God’s Own Country is a terrific film and one of the very best to be released in 2017. It has two standout lead performances, ably supported by two ever-reliable industry vets. It looks wonderful and tells an emotional story with limited dialogue and enormous power. It will be discussed partly because of the gay love story at its centre, but also because it’s a story about small farmers in rural Britain – an increasingly marginalised group in the UK (although it’s one of three such films this year with the earlier The Levelling and Dark River to follow). You’ll read a lot about the film as it picks up prizes so I’ll concentrate on my personal response to a film made on the moors close to my home.
For readers outside the UK, the film’s title refers to some Yorkshire people’s sense of their home county (it’s the biggest of the traditional English counties). I’m assuming it’s ironic in many ways since the writer-director Francis Lee seems quite sensible as well as being highly talented. He’s had a career as an actor in British theatre, film and television and this is his first feature after a trio of well-received shorts. His work with two young and highly promising actors demonstrates his understanding and empathy. Perhaps surprisingly in a film so carefully located in the director’s own backyard (Lee was brought up on a farm near Halifax and the main locations for his film are all around Keighley, just a few miles away), the three actors playing the farming family are not local. Josh O’Connor (one of the UK’s rising young actors to watch), who plays the central character Johnny, is from Cheltenham and he is the one under most scrutiny as a young farmer. Lee sent him, and the Romanian actor Alec Secareanu, to work on local farms for some intensive acclimatisation to livestock farming in the Pennines. It certainly paid off and the farm work looks genuine to this non-farmer. Johnny’s father is played by the Liverpudlian actor Ian Hart and his grandmother by the Londoner Gemma Jones. These two simply make sure the family is a credible working unit. Francis Lee knows the location and he knows actors, so his film narrative has a sound basis. The narrative itself is fairly straightforward – Johnny has stayed on the family farm while some of his friends from school have gone to university. It’s a hard life and socially isolating on the farm, especially when his father has a stroke and everything falls on Johnny in terms of physical work. His only respite is swift casual sexual encounters and fierce binge drinking in the village pub. In classic genre style this is all changed when the smoothly handsome and very capable Gheorghe arrives as a temporary hired hand. It’s to the film’s credit, I think, that Georghe is represented as a skilled worker and not as stereotypical migrant labour. But Georghe is more than a skilled worker, he is also an intelligent and sensitive young man – and just what Johnny needs. But can Johnny develop a relationship and sustain it? That’s the narrative enigma.
The film is a gay romance and that might be part of its attraction as a different kind of story since many such romances, especially for younger characters, are urban affairs. I’m not sure the many references to Brokeback Mountain from journalists and reviewers are helpful – the narratives are not that similar apart from sheep and ‘isolation’. The love story in God’s Own Country is universal. It’s also the case that the isolation Johnny experiences is nuanced. Johnny may be a Pennine hill farmer, but in reality he only lives a mile or two from a large town (this area for the last two hundred years or so has mixed the agrarian and the industrial cheek by jowl). His sense of isolation is social and psychological, not geographical. At the beginning of the story he is a character with wild energy but he’s sullen and not very likeable. Josh O’Connor handles his development as a man very well.
I only have one quibble with Francis Lee. He says very clearly that he didn’t want the landscape to look ‘beautiful’. I can understand why, coming from an upland farm, Lee wants to stress how a young person might feel. But for those of us who don’t have to deliver lambs out on the moor in all weathers, this land is beautiful – and in fact there is a scene in which Georghe makes this point. It’s worth noting that these are the moors on which the Brontë sisters might have tramped, but few of the film or TV versions of the Brontë novels have actually been shot here with filmmakers selecting similar, but still different, moors elsewhere. The credit for the film’s look also goes to cinematographer Joshua James Richards who is also having great success with American landscapes for Chloé Zhao, whose 2017 film The Rider is about a young cowboy in heartland America. Francis Lee can obviously attract talented collaborators. God’s Own Country is a must see film, both rivetingly ‘real’ and also romantic. I can’t wait to see what he will do next.
This screening was part of an ongoing tour of new Fassbinder prints (DCPs) from the Fassbinder Foundation. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) was certainly the most prolific and arguably the most inspiring filmmaker of the last fifty years. He made over 40 features for film and TV. Only a minority got a formal release in UK cinemas but more have become available on DVD over the last few years. Restorations by the Foundation have been produced at regular intervals. The film here has a 2015 restoration credit. I went to see it in a cinema despite having a DVD at home (one of very many as yet unwatched). I’m glad I did.
The English title doesn’t tell us much about the film’s narrative. Though not directly translatable, the German title does indicate more. It conveys the awkward combination of ‘freedom’ and ‘the law of the jungle’. ‘Fox’ is the central character played by Fassbinder himself as a working-class gay young man whose real name is Franz Biberkopf. Fassbinder appeared in many of his own films and often took the name ‘Franz’. Here the whole name is taken from the central character of the 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin which Fassbinder adapted for a major German TV series in 1980.
During a very entertaining title sequence we learn that Franz/Fox has been working in a fairground show as ‘Fox the talking head’ (separated from his body, emphasising, as one commentator put it, the disconnect between his brain and his penis), but with the showman arrested by police Franz is now back on the street. Hustling for money and ‘cottaging’ (is there a specific German word for this?) he hooks up with Max, a suave antiques dealer played by Karl-Heinz Böhm (famously seen as the eponymous character in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in 1960). Convinced he will win the lottery, Franz persuades Max to help him buy a ticket and with his winnings of half a million DMs, he joins the group of wealthy gay men who are Max’s friends. The remainder of the film sees Franz alienated from his own circle of working-class (or at least petty bourgeois) gay men while he is being carefully parted from all his money by his new sophisticated associates. This latter is largely achieved by involving Franz in a bailout of his new lover Eugen’s family printing firm. Franz isn’t just fleeced, he is humiliated on a daily basis. It can only end badly.
I was struck by many aspects of this film but I was most surprised to read about the contemporary critical reaction to it in the 1970s, much of it coming from gay critics such as Andrew Britton who apparently suggested that the film should be ‘denounced’ because of its representation of gay men. Fassbinder argued that the film (his first to present a gay male community in such detail) wasn’t really ‘about’ gay culture – it was simply the backdrop and the narrative would have been the same if these were groups of heterosexuals. I think Britton might have had a point in the context of the 1970s, but now Fassbinder’s argument seems more acceptable. I suspect the main issue for mainstream critics and audiences is that, though still a low-budget film, Fox and His Friends looks more like a glossier mainstream drama than Fassbinder’s earlier 1960s films – but it doesn’t deliver the same kind of narrative pleasures. A common complaint is that it starts in quite a humorous vein and then darkens and becomes ‘pessimistic’ before the tragic ending. Mainstream Hollywood this ain’t. But anyone who knows Fassbinder wouldn’t be expecting anything other than a coruscating satire on the German bourgeoisie and that’s what we get throughout. The society is poisoned by the attitudes of the wealthy and the poor have to eventually tread on each other just to keep their heads above water. The naïve and guileless Fox/Franz is the perfect guide to this corruption of human values.
It should be pointed out that by 1975 Fassbinder was a well-established director in West Germany with half his output already produced, but that in the UK and US his films didn’t receive a release until 1974’s Fear Eats the Soul – the review of which by Laura Mulvey in Spare Rib was a significant moment in the study of Douglas Sirk and the feminist interest in melodrama. New and old films then began to appear out of chronological order. I don’t remember the release of Fox and His Friends but Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Monthly Film Bulletin review suggests that its UK release was in early 1976. It was classified as an ‘X’ Certificate (over 16s only) film with a running time of 123 minutes, suggesting no cuts compared to the current version. The film has a series of full frontal male leads in a bath house which must have been unusual at the time.
The Mulvey interest in Fassbinder is significant since Fassbinder himself had become very interested in Douglas Sirk’s melodramas since viewing several at the start of the 1970s. Fear Eats the Soul (Angst Essen Seele Auf) was generally accepted as Fassbinder’s re-working of elements of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). I was consciously seeking throughout Fox and His Friends to find any ‘Sirkian’ elements. It did seem to me that though the context and the characters are very different, there are some elements that seem familiar from Written On The Wind, Sirk’s 1956 feature. At the centre of Sirk’s delirious melodrama about a Texas oil family are alcoholic family members, illicit relationships and problems for outsiders in the family group. I think it is significant that Fassbinder chose a small printing company for Eugen’s family – a German industry as nationally symbolic in some ways as the oil industry in Texas. Much more important though is the general aesthetic approach in Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas – the use of colour, camerawork and mise en scène as well as music. I was struck most of all by the camerawork of Michael Ballhaus and the production design of Kurt Raab – both Fassbinder regulars. I’ve included here a selection of screengrabs from a film that is presented in such a carefully constructed way.
Perhaps I’m so obsessed with how satisfying I find the overall aesthetic qualities of the film that I haven’t come to any firm conclusions about what it all means. In the images above I’m impressed by the two familiar melodrama/noir tropes of mirror reflections and compositions dominated by doorways/windows and diagonals. The camera observes this world and offers us these signifiers of the ways in which it oppresses characters. Others have suggested that Fassbinder has taken Sirk’s ideas about directly presented emotions presented through a stylised ‘soap opera’ aesthetic. It does feel to me that this is ‘art’ that perfectly serves Fassbinder’s critique of West Germany’s bourgeois society. But I’m also conscious that Fassbinder is also arguably indulging or ‘working through’ his own personal concerns in this film. It is dedicated to his then current lover Armin Meier – and to ‘all the others’. In addition, he found a role for his former lover El Hedi ben Salem (the male lead in Fear Eats the Soul) as a gay man in Marrakesh when Franz and Eugen go on holiday. Fassbinder had a difficult childhood which if not working-class was not ‘comfortable’ middle-class and some commentators have argued that his insecurity with his working-class gay partners manifested itself in this film through the masochistic way in which as a filmmaker he organised Franz’s downfall.
Here are two helpful clips in gaining an understanding of how Fox and His Friends works. The first is gay filmmaker Ira Sachs giving his personal response and analysis of the film and the second is the film’s trailer (no English subtitles). This shows the range of compositions similar to the stills above which define the aesthetic:
This little film seems to be causing a fuss in the US and over here quite a few people don’t seem to like it – but it seemed to me both eminently watchable and useful in exploring how poetry can be a political form.
Howl is the story of how a poem by the beat poet Allen Ginsberg became the subject of an obscenity trial in 1957. Some critics have termed it a biopic but I wouldn’t classify in that way since this is not about a character’s life as such, but about a very specific period of it and the impact that his best-known work had on ideas about free speech. Instead, I think it is a form drama-documentary and this is possibly why it is controversial – though a gay-themed movie still seems capable of attracting bigoted comments in the US.
The film is about the ‘beat generation’. I only know of the characters involved at secondhand through the writings of Jack Kerouac and the poetry (written and performed) by the so-called Mersey Poets of the late 1960s in the UK, most of all Adrian Henri (who modelled some of his performances on Allen Ginsberg). Most of the central characters in the beats story appear in the film. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the publisher of ‘Howl‘, the long poem at the centre of the trial in which he was the defendant. Kerouac features in the story alongside his travelling companion Neal Cassady (who was instrumental in helping Ginsberg to face his homosexuality – as it was usually termed in the 1950s).
The film has four elements which are interwoven. The trial in San Francisco is presented as a straight courtroom drama with a cast of excellent American character actors such as David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, John Hamm, Mary Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels etc. James Franco plays Ginsberg who is seen in two different elements. In one, he ‘performs’ the poem ‘Howl’ in front of an audience of beats and supporters in San Francisco’s Six Gallery – a hangout for ‘hipsters’. In the second he is interviewed by someone offscreen and we see flashbacks/stills of his relationships and adventures (Ginsberg took many photos himself). Finally, there is an animation section which illustrates some of the lines of poetry picking up on 1950s comics but also expressionism and various other forms. At the end of the film we get a brief archive clip of the real Ginsberg towards the end of his life and stills with titles explaining what happened to the other characters.
The issue at the centre of the film is freedom of speech and the trial follows a similar pattern to the ‘Chatterley Trial’ three years later in the UK, i.e. academics give evidence for and against the literary merits of the work. Whereas the British case was heavily circumscribed by issues of social class, the taboo in the American trial is more concerned directly with the use of sexually explicit language. As in the British case, the prosecution look rather silly. But despite the supreme importance of artistic freedom, the film is actually about so much more. The experiences of the beats that formed the material for the poem took place in America in the early 1950s – that period of rising affluence but also rising alienation as felt by anyone who didn’t conform to the consumerism and anti-communism of Eisenhower’s America. The beat generation is associated with the jazz scene, avant-garde literature, drug use, sexual liberation – everything in fact associated with ‘alternatives’ to conformist society.
The key to the way in which the film elicits its responses is probably related to the use of animation. My companion at the screening knows much more about the beats than I do and though he enjoyed the film overall, he wasn’t that keen on the animation. I’ve seen similar comments in UK reviews and from other friends. I didn’t really have these problems. Perhaps I am the more naïve viewer for whom the animation is designed to be an attractive way into the poem? This was certainly the intention of the very experienced co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Epstein was responsible for one of the first major documentaries about the gay community with The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and with Friedman he made the fascinating and very useful Celluloid Closet in 1995, exploring the history of representations of gays in the cinema. My first reaction to the animated sequences (which literally illustrate parts of the poem, so that we hear the lines again over the animation that we have already heard Ginsberg/Franco delivering in the gallery) was that I recognised what I thought were comic book graphics. I think Ginsberg says something about this at one point. From the excellent official website (download the Press Pack) I learned that the person with overall responsibility for the animation is Eric Drooker, a New York artist and ‘graphic novelist’. Ginsberg collected Drooker’s work for several years before the two collaborated on Illuminated Poems, an illustrated version of Ginsberg’s poems including ‘Howl’. There is an interesting interview with Drooker about his work on the film here.
You can get a sense of the film from the official trailer:
If your interest in the beats and associated American ‘alternative’ films is piqued by this film, YouTube has plenty of other material, including these films by Shirley Clarke and Robert Franks both important starting points for Epstein and Friedman:
It’s also worth listening to Emile de Antonio on documentaries and the beats: