Mudbound is one of the best films of the year but you’ll be lucky (from a UK perspective) if you can see it in cinemas even though it was only released yesterday; it’s a ‘Netflix original’. And in the cinema I wish I could see it if only for Rachel Morrison’s beautiful cinematography. I’m not just referring to the sunsets but also the mud sodden fields were much of the action takes place. I’m not having a go at Netflix for at least they supported a black, female director – Dee Rees – in making an uncompromising film about racial hatred in 1940s America.
With high quality television sets, high definition streaming and sound bars, watching films at home has never been better. I remember watching Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR 1972) on a black and white portable television; I still enjoyed it but . . . One thing we’re likely to never know, however, is how popular Mudbound is with audiences as Netflix doesn’t release figures. That’s commercially sensitive information allowing it to know what types of film to make: anyone with a Netflix subscription watch it! The film’s won festival awards and is being linked to the Oscars but ‘box office’ figures will forever be absent.
I struggled slightly at the start of the film to orientate myself as the film sprawls somewhat in setting up the backgrounds of the two families; I also struggled with the accents of the characters but I could have put on the subtitles. However, the early scenes are important and once the McAllan arrive in Mississippi the narrative grips. Part of my struggle may have been because a number of characters have their own voiceovers which made it uncertain who were the main protagonists. I’m indifferent to voiceovers usually, unless it’s film noir, as they seem to be a failure of cinematic narration; however in Mudbound they work superbly to offer a multiplicity of viewpoints.
All the performances are extraordinary from Carey Mulligan to Mary J. Blige, unrecognisable (she’s in the image above) without her make up. Rees’ direction is subtle: I particularly liked a shot on V.E. Day with Ronsel, a member of General Patton’s Black Panthers, with his German lover looking out of the window at the celebrations in the street. He’s in the background and, despite the joyous scene, it’s clear he’s unhappy because it means his relationship is now over. She’s equally confident in the battle scenes conveying the visceral horror and fully setting up the relationship between two veterans when they return from war.
Sheikh Jackson is a mainstream popular Egyptian film that entertains and has something to say. For its LFF screening on a Saturday lunchtime, the Mayfair in Curzon was the perfect choice because of the area’s long-term status as important for London’s Arab population. I arrived just in time as the director and his crew were introduced. There were plenty of empty seats but they all got filled in the next few minutes. The audience obviously enjoyed the film and the Q&A revealed that there were indeed many Egyptian groups present.
As the film’s title implies, the narrative involves a fascination with Michael Jackson as experienced by someone who has the honorific title ‘sheikh’ which in this case has a religious connotation as a title for a young man leading prayers in his mosque and training to become an imam. The narrative begins with the family life of a devout young father discovering his daughter’s fascination with music videos on YouTube and then crashing his car when he hears about Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. This appears to trigger a crisis of identity and the narrative reveals itself as a fascinating mix of interior psychological fantasy and more conventional family melodrama. The first strand is developed through a series of hallucinations and disturbances, some of which directly reference Michael Jackson and lead the young man (played by Ahmad El-Fishawi) to eventually consult a psychiatrist, an attractive and confident woman who unnerves the sheikh. The second strand, the family melodrama takes us back to the boyhood and adolescence of Khaled, the sheikh, through a series of extended flashbacks. We see the teenage Khaled (Ahmed Malek) defy his macho father (Maged El Kedwany), a former bodybuilder and now the owner of a gym. Money for music lessons is used instead to secretly enable Khaled to be the coolest kid in school with his Jackson cassettes and original posters. How he gets from Michael Jackson dancing to leading the prayers in the mosque is via familiar tropes of the family melodrama narrative which I won’t spoil.
There are important female characters in the story – Khaled’s mother, his first girlfriend, his wife, his daughter and the psychiatrist – but this is a male-centred melodrama as directed by Amr Salama and co-written by the director and Omar Khaled. Salama (born 1982) has several features to his name already and has attracted major talents in Egyptian cinema to this production which is generating a lot of interest. (It has been chosen as the Egyptian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar competition.) The film is ‘personal’ since the director was a teenager when Jackson was still a global figure and he says it is “almost autobiographical”. During the Q&A there were questions about how the film had been received by Egyptian censors and Salama assured us all was well and no-one was offended when the censors actually saw the film. He suggested that in Egypt audience responses have been positive in the majority of cases.
Western reactions to the film after its Toronto screenings seem to me a little bemused by the central issue of identity and the film is judged to stand or fall on its Michael Jackson sequences. Salama answered a question about this, saying that initially they had tried to get permission for genuine Jackson material but they had only negative responses. In the end he thinks this was good for the film. It meant that they only used their own re-workings of materials. Although this means the sequences aren’t as slick as they might be, they don’t overwhelm the central issue about identity and the personal issues about how important a global icon might be in a relatively ‘closed’ society like Egypt. (It was also interesting to hear how strongly Egyptians in the audience at the Curzon Mayfair identified with Khaled, especially post recent events in the region.) I was very grateful to get this chance to see Sheikh Jackson. I think it is unlikely to get a UK release, but since Clash eventually made it from last year’s LFF, I live in hope.
Might be the conjunction of the planets but there’s been a few interesting films on free-to-air UK TV recently. Ilo Ilo (the title, the Guardian’s reviewer says, is a “Mandarin phrase meaning “mum and dad not at home” – but the director says it’s title comes from the name of the province in the Philippines) is a family melodrama focusing on the impact of the economic crises for the ‘tiger economies’ in the 1990s. Coincidentally, similar to the film in my last post (The Olive Tree), economic issues form the context but the grandfather-grandchild is not so central in this Singaporean film. Angela Bayani plays Terry, the Filipina maid brought in to help with the badly-behaved 10 year-old, Jiale. Although wringing the child’s neck seems a reasonable reaction to his actions, it is clear that mum and dad’s problems have left him neglected. If there is one weakness in the film it’s the transition from antagonism to friendship in the relationship between Terry and Jiale is a little abrupt but everything else in writer-director Anthony Chen’s debut feature is convincing.
In one particularly effective scene a neighbour in the high-rise flats commits suicide from the building’s top. We experience this from Terry’s perspective; the shock she feels is palpable. Although we are not told why the person gave up his life it is likely the economic insecurity that led to his actions. Like in Falling Down (US, 1993), Jiale’s dad goes to work each day even though he doesn’t have a job. The American film was one of a number that reflected American anxiety at the rising economic power of East Asia; 20 years on it seems everyone is in decline (except China and India).
The film’s also emotionally engaging in terms of the plight of migrant workers. At best, they are treated as second class citizens – Terry’s passport is immediately confiscated by Jiale’s mother – and her desperation at being away from her baby is clear.
I noted in my post on The Olive Tree that melodrama is not an effective genre for instigating political action but is good for raising awareness. Ilo Ilo does this, for those of us in the west, about ordinary people’s lives in South East Asia. The insecure job market is endemic, as is the poor treatment of migrants. In the UK we are embarking on what will no doubt, if today’s disgusting (even by its standards) Daily Mail is allowed to set the tone, be a vicious election campaign where the right wing will shout down any compassion for others. Watching films from other cultures is one of the few ways we can learn to empathise with others as they are, of course, just like us.
The contempt for democracy, which requires dissent, is obvious in the headline but I wonder whether whoever chose the image of PM Teresa May realised how demonic she looks.
It’s wrong to judge anything against something it’s not trying to be so I’m hesitant in criticising Manchester by the Sea as I’m probably falling into this trap. However, having been impressed with the first half of the film I found my engagement derailed by the flashback of the narrative enigma, a traumatic event (spoilers ahead).
The film focuses on Lee whose past returns to haunt him. That sounds formulaic but the narrative and visual style takes its cue from early 1970s New Hollywood, which favoured art over commerce. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee is point perfect: a youngish man who is trapped within inarticulate masculinity; he habitually chooses to end his solo boozing sessions with a fight. He is a man whose manual work offers no fulfilment and he speaks his mind to ungrateful customers. The slow paced early scenes that introduce his mundane existence, in a snow littered Boston, are reminiscent of the down-at-heel locations favoured by, for example, Bob Rafelson (The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972, and Five Easy Pieces, 1970). The relatively long takes of Lee’s routine work, beautifully framed and using a long lens to flatten the mise en scène, are redolent of such ‘70s American art cinema films and I was delighted to watch this part. Rafelson’s films also dealt with delusional and ‘bottled up’ males who won’t engage with their reality. For Rafelson this was the ‘human condition’ of a certain type of man, however Kenneth Lonergan’s (he wrote and directed) Lee actually has a reason for his emotional stunting. And that’s where the film took the wrong path for me.
About half way we find that Lee is responsible for his children’s death in an accidental fire. Unfortunately Lonergan uses Albinoni’s Adagio, a saccharine-sweet ersatz piece of classical music, in the staging of the fire and this lurches the film into full blown melodrama that is at odds with the realism of the first part. Was the death of the children needed to explain Lee’s obtuseness or would it have been enough that he’d lost his wife (the incredible Michelle Williams) through his boorish behaviour we see in one of the many flashbacks? Either way, the melodrama (a genre I love) turned me off the film and it took Williams’ all-to-brief appearances to get me involved again; she is an amazing actor.
Lee becomes his nephew’s trustee, after his brother’s death (the motivating incident for Lee to return to his hometown) and I wasn’t convinced by the young man’s (he’s 17) response; this wasn’t Lucas Hedge’s performance but the script’s fault. He – Patrick – obviously yearned for a parent, he wants a relationship with his absent mother but his grief at the loss of his father, to whom he was clearly close, is muted at best.
Lonergan shoots Lee’s brother’s funeral, like the fire scene, ‘at a distance’ with no diegetic sound (sound derived from what we see on screen) with only music accompanying the images; this aestheticism struck me at odds with the New Hollywood style. However, of course, maybe that wasn’t the film Lonergan was making so my criticism should be moot. I suggest he makes a female version of the film, sans the fire incident, that focuses on an emotionally damaged woman (or Sarah Polley could do this – see her great Take This Waltz with Williams). I am bored of male stories; women have them too.
The eight part serial Humans is a good example of what ‘global television’ can produce. Real Humans has been a successful long form narrative in Sweden starting in 2012 and subsequently selling to many territories around the world but not, as far as I know, to the UK. Instead we’ve been offered a remake by Kudos (best known recently in the UK for Broadchurch and The Tunnel, the Anglo-French remake of The Bridge), funded by Channel 4 and the US cable channel AMC. The serial ran roughly in parallel in the UK and North America throughout June and July and has just started in Australia. In the UK Humans launched as Channel 4’s biggest drama attraction for some time with a Sunday night audience of 5.4 million. This dropped significantly but remained above 3.6 million throughout eight episodes and therefore became the highest rated programme on the channel. (I suspect that I’m one of many who have watched the serial via time-shifting.) The UK DVD is released on August 17th. In the US audiences seem to have been much lower but I’m not sure what AMC looks for as an acceptable audience. A second serial has been commissioned for 2016 so presumably it has been deemed a success.
The UK production was informed by co-operation with Matador Films which made the Swedish original but this isn’t a direct remake since the Swedish serial had much more time – 10 x 60 mins as against 8 x 42 mins in the UK version. The interesting question for me is what difference the American investment made. The casting of William Hurt in a significant role means at least one actor known to an international audience. But I wonder also whether Kudos deliberately tried to expand the ethnic diversity of the cast. This is a question worth posing since the number of significant roles for BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) actors in UK film and TV production is a live issue. The perception in the UK is that our BAME actors have to go to the US because of limited opportunities here. To be fair to Kudos and Channel 4 they do seem to be better than some other UK producers. I also raise the question about what AMC wanted out of the deal since this seems a very British show. Reading some of the comments on IMDB, US audiences seemed to have had problems with accents. I don’t understand this but I do think that the serial plays closer to the UK popular mainstream than some of the recent successful exports. I see the serial as interesting in combining science fiction with elements of family melodrama and even soap opera. There is a UK tradition of female focused prime-time TV dramas and though this is London-based (whereas many similar shows are Northern-based) it may still feel less familiar to American audiences. I think that this feeling is enhanced by the presence of two well-known UK actors with status as comedy stars – Katherine Parkinson as the mother of the family and Rebecca Front as a stern ‘synth’ care assistant.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
The setting is a ‘near future’/’parallel world’ suburban London. The Hawkins family is a typical middle-class suburban family with three children. Because his wife seems stressed and overworked (as a legal executive of some kind), Joe Hawkins rents a ‘synth’, a household android robot. The children are all interested in the synth, ‘Anita’, but Laura (Katherine Parkinson) is disturbed by Anita’s presence. In a separate narrative thread a group of synths are seemingly ‘on the run’ and not under the control of the Persona Corporation or the usual software protocols. A third strand involves a retired robotics engineer (William Hurt) who is unwilling to give up his obsolete synth with whom he has a form of paternal relationship. A fourth strand involves a pair of police detectives who routinely deal with minor crimes involving synths. In the conventional manner, all four strands of the narrative will finally come together when a government agency becomes aware of the activities of the ‘aberrant behaviour’ of the small group of synths.
There are many science fiction narratives that deal with androids or human-like robots. Perhaps the best known in contemporary film and television draw on Philip K. Dick’s stories and especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the film Blade Runner). This serial specifically references an earlier collection of robot stories written by Isaac Asimov mainly in the 1950s which feature the ‘three laws of robotics‘ designed to ensure that robots cannot harm humans. The synths in Humans are easily identifiable because they move and speak in slightly ‘wooden’ and ‘robotic’ ways. (The acting style developed for the synths is very effective and certainly one of the pluses of the serial.) The potential narratives using these particular generic elements involve the possibility of ‘synth modification’ and therefore ‘rebellion’ with the synths potentially stronger and more efficient than humans – and also narratives focused more on the ‘what is it to be human?’ question. The first option suggests action narratives, the second more discursive and reflective modes. Humans has been criticised for both being ‘predictable’ or not coming up with new ideas and missing the chance to explore the philosophical and ethical questions in any depth. I think that this is unfair because it seems to me that the mix with the family melodrama/soap opera means that the audience is being invited to consider the ‘human question’ via the conventions and banalities of family life. All of the four narrative strands outlined above involve some form of both inter-human relationship and human-synth relationship. So, in the Hawkins household, each family member has a relationship with Anita that has an impact on their relationships with other family members. Laura is disturbed by Anita partly because Anita seems to be ‘better’ at parenting, particularly in relation to the youngest child Sophie.
I find it useful to think about the Hawkins family alongside the similar family in the sitcom Outnumbered (UK 2007-14). The age differences of the children are similar and provide the possibilities for different kinds of mini-narratives. I remember an episode in that sitcom when a young Australian woman came to stay and wrought havoc by her interactions with the children. It feels as if the scriptwriters of Humans are drawing on the same type of family model – i.e. the family is almost ‘ideal’ and care is taken with gender roles so that the father is not a dominant figure (Joe’s weakness may be a weakness in the script) and the children are intelligent, sensitive and talented even when they are ‘misbehaving’. (The typical family in the Northern-set primetime drama is more likely to be working-class or lower middle-class with more internal conflicts and possibly a less conventional family structure.) The synths too seem idealised as a group – three women, three men, an Asian woman (surprisingly East Asian rather than South Asian) and two African-Caribbean men.
The last two episodes are less about the ‘chase’ and more about this questioning of family relationships. I won’t spoil the narrative but I found that as all the characters came together there were almost comical scenes where they stood about like characters at the end of an Agatha Christie detective fiction when the ‘whodunnit’ is about to be explained. Yet in the next moment there might be a highly emotional exchange between two characters that could potentially be very moving. On reflection, there are several well-known scenes at the end of Blade Runner in which similar exchanges take place. Humans has an ‘open’ ending so that expectations for the second serial will no doubt already be growing in its fanbase. I will certainly try to follow what happens next year and if a subtitled UK Region 2 DVD of the Swedish serial becomes available I will look out for that also. The one obvious strand that is underplayed in the UK/US serial is the discourse about the social impact of synth workers in society as a whole. It is there but not developed as much as might be expected because of the attention on personal relationships. Perhaps it figures more prominently in the Swedish original?
Apart from co-productions, I think I’ve only seen one other Venezuelan film and that was at a festival. All credit then to Matchbox films, the distributor of the UK DVD released today, 27th April. In some ways very familiar, this is actually quite a complex and unusual film. Ostensibly a distinctly Hispanic Gothic ‘haunted house’ story, the title reveals that there is also a ‘time’ dimension which adds a further element to the mix.
The central character is Dulce (played by Ruddy Rodriguez), a mother with two young boys living with a man who is the father of the younger child. The narrative begins in 1981 when Dulce is arrested for the murder of her partner in circumstances she doesn’t really understand. Thirty years later she is released from prison but held under house arrest in the same old house. Where are her two sons? By constantly moving between 1981 and 2011 the story is gradually revealed. This ‘reveal’ also requires an ‘investigator’, here a young priest. Added to the Catholic discourse is a visit from a medium and a spirit guide drawn from Venezuela’s African and indigenous cultural mix. The priest will discover that the house has a history and that previous families who lived there also had problems.
At the beginning of the film I felt that there was something odd about the aesthetics of the film and for the first few minutes I wasn’t sure if this was meant to be Spain or Latin America (I hadn’t checked before sticking the DVD in the player). The haunted house and the female-centred family melodrama have been explored in several high profile Spanish films including El orfanato (2007) but I sensed rather than saw directly links to Mexican horror films like Kilómetro 31 (2006) or in the case of the spirit guide, aspects of Cuban cinema and Santería (a religious tradition found across Cuba and Venezuela). Another Cuban link and the first indication that confirmed Latin American cinema for me was the importance of baseball.
I can’t imagine that first time producer-writer-director Alejandro Hidalgo had much of a budget to play with but he handles the complex shifts in time and the repetition of sequences from different perspectives very well. The house itself is a great setting and although the pacing and use of music teeters on the edge of constant portentousness, he manages to keep control and deliver. Looking at the comments from various horror fansites the film has gone down well with its intended audiences. If I have a criticism it’s that I would like to have found out more about the early history of the house, but really the story is complex enough and the closing sequences spring some surprises and twists. I hope the film finds its audience in the UK.
Official trailer (US?):
This evening class at the National Media Museum in Bradford offers the chance to study three films currently on release and to explore how ideas about the family can be exploited to develop different kinds of film narrative and different genres. There are seven sessions on Wednesday evenings from 25 September, 18.15 – 20.15.
The first of these films is a comedy drama set amongst the ‘creative/academic’ bourgeoisie of Paris in which family relationships constrain and ‘trip up’ the central character with comic effects. The second becomes a genre thriller when it tests what characters will do to keep the family together. The final film is a form of family melodrama/relationship drama. Since the films come from different filmmaking cultures (France, Philippines/UK and Japan) there will also be the opportunity to explore the extent to which genres and representations of the family are ‘universal’ or heavily skewed by ‘local’ cultural considerations. We’ll also consider a range of other films that use the family as an important driver of the narrative. The image at the head of this posting refers to the famous John Ford Western in which Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) searches obsessively for his two nieces who have been taken by a Comanche raiding party.
A course outline can be downloaded here: (pdf) FamilyCourseProg
We’ll try to post some of the handouts here over the next few weeks and also to discuss some of the issues that arise.
The Cornerhouse programme of ‘Matinee Classics’ continues during the ¡Viva! Festival so that there is a rare chance to see a screening of an earlier Spanish classic film in the usual Sunday/Wednesday afternoon slot. Las largas vacaciones del 36, directed by Jaime Camino, is a familiar reflection on the experience of the Civil War, made more intriguing by its release in 1976 during the last days of the Francoist regime and soon after the release of Cría cuervos by Carlos Saura (a clever and popular satire of the impact of the regime).
I wasn’t able to find out much about the film before or after the screening, so I’ll have to respond directly to what I saw. I’d classify the it as a family melodrama, except that its style is relatively muted and high emotion is reserved for the closing stages of the film. The title refers to the holidays taken by a couple of bourgeois Barcelona families each year in a village in the hills surrounding the city. In July 1936 the families are in their summer residences when the Civil War begins and they remain there trapped by the war until the fall of Barcelona in early 1939.
The script focuses on two families with one firmly associated with the Republican cause and the other much more pragmatic. This second family reluctantly hides a rich fascist and his partner (and their car) but is then ready to receive the Francoists in 1939. There is a flurry of action in the first few days of the war as the local Republicans secure the village, but for most of the film narrative, the families have to pass the time, finding ways to survive as food runs out and establishing a temporary school for their children. The focus on children ties in with the censorship demands of Francoist cinema (which proscribed what kinds of films would be sanctioned for production), except that these are rather older teenagers. There is nothing very remarkable about the script or the characters, except perhaps the role of the maid Encarta (Angela Molina) who is quite outspoken and has a relatively explicit sexual encounter with one of the teenage boys that perhaps challenged the censor at the time. However, though the film appears quite conventional it does offer an interesting take on the impact of the war including the experience of both boredom and hunger and what it might have been like to have been a middle-class teenager cocooned from the action. The performances are very good and visually the narrative benefits from its unique location above the city. I was reminded of British ‘home front’ films from 1939-45 when characters watch the bombing raids on the city below, signified by the searchlight beams and fires. The film won a prize at Berlin in 1976 and it fits well into the home front genre of war films.
One of the interesting aspects of watching what I presumed was a 35mm print was the variable quality of the reels – damage at reel changes is to be expected, but it was noticeable that some reels had gone ‘pink’ while others had retained a good colour balance. Overall it was fine. In the days of digital projection it’s good to be reminded of both the good and bad points of archive film. I would certainly recommend the film as an archive treat. It shows again on Wednesday this week with the chance to discuss the film with Carmen Herrero, Head of Spanish at Manchester Metropolitan University.