Tagged: music in film

¡Viva! 28 #5: Nueve Sevillas (9 Sevillas, Spain 2020)

An unusual and fascinating documentary, Neuve Sevillas offers an avalanche of ideas, memories, observations, opinions and facts that is quite difficult to digest for non-Spanish speakers simply because of the rapid speech and subtitles with often two sets on screen at the same time. However, the gist of the argument is clear and much of what we want to learn is conveyed by songs and dances and newsreel footage. The idea behind the documentary is derived from what I now understand to be a ‘social performance’ approach as a means of ‘decolonising’ a field of knowledge. This is a film about finding the ‘identity’ of interconnected groups of people in Sevilla. But instead of presenting a formal history based on traditional academic writings, the search is conducted by the ‘folks on the ground’ – in this case singers, musicians, dancers, bullfighters, promoters and the fans who enjoy watching, listening and joining in.

Sevilla is Spain’s fourth largest city and the capital of the ‘autonomous community Andalusia’. It has a proud status as a cultural centre for the three components of flamenco – singing, guitar-playing and dancing. Sevilla is also a centre for other forms of music as well, including modern rock music. However, the identity discussed in the film focuses on the gitano communities of the region. Gitano refers to Roma people of the region, but it is slightly more complicated than that since as one ‘witness’ tells us: “Flamenco and gitano are the same, gitano and Roma are the same but Roma and flamenco are two different things”. I think this means that there are other forms of Roma music as well as flamenco. Sevilla is a music melting pot. Music in the city is influenced by the Jewish and Moorish histories of the region as well as other African migrants and South Americans who have returned to Andalusia and with them ‘American’ influences – one of the dancers featured is from Chile. Italian influences are also cited and the music also has connections across Eastern Europe.

Many of the songs have subtitles and this performance is an example of a musical style that blends traditional and modern techniques in a unique way

To present these ‘discourses’ or ‘conversations’, director Gonzalo García Pelayo (who is listed as a co-director with Pedro G. Romero) makes one of the ‘journeys’ through the city himself as well as popping up in the linking segments. The structure is to present nine separate  individuals with their Sevilla stories and in between to offer a range of music and dance performances representing the city more broadly. I’m not going to list all nine but I’m sure you get the picture. I’ll just take the first three. The film starts with archive material presented in Academy ratio and leads into Yinka’s story. She originates in Africa and promotes the African connections in the city’s culture whereas the second story features ‘Bobote’ who comes from Triana, an old district that is the home of traditional gitano culture. Gonzalo García Pelayo includes footage of his own film set in the city, Vivir en Sevilla (1978) and then claims that the film needs more sex and passion, so we get an extract from Buñuel’s last film That Discreet Object of Desire (1977) in which a woman dances naked before Fernando Rey in a restaurant. Two women discuss bullfighting in another journey and what it means to leave the barrio and another explains how she has lived in what she terms “a shack” waiting for a promised house for many years after her arrival from Galicia.

One of the personal stories highlights a housing shortage in the city

Each of the nine characters takes us on the next part of the journey through the city, through the history and the culture. The narrative structure plays out over twenty-four hours, starting after siesta one afternoon. The nine stories are not ‘separate’ and the characters sometimes turn up in each others stories. What remains central is the tension between the gitano/Roma community and culture and the mainstream Spanish culture. This is partly a tension created by a desire to maintain tradition within the community while at the same time wanting to be recognised within the contemporary society on an equal footing. This is represented in the use of language so that there is a struggle over ‘gitano‘ as a description that means something within the community but is considered as potentially offensive when used by others. In one segment we are told that the gitano/Roma community is a ‘political category’ and that for Spain if they didn’t exist they would need to be invented. This sounds like a familiar argument expressed by strong communities in many parts of the world, keeping their identity alive through cultural activities. Not all have the history and achievements of flamenco culture.

The tram presents the modern moving through the traditional community. Some of the performers are celebrated in images displayed on the tram.

This is a long film (160 minutes) and there is a danger that audiences who don’t already know something about Sevilla and its people will be overwhelmed. Would it be more effective as two or three separate films? I don’t think so because that would lose the 24 hour journey. Perhaps it just needs a little tightening in the edit. However, I think most audiences will sit back and let the film roll over them (the festival brochure calls it ‘immersive’). The music and dancing  are very impressive and enjoyable and anyone who watches it is likely get an urge to walk through Sevilla’s streets on a summer’s evening. I’m pleased to see the political and cultural analysis that the film offers. Here is a culture that remains vibrant in an increasingly commercialised world.

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

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

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

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

The three travellers getting a lift

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

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

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

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

John Ford #9: When Willie Comes Marching Home (US 1950)

Bill Kluggs (Dan Dailey) with his parents and the ‘girl next door’, Marge (Colleen Townsend)

At first glance this feels like one of the strangest John Ford titles. There is no recognisable Ford stock company (apart from a brief appearance of Jack Pennick) and you have to dig quite deep to find any crew or creative inputs obviously linked to Ford. It’s a comedy and it includes some musical moments, two familiar Ford traits, and it is set in what seem at first familiar Fordian communities – a small town and then the US military (the Army Air Force). From that basis it is possible to move forward and make sense of the film. Why did Ford make the picture? The late 1940s and early 1950s were very stressful and difficult for John Ford. In industrial terms he was trying to stabilise the position of his production company with Merian C. Cooper, Argosy Pictures. A deal with RKO saw some success with the first two pictures of the Cavalry trilogy. But with Howard Hughes taking over the studio, Ford looked forward to a deal with Republic Pictures, the independent formed by takeovers of several ‘poverty row’ outfits by Herbert J. Yates in 1935. Republic’s most high profile pictures were low budget Westerns (including those of a young John Wayne). Ford’s time working with Yates would have its ups and downs but it did allow him to make The Quiet Man in Ireland in 1952.

In his personal life and his position as a leading member of the Screen Directors’ Guild, Ford was also struggling with how to react to the anti-communist witch hunt led by HUAC. Ward Bond and John Wayne were ‘commie hunters’ whereas Ford most of the time presented himself as a Democrat – at least before the 1960s. How Ford behaved in the late 1940s does not make much sense according to Joseph McBride’s 2001 book, but appears to have been largely self-serving and designed to keep himself free of any restrictions. McBride suggests that Ford was disturbed by a rumour that he was under investigation by the US Army and since he valued his military connections, he sought to distance himself from suggestions that he was anything but ‘patriotic’. When it became difficult to make the pictures he wanted to make Ford tended to look towards 20th Century Fox and Daryl F. Zanuck, even if he and Zanuck didn’t always get along. Perhaps this explains why Ford made a ‘military’ picture at Fox in 1950 and followed it with a documentary in Korea in 1951 and another odd wartime picture What Price Glory in 1952. He made two Westerns for Argosy and his biggest success The Quiet Man at Republic – all six films were released between 1950 and 1952, he was never a slacker!

The farewell at the station . . .

When Willie Comes Marching Home has a central character William ‘Bill’ Kluggs (Dan Dailey), a young man with some musical talent from a respectable lower middle-class family in the small town of Punxatawney, West Virginia. We meet him on a night in December 1941 playing with his band in a local drug store. He can scarcely believe it when his next door neighbour comes rushing in to tell him war with Japan has started. Bill is determined to be the first to enlist. He succeeds and is soon off for basic training. But several months later he is posted back to Punxatawney where a new airfield and base has been constructed. He’s embarrassed when the town throws a party to celebrate his return and to honour him as the first to sign up to fight. But it looks like Bill will never get to fight as a series of events conspire to keep him at the base. The townspeople don’t know why he hasn’t gone to the Pacific or to Europe and his local reputation takes a nosedive. Eventually, in June 1944, another chance event sees him sent to England in a new B17 bomber. This then turns into a crazy adventure in France which elevates him to an absurd heroic status, which the townspeople don’t really believe. What will they make of him when he gets home?

Bill is captured and interrogated by the Maquis. Corinne Calvet plays the maquisard who interviews him.

The film’s script was based on a real incident in the Pacific War involving Sy Gomberg, who started a Hollywood writing career on the basis of this original story (which gained an Oscar nomination). The film won the main prize at Locarno and it proved a modest box office winner with a $1.7 million gross (Ford’s Rio Grande, the third part of his cavalry trilogy, was released in the same year and made $2.25 million). Fox was the second most prolific studio in 1950 and the second biggest box office earner behind MGM in what was a declining market. When Willie Comes Marching Home was a satisfactory production for Fox, so why does it seem a strange Ford picture? First, it is short at just 85 minutes. It seems that a US DVD release includes outtakes that suggest that Fox cut out some of the musical numbers. It has been suggested that the film could have been a rare Ford musical. As it is, the film is mainly a broad comedy with Ford’s familiar comic vignettes extended across the film. Dan Dailey is the only ‘star’ in the film with character actor William Demarest (best known for his work with Preston Sturges) as Bill’s father. The two young female starlets Corinne Calvet (who was French and played a maquisard) and Colleen Townsend (as the ‘girl next door’) are both lively and effective in their roles. The film was photographed by Leo Tover who was an experienced DoP who had worked for Jean Renoir and William Wyler and the music was by Alfred Newman the eldest of the three Newman brothers and the most distinguished. The editor James B. Clark had edited Ford’s Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941) – for which he was nominated. So Ford had talent at his disposal.

I think Dan Dailey is impressive in the film and I was surprised simply because I hadn’t seen his musical roles for MGM earlier in the 1940s. He is arguably too old: he was 34 when the film was released but is convincing as a younger man. He must have got on with Ford as he was cast in two further Ford army pictures in the 1950s. This does make me wonder, however, if audiences would have expected more musical numbers in this 1950 film and why Fox cut them out? The film looks good and sounds good, although there is a distinct difference between the musical numbers, the comedy sequences and the realist long shot compositions of some of the military sequences. Though the narrative takes Bill to Europe, action in France is represented by sequences shot in California.

Bill meets yet another officer who tells him he must stay in the US to train new recruits.

But what does it all mean? Ford was well known for his wartime work with the Field Photo Unit and with his documentary films about Pearl Harbour and The Battle of Midway (both of which won Oscars) among others. He was not averse to going straight to the top to get what he wanted for these films (he was after all the leading American film director and a senior officer in the Naval Reserve). But he was more interested in supporting the enlisted men, who he later helped through his foundation of what was popularly called the ‘Field Photo Farm’ which provided a refuge for the men he had worked with in the Unit. When Willie Comes Marching Home can be seen as remembering the men who didn’t necessarily fight overseas but who were serving soldiers, flyers and ship’s crew based in North America. The film can also be seen as a satire on the armed forces’ regulations and procedures. Much of the comedy is very broad but some of it works in different ways. As Tag Gallagher points out in his book on Ford, various comic routines are presented in a series of elements. One sees Kluggs approaching a succession of officers in an attempt to get a transfer onto active service overseas. The officer ranks he approaches increase in seniority each time but the result is always the same – a refusal but a promise to recommend Kluggs for a Good Conduct award. He is then promoted each time until he reaches Master Sergeant. Tallagher also usefully observes that the film resembles Ford’s silent and pre-war films with a large cast and often gags that could work without dialogue. Finally we can see the film as a commentary on the bland conservative nature of this small town Middle America (when its West Virginia location made me think of the Judge Priest films or The Prisoner of Shark Island). A Fordian sense of community rests on respect and honour and genuine communal feeling, not the ‘War Fever’ whipped up by propaganda..

I have actually seen the next military picture that Ford made in which Dailey stars alongside James Cagney in a remake of the Raoul Walsh 1926 picture What Price Glory set in France in 1918. Corinne Calvet is the French girl again and William Demarest also returns. I need to watch it again in light of When Willie Comes Marching Home.

A Woman’s Secret (US 1949)

Sometimes films get a bad press and, even during the Studio Hollywood period, they fail at the box office and their directors disown them. But that doesn’t mean they are of no interest or that they can’t offer entertainment and enjoyment to some audiences today. A Woman’s Secret is one such film It has several celebrated names attached to it but it has been generally ‘bad-mouthed’. It was the second film to be directed under contract at RKO by Nicholas Ray and its problematic status is perhaps indicated by the fact that it was released after his third film. He himself tried not to be the director but was seemingly tricked into accepting the commission. He later disowned the film, but he did meet Gloria Grahame, the third-billed rising star at the studio. He was impressed with her and married her before the film came out. (The marriage was good gossip fodder and didn’t last long, but that’s another story).

Gloria Grahame as Susan in a classic mirror composition

The film was adapted from a story (a magazine serial and then a novel, Mortgage for Life) by Vicki Baum, a prolific Austrian novelist whose works were adapted in Germany and France as well as the US where she settled in 1932. The lead part was played by Maureen O’Hara, on loan from 20th Century Fox. She plays a singer, Marian Washburn, who loses her singing voice to a mystery illness. She can still sing but not with the distinctive voice that made her a star. Her long term admirer Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas), piano player and general music fixer, remains her companion and one day they discover by accident a young woman down on her luck who has a ‘voice’. They encourage her and she becomes Marian’s protégé. The young woman is Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame) who eventually becomes a radio star as ‘Estrelita’. One night after a show, Susan is upset and argues with Marian with tragic results. Susan is seriously wounded and hospitalised. Marian is arrested and the ‘secret’ of the title is why she did what she appears to have done. Marian admits to wounding Susan – but we haven’t yet seen what actually happened. Will Susan recover?

Nick Ray directs Maureen O’Hara as Marian

The film starts with Susan’s radio show and then the argument. Marian’s back story is filled in with quite lengthy flashbacks and we get to see how her relationship with Susan developed. The narrative might best be described as ‘playful’. The original material was adapted by Herman J. Mankiewicz, one of the most celebrated Hollywood screenwriters from the mid-1920s through to the early 1950s, so this was one of his last screenplays. His younger brother Joe was also a talented screenwriter and director of films like All About Eve (1950). Herman is perhaps best remembered as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Citizen Kane and the man known as ‘Mank’ about whom David Fincher directed a feature of the same title in 2020. His playfulness here  comes out in some of the dialogue and in the development of a sub-plot about the detective assigned to the case, Det. Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) and his arguments with his wife (Mary Philips). Husband and wife squabble as he always brings his work home. This time Fowler gets very pally with Luke Jordan, discussing the case at length and in response Mrs Philips gets out her Sherlock Holmes kit and proceeds to do her own sleuthing.

The film doesn’t seem to know what kind of film it is. Potentially it is a film ‘about’ singing and includes several performances. Maureen O’Hara sings in her own voice but Gloria Grahame is dubbed. Somehow though, the singing doesn’t amount to much and the film certainly isn’t a musical. It could be a mystery, a puzzle narrative – what really went on in that bedroom where Susan and Marian argued? How will Fowler and co. get the truth out of Marian? Finally, however, it seems that the film is a form of melodrama. It borrows devices from films noirs, an RKO speciality, and I was reminded of Out of the Past (1947). There are only a few noirish images, but the flashback structure was what reminded me of Out of the Past, especially a flashback to a bar in Algiers, where I half expected to find Robert Mitchum waiting for Jane Greer. The DoP is George Diskant who worked on several Nick Ray pictures including On Dangerous Ground (1951), featuring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino. Ray’s career at RKO included several melodramas, both male and female-centred, and it isn’t surprising that noir elements crept into them as they were common in many studio productions at the time.

The staircase in the apartment Susan shares with Marian, a typical Ray composition

I can see why critics and some audiences didn’t like A Woman’s Secret and it is certainly a strange hotch-potch, but I liked its various sequences even if they don’t necessarily go well together. Mankiewicz provides some entertaining dialogue and my main reason for watching the film, to remind myself of Gloria Grahame’s performance, worked out well. Grahame is always interesting and I like Maureen O’Hara as a performer as well. One interesting auteurist aspect of the film is the staging of the first meeting of Marian, Luke and Susan (the key moment in structuring the narrative) takes place on a staircase, going down to a rehearsal room. There is also a staircase in the apartment Marian and Susan share (see above). Ray for me is always associated with the staircase, that bridge between two worlds, in this case between the bustling city outside and the world of music below. Three of the most famous of Ray’s staircase scenes are in Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger than Life (1956). Ray briefly flirted with architecture as a young man and critics have noted the development of a mise en scène and a compositional and choreographic style that reflects an interesting in deviating from the straight line.

A Woman’s Secret is one of the RKO pictures which the BBC acquired ‘in perpetuity’ and it is currently available in the UK on iPlayer for several months. I think it is definitely worth a look for Grahame, O’Hara, the dialogue and early Ray style (and all in just 81 minutes). Here’s a clip of Maureen O’Hara singing. It’s a flashback, so introduced by a dissolve:

Cerca de tu casa (Near Your Doorstep, Spain 2012)

Gone are the days when Spanish cinema was recognised outside Spain by Luis Buñuel but since at least the end of the last century, Spanish directors such as Fernando Trueba, David Trueba, Icíar Bollaín, Isabel Croixet, Alex de las Iglesias, Carlos Menem and Julio Medem are known and respected internationally – not to mention the ubiquitous Pedro Almodóvar.  And not just directors: actors such as Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, and Javier Bardem have an international appeal. But still there are excellent Spanish films which are largely overlooked outside Spain beyond the festival circuit and Cerca de tu casa is one such film.

The film reflects the social climate of Spain in the 2000s. Spain suffered enormously from the economic crisis which began in the early years of this century and which led to massive opposition, especially among the youth (the ‘indignados‘), and led, indirectly, to a new political party, Podemos, which is now the junior partner in the current Spanish government. As well as large-scale unemployment, one of the effects of the crisis was large-scale eviction of people who could not pay their mortgages. Unemployment is bad enough but eviction can be one step from living on the street. The starting point of the film is an eviction which establishes the tone for the film as a whole. It is in a sense a militant film but not a crudely propagandistic one.

The film is set in Barcelona but it could be any large urban centre in the Spanish state. It tells the story of Sonia (Silvia Perez Cruz), a woman of around 30 who loses her job, as does her husband Dani (Ivan Massagué). Unable  to pay the mortgage and with a 10-year-old daughter, Andrea, to care for, they decide to live with Sonia’s parents, Mercedes (Adriana Ozores) and Martín (Miguel Morón). It’s not an ideal situation, especially as Dani doesn’t get along with his mother-in-law who never misses the opportunity to humiliate him about his situation. Dani has had enough and leaves to live in the van from which he sells smoke alarms, his only source of income. Sonia feels obliged to stay for the sake of their daughter. Like her husband she also joins the ‘precariat’, people without steady employment, scraping a living by doing small jobs where they can find them. Sonia has a job as a cleaner with a German couple who have a flat in Barcelona so her job is limited to once a week after  the couple have to go back to Germany.

However, Sonia and Dani’s situation worsens catastrophically. The bank is determined to force the couple to pay their debt and even threatens to seize Sonia’s parents’ house; they had given their flat as collateral for Sonia and Dani’s flat. Pablo (Oriol Vila), is an employee of the bank, a schoolfriend of Sonia, and a  typical ‘caught in the middle’ character, torn by his feelings for the victims of the crisis and the relentless demands of the bank, represented by the stern branch manager (Victoria Pages). Another such ‘caught in the middle’ character is Jaime, (Ivan Benet) the policeman who feels guilt at the actions he is having to carry out. As for the situation regarding Sonia’s parents’ flat as collateral, Martin admits to Sonia that Mercedes is completely unaware of this arrangement.

As is often the case when people think their situation can’t get any worse, someone arrives to take advantage of their situation, a ‘lawyer’ who offers to help out with the legalities of the situation but needs a sum of money to ensure the services of a barrister to plead her case in court. In order to get the money for his daughter’s legal expenses,(which, of course she never sees again), Martin attempts to steal it from the till in the garage/petrol station where he works for Tomás, (Lluis Tomar) but Tomás catches him  in the act. Fortunately, he is a compassionate man and rather than sack him, he hears Martin’s  story and persuades him to admit everything to Mercedes. The situation is pushing Sonia to the brink, while Mercedes is cocooned in her own self-righteousness and disappointment and Martin in his feelings of failure and despair.

In terms of genre, Cerca de tu casa is a hybrid of social drama and  musical, a sort of cross between Ken Loach and Jacques Demy. I come across people who can’t accept that serious social issues can be dealt with in a musical. Perhaps it was in deference to this sentiment that director, Eduard Cortés, stated: “I want to underscore that this is not a musical, it’s a song-punctuated drama”. Which I think is a pretty accurate definition of the musical. One of the problems that have to be solved in a (non-backstage) musical is to avoid over-jarring transitions from dialogue to song and back again, and the film deals with it admirably. The pre-title sequence takes care of itself as there is nothing to transition with. The camera wanders throughout the city, introducing us to the main  characters and locations, ending with the police enforcing an eviction. It is accompanied by melancholic song  (‘Dermete’/’Sleep’) sung by a homeless man who occasionally plays the role of chorus, and is accompanied in counterpoint by Perez Cruz’s voice in and the plaintive chords of a cello.

 A later  song, ‘Reina de la morería/Queen of the Moorish Landsuses the same technique described by Rick Altman in his 1987 seminal study, The American Film Musical. He refers to a scene in an Elvis Presley film, Blue Hawaii (1961) which transcends the diegetic/non-diegetic dichotomy. Elvis opens a music box and sings ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’. The music box and Elvis are  joined by full orchestra which drowns out the music box, and a large chorus is added. The process moves into reverse as the song comes to an end, with the music box again on its own. We have gone from the  diegetic sound of the music box  and the human voice to a non-diegetic place ”beyond language, beyond space, beyond time.” (p. 66) In Cerca de tu casa, the song starts with Andrea playing  a tune on a cheap hurdy-gurdy. Sonia starts to sing and her daughter joins in. Then it is picked up and extended into that ‘neither diegetic nor non-diegetic’ space. We cut to Mercedes and her friends from the laundry where she works leaving the bar after a night out, their laughter merging with the musical soundtrack and Mercedes, now alone, joins the song which becomes a melancholic soliloquy as she reflects on her feelings about the current dilemma she finds herself in.

Another use of music and song is worth mentioning. Perez Cruz has done most of the vocal heavy lifting in the film up to this point but there is a sequence when her voice is absent and the song is relayed like a baton, from character to character. Tomás has persuaded Martín  to tell Mercedes the predicament they are in. He drives him to the laundry where Mercedes’ works and observes from distance  the painful scene between the couple. His song expresses values of solidarity and compassion, how people can become side-lined before they find their way. The baton is passed Tomás and  the homeless man, then to Pablo, to Dani, and to Jaime. The sequence ends with the disconsolate couple going back home in the rain, giving Martín the last few lines. Unless it is over-used,  the use of actors who are not singers but can hold a tune can be very effective.

The penultimate number was a song and dance (choreographed by Sol Picó). Sonia is at her lowest ebb and has a complete emotional breakdown. She goes into the Metro station and onto the platform, a location often associated with suicidal despair. Random strangers, anxious about her state, approach her, pick her up, metaphorically and literally, as it segues into a ballet. A modernist dance sequence might face more resistance from members of the audience already sceptical about the music but for me, it conveyed very well the emotional state of the character at this point in the film.

The film had a very modest initial budget of €1.5 million (for five weeks shooting), supplemented by the usual sources – municipal and arts body grants and some TV money -but also crowdfunding. The director and production team had already been  involved with anti-eviction activists and the crowdfunding came largely from this. The payment of cast and crew was a mixture of part-paid and part deferred, and some ‘sweat equity’,  that is, instead of taking a fee it becomes an investment in the film. Budgetary issues were no doubt responsible for the fact that a potentially important narrative strand involving the policeman, Jaime,  was not fully developed. He takes  part in the eviction at the beginning of the film and feels guilty at his role in the misery inflicted on people by his actions. Significantly he is absent at the next eviction.

Understandably there are no stars in the film and I only recognised two of the actors. The first is Iván Massagué (Dani) who played an anti-fascist guerrilla tortured to death in El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006). The other is Lluis Homar, who played the protagonist of Almodóvar’s 2009 film, Los abrazos rotos/ Broken Embraces, and was awarded Best Supporting Actor at the GoyasThe fact that he played a secondary role in a low-budget film suggests that he was expressing his support for a worthy project, social as well as cinematic. I was aware of Silvia Perez Cruz, who plays Sonia, as a singer/composer and she was awarded the Goya for Best Original Song (and incidentally, wrote the music for the animated film, Josep, reviewed on this blog recently by Roy Stafford). It was as singer/composer that she was hired initially but director Eduard Cortés was convinced, by the way she interpreted her songs, that she could act, and the gamble paid off handsomely. Another outstanding performance is by Adriana Ozores in the role of Mercedes, not a particularly easy part to play. She is shown as a strong woman, for example, putting the foreman in the laundry where she works in his place, but she can be harsh and unforgiving. Her main concern is that the neighbours, other people, could become aware of the family’s problems. Her attitude comes close to causing a permanent breach with her daughter.

Here’s a trailer – sorry no subtitles:

Information about the film from Gregorio Balinchón, El País, 16 FEB 2015: “Los desahucios, un drama de cine”  and the Making Of video.

Available in the UK on DVD.

Not Quite Dead Yet (Ichido shinde mita, Japan 2020)

The extensive cast of characters in Not Quite Dead Yet

After watching this film for only a few minutes I wondered to myself if it was going to stand as a rare stinker from the Japan Foundation Film Tour. Soon after I wondered how on earth was I going to classify it and explain why it didn’t work. Fortunately it got better and eventually began to work for me. By the end I was enjoying it, even if I failed to spot actors I should have recognised. This is actually a mainstream family comedy which is structurally quite familiar in the UK, though its comic targets are mainly recognisable as Japanese, including the whole institution of ‘death’.

The central characters are the Nobata family. Father is a research chemist who has established a successful company but in the process has alienated his daughter Nanase and lost his wife to a mysterious disease. A series of flashbacks establish an unconventional family life with pressure put on Namase to become a research scientist like her father. She, of course, will rebel – in this case by refusing to join the family firm when she leaves university and attempting instead to become a music star, fronting a ‘death metal’ band. Meanwhile, the Nobata family pharma company is being eyed up by a large corporate rival, Watson Pharma, who have placed a mole in Nobata’s senior management. A plot is hatched involving a new drug that will render Nobata Kei (the father) temporarily dead for just two days during which time Watson’s CEO has a plan to take control of Nobata.

Nanase performing

Nobata Kei (Tsutsumi Shin’ichi), worried about his daughter, has assigned a young man to follow her and report back. This character, known mainly by his nickname ‘Ghost’ because he is able to fade into any background and render himself virtually invisible will be key to development of the plot. He will be able to foil the plot with help from Nanase and finally another overlooked employee also known mainly by his nickname ‘Gramps’. Nobata Pharma’s money-making drug is an anti-ageing concoction known as ‘Romeo’ and the new drug which induces temporary death is given the name ‘Juliet’. The ‘temporary death’ plotline offers a range of gags some of which involve Kore-reda Hirokazu favourite Lily Franky who plays the ‘Sanzu River boatman’ – the Buddhist Japanese figure who ferries the dead to the equivalent of Hades. Nanase is played by Hirose Suzu who I should have recognised from the Kore-eda films Our Little Sister and The Third Murder.

Nanase and Ghost discover her ‘not quite dead’ father

Not Quite Dead Yet is written by Sawamoto Yoshimitsu and directed by Hamasaki Shinji, as his debut feature after a successful career in advertising films in which he won several awards. Shot in ‘Scope, like all the other features in my Japan Foundation selection, by Kondoh Tetsuya the film looks good. I think my early concerns were that the scenes may not fit together. Early flashback scenes attempt to show the pressure on Nanase coming from her father’s determination to get her interested in science. These vignettes are clever, perhaps too clever next to the ‘death metal’ music scenes featuring Nanase in the present – in performance and with her fans. The music is credited to Hyadain. I don’t know anything about the composer or about ‘death metal’ but I had some expectations and the relatively tuneful mainstream rock music that was presented didn’t seem to fit at all. I think the film began to make sense as a recognisable comic form with the introduction of the ‘Ghost’ (Yoshizawa Ryô). This actor seems very experienced with 65 credits aged just 26. His appearance and the growing realisation that he and Nanase will together fight for her father and the company presents a familiar universal comedy form – the beautiful and privileged young woman and the physically slight and bumbling young man, who is actually very bright – as is she – facing a more powerful enemy. I can think of countless examples of similar plotlines from around the world.

Some clever play with texting to the dead . . .

I’ve seen some sneery reviews about poor SFX  in the film but I liked these, with the ‘temporarily dead’ father as ghost figure materialising and trying to communicate and mother seemingly trapped in a glass case in the family shrine. The film is much shorter than the others in the Foundation Tour at around 90 minutes and rattles along nicely as the best comedies do. It’s good to have a change of mood and in the end I enjoyed the chases and the finale in what turned out to be a well-written comedy with good performances. Perhaps a little more romcom might have topped it off?