Tagged: social melodrama

The Proud Valley (UK 1940)

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Goliath and David wrapped into one

I knew nothing of the background to The Proud Valley but the swerve towards propaganda at the end felt tacked on; as it transpired to be because war was declared whilst the film was being made. Until then the subversive aspects of the film were particularly interesting and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the scriptwriters Alfredda Brilliant and Herbert Marshall were members of the left-wing Unity Theatre. In addition, having a black hero (the incomparable Paul Robeson) nailed the film as progressive. Apparently Robeson was friends of the husband and wife writing team.

Although Robeson’s acting skills are limited he only has to sing eradicate any problems with his presence. He ends up in a Welsh mining village where, because of his singing voice, he is embraced by the choir. Racism, fortunately, isn’t ignored but the ‘problem’ of his colour for some characters is glossed over quickly. Instead, this man-mountain represents workers’ solidarity, particularly in the face of the mine’s owners who are happy not to reopen the pit after an accident. Such was the lot of the working person in those days . . . still is of course.

Originally the end featured the community reopening the pit on their own however the start of war meant the film became the first of Ealing Studio’s ‘war effort’ productions and the characters march to London to petition the bosses to open to help with the conflict. Benevolent ‘Sir John’ agrees to give it a go and all ends well; except Robeson’s character sacrifices himself when they are reopening the mine. ‘Bosses and workers’ pulling together was undoubtedly the propaganda message required at the time but it isn’t necessary today. So I wonder why scriptwriter Anthony McCarten felt he needed to add a fictional scene to Darkest Hour (UK-US 2017) where Churchill rode the London Underground to consult ‘the people’? Worse, ‘the people’ included an Afro-Caribbean man with whom he appears to bond through quoting Shakespeare, so eradicating Churchill’s racism!

I also wonder about the ‘necessity’ of David Goliath’s (Robeson) sacrifice. The romantic interest in the film, as it was unlikely there’d be the odd black woman lurking in the Valleys, is taken by white characters so there could be no happy romantic ending for David; indeed he sacrifices himself for the couple. It creates an emotional ending, but the celebrations for the pit reopening do follow hard behind his death in order to ensure the happy emotion. Couldn’t he have continued just as a member of the community or didn’t he belong after all?

Maybe I’m being over-critical, after all the film is progressive in many ways. As entertainment it struggles; Robeson sings little but there is some sparkling dialogue. It is, however, a testament to Robeson whose connection to Wales continued for many years after the film.

Tehran Taboo (Germany-Austria 2017)

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Women in the back seat

Directed and co-written (with Grit Kienzlen) by Ali Soozandeh, this is a startling representation of Tehran from the perspective of a prostitute. Startling because it is impossible for films made in Iran to show such things; Soozandeh emigrated to Germany over 20 years ago. By the 1990s the ‘new wave’ of Iranian films from directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, the Makhmalbaf family and Jafar Panahi was beginning to be ‘validated’ by western criticism. Even in these films censorship meant that it was impossible to represent the earthier side of human life, if the directors had wished to do so directly. So the films are a bit like mid-20th century British cinema, exemplified by Brief Encounter(1945), where the only stiff things in the narrative are lips. Hence seeing Tehran Taboo is something of a shock especially as the first scene shows a prostitute attempting to give a blow-job in the front seat of a car whilst her five-year-old son is sitting in the back.

The woman, Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), is the character around which three narratives are woven: her attempts to look after her boy; a neighbour’s wife stifled by Islamic orthodoxy; a young would-be musician being conned into providing proof of virginity after a one-night stand. If the narrative around Pari seems to contradict her actions described in the first paragraph it is a tribute to the film that we understand that she has no choice but to do what she does. The hypocrisy of the ruling clerics is laid bare as is the stifling patriarchy that many women suffocate under.

As can be seen from the image, the film is rotoscoped: live action film is rendered as animation. Soozandeh explained he chose this method as he couldn’t film in Tehran and didn’t want to fake the city by shooting in Jordan. Hence, the animation’s lack of photo realism ensures that the representation of the setting is not compromised as it’s clearly not realist. The impact on the spectator is not unlike that of Waltz with Bashir, another serious rotoscoped film. However, unlike in the earlier film where the visuals conveyed the dreamlike memories of the protagonist, here it is obviously reality that is being rendered. The impact of this is to emphasise we are seeing what ‘shouldn’t’ (at least as defined by the censors in Iran) be seen: it’s both unreal and real. ‘Unreal’ because it is animated; ‘real’ because no doubt that such events depicted in the film happen.

This was Soozandeh’s debut feature; I look forward to the next one.

The Goddess (Shen nu China 1934)

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Maternal melodrama

Despite the closure of cinemas, and having an inordinate amount of time to watch them, the films-to-see keep piling up. Recently I stumbled across ‘videos on modern Chinese culture, curated by faculty of the Department of Asian Studies of the University of British Columbia’ on YouTube giving me zero excuse not to investigate films that I’d never been able to see and had virtually no knowledge of.

Goddess, a ‘silent’ film despite being produced in the mid-thirties showing China was behind slightly in the transition to sound, proved to be a full-bloodied melodrama of maternal sacrifice. Ruan Lingyu plays the unnamed ‘goddess’; titles at the start tell us she is a prostitute and, because she is a devoted mother to her baby, the titular deity. Wikipedia tells me that ‘goddess’ was also a euphemism for prostitute in Shanghai at the time where there were 100,000 ‘street walkers’. Typically of melodrama, the downtrodden woman is the hero and the film is progressive in some ways: one of the narrative problems is that she has to overcome is social prejudice. According to Zhang Yingin, in Chinese National Cinema (2004), progressive (leftist) films in China at the time usually were a result of the scriptwriters and states that:

. . . it was not unusual that the leftists praised one film by a director and then criticized his next work. Such examples include Wu Yonggang’s Goddess…, an acclaimed leftist classic, and his Little Angel [was] judged to be reactionary . . . (68)

This is puzzling as, according to imdb.com, Wu both directed and scripted Goddess. In an interesting essay ‘The Goddess: Fallen Woman of Shanghai’, Kristin Harris shows how the film was balanced between a progressive representation but at the same time fulfilled the reactionary needs of the KMT Nationalist Party which was increasing its censorship of the arts at the time. Hence, the goddess had to be punished for her transgression, as a prostitute, even as the narrative shows her to be innocent. Of course Hollywood maternal melodrama rarely offered happy endings for their victim-heroes either.

The fact that the film strongly references Hollywood productions, Stella Dallas (1925) in particular springs to mind, is not surprising as this ‘first golden age’ of Chinese filmmaking was heavily influenced by American productions. That said, there are some very striking moments in Wu’s film, particularly at the inevitable ‘murder of the pimp’ scene where the violence is directed at the camera with Lingyu’s fierce expression clearly showing she is at breaking point.

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At breaking point

Lingyu was a big star and killed herself only a few months after the film was completed; she was 25. Apparently the pressures of fame and gossip columns, along with an abused childhood, broke her. She’s the subject of Centre Stage (Ruan Ling Yu, Hong Kong, 1991), directed by Stanley Kwan with Maggie Cheung in the title role; a film that’s been waiting patiently on my shelf for some time so that’s another one that will need adding to the pile.

¡Viva! 26 #1: La Hija de un ladrón (A Thief’s Daughter, Spain 2019)

A family apart Martín and Sara are hugged by their largely absent father

This year’s ¡Viva! Festival of Spanish and Latin American Cinema at HOME in Manchester has been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and HOME has closed. We’ve been privileged to have reported on many previous ¡Viva! festivals and we were all set to visit the second week of the festival. Fortunately, thanks to the festival organisers, we are able to bring you at least a few reports on the films screened.

A Thief’s Daughter was the opening film of the festival. It’s the début feature of Catalan writer-director Belén Funes and the festival brochure namechecks both Ken Loach and the Dardenne Brothers as reference points. Certainly this is a social realist narrative and its central character is Sara a young woman in her early twenties in a working-class district of Barcelona. It has that mixture of family melodrama and an exploration of ‘precarity’ that is familiar from the two recent Ken Loach-Paul Laverty films, but I think other aspects of the film are different. Funes appears to belong to the ‘show, don’t tell’ school of storytellers. It therefore takes some time to work out all the relationships in the film and the problems that Sara faces.

Each meeting of father and daughter is mini-drama in itself

We first meet Sara working as a cleaner, but we see that she is attempting to find other work. She has an infant son Joel who seems to be left each day with either Sara’ room-mate with or with Flora, an older woman who runs a bar (where Sara sometimes works). Dani is the young man who we assume may be Joel’s father but though he does look after Joel on occasions he doesn’t appear to want to be with Sara – something she regrets. But as the film’s title implies, the narrative conflict is generated by the return of Sara’s father from prison. Father and daughter have been apart for some time and Sara is in two minds as to whether she misses him, needs his support or wants him out of her life completely. The current cause of the rift is Sara’s young brother, Martín, a 7 year-old with an injured foot who appears to be living in some form of children’s home. (The family details are actually quite complicated with hints dropped here and there but not fully spelt out.)

Sara herself is also in some form of public housing facility and it is time limited, presumably on the basis that she needs support until she has settled employment and Joel’s care is sorted out. This lack of detail about welfare services is one of the main differences between this film and Loachian social realism. Funes does not generate a critique of Spanish welfare services, or of employers. Sara is generally treated with efficiency and courtesy. She has several different jobs that we either see or hear about and eventually finds a good job in a school/college catering team. At this point a couple of clues emerge that suggest that her education was interrupted. During a formal interview she struggles to articulate answers to standard questions even though her work displays her intelligence and diligence. Sara has a hearing aid and again there is no explanation for this. Does she have a congenital condition or was her hearing damaged in an accident? There are some suggestions that perhaps her father was violent towards her some years earlier. All of these questions come together in the final scenes when Sara attends a family court hearing in which she applies to become her brother’s guardian and therefore to recreate a family in which her father loses control over Martín. There is no easy resolution to the narrative and I found the final scenes very moving and quite shocking. Again the court officials and the two advocates are not presented as uncaring, but we do get to appreciate how ill-prepared poor Sara is.

Sara is always on the move – between jobs and childcare

A Thief’s Daughter is a form of anti-melodrama. This is certainly a drama of family relationships but it is presented without any obvious forms of ‘excess’. Although there are moments of diegetic music, there is no music score as such (or perhaps I didn’t notice a score?). Mainly the drama is played out with only direct sound. The mise en scène is primarily functional, showing the action and again I didn’t notice much in the way of expressionist camerawork or editing. This is not to say that the film is dull to watch and Neus Ollé as cinematographer and Bernat Aragonés as editor are experienced filmmakers who serve the narrative well. The performances are very good. Sara and her father are played by the real life father-daughter pairing of Greta and Eduard Fernández. They have played together before and Eduard is a very experienced actor. I have seen him before in previous ¡Viva! films including Marsella (2014) and Truman (2015). On this occasion, Greta has taken centre stage and she shared the acting prize at San Sebastian with Nina Hoss. Overall, there is no heightened dramatic drive to the narrative. Instead we are invited to get to know Sara and to care for her, following her on various journeys and worrying about all the tasks she has to complete. Somehow the lack of any narrative devices to increase the tension and despair of the character (something the Loach-Laverty Sorry We Missed You tends to over-use?) means that the final scenes are more powerful.

The film is in Spanish with some Catalan. The film was co-written with producer Marçal Cebrian and she and Belén Funes had already made a short film with the same characters in 2014. Reading other festival reviews, I get the impression that the established Catalan filmmaker Isobel Coixet helped A Thief’s Daughter get into production. If so, I’m glad she did. This was a strong opening to the festival. Here’s a Spanish trailer, the English subbed one appears to have no sound.

GFF20 #2: Run (Scotland 2019)

Mark Stanley and Marli Sui

I wanted see one of GFF’s ‘local/national’ films but soon after Run started I began to feel that this might prove difficult. I could only understand about one word in five of the dialogue in Run. When Run appeared in New York’s Tribeca festival it was subtitled but that would be asking too much in Glasgow. The film was shot in Fraserburgh and Peterhead and the predominantly young cast speak in slang anyway, on top of the local accent and use of dialect. Given that many actors these days go for minimal grunts or yelps, I found that I had to clarify plot details later using other reviews.

Fortunately, Run, written and directed by Scott Graham, is a visual film and the acting is intense, so I did enjoy it. I should also point out that as an old person I often turn on subtitles on TV so no criticism of actors or director is implied here. The central character is Finnie (Mark Stanley). He is an experienced fish processor and though only in his thirties he has a son working in the same factory. But the young man (known as ‘Kid’ and played by Anders Hayward’) is not settling in and is in the process of being fired. Finnie’s wife Katie (Amy Manson) works in a hairdresser’s and there is a younger boy still at school.

It soon becomes clear that Finnie is frustrated by his situation and it is affecting his relationships with his partner and children. He and Katie both have tattoos name-checking Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ and this in turn symbolises that whole world of the small town where working-class kids try everything to escape but often end up simply driving out to the local diner in a souped up old car. Finnie’s car won’t start so he takes Kid’s and heads off for the leisure centre/bowling alley where the local racers gather. Kid’s car is fast enough to challenge the local racers and from this point on Finnie simply shows he hasn’t forgotten how to race. I’m not much of a fan of car races but these are certainly filmed with some panache by Simon Tindall and edited sharply by David Arthur. The novelty here is a race around the fish dock with the danger of a large wave breaking over the sea wall and overwhelming the car’s windscreen wipers.

The bowling alley where Kelly works – a hangout for the youth, but not for Dads?

The only other plot development of note is that Finnie meets his son’s girlfriend, Kelly (Marli Sui) and she accompanies him driving around the town. I won’t spoil any more of the plot. I think I’ve made clear what kind of film this is and how it uses conventions such as choice of music to delineate the different positions of the characters, all of whom face the same questions about staying or leaving. Kid being sacked because he can’t settle to the factory work is an ‘inciting moment’ which leads to Finnie’s story. It’s a well-known narrative ploy to have the parent thrown by the idea that a son or daughter might repeat the same possible ‘mistakes’ as their parents. But Finnie’s return to racing and ‘cruising’ is a different generic narrative. I thought of American Graffiti (US 1973) and how from my limited experience of Scottish culture, I’ve got the impression that American working-class culture means something different and has more impact than in some other parts of the UK. I’ve never been to Peterhead or Fraserburgh but I know enough about small towns to think that the Aberdonian director has represented something authentic.

Scott Graham is known for two previous films, Shell (2012) and Iona (2015) that received critical attention and some awards nominations. At a brisk 78 minutes the film makes its points succinctly and effectively and I was impressed by all four main performers.. IMdB suggests a budget of £1.7 million which seems quite generous for the narrative. Perhaps the stunt driving took a fair chunk of the money? The public funders include BBC Films and BFI with independent producers from both Scotland and England. The film is released by Verve in the UK on March 13th.

Port of Call (Hamnstad, Sweden 1948)

This early Ingmar Bergman film is one of a group of titles that form part of MUBI’s long-running season on ‘The Inner Demons of Ingmar Bergman’. Port of Call has now left the UK MUBI stream but there are two more currently on stream. I prefer the early to the late Bergman so I am intrigued by these titles. As well as the director learning his craft, these films offer us a sense of Swedish cinema in the context of a global industry in the late 1940s. The focus is more on genre and less on Bergman as a distinctive ‘authorial voice’.

The ‘port of call’ is not, I think, named (I’m remembering my viewing from a few weeks back) but it was shot in Göteborg. The film title translates simply as ‘port city’. The narrative begins with the arrival of a ship in port and at around the same time a young woman leaps from the dock into the sea. She is rescued and later she will meet a sailor from the ship at a local dance. He is Gösta (Bengt Eklund) and she is Berit (Nine-Christine Jönsson). This is a familiar social melodrama or perhaps what in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s might have been called a ‘social problem picture’. Berit is a young woman at odds with her conservative mother after her father decided to spend as much time as possible at sea. She rebels by spending her time at dancehalls and ‘going with’ a variety of men. Eventually she falls foul of the Swedish police and welfare services because of her behaviour and she is sent to reform school. She is eventually released and found a job in a factory – but she must live with her mother again. Jumping into the harbour seems like a way out to her. But will meeting Gösta mean things take a turn for the better?

Gunnar Fischer on location in the docks

In this and the next few films we see Bergman moving between noirish studio sets and shooting on the streets in a style akin to the neo-realism which was becoming widely-known at the time with the release of Italian films around the world. The whole port area is shown through Gunnar Fischer’s wonderful cinematography. Gösta decides not to return to sea but to join the dock labour gangs. These seem to operate much as the British dock-workers of the period and Fischer shows us the hiring room and the quayside work as well as the factory floor where Berit works on a lathe. The factory scenes are reminiscent of British war-time propaganda films such as Millions Like Us (1943), though Berit is much less enthusiastic about the work and she complains about the damage to her fingers.

The girls in the Reform School

Inevitably, Berit’s mother will find out about her daughter’s new relationship and this will invoke emotional scenes within the household, but these will ultimately be less important perhaps than Berit’s chance encounter with a girl she first met in Reform School. The script, which Bergman developed from a story by Olle Länsberg, seems much more sociologically structured than in Bergman’s later films. Länsberg was a writer local to Göteborg and young, being born in 1922. I can’t find any corroboration of the suggestion that Port of Call was actually a novel before it became a film, but it is certainly the case that the film is longer than the other Bergman films of the period at around 100 minutes – suggesting a literary source perhaps. There is a form of triangular structure in the narrative in that both Berit and Gösta have belonged to groups, he to the male group of sailors and then dock-workers and she to the young women of the reformatory. The long-term relationship that the young people want (Gösta is not yet 30, Berit is 17/18) is to some extent threatened by their past in these groups. They must also cope with Berit’s mother and her desire for a strong family unit bolstered by her Lutheran values (and her own broken relationship with her absent husband). In one scene Bertil is all dressed up, waiting to go out with Gösta (who has accepted some overtime at the docks) and reading a magazine story which the subtitles translate as ‘The Road to Happiness’. Berit’s mother arrives home, guesses what is happening and taunts her daughter. As the scene develops it becomes a classic melodrama with mirror scenes of mother and daughter in different frames and ultimately turns into a flashback in which Berit remembers her childhood and the violent rows between her parents. Eventually she goes out, runs into Gösta by chance and the evening is saved.

Berit and her mother in their flat in a typical melodrama composition

The narrative enigma is whether Berit and Gösta, who are clearly attracted to each other, can make it together when the society around them and in Berit’s case her past history, conspire to push them apart. The latter part of the film sees Berit involved in helping a friend who must seek an illegal abortion. This narrative device of the unwanted pregnancy occurs in another of these early Bergmans, many of which feature young women struggling against the constraints of a conservative society. The involvement of the police (abortion is illegal) and the probation/welfare services are for me the pointers towards a UK-style ‘problem picture’. In 1948 a similar British picture might be one of the ‘sensationalist’ melodramas such as The Goodtime Girl with Jean Kent as the young tearaway. The ‘problem’ is more the underworld crime milieu that the character is drawn to rather than her moral behaviour. The welfare services and the concept of ‘juvenile delinquency’ come more to the fore in the 1950s British films. This Swedish film seems both more ‘realist’ and more humanist than both British and American films of the period. Perhaps the realism of the sexual relationships is why it took several years for these early Bergman films to reach the UK. Port of Call was first released in the UK in 1959 as an ‘X’ film.

Berit and Gösta trying to work out their relationship

The narrative resolution works in two ways and I won’t spoil the outcome except to say that in one sense things come together and in another the future is uncertain but promising. I enjoyed Port of Call more than most other Bergman films partly because social realist melodramas are among my favourite genres. It’s also good to see Bergman’s (and Fischer’s) talent applied to working-class stories. Most of the reviews of the film seem to focus on looking for signs of Bergman’s authorial ‘vision’. I think I’ve taken the opposite tack and looked for the film’s generic roots. Apart from the cinematography and the direction I feel I should also commend the performances of the two leads. The only weakness I could find in the film is the way in which flashbacks are used. These are all about Berit – we learn little about Gösta’s back story. The flashbacks themselves are fine but they seem to be awkwardly introduced. At least, I sometimes found them difficult to sort out in terms of a linear plotline. In the clip below, we see the moment when Gösta first sees Berit at a dance.

The early Bergman films are included in Criterion’s Eclipse series of DVDs. Some are also available on streaming services.