Christmas Day is a problem in our household. Most cinemas are closed and the TV offer is unwatchable so it has to be a DVD. This time Ray brought over his projector and because of forthcoming rail journeys in Italy I suggested Tickets – a ‘portmanteau’ film in which three directors tell three separate stories involving passengers travelling between Innsbruck and Rome. Although all three stories are distinct there is an overlap with a group of characters appearing in more than one story.
The story began as a suggestion by Abbas Kiarostami in a discussion with producer Carlo Cresto-Dina and editor/actor Babak Karimi. The original idea was for three linked documentaries. The other two directors who were invited on board were Ermanno Olmi and Ken Loach. In the ‘making of’ documentary included on the Artificial Eye DVD we see the three directors with their interpreters eventually deciding to make a trio of linked fictional stories. This discussion is interesting because it is Loach who effectively sets up the format when he says that he can’t work on Olmi’s suggestion of ‘three colours’ as a starting point because it is too abstract. Instead he suggests a story idea that involves migrants or simply travellers who are involved in stories that cross national and cultural boundaries. Loach is closest to the original ideas of neo-realism – stories taken from the world, not imposed upon it. Also interesting is that Loach is accompanied by his three close collaborators, Rebecca O’Brien (who attends the initial conversation), screenwriter Paul Laverty and cinematographer Chris Menges. The other two directors both have collaborators as well but they didn’t seem to have the same input from the evidence in the documentary.
The journey begins with Ermanno Olmi’s story in Innsbruck where an Italian scientist has been attending a meeting at a pharmaceutical company. Because of a security alert he is unable to return by plane and has to take a train. The train is booked by a PR person (played by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). The elderly professor is anxious to return to Milan in time for his grandson’s birthday. He is very taken by the beautiful and efficient Ms Tedeschi and he fantasises about her via a memory from his childhood about a girl whose piano-playing he heard through a window. These thoughts run through his head as he taps away on his computer in a crowded train compartment. Olmi carefully contextualises the professor’s story by reference to the people around him in the carriage. It’s interesting that Olmi’s story benefits from the ‘open’ architecture of the dining car: the seat backs are relatively low (i.e. not the ‘airline’ style) and therefore the camera can frame many passengers together, allowing a kind of commentary on their actions. I assume that this is a deliberate choice of rolling stock as Olmi tends to stage scenes in depth. Olmi also shoots on a stationary carriage with back projection through the carriage windows. At the end of the episode the professor makes a humanitarian gesture to a family forced to sit on their luggage in the vestibule at the end of their carriage – and everyone in the dining car follows the action.
This same family is seen to change trains at Verona and Abbas Kiarostami’s story is set on the second train travelling to Rome. In this story we meet a bossy and aggressive middle-aged woman. She has several heavy bags and is accompanied by a young man who at first seems like her grandson. She sits down in First Class on reserved seats and is then involved in two unnecessary arguments caused by her aggression. She treats the young man badly and he goes out into the corridor and talks to a teenage girl who says she knows him and refers to a time several years ago when they both lived in the same small town of Bracciano in Lazio region, north of Rome. This is the most inconsequential story in terms of narrative development, but it offers a first glimpse of the three young Celtic FC supporters who feature in the final story.
Loach’s story (from Paul Laverty’s script) sees the three young Glaswegians meeting the young boy from the migrant family. They treat him well but a little later one of the three discovers that his train ticket has gone missing. The ticket inspector (who first appeared in the Kiarostami story) says he must buy a ticket and pay a fine. The three lads don’t have any spare money and they conclude that the boy they befriended may have taken the train ticket when they showed him their tickets for the football game between Celtic and Roma. What happens next becomes the sequence which delivers the resolution of the overall narrative.
I enjoyed all three stories but they are each different in approach. Olmi’s story is the most ‘theatrical’ and the most complex in narrative terms. It includes scenes set ‘outside’ the world of the train. It does however also include some forms of social commentary. Kiarostami’s story is the most tightly-focused but the most difficult to ‘read’. He offers us an example of ‘bad behaviour’ by the older woman with ‘mitigating circumstances’ – behaviour that is tolerated and treated with some humanity by the ticket inspector, possibly because that is the easiest way for him to handle it. The conversation between the young man and the teenage girl is more puzzling in terms of its meanings, although it may be there to show that the young man once caused distress to someone else without intending to. The young man is actually carrying out ‘community service’ – I’m not sure if this is because he has been convicted of a criminal offence or if this is a different kind of national ‘requirement’. It occurs to me now that all three stories are concerned with some kind ‘service’ or action of generosity. Kiarostami’s story is simply the most complex expression of what ‘service’ means.
The Laverty/Loach story is much more obvious in its portrayal of the dilemma of charity/generosity. It is also the most clearly associated with social difference/inequality. The Glasgow lads are working-class Scots (played by three young actors who all got their first roles in Loach’s Sweet Sixteen (2005). They want to be generous but they don’t want to be conned. The ticket inspector is this time more officious (he has already had a run in with them because of their boisterous behaviour) and his humanity has been abandoned – forcing the lads into desperate action.
Deceptively slight, the three stories do make a coherent whole and they do tell us something about human relationships and our capacity for behaving well. I saw the film when it was first released but I got much more from it the second time and I feel encouraged to watch it again. The making of documentary suggests that the overall narrative sees the train as the locus for meetings between different groups of people and the rail tickets are symbolic of the ‘exchange’ of services. In the first story the professor receives his ticket graciously from the PR woman who has booked it for him and who gives him two dining car tickets to make sure he isn’t interrupted. He ‘repays’ the generosity by his gesture to the migrant family. In the second story the woman abuses the contract represented by the ticket and she eventually pays a price. In the third story working-class solidarity wins out over officialdom.
Official UK trailer:
Loach found it extremely difficult to work in the UK in the 1980s, partly because of the lack of television commissions in a climate of Thatcherism and partly because the UK film industry hit bottom in terms of audiences and films produced. Fatherland was the last cinematic outing for Loach with Kestrel Films, the company he founded with Tony Garnett, and funding was forthcoming from the only source readily available in the 1980s – Channel 4. Even so the film needed to be a co-production with French and German partners. Although the European market had been a consideration for earlier Kestrel/Loach films (e.g. Black Jack), Fatherland was Loach’s first venture abroad in terms of production. Later he would make films in Spain, Nicaragua, the US, Ireland and Italy etc. Fatherland was a genuine international co-production and Loach shot partly in Germany with a German crew and UK department heads.
This is one of the relatively few Loach films not written by one of his three regular writers Jim Allen, Barry Hines and Paul Laverty. However, Trevor Griffiths had been on the Loach/Garnett radar for some time and by the mid-1980s he had become well-known as a playwright and a film and television writer – often of stories with a political setting. Fatherland refers quite literally to ‘my father’s country’ and also to the wider usage of ‘my homeland’, in this case Germany – in the guise of East Germany (the GDR). The central character is Klaus, a ‘protest singer’ (played by the real singer Gerulf Pannach, who had a similar biography and who provides some of the music – which I liked very much). He finds himself persona non grata in East Germany because of his songs and is effectively deported (given a ‘one-way visa’) to the West. There he finds himself caught up in a propaganda war and treated like a commodity by an American record company which offers him a lucrative contract in return for exploitation of an image as a ‘defector’. But his family circumstances are of more immediate concern. Before his departure his mother gives him the key to a safe deposit in West Berlin where some of his father’s papers have been stored. Klaus hasn’t seen his father, also a dissident musician, since 1953 when he left the GDR. Where is he and what has he been doing all this time? Klaus sets off to find him with a young Dutch-French woman who also seems to be searching for him and already has a lead.
The first thing that I want to say is that the presentation of the film on the Park Circus DVD is very good and that Chris Menges’ cinematography is a thing of wonder. Menges worked with Loach intermittently over a long period between Kes (1969) and Route Irish (2010) and by my count is second only to Barry Ackroyd in terms of Loach collaborations as a cinematographer. He brings a certain kind of ‘romantic naturalism’ to Loach’s films, unlike the documentary style of Ackroyd (which I think is still the defining Loach ‘look’ for many audiences). Menges works here with the other long term Loach collaborators, Martin Johnson as ‘Art Director’ and Jonathan Morris as editor, offering us contrasting views of East and West Berlin and finally of a trip through East Anglia to Cambridge. Menges is also required to present some black and white ‘dream/nightmare material’ – representing Klaus’s disturbed state. I mention these aesthetic ‘tasks’ for cinematographer and art director because they have been picked out by John Hill, one of the film scholars most associated with studies of Loach’s films, as indicators of the problems in the film. Hill (1997) argues that the script pushed Loach towards the European art film and away from his familiar sense of using characters and locations he understood so well. Loach doesn’t speak German and much of the dialogue in the first section of the narrative is in that language. Similarly he had some difficulties working with the German crew. The ‘modernist’ devices such as the dreams, the use of intertitles for the three separate locations (political slogans in German) and the jumps in narrative time created through editing were part of Loach’s repertoire in the 1960s but again here they disrupt the transparency of realism/naturalism. Loach himself in Graham Fuller’s book of interviews (1998) argues that he ‘failed’ on the film and was unable to deliver what the script required. He refers to his own ‘observational style’ as inappropriate for the material.
I’m not going to disagree with John Hill and obviously I can’t argue with how Loach himself felt about the film, but I do want to suggest another approach. Hill uses the Bordwell and Thompson definition of art cinema but doesn’t refer to any specific films. I was struck by similarities with various German films both closer to the period of Fatherland‘s production and more recent. Such comparisons also suggest the generic concerns of German (and other European and American) films. For instance, there is a mix here of two familiar narrative themes. Klaus faces similar questions as a dissident in the East who moves to the West as do some of the characters in Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise, 1995) and Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012). Once in the West the search for the father takes on a familiar thriller mode and given the real sense of being ‘watched’ ties together Klaus’s fear of the Stasi in East Germany and the conspiracy thrillers of US and and UK filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s. Hill argues that Loach is not able to develop his usual approach to characters and locations and that he ‘resorts’ to shooting Cambridge as a tourist destination. I think that this misses the point. Cambridge is the appropriate location for these genres – it is home to exiles, fenland villages are the preferred ‘hiding places’ for certain kinds of exile and East Anglia in the 1980s ‘fits’ the conspiracy thriller because of the American air bases still in use and relatively close in Mildenhall and Lakenheath. In addition, I don’t think Loach treats Cambridge as a tourist destination. Apart from one shot down a main street, the main location is the open-air market where Klaus and the journalist/investigator Emma go to buy second-hand clothes.
The main problem with the narrative is that the two stories don’t really mesh and that Loach’s discomfort with Griffiths’s script is evident in the seeming lack of confidence with which Loach handles the narrative and the actors. Or at least that is what I get from Loach’s own comments. He tells Fuller that his own observational style didn’t fit with Griffiths’ more literary script – he just couldn’t do it justice. The action needed to be more plot-driven whereas he was more used to allowing actors to find the ‘natural’ way to act out the scene. Loach implies that it wasn’t that he and Griffiths had a disagreement, rather that their approaches were simply different. Loach also admits that at this point he simply wasn’t “competent at filmmaking” (Fuller 1998: 60) – the difficulties he faced in getting work transmitted/screened were presumably having an effect on his confidence.
Whether or not we accept Loach’s comments at face value, the script and the completed film still offer some interesting ideas about politics in the mid-1980s. Klaus is a hero for the anti-Stalinist socialist. His dissent in East Germany is voiced against the regime, not against socialism and it does not imply any compromise with ‘social democracy’ in the West. The press conference at which Klaus is introduced to Western journalists is shown twice – once in the title credit sequence and then again in the chronology of Klaus’ journey to the UK. Klaus refuses to say he is happy in the West and then insults the West German Minister for Culture when the politician trots out the “I disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it . . .” line. Klaus says that he sees West Germany as a continuation of the ‘fascistic state’ under the Nazis. I enjoyed this sequence very much – it’s so refreshing to see someone not prepared to kow-tow to convention and to maintain a thought-out political position. The exchange reminded me of the time around the late 1970s/early 1980s that teachers in the UK were asked to support their fellow trade unionists in West Germany who were faced with the Berufsverbot – a ‘professional ban’ on political activists from appointment to various public sector jobs, including teaching. These responses are matched later when Klaus under pressure to sign a recording contract, does so only after crossing out the majority of its clauses. It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that the three slogans which introduce each location are: ‘Actually existing socialism’ (Ost Berlin), ‘Grosse Freheitstrasse’ (Great Freedom Street – West Berlin) and ‘Stalinism is not socialism, capitalism is not freedom’ (on the train to the ferry in Holland).
The link between Klaus’ experiences of the FDR (West Germany) and his ‘quest’ in travelling to Cambridge is his father’s letters and the other materials in the safe deposit box. These refer back to his father’s journey to to fight in Spain in 1936 as a German communist – but what then put him in back in Germany under Hitler and then exiled him to the US before his final exile in the UK? At this point the thriller/conspiracy narrative takes over. Ironically of course, Loach would return to related questions about socialists fighting in Spain in Land and Freedom, 1995). When I think about it, the two plot points in the car journey to Cambridge do seem rather heavy-handed in showing the UK to be just as repressive as West Germany (which was probably ‘true’ in 1986). What is odd, perhaps, is that a socialist like Klaus would come to the UK with a young woman he didn’t really know (i.e. in regards to her politics) without seeking to find some British socialist contacts who might help him in his quest. This for me is the ‘disjuncture’ with Loach’s British films rather than the aesthetic differences noted by John Hill. Dialogue with Brits at this point might help the political discourse to cohere. The introduction of Emma also tends to hint at a possible emotional involvement that I’m not sure the script knows how to handle (or perhaps it was intended to but got cut?). Klaus is concerned about his son but his divorced wife has re-married. Personal emotions are part of the political but we don’t really see this with Klaus.
Fatherland is certainly flawed, but its problems are interesting and now I feel that I need to re-watch Riff-Raff (1991), usually seen as the ‘comeback’ or ‘re-launch film for Loach and to consider it alongside Fatherland and Hidden Agenda to appreciate the changes.
Graham Fuller (ed) (1998) Loach on Loach, London: faber & faber
John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Trowbridge: Flicks Books
In 1965 Ken Loach began working on ‘The Wednesday Play’ for BBC Television. These feature-length films, initially shot on video in studios but gradually moving into 16mm film production, attracted audiences of over 10 million. Many of them dealt directly with contemporary social issues, often creating headlines in the press the following day. Three Clear Sundays is a drama about capital punishment – the title refers to the statutory period between sentence and execution in which an appeal for a reprieve could be made. This was a live debate in the UK at the time – the death penalty for capital murder (death by hanging) was commuted to life imprisonment later in the same year, 1965. The last executions had actually taken place in 1964.
The script was written by an ex-con James O’Connor. It tells the story of Danny Lee (Tony Selby) a London street trader (‘barrow boy’) who is sentenced to 6 months in Pentonville for punching a police officer (who had provoked him). Danny is illiterate and not very bright. He is the only ‘straight’ member of a criminal family headed by Brittie (Rita Webb) and he has ignored her 11th commandment “Thou shalt never plead guilty”. In prison he is easily led and eventually finds himself involved in a scheme which requires him to cosh a prison officer. He hits the man too hard and discovers that killing a prison officer is one of six capital murder offences.
Over the course of 1965 BBC production teams experimented further with the mix of film and video and Ken Loach emerged as one of the prominent figures in the development of ‘documentary dramas’ utilising film footage. How much of this actually came from Ken himself and how much from his collaborators is not clear. In April 1965 he was working with producer James MacTaggart and story editor Roger Smith. Three Clear Sundays has three ‘filmed’ sequences depicting the barrow boys in the market, Brittie outside the Old Bailey and outside the prison gates. These are relatively static scenes – like the studio sequences. A prison-based drama doesn’t give many opportunities to show the city environment. The key aesthetic decision perhaps concerns the use of music, an important feature of two later Loach plays in the same year (and of Loach’s work over his whole career). Danny’s story is told from different perspectives (e.g. his mother and his girlfriend) and each ‘chapter’ is introduced by a song. All the lyrics are written by Nemone Lethbridge and set to some familiar folk tunes. Loach uses a technique in this play which involves presenting characters speaking but with the songs dubbed over the speech. I wonder if this was related in any way to Godard’s deliberate mismatching of sound and image in his early 1960s films? (In the Graham Fuller interviews (1998) Loach says that he rarely saw British or American films as a teenager, being more interested in theatre and once at university saw mainly European films.)
Not surprisingly perhaps, the Lee family are portrayed as ‘cockney characters’ and the girlfriend Rosa is Irish. The Irish connection might come from O’Connor the writer. Rosa and Danny are both Roman Catholic. There is also a West Indian character in prison and others in the street scenes. There is a palpable sense of trying to ‘root’ the drama in a recognisable London, but aesthetically it isn’t quite there yet. The social commentary is certainly there with references to both racism and homophobia in the script. Overall the play now appears ‘rough and ready’ and seems best categorised as still ‘experimental’. The closing scenes in the condemned man’s cell are very moving and the social chatter of the hangman and his assistant is quite startling. Years before Pulp Fiction, their chatter about the techniques of the job (where to place a knot in the noose etc.) alongside sleeping arrangements and tales about the Nuremburg trials in 1945-6 are effective in making executions ‘real’. I’m not sure whether or not Loach would have seen Berlanga’s The Executioner which screened at Venice in 1963 but that film takes a similarly prosaic view of executions (as well as satirising the system).
Loach would later be accused of being didactic but Three Clear Sundays works well because Danny is clearly ‘guilty’ but in no way ‘deserves to die’ –the story may well be ‘loaded’ in this sense but the presentation is ‘straight’. There is no evidence that the play greatly influenced audiences (public opinion in the UK seems to have been unchanged throughout the 1960s) but it must have had an impact. Unfortunately, none of Loach’s interviewers seemed to have asked him about this play (please comment if you know of any other interviews).
Presumably Loach and the cast and crew had little time to make these plays. Loach directed six such plays of 75-80 mins each all of which appeared in 1965. Three Clear Sundays is the earliest example of Loach’s work available on the DVD boxset ‘Ken Loach at the BBC’.
Fuller, Graham (ed) (1998) Loach on Loach, London: faber & faber
Watching Jimmy’s Hall was an absolute joy. After reading some lukewarm reviews I was delighted to find that this is a film full of energy and wit as well as great music and dancing – and some serious insights into the repression of collective action in a conservative, rural society. Some critics have discussed it as a ‘minor’ work. Loach himself says the titular hall is a ‘microcosm’ (of the struggles of working people in rural Ireland). I would say that it is a film to inspire audiences with a belief in collective work and community-based art and culture.
Jimmy Gralton was a local hero in County Leitrim in the early 1920s and again in the early 1930s and has become an iconic figure for some on the Irish left with several books and a play about his exploits – which Paul Laverty lists among his sources. Laverty’s script is ‘true’ to all the public aspects of Gralton’s story but elements of his private and personal life have been invented to suit the construction of the narrative. The film opens with Gralton’s return to County Leitrim in 1932 some ten years after he left for New York as one of the ‘anti-treaty’ losing warriors in the Irish Civil War. Now, one of the other ‘losers’ Eamon de Valera is heading a new government in the Free State and Gralton believes he can return safely. As soon as he is home he begins to hear pleas that he should re-open the community hall (the Pearse-Connolly Hall named after two Republican heroes) built by local voluntary labour on the Gralton family’s land. (Flashbacks then show us the hall being built.)
Gralton’s home is in one of the least-populated counties in Ireland (50,000 in the 1930s – a third of what it was at the time of the famine in the 1840s but nearly three times what it is now). There is no work and little to do – young people especially want to revive the dances, boxing gym and poetry and art classes. The hall re-opens and life improves but Gralton has enemies and it is this opposition that has attracted Laverty and Loach to his story. The opposition is led by the Catholic Church and the landowners – and also by the right-wingers from the pro-treaty IRA. Loach and Laverty have acknowledged that film is certainly linked to The Wind That Shakes the Barley. As Loach argues, after a colonial struggle any newly independent country can change its flag and ditch the trappings of imperialism but it’s much more difficult to change who has status in the community and who has control over what happens. Jimmy Gralton discovers that the old enemies are still in power. This is neatly summed up in a typical Loach-Laverty scene when the priest and the landowner meet to scupper Gralton.
In some ways, Jimmy’s Hall has a similar address to audiences as the Loach-Allen film Land and Freedom (1995). We know Gralton can’t ‘win’ – Loach is not a romantic and his films are rooted in historical accuracy (though not a history recognised by right-wingers). But what films like this do offer is a sense of the right way to organise, the possibilities of collective action, the pleasures of working (and playing) together and a clear analysis of what the enemy is up to. The strength of the film is that the priest is at once an oppressor, but also a thinking man who respects Gralton as an enemy. It’s interesting that the crucial ‘lever’ that the priest uses is to denounce American jazz and blues as the ‘devil’s music’. All kinds of metaphors are wrapped up in this stance – and the fact that Gralton brings in jazz to play alongside traditional Irish music, including music for dancing. The tragedy is that the reactionary forces in rural Ireland were set up to triumph over collective action. This is an important historical lesson that I hope younger people are able to learn from.
The Cannes Press Conference for Jimmy’s Hall is interesting in terms of Loach’s thoughts on what cinema can achieve. I think he would agree that young people in rural Ireland in particular were stifled by the Church up to at least the 1980s but that since then the international corporations with their movements of capital that first built up and then knocked down the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy have taken over as the oppressors. In case all of this sounds like hard work I should add that Laverty has created a ‘secret romance’ between Gralton and the woman he left ten years ago and who is now married with children. Simone Kirby plays Oonagh delightfully and she and Barry Ward as Jimmy make a handsome couple.
Jimmy’s other love is his mother. So far I haven’t managed to find out who the actress is (or perhaps she is one of Loach’s non-actors?) Either way she is terrific, as are all the other cast members. I saw the film a second time on a trip to Ireland. I was worried that a second viewing might reveal flaws, but I enjoyed just as much, if not more so. Rumours circulated before Cannes that this would be the last Ken Loach fiction feature. Ken is 77 now and losing the sight in one eye (see Danny Leigh’s interview in the Guardian). A major feature is tiring and stressful but I hope he can make another one. If he can’t, I think Jimmy’s Hall is a good swansong. Ignore gainsayers, this is the goods. More reviews of Ken Loach et al to follow.