Tagged: Obituary/tribute

Menelik Shabazz 1954 to 2021

Menelik was a pioneer in the emerging ‘Black British’ cinema in the 1970s. My introduction to his work was of his first feature Burning an Illusion (1981). This was only the second British feature by a Black director and writer, following on from Horace Ové’s Pressure (1975).

Burning an Illusion follows the relationship between Pat Williams (Cassie McFarlane) and Del Bennett (Victor Romero Evans). Pat has imbibed the dominant values of British society regarding work and order; Del is laid-back and rebellious, though not in an obvious political sense. Over the course of their relationship their attitudes evolve and change, very much due to the racism of British Society and central institutions such as the police. The resolution of the film offered both a critical but positive stage in their lives.

Pat with Del

I was really impressed; in fact I saw it twice over in a year. Since then I have followed Menelik’s work. In fact he had already made two shorter documentaries and in the 1980s was a key member of both Kuumba Productions and the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop. He also made several documentaries including for Channel 4 and the BBC.

The major title at Ceddo was Time and Judgement (1988) which Menelik described as a ‘sci-fi / documentary. This was a avant-garde film constructed with a sophisticated montage [Soviet style] of film footage from both Britain and from Africa and presenting a variety of political standpoints on fighting racism. The film had a strong interest in Rastafaria, an abiding theme in Menelik work. It gave a powerful testimony of experience and resistance. The film was not easy to see; I caught it years later at the Hyde Park Picture House in essentially an archive screening. Rather like the experimental films of the Black Audio Film Collective this does not seem to have impacted on more recent Black British film-making.

Menelik has scripted several of his features and has also worked as a producer. Despite the critical success of Burning an Illusion Menelik has found it difficult to obtain funding for his work. Both the more recent documentaries, The Story of Lover’s Rock (2011)and Looking for Love (2015), were produced independently with Menelik also organising the distribution of the titles.

I saw The Story of Lovers Rock at Bradford’s Media Museum, presented by Menelik himself. The genre ‘Lovers’ Rock’ was new to me but the film, and indeed the audience, made it a memorable event. I caught Looking for Love at Seven; a small community venue in North Leeds. This was also presented by Menelik, working not just as a filmmaker but as publicist and distributor for his work.

Most recently I saw his last release, Pharaohs Unveiled (2019) which is a documentary setting forth a Rastafaria history of the roots of African culture. Given to a Marxist perspective I did not really get to grips with the film; it was done with Menelik’s usual skill. However, whilst some of Menelik politics are way removed from mine I have found his uncompromising recording of the Black experience and Black resistance powerfully relevant whilst his drawing together of pan-African and British movements is stimulating.

Menelik was a a tireless activist as well as filmmaker. He founded and edited for a number of years a journal bfm / black filmmaker magazine with its own festival, celebrating Black filmmaking here and abroad. The Magazine continues on line from the USA. He also was involved in education and production work. I met him when he was a participant in student film production workshops at the Bradford International Film Festival. And I was able to record an extensive interview with him.

Menelik had his own Web Pages which his family are maintaining. There is also a link to a Vimeo site with information on and trailers for his films. This is helpful because the other sites I checked [like IMDB and Wikipedia] only showed selected titles. There are trailers for his main features and a number of the shorter documentaries, many complete for viewing. There is his first film Step Forward Youth: Blood Ah Goh Run which addressed the New Cross Fire massacre of January 1981, but also relating it to State, Police and Media racism and Black Resistance leading to the uprisings in the same year: and Breaking Point: the SUS Law Controversy, an issue especially in the 1970s.

Demonstration following the New Cross fire

Menelik was a key pioneer in a Black British Cinema. The S&S latest ‘Weekly Film Bulletin’ carried a short tribute and his Burning an Illusion is currently available on the BFI Player. I think that his contribution does not currently enjoy the resonance it deserves. Roy has written on the BBC ‘Small Axe’ series. These dramas built on earlier films like those of Menelik Shabazz but the publicity and material surrounding the series did not really give the pioneers the attention they deserve. For most of his filmmaking career Menelik had to work outside the dominant film and television industries. The films’ overt critical political standpoint could not find a space there. But his films remain worth watching and his political commentaries are still relevant today.

Kirk Douglas 1916 to 2020

Kirk Douglas died in February this year. Recently terrestrial television screened the video of his Hollywood break-through film Champion (1949). Douglas played the title role of Midge, a boxing champ driven by ambition. Throughout the film Midge is ruthless in the way that he uses people to climb to the top. But it is not just ambition, Midge is riven with class envy. In the dramatic finale Douglas plays a boxing bout with the intensity that marked his whole career. The film’s script came from Ring Lardner and Carl Foreman and was directed by Mark Robson. There is excellent cinematography from Franz Planer and fine supporting acting from [among others] Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman. Douglas received a nomination at the Academy in the Best Actor category.

Intensity was what marked out a whole series of Douglas performances over the years. In his debut film in 1946, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers, he is one of a pair with a guilty  secret; fortunate to play opposite Barbara Stanwyck at this stage of his career. As Whit in Out of the Past (1947) he is the jealous crime boss in what is the seminal entry into classic film noir. In 1950 he played Jim in one of my favourite Tennessee Williams plays The Glass Menagerie. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) saw Douglas as Chuck, the most ruthless and ambition reporter ever in a Hollywood film and one that subverted the genre to real effect.

“George Stevens, who presented Douglas with the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1991, said of him: “No other leading actor was ever more ready to tap the dark, desperate side of the soul and thus to reveal the complexity of human nature.” [quoted on Wikipedia]

Then there was the fine Vincente Minnelli film, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) where his Jonathan was a producer as ruthless and ambitious in a film studio as Midge was in the boxing ring. And with Minnelli again in Lust for Life  (1956) his Vincent Van Gogh was less accurate than in European biopics but where he made the agonies of this famous painter all too real. He received nomination as Best Actor at the Academy for the last two roles.

His intense physicality meant that Douglas regularly played in westerns. His first film in the genre was Along the Great Divide (1951), which featured a lynching. The Big Trees (1952) saw Douglas as Jim Fallon, exploiting the California forests and the Quaker homesteaders’. In Man Without a Star (1955) , working with King Vidor, Douglas plays drifter Dempsey. A past experience has given the drifter a hatred of barbed wire, which he treats with a savagery equal to his treatment of people. The Indian Fighter (1955) sees Douglas’s Johnny leading a wagon train and romancing a daughter of the Native-American Chief.

In 1955, like  a number of major stars as the studio system declined, Douglas moved into film producing with Bryna Productions. Accounts by fellow artists suggests that he was as intense in his production role as when acting. This led to two classic titles directed by Stanley Kubrick. In Paths of Glory (1957) he played Colonel Drax, the liberal officer confronted by the ambitious and ruthless higher command. The trench warfare scenes are excellent. The court martial and execution of ordinary soldiers is brutal; the film was banned in France for several years. Liberal values also informed Spartacus (1960) with a script about a slave revolt against the Roman Empire by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. The film  has one of the most famous lines in  Hollywood productions;

“I am Spartacus” repeated a number of times.

The film helped Trumbo emerge for his work under pseudonyms and the arguments with Douglas led Kubrick to become obsessively auteurist. The same year saw Douglas producer and star, working with Richard Fleischer, as a rather different protagonist; the one-eyed ferocious Viking leader Einar.

Douglas remained active in the following decades. One outstanding title was an elegiac western, Lonely are the Brave (1962), produced by Douglas also with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo as “Jack” Burns (Douglas) is  man, and his horse,  out of time in a west with fencing, helicopters and large fast-moving trucks.

Unfortunately Douglas, clearly with Zionist sympathies, produced, two films misrepresenting the occupation of Palestine. In Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) he is a US officer working with the Hagannah to drive Arabs from their lands, though the film does not play it this way. And in 1976 there was a TV version, among many, of Victory at Entebbe. He had already appeared in 1953’s The Juggler. A film producer by Stanley Kramer and directed by Edward Dmytryk [with a rather different shadow on his career] actually made in the occupied territories.

From the 1960s Douglas worked extensively on television  productions and in international co-productions. The Heroes of Telemark (1962) was a world war II action drama directed by Anthony Mann. Catch Me a Spy (1971) was made in Britain and France an involved, predictably for the period, Russian espionage. Whilst The Fury (1978) was directed by Brian de Palma and involved Douglas an ex-CIA agent dabbling in psychics and telekinesis.

In the 1970s Kirk Douglas’s son Michael started a career in film acting and producing. It was Kirk who acquired the rights to ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. The film won five major Academy Awards, a rare feat. Douglas himself won many awards including several nominations at the Academy; but he did not win an Acting Oscar, only a Honorary Award in 1996. He is in good company there; it often seems that more of the Hollywood greats’ failed to win Academy Awards than did actually walk off with one. His son Michael has won two, but that probably says more about the modern Academy than Kirk’s acting output.

He worked with many of the modern really fine writing and directing talents: apart from those mentioned this included Anthony Mann, Alexander Mackendrick and Robert Aldrich. Surprisingly, given his western output, he never worked with John Ford; [currently being re-examined by Roy]. He did work quite few times with Burt Lancaster, including Doc Holiday opposite his Wyatt Earp (Gunfight at OK Corral, 1957) and scapegrace Richard opposite Lancaster’s Reverend Anderson in The Devil’s Disciple (1959). He never played opposite Olivia de Havilland though both were of the Studio generation, of similar ages and both passing on this year, 2020.

I have seen more of Douglas’ work in the 1950s and 1960s. He was always memorable and, like Lancaster, he appeared to have been a good judge of scripts; not that many bloomers in his career. Whether he was snarling at the excited and baying audience (The Champion): smoothly charming the unwary (The Bad and the Beautiful): or agonizing over life and work (Lust for Life): Douglas always bared the soul of his character to the moviegoer.

D. A. Pennebaker, 1925 to 2019

D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Donn Abe Pennebaker died last Thursday. So we have lost another of the outstanding film-makers whose work, particularly in the 1960s, both changed and defined cinema.  His series of documentaries were both acclaimed and widely influential. The US Library of Congress selected several of his films for the National Register and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2913.

The first film with which he was associated that I saw was Primary  (1960), made together with Robert Drew and Richard Leacock. This was a chronicle of a contest for the Democratic nomination for Presidential candidate between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. There was intense interest in Britain, partly because of the importance of the USA, but also because Kennedy was seemingly a radical candidate for change. The film imbued the coverage of a Primary context with a freshness and élan that stood out. Years later I remember Richard Leacock describing a sequence of a haircut at the Barbers: possibly inconsequential but completely engaging. This was  a pioneer work in what became ‘Direct Cinema’. And Pennebaker was a key contributor in developing the lightweight camera and sound equipment that made immediate and often hand-held camera and sound possible.

In 1967 came Dont Look Back, combining observational cinema with the then young but musically charismatic Bob Dylan. The tour was famous for several reasons, including ‘treachery’. But the film bought a breath of life into the music documentary. Pennebaker later in life called his films ‘moments of record’ and this partly described the film. It was also equally applicable to the 1968 Monterey Pop. This, a record of a popular music festival with key stars of the period, was filmed by a crew of cameramen under Pennebaker’s direction. It stills stand out in what is now a crowded field. Its influence, like the Dylan film, is to be widely seen. Among those who have followed in the footsteps of the first is Martin Scorsese. One obituary remarked that the famous opening sequence of Dont Look Back, with Bob Dylan singing and presenting [not always in sync] his lyrics, was a pioneer of music videos. Very few of the latter have the panache of the Pennebaker original.

It was only in later years that I finally saw Daybreak Express (1953), presenting a New York elevated subway station with dazzling music from Duke Ellington. Pennebaker had a particular skill in working with popular music artists, which included Janis Joplin, John Lennon, The Who and David Bowie.

He also worked with Jean-Luc Godard, possibly still the most important film-maker in Western Cinema. However, Godard not being the easiest of collaborators no joint work appeared.

Pennebaker continued to film important aspect of political and cultural life. The 1979 Town Bloody Hall set in New York bought together a panel of feminists with the writer Norman Mailer. He had distinctive views on women’s liberation with some of the problematic male values. The debate is fascinating and offered illumination on the wider US political culture, a discourse that is sometimes seems baffling in Britain.

The 1993 War Room, filmed with Chris Hegedus, returned to political campaigning and that of the future US President Bill Clinton. Like the earlier Primary this both offered a portrait of lesser known aspects of Presidential campaigns and offered revealing portraits of the team aiming for the White House.

Pennebaker made some 40 odd films, all in some sense documentaries. They were not always easy to see in a Britain with a very limited distribution world. Presumably now, with the new emphasis on documentary, they would appear more regularly. They would certainly provide object lessons in how to present observational cinema in both an intelligent and absorbing manner. Many are studies of popular music and it culture. But there are the political studies and portraits of other aspects of US Culture. He was one of the key chroniclers of the four decades of the USA at the end of the C20th. Some of the TV channels are already revisiting his classic films. Let us home that some of these will also appear in cinemas in Britain.

John Berger 1926 to 2017

john_berger_in_the_seasons_in_quincy-_four_portraits_of_john_be

This seminal writer and cultural critic passed on early in January at the ripe old age of 90. Is Marxism, like Jazz, good for a long life, at least in relation to natural causes? I remember watching the original ‘Ways of Seeing’ programmes on BBC television and later on buying the book. I was impressed with the critical acumen on display, the effective and very up-to-date style and techniques in the programmes, and with John Berger’s taste in colourful shirts. The book remains a classic and over the years he added to this with fictional, documentary, theatrical and poetic works. It influenced my view and reading of art, photography, advertising and, indeed, film. And among all his other verbal and writing skills Berger also produced very fine screenplays.

The best known of these were produced in partnership with the Swiss film-maker, Alain Tanner. It is a sad reflection on British film that whilst Tanner continued working up until 2004 the last film that he directed to get a release in Britain was The Diary of Lady M / Le journal de Lady M (1993). Yet in my time as a film society member and regular at art cinemas I saw a number of fine films directed by him. One title that I only saw once but still wait to see again is Le retour d’Afrique (1973, West Germany).

Tanner and Berger collaborated on four films together, jointly working on the script with Tanner directing.. The first was a documentary, A City of Chandigarh (1966), the regional capital in the Punjab designed by Le Corbusier. I have never seen this film.

Le Salamandre / The Salamander (Switzerland / France 1974)) was the first feature collaboration between Berger and Tanner. I saw this film at a Film Society in the late 1970s and I have not been able to see it since. Shot in black and white it runs for just over two hours. The film  is centred on a triangle. Pierre (Jean-Luc Bideau) and Paul (Jacques Denis) ‘investigate’ Rosemonde (Bulle Ogier). She is possibly involved / responsible for the wounding of her uncle. Inevitably both men are increasingly attracted to Rosemonde, an attractive and vital working class young woman. Bulle Ogier I remember as enthralling as Rosemonde. The two men are would-be writers who expect Rosemonde’s story to be their ticket to success. Whilst Rosemonde is both engaging and mystifying, [hence the title], the men are satirised for their bourgeois pretensions. A female voice-over provides both narration and comment. The film is shot in black and white, with a number of exterior free-wheeling camera sequences. The film also uses the popular music of the time.

Their next feature together was The Middle of the World / Le Milieu du monde (1974). The title referred to a town in the film where the Rhine and Rhone rivers meet. However, the ‘centre’ or ‘middle’ also referred to a restaurant of that name in the town. But the focus in the film is the self-centred world of the bourgeois protagonist Paul (Philippe Léotard). Paul is a successful engineer and manager. He is asked to run as a ‘non-political’ candidate for a bourgeois party in local elections. However, during the campaign he meets Adriana (Olimpia Carlisi) who works in a local café and begins an affair with her. Adrian is an Italian migrant worker, [also a widow], so the affair both offends susceptibilities about marriage and home and plays to prejudice about migrant workers in Switzerland.   Paul’s self-centred complacency means that he allows the affair to disrupt his election activities and it quickly becomes public knowledge. But it also means that he fails to consider the situation of Adriana. Finally she ends the relationship, moves north and is last seen working as a machinist in a textile factory.

The film uses the form common in counter-cinema of the period, designed to disrupt linear narratives. A narrative voice, that of a woman (Claire Dominique) , both provides contextual information but also passes comment on the characters. The story sequences are frequently inter-cut with shots of landscapes. These are mainly rural and empty of people and animals. These sparse and empty frames , rather than fitting into the plot, seem to offer metaphors for the characters: Paul self-absorbed and Adriana isolated.

The issue of migrant workers is one that is found in other works by Berger, especially in ‘A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe’ (1975). There is also his sensibility to landscape, something that comes across in his fiction writing, his poetry and his works with other artists, especially photographer Jean Mohr with whom he worked with on the above book. It is also there in the scenes of sexual intimacy, Adriana is seen as partly or fully naked, not nude, a concept Berger interrogated ‘Ways of Seeing’. Most of all there is the view of the of the bourgeois class, no longer progressive but self-absorbed with personal relationship as liable to lead to alienation as to union.

jonah

Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000 (Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000, (Switzerland / France 1976) was the third and final feature by the pair. The film follows four couples, eight characters, whose lives cross and intertwine. An important date in the story is May ’68 and one factor in several of the lives on-screen is how they continue when the radical options of 1968 have failed to materialise.

Marguerite (Dominique Labourier) and Marcel (Roger Jendly) run an organic market garden. Mathieu (Rufus) is n unemployed typesetter. His wife Mathilde (Myriam Boyer) works as a machinist. When Mathieu gets work at the market garden she is able to turn to having a baby. Max (Jean-Luc Bideau) works as a proof-reader on a Geneva paper. He strikes up with Madeleine (Myriam Mézière) from whom he learns of a development that threatens the market garden and he warns Marcel and Marguerite. Their neighbour is Marco who works, unconventionally, as a teacher in a local school. Marco develops a relationship Marie (Miou-Miou), a supermarket cashier who subverts the pricing policy at work,. The film carefully develops the interaction among these key characters, demonstrating a command and narrative complexity that rivals that of the US independent film-maker John Sayles.

Over the course of the film the characters politics and situations illustrate and comment on contemporary society. As in the earlier ‘The Middle of the Earth’ Marie is effectively a migrant worker who has to return to her resident in France every night. Her dereliction of the law and her work rules leads to a jail term. Marco offers the school students radical and political lessons which lead to his dismissal. Mathieu progressively opts out of work at the market garden and develops a ‘free school’ for his and Mathilde’s children, including Jonah of the film’s title. This leads to Marguerite firing him, though she allows him to retain the apartment that came with the job. Whilst these events develop the children constructs a mural on as wall at the garden which features the eight adult characters.

The film does not offer a solution to the post-68 society but is does offer a regrouping and a sense of a way forward: to be realised by Jonah in the titular year 2000. The sense of the alternative political world that is still on the agenda is signalled by the frequent references to important and radical thinkers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau [whose statue we see several times], Pablo Neruda and Jean Piaget. And at one point we see Mathieu reading a copy of ‘Lotta Continua’.

Like the earlier films this production plays with narrative form. However here we see sequences in black and white rather than the film’s dominant Eastman colour, and these appear to present the characters’ thoughts, fantasies and alternative visions. They care carefully spaced through the film encouraging viewers to think through the characters situations and developments. This is a film that stands up to several viewings so, sadly, it is now two decades since I was able to see it at the cinema.

Berger had other credits as a writer and also one as a director of a short film: 12.Août.2002, a 12 minute short. His distinctive style and voice have been heard in range of television programme and documentaries and [to my surprise] in a video game. The most recent documentary John Berger: The Art of Looking [BBC 2016], produced for his 90th birthday, is still on the BBC I-Player.