed are really impressive and innovatory; some of the ceiling effects late in the film are impressive. Many of the craft people are not credited in the film version. This includes the production design by Albert S. Agostino. Mark Lee Kirk gets a credit as Set Designer, which presumably included the Amberson mansion built with moveable walls to allow long tracking shots in the interiors. The cinematography by Stanley Cortez is excellent, there are Welles typical use of chiaroscuro and long takes: fine tracking shots: and the use of blocking and reflections in windows and mirrors.  But Welles found him too slow compared with Gregg Toland who filmed Citizen Kane and he was dismissed before the end of principal cinematography; a couple of personnel worked on late shots uncredited. The sound team are likewise only partially credited though their work is as impressive as the cinematography; both contributing to the powerful ambience created in the Amberson mansion and the later lodging house.  Wise’s editing is good, allowing for the studio imposed cuts: but the latter replaced a lengthy camera movement for the ball sequence with a number of cuts: and there was some more uncredited editing work. There is no music credit though the surviving music is fine: the score was by Bernard Hermann but his music was also cut down by the studio and replaced in places so he had his name removed from the credits.

George watching and watched by Fanny

The cast are very good. Dolores del Rio really achieves Isabel and Tim Holt makes an excellent George. Richard Bennett is the Major and patriarch. Both Joseph Cotten as Eugene and Anne Baxter as Lucy make fine contributions. And there is an outstanding performance from Agnes Moorehead as Fanny; her late scene after the family collapse is memorable. Another Welles regular, Ray Collins, as Isabel’s brother Jack, brings a slightly caustic note in the decline. But dominating the whole film is the narration of Orson Welles. Unseen but with one of the memorable voices in Hollywood cinema, much of the tone of the film is down to this audio aspect.

The parallels between Welles himself and the Tarkington character are found in his childhood and subsequently as an adult film-maker. Ambersons seemed to many a ‘comeuppance’ for this young, thrusting and egoistical artist; this was especially true in the Hollywood studios. Welles never again enjoyed the control he exercised on Citizen Kane or during the actual production of Ambersons. In the 1970s Welles appeared in a lengthy interview on BBC television. At one point he commented,

I always liked Hollywood but they never reciprocated.

One can see this, not just in Ambersons, but in later projects made in Hollywood studios. The best of these was Touch of Evil (1957) but that film was re-cut and changed. Welles produced a long letter setting out how he had envisaged and filmed the original. In 1998 this was the basis for a restored version which approximates to the vision of Welles. But to date material for a likewise restoration of Ambersons is wanting. Charles Higham in his biography comments finally,

some streak of anti commercialism drove him . . .

I t is true that Welles was more interested in art than in commerce but recognising him as an iconoclast [as does Bogdanovich] is better. He was iconoclastic about the studios: about theatre: many features of genre movies: styles of management: and the dominant political discourse. Successful directors in Hollywood needed to love, or at least fit in with, the box-office, Alfred Hitchcock is a prime example. The ironies in the making of Ambersons in many ways parallel the ironies in the Tarkington original novel and in the film itself.

Higham also recognises Welles artistic talents, his biography is sub-titled ‘The rise and fall of an American Genius’; more accurate would be a ‘US genius’, but Welles achievement in theatre, radio and film do stand out in these arts. But he was a wayward genius. His ego interfered with his work with supporting artists. He often did not give due credit where due credit was due. Stanley Cortez was taken off Ambersons because Welles found his work to slow. But the many of the replacement shots after his exit were poorly executed.

Welles and Cortez

And Welles was overly ambitious. He was always juggling a number of artistic projects; often too many even for his talent Thus in the later stages of the Amberson production Welles was involved in producing, scripting and acting in Journey into Fear (1943): He was producing an unfinished segment [Bonito the Bull] for a planned film It’s All True: preparing for his trip to South America for what was eventually the proposed but unfinished film, It’s All True: a CBS radio series The Lady Esther Show: and politically, with the Pacific war beginning, involved with the Roosevelt government in ideas for the war effort and in addition a campaign to save Soviet diplomats in danger from the Nazis. This also was typical of Welles’ career.

Even so, Welles’ career, and this particular film, stand out in the world of film, radio and theatre. The story of the vicissitudes of The Magnificent Ambersons, told many times in various biographies and studies, is a depressing one. Yet the film that remains is still a fine experience and well worth watching many times. It is some years since I saw a screening on 35mm, its original format. However, the digital facsimiles on the BBC should be of good video quality. And the impressive soundtrack of the movie will be good. A flawed Orson Welles film is still a greater experience than much of the alternative product produced in Hollywood.

The RKO Story: Tales from Hollywood is available on the BBC I-Player for a short period; in a slighty different order from the transmission.

  1. Birth of a Titan

The founding of the Studio as sound arrived and its early days and films: only available until May 22nd

  1. Let’s Face the Music and Dance

The 1930s musicals, mainly Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

  1. A Woman’s Lot

The woman stars, Lucille Ball, Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers

  1. It’s All True

RKO and Orson Welles

  1. Dark Victory

RKO and film noir [including HUAC] and Robert Mitchum

  1. Howard’s Way

Howard Hughes and the studio; and its demise.

Each episode has two classic RKO title accompanying it.

Episode 1 King Kong (1933) and The Thing From Another World (1951)

Episode 2 Bringing Up Baby  (19380 and My Favourite Wife (1940)

Episode 3 Top Hat (1935) and The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Episode 4  Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Episode 5 Suspicion  (1941) and Angel Face (1953)

Episode 6 Not yet listed but the BBC already screened Hughes’ The Outlaw (1943) between episodes.

‘This Is Orson Welles Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich’ (1993) has a detailed breakdown by the editor Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Welles original Ambersons and what remained of this in the studio version.

¡Viva! 28 #3: El árbol rojo (The Red Tree, Colombia 2021)

This début feature film for Colombian director Joan Gómez Endara is a conventional road movie in formal terms but it becomes something more because of its three leads, beautiful cinematography and the chance it offers to see more of Colombia than many other films from the region. For a début feature this is an accomplished piece of work, engaging and moving in its handling of the development of the relationship between two seemingly mismatched half-siblings.

Esperanza at her father’s funeral, listening to a gaita player

Élicier is a forty-something (?) man living quietly alone in a village on Colombia’s western Caribbean coast. One day a man arrives at his door with a young girl, Esperanza (‘Hope’). He announces that Élicier’s father Nolasco has died and the little girl is actually his half sister. All this is news to Élicier who hasn’t seen his father for thirty years and at first doesn’t want to face the implications of Esperanza’s sudden appearance. But he is given an address for the girl’s mother in Bogota and realises his responsibility. Getting to the capital is a long and expensive journey from the coast up into the mountains and this is 1999 when the virtual civil war between FARC guerillas and government military forces is still going on even as peace talks are being pursued. The film is not about the civil war but it does mean that travel across the vast country, and especially into the mountains, is dangerous. When the journey begins, the siblings are joined by Toño, a young man who wants to try his luck as a boxer in Bogota. The inclusion of Toño is possibly the only flaw in the film as the script doesn’t really know what to do with him once he has been used as a plot device to complicate the journey. His story then gets rather lost.

The three travellers getting a lift

The main narrative is underpinned by music and this is certainly a strength in the film. Nolasco had been a celebrated musician along the coast, playing the gaita. This is a wind instrument, something like the traditional European wooden recorder that in my day was used to introduce British schoolchildren to music. The gaita is quite a large instrument, made from dried cactus (a cardón) with a distinctive mouthpiece fashioned from beeswax, charcoal and a duck feather (now often using plastic instead). Confusingly, ‘gaita’ is also the Spanish word for a form of bagpipes. In Colombia gaita bands appear to be four or five piece outfits with one or two gaita players plus a trio of drummers. The music represents the fusion of African drumming  with the indigenous playing of the gaita. In the film, the gaita which Esperanza finds in Élicier’s house (and which she insists on taking with her on the journey) becomes important in the bonding of the two central characters and also in Élicier’s rediscovery of his own identity. This is partly represented by the way in which the sound of the gaita recalls birdsong. The film’s title is also explained during the first real conversation between Élicier and Esperanza when we discover something about the gaita that she carries.

That first real conversation between the half-siblings when Esperanza learns something about Élicier’s childhood and their father’s behaviour

Here’s a YouTube clip of a group of gaiteros playing similar music to that used at the end of the film.

Carlos Vergara is very good as the quiet and withdrawn Élicier. He is an experienced actor and producer. Shaday Velasquez as the young girl is a beautiful child who is sometimes quite solemn and determined but who is also also capable of joy and laughter. Overall the film is a humanist story, the pair meet good and bad people on their journey. There is a satisfying conclusion to the narrative which doesn’t necessarily tie up all the loose ends. I’m sure there are more layers of meaning that may only be accessible by a local audience, one of which refers to the fate of an iguana. However, we do get a real sense of the diversity of Colombian culture and especially of one of its several important musical genres. El árbol rojo plays again at ¡Viva! on Tuesday 29th March at HOME Manchester.

La villa (The House by the Sea, France 2017)

The general view of the waterfront in the creek

This lovely film took a year and a half to reach the UK and then only 3,000 people saw it in a cinema (see the Lumiere Audio-Visual Observatory database). It came out in January 2019 when UK cinemas were stuffed with American ‘Awards Movies’. I suspect The Favourite took up quite a few screens. I wish I had been able to see this instead. Robert Guédiguian is a filmmaker who has directed twenty-five films over the last forty years. The ones I’ve seen have been very good but too often his films are not acquired for UK distribution. I eventually watched this on a DVD from New Wave and I’m very grateful.

The three siblings, Armand is on the right

Many of Guédiguian’s films are set in Marseilles and they often feature the same trio of actors, Ariane Ascaride (Guédiguian’s partner), Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Gérard Meylan. La villa is set on the ‘Blue Coast’ between Marseilles and Martigues at Calanque de Méjean – a calanque is a creek, which I realise has a different meaning in French/English compared to US usage. Here it means a narrow inlet on a rocky coast with a small harbour and room for a few houses around the harbour and nestled in the in the steep slopes. It’s the only location in the film, extending a little way into the hilly hinterland of scrub and pines. The elderly owner of the restaurant on the harbour has a stroke at the beginning of the film and is then cared for by his son Armand (Gérard Meylan) who is the restaurant manager/chef. It’s winter so the restaurant has no customers. Coming home to support their brother are Joseph (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Angèle (Ariane Ascaride). Joseph brings with him the much younger Bérangère (Anaïs Demoustier). Angèle is a well-known stage actor and she has not been home for twenty years. We will learn later what caused her absence. There are only three other residents of the little community who we meet and one other important visitor.

The restaurant becomes the site of family meals. The extra character here is the fisherman Benjamin

The three siblings are all in their early sixties, the same age as writer-director Robert Guédiguian. It’s a time to reflect on their lives and to think about how they will face the future. Their father is in an almost vegetative state and one of their ultimate decisions will be how to deal with the family estate. It looks very beautiful in the winter sunlight with a view out across the Mediterranean from the balcony of the house, the small boats bobbing in the harbour and the dramatic backdrop of a high viaduct which carries the rail line from Marseille to Toulon and Nice. The first half of the film is actually quite slow as Guédiguian gives us time to get to know the characters and to consider their situation. I was a little surprised since what I remember from his earlier films is a political discourse and a sense of collective struggles for working-class communities. Possible wrangling over an estate is a theme I associate with more bourgeois French films. The only younger character who appears in the early part of the film is Yvan, the son of the elderly couple who live next door. Yvan appears to be trained as a doctor who is now running medical laboratories somewhere in the region. He and Bérangère are the only ones active in the modern France. She has her laptop and headphones and he is trying to persuade his parents to accept money for their living expenses when he brings their medications.

Guédiguian does introduce a form of political discourse through Angèle’s visit to Yvan’s parents. She wonders why the community is so quiet, why is nothing happening? The other houses are closed-up in the winter and the old man replies “Money”. Framed black and white photographs show the creek full of people in summer enjoying life in the streets and by the harbour with the fishing boats supplying a busy restaurant. There was a real community but just as in many parts of the UK where the rich now like to have second homes, young people can’t afford to live and must leave as the communities become isolated in the winter. We realise too that Joseph represents the angst of the ageing leftists in France. Has he really given up as some of his worrying statements suggest? The editing by Bernard Sasia and the cinematography by Pierre Milon (whose previous job was on The Workshop a little further west on the coast) is very good in these early scenes, linking together the characters and the political, social and personal themes. A further ingredient glimpsed by Angèle as she gazes out over the harbour is the arrival of a couple of Land Rovers, dropping soldiers who begin to patrol along the path by the water’s edge.

©PHOTOPQR/LA PROVENCE ; Tournage du film ” La Villa ” réalisé par Robert GUEDIGUIAN dans la calanque de Méjean PHOTO : FREDERIC SPEICH (MaxPPP TagID: maxpeopleworld998737.jpg) [Photo via MaxPPP]

The action gradually begins to build up and I found the film engrossing. I’ve gone back and looked at scenes again because I don’t think on a small screen I became sufficiently immersed in the narrative to allow the ideas to come together. At one point, Joseph, sitting with his father on the balcony remembers an earlier community festivity led by the old man. There is also a flashback in which we see the three siblings as younger characters coming to the harbour and larking about to the sound of Bob Dylan on the car radio. It was only later that I realised this was indeed the three actors themselves appearing in an earlier film by Guédiguian, Ki lo sa? (France 1986). Guédiguian knows the coastal region and has remained committed to it. I don’t want to spoil any more of the narrative which isn’t complex and you can probably guess the plot developments from the details I’ve given so far.

I was surprised to discover that this film wasn’t reviewed in Sight and Sound, which was once (via Monthly Film Bulletin which it absorbed) the official ‘journal of record’ for all releases in the UK. However, the former editor, Nick James mentioned its appearance at Venice (in the November 2017 issue). He calls it “distinctly old-fashioned” but says he wished to “eulogise” the film with its “intricate nuanced sets of relationships” but “its sentimental ending is ruinous”. I agree the first part of his statement but I thought the ending was an excellent use of ‘magic realism’ which I’m not going to explain. Suffice to say my tears started before the end, but that I found it perfect. I’ve always thought that ‘sentimental’ is a slippery term. There is nothing wrong with emotion in the right place and here it is definitely appropriate. I heartily recommend this to anyone prepared for an emotional response. Like the UK, France is in a difficult place and i think there is no harm in having a little hope.

This trailer gives away some of the plot details:

LFF 2021 #2: Queen of Glory (US 2021)

Sarah Obeng (Nana Mensah) is back in the Bronx

This shortish first feature (78 mins) is fronted by an outstanding performance by its writer-director-star Nana Mensah. An experienced actor with credits on several TV series and some Independent Cinema titles, Mensah had not intended to direct or to star in the film she was writing. But circumstances eventually pushed her into the other roles and as she said in the included online Q&A, it was good that she wrote the script first not thinking she would play the central character. That way she didn’t cut herself any slack or attempt to avoid certain potential scenarios. The outline narrative of the film is relatively simple and, at least on a structural level, familiar as a universal experience. But because of its specific cultural focus it is also distinctive in its narrative events and settings.

After a credit sequence featuring a montage of Ghanaian textile designs, drumming and dancing, we first meet Sarah in her office at Columbia University. She’s a science grad research student with some supervision duties. She’s hoping her boyfriend, who has been appointed to a more senior post in Ohio, will leave his wife and she can share a house with him. She seems sure this will happen. The ‘inciting incident’ when it arrives almost overwhelms Sarah. Her mother dies suddenly and Sarah is faced with a series of responsibilities, the weight of which severely throws her off-balance. First she learns that she has inherited her mother’s house and her Christian bookshop in the Bronx. Second she must organise not one but two large-scale celebrations, one a ‘white person-style funeral’, but the other a traditional Ghanaian funeral with expectations of attendance by many in the ‘Little Ghana’ community in the Bronx. Third, her estranged father arrives from Accra with expectations of a family reunion. No wonder she has little time to check in with the boyfriend, who I think is probably already mistrusted by many in the audience – he can’t even pronounce ‘Accra’ correctly.

One question for me was trying to work out what kind of a film this was. It has been widely promoted as a comedy and I was relieved that the BFI host of the introduction and Q&A, Grace Barber-Plentie, asked Nana Mensah directly about finding the right tone. Mensah was willing to describe her film as a comedy and said that the mixing of grief and comedy was something that did happen in her culture. It strikes me that the same is true in most cultures. It is often said that weddings and funerals have much the same capacity for comedy and drama in my Northern English culture and I suspect it is the same in most others.

A rather dazed Sarah is measured for a new dress for the Ghanaian funeral gathering . . .

From my perspective the narrative suggests a form of realist family melodrama with comic elements. The real story is about Sarah’s struggle to understand what she might be losing if she sells the house and the bookshop and follows her boyfriend to Ohio. This includes questions about the value she places on family ties and friendships within her community. It’s also a question about what a ‘hyphenate’ identity means in the US today. In other words, it’s a diaspora narrative. As I watched the film I realised that I probably know more about Francophone West African cultures both in Africa and in France than the Anglophone West African cultures in the UK and US. This is because of the way film and TV have developed in West Africa in the post-colonial period. I’m aware of a triangular relationship between Nigeria and Ghana with the UK and US, but I don’t have much access to the films and TV produced even though Nollywood and Ghallywood are prolific producers. The films are hard to see in the UK outside specific cities with a Nigerian or Ghanaian community. Nana Mensah’s film feels more like an American Independent film, but there are elements of Ghanaian Cinema as well, I think. She uses archive footage at various points to offer a sense of traditional ceremonies and life on the streets of Accra. One of the key cultural ‘threads’ in the narrative focuses on food. Early in the film Sarah eats pizza and snacks. For the funeral parties she makes, or buys in, Ghanaian food. The prospect of going to the meat market in the Bronx is also intercut with footage of street abattoirs in Ghana, and buying meat (i.e. ‘real meat’) is something she can barely stomach. By the end of the film, however, she is making rice and meat stew for her father.

. . . emerging transformed in this stunning outfit

I enjoyed the film but I agree with at least one other reviewer who recognises that it is almost as if the production ran out of money (and time) since some narrative threads are left in the air and others are quickly resolved. Nana Mensah discussed her positive experience with Kickstarter in the Q&A, but also stressed the work needed to deal with the funding. I don’t know if the production was affected by COVID. This is still an impressive début picture. I enjoyed the ‘Scope photography by Cybel Martin and the editing by Cooper Troxell. I also enjoyed the music in the film, especially the song over the closing credits. I should also mention the actor Meeko who plays the important role of the Christian bookshop manager. The ‘King of Glory’ shop is a ‘real’ location, owned by one of Mensah’s relatives. Anya Migdal was one of the producers of the film and she also plays the the first generation Russian-American next door neighbour in the Bronx who remembers Sarah from the local high school. This was also a promising narrative strand, but like the bookshop perhaps not fully realised.

Queen of Glory won a prize at its home festival Tribeca and it was well-received by Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ghanaian-American reviewer. I’m sure it would find a UK audience if some form of release is possible. Here’s a festival trailer.

LFF 2021 #1: Memory Box (Lebanon-France-Canada 2021)

Three generations of women, Téta, Maia and Alex (all photos © Haut-et Court, Abbout and Microscope)

It was a nice surprise to discover that my first online film in this year’s LFF was introduced by Sarah Perks my erstwhile teaching partner from Cornerhouse/HOME in Manchester. Sarah moved into artist’s film a few years ago and is now a Professor at Teesside University. She clearly knows the couple who made Memory Box, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige who are artists as well as filmmakers. I think I’ve only seen Je veux voir (I Want to See, Lebanon 2008) of their previous films. It starred Catherine Deneuve as herself, a celebrity seeing the damage from the 2006 war in Lebanon. There is an immediate link between that film and Memory Box.

In Beirut the young Maia (Manal Issa) with her cassette player . . .

It’s Christmas in Montreal and teenager Alex (she might be 18?) is making stuffed vine leaves with her grandmother Téta. Her mother Maia is not home yet. A box like a tea chest is delivered by the postie and at first Téta says they won’t accept it even though it is addressed to Maia, but Alex insists that they do want it. When Maia gets home she is shocked and forbids Alex to look at the box’s contents. But Alex is desperate to know more about her mother and circumstances make it easy to discover a treasure trove of notebooks, photographs and cassette tapes. Through Alex we will get to discover the young Maia between the ages of 13 and 18 back in Beirut. Alex has never been told the story and she becomes engrossed. What happened during the Civil War in Lebanon and why won’t her mother talk about it? To find out we must pursue flashbacks to teenage Maia in Beirut played with great vitality by Manal Issa. As well as offering us a youth picture narrative set against the bombing and general disruption of Beirut, this is also the opportunity for the filmmakers to explore a whole range of techniques in presenting what are now ‘memories’.

. . . in Montreal, thirty years later, Alex copies images to her mobile

The notebooks and photos are inspired by the archives of the filmmakers themselves, Joana as the writer and Khalil as the photographer, when they were similarly young people in Beirut in the 1980s. There is also a third writer, Gaëlle Macé. Joana and Khalil didn’t want to make a film about their own memories as such and they felt “freer with more distance” by focusing on the ideas rather than their own histories. But on the other hand, using their own archives keeps them attached to the ‘feel’ of the 1980s. This is a complex set of relationships with the past. They cast the actors for the flashbacks and then found ways to animate photographs and to ‘distress’ film/video footage and add explosions etc. so that we experience how Alex sees her mother in Beirut. All this is accompanied by an enjoyable 1980s soundtrack. Dancing to Blondie is a standout. Is there romance for young Maia? What do you think? Beirut was a war zone and there is tragedy as well as joy and hope, but eventually Maia and her mother had to leave, first for France and then to Canada. A key term in this presentation of Beirut and this particular Christian family in the city is ‘texture’ and ideas about mediation. How different are the visual and aural images Alex encounters from the actual experiences of Maia? Memories are produced in different ways and then worked on over time, remembered and re-worked, stories are told and re-told – or in this case, deliberately not told.

Fake old photos have added explosions.

I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasures of the film but I’m not giving too much away to reveal that the three women, representing three generations, do return to contemporary Beirut, a city that has been almost completely reconstructed after the wars that finally ended in 2006 – though the massive explosion in 2020 has since caused more devastation. The film was virtually complete in 2019 before worked stopped on it during lockdown. Joana spoke in the Q+A about the idea of ‘rupture’ in the emotional attachment of characters to Beirut’s people and its history and she emphasised the importance of the ‘re-construction’ of the city and of the history? The film is also about the ‘transmission’ of the personal history of the family.

This is a fascinating family drama about three central female characters played by Rim Turki as the older Maia, Clémence Sabbagh as Téta and Paloma Vauthier as Alex. I thought all the performances were very strong. The only oddity is the absence of of Alex’s father, who is mentioned as having amicably parted from Maia. But since he would have been either French or French-Canadian with no background in Beirut, this is understandable.

Images of the Beirut days are animated

I’m not sure if it matters if an audience isn’t that familiar with the long war in 1980s Lebanon which had many levels and involved not only a civil war between different Christian and Muslim factions, but also the actions of the Syrian and Israeli armed forces and the presence of large numbers of Palestinian refugees. The focus is on the family story and I was reminded of a film like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (France-US 2007) in which another teenager attempts to balance family, education and discover boys in the midst of a war and a local society with different codes of morality and behaviour. Maia has left Beirut and her family story to make a new life in Montreal and this, in different ways, might make a link to Stories We Tell (Canada 2012), the hybrid documentary by Sarah Polley. Studying these three films together would be an interesting project.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige

It appears that Memory Box has been acquired by Modern Films for distribution in the UK and Ireland. I enjoyed the film immensely and I think it is very successful in what it sets out to do. In fact, I could write a great deal more on the film but I’ve got to press on, the next festival film is coming up! Do try to see Memory Box in a cinema if it comes to your area. The film should look very good with Josée Deshaies’ cinematography presented in ‘Scope on a big screen. I feel it is bound to get you thinking about families and memories. Memory Box is in Arabic and French with English subtitles. Here is a clip from the film showing Alex listening to a cassette and looking at photos of Maia in Beirut. You can also see some of the animation.

Domains (Japan 2019)

Aki and Nodoka in the rehearsal room

I don’t like streaming. I prefer a physical video or a broadcast I can record. I don’t know how anyone can write about films seen once on a TV screen. Cinema screenings are slightly different as concentration is much easier in a cinema context – at least for me. It’s too easy to turn away from the screen and do something else when you are at home. It’s especially difficult to watch avant-garde or ‘experimental’ narratives on TV. Domains, which has just finished its run on MUBI is a case in point. This Japanese film by Kusano Natsuka is 150 minutes long and I found myself trying to watch it on its last evening of availability. I have to confess that there were moments when I switched to a faster speed and tried to shorten the running time without losing the sense of what I was watching. You might want to bear that in mind as you read my comments.

Domains is the second film by Ms Kusano. Her first, Antonym, was released in 2014. This new film was shown at Rotterdam in 2019 and has had a wider presentation internationally. It appears to me to be both an exploration of narrative form and possibly an analysis of a familiar triangular relationship, which in this case has resonance in a number of familiar Japanese narratives. The narrative opens with a simple set up. A woman in her late twenties, ‘Aki’, is seated at a table in a room without other furnishing. Across the table is a young man who reads to her a statement, in effect a confession, detailing how she murdered the 3 year-old daughter of her childhood friend Nodoka. The young man who may be a police officer or a court official wishes Aki to confirm her statement formally as she is now being ‘brought to justice’. Aki is confused and at one point she starts to sing a “gloomy Japanese folksong ‘Moon over Ruined Castle'” (as identified by Hayley Scanlon on her blog ‘Windows on Worlds’). The relevance of the song will become clear later, but what does this opening scene represent? Many reviews suggest that this is the climax of the story and that the whole story will appear in a long flashback. I’m not sure about that.

The third actor, joins in the reading

In the second scene, the same actor playing Aki (Shibuya Asami) is joined by a second actor (Kasajima Tomo) and after a while we realise that they are reading a script dealing with the events that Aki has related in her confession. Immediately we have a problem. Is ‘Aki’ a character in a fictional drama and are we still in the same fiction? Or is this a formal deconstruction of the narrative in which Kasajima reads the lines belonging to Aki’s friend Nodoka, but isn’t actually going to play the character in the fictional narrative? (I think I saw a comment that this film has something in common with Kore-eda’s After Life (Japan 1998) and there might be something in that.) The two actors read and re-read lines and there is a camera and a clapperboard to confuse us. We are in a rehearsal room. Why are these dialogue scenes being filmed, sometimes with ten takes? We do notice that the readings become more animated and soon a third actor appears. Adachi Tomomitsu reads the dialogue of Nodoka’s husband Naota and the same process of re-readings carries on. Eventually we do leave the rehearsal room to make brief journeys by foot and by car visiting various important locations. The basic story doesn’t change but gradually the elements of the story accrete more details and insights. But this doesn’t sound much for 150 minutes does it? I should emphasise that the pacing is very slow and there are several moments when a fade to black or a static composition is held so long that I wondered whether the streaming had frozen.

Aki has been given a present, a knitted hat by Nodoka

I can see that the formal operation here does reveal something about how theatrical and cinematic narratives work and how actors engage with and develop scripts. The slow pacing and the repetition is arguably necessary to illustrate these processes. We also get time to think about the other aspect of Kusano’s film – the story of the three characters.

Aki and Nodoka went to a girls’ school together in this small community and then to the local university where they met Naota. Aki then left to work in Tokyo, an hour’s journey away and only returned to visit her friend after four years. Aki is currently on some form of sick leave, having suffered a minor breakdown at her job in the production division of a publishing house. Naoto has a job as an art teacher in a middle school and Nodoka has been at home with her daughter Honoka (who is now 3 and will soon go to kindergarten). When Aki arrives at Nodoka’s house for the first time, she notices the temperature and humidity, but also that Nodoka has changed and that she appears repressed in some way. It is then that we realise the importance of the song about castles and the film’s title ‘Domains’. Naoto the teacher is governed by ‘logic’ and by language, the importance of words. This is his ‘domain’. Aki and Nodoka as children had their own ‘domain’ – ‘castles’ built by stretching fabric over chairs and climbing inside. Aki sees this as a domain of feelings. The clash with Naota feels inevitable.

The drive to a different fabric shop . . .

All of this seems to me to be familiar from aspects of Japanese culture and Japanese cinema. I’ll just offer two observations on this. First Kusano also offers us a number of static shots. Some are shots of significant story elements such as images of trees in the wind (the murder takes place during a specific moment in the ‘eye’ of a typhoon in the Kanto region). Others may be symbolic, but also reminded me of Ozu’s classic ‘pillow shots’ – an outside shot of a house or an empty room, often with a sense of graphic design, that serves to punctuate the flow of images and to subtly change our expectation of the next shot. But some of these seemed to be held too long to play the same kind of role as in Ozu’s family dramas. Secondly, the discourse about male and female power/status is here explored in a situation where the social position of Nodoka is determined solely by her maternal role. All three characters have the same background and the same education. For Naota to retain control, he must oppose Aki. She is a threat to family and to his ‘logic’.

Does this shot symbolise the missing child?

Domains is an interesting film. It is also, for me, frustrating. I’m interested in the story and in the presentation of the narrative. But I really do think it could be accomplished in less than 150 minutes and that if the audience was more continuously engaged they would get more from it. I note that the film was written by Takahashi Tomoyuki, who was one of three writers on Happy Hour (2015) a five hour marathon about the lives of four 30 something women and reviewed by Nick Lacey, which also streamed on MUBI. Nick tells us that: “Overall it was well worth the effort of sitting in front of a television for hours”. He watched it in two parts. The subject matter sounds similar but the presentation sounds more conventional. I’m interested that this male screen writer should be writing women’s stories for a woman to direct (he also wrote Kusano’s first film Antonym). I suspect that for the moment Kusano Natsuka might find her work confined to festivals, although this was actually a MUBI release in the UK – disrupted by the pandemic. I will be interested to see what she produces next.