Monthly Archives: February 2009

Critics and film – the same old story

Most Friday nights I subject myself to a form of torture known as the Newsnight Review on BBC2 TV, a programme that rarely fails to leave me fuming. My main gripe is that the programme parades an array of cultural critics who collectively have around seven or eight minutes on four or five of the week’s new productions. Each of the critics tends to have a specific area of expertise, but they are required to speak on all of the items. Very occasionally there is someone with expertise in cinema, but films are regularly reviewed – usually the major Hollywood offering, but sometimes a European film (never anything from India, China, Africa etc.)

The idea of an educated liberal elite who are able to speak about all art forms is a British cultural tradition. There are some things to be said in favour of this approach, but mostly it creates problems. The critics on shows like these rarely have the space to say anything vaguely theoretical or ‘intellectual’ so discourse is at the level of genteel discussion. (The programme has in the last few years ditched the older and more curmudgeonly critics like Tom Paulin who could often be entertaining in his ignorance of popular culture as well as sharply analytical.) The real problem is that the British tradition is still mired in a worldview that recognises writers, fine artists and other high art practitioners, but pretty clueless about cinema and by extension filmed drama on television.

On last night’s show the four topics were an opera, Dr Atomic, the Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery, Red Riding (a trilogy of Channel 4 films) and the ‘Eurothriller’,  The International. The quartet of critics, Paul Morley (popular music and popular culture generally), Jeanette Winterson (novelist), Tom Service (classical music) and Tim Marlow (chair and art critic) referred to both Picasso and the opera’s composer John Adams, but when it came to the film and TV material, the references were only to the writer of the source novels for the television film and to the actors involved. 

I haven’t seen either The International or Red Riding (which airs during the coming month), but I have got some sense of what they are about and what disappoints me is the refusal to see the medium of ‘filmed entertainment’ as worthy of proper coverage. It has long been the case that UK television has been discussed in terms of its writers and producers and virtually never in terms of its directors, cinematographers, designers, editors or any other creative personnel other than the actors. Red Riding is a major production based on a quartet of novels by Yorkshire-born (currently Tokyo domiciled) David Peace. Peace has received plenty of recent attention having developed as a cult crime writer over several years. His recent ‘novelisation’ of the legendary football manager Brian Clough’s disastrous 44 day reign at Leeds United has also been adapted as a feature film and The Damned United is released in a few weeks. So, I have no problem with a discussion of Red Riding in terms of an adaptation of Peace’s work. Yet the trilogy was written for television (melding four stories into three two-hour films) by Tony Grisoni, himself a relatively high profile figure in the British film industry after work with Michael Winterbottom and Terry Gilliam. The films were a co-production between Channel 4 and Revolution Films (the company owned by Michael Winterbottom and Andrew Eaton) and together they represent a significant investment in UK filmmaking. Each of the films is directed by a significant UK director (Julian Jarrold, Anand Tucker and James Marsh) – surely this deserves some kind of comment? As it was, the critics mostly discussed whether the film (the first of the trilogy) was a faithful adaptation and whether this was proof that British television could match recent US TV drama (something of an obsession with UK television critics).

The same issue arises with The International. This was discussed in terms of a mainstream feature in which Clive Owen and Naomi Watts were underused in a film that clearly failed to be a Bond thriller or a Bourne adventure. Other than this, the main discussion was about the theme of corrupt bankers. In the current circumstances focus on corrupt bankers is understandable, but the big question is why nobody was interested in this as a Tom Tykwer film. Tykwer has been a controversial figure with plenty of gainsayers, but in Run, Lola Run (1998) he gave a much-needed boost to European filmmaking in the international market-place and he recently had a major European hit with Perfume (2006).  His 2002 film, Heaven, from a script by Krzysztof Kieslowski and starring Cate Blanchett, was poorly received (unjustly in my opinion). Both Lola and Heaven sound like they were important references for The International yet the film was discussed as just another Hollywood thriller. Officially the film is a German/US co-production with some UK involvement. There are four US independents and three German companies involved. The film has been sold to Sony and Disney in terms of international distribution. Although it has some fans, the general US feeling is that it doesn’t work. OK, but wouldn’t it be more useful to discuss the difficulties of ‘international’ filmmaking in English for European directors – or perhaps, the difficulties that American audiences (and Europeans in love with Hollywood) have with these kinds of films. Whatever Tykwer’s successes or failures, he at least needs recognition as the director of this film.

Update: BBC reviewers on Radio 4’s Saturday Review programme recovered the corporation’s reputation a little by discussing Red Riding and mentioning both the screenwriter and director of the first film – perhaps they should take over Late Review?

Cadillac Records (US 2008)

Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and Little Walter (Columbus Short) in Cadillac Records

Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and Little Walter (Columbus Short) in Cadillac Records

Darnell Martin wrote and directed this ‘Sony Music’ film about the story of Chess Records, the Chicago record label that released the best of the electric blues from the late 1940s and early 1950s and introduced Chuck Berry’s rock ‘n roll. Wikipedia reports that Martin was the first African-American woman to direct a feature for a major studio (I Like It Like That, 1994) but since then she has mainly worked on TV, directing a host of top-line shows. Always keen to support women who have made it to feature production, I wish I could recommend this film more strongly. I think the casting is generally very good, all the performances stand up and the music is great, but the narrative is all over the place and the film never really sorts out what kind of genre model it wants to follow.

Martin appears to want to tell the whole Chess story which actually spanned 20 years from 1949 to 1969 and featured many major recording artists and stages in the evolution of black popular music. Obviously there is a necessity for selection and the film’s narrative leaves out important figures and re-arranges the dates of other events for no real reason that I could fathom. I don’t expect music biopics to stick rigidly to all the facts or all the personnel, but some of the decisions here look very odd. Bo Diddley is missing, but I assume that this must be because of rights or some other legal reason. Chess Records was owned and run by two brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess, but only Leonard features in the film. The brothers also owned a number of other labels but I guess that trying to represent this would have been too complicated. The jumbled dates mean that we get TV images of Elvis in the Army (1958-60) when the film’s narrative is actually up to the mid 1960s and the arrival of the Rolling Stones in Chicago (1964) is shown before Etta James’ arrival at the studio in 1960. As Scotland on Sunday‘s reviewer suggested, you’ll probably enjoy the movie more if you know nothing about Chess Records or its artists before you watch it.

The idea of music biopic about a record label seems quite valid to me if difficult to imagine. It would require discipline in selecting acts and recordings and you would need to focus on specific music business procedures or specific professional relationships – perhaps a documentary would be better? Otherwise the biopic should focus on the personal relationships and performances of a smaller group of stars. The problem here is that it isn’t clear who the central protagonist is. The two characters who appear throughout the narrative are Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright). But the narrative leaves them behind to some extent to follow Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Chuck Berry (Mos Def) – both more outrageous characters. Howling Wolf (Eamonn Walker) makes a brief (and chilling) appearance and then it’s on to Beyoncé as Etta James. Hovering in the background much of the time is Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, the songwriter/arranger genius of the outfit.

The dramatic conflict in the story comes from the relationships between Leonard, Muddy and Walter (and their partners) and the real antipathy that develops between Muddy and the Wolf. As far as I can see this was based on Wolf’s contention that Muddy had the wrong kind of business arrangement with Chess (who states clearly that he wants to make money). Chess doesn’t deliberately exploit any of his acts, although he does use some unorthodox strategies and he could perhaps be accused of duping Muddy with payment in cadillacs rather than more conventional royalties. The Wolf is much sharper in his arrangements. The thematic of the problems of white ownership of labels that promoted black artists is one well exploring (the Stax story would be an interesting companion for this film) – it pitches the positive integrationist stances of the music against the negative impact on the problems of self identity of some (many?) blues and soul artists. There is certainly plenty of material here.

There are hints throughout the second half of the movie that all is not well with the label, but the story ends with something of a wimper, as if confirming that the writer/director didn’t know exactly what she wanted. Against this, I have to emphasise again that the music is terrific. Some of the actors play the material themselves (Mos Def and Beyoncé) others mime it – I think. Either way it is well done and the original music score is by Terence Blanchard. I got home and dug out Muddy and the Wolf straightaway.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (US 1931)

jeykyllposter.jpg

I was pleased to get the rare chance to see a 1931 classic in a new print on a BFI re-release. I don’t remember seeing the film before, although the image of Fredric March as Mr Hyde is very well-known. The whole experience was a real treat and I wasn’t prepared for either the brilliance of Mamoulian’s approach via camerawork, editing and production design or the sheer eroticism of the film pre Hays Code. The film begins with an audacious subjective camera shot, seemingly hand-held, but presumably on some primitive form of dolly.(This follows a sequence of passionate organ-playing that must have been an inspiration for Monty Python.)

There is already quite a lot of material out there on the film and there is no need for me to repeat it. Here are two blogs that offer (1) a short interview with Mamoulian and (2) a formal analysis with loads of screen grabs showing the compositions and glorious wipes:

http://blog.allanellenberger.com/book-flm-news/dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde/

http://www.aycyas.com/jekyllandhyde1931.htm

I suspect that the fans of the film who have only seen it on TV or DVD have missed some of the erotic charge of the film, partly because US TV versions were cut for a long time (as was the initial UK release), but also because the big screen has the kind of mesmeric effect in Mamoulian’s hands that you just can’t get on a small screen. In the final sequence there is a shot in which Mr Hyde approaches Jekyll’s fiancée from behind (as depicted in the poster above) and the subjective shot makes the woman’s dress seem almost touchable – and what dresses they are in the film, close fitting and low-cut. In his ‘Cinema One’ book on Mamoulian (1969) Tom Milne sets up a spirited defence of Mamoulian in the face of later critical apathy. 

Rouben Mamoulian (1897-1987) was a Georgian from Tbilisi who trained as a theatre director in Moscow and then travelled to first London and then New York, directing both straight theatre and opera. In cinema by the late 1920s he was seen as a real innovator in the use of sound, the roving subjective camera of Jekyll and Hyde and later the first Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp in 1936. He was seduced away from Paramount by the moneybags at MGM (where Garbo’s Queen Christina was a highlight) but after Becky Sharp, his career faltered and he became known for films which he left for various reasons, the last of which was the ill-fated Cleopatra in (1963). The last film he completed was Silk Stockings in 1957, the Cold War musical version of Ninotchka, with the sublime Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire. Milne argues that Mamoulian’s sense of rhythm and timing in shooting and cutting was such that all his films could be seen as musicals.

I can see that my viewing is Mamoulian-light. I have Golden Boy (1939) to watch but now I must also seek out Applause (1929), City Streets (1931) and Love Me Tonight (1932).

Here is the famous scene between March and Miriam Hopkins, demonstrating what Hollywood lost when the Production Code came in:

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Spain/US 2008)

Javier Bardem and Rebecca Hall

Javier Bardem and Rebecca Hall

I don’t think I’ve seen a Woody Allen film since the early 1990s and I wouldn’t have gone to this one if my partner hadn’t suggested it. I enjoyed aspects of the film but overall it was a bit of a mess. Trying to make sense of what Allen was trying to achieve, I could only think of 1930s/40s musicals and romantic comedies. I’m not sure why, but I thought of Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio and Jesse Matthews in First A Girl. I also thought about something that might be directed by Max Ophuls, perhaps La Ronde? But all these references are to films with a sureness of touch that seems to have evaded poor Woody. He has four excellent actors, a beautiful city, one of Spain’s greatest cinematographers in Javier Aguirresarobe and some beautiful guitar music. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have done too much work on the script.

The voiceover narration has come in for a lot of stick. I have no problem with it as a device and it could work in this context, but not delivered by the rather ugly voice here (which I believe comes from someone best known for US cop shows). The narration is also ungrammatical and I spent a couple of scenes re-running the lines in my head. The plot is ridiculous in parts and insulting to the intelligence of the audience. I think that Bardem’s character is at some point referred to as a ‘Catalan artist’, yet he comes from Asturias. Vicky is supposed to be doing a Masters in ‘Catalan identity’ but she can’t speak Castillian very well and seems unaware that Catalans speak a different language (or rather the whole script seems to ignore this local peculiarity). OK, if this was a Hollywood romcom we wouldn’t worry about this, but it’s a Spanish co-production and the script insists on several scenes in which Javier Bardem has to keep telling Penelope Cruz to speak in English, so language is an issue.

So, it’s a mess, but there is still plenty to enjoy. Bardem and Cruz are wonderful (and make me want to watch Jamon, Jamon again) and Scarlett Johansson is perfectly fine. The revelation for me was Rebecca Hall. At first, I found the character irritating but as the narrative developed she got more and more interesting and I thought that there was a real sense of sexual tension in the way she tried to resist Bardem, but really wanted him very badly. I’ve not seen her before and now I’m looking forward to the UK TV plays set in Yorkshire in the 1970s (Red Riding 1974) and written by David Peace in which she has a role.

Woody Allen works in his own way, but I think if this had been written by someone else and Allen had directed it in a particular style suited to its genre, it could have been very successful.

Genre in Japanese Cinema

A few years ago, during one of the Q&As at the end of a student event on the thriller crime genre, a teacher challenged me by stating that there weren’t really any genres in Japanese Cinema. I was so taken aback by this, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I thought it was such a strange thing to say. On reflection, perhaps the ways in which Japanese Cinema has developed are quite difficult to grasp. During the 1930s and again in the 1950-60s, Japan had the world’s biggest output of films, many produced in a form of studio system which certainly organised production with reference to generally accepted ideas of genre categories. These categories have been widely used by critics and academics in Japanese film studies. Given my own form of dyslexia in remembering how to spell foreign language terms (and therefore how to remember which is which), I thought it might be useful to make a list of as many terms as I can find. Any suggestions for additions to the list gratefully accepted.

The two overarching terms for Japanese films:

jidaigeki – ‘period’ or historical films. These were often based on the popular theatre or Kabuki plays of the Tokugawa period (1601-1867) – shinkokugeki or ‘the new national drama’ added a new form of realism to the jidaigeki from 1917 onwards.

gendaigeki – contemporary set films. The first of these derived from the shimpa or theatre of the modernising Japan of the the Meiji period (i.e. the last third of the 19th century). Shingeki – films in the style of western realist theatre began to appear in Japan from around 1909.

More specific terms for genre categories (all are used in various books by Donald Richie, Keiko McDonald or Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro) as well as other Japanese words used to describe the content or style of films are listed below. I have used some descriptions from Arne Svensson, author of a Tantivy Press book on Japanese Cinema in 1971 in the Screen Series.

(‘eiga‘ just means film in Japanese and monogatari means ‘stories’)

bungei eiga – adaptations of literary works

bunraku – the puppet theatre that developed in the sixteenth century

chambara – swordfight films (kengeki is ‘swordfight theatre’)

ero – erotic films 

ero-guro – erotic/grotesque style

haha mono – ‘mother’ films, about mothers, their sacrifices and sufferings, and their children

J-horror – horror films since the 1990s (also kowai hanashi or ‘scary story’)

kaidan (or kwaidan) – a traditional term for the ghost story, often set in the Tokugawa period. 

kateigeki – home drama

keiko eiga – political or “tendency films”, usually leftist

kokusaku eiga – “national policy films”

kyuha – ‘old school’ used in opposition to shimpa or ‘new school’

matatabi mono – films about gamblers or yakuza

nansensu – comic exaggeration or farce

Nihonjin-ron – studies on ‘being Japanese’

ninkyo eiga – films about yakuza gangsters

noh – the oldest form of Japanese theatre, dating back to the 14th century

Nuberu Bagu – literally the ‘Nouvelle Vague‘ or New Wave

onnagata/oyama – the female impersonators on stage and in early films (up to the late 1920s). Ichikawa Kon’s An Actor’s Revenge is about an oyama.

pink film (pinku eiga) – from the 1960s, a major development as the studios fought back against declining audiences, these softcore(but by Western standards, quite ‘extreme’) erotic films appeared in large numbers

roman-porno – softcore porn, mainly from Nikkatsu studio in the 1960s

ronin – the ‘masterless samurai’ who are often the protagonists in chambara

salaryman film – films about the vast army of Japanese white collar workers, especially from the 1950s-80s , who provided the workforce for the major corporations (see the entry on Tokyo Sonata for more discussion)

shakai-mono – the ‘social-problem’ film

shomingeki – films about lower middle-class family life (or, according to Richie, films about ‘little people’ or ‘the lower classes’)

taiyozuko – a late 1950s group of ‘juvenile delinquent films, also known as ‘sun tribe‘ films

tsuma mono – films about wives

yakuza – generic term for thug, gangster, gambler etc.

Ohayo! (Japan 1959)

Miyake Kuniko as the mother of the two boys

I watched this film on a busy train and it is a testament to Ozu Yasujirō’s art and craftmanship that I was completely enthralled as the world passed by my window. I approached the film with no preconceptions except that I presumed it to be a shomingeki of some – a drama about the lower middle-class or “people just like you or me”. I hadn’t realised it was a comedy – an earthy social comedy as well as a comedy of manners, beautifully shot of course by Atsuta Yuuharu (Ozu’s regular cinematographer) and presented in a bright colour print on the Artificial Eye DVD.

The film is described by many critics as a remake of Ozu’s I Was Born But . . . (1932). Ozu’s early work is another of the gaps in my film viewing, but Ohayo! stands up on its own for me and even if it repackages an earlier idea, it does so in a very specific production context. In many ways the film refers to the period of my childhood  with its black and white TVs and hula hoops. The setting is a ‘new build’ community on the edge of Tokyo, presumably somewhere by a river or flood plain since there is a large embankment behind the tiny houses (by UK standards) along which the children dawdle to school and the grown-ups walk briskly towards the train (ah, Ozu and his love of railways!). (I was reminded of the new dwellings being imagined at the end of Mizoguchi’s The Lady of Musashino.) There are two basic ‘plot lines’ set against an almost soap opera-like set of relationships between the housewives. In the major narrative strand, the two boys (aged roughly 7 and 13) in the Hayashi family are excited by the arrival of television in the community and they join two other boys in watching the sumo wrestling at a neighbour’s house. Their parents don’t really approve of this, especially as the neighbour is a young cabaret singer of dubious respectability. Also, the boys seem to prefer TV to doing their homework – extra English tuition with an unemployed  translator. This is the link to the second narrative strand, the possibility of a romance between the translator (who lives with his older, unmarried sister) and the boys’ young auntie who lives with them.

These two narratives both relate to the social context of the time. In the late 1950s, Japan was approaching the period of economic ‘lift-off’ but the economy still showed some signs of uneven growth after the struggle to recover from the disaster of 1945 and the subsequent Occupation. Some men are still out of work and the international success of the Japanese manufacturing companies is still to come. The translator’s sister sells Austin cars (a British make that was assembled and then transformed into a Japanese car by Nissan in the 1950s) – a sign that we are still in the period when Japanese companies were studying European and American designs before offering their own improved versions. The TV set is a marker of both the economic prosperity that is to come with advanced technology and also of the cultural changes that might ensue. Ozu’s community is otherwise traditional. The key plot device is the declaration by the two boys that they are going to refuse to speak until their parents give in and buy a TV set. This challenge proves disruptive in the community – they don’t speak at home, at school or in the street, where not saying “ohayo!” (“good morning!”) could be seen as offensive by the neighbours. In raising the importance of inconsequential, ‘polite’ speech (the boys accuse the older generation of prattling on and not saying anything), Ozu is able to link the second narrative in which the young couple meet but are afraid to speak directly about what is clear to us as an audience.

The script by Ozu with Noda Kôgo is very clever and ties together both narratives and all the themes very neatly. The IMDB comments on the film are revealing as usual. Overall the film performs very well and the Ozu fans confess that it is one of the most enjoyable of his films. However, most find it necessary to say that as a comedy it must be ‘lightweight’ or ‘not serious’. I’m with the minority who think it can be both a comedy and a serious work that captures something about humanity in time and place in a way that only a truly cinematic genius can. The other problem, for some, is the comic ‘business’ around the boys’ farting contest (which too is linked to the other stories and characters). I confess that on a noisy train, I at first didn’t hear the rather musical farts, but on a second viewing all made sense and I think the characters only become more human by doing the things we all do. Now, where’s the dried fish and miso?

Here’s the trailer:

Hasta siempre (UK/Cuba 2005)

Shooting on the streets of Havana

Hasta siempre is a 57 mins documentary produced by an independent group in Brixton, South London, that enables ordinary people in Cuba to speak about their lives and their hopes for the future. The format of the film is very simple. After a brief historical background, utilising some newsreel footage, the main body of the film comprises interviews with a variety of Cubans. There is a historian and a psychologist (one of five siblings who have had professional careers in the years since the revolution) but also older people, mothers and children, youths and middle-aged people. Two things are striking about the interviews. Firstly, most of those interviewed are Afro-Cuban. This not surprising given that the filmmakers are (I assume) from Brixton’s African-Caribbean community (or have been chosen by Brixton producers). But it does mean that this documentary corrects the under-representation of Afro-Cubans in Cuban films generally. Secondly, the interviewees are not hand-picked as supporters of the revolution. Some are critical of current conditions – others very pleased for what they have got. The most telling interviews are those in which a youth first tells us all about the problems and just when you think he’s about to say that he wishes he was in America, he asserts that he never wants to be anywhere else but Cuba. Generally, the people interviewed seem very sussed and very aware of what is at stake in Cuba and what they would lose if the current situation changes. Even some of those who are critical recognise the realities of the situation. The main negative comment is that people can’t travel and visit the US, UK, Jamaica etc.

Overall, this is a limited view of aspects of Cuban reality, but I would recommend it as an informative documentary which made me more optimistic than pessimistic about the future for Cuban socialism. The DVD is available from Rice ‘n Peas and sells in the UK for £10 – you can see extracts from the film via the link. It’s available in other currencies as well.

This YouTube clip shows the start of the film (to get a sense of how the interviews work, go to the Rice ‘n Peas page above.