Tagged: satire

Dear White People (US 2014)

dwp_poster This is a satirical film on ‘race’ in contemporary USA that was produced, scripted and directed by Justin Siemen. So on that basis he presumably bears the major responsibility for the final product. It is certainly interesting, and has a number of distinctive qualities but I also found it fairly flawed. This seems to be an example of the influence of the contemporary meaning of the concept ‘auteur’; young filmmakers want to produce a ‘personal work’. One certainly gets a sense of a personal edge to the film. However I thought that the film would have benefited from a separate and critical view of the script. A friend at the Hyde Park where I viewed the film thought that the director is a ‘developing talent’ and that should allow for flaws. I thought a much sharper focus and delivery would have enhanced both the comedy and the satire. The film began its career through crowd funding. On completion it won an award at the 2014 Sundance Festival. So it falls into the tradition of US independents, but also relies on developments in the industry. The basic setting is an Ivy League University with problems about ‘race relations’. So on one hand this places it in a cycle of films that followed on from John Landis’ campus-based National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and also, more explicitly, Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988). Both films are mentioned in reviews but the most important influence cited would be Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2011). Spike Lee is referred to in the film’s dialogue: one character bowdlerised [badly] the title of his film production company and another provides the line ‘by any means necessary’. A film within the film reminded one of an early Lee short. Lee’s influence can also be seen in the form of the film, drawing on his Do the Right Thing (1989). For me unfortunately, this only highlighted the greater quality, cinematically and in terms of content, of Lee’s films. Even so the film has a lot to offer in terms on interest and entertainment. The primary focus are four Afro-American students at the fictional Winchester University. These are Sam White ((Tessa Thompson) whose campus radio slot is titled ‘Dear White People’. There is her ex and the current House President Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), whose father is the University Dean of Students. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is gay, has an impressive Afro-hair style and is a developing journalistic talent. Finally ‘Coco’ (Teyonah Paris) is a would-be TV name, and an expert blogger. All have media ambitions, which are a key target in the film. All four come from relatively comfortable backgrounds, obviously have talent but are all conscious of the demeaning and often disadvantaged experience of being black. It is worth noting that the film also has quite a gallery of key characters, and one of its merits is the way that it handles this. There is among the characters a certain amount of sexual activity across the ‘racial’ divide, though much less evidence of any across class divides. dear-white-people-sam Given the genre, it is not a great spoiler that the film’s contradictions come to a head at a House Fraternity party. The film here explicitly foregrounds the often implicit but not always recognised contempt for black people amongst sections of the white population, including the so-called intelligentsia. And, in a montage of stills, the end credits draw attention to the actual scandals that have demonstrated this in the higher Education world in recent years. One of its debts to Do the Right Thing is to offer a clearly staged structure, with a prologue, a number of chapters and finally an epilogue. The film also essays a certain style [often termed Brechtian] offering some distance for viewers. Thus the style of much of the film is almost observational and then becomes very much almost ‘blog-on-the wall‘ for the party. However, like the satire, many of the techniques seem over emphatic. The film uses positioning of characters, often with deep staging, in the mise en scène. But whilst some of this is very effective – a couple of sequences involving Lionel: at other times when it uses the University architecture I rather wondered what the intended point was. I was also distracted by half-a-dozen shots with characters set against a light source: typically a window. This may have meant to offer a visual comment: but it seemed to just diminish visibility. This also applies to the editing, there are some very effective cuts between parallel scenes, for example in the office of the Principal and Dean cutting to characters in the student halls – which suggest both comparisons and contrasts. But at other times, cuts between – say a group of black and a group of white students – seems to be for effect, but with little added meaning. Dear-White-People-group I should note that I did not pick up on all the references in the film. A couple of friends at the screening had similar problems. This presumably relates to the language in the USA, in use by Afro-Americans and in the college system. I was also bemused by the music. There is a seemingly important reference to Taylor Swift but the credits do not seem to feature her music. What was immediately recognisable were extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Bizet’s Carmen. Their relevance escaped me, though the choice of music may well have been dictated by cost as much as by choice. My major reservations were to do with the values inscribed in the film. Satire is a tricky form to take: it tends to be over-the-top which can make some of the views and positions grotesque. This is a problem, but not the major problem in this film. That I think is how it tackles the interests and prejudices at the University and amongst its characters. The film clearly addresses ‘race’ and class in the contemporary USA: to a lesser degree gender and sexual orientation. And when we reach the epilogue the writing presents the cynical collusion of interests between academia and the representative of the media and Capital. But at the personal level, amongst the key characters, we get a more or less satisfactory resolution of their personal lives. It seemed to me that the contradictions that had arisen in the course of the film were not amenable to such a pat closure. And there seem to be a couple of lacunae in the resolution of the plot. This is where Lee’s Bamboozled stands out: with a final sequence that is both cinematically and politically devastating. I would recommend re-visiting this film if you are able: I intend to revisit School Daze as well. I would reckon Dear White People is definitely worth seeing. A note of warning, the distributor is Curzon Film World and judging by exhibitor’s experience in West Yorkshire it is hard work to get the film. The film was shot on a 4K Red digital camera: but it seems to be circulating in a 2K DCP, which is not that complimentary to some of the exteriors and long shots. It runs for 106 minutes, in colour and 1.85:1. In terms of entertainment, two of the people I talked to after the screenings really enjoyed it and found pretty funny: two others were less impressed but still very interested by what the film had to offer. And it is a film and a treatment that is still relatively uncommon on British screens.

The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, Poland 1975)

(from left) Max (Andrzej Seweryn), Karol (Daniel Olbrychski) and Moryc (Wojciech Pszoniak)

(from left) Max (Andrzej Seweryn), Karol (Daniel Olbrychski) and Moryc (Wojciech Pszoniak)

This Andrzej Wajda film is an adaptation of a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author Władysław Stanisław Reymont (1867 – 1925). The original Polish cinema release was nearly three hours long with a four hour version for television. This was restored in Poland in 2011 and was shown at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds as part of the Martin Scorsese presentation of classic Polish films currently touring in the UK. I’m surprised at how few cinemas are showing these films so I’m grateful to get the chance to see some of them at the Hyde Park. My knowledge of Polish history is not as good as it should be and I had to check out Wikipedia to learn a few important things about the subject matter of The Promised Land. I wish some of the reviewers elsewhere had done the same and then they wouldn’t have made some of the misleading statements that have possibly damaged Wajda’s reputation after his work on the film. The novel’s title refers to the city of Łódź which after 1815, when it was made part of the Russian ‘Kingdom of Poland’, developed as an industrial city and attracted immigrants from all over Europe. Łódź grew as a textile centre and in the latter half of the nineteenth century was sometimes known as the ‘Manchester of Poland’ as it was cotton mills that powered its prosperity. The enormous influx of workers for the mills created an unusual population mix in which the local Polish population was matched by large numbers of Germans, many of whom were Jewish. From these two groups came many of the mill-owners and the bankers who supported them during the rapid growth (and financial downturns) of the period. The film’s narrative focuses on three young men. Karol is the son of an aristocratic Polish family in decline. He is employed as the Chief Engineer/factory manager of a mill owned by a despotic German. Max is German and the son of a mill owner who is still operating a handloom mill in the 1880s. He is not as ruthless as the other owners and his business is doomed because of his honourable stance. Moryc is a Jewish ‘middleman’ who operates in the futures market (cotton comes into the region via Hamburg and Trieste). Together the three “have nothing – the perfect place to start” and they set out to find money and to develop a new factory using every trick that they can think of. This includes sex, espionage and deception. Given its subject matter and literary source there is an assumption perhaps that this will be something like the literary adaptions of British or French cinema but the vitality of the film made me think more of 1970s/80s Hollywood. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) shares some of the sense of unbridled capitalist excess. Others have suggested Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976). There is a long sequence in the opera house that reminded me of Visconti’s Senso (1954). I was amazed by the sheer energy of the film and the way in which the narrative raced along. I’m usually very adept at reading subtitles but for the first half hour I felt I was running to catch up. Wajda used three cinematographers and certainly gave them plenty to do. The camera moves swiftly, often from a low angle and using wide angle lenses so that the characters appear to be crowding around the camera and the audience is immersed in the hustle and bustle. There is also a busy orchestral score and sumptuous production design – I’m assuming that the mills we see are those still standing in Łódź (although the textile business has now largely disappeared). I’m not sure how to describe the film. It is certainly a melodrama but it is also a satire. In a strange way it echoes some of the scenes in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, although the scenes in the pleasure gardens are rather more explicit than 19th century British literature was able to suggest. Much of the time the satire is buried in the detailed plotting but Wajda exaggerates some scenes to make them grotesque, including two explicit scenes of accidents in the mills. At the end of the film when the ‘education’ of the three principals in the ways of industrial capitalism is complete, Wajda ‘flash’ cuts scenes of worker’s resistance with the celebrations of the mill-owners and the critique of capitalist exploitation is explicit. The Promised Land is a major global film but it was criticised, especially in the US for being anti-capitalist – as if Wajda was somehow ‘toadying’ to the Russians. Others have pointed out that the film appeared as Polish worker’s resistance was building towards the birth of Solidarity. The film was also criticised for being anti-semitic. I don’t think this charge stands as the narrative critiques the behaviour of the young men and the mill owners whether they are Polish, Protestant German or German Jews. There is a Region 2 DVD of The Promised Land from Second Run and a Polish Blu-ray with EST. In the YouTube clip below is a scene (virtually without dialogue) in which we see Karol’s aged father and his fiancée arriving in the city to live close to the new factory being built by the central trio. The music here seems to be influenced by the kind of score used by Ennio Morricone in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes, Argentina/Spain 2014)

The cook and the waitress in a small café are aware that their sole customer is a powerful man they despise . . .

The cook and the waitress in a small café are aware that their sole customer is a powerful man they despise . . .

Nominated for the Palme d’or and Argentina’s Oscar entry as well as receiving many other nominations and awards globally, Wild Tales has had an extensive release in the UK. Does it live up to this star billing? Did I laugh? Does the film have anything to say? Well, ‘perhaps’, ‘yes’ and yes, but . . . This is what is sometimes described as an ‘anthology’ or ‘portmanteau’ film. There are several different variations of this form. In this case there are six tales by the same director. I’m not sure that they are all ‘wild’. They do all involve forms of violence, some much bloodier than others. There is also a loose theme of ‘getting even’. It’s inevitable that with six films some will work better than others. I think I’d score this as 4 out of 6 with the first two the weakest.

In some of the stories the ‘getting even’ is directly related to social class distinctions and it’s always good to see the ‘little person’ get one over the bourgeoisie. But here that doesn’t always happen and a couple of the stories are driven by a relentless logic in which individuals are gradually worn down. In the end, the only thing that links all of the films is the sense of Argentinian society as being riven by all kinds of anti-social behaviour or clear injustices. I suspect that there were some nuances I didn’t get and that for Argentinian audiences the tales are more clearly linked together than I realised.

Some of the events depicted have a delicious black humour, others are more tragic. The film does, I think, invite audiences to indulge in assumptions about national characteristics. Male characters are arrogant and macho, some women are beautiful and haughty. And their opposites seem to be there to create the conflict – so the unattractive woman defeats the powerful man etc. The one star I recognised was the almost ubiquitous Ricardo Darin who appears as the ‘little man’ brought low by bureaucracy. But he’s an explosive expert . . . The tale that worked the best for me concerned a hit and run driver. This is in some ways a universal tale of wealth and corruption with a shock ending. I won’t spoil the enjoyment of any of the other tales but the film has been lucky/unlucky that the first tale relates directly to a recent news story and some cinemas have warned customers who might have found the link distasteful.

I think that my reluctance to embrace the film as completely as others have done is down to my general lack of interest in short narratives over longer ones. There are several other portmanteau films discussed on this blog. 7 Days in Havana is a less consistent film than Wild Tales but it does offer short films in different styles by different directors and in the end I personally found that more interesting. On the other hand, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow offers three different stories by the same director which together say something about a particular society. The writer-director of Wild TalesDamián Szifrón, does a good job in presenting the narratives but I didn’t notice anything particularly different in terms of style between the six separate stories (other than their generic roots). In some ways his film appears more like Hollywood anthology films than the European tradition of portmanteau films. 

I did enjoy Wild Tales and I would recommend it as a film from one of the most vibrant film industries. My main concern is why it was so highly promoted where other foreign language films of similar quality are often restricted to a limited distribution. Violence and comedy are deemed to be saleable as a combination I guess – and the film is co-produced by the Almodóvars, Augustín and Pedro. Almodóvar is still a name that means something to UK audiences.

Sony’s non-Interview

did-north-korea-hack-sony-pictures-over-movie-the-interview

The media is full is of the withdrawal of this recently completed film by a major Hollywood corporation. It is an undesirable development. However, a few caveats are in order.

The accusations against North Korea are less compelling than official spokespeople suggest. Internet experts (there was one on Radio 4 yesterday) make the point that the evidence is tricky and difficult to pin down.And the complaints about ‘freedom of expression’ are somewhat hypocritical.

President Obama’s claim to end the boycott of Cuba provides one parallel – as Cuban cinema was one victim of this over the years. Moreover Hollywood is always happy to block films that do not fit with its interests. This Film is not yet rated (USA, 2006) provides a compelling case study of the operation of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system. This system regularly blocks access or restricts audiences for films that do not fit its values (though these are not actually available to the public).

In the UK the British Board of Film Classification operates a similar policy of restriction. Judging by the comments that accompany a certificate their major obsession is protecting us from the use of colloquial language – a protection from which Ken Loach’s films have suffered.

Sony Pictures commenting on the withdrawal of The Interview explained that this was due to pressure from exhibitors. A nice reversal of the norm, as it is usually the distributors pressurising exhibitors. You have probably had a similar experience to me at a multiplex on some occasion – the premier release occupying the major auditorium but with a smaller audience than in some of the minor theatres.

From its earliest days the cinema industry has been dominated by major firms largely sited in advanced capitalist economies. And they have consistently denied screen space to competitors, alternatives and especially films that deny their interests. It would be interesting to know if any major Hollywood studio has had a pitch for a tale about CIA plots against Fidel Castro – and what response they gave.