I read about this film many years ago but could never find it. I think it has now been restored in France, but the print I watched was OK (I don’t know its provenance). On its release in 1946, René Clément’s film was compared to the earliest works of Italian neo-realism, especially Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. Like that film it offers a narrative about the final years of occupation, this time in France. The neo-realist tag refers to both the number of non-professional actors, the location shooting and the use of long shot to encompass the contribution of many characters to the overall story. Once the euphoria of liberation and the promotion of the ‘myth’ of résistance had subsided, the film was then subject to a revisionist view and Clément found himself in the late 1950s/early 1960s subject to attacks from Truffaut and other Cahiers critics, despite his high reputation for films such as Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952). See, in particular, the discussion by critics in Cahiers 71, May 1957, included in Jim Hillier’s edited collection of Cahiers excerpts Vol 1: 1950s (BFI/Harvard UP 1985). They accuse Clément of taking a turn away from neo-realism and indulging in ‘academicism’ – going for expensive international films. Jacques Rivette is especially rude claiming that Clément (along with Henri Clouzot and Claude Autant-Lara) is a “coward . . . corrupted by money”.
When I first saw Plein de soleil (Purple Noon, 1960) I realised just how misguided Truffaut and co. were. The general revisionist view of French résistance and collaboration is a more complex issue. As we’ve noted several times on this blog, especially in our discussion of Un héros très discret (A Self-Made Hero, France 1996), the common myth circulated within French culture in the 1950s and up to the 1980s/90s was that most French people were actively engaged as résistance fighters or Nazi collaborators. Historians think now that most French people just tried to live their lives during the Occupation (or the closed world of collaborationist Vichy). Only a minority were actively resisting or collaborating. How individuals fared after 1940 was much more nuanced than the myth allowed.
Clément was unlucky in that one of the ‘godfathers’ of La nouvelle vague was Jean-Pierre Melville who had been active in the resistance and who went on to make important films set during the occupation including Le Silence de la mer (1949) and L’armée des ombres (Army of the Shadows, 1969). Clément himself had previously made short films, including short documentaries from the mid 1930s onwards (he was born in 1913). One of these shorts, Ceux de rail (1942) depicted a rail journey from Nice to Marseille and appears to have prompted the ‘National Résistance’ organisation to encourage Clément to make La Bataille du rail.
The ‘Battle’ depicts the efforts by French railway workers to sabotage train movements and to hinder by any means possible the contribution of the railway system to the German war effort. In the early part of the film, Clément offers a montage of incidents showing how resistance fighters could be smuggled past German checkpoints inside a locomotive tender or in compartments used to transport animals, how bombs could be planted on locomotives and brakes cut or fuel drained away. In these scenes it is difficult to identify any significant characters or a specific narrative. Instead, this part of the film functions almost as a documentary – a manual on how to subvert the railway system. It’s worth noting that Clément begins the film with a warning posted by the Germans forbidding Jews to cross the ‘demarcation line’ between Vichy and the Occupied Zone. We see a woman and child be led away from a train at the border checkpoint.
In the second part of the film there is a strong narrative and some individualised characters. The narrative is a form of the classic ‘locomotive chase’ (i.e. like the Buster Keaton film The General). It is June 1944 and the Allies have landed in Normandy. The Germans need to re-inforce their Atlantic defences. Various troop trains and trains carrying tanks and field artillery are marshalled to be sent to Normandy. The résistance charges the railway workers to stop the trains at all costs. Some are derailed or bridges are blown-up. Eventually the narrative focuses on one branch line and one small town and Clément revels in the details of the workers’ methods and then an attack on an armoured train by the maquis. This is a very accomplished technical achievement by Clément and his cinematographer Henri Alekan. The production had the full support of SNCF and I’ve rarely seen shots of freight yards and engine sheds/turntables etc. as extensive as these in a fiction film. Clément doesn’t get lost in technicalities. There are key scenes involving railway workers (cheminots) taken by the Germans as hostages and executed in an attempt to deter sabotage. The German armoured train was preceded by a flat car carrying forced labour. When sabotaged track was spotted, the forced labour would be required to re-lay the track under German guns. The presence of the forced labour was also a problem for the maquis, who needed to avoid killing the innocent. We do in this second narrative recognise the regional track controller who organises the sabotage and any other methods to thwart the Germans. We also see his ‘fixer’ who is sent out by motor bike to relay instructions.
Although there are these individuated characters, La Bataille du rail does differ from the films of Rossellini (i.e. Rome, Open City and Paisa) in the way that it avoids ‘personal, emotional stories’ and therefore melodrama. Instead, it appears that everyone is allied in the attempt to defeat the Germans – not something that was necessarily the case but certainly something that would be supported by the film’s producers and sponsors, the National Résistance Council and SNCF.
I hope to find more examples of René Clément’s work in the 1940s and 1950s in order to see if the Cahiers criticism is valid. Susan Hayward in French National Cinema (Routledge 1993) calls La Bataille du rail, the French résistance film, though she also makes the point that it can be misread as creating the myth of résistance. Clément went on to make several other films set during the war. The late 1940s was a key period for films like this.
There is a useful essay on the film by Adrian Danks on Senses of Cinema.
Here’s an extract from the film in which, having already derailed a train, a railway worker sets out to sabotage the crane which is being used to clear wagons from the track (the sequence is largely dialogue free):
Orly is the fourth Angela Schanelec film to be streamed on MUBI. A brief synopsis might suggest it has generic possibilities as a narrative but really it is almost anti-narrative in conventional terms. I wonder if watching Schanelec’s films is like developing addictive behaviour. I find the films frustrating because I’m so used to conventional narratives – but I can’t stop watching them, partly because I’m in awe of the camerawork and the editing and the overall choreography of movement and control of the fictional space.
The genre here ought to be that of the ‘waiting room’ film with several groups of characters, each with different stories and each with different relationships. But, conventionally, these would come together in some way and there would be an underlying theme. Schanelec offers us four pairs of characters and a handful of others who are more peripheral. The pairs don’t interact directly except for a fleeting moment and the film ends with a largely unexpected event which denies us a ‘resolution’ of any of the four central narratives.
There seem to be possible clues to Schanelec’s intentions that are introduced in subtle ways. The opening images of the film include half of a vinyl record sleeve which I took to be a 12″ of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, which includes the lines:
And resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow
And we’re changing our ways, taking different roads
Love, love will tear us apart again
Each of the characters in the film are experiencing emotions as they wait in the departure hall.
The setting is mainly Orly Airport in Paris in Spring. Why did Schanelec choose Orly rather than Charles De Gaulle, Roissy? Probably because permissions were easier, but Orly does have significance for cinéastes. It was the setting for Chris Marker’s avant-garde science fiction short film La jetée (The Pier, 1962) – a film anyone with a film education is likely to be aware of. One of Schanelec’s couples has a digital camera and the woman looks at a succession of still images taken in Paris earlier that day – La jetée is entirely constructed from still photos.
The four couples are a mother and teenage son going to the funeral of the ex-husband and father, a pair of German tourists, a couple splitting up (one of whom we see at Orly as she reads the a letter from her husband) and two expats who meet by chance and discover that they are both returning to North America. The peripheral characters include a young woman on an airline counter, a young barman, taxi drivers etc. and a woman with a baby she is trying to comfort. Although there are brief moments of contact with these individuals by some of the couples, the main way in which Schanelec links her characters is through her camera (or rather the camera of her regular cinematographer Rheinold Vorschneider). For example, in one sequence we are offered a long shot across the departure waiting area with many people sat waiting and others moving in the background, but careful use of the field of focus is able to pick out one face in the crowd. This character will be identified later in the film as the man in the fourth couple. I recognised him as Jirka Zett from Schanelec’s earlier Nachmittag (Germany 2007). See also the shot above in which the same character briefly makes eye contact with the woman separating from her husband. I’m still not sure how this camera shot was achieved. At other times I wondered if Schanelec was using radio mikes for her characters. It is clear that in the Orly shots, the fictional characters are simply placed amongst the crowds of ordinary passengers at the airport. Vorschneider shoots from some distance away so that there are figures in the background and moving across the foreground. You can see this in the trailer below when the two expats (Natacha Régnier and Bruno Todeschini) are talking. The only way to capture ‘direct’ sound for dialogue would be to use concealed radio mikes. Does anyone know if Schanelec uses this method? I was first aware of it in Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999), one of my favourite films for representing a city through a form of realism. Most of the time the soundtrack uses only dialogue plus the direct ambient sound of the airport. It is a shock therefore when after an hour of this we hear a voiceover reading a letter and Cat Power’s performance of the song ‘Remember Me’
In the interview here Angela Schanelec discusses how she works with ‘real’ spaces like the terminal in Orly:
The trailer below is mainly in French, subtitled in German but it is useful in showing the main characters and the ‘real’ space which Schanelec uses in her own distinctive ways:
Nachmittag is the third of six films by Angela Schanelec offered on my MUBI stream. I’ve posted on the first, Passing Summer (Germany 2001), but I was only able to watch the first part of the second film, Marseille (2010), before it disappeared from the stream during one of my busy periods. That’s the problem with MUBI, I fear. Still, perhaps I will be able to find it elsewhere later. Marseille did look a little different with its single central character – a photographer exploring the French city. In Nachmittag, Schanelec returns to a summer in Berlin, though the characters are rather different.
Angela Schanelec’s strategy seems to be ‘never explain’ – or give any background. MUBI have used the title ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ for the season of her films. I have assumed that the main location is a house by a lake in the Berlin region, possibly Potsdam. In a prologue, Schanelec’s familiar static camera offers us a view from the back of a stage in theatre during a rehearsal. On the stage is a woman who sorts out a prop with a stagehand and then walks towards a dog and pets the animal. We next see her in long shot arriving at the house by the lake where an older and younger man have been having a conversation. Later we will learn that this the woman is Irene, played by Schanelec herself (she began her career as an actor). Gradually we meet five other main characters but we must try to work out who they are and what the relationships are between them. It took me the whole 95 minutes and I still wasn’t certain by the end, but I’m fairly confident that MUBI’s synopsis of the film is inaccurate.
When I started watching the film I was unaware that its premise is taken from Chekhov’s play The Seagull. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I’m not a theatregoer and I don’t really know Chekhov. My thoughts instead turned to similar films in this setting. I thought of Thomas Arslan’s Vacation (Ferien, Germany 2007), on the reasonable basis that Arslan is another member of the ‘Berlin School’. I was also reminded of The Farewell (Abschied – Brechts letzter Sommer, Germany 2000). The point here is that the situation – a group of people meeting at a ‘summer place’ where their different relationships are explored – is potentially a familiar dramatic and even generic narrative proposition. Yet Angela Schanelec challenges our assumptions about how any drama might develop. She does this in several ways.The use of long shots and of close-ups by DoP Reinhold Vorschneider can sometimes mean that we are not quite sure who we are watching or where we are. But what is even more disruptive is her use of dialogue. We are used to mainstream cinema’s use of dialogue to provide ‘narrative data’ and to move forward the events of the narrative. Schalenec’s dialogue comes as a shock – it is so close to the ‘real’ conversations that we have with people we know (well at least I do!). There are seemingly inconsequential remarks that actually convey emotional relationships such as when Irene tells her son who is ironing shirts to dampen the collar. Often too, dialogue is with a character who is offscreen for long periods – sometimes wth responses coming from offscreen.
Critics have increasingly praised Schanelec’s aesthetic approach. Mattias Frey in a ‘Senses of Cinema’ festival report suggests that “Nachmittag is a challenging hypnotic that bespeaks further development in Schanelec’s craft”. Ekkehard Knörer in a ‘Sign and Sight’ report offers the most detailed critique. Knörer suggests that the opening shot of the stage introduces the sense of a theatrical space in the house looking out over the lake. He makes the point that the characters are so engrossed in their own concerns that dialogue is rarely about communicating but instead about each character’s ‘struggle with words’. Ironically, two of the characters are writers. If you know the Chekhov play you may wonder just how ‘free’ is this adaptation. The answer is very, but one action in the original play is obliquely presented in the closing moments of Schanelec’s script. I realise that the film is now gone from MUBI and I should have rewatched that ending. I’m certainly intrigued by this filmmaker and I will try to watch more.
Writer-director Angela Schanelec trained at the ‘Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin’ (DFFB – German Academy of Film and Television Berlin) in the early 1990s which means that she has been seen as part of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of filmmakers. In the UK the best known names of this group are Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. Valeska Grisebach trained at Vienna’s Film Academy but returned later to Berlin and has self-identified with some of the directors in the Berlin School. MUBI has started a streaming programme of Schanelec’s films, none of which I’d seen before. From my viewing of this first title, I can see some resemblance to Arslan’s early films, but Schanelec seems much more austere and eschews a conventional plot altogether. She doesn’t appear to be aiming at the kind of international festival attention that Petzold and Grisebach have achieved, though research suggests that she has found it on some occasions. Wikipedia’s entry suggests that she belongs alongside more avant-garde directors such as Chantal Akerman. Schanelec herself has mentioned the influence of Robert Bresson. A very useful account of the development of the Berlin School can be found on this Senses of Cinema page.
Passing Summer is an odd title. What on earth does it mean? Did Schanelec decide on the English title? Is there a careful play on words – a summer that literally ‘passes’, a summer of no consequence or a period of time ‘passing’ as summer? The German title is much more direct in translating as ‘my slow life’. The narrative comprises a series of ‘encounters’ of a group of people over six months, largely in Berlin. There is one character who seems to be at the centre of the group and seemingly it is Valerie who has the slow life. The other characters are friends, one of whom seems to be her current partner and at one point Valerie travels south to meet her brother and to go with him to see her father who is ill in hospital. There are children in the group and their care is one strand (as far as I can see, the two children are both moving between divorced/separated parents. There is also the marriage of one character. We know that six months ‘pass’ because the narrative begins with a meeting in a café between Valerie and her friend Sophie who then leaves for Rome. At the end of the film she returns to Berlin after her six month contract has been completed.
The focus is on the seemingly inconsequential details of daily life for the group and it is here that the aesthetic of the Berlin School suggests we will find some kind of insight into ‘reality’ rather than in the artifice and contrived narrative set-ups of conventional mainstream genre cinema. Having excised any conventional narrative devices from her film, Schanelec distances us from her ‘characters’ further by careful camerawork. The camera is nearly always static, though the shot sizes vary considerably. Within the compositions, figures are often placed closer to the edge rather than the centre of the frame and our view of them might be obscured by windows, doorframes or other characters/objects in the foreground. The static camera also means that characters will move out of frame but still be talking. In the image below Valerie arrives back in Berlin by train to be met by Thomas. We hear her voice over the static shot, presumably talking to Thomas, but we don’t see them meet. This is perhaps the most extreme example. Earlier the little girl swimming in the image above asks Marie to dance for her. We hear the music and assume Marie is dancing but the camera stays on the image of the girl listening – we never see Marie dancing.
What to make of this aesthetic and how much we learn about Berlin life – and about cinema – seems to be the question. The first point to make is that I didn’t feel totally alienated. The static compositions are often strangely beautiful. Perhaps that’s not quite the right word, but looking at them for what seems like a minute or two is not annoying and I felt engaged throughout the film without the need for narrative drive. The camerawork is by Reinhold Vorschneider whose work I admired in Thomas Arslan’s Helle Nächte. He has worked with both Schanelec and Arslan on several projects and has presumably developed this ‘Berlin School’ technique with the directors. I should also note that the lack of artifice on the shoots extends to the use of diegetic sound only. The sequences in which characters dance have music from a disc, a DJ or a live performance. The actors in the film are a mixture of the experienced and inexperienced. Angela Schanelec was herself an actor first and she appears in the film in a minor role. Ursina Lardi as Valerie was in her first film but she has since gone on to significant roles in films like The White Ribbon (2009) and Lore (2012). The performances, the cinematography and the editing (by Schanelec herself and Bettina Böhler, a Petzold collaborator) work seamlessly. I’m happy to watch more Berlin School work and certainly more films by Angela Schalenec. But I’m not sure what I’ve learned about German culture or about cinema. Mostly. I think, I’ve got a sense of a calmness about watching ordinary lives. I’m puzzled though at the difference between the drama of Christian Petzold’s films and the approach of Angela Schanalec. It’s difficult in Schanelec’s film to follow the individual characters and how they relate to each other and there are frustrations in the way in which we find out something interesting about characters that is not followed up in any direct way – much like in ‘real life’ I suppose. I need to find out more about Berlin film culture. For a more detailed analysis of Angela Schanelec’s “notoriously evasive films” look at this paper by Blake Williams in CinemaScope.
MUBI also carries an essay on Angela Schanelec to accompany the season which extends to June 3rd with several films to come.
The Mattei Affair is one of the films screened at Leeds Film Festival in its ‘Retrospective’ section and also part of HOME’s States of Danger and Deceit touring season. The film deals with the mysterious death of the Italian industrialist Enrico Mattei in 1962. It begins and ends with a fatal aircrash in the fields as his private jet was approaching Milan’s Linate airport. The central narrative takes us back to the late 1940s. Mattei, a former member of the Fascist Party who had transformed himself into a well-respected Christian Democrat and accepted into the Partisans before the war ended, was given the task of winding up the Fascist state’s energy company AGIP. Instead Mattei re-launched the company under the nam ‘ENI’ and set out to make it a major international oil company, starting just with unexploited methane reserves in the Po valley. His aim from the outset was to exclude private companies from Italy’s energy market and eventually to do the same internationally by negotiating with what became known as ‘Third World producers’ in the Middle East. This immediately made him a challenger to the Anglo-American oil companies.
The film was co-written and directed by Francesco Rosi with script collaboration from Tonino Guerra. Rosi is one of the major directors interested in political intrigues in Italy in the 1970s. A second of his films, Illustrious Corpses (1977) about the mysterious murder of leading judges, is also included in the HOME season. In The Mattei Affair, Rosi constructs a narrative that at first looks as if it will be some kind of investigative reportage in the form of a documentary reconstruction. But the narrative is non-linear and it deals with events after the crash as well as before. The whole idea of a documentary approach is also undermined by another terrific performance by Gian Maria Volontè as Mattei – which is in turn presented dramatically via the camerawork of Pasqualino De Santis. The documentary idea is also challenged by the appearance of Rosi himself in the film, looking for evidence and acting like an early warning of the kind of ‘performative’ documentaries typified by Nick Broomfield’s work from the mid 1980s onwards.
The film operates on many levels. Volontè plays Mattei as a larger than life character, at times moving from self-deprecation to energetic oligarch and on to almost messianic leader in the trip to Sicily just before the crash. He makes a flamboyant tour of his company’s activities in Tunisia and Iran to display the multinational success of his business. Rosi enhances this by having a journalist tag along, possibly borrowing the idea from Citizen Kane. At other times we see Mattei negotiating and telling the stories which he uses to explain his motivation. He’s there in Moscow, queuing up to see Lenin’s tomb and at the same time working out how to buy cheap Russian oil – one of his ploys to frustrate the Americans. There is another fascinating scene in Monte Carlo where Mattei attempts to do a deal with one of the ‘Seven Sisters’, the US oil majors. The Americans don’t seem impressed and one theory is that the CIA might have been involved in the crash. Another blames the OAS in France, outraged by Mattei’s support for the Algerians. The scenes in Sicily suggest that Mattei could become too popular there and the Mafia might be involved in the crash. Rosi complicates the mystery further via the story of a journalist who was investigating the crash when he disappeared without trace.
It isn’t clear to me what Rosi thought of Mattei’s politics. Perhaps he saw Mattei as a form of populist. In the film we see Mattei being quizzed about his membership of the Fascist Party and then the Christian Democrats. Mattei replies that what he does, he does for Italy and Rosi emphasises the reaction he gets in Sicily when he promises jobs not just for the locals, but for their relatives who have had to travel far and wide to find work. Rosi himself is clearly concerned about the people of the South and their poverty compared with the wealth of the North. Mattei responds to charges that he works with ex-Fascists and authoritarian leaders by saying “I use them like a taxi. I get in, pay the fare and they take me where I want to go, then I get out of the taxi”.
The Mattei Affair won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1972 and the print seen in Leeds was restored with the support of
Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna. I was very impressed by the film and its potential links to other films in the HOME season and I’ll try at some point to write about Illustrious Corpses. The one absence in the film seemed to be anything about Mattei’s domestic life. We see his wife brought to the crash site, but I think that is her only appearance. The absence of the wife does tempt us to ask, did this man do anything else besides work at growing his company? Did he have no vices? He does clearly enjoy being the boss and talking about his exploits, but if what he achieves is good for Italians (and the oil producers of the ‘Middle East’) that’s OK, isn’t it? Well, possibly not, since we have little evidence of the impact of oil wealth and how it was distributed. That’s another story, but at least Rosi got us thinking about what was a genuine debate about how Europeans might resist American economic hegemony in the 1960s.
The film wasn’t released in the UK until the summer of 1975 when it appeared at the same time as the director’s ‘political gangster film’ Lucky Luciano (US/France/Italy 1973). My notes tell me I saw both films in 1975 but I have no memory – most disturbing. The Mattei Affair was reviewed in Sight and Sound Summer 1975 by Philip Strick. It’s an interesting review in which Strick sees Rosi as one of the surviving practitioners of ‘pure’ neo-realism. He praise the film’s production but sees it failing as a factual account. That made me reflect on my own take. I think I accept that it is Rosi’s fictionalised account of real events but that it definitely exposes something about Italy and the international oil business in the 1950s and 1960s which I find interesting and useful.
We saw The Eagle Huntress back in January and though I enjoyed the film there were several things about it that made me circumspect. It purported to be a documentary about a young teenage girl in Mongolia training an eagle, flying it at a festival and taking it on a hunt. The film was ‘presented by’ Daisy Ridley and championed as an example of ‘girl power’. When I began to research the background to the film I realised that it would make an interesting case study for film and media students and I wrote a short piece for the MediaMagazine (a publication for 16-19 year-olds taking A Level Film/Media Studies). Unfortunately MediaMagazine is only accessible online to subscribers and its production cycle is quite long. I feared that the film might disappear from view before the magazine reached schools and colleges.
What I hadn’t realised was just how strongly some of the film’s critics felt about what they were beginning to discover about the film’s production and distribution. After my original posting I began to receive tweets from one of the principal investigators, Meghan Fitz-James in Vancouver, and from others. I found myself re-writing the original post and also publishing some of the comments I received. You can find the post and comments on https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/the-eagle-huntress-uk-mongolia-us-2016/. Since then, Meghan has kept working and kept exposing more aspects of the story. You can access all of her work via her twitter feed @MeghanfjFitz. What she has discovered is another example of a familiar story that has been told about supposedly ‘documentary’ filmmaking going back 100 years or more, but in 2017 is seen in the context of social media and a new level of globalised exploitation of people and cultures.
The background to the controversy is neatly set out in the (English language) clip from France TV above. I’m not surprised by the evidence that has been uncovered but I am amazed by what it is possible to find using social media and internet searches (and a great deal of effort and no little expense). The research also includes visits to Mongolia and direct contact with some of the key figures in the story. Thinking about the ways in which the filmmaker Otto Bell and his various collaborators on the production and subsequent distribution of the film have gone about their business, I’m conscious of the failure of film studies to properly educate audiences about what they are watching.
Film studies has explored how documentaries have been made and has classified the different documentary modes that have developed since the 1920s. We’ve known and accepted for a long time that documentaries may include ‘re-constructions’. It’s not the practice itself that’s an issue, it’s the deception – the attempt to pass something off as ‘real’. In the last twenty to thirty years, two things have happened alongside the development of digital technologies. Firstly, the explosion of forms of ‘reality TV’ and ‘infotainment’ have undermined the sense and purpose of traditional documentary practice. Secondly, the ability to create digital images that appear ‘real’ but have actually been created not through a camera but by photo software has discredited ‘photographic realism’ so that for many, ‘realism’ is no longer an issue.
Alongside this undermining of documentary as a practice that can inform as well as create art is the gradual de-politicisation of film and media education. In this respect, the furore created by the investigators of the production of Eagle Huntress has demonstrated that film studies needs cultural studies and social anthropology to engage with the subjects of this kind of documentary narrative. It is also important to confront the adoption of ‘girlpower’ as a promotional and marketing tool rather than a liberating ideology for young women in different cultures and to recognise the perils of an ‘orientalist’ approach to stories set in parts of Asia that are not regularly represented in western media. What saddens me also is that a public agency such as the British Film Institute should have helped to fund distribution of a film like this without first investigating the story behind it. At least the BBC has carried reports that contest aspects of the film’s story. We all need to be careful as we watch and enjoy films and then sit down to write about them.
The Entertainer is an important British film for many reasons. A few months ago I got angry when commentators discussing a 2016 revival of John Osborne’s play (Kenneth Branagh’s production at the Garrick in London) only referred to the film as ‘Olivier’s film’. Laurence Olivier plays the lead character of the film but he and Osborne are by no means the only ‘authors’ of the film. It is equally important to consider the direction by Tony Richardson and the production by Woodfall Films – just at the ‘tipping point’ of the British New Wave in 1960. It’s a film and the location photography by Oswald Morris and Denys Coop (the camera operator who later became a DoP on several New Wave films) is crucial.
I first saw the film many years ago and I was grateful to see it again courtesy of Talking Pictures TV, the digital channel that suddenly appeared, as if by magic, on my Freeview offer. Talking Pictures TV is on Freeview Channel 81 and specialises in archive British and American cinema and TV. In August 2016 Screen Daily reported that the station had acquired broadcast rights to a range of classic British films in “two major library deals with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and the Samuel Goldwyn and Woodfall libraries, distributed by Miramax”. Around 100 titles are covered and some of them are showing currently in the channel’s schedules (see the website).
The Entertainer was first performed on stage in 1957 and the story is set in 1956. In the opening sequence we meet Jean Rice (Joan Plowright) looking up at the marquee of the Alhambra Theatre in Morecambe which announces the summer show starring Jean’s father, the fading variety star Archie Rice (Olivier). A flashback shows us that Jean has come up from London where she is an art teacher on a youth project. She’s seen her brother Mick (Albert Finney) off at the station on his way to fight in the Suez Canal conflict. She was accompanied by her boyfriend Graham (Daniel Massey) who told her that he had been offered a job in Africa. Did she want to join him? When Jean arrives in Morecambe she meets her grandfather, Billy Rice (Roger Livesey) and then goes ‘backstage’ to meet her father and her other brother, stage manager Frank (Alan Bates). Eventually, we follow the trio home to the rented rooms where Phoebe, (Brenda de Banzie) and Billy are waiting. The ‘driver’ of the plot is Archie’s attempt to stage another, more glamorous, show. He has no money so he latches onto a young woman (Shirley Anne Field) with wealthy parents in the hope that they will finance him to create an opportunity for their daughter.
The Entertainer is not really a film that is bothered about narrative as such – I don’t think we really believe that Archie will be successful in setting up a new show. It makes more sense to follow the narrative as a metaphor for decline. Archie is a second-rate entertainer in the dying days of live ‘variety theatre’. Already this successor to the music hall is in the process of falling into the clutches of television (and TV is a despised medium by most of the writers and directors of the New Wave). It is apt then that the setting is Morecambe – a seaside resort in its last days of mass holiday appeal. Morecambe’s main attractions were developed from the late 19th century up to the 1930s, including its marvellous art deco hotel built by the Midland Railway company. Morecambe traditionally relied on the railway to bring the crowds from industrial West Yorkshire, especially from Bradford and Leeds, but by the late 1950s the numbers were starting to fall. Morecambe wasn’t big enough to attract the A List stars so, rather like the British Empire in 1956, it was waiting for the axe to fall (it would come a few years later after the railways were savaged by Dr Beeching in the mid 1960s). The film never openly discusses the location as Morecambe, so perhaps these points are lost on the audience. Tony Richardson came originally from Bradford which may be why he chose the location. Wikipedia suggests that Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger in Morecambe while himself performing in repertory theatre.
It may be heretical, but I have to admit that I don’t enjoy watching Laurence Olivier on screen (and he received an Oscar nomination for this performance as Archie). I’ve never seen him on the stage, but I’m not sure his casting always works in films – except when he plays a supporting character in genre films. In The Entertainer he has to play a man who is difficult to like and he certainly puts the character across, but his stage act is so loathsome and lacking in talent (i.e the singing voice he uses and the terrible delivery of awful jokes) that it doesn’t really make sense that he would headline a show. The crucial scenes are in the theatre after or between shows when Archie is trying to express himself to Jean (who is arguably the narrator of the story – she is the one who leads us into scenes). In these scenes, Olivier seems to do far too much and it’s as if he is still performing in the stage version of The Entertainer, also directed by Tony Richardson. Reading a synopsis of the play, it looks as if these scenes were originally in the family home but when the film ‘opened’ out the story, Richardson moved them into the empty theatre. I can see an argument that Olivier offers us an Archie who is always ‘performing’ and when he’s literally ‘on the stage’ he is unable to stop. His performance contrasts with Roger Livesey, an actor admittedly close to my heart because of his three roles for Powell and Pressburger in Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It’s an insult really that Livesey, one year older than Olivier, is cast as Olivier’s father. Billy is a mainly sympathetic character as a genuine former star of music hall. Livesey plays him as an Edwardian gentleman. It’s perhaps a little too close to the older Colonel Blimp from P&P’s film (in which Livesey must age forty years).
I suspect my problem is with John Osborne’s overall approach to the original play. I’ve seen a suggestion that after Look Back in Anger, the iconic ‘angry young man’ narrative for the theatre, Olivier asked Osborne to write an ‘angry middle-aged man’ piece for him to star in and that’s how The Entertainer emerged. In his satire Osborne offers three generations of Rice men – Billy, Archie and Frank/Mick. Osborne seems a little nostalgic in relation to Billy and his bile is reserved for Archie. The young men are not really used at all, which is a weakness, I think. The women have little ‘agency’ and Jean’s problems seem to get forgotten (which adds to the isolation of Archie as a loathsome figure). Osborne might have been thinking of any number of misogynist male comedians with doubtful stage material in the 1940s and 1950s – but most of them were also performers with real talent. I do wonder if the character of Archie Rice might actually have worked better in the service of the satire if he had been a more talented performer – whose style/material was going out of fashion. But perhaps the whole point is that he is a monster without redeeming features?
All the rest of the cast are very good. And what a cast it is. I was amused to note that Miriam Karlin is a bolshie dancer in Archie’s company – a year or so later she would become a TV star in the sitcom The Rag Trade in which she plays a shop steward in a small clothing factory. Morecambe’s most famous thespian, Thora Hird plays the mother of the Shirley Anne Field character. But the real interest for me is in the film as an example of Richardson’s work for Woodfall, the company he founded in 1958 with John Osborne and Harry Saltzman. Between 1959 and 1963 Richardson directed five major films of the British New Wave for Woodfall – Look Back In Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Tom Jones (1963). That’s some run. I think now that I’d opt for A Taste of Honey as the key film, though all of them are important and Tom Jones won the most accolades at the time. The Entertainer seems like it’s caught in the transition in filmmaking terms from the interiors of Look Back in Anger to the openness and freshness of A Taste of Honey and the shift from the anger of John Osborne to the vitality of Shelagh Delaney (with the only female-centred film in the sequence).
Other points to mention: the screenplay was co-written by Nigel Kneale who had adapted Look Back in Anger from Osborne’s play but who was best known as a writer of science fiction screenplays, especially the various Quatermass films and TV plays. Since he came from North West England, he may have contributed to the authentic feel of Morecambe as a Lancashire resort. There is an interesting sequence in the film using the ‘Miss Great Britain’ bathing beauty contest which was held in the art deco outdoor swimming pool. Morecambe was the genuine venue for the contest in 1956 and it remained the venue until 1989. The locations used in the film are mainly in Morecambe but the theatre locations may include both the Alhambra and the Winter Gardens. Morecambe had its own Illuminations but the sequence in The Entertainer also features Blackpool’s illuminated trams.
The Eagle Huntress is an extremely engaging film with a wonderful central character, a 13 year-old girl from a traditional Kazakh community located in Western Mongolia near the Altai Mountains. For its UK release, a film first screened at Sundance has received an extra narration from Daisy Ridley, the young star of Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens, the biggest film of 2016. Ridley is now named as Executive Producer of The Eagle Huntress and helped to promote the release with a strong emphasis on the concept of ‘girl power’. The BFI also supported the release by the small independent distributor Altitude, which opened the film on just 24 screens, subsequently widened to 50. After three weekends over the Christmas period the UK box office total was just £160,000. In the US, however, after 9 weeks, and on only 122 screens at most, it has made $2.3 million. In the US, Sony Classics is the distributor and the extra muscle from a studio probably means it got into more large cinemas. I suspect that the film will have ‘legs’ in the UK and a healthy future on DVD and online. We watched it at HOME Manchester on a Saturday afternoon with a healthy audience who certainly seemed to enjoy the film – as we did too.
So far, so good. But then I started to reflect on what I’d seen and a few question marks started to appear. I went into the screening having read some of the material in the Guardian and, I think, on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme. I didn’t have any ‘agenda’ as such going in, but I do have a general apprehension about what might be termed ‘National Geographic‘-type films – those mixing wildlife and social anthropology and offering beautiful ‘exotic’ landscapes etc. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film in which we meet Aisholpan and her father Rys Nurgaiv. She wants to become an ‘eagle hunter’. Traditionally Rys would have trained his son, but the young man has joined the army. Aisholpan has been around eagles all her life. Her father has been a successful eagle hunter and he keeps a bird for seven years in order to hunt foxes and small mammals in the mountains. Hunting also gives him social status since the Eagle Hunt Festival is now a major tourist attraction in the town of Ölgii with its significant Kazakh diaspora community. He has no objection to training his daughter and his wife is equally supportive. The film comprises three main sections. Aisholpan finds a 3 month-old eaglet (females are preferred as they are bigger than males), successfully takes it from the nest and trains it; her father trains Aisholpan so she can take part in the festival and finally she goes with her father to hunt with her eagle in the winter to ‘prove’ she is a hunter. Interspersed between these sequences we see glimpses of Aisholpan’s life at home and at school (she’s a weekly boarder at school – her father collects her at weekends).
The film is described as a documentary and in some ways it resembles a superior reality TV programme with extra wildlife footage (Simon Niblett is an experienced wildlife cinematographer, director Otto Bell’s background is in corporate documentaries for multinational companies – he’s a Brit working out of New York). My two concerns about the film are that little information is given to us about the background of the community at its centre and, secondly, everything just seems to go so well. The description I gave in the first paragraph above came from my later research into Kazakh traditions and the diaspora in Mongolia – nothing was said in the film. In terms of the ‘ease’ of Aisholpan’s progress, in these kinds of narratives something usually ‘gets in the way’ of the hero – there are obstacles to overcome. Aisholpan seems to succeed almost immediately with everything she attempts. Her strong personality probably prevents us from noticing this smooth progress – we are happy for her, she deserves success. But doubts creep in. We wonder if perhaps the filmmaker has manipulated reality a little too much? But perhaps the crucial factor in increasing our worries is the gender equality question. The film seems intent on emphasising that Aisholpan is the first young woman to become an eagle hunter and that she faces stiff opposition. But the only ‘evidence’ of this is a montage of ‘grumpy old men’ who say “It’s not right” and similar. Yet everyone else – her father and mother, her grandfather, the judges at the Eagle Hunt Festival competition – supports her. What is going on?
Is the film a manipulation of the reality of gender roles in this Kazakh community?
When I started to read reviews and commentaries, I soon came across claims and counter-claims. The Canadian writer Meghan Fitz-James has been the most vociferous critic of the film’s ‘manipulation’ of the original story and you can read a piece by her here in which she also quotes from an article by Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University. (Fitz-James also adds a posting in which she explains how attempts were made to take down her original posting.) Adrienne Mayor explains how eagle-hunting has been carried out by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia for thousands of years:
Male bürkitshi [eagle falconers] are certainly more common than females today, although eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls. Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. (Mayor 2016)
Mayor also argues that far from a conservative society with fixed gender roles, these nomadic peoples developed a form of gender equality because men, women and children had to learn how to survive in such a harsh environment. Reading these papers, I remembered that the origins of the film were in a project undertaken by an Israeli photographer and documentary-maker Asher Svidensky. Director Otto Bell saw one of Svidensky’s original photos and decided he wanted to make a film. The two got together and Bell shot the scenes of capturing the eaglet. I think I remember an interview in which Bell said that his money ran out and he had to seek further backing. At this point I think he turned for advice to Morgan Spurlock the director of successful box office docs such as Supersize Me (US 2004). Spurlock eventually became one of the Executive Producers on The Eagle Huntress and on his website morganspurlock.com there is this description of the film:
. . . this film not only explores the life of a young girl striving to pursue her passion and break down gender barriers in a very traditional culture . . .
Whatever Otto Bell learned about selling his film, it certainly seems like it was based on a false premise. The more the gainsayers dig into this, the more obvious the manipulation becomes. How much the scenes (and the dialogue) were scripted doesn’t really matter, though I think the film would be improved by a little more ‘reality’. I don’t want to take anything away from Aisholpan or her story and I’m all in favour of inspiring young women with heroes like this young Kazakh girl. But it is unfortunate to say the least that the filmmakers have retained the false message about gender in Kazakh society and that they still call the film a documentary. The music too seems chosen to emphasise the appeal to the target audience but doesn’t seem to match the cultural context (I know I’m too old to appreciate the music!).
The whole story of the film’s production and distribution would make an excellent case study for Film Studies and Media Studies students in schools and FE/HE exploring what ‘documentary’ now means. Here is the official (US) trailer, note the steer in the narration:
(This post has been amended a couple of times, as I’ve found out more.)