Monthly Archives: June 2008

Heartbeat Detector (La question humaine, France 2007)

Simon Kessler gets a rub-down after an all-night rave.

I saw this film without any preconceptions and after about a third of its running time (it lasts over 140 minutes) I was both nonplussed and slightly irritated by the strategy of having the central character read from various documents. A rave with strobe lighting then tested my attentiveness but I stuck with it and at two thirds of the way through I thought there might be something about to happen. And it does. The last third is some form of revelation (though not a conventional narrative resolution). I mention these points simply because at least one person walked out of our screening and very negative reviews on IMDB also suggest that others left screenings elsewhere. I’m glad I stayed, but I understand why others lost patience. It’s difficult not to see this as a very ‘French’ film – Scott Foundas, the reviewer at Village Voice (generally a good review) suggests that you might need to show your passport to view it.

The film involves a further meditation on the central concern of many European films – the legacy of the Holocaust and in this case its connection to German business interests. The ‘hero’ is a psychologist working in ‘human resources’ (or personnel, as we used to call it) for a French subsidiary of a German multinational petrochemical engineering company (significantly established in France since 1929). Simon, played by Mathieu Amalric, is given the task of writing an appraisal of the CEO whose behaviour has been worrying another senior figure in the company (whose role is not immediately clear). It is this appraisal which prompts the revelations about the past. Simon’s previous work in the company has seen him helping management to reduce the labour force by identifying who should be made redundant. At the same time, he is recruiting new, younger staff and organising ‘team-building’ exercises. Simon’s surname is ‘Kessler’ and he comes from Strasbourg – suggesting that he too is French/German and implicated in the dubious past.

Simon is certainly ‘dealing with people’, crucially affecting their careers and their lives. His own personal life is something of a mess with a part-time lover, Louisa, and a circle of friends/acquaintances who appear to come from various immigrant communities. This provides the second form of human degradation in the narrative with references to the technologies developed to track people being moved illegally through French and English ports. Whereas the French title of the film (the ‘human question’) refers more broadly to the philosophical question of the ethics of business, the English title ‘Heartbeat Detector’ refers to the equipment which finds the immigrants hiding in cross-border shipments. At least, I think this is the case. I’ve read several reviews and none seem to recognise the importance of this aspect of the narrative – perhaps I imagined it? It’s that kind of film. On the other hand, perhaps American reviewers didn’t pick up the importance of stories which we recognise in a UK context (i.e. a container full of migrants suffocated during transit).

The other marker of humanity or the human spirit in the film comes from music. Simon discovers that the CEO, Mathias Jüst, once formed a music quartet with three others from the company and Simon uses the ruse of attempting to revive an interest in classical music amongst the staff to get the CEO to open up. The confrontations between Simon and Mathias are amongst the best bits of the film. Mathias is played by the veteran actor Michael Lonsdale and many commentators have pointed to the coincidence of two Bond villains questioning each other (Amalric is the next Bond villain and Lonsdale played Hugo Drax in Moonraker). The classical music played by the quartet is contrasted by the ‘industrial’ techno at the rave and also by a traditional fado/flamenco ballad performed acapella (and thus the most ‘authentic’ music?).

In the final third, the reading out of letters and testaments is revealed to be part of a philosophical treatise on language. Part Foucault and Derrida, part Chomsky, this is heady stuff which in the final sequences becomes perhaps surprisingly a little glib. Nevertheless it is a thought-provoking and disturbing film.

The director Nicolas Klotz is listed on IMDB as a Professor at FEMIS, the major French film school. He has directed several films, none of which have previously got a release in the UK (to my knowledge). (Although the BBFC website reveals that an earlier film was certificated on video (The Bengali Night 1990, in English with the unlikely casting of Hugh Grant and Shabani Azmi)). I understand that La question humaine is the last part of an unofficial trilogy. The film was shot on 16mm (IMDB) and the print I saw had been transferred to a digital projection print. This possibly increased the impact of the muted colour scheme of blues and greys. Some of the long shots looked fairly pixellated to me. The print is presented in the European standard of 1.66:1. This gives it an old-fashioned and documentary look – taking it away from other films representing the modern glass and chrome world of European business (e.g. Yella).

Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (The Last Days, Germany 2005)

Julia Jentsch as Sophie Scholl with her brother Hans and other members of the White Rose group.

Julia Jentsch as Sophie Scholl with her brother Hans and other members of the White Rose group.

There are many interesting questions about this wonderful film. I’ve watched it recently as part of research into recent German films and how they might be used to teach about ‘political’ issues in film. I think it works for this purpose, but I was surprised by two things – the sheer power of Julia Jentsch in the title role and the very positive audience response evident on the net.

I was aware of the film during its (relatively limited) UK release and I think that I had bracketed it with Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004) which was a big hit in the UK and huge across Europe. I had no idea who Sophie Scholl was, but I did remember a film from 1990 which seemed to be related – Michael Verhoeven’s Nasty Girl (Das schreckliche Mädchen). In this earlier film, a young woman in contemporary Germany exposes the Nazi past of her local community, transforming herself from a ‘golden girl’ into a social pariah (I know I enjoyed the film, but I don’t remember the details).

Sophia Scholl was a young woman living in München early in 1943, arrested as part of the White Rose group of students who attempted to distribute leaflets urging an end to the war which they argued Germany couldn’t win. Sophie’s interrogation and her fortitude in sticking to her principles and attempting to protect her colleagues forms the main part of the story. The story is well known in Germany and I was intrigued to note that two earlier films, both starring Lena Stolze as Sophie, were released in Germany in 1982. One was directed by Michael Verhoeven, Die weisse Rose and the other by Percy Adlon, Fünf letzte Tage. This latter film sounds slightly different in focus, picking up on the relationship between Sophie and the woman who shares her cell during the interrogation. (This focus then reminds me of another recent German film, Vier Minuten 2007, but that’s another story.)

The Sophie Scholl story is neatly summarised on Wikipedia which lists an earlier 1970 film (which I haven’t been able to trace) and both a book and a play. The latest film benefits from material released from East German archives after 1990, so the authenticity of the dialogue now becomes an important factor for audiences.

The film isn’t a biopic as such since it deals with only a few days/weeks in Sophie’s life. However, it does refer to a specialised genre of films that celebrate young heroines in European culture, especially those whose dramas are set in 20th century wars (Anne Frank, Edith Clavell, Violette Szabo) or in the case of Rosa Luxemburg, the communist struggles. (Rosa was played by Barbara Sukowa in a Margerethe von Trotta film from 1986.)

Sophie Scholl is in many ways a conventional film. The narrative is necessarily linear, but the events unroll without any attempt at a ‘back story’ – so it takes the viewer a little time to learn exactly who these young people are. The colours are relatively muted, with only a few locations. I think I read that the director, Marc Rothemund, wanted to avoid too much Nazi regalia and he succeeds in keeping the proceeedings as municipal and fairly drab until the final courtroom scenes. The main part of the film is the sequence of interrogations of Sophie by Herr Mohr (played by a distinguished German actor, Alexander Held, who for me looked very much like Donald Pleasance). If the dialogue in any way reflects what she actually said, Sophie was indeed an intelligent and brave young woman. It may be a cliché, but this is a film in which “less is more”. The austerity of the mise en scène means that everything is thrown onto Julia Jentsch, who has few props with which to fashion a three dimensional image of Sophie. Jentsch succeeds in every way and it is her performance which gives the film its power. I hope that younger audiences will identify with Julia/Sophie who asserts her passionate belief in an idea about personal freedom. I should also confess that, as a humanist, I found the understated Lutheran Christian values of the character to be deeply moving.

I watched the film on a rented DVD distributed via ICA Projects – unfortunately, there was no accompanying material about the real Sophie Scholl which struck me as a missed opportunity.

Alejandro Amenábar: An Introduction

Given there has been a fair amount of interest in our earlier post on Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside), I thought I’d post this complementary intro to that film’s director:

Every few years, a young filmmaker emerges with a film that even the most jaded critics recognise as a sign of a new talent with the possibility to revitalise cinema. Jean-Luc Godard was eager to release his first film before he was 30 in order to stand a chance of emulating figures like Sergei Eisenstein and Orson Welles who both managed it by age 26. Steven Speilberg was another 26 year-old debutant. More recently Mathieu Kassovitz (26) and John Singleton (23) announced themselves with La Haine and Boyz ’n the Hood respectively, only to stumble with follow-up films. All of this puts in perspective the incredible career of Alejandro Amenábar.

Born in Santiago, Chile in 1972, Amenábar was brought back to Spain, in the face of Pinochet’s 1973 fascist coup, by his Spanish mother. A not very academic scholar, Amenábar was very focused on making his own films and left a film theory course to become a practitioner. His first commercial feature, Tesis, appeared in 1996 when he was still only 23. Abre los ojos came out a year later and his third feature, in English, The Others, became a worldwide hit after its release in the US in 2001.

The three films all display fresh story ideas, innovative use of film language and an appeal to popular audiences which places Amenábar firmly in the tradition of a filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock. What is remarkable is that it took Hitchcock several films to develop the kind of facility with the medium that Amenábar has shown in just four.

Tesis (1996)
One of the keys to Amenábar’s work is that he has always managed to get the cream of acting talent into his confections. Tesis is said to have been written for Penélope Cruz, but the role of Ángela was eventually played by Ana Torrent, an icon of Spanish Cinema who played the young girl at the centre of The Spirit of the Beehive in 1973 and Raise Ravens in 1975, two films which use the innocence of the child to explore the dark legacy of Franco. Amenábar’s work is absolutely not about exploring the politics of the past and Tesis is a film featuring two major new young actors in Fele Martínez and Eduardo Noriega, both of whom have gone on to work with other major directors. However, Ana Torrent’s iconic presence is well used. Ángela is a postgraduate media student who begins a dissertation on violence in the media. She goes to Chema (Fele Martínez) to look at his collection of ‘hardcore’, but then stumbles across her professor who has died whilst watching a grizzly tape, which Ángela steals. Chema recognises the girl being tortured as an ex-student. Ángela then finds herself being drawn into a relationship with the attractive, confident, but rather disturbing Bosco (Eduardo Noriega). The resourceful female hero is pitted against snuff-movie monsters in the university.

Tesis might seem to be Amenábar’s riposte to his own professors, but as Rob Stone points out:

. . . the potential for in-jokery was dismissed by the brashness of Amenábar’s technique, the mastery of his ambition and the scope of his cine-literacy. (Stone, 2002: 201)

Tesis found a big audience amongst younger cinemagoers attracted by the young stars and the genre material and amongst older cinephiles attracted by Torrent.

Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) (1997)
For his second feature, Amenábar was able to cast Penélope Cruz alongside Martínez and Noriega. Abre los ojos is a delirious mix of a romantic melodrama featuring four young stars (Najwa Nimri plays the ‘other’ woman) and a ‘speculative fiction’ which could easily have been written by Philip K. Dick. César (Noriega) is a rich young man who steals the beautiful Sofia (Cruz) from his friend Pelayo. When his former lover, Nuria (Nimri) gets jealous, it leads to a car crash in which César is badly disfigured. All this is told in flashback to a psychiatrist, assigned by the court after César is arrested. But did any of it really happen? What is memory, what is simulated reality?

The film was again a box office champion in Spain and was also widely seen overseas. Amenábar, his co-writer Mateo Gil and the four young stars were all born within three years of each other and all still under 25 when they made the film. This was a new generation of Spanish film talent coming to the fore in a country where for so long film culture seemed to be if not ‘backward-looking’, at least always conscious of a political and cultural history. Abre los ojos could in one sense be a film about any contemporary society. Which is not to say that it is a bland ‘mid-Atlantic’ film, but rather a confident film set in a modern Spain that is very much part of the EU and contemporary global culture.

Rob Stone again invokes Hitchcock when he states that Cruz was asked to watch Vertigo several times in her preparations for the role. In dealing with the charge that the film may be proof of the new generation’s ease with losing its Spanish identity, he refers to Cruz as “ . . . not just a sex symbol, but a hard-working young woman from Madrid, whose cosmopolitan education and background makes her . . . at home in Hollywood”. Much the same could be said of Amenábar and for some the confirmation of this would come with the development of a working relationship with Tom Cruise which saw the re-make of Abre los ojos, Vanilla Sky, eventually appear in 2001 with Cruise in the Noriega role and Cruz again cast as Sofia.

The Others (Los otros) 1999
Before Vanilla Sky appeared, Amenábar had already released his most ambitious project, The Others, produced by Cruise for Miramax and starring his by now ex-partner Nicole Kidman. For the 26 year-old Amenábar, the film must have been a daunting prospect, not least because he chose to write a script and to shoot in English in order to utilise the talents of Kidman and a supporting cast of strong British/Irish players. Not only that, but the writer-director again scored his own production of a story, which is heavily dependent on the use of sound.

The Others
is a ‘period’ film – a gothic ghost story – set in the Channel Islands in 1945 (but shot in Cantabria in Spain). Hitchcock never made a ghost story as such, but ‘Grace’ the Kidman character could be a Hitchcockian woman. The name refers both to the Catholic teachings about the ‘grace of God’ or the ‘state of grace’, but also directly to Grace Kelly, the perfect Hitchcock woman. Once again, Amenábar explores genre pleasures, setting himself a kind of exercise in using lighting and sound through his decision to make the children victims of ‘light sensitivity’.

The film was an international box office hit with a worldwide take of over $200 million. Amenábar had ‘proved’ himself in the commercial marketplace and had exhilarated cinephiles. He still had to face veiled criticism that he had abandoned Spanish film culture. In her discussion of The Others in the closing section of her book on Spanish National Cinema (2003), Núria Triana-Toribio begins by announcing “ . . . it is almost impossible to know what to do with Chilean-born Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others . . .” She goes on to discuss Paul Julian Smith’s defence of the film in which he argues that despite the British and American/Australian influences, Amenábar “brings a distinctly Spanish sensibility to its material” (Sight and Sound, November 2001, p.54). Triana-Toribio’s closing sentence of the whole book is:

“. . . perhaps The Others is a wake-up call to the future, to indicate that national cinemas should be prepared to be challenged about the national mindset in which they have been immersed and accept that, in order to make films that are relevant to a large number of people it is necessary to pool resources and think globally.” (Triana-Toribio, 2003: 163)

So what does Amenábar do next? He embarks on another challenging production, but one which takes a very specific Spanish subject, albeit a story which has many ‘universal’ appeals

Mar adentro (The Sea Inside) 2004
At first sight, Mar adentro seems like a turn away from his first two cosmopolitan youth orientated films and also from the re-imagined genre study that is The Others. Yet, closer examination reveals another genre exploration (the melodrama) and if the setting is not cosmopolitan, the narrative drive is surely to question the ‘old ways’ in Spain, partly in relation to the established church and partly in terms of the autonomy of Galicia and Catalunya.

Javier Bardem’s central performance continues Amenábar’s work with the best acting talent and there is continuity in both the writing partnership with Mateo Gil and the cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe. This time Amenábar ‘ups the ante’ by adding film editing to his other talents.

The authorship debate
If you believe in the film authorship approach to reading films, Amenábar is clearly an auteur. He contributes so much to the films and works with regular collaborators. Does he have a ‘personal vision’ or a set of themes to which he returns? Four films is a small selection on which to base any such such analysis, but it is possible to discern links between what appear on the surface as four very different kinds of films. The linking factor appears to be a fascination with the transition between ‘life’ and ‘death’ between ‘representation’ and ‘reality’, between ‘dreams’ and ‘rationality’. This hazy boundary forms the basis for four very different narratives, but provides us with four central characters who must in some way negotiate it (Ángela, César, Grace and Ramon). In the first two films, Amenábar consciously addressed films and filmmaking as complicit in teasing us with this question, in the latter two he is more indirect in exploring narrative through sound and light – the fundamentals of cinema.

Paul Julian Smith once described Amenábar as “. . . a plausible model outside Spain for a European Cinema that bridges the gap between arthouse and mainstream” (Sight and Sound 2000, March p. 50). So far, Mar adentro has not proved to be the hit outside Spain that it has been at home (where it soundly trounced Almodóvar’s Bad Education at the box office to become the biggest Spanish film of the year, reversing the experience of the two films outside Spain). But, Amenábar really has nothing to prove. Whatever he makes next, he has already made a major contribution to world cinema.


Rob Stone (2002) Spanish Cinema, Harlow: Longman Pearson Education

Núria Triana-Toribio (2003) Spanish National Cinema, London: Routledge

Roy Stafford, 21 February 2005

Battle in Seattle (US/Canada/Germany 2007)

Here is something unusual – an American independent (albeit a co-production) with a political narrative and some frontline stars, shot in a convincing docudrama style. Catching the film on release in France, I was able to enjoy it without any of the hoop-la (good or bad) that might usually surround it. Not yet released in any of the three producing countries, it will be intriguing to see if it makes any impression in the hands of small distributors. It doesn’t yet have a UK distributor listed, but I would hope that it finds one.

The title refers to the street battles between protestors and the police at the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle in 1999. What was planned as a carefully orchestrated peaceful protest eventually became a running battle and the film suggests that the reasons for this are varied with blame cast in several directions.

As a piece of entertainment, the film works well and I was swept along by the action, never bored and generally wiling to ignore some of the more clunky lines of dialogue and predictable scenes. As a piece of ‘political cinema’, I’m not sure what to think. The film opens with a set of titles which economically set out the issues related to the WTO in 1999 and at the end a similar set tell us what has happened since. In between, the film tries to balance its presentation of political arguments with the (outlines of) personal stories from both sides of the barricades. As an audience member more or less completely behind the politics of the film, I might want to argue with how they are handled, but for a general audience, I can see the film as both accessible in presenting important issues and potentially irritating to more conservative audiences.

The most intriguing aspect of the film is that it is the product of a first time writer-director, the Irish actor Stuart Townsend. My only previous glimpse of the actor was as a particularly cold-hearted character in Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999), but IMDB tells me that Townsend has appeared in a number of Hollywood films and TV series (as well as some UK independent work that I have seen, but not remembered). More importantly, perhaps, Townsend is the partner of Hollywood star Charlize Theron and this presumably helped him both work with producers to raise the reported $8 miilion budget and to augment his own contacts book. The cast includes Woody Harrelson as a cop (married to Theron as an upmarket sales assistant), Ray Liotta as Seattle’s Mayor and Martin Henderson and Michelle Rodriguez as activists. These performers offer the film the opportunity to appeal widely, but arguably the most important production decision was the choice of Barry Ackroyd as cinematographer. Ackroyd created something of a splash in America with his work on Paul Greengrass’s United 93, but in the UK his reputation has been built up through consistent work with Ken Loach over many years. If you want someone to shoot a political demonstration in an observational but ‘involved’ style, Ackroyd is the best there is and for me this would be one of the main reasons for seeing the film. (Townsend would have met Ackroyd on the shoot of Carin Adler’s Under the Skin in 1996, if not before.) The film was shot mainly across Puget Sound in Vancouver, standing in for Seattle, in November/December 2006.

The limited number of reviews from festivals (beginning with Toronto in 2007) tend to say the same things. Stuart Townsend had mentioned Haskell Wexler’s classic 1969 film, Medium Cool (based on a journalist’s experience of the ‘battle’ at the Democratic Convention in 1968) as his touchstone and critics have generally praised the production for approaching Wexler’s achievement and even to some extent the Paul Greengrass Bloody Sunday. They have been less kind to the ‘personal stories’ and in retrospect, Townsend might have felt that he tried too hard to be ‘even-handed’ in his choice of stories. Most discussion will be around the Harrelson/Theron story. I would lose this and beef up some of the others which have insufficient time to develop, but I can also see that for some audiences, this particular ‘personal story’ might be a way in to the overall narrative.

I do hope the film gets a wide release in as many countries as possible as it explores a truly global issue that should be of interest to all. It is not untypical of a first time production, having a real passion which makes up for weaknesses in the script. There are some interviews with Townsend, Rodriguez and also André Benjamin (a very enjoyable performance) on the Moving Pictures Magazine website. The film also has its own website with photos, cast etc. as well as the beginnings of a campaign (demand to see the film in your city).

Caramel (Sukkar banat, Lebanon/France 2007)

Nadine Labaki in Caramel

I spent a very enjoyable 95 mins watching Caramel. Afterwards, the more I thought and read about the film, the more I thought this is exactly the kind of film that I want to discuss on this blog. It isn’t just the subject matter of the film, but what its production, distribution and exhibition raise as issues in global film culture.

To take the narrative first, Caramel offers a specific location – a hairdressing salon/beauty shop in Beirut – which acts as the locus for the intersecting stories of five women. (The title refers to the sugar solution used in depilation treatments.) The five women are different in terms of age and religion (and possibly ethnicity?) but they face similar problems in finding happiness in the still traditional society in this the most cosmopolitan of Arab cities.

The film has been widely described as a ‘romantic comedy’ but this is misleading, I think. Certainly, there are comic moments but these are matched by sad and downbeat scenes. This could make it a ‘bittersweet’ comedy, but the structure is wrong for a romantic comedy. Although the film ends with a wedding for one of the women, it isn’t the defining moment for the other four and no one story is really more important than the others, even if Nadine Labaki is the stand-out presence in the film, playing the character who runs the salon as well as directing and co-writing.

I think this is a good example of a melodrama. Were it not for the usual misunderstanding about terms, I would see this as a soap opera/telenovela kind of narrative – massively popular throughout the region whether from Egypt or imported. It isn’t as sensational as the TV soaps, but it has the same kinds of ingredients – the struggles of the women, the constraining family ties and that melodrama essential, a wonderful music soundtrack.

According to the press release and interviews by Nadine Labaki, most of the cast were non-actors so the film has the feel of a neo-realist melodrama. The playing is generally very good and deeply moving in very different ways – the frustration of living with a partner (it’s not clear if this is a sister, mother or aunt) with either dementia or learning difficulties, the cruelty of the modelling/acting game for older women, the gentle beginnings of a relationship between two younger women as well as the pain of a relationship with a married man. Haircutting is a potentially erotic activity and here it leads to a breathtaking transformation of an already beautiful woman into someone of astonishing beauty.

Caramel is a pleasure on almost every level. The shooting of the film must have been difficult (it wrapped just as the 2006 war broke out) and we actually see little of Beirut as a city, but there is a great deal of local culture and ‘colour’ crammed in. I may have missed a few things related to local culture, but overall I thought the film was well conceived in speaking to both local and international audiences.

Considering production, this is one of many films from Africa and Asia that have reached screens around the world thanks to the tradition of French producers and cultural agencies looking ‘outwards’ to promote films from Francophone countries and others – British producers please note. Lebanon was only directly under a French mandate for around 25 years from 1918 to 1943, yet French became the language of the Christian middle-class in Lebanon and a French language culture was established. (The importance of French-speaking as a marker of middle-class status and education is an ingredient in the plot.) Of course, French colonial policy was not necessarily benign or progressive, but its legacy has meant more films getting a wider release than their equivalents (not that there are many) from Britain’s colonial legacy.

Caramel was co-produced by a French company and it got its first break via an appearance at Cannes in 2007 and a subsequent entry for the foreign language Oscar. In the UK the film opened a year later with support for digital prints and has proved a notable success. In week 1 it opened on 46 screens courtesy of independent distributor Momentum and entered the UK Top 10 at 9. After three weeks it was still at No 10 and looks likely to make nearly £400,000 which I suspect will be a record for a film in Arabic in the UK (does anybody know a higher grossing film – Battle of Algiers possibly?). I’m pleased it has been a success and I’m sure the large numbers of people disappointed by Sex and the City would have had a much better time watching Caramel. Momentum is a UK company releasing both European specialised films and US/UK genre pictures.

Here’s a useful American review focusing on the representation of ‘modern women’ in Beirut:

and here are a couple of regional reviews/discussions which include video clips:

And if you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the US trailer to whet your appetite:

Honeydripper (US 2007)

Keb' Mo' as the mysterious Possum, the 'spirit' of the blues. (Is that a National steel guitar or a dobro? Sounds great either way.)

If there is anyone who deserves to be called an ‘independent’ it is John Sayles – or rather the working group that includes Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi, composer Mason Daring and several others (e.g. Mary Steenbergen and Tom Wright) who join for individual projects. Sayles’ films are unique in their conception and execution. They don’t follow fashion and in a sense they fall between the mainstream and the arthouse, pleasing professional critics in neither for much of the time. But they do please the small but discerning audience who pick them out. There are few other filmmakers who could do what Sayles does (write, direct, act and edit and then promote), but what is most important is that he asks questions through his actions. The two questions that arise with Honeydripper are: who says films have to be fast-paced and dramatic to be entertaining and why is it not possible to get films with an African-American cast of this calibre made (and distributed) on a regular basis?

The ‘Honeydripper’ is a modest music venue on the edge of a small Alabama town in 1950 in which a ‘magic moment’ – the arrival of a new young electric blues guitarist – acts as the climax of a story about the redemption of a central character played by Danny Glover. The central focus on a single character is unusual for Sayles. Not that there isn’t the familiar Sayles ensemble of characters whose narratives intersect, but they are all subordinate to Glover and none of the other narratives has the same depth or complexity (as in Lone Star, City of Hope etc.). Partly this is because the pace is so slow. Yes it is slow – noticeably so – but the pace allows some nuanced and warm playing, especially by Charles S. Dutton. I could watch him for hours and I was reminded of the sheer pleasure of his performance in Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune. Not only is it slow, but there is little dramatic narrative action. Instead there is a tension about the iniquity of the Jim Crow situation and the economic pressures on the Glover character that runs through the whole narrative keeping a kind of sharp edge, but never pushing the narrative to a dramatic climax.

I think that Sayles could improve his films by not doing the editing himself. Things could be tightened up a little without losing the overall pace. But I wouldn’t like to lose the minor diversions. I loved the two young boys who wander into scenes and who play with their dummy musical ‘instruments’ and the incidental anecdotes about the origins of black music and the sly jokes about the mythology of the blues. Sayles is a clever writer and I was intrigued by the two sequences between the white characters (the sheriff and the ‘poor white’ woman made good) and the central black characters. Sayles doesn’t openly criticise the Jim Crow world. Instead he let’s us observe its impact and he portrays the white characters as quite complex. Does the sheriff turn up at just the right moment to save Glover (even while he is exploiting him)?

The reflective tone is also a consequence of the look of the film – a warm nostalgic glow (although I did wonder if some of that was derived from the digital print I watched which in some of the night time scenes seemed to lack sharpness and contrast) and the overall refusal of a realist aesthetic. So, some of the picturesque scenes were just too beautiful, others too ‘clean’ and others had a pronounced ‘theatrical feel’. I take all of this to be deliberate, but the clincher is the presence of the blind blues guitarist who seemingly appears only to the young man and to Pinetop (Glover). This character is the ‘soul’ of the blues, the ghost of previous musicians and acts both as Pinetop’s conscience and the younger man’s mentor.

I saw Honeydripper in the week of Bo Diddley’s death and it was noticeable that Sonny’s homemade electric guitar was square just like Bo’s. I confess that I had expected much more emphasis on the supposed ‘creation of rock ‘n roll’ in the film. But there was plenty of music, including the gospel tent singing and the references back to the big bands that were part of Pinetop’s career. As I came out of the screening, I overheard at least a couple of people saying that they hoped there would be a CD. I’ve always had plenty of time for Mason Daring’s work, so I hope they do manage to sell a few soundtrack albums.

The second question that Sayles prompts concerns the paucity of African-American films in wide distribution. From the online complaints, I gather that Sayles has struggled to get distribution in the US and according to IMDB and UK Film Council stats, it would seem that the UK launch on 18 screens almost matched the US platform release at its widest point of 19. I’m guessing that the digital print in the UK had some UKFC support. We don’t get African-American films (by which I mean those with African-American cultural content as a narrative focus) very often in the UK and their release is usually restricted to around 30 prints in the major cities. We are still waiting for Denzel Washington’s second directorial feature The Great Debaters and it will be interesting to see what kind of release that gets if and when it arrives. I wonder what would happen if Denzel and Forest Whitaker were prepared to work with Sayles on the kinds of budgets he can raise? Honeydripper reputedly cost $5 million mostly raised by Sayles and Renzi themselves. Looking back, some of the most interesting African-American stories and characters that I can remember have been in Sayles’ films, including James Earl Jones in Matewan, Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish and Joe Morton in Lone Star and many others. It was bell hooks in Reel to Real (Routledge 1996) who allowed that Sayles created more radical black characters than many more conservative black filmmakers. I’m not sure that Honeydripper works overall, but I do think that the range of representations of characters and community and the insights into aspects of African-American cultural history mean that it deserves to be more widely seen and studied.

Here’s a useful interview with John Sayles.