On Wednesday 28th February Scotland was given a Red warning of heavy snow. I was due to go home but found all the trains cancelled. Most of the Film Festival venues closed as Glasgow went into lock-down. But even snow storms can have a silver lining and next day, aware I couldn’t get home, I turned up at GFT to discover that the afternoon shows were on and that I would be able to see more of Ida Lupino’s in the festival’s centenary retrospective.
Ida Lupino was always frustrated under contract at Warner Brothers and in 1948 she set up her own production company, ‘Emerald Productions’ (referring to her mother’s stage name) with partners including producer Collier Young who she married in 1948. Later the company was renamed as ‘The Filmakers’ (sic). During suspensions by Warner Bros for refusing parts, she had learned as much as she could about directing and become an admirer of the tough guy directors like Raoul Walsh and William Wellman. The Hitch-Hiker is one of the seven films that Lupino directed (two of them uncredited) between 1949 and 1954. Her later directing career took her into television, apart from one more film in 1966. Ida Lupino became known as a director who belonged to a modernist school of pre-New Wave auteurs. On a practical level her independent films were all short (70-80 minutes) and made quickly on low budgets of less than $200,000. The Hitch-Hiker lasts just 71 minutes – none of them wasted. It’s a cracker! Made as a co-production with RKO, the film benefits from some well-known RKO department heads including Nicholas Musuraca as cinematographer (one of the great film noir creatives) and C. Bakaleinikoff as music director (again a noir expert). Lupino and Young (now divorced) wrote the screenplay, though IMDb also lists Daniel Mainwaring (writer of Out of the Past and many more noirs) as an uncredited writer. The original story came from Robert Joseph. Mainwaring was one of the writers to suffer from the blacklist – which Lupino didn’t recognise.
The short running time for a film with so much creative talent working on the production is partly attributable to the difficulties Lupino faced with the subject matter. She decided to make a film based on a ‘true crime’ story about the serial killer Billy Cook who was in San Quentin awaiting execution. Lupino visited him there and arranged the rights to his story, planning a film which sounds something like In Cold Blood (1967), the film based on Truman Capote’s ‘faction’ novel. For various reasons, including problems with the production code, the final screenplay changed names and story elements but under Lupino’s direction still retained a documentary, or at least a ‘procedural’ feel. The killer, renamed Emmett Myers, is first seen in California, killing a couple who had offered him a lift and then similarly despatching a travelling salesman and taking his car. When that breaks down he again hitches a ride but this time doesn’t immediately kill the two men on a fishing trip but, holding them at gun-point, forces them to drive him down through Mexico. At some point they know he will kill again. Lupino shows only the killer’s feet and very brief shots of the victims in a swift opening to the narrative before we settle in to the psychological play between the three central characters.
As the killer, Lupino and Young cast William Talman (who later became well-known as the DA always defeated in court by Perry Mason on TV). Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy were cast as the two hostages. O’Brien was an excellent character actor who appeared again for Lupino in The Bigamist later in 1953. Lovejoy is best known to me as the police officer in Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). Lupino had a leading acting role in On Dangerous Ground (1950) for Nick Ray and claims have been made that she directed some scenes of that film when Ray was unwell. I imagine Lupino was very well-known in Hollywood and must have had a large network of people she had worked with and could rely on. She was an independent, but needed a studio like RKO to distribute her films so she still had to compromise on certain issues.
The Hitch-Hiker is usually described as a film noir and Lupino is often described as the first woman to make a noir – as well as being one of the great femmes fatales in several noirs. I understand why this has happened and it’s true that there are distinctly ‘noirish’ sequences in the film. However, I think it is more useful to consider the film as being in the ‘mode’ of a film noir but drawing on several other genres. Lupino herself was generally interested in films about ‘ordinary people’ – the bewildered folk who find themselves in difficult positions. She looked for that documentary feel. In The Hitch-Hiker there are conventional montages showing newspaper headlines, but also important procedural touches such as the co-operation between the US and Mexican police agencies, the use of radio transmissions to deceive Myers and coverage of the search techniques. I was also struck by how much the narrative resembled a Western, especially in the journey through the desert, the night-time camping and the encounters with small Mexican communities and travellers. It isn’t difficult to imagine the car replaced by horses or a buggy. But the prime generic ‘mover’ of the action is the psychological thriller. Collins (O’Brien) and Bowen (Lovejoy) are ‘ordinary guys’ on a fishing trip. They may well have been in the Second World War (and Bowen is a skilled rifleman) but now they live comfortable lives in the suburbs with wives and families (incidentally this is a very male story – there are no female characters). Myers knows that they can only act together. Neither will risk escaping alone as the other would certainly be killed. He plays games with them and unsettles them at every opportunity. Myers also has a damaged eye that will not close, so it’s almost impossible to tell if he’s sleeping with his staring eye clearly visible.
There are no real surprises in how the story ends but we don’t care because we are taken up with the tension and suspense. We know Myers will be caught but we are still concerned about the two hostages – who are different in their behaviour. I’ve rarely got so involved in a short feature like this.
The film was presented on a 35mm print from the National Film Archive in good condition. Since the railways showed no sign of re-opening, I knew I would have the chance to see The Bigamist the next day – post to follow.
Many of the films I saw at Glasgow this year were ‘picks’ from Cannes, Toronto or other festivals that have already secured UK distribution deals. Lucky is listed as having been acquired by ‘UK Film and TV’, a company I know nothing about but, going by the enthusiastic reception at the screening we attended, it has a good opportunity here to create a ‘sleeper’ or a cult classic. I hope the film will get into cinemas, but I fear it might not. Its USP is that it is a final lead actor appearance for Harry Dean Stanton, one of the best-loved character stars of the last fifty years. Harry Dean died aged 91 last September and, although there is one more supporting role to come in a proposed 2018 release, Lucky will stand as his epitaph, especially as its script incorporates several aspects of Harry Dean’s own life story.
Ironically, the screening we watched took place in Screen 1 of the 18-screen Cineworld complex a few streets away from the Glasgow Film Theatre. Harry Dean made his name first in popular genre features. His role in Alien (1979) is possibly what made him a name to remember, but before that he had featured in a long string of Westerns, war combat and other action genre films since the mid 1950s, often ‘uncredited’. I think it was in films by Sam Peckinpah, Monte Hellman and Walter Hill that I first noticed him. In 1984 he had two major leading roles in Repo Man by Alex Cox and Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders. Later he became associated with David Lynch and his later career was again down the cast list, often in independent productions, often for ‘name’ directors. Seen on a large multiplex screen, Lucky is unusual as a ‘slow’ film with few young characters and very little action. But it has a great cast, a beautifully-written script by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja and direction by another great supporting player John Carroll Lynch (last seen by me as Lyndon B. Johnson in Jackie) on his first film behind the camera. Photographed by the veteran Tim Suhrstedt, the film is stately in its movements – matching its 90 year-old leading man.
Although this is clearly a low-budget film, it looked great on a big screen. Most of the film was shot in Piru, Ventura County, California. IMDb lists 132 features filmed in this small community since the late 1940s. Shots of the surrounding desert were actually captured in Arizona. The film’s ‘action’ mainly follows Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) from the time he gets up each day through his exercise regime, his visits to the diner and the store and finally each night to a small bar. The ‘rebel’ of the film is ‘President Roosevelt’, the 100 year-old tortoise belonging to Howard (played with great delicacy by David Lynch) who goes walkabout and nearly steals the film. What’s it about? Well, I guess it’s about growing old and keeping your dignity without accepting the bullshit that comes with lazy assumptions about old age. It’s also great that Lucky is an atheist facing his end – which seems all too rare in American cinema.
Lucky has three facets of Harry Dean Stanton’s own life. He comes from Kentucky, he has had experience of musical performance and during the Pacific War he was a cook aboard an ‘LST’ (Landing Ship, Tank). The one slight mistep in the film for me is when Lucky meets another veteran in the diner one day. Fred, the veteran is played by Tom Skerritt (who appeared alongside Harry Dean in Alien). Skerritt was a sprightly 83 when he appeared in Lucky, but even so he looks too young to have been in Okinawa in 1945 (when he would have been 12 years old). This might seem to be nit-picking but Lucky‘s focus on Harry Dean Stanton’s 90 year-old body is relentless (and refreshing). The scene between the two veterans could still work with Lucky talking about the Pacific War and Fred replying with memories of Vietnam or even Korea.
Lucky also has music, including an amazing version of ‘Volver, Volver’ (written by Fernando Maldonado) which Lucky sings in Spanish at a birthday party (the title translates as ‘Return’ or ‘Come back’. This is a showstopper and the film ends with Johnny Cash over the credits singing ‘I See a Darkness’. Lucky is a film that represents a world many of us would like to live in. Here is a community where people care about each other. Where it doesn’t matter if you are black or white, anglo or hispanic. It’s a film without violence or unnecessary swearing. But it’s also a world where you can argue, regret and be human in many different ways. It’s certainly worth spending 86 minutes of your time exploring, so I urge you to seek it out.
‘Arcadia’ is a term full of meanings for cultural work. In one definition on Wikipedia it is seen as “a lost, Edenic form of life, contrasting to the progressive nature of Utopian desires”. The name derives from a region of Greece, so that it is through classical studies that is known in the UK. The GFF Brochure describes the film Arcadia as:
A provocative and poetic exploration of Britain’s relationship with its own land . . . a dense and elegiac essay of wonder, hope, horror and decay.
This shortish documentary feature (78 minutes) was put together by Paul Wright, the director best known for his fiction feature For Those at Peril (UK 2013) about the impact of the deaths of several fishermen on a remote Scottish fishing community. Original music was composed by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp. The film was produced by Hopscotch Films, one of the leading Scottish film production companies and supported by the British Film Institute and Creative Scotland.
The film is divided into various chapters and there is a narrative of sorts that reflects the seasons. I have problems writing about these kinds of ‘poetic’ documentaries, especially when the subject matter is so diffuse and difficult to pin down. I find my concentration wanders when there is not a pithy argument to follow. In this case I did recognise some of the ‘found footage’ taken from various film archives as well as extracts from named documentaries and, I think, possibly from some fiction features. The festival blurb for the film suggests that we are:
following an unnamed protagonist from the future as she travels through metaphorical ‘seasons’; from spring’s romantic agricultural idyll to winter’s political turmoil, as nature reacts with violent storms.
I couldn’t make much sense of this.
What is the relationship between people(s) in the UK and the landscapes of these islands? It’s certainly mixed. For some it’s about the ‘pastoral’ and the concept of living close to nature and some kind of innocence. For others it’s about superstition and inward-looking cultures and for some it’s the ‘folk horror’ of The Wicker Man (UK 1973). Although this film is produced within a Scottish context, many of the ideas in the film seem to come from a rural ‘English’ culture (and are often seen from the perspective of the middle-class – UK archives carry a lot of footage taken by amateur filmmakers, most of whom were middle-class). There is also input of material from the rather disparagingly termed ‘Celtic ‘ and ‘Nordic’ ‘fringes’ – there are several events from Padstow and the Up Helly Aa day from Lerwick. At the beginning of the film I remembered John Major’s famous misuse of Orwell and the “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”. We were watching a seemingly timeless scene of an English village coming alive in the morning. I feel that sometimes these images can be a pernicious form of nostalgia. They mask so many political realities across rural England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (North and South). The one extraordinary element I remember from Arcadia was the amount of ‘naturist’ footage. Who on earth shot all of this footage? Is it from a naturist archive? Nubile young women did form more of the naked figures on display, though to be fair there were some naked males as well. What was the point of including this footage? Is it as simple as ‘naturism’ and ‘nature’?
You might be getting the impression that I was not as enthralled by this film as perhaps I should have been and you would be right. I’m interested in both industrial history and social/cultural history but not the ‘pastoral’ so much. Having said that, Arcadia did remind me of the great film directors who have attempted to use the British landscape. I’m thinking primarily of Michael Powell in The Edge of the World (1937), A Canterbury Tale (1944) and Gone to Earth (1950). Powell was a ‘High Tory’ and with Pressburger he was interested in passion expressed through landscapes. I’d love to see a documentary collage of the use of landscapes in British cinema. It would also be interesting to compare Arcadia with Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (UK 1942) as a poetic documentary representation of Britain during the early part of the Second World War. This last year has also seen the release of three successful small independent films dealing with the loneliness of small farming families: God’s Own Country (2017) and Dark River (2017) set in West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire respectively and The Levelling (2017) set in Somerset. Arcadia certainly has a subject to explore but perhaps not in the way it worked out. I’ve been rather hampered in writing this review as I haven’t found a full crew list (who edited all the clips – was it Paul Wright himself?) and I struggled to find images, even on the Hopscotch Films site. I’m not sure how Hopscotch Films are going to follow up this festival screening (and previously London and Leeds with Borderlines to come) with a cinema, download or DVD release, but I think they need better promotional materials. The images from the film that I did find were from the website of another production partner Common Ground, an arts and environmental charity with some interesting projects. This film is worth seeing but probably with an introduction and a discussion. It might even work best in a gallery installation. And that reminds me to recommend John Akomfrah’s work, especially The Nine Muses (UK 2010) if this kind of film interests you.
The Charmer is classified by IMDb as a ‘psychological drama’ and that may be a possible description, but this is a complex film which draws on several genre repertoires. It might not be a unique take on a modern phenomenon and I’ve certainly seen elements of the story in several other films, but I don’t think I’ve seen them combined quite like this before. We are in the world of migrants attempting to achieve something ‘better’ in a new land, but the narrative begins with a rather shocking action which seems to be immediately forgotten, only to re-appear as an issue much later. Those of you who enjoy second-guessing the mechanics of the plot will probably see the moment coming well before I did.
The ‘Charmer’ of the title is a handsome young man (perhaps in his early 30s?). He appears to be facing the chop from his girlfriend after the couple have attended a social event in a beautiful house and garden. We follow him as he disconsolately travels back to what appears to be an upmarket hostel of some kind with quite pleasant rooms. After an interview we realise that he is a migrant applying to stay in Denmark and that his time is running out. The hostel turns out to be less inviting when we watch officials arriving to take one of the other migrants away.
Our charmer is called Esmail and he’s from Iran. He earns money by working for a removals firm alongside Amir who has been in Denmark longer. Esmail makes occasional calls home, often being cut off or perhaps deliberately cutting himself off. At night he frequents an upmarket wine bar hoping to meet Danish women who might agree to a longer term relationship and provide him with an opportunity to stay in Denmark. But they could easily turn out to be married and just looking for ‘a bit on the side’. The narrative changes when two things happen which suggest different genres. One refers back to the opening of the narrative and creates the threat of the thriller. The other involves Sarah (Soho Rezanejad) a young and attractive woman who is from an Iranian family which is established in Denmark. She sees immediately what Esmail is up to, but she seems interested him. What will her interest lead to? Together these two events will determine Esmail’s future. I won’t spoil the plot further. First time director Milad Alami, working from a script he co-wrote with Ingeborg Topsøe, handles the narrative and his lead Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili) very well. (Alami was born in Iran, grew up in Sweden and now lives in Denmark.) We are never quite sure where the narrative is heading and what kind of genre conventions might pop up. The film looks terrific as photographed by Sofia Olsson – who I note shot the film Volcano (Iceland-Denmark 2011) which I saw in Bradford a few years ago when it won a European Cinema Award.
Esmail is in a sense a double bluffer. He has learned enough Danish to ‘pass’ as a resident. How long has he really been in the country? But also, who is he? What could he do apart from move furniture? Who is in the family back home? There are answers to some of these questions, but we realise that migrants who make the journey as undertaken by Esmail will always want to keep aspects of their identity under wraps.
A film like this might fall foul of the censors in Iran, so sequences set in that country were filmed in Turkey. This is a well-made and engaging film with good performances and I think it should please audiences across Europe and beyond. This was screened in programme strand of ‘Pioneer’ – first or second films by directors. Unfortunately it hasn’t yet been sold for UK distribution.
Ciambra is a small settlement in Calabria in Southern Italy (close to Gioia Tauro) with a large extended Roma family involved in various ‘marginal’ and ‘illegal’ activities. The youngest son in the family is 14 year-old Pio (Pio Amato). Not much older than his own nephews and nieces, Pio is conscious of needing to grow up quickly to be like his much older brother and to get away from the scrutiny of his mother, the matriarch of the family. This sounds like it will be a conventional coming-of-age story, but there is more to it than that. This isn’t a Mafia/Cammora/’Ndràngheta story. Ciambria is an isolated community – more like an isolated encampment than part of a city. Pio goes into the town or to other small communities but avoids mainstream criminals. The Roma boy is concerned about territories and identities. (The real Gioia Tauro is only a small town but it has been associated with ‘Ndràngheta and it has the largest container port in Italy.)
Writer-director Jonas Carpignano (born & schooled in New York, lives in Italy) made a big impression with his first feature Mediterranea (Italy 2015) about the problems of two African migrants coming to Italy. His reward was to be selected as one of the first to benefit from Martin Scorsese’s fund for younger filmmakers and a subsequent offer of support from Sundance. His starting point was to go for the ‘authenticity’ of non-professionals and the whole Roma family appear to be playing themselves if the credits are to be taken at face value. Fairly early on it becomes clear that Pio is not quite like the older members of the family – though he may be a throwback to his grandfather, the man who established the community in the area and who is still around at the start of the narrative. After the screening and after researching Mediterranea (which only got a DVD release in the UK and which I haven’t seen), I realised that Pio and his African friend Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) feature in both films, though whether as the same characters I’m not sure.
A Ciambra was screened in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes and was chosen as the Italian entrant for the Foreign Language Film Oscar so it has clearly made an impact. A good starting point might be to consider the extent to which the film refers back to neorealist studies of specific communities. Carpignano himself refers in this interview to his childhood memories of De Sica and Rossellini and the kids in their films. Jonathan Romney has referred to Visconti’s La terra trema (1948) because of that film’s similar focus on a tightly-knit community in Sicily. Many critics have tried to place the film in relation to that Italian tradition and more recent approaches. The Dardenne brothers post Rosetta (1999) is one touchstone but I’ve tended to see them as slightly removed from classic neorealism. Carpignano uses his non-professionals filmed on authentic locations and he inserts some traditional neorealist ‘lacks’ (problems) that need to be sorted. This mainly means finding sources of money from increasingly ambitious petty crimes to solve various problems faced by the extended family. Unfortunately, Pio’s education is in stealing credit cards and copper wire and trying to grow up to be like his brother. He has to get another young person to read the messages on his phone because he hasn’t had time to learn to read. There isn’t a great deal of plot but Pio’s ‘coming of age’ comes in a final sequence which I found very distressing. But as my viewing partner pointed out what we were offered is a reality in Italy.
Jonas Carpignano has an Italian father and an African-American mother. This may be a reason why he began his feature film career with a story about African migrants and why in his second film he shows both the mixed race children in the Roma family and the African community in another small community that Pio is drawn towards by his friend Ayiva. The Africans are mainly from Nigeria and Ghana and they speak English as a common language, that is also used by Ayiva from Burkina Faso. The reality is that in the pecking order in Calabria, the Roma come below the Italians and the Africans are below the Roma. Neorealism can be developed as melodrama and this true to a certain extent in A Ciambra which has plenty of music on the soundtrack and a range of emotional relationships. But it also has its own element of ‘magic realism’ in the hallucinations that Pio experiences concerning his grandfather. I thought at first these came from heavy dope smoking – when Pio first sees the horse I thought of a similar moment in La haine (France 1995) when Vinz sees a cow in his housing estate. But then it occurred to me that the fantasies came because of the pressure suffered by Pio. There is a sense that Pio is his grandfather re-born and that he could rise above his misdeeds. I hope so. It’s very difficult not to warm to Pio as a character. He’s 14 years-old and frightened of travelling on a train – he’s not a gangster.
A Ciambria is photographed by Tim Curtin who also lensed Mediterranea and was in the camera unit on Beasts of the Southern Wild (US 2012), another film I haven’t seen. I mention it here because Jonas Carpignano was an assistant director on that film which also included in its crew the film editor and music composer of A Ciambra, Affonso Gonçalves and Dan Romer. I’m pleased to report that Peccadillo Pictures has picked up A Ciambra for a UK release in May. It’s well worth a watch. IFC/Sundance Selects released the film in the US in January: