Monthly Archives: August 2009

Chocolat (Fra/WGer/Cameroon 1988)

The family, France, her mother Aimée and father Marc. Does the composition suggest that Aimée ad Marc are not necessarily that close?

The family, France, her mother Aimée and father Marc. Does the composition suggest that Aimée and Marc are not necessarily that close?

Everyone I have spoken too since the release of 35 Rhums has said what a fine piece of filmmaking it is and for me it is the best film I’ve seen this year. It has made me more determined to see the rest of Claire Denis’ work.

I remember when Chocolat was released, but not why I didn’t see it at the time. I was surprised to see on IMDB that it made over $2 million at the box office in North America. But then I think there was a vogue around that time for films set in Africa (Out of Africa was a big hit in 1985). The responses suggest that people who did see Chocolat were often disappointed or confused. That doesn’t surprise me, but it is also good to see that there are several perceptive and fascinating reviews of the film (see below). Having watched the whole film now on DVD (having seen only extracts before) it strikes me that Claire Denis arrived as a filmmaker ‘fully formed’ with her first feature at age 40. Chocolat was quite clearly made by the same filmmaker who directed L’intrus and 35 Rhums. Of course, Denis was not a neophyte – she had served a long apprenticeship to directors such as Costa-Gavras and Wim Wenders (whose company helped produce Chocolat).

I can tell you about the content of the film since there is little in the way of plot or narrative in the conventional mainstream sense. As in the other films by Denis that I have seen, things happen, some of them surprising or shocking but they don’t occur in a classic cause-effect structure with a clear narrative resolution. Chocolat begins with a young, white woman on a remote tropical beach as she watches a black man and his small son splashing through the shallows. As she is walking away from the beach, the man drives up and offers her a lift. The main part of the film is then constructed as a single long flashback in which the woman, named ‘France’ remembers her childhood as the daughter of a French colonial official administering a remote region of Northern Cameroon. The little girl spends much of her time with the ‘houseboy’ Protée, a tall, strong and very beautiful young man in his twenties who is caught in a kind of no-man’s land between the house and the servant’s quarters, being neither fully ‘French’ or fully ‘African’. He is representative of the impact of colonialism and the crisis of identity. France’s father Marc is often away from the big house and an uneasy relationship exists between France’s mother Aimée (also young and beautiful) and Protée (and the other servants).

The ‘external incident’ that stirs up the household in the second half of the film is a forced landing by a French plane carrying a colonial official from another district and his new (French) wife, a planter and his female (African) servant. The plane needs a spare part in order to continue its journey and this will take several weeks to deliver. It is also necessary to prepare a runway for take-off and there is the problem that any runway will not be usable if the rains come, so there is a time pressure. The disruption also attracts another French couple and a team of African labourers amongst whom is Luc, a ‘rogue’ Frenchman who seems to be travelling across the territory and whose function in the narrative appears to be to challenge the sense of ‘order’ in the community. With all these new arrivals, there is bound to be conflict in the household. There is also a short coda in which the grown-up France has another brief exchange with the man from the beach.

If the above sounds like the plot of a colonial melodrama, it is and it isn’t. These are the elements of the colonial melodrama (which usually explores a charged emotional relationship across the taboo boundary line of coloniser/colonised) but here Denis uses the possibilities of combining the elements in a different way. The theme of the film is still sexual desire and the consequences of colonial power relationships, but not expressed through melodramatic excess. (I have commented on an extract from Chocolat used by Rona on our evening class in an earlier post.)

I’ve left out some of the narrative information from the outline above because if you do decide to see the film (Artificial Eye released the Region 2 DVD in 2005) you may want to keep some element of surprise. But I will refer to some of the background to the film. Claire Denis grew up in similar circumstances to little France, although I haven’t determined exactly where in French Africa her family was stationed in the 1950s. It may have been Cameroon or possibly Niger. The choice of Northern Cameroon for Chocolat is interesting for several reasons. Its remoteness helps the narrative in terms of isolation. It also allows Denis to make references to the ‘European’ rather than specifically French nature of colonialism in Africa. Cameroon was first colonised by the Germans and after 1918 was split into two mandated territories governed by France and Britain. The two separate colonies were reunited after independence. In Chocolat, France and Aimée are seen in a small cemetery where the German colonisers are buried. They have an English-speaking cook and they are visited by an Englishman who comes to dinner. I don’t think these are simply realist touches. Denis is not too concerned about ‘authenticity’ as such since the timescales are wrong – the older France looks to be in her late twenties in what appears to be contemporary Cameroon (i.e. the late 1980s), but the colonial narrative, in which France is seven or eight, must be at least 30 years earlier as independence in French Cameroon came in 1960.

The region used as a location is in the far North of the country, a wedge driven between Nigeria in the West and Chad in the East – land that is usually hot and dry with distinctive landscapes. It reminded me of films from Chad, but also from Mali and the rest of the Sahel further North (it’s actually not that far from the Northern tip of Cameroon to the Sahel region). I was reminded of incidents in Sembène Ousmane’s films such as in Aimée’s dismissal of a local Christian missionary in the predominantly Muslim local community and also of the visual similarities in some of Agnès Godard’s beautiful compositions, using the light against the compound walls, the long shots of the house and its inhabitants and the way characters disappeared into the dark of the surrounding night. It is the closest that I have seen a European filmmaker get to making an ‘African’ film. It is also a forerunner for the breathtaking imagery of Beau Travail (1999) located on the other side of Africa, but with similar landscapes. Landscape is an important element in the film, not least when France is told about what the horizon means by her father.

I’m not going to undertake a detailed reading of the film here, since there are already several very good reviews listed below. What I will say is that Claire Denis has become a kind of critics’ darling – both those critics who write in the specialist film magazines (she is one of the ‘visionary filmmakers’ in Sight and Sound, September 2009) and in the academy where she is a focus for both the application of contemporary theoretical writing to a body of work (such as the ideas of Gilles Deleuze) and also as a key figure in film studies within French language and cultural studies. This is great, but it would be a shame if Denis was thought of as somehow ‘difficult’ or impenetrable as a filmmaker. As long as audiences can get past their own attachment to Hollywood conventions about storytelling, Denis’ films are quite accessible on several levels with engaging and interesting situations and characters. So in Chocolat it is possible to use the film to explore how individuals and their desires are caught within the systems of taboos and restrictions of colonialism and post-colonialism. They react as functioning human beings, not as characters in a fiction, in what is a very clear-sighted representation of the worlds we all inhabit. I can’t wait to review some of the other films and find the ones I’ve missed.

There are several reviews and articles about the film and about the work of Claire Denis in general. The following are worth a look (along with the other entries tagged Claire Denis on this site):

The usually reliable Roger Ebert provides a useful way into the film without the need for a strong theoretical background.

An essay on the early work of the director from the ‘Reverseshot’ website

Detailed review of Chocolat from KinoEye

KinoEye issue focusing on the work of Claire Denis

Senses of Cinema review by Diana Sandars

Translation of an interview with Denis from French magazine, Sofa, posted on Senses of Cinema

A Guardian interview with Denis by Jonathan Romney

Interview by Darren Hughes posted on Senses of Cinema

Review of Martine Beugnet’s book on Claire Denis by John Orr on Senses of Cinema

In the course of compiling this list I came across the ultimate Claire Denis resource collection compiled by Catherine Grant at Film Studies for Free. If you are serious about accessing all the critical work, this is undoubtedly where to go.

The Indian Film Industry

The last few years have seen considerable changes in the Indian film industry and the Indian ‘filmed entertainment’ market.

The biggest innovation has been the emergence of a group of Indian media corporations, each of which has adopted a policy of developing a ‘pan-Indian’ and international presence across a range of film-related activities. Previously, companies tended to concentrate on one major market (usually Bollywood) and one or two sectors such as production or distribution, film or DVD. Now, each of the following corporations has at least announced an intention to become involved in production and distribution of films from more than one Indian language cinema. Each corporation also has interests in either film exhibition or DVD distribution as well as links to new media and television and/or music. In addition each corporation is looking to consolidate its presence overseas in both traditional and new markets for Indian filmed entertainment. Inevitably this means a number of co-production and distribution deals with Hollywood majors. In a bullish market, despite world-wide economic recession, each of these corporations promotes itself as the biggest this or that in India. One of our aims on the blog will be to try to follow what these corporations get up to and how they are influencing the changes in India’s film environment.

UMP (UTV Motion Pictures) – part of UTV Media

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This group has been one of the most prominent in developing partnerships with Hollywood companies as well as seeing opportunities in relationships with independent companies. It helped produce and distribute Mira Nair’s The Namesake in India and supports Farhan Akhtar’s Excel Entertainment. UMP was the first Indian company to announce that it had set up  a ‘Western-style’ studio production system  in 2007 and an Indian-wide distribution system. The company has long-term deals with both Disney and Fox Searchlight and has started a second production brand, UTV Spotboy for projects outside Bollywood. It has also recently introduced a ‘World Cinema’ channel on Indian television.

Yash Raj Films

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The company headed by veteran Hindi Cinema producer Yash Chopra (a leading figure in Hindi film since the 1960s) has developed from a production company formed in 1973 into a fully-fledged studio operation with distribution in India and worldwide in both film and DVD and also in music. Yash Raj and Eros have competed for top spot in NRI markets in the UK and the US since the 1990s.

Eros Entertainment – part of Eros International

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Alongside Yash Raj, Eros is another company with a long history in distribution and has been especially important in distributing Hindi Cinema outside India in Europe and North America since the 1970s. In 2008, Ayngaran, the principal distributor of Tamil films outside India, became part of Eros International, increasing the spread of Eros’ operations significantly.

Reliance Big Entertainment Ltd. (RBEL)

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Part of Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group and also trading as Adlabs, this company derives from the empire built up by Dhirubhai Ambani, starting from textiles and growing to encompass many of India’s major industrial sectors

Moser Baer Entertainment

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Part of Moser Baer India Ltd, a global technology company that only moved into filmed entertainment in 2006. As the ‘second biggest manufacturer of optical media in the world, the company has attempted to establish itself as the No 1 provider of DVD and VCD filmed entertainment in India with low-cost disks in every Indian language – with up to 10,000 titles planned for release. The company is now also involved in film production.

Pyramid Saimira Group

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This Chennai-based group is involved in every aspect of filmed entertainment, including cinema exhibition, catering, music etc. It is involved in production and has a presence in five overseas markets as well as India (China, US, UK, Malaysia and Singapore).

If we’ve missed out an important company, let us know.

Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001)

Luisa, Tenoch and Julio at the big society wedding where the boys meet their travelling companion (having humiliated her husband).

Luisa, Tenoch and Julio at the big society wedding where the boys meet their travelling companion (having humiliated her husband).

(These notes were first published in 2004)

Introduction

Y tu mamá también is an accessible and enjoyable film from Mexico (providing that viewers have no problems with the graphic presentation of the sex lives of the characters).

On one level, the film is a mix of familiar genres – ‘road movie’, ‘coming of age’/youth movie and melodrama. But on another level it is a social commentary on Mexican culture. Never didactic, the filmmakers manage to subtly introduce this commentary via the development of a set of very specific aesthetic devices.

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Carlos Cuarón and starring Gael García Bernal (as Julio), Diego Luna (as Tenoch) and Maribel Verdú (as Luisa).

Outline synopsis

(These notes assume familiarity with the narrative, so there are SPOILERS embedded.)

Julio and Tenoch are young men in Mexico City who are about to see off their girlfriends who are travelling in Europe. Stuck for something to do for the Summer, they decide on a road trip to find the mythical ‘magic beach’ known as ‘Heaven’s Mouth”. At a family wedding they meet Luisa an older woman from Spain who is married to Tenoch’s cousin – and seemingly unhappy with her lot. To their great surprise, she agrees to accompany them on their trip. The boys compete to seduce Luisa, who is far more experienced than either of them. After a series of adventures, they arrive at the coast and become friendly with a local fisherman and his family. There is a twist at the the end of the tale and an epilogue when the boys meet again after the first year of their degree courses.

Mexican cinema

‘Latin American cinema’ has a long history featuring periods of both commercial and artistic success. Compared to other parts of the world outside Europe and North America, Latin American culture is influenced by three distinctive factors:

  • the close proximity of the US to Mexico and the American assumption that all of Central and South America is a ‘US sphere of influence’;
  • Spanish as a common language (apart from Portuguese in Brazil and other languages in the Caribbean islands) and the lasting influence of Spanish cultural achievements;
  • independence from European colonial powers in the 19th century, but issues about the persecution/assimilation of ‘Native Americans’, still sometimes referred to as ‘Indians’ or in Mexico as Amerindians.

The three largest countries, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, have had the biggest presence in film production (although Cuba ‘punches above its weight’ and Bolivia has produced at least one major filmmaker).

Mexico had a major industry in the 1940s, producing genre films such as family melodramas, musicals and action pictures. At the time of the Hollywood studio system, Mexico produced stars who appeared in both Mexican and Hollywood films – Dolores del Rio, Pedro Armendáriz – and others who were big stars within Mexico. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mexico was recognised internationally, because of the artistic success of the exiled Spanish director Luis Buñuel. Up until the last ten years, only a handful of other Mexican directors have been granted limited distribution in art cinemas in the UK.

Much of the commercial energy and the attention of the popular audience in Mexico has been diverted towards television since the late 1950s. Mexico is a big producer of telenovelas – popular television serials, similar to US/UK soap operas, but with stronger genre links to romance and melodrama. These programmes attract very large and enthusiastic audiences. They are also exported (along with similar series made in Brazil and Columbia), not only to other parts of Latin America, but also to Africa and the Middle East. This is a clear indication of the potential of Mexican production. In cinema, however, Mexican audiences have largely turned to American films which, as in most countries, take 80% or more of local box office.

The recent resurgence of Mexican cinema as ‘global cinema’ – i.e. significant circulation of a film in different markets across the world – centres on the work of three youngish directors, Guillermo del Torro (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and American films such as Mimic, Blade 2 and Hellboy), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros (Mex 2000), 21 Grams (US 2003)) and the director of Y tu mamá también, Alfonso Caurón (who also directed the third Harry Potter film). All three now live in the US. Nevertheless, they claim (supported by critics) to have made the most definitively ‘Mexican’ films of recent years. In other words, they make films that are not pale genre copies of Hollywood films, but instead offer representations of life in a Mexico that its inhabitants recognise.

The Spanish connection has been important to Mexico. Spanish has long overtaken French as a major world language (alongside Arabic, Mandarin and English) and this increases the market potential of Spanish language culture. There is the possibility of Spanish co-productions and also the exchange of actors and production crews.

The political context for filmmaking is also important in Mexico. In 2000 the Mexican electorate finally voted to oust the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had held power since 1929. The new president, Vincente Fox, represented a new beginning. Fox may have turned out to be something other than what the voters first thought, but his election couldn’t help but change the outlook of most of the population.

In fact, Fox is a conservative, akin to the Republican Party in the US. He has opened up Mexico to both the US and global capital. A truly radical political force does still exist in Mexico in the form of the Zapatistas, the rebels in the Chiapas region of Mexico, close to the border with Guatemala. Naming themselves after Emiliano Zapata, the leader of the 1911 Revolution, the rebels have proved themselves to be adept at low-key but effective organisation and action in resisting the ‘neo-liberalism’ of the multinational corporations.

Genre and Y tu mamá también

One of the ways in which the film works is to set up expectations based on generic conventions, only to confound and surprise the audience in the final act of the narrative.

The road movie

The basic narrative structure of Y tu mamá también is that of the road movie, one of the prime cinematic genres – i.e. a genre developed within the context of cinema, not borrowed from another media form.

A road movie is based around a journey – in its classical form, a journey by motor vehicle across the continent. The journey will require stopovers in strange, usually small town, communities before ending with an arrival at some kind of defining location. The journey is akin to a form of ‘quest’, with the heroes acting as ‘knights of the road’. The thematic of the road movie tends to be ambiguous in that characters are either running away or searching for something new – often at the same time. The journey means that they will have new experiences and meet new people and both of these will set challenges for the heroes. The new situations will also test the relationship between two characters who might think that they know each other very well. At some point in the journey, the characters will find out something about themselves.

In terms of iconography and style, road movies are characterised by certain restrictions on camerawork – either the camera shows relatively close framings of the characters in the car or it shows long shots of the car travelling across the landscape.

Shots of the road are inevitably accompanied by music. Easy Rider (US 1969) was one of the first successful ‘modern’ road movies. The box office success of this low budget film encouraged producers to produce similar films and also to look for music tie-ins. Easy Rider was one of the first Hollywood films to come with a soundtrack album of rock songs, most of which were not written with the film in mind. Ever since, road trips, especially for younger characters, have been accompanied by ‘driving’ music, often guitar-based with lyrics celebrating the ‘freedom of the open road’.

The youth/‘coming of age’ movie

The emergence of the ‘teenager’ as a new marketing concept in the US in the early 1950s coincided with the decline in Hollywood’s traditional family audience. Young people were the new audience and films were made to target them directly – hence the ‘youth movie’ (often shown in the new drive-in cinemas).

Youth pictures are not just a Hollywood phenomenon. Youth culture is central to the export of American consumerist culture and encompasses music and fashion as well as cinema and videogames, the internet etc. The ‘youth picture’ could be argued as a generic category, but it is a broad category within which there are several distinct groupings. One is the so-called ‘coming of age’ film in which a boy or girl goes through a form of, usually sexual, initiation into adulthood. The road trip provides the perfect opportunity for the staging of this narrative – freedom from parental control and the restrictions of school and the excitement of new places to see, new people to meet etc. There is also a time limit on the story – the trip must end in time for the youths to go on to university – and this provides some of the narrative tension.

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Luisa and Tenoch

Social comedy

Another sub-group of the youth movie is the ‘teen comedy’. In the female variant of this narrative, the comedy is ‘romantic’ and centres on the obstacles in the path of true love in the romantic comedy. In the male variant the focus is much more likely to be whether or not the lead characters can find the way to lose their virginity. The young men of Y tu mamá también are certainly not virgins (although they are in some ways still ‘innocent’). However, the narrative they inhabit does at first glance appear to have been plucked from the pages of a lad’s mag – the fantasy of an ‘older woman’ on the road trip and the possibility that she might sleep with one or other, or both, of the youths. The comedy comes from the fact that although the youths can fantasise, they have little idea about how to deal with the reality of the narrative events and inevitably make mistakes in their social behaviour.

Political commentary

The least likely generic reference would seem to be ‘political film’ – but this is precisely what the critical consensus on Y tu mamá también suggests. This is partly down to the director Alfonso Cuarón himself, who has spoken about his own experiences as a teenager in Mexico City in the 1970s (he was born in 1961). Cuarón recalls seeing the films of Jean-Luc Godard in ciné clubs and suggests that this is where the idea of the voiceover commentary comes from. He makes specific reference to Masculin féminin and Bande à part. Godard, one of the most important directors associated with the ‘French New Wave’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s made films that were avant-garde in terms of both aesthetics (how they used sound and image) and, increasingly in the 1960s, revolutionary politics.

The voiceovers in Y tu mamá también, as Edward Lawrenson suggests, tend to give an air of melancholy to the film, often commenting on death – something unconsidered by the teenagers, but an important element of the narrative. But it is another aspect of the voiceovers and the general aesthetic of the film that reveals its political sub-text. Cuarón takes care with his camera to reveal to the audience the ‘other Mexico’ through which the boys travel and which most of the time, they fail to properly see.

Tenoch and Julio are both, by Mexican standards very well off. Mexico has a large population (over 100 million), most of whom live in urban areas. This means that in many parts of what is a large country the rural population is sparse – and poor. The per capita income in Mexico is something like a quarter of that in the UK and Canada and perhaps one fifth of that in the US – one of the reasons why the inclusion of Mexico in the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) with the US and Canada is such a contentious issue. (Economists debate what the effects might be, but clearly these are not ‘equal’ trading partners.) Mexico is characterised by a small wealthy middle class and a large working class, many of whom have moved to Mexico City to look for work. This is the subject of the ‘commentary’ about the worker who is killed crossing the road in order to save time getting to work.

The division by social class is mirrored by the ethnic divisions in the country. The largest ethnic group in Mexico (around 60%) is classified as mestizo or ‘mixed’. These are people who are the descendants of intermarriage between Europeans (predominantly Spanish) and the local Amerindian peoples of Central America. The Amerindians themselves make up some 30% of the Mexican population. ‘Europeans’ make up 9%, leaving 1% to cover all other groups. The 9% of Europeans make up the Mexican middle class. On this basis, the decision by his parents to name ‘Tenoch’ after an Aztec chieftain who founded what is now Mexico City is a calculated attempt to assert ‘Mexican-ness’. The Aztecs were from North Mexico and they dominated the Southern Maya people before the arrival of the Spanish. A name like ‘Tenoch’ could be provocative for the people of Southern Mexico (especially in Chiapas, the state that is home to the Zapatistas).

Julio and Tenoch are themselves separated by a class division. Julio lives with his mother and sister who both work. Tenoch has a father who is an important politician and he lives in a grand house with a maid (who was also Tenoch’s nanny). This rift between the boys is central to the narrative.

The journey undertaken by the boys is from cosmopolitan Mexico City, south west towards the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. This is a movement from urban to rural, from sophisticated to ‘simple’, from rich to poor and from European to Amerindian. The film shows the two boys to be almost oblivious to the changing environment, but the camera and the voiceovers mean that the audience is constantly invited to notice the discrepancy between the rich boys’ internal world and the realities outside.

David Heuser (see website reference) offers a fascinating analysis of the film which he reads as a commentary on the impossibility of Mexico getting the kind of government that he thinks it deserves. In this analysis, Tenoch and Julio are representative of the two main political forces in Mexico (the upper class and the lower middle class – the ‘bourgeoisie’). Their obsession with selfish (sexual) demands prevents them from recognising what they could achieve through co-operation. For Heuser, the car represents Mexico and Luisa represents the possibilities of European-style government. Once she takes over, the goal of the journey, ‘Heaven’s Mouth’, becomes real, not a myth – just as the political goals of the country could become achievable. However, when the boys leave their tent, the pigs (i.e. the peasants) run amok, ‘proving’ to the boys that the peasantry can’t be trusted. When they wake up in bed together, the boys are horrified – they can’t face the prospect of being together. When Luisa dies the experiment has come to an end. This is a detailed and quite convincing reading.

In an interview on the DVD, director Cuarón says the film is about ‘identity’, for Luisa, for the boys and for the country. He says Mexico is a teenage country that still needs to find its identity. He also confirms that the names of the characters refer directly to Mexican history. Luisa is a ‘Cortés’ – the name of the original Spanish conqueror (‘conquistador’) of Mexico. Tenoch is an ‘Iturbide’ – the name of one of the early political leaders of revolutionary Mexico who wanted to become President. Julio is named Zapata – the name of the great revolutionary fighter (from whom the contemporary ‘Zapatistas’ take their name).

The voiceovers in the narrative structure

The narrator’s voice appears roughly twenty times during the film (more frequently in the first half). The function of the voiceover is to do three things. First, it tells us the important information about the backgrounds of Julio and Tenoch, their families and their girlfriends. This enables us to make a ‘reading’ of the characters and place them accurately in the Mexican class structure. Cuarón argues that giving this kind of detail in his Hollywood films proved impossible, but here it adds a great deal to our understanding.

The second purpose is to reveal to the audience things that Julio and Tenoch do not know about each other and also to show aspects of Luisa’s behaviour that the boys don’t notice. A good example of this is when the car breaks down and Luisa buys a doll from a local woman because it has her name. The voiceover tells us that she is thinking about the doll when she passes a funeral procession for a child. This links to later scenes by the beach when she plays with the fisherman’s children. Finally the voiceover tells us that she left the doll to the fisherman’s daughter. Throughout the film Luisa is much more aware of the lives of people around her – in contrast to the boys who are interested only in themselves. Another good example is when the car is stopped by a group from a small village and the boys are asked for money for the village queen. Only Luisa looks at the young woman. (Yet a little while earlier they have passed the village where Tenoch’s nanny was born.)

The third purpose of the voiceover is to tell us about characters who are either peripheral to the story (like Chuy, the fisherman) or completely outside the boys’ story. These are comments on the lives of Mexico’s rural/migrant poor. Further examples include the migrant worker killed crossing the street and the road accident which is marked by a roadside shrine. As well as these incidents, the voiceover reminds us of the political changes in Mexico. This stealthy political comment is also taken up in the cinematography and mise en scène.

Camera and mise en scène

The camerawork is an integral part of the overall ‘feel’ of the film. It is fluid but not overly expressive. Much of the time, scenes are shown in relative long shot, e.g. in the two scenes when Luisa seduces the boys. The central three characters are in the frame together inside the car for long periods. Organising this when they are driving in the car is quite difficult and sometimes requires a distorting wide angle lens. If it is not peering into the car, the camera is often showing the car in long shot, from in front or behind on the road itself or at an angle from the road. Alternatively, the camera looks out of the car windows at the countryside passing by. It is the shifting balance between these kinds of shots which slowly begins to show the audience more about the conditions of the local people.

In the early part of the journey, the camera is mostly focusing on the trio, but there are several instances, often in conjunction with the voiceover, when it manages to capture what is happening at the edges of the frame, or just out of the frame in which the boys are appearing. The best example of this is in the scene when the trio arrive for their first overnight stay in a country hotel. As they are about to order food, the camera leaves the party and follows one of the family in the hotel into a back room and then on into the kitchen where the family are eating and getting on with their busy lives.

A second example comes a little later when a discussion about sex in the car is undercut when the camera peers out of the car window to notice a pick-up truck carrying two armed police overtaking. Further on down the road the camera again peers out of the car, ignoring the trio who are too engrossed to notice a shot of the armed police who seem to be arresting a group of farmers selling their produce at the roadside. There are several other examples of the repression carried out by police at roadblocks etc., all passed without a sideways glance by the boys in the car.

Popular culture

The political commentary in the film is not recognised by every audience (in fact, it is probably recognised by a small minority in audiences outside Mexico). Some critics have lambasted the film because it panders to American teen culture. It has been described as mirroring American Pie or Dude, Where’s My Car? Although there are some obvious similarities with these films, both the tone and the look of the Mexican film are quite different.

The interaction with American culture is also more complicated than simple acceptance of the dominance of American forms. Xan Brooks quotes Paul Julian Smith on the way that the language used by the boys – ‘chilango’ a kind of ‘Mexican youth speak’ – is quite distinctive. As is the music, much of which is a form of ‘Mexican style’ Anglo-American music – made either by Mexican bands or Hispanic bands in the US. Other tracks are European rock or more traditional Mexican music. (A complete soundtrack listing is available on the Internet Movie Database entry for the film.)

An example of how music ‘codes’ the changing world through which the car travels comes at the point where the portable tape player runs down because the batteries are fading. The boys have been playing American or Mexican rock, but now as the political struggles in the world outside the car become more apparent, the music on the soundtrack becomes more ‘local’ or more ‘roots’ as it must be derived from local radio stations. As the soundtrack switches to this rootsier music of accordions, the world outside becomes more alien – the boys’ car is hemmed in by cattle and they react angrily. Later they have to be towed to a garage behind an ox cart.

The stars

The success of the film is partly down to its young stars, especially Gael García Bernal. Bernal (born 1978) had already shot Amores Perros when he began work on Y tu mamá también. He was a child actor in a soap on Mexican TV and came to London to study acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Since Y tu mamá también, he has appeared in other Mexican and Spanish films, but 2004 has seen two major releases which have confirmed his status as perhaps the hottest young star in World Cinema. Bad Education (directed by Pedro Almodóvar) and The Motorcycle Diaries in which Bernal plays a young Che Guevera both offer interesting comparisons to Y tu mamá también, especially Motorcycle Diaries as it is another Latin American road movie with a political sub-text. Screen International (9/9/04) recognised Bernal as one of the few stars who can expect to be successful in Hollywood and in both Spanish and Mexican films (the large and growing Spanish speaking population inside the United States will also help. Diego Luna (born 1979) has a similar background, again starting as a child star on Mexican television. He has also appeared in several Hollywood films, notably in the lead for Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004) and Goal, (2005).

Rudo y cursi (2008) directed by Carlos Cuarón and starring Bernal and Luna is a kind of companion piece to Y tu mamá.

Questions for discussion

1. Find some examples in the film of the youths acting in ways similar to those found in American ‘teen movies’ – how are these scenes ‘undercut’ by local, Mexican cultural differences?

2. Find examples of the ‘voiceover’ technique in the film – including each of the three types discussed in these notes. For each example, analyse what is being shown by the camera and mise en scène during the voiceover. How do sound and image work together?

3. How do the representations of the two boys differ in the film? Is it purely a difference in social class?

4. How do you read Luisa’s role in the narrative? How much is the ending of the film similar to the ‘twist’ in Hollywood films?

References

Jose Arroyo (2002) Review of Y tu mamá también in Sight and Sound, April

A. G. Basoli (2002) ‘Sexual Awakenings and Stark Social Realities: Interview with Alfonso Cuarón on Y tu mamá también’ in Cineaste Vol XXVII No3, June

Xan Brooks (2002) on http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4463899,00.html, accessed 8/8/04

David Heuser on http://music.utsa.edu/electron/YTuMama.htm, accessed 8/8/04

Edward Lawrenson (2002) Interview with Alfonso Cuarón, in Sight and Sound, April

Paul Julian Smith (2002) ‘Heaven’s Mouth’ in Sight and Sound, April

All text in these notes © 2004 Roy Stafford/itp publications unless otherwise indicated. Images from Y tu mamá también © Icon

Daughters of Darkness (Les lèvres rouges, Bel/Fra/West Germany 1971)

Andrea Rau as the vampire's 'companion'

Andrea Rau as the vampire's 'companion'

I imported this DVD from the US. The 2003 disc from Blue Underground is NTSC but coded Region 0. I was following up a suggestion from Stephen when I was discussing Let the Right One In and looking for different European takes on the vampire film.

Directed by the Belgian Harry Kümel, the film is a European co-production filmed in English with all the actors delivering their own dialogue. This gives an intriguing flavour to the exchanges. The date suggests an affinity with the more extreme end of European horror cinema, but I found this to be much more subtle and less sensational than, for instance, Dario Argento (which is not a criticism of Argento). The casting coup in acquiring Delphine Seyrig for the central role is the key to the film’s success. She is breathtaking in every way.

The film belongs, in one sense to the cycle of lesbian vampire films at the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s. I confess that I avoided these at the time, though I remember some critical attention paid to this title and director. Seyrig plays the iconic character of these films – Countess Elizabeth Bathory who allegedly killed 800 virgins for their blood. This time, the ageless Countess is touring Belgium with her young companion, leaving in her wake a number of drained corpses of young women. When the couple arrive in Winter in the deserted seaside resort of Ostende, they are delighted that the isolated hotel on the promenade has only two other guests – a young couple in the honeymoon suite, supposedly waiting for a ferry to the UK (although the young man seems very reluctant to catch it). Now their fate is sealed.

The seaside setting is very well-used. The wind-swept dunes and the dark building looming out of the night is the perfect Gothic setting. The only other location of note is Bruges which the young couple visit, only to stumble across the police discovery of another body. This sequence was so reminiscent of Don’t Look Now that I couldn’t help thinking that Nic Roeg must have seen it. The old medieval town with canals and narrow streets just cries out for fleeting glimpses of figures rounding the corner or the slow passage of the dead carried on a stretcher. Seaside and canals – there is something about the water’s edge as a signifier of moving into another world.

Large empty hotels are also disturbing environments and Kümel and his team are inventive with decor and costume. The first two-thirds of the film moves quite slowly, but the last third is action-packed. There is an interesting essay on the film in Jump Cut, arguing that the film offers itself up to a feminist reading. This is well-argued and pretty convincing. The young man is quite a problematic character and the narrative certainly tends towards sympathy with the three women.

I’m getting increasingly interested in the way in which vampire films play with the ‘rules’ of the genre. Daughters of Darkness utilises the fear of the light and running water and exploits the role of the vampire’s servant/companion played nicely here by the German Andrea Rau, who is interviewed in the DVD Extras. It must have been a nice change from her usual roles in German sex films. It’s interesting that although there is a fair amount of nudity including ‘full frontal’ shots of Rau in Daughters, the most erotic moments are probably associated with Seyrig’s gentle caresses and beautifully delivered suggestive dialogue. The role of the companion seems more complex in this film as there is a sense of her own desire as well as of ‘service’ to her mistress. On the other hand, the role of the ‘vampire hunter’ in the narrative is more peripheral than usual – perhaps this is an attempt to implicate the audience with the hunter figure much more of a voyeur than an active agent.

This is certainly a horror film to watch again in terms of its take on the vampire genre.

Moon (UK 2008)

Sam Rockwell as the sole worker at the Moon base.

Sam Rockwell as the sole worker at the Moon base.

Moon is a film that I feel that I should like, but halfway through I thought “I’m just not enjoying this”. Afterwards, I couldn’t work out what was bugging me and so I conclude that the problem is with me and not the film.

I should like it because it is a deliberate attempt to recreate the look and feel of the ‘hard SF films’ from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The filmmakers, writer-director Duncan Jones and scriptwriter Nathan Parker, name their inspirations as Silent Running (1972), Outland (1981), Blade Runner (1982) and Alien (1979). For Nick and myself I think the references were Dark Star (1974) and Solaris (1972 and 2002) and everybody else has mentioned 2001 (1968). I’ve also seen a reference to Android (1982) somewhere.

The narrative is based on a simple premise. Some time in the future, Earth has turned to a form of fusion energy that involves mining something on the Moon (I think we were told what, but I don’t remember). Sam is coming to the end of his three year shift when things start to go wrong. He sets off to investigate why one of the automatic mining machines is not fulfilling its quota. He has an accident and wakes up in the sick bay where the ship’s computer (voiced by Kevin Spacey) is solicitous. How did he get back to the sick bay? Is he seeing things in the lunar base?

The best things about the film are the tawdry surroundings of the base and the effective characterisation of Sam Rockwell. There isn’t anything particularly original, but it works well as a genre film.

The really interesting question is how did this low budget (by US standards) film manage to find $5 million without funding from the usual UK sources and then go on to make an impression at Sundance and get a US release (where it has made more than $4 million so far – with more than $1 million in the UK)? Duncan Jones aka Zowie Bowie obviously has the right American friends and contacts (including Clint Mansell, the composer associated with Darren Aronofsky). However, he is clearly a talented filmmaker and deserves a break.

Interesting background on the film can be found here:

http://www.indiewire.com/article/man_on_the_moon_duncan_jones_details_his_sci-fi_debut/

Ironically, the most ‘British’ aspect of this film is the use of Kevin Spacey’s voice for the computer. This teaser trailer gives a good idea of the film.

Spike Lee Joint 1: He Got Game (US 1997)

Denzel Washington and Ray Allen as Jake and Jesus Shuttlesworth.

Denzel Washington and Ray Allen as Jake and Jesus Shuttlesworth.

Spike Lee has often referred to his own obsession with the ‘Knicks’ basketball team in New York, so it isn’t a surprise that he decided to make a film about basketball. ‘Sports films’ constitute a familiar genre in Hollywood, but they are often concerned with American sports that relatively few people worldwide actually understand (i.e. baseball and American football). Basketball is played in most countries but not in a professional way like it is with the NBA in the US. Although we don’t really understand these American sports, Hollywood generally simplifies them enough to turn a sporting event into a familiar cinematic dramatic narrative. This usually means that the film has little credibility with sports fans since it lacks authenticity either in the storyline or the presentation of the action on screen. Fortunately He Got Game is not a Hollywood movie, so it does something else.

I suggest that it isn’t a Hollywood movie, even though it stars Denzel Washington, by the late 1990s an A List star, and was released by Touchstone, a Disney Brand. The-Numbers.com suggests that the production budget of the film was $25 million which signifies a medium budget picture. What this means to me is that this was one of those Spike Lee blags in which he persuades a studio to cough up money and then produces something different to what the studio expects – the film opened at No 1 on 1,300 screens but died fairly quickly for a $21 million US box office gross. It does, however, have a following of sorts.

Hollywood narratives are usually linear and goal-centred, so sports films tend to feature a number of games/performances culminating in winning a championship contest. He Got Game ends with a contest of sorts, but there are no conventional sports contests. Instead this is a film about the commercialisation and professionalisation of sport in the US, its place in African-American culture and specifically in the father-son relationship within the African-American family. The generic narrative is actually drawn from the prison movie. Denzel Washington plays Jake Shuttlesworth apparently in prison (Attica) for a long stretch. He practises his basketball technique in the prison yard in order to keep fit and one day he is called into the warden’s office to be made an astounding offer. He will be released on special leave for a short period in order to persuade his son, Jesus, to enrol at ‘Big State’. Jesus has been named as the No 1 high school basketball player in the country and his enrolment is being sought by all the big basketball schools. The warden is intent on pleasing the governor, who is backing Big State. When Jake agrees to the ‘mission’ (after assurance that success could shorten his sentence) we begin to learn, via series of flashbacks, why he is in prison and how Jesus came to be such a star player. The time limit is the date by which Jesus must make a decision – only a few days away. Will he make the right decision? I won’t reveal what happens, but needless to say, there must be dramatic tension, which I don’t think is released in the most conventional way.

One of the strengths of Spike Lee’s filmmaking is cinematography and visual design and another is music. The opening to He Got Game is stunning in every way. If you didn’t know already, you would quickly be convinced that Lee loves basketball and wishes to place it on a pedestal as the ultimate American game – to mythologise it as Richard Falcon in Sight and Sound suggests. (‘He Got Game’ appears to be a complimentary remark confirming that someone can really play the game.) The camerawork by Malik Hassan Sayeed, who worked on several Lee films in the 1990s, draws on documentary styles and allied to the use of Aaron Copland’s music on the soundtrack it presents a series of beautiful images of street and on court basketball across the US and in and around Coney Island. The film’s aesthetic is constructed around a seeming contradiction. Although all the basketball footage is highly stylised – the ball is often in slow motion – there is also a strong thread of cinematic realism. Coney Island is the Shuttlesworth home and the Abraham Lincoln High School is a real school – one of the best-known and most successful public schools in America. Not being a fan of classical music, I also wasn’t aware that Aaron Copland is in many ways an appropriate composer to use in scoring the film. Copland was another Brooklyn boy who ‘done good’ – an intriguing figure, Jewish, gay and a socialist according to the Wikipedia entry. On the soundtrack, the Copland pieces are mainly used for the basketball moments and contrasted with Public Enemy used for the home life of Jesus. I was also intrigued by Lee’s use of the unusual name Shuttlesworth for the central characters. Doing a bit of internet research I came up with one of the highly honoured leaders of the Civil Rights movement, Fred Shuttlesworth (born 1922). I’m sure that isn’t a coincidence. (The naming of ‘Jesus’ is explained in the narrative and has a similar resonance in terms of the treatment of Black sports stars – Lee’s original motivation to make a sports film was the story of the Black baseball player Jackie Robinson who ‘broke the colour barrier’.)

This symbolism/realism also carries through to the discourse about the commercialisation of basketball. Jesus watches himself on television and we are offered a range of TV clips featuring the various coaches who praise Jesus. Lee’s critique of TV journalism pre-figures his attacks in Bamboozled and he can’t resist pushing the jokes as far as possible, so that one of the funniest scenes in the movie sees another Spike Lee regular, John Turturro, as a coach welcoming Jesus into his enormous basketball stadium with a montage of Jesus images on the big screen monitors, many taken from Denys Arcand’s Jésus of Montréal (Canada/France 1989) – a film itself satirising media images of the crucifixion.

The problem for Lee is how to meld his paean to basketball and satire on commercial sports to a family melodrama involving a father in prison. This is where he has to use the powerful star image of Washington – which he does very well with Denzel turning in a great performance, even with an Afro that seems rather dated. I confess that I’m not an historian of hair styles and I can’t remember when this style disappeared, but I’m assuming that it signifies how ‘out of touch’ Jake is (though he seems very aware of the latest model of Air Jordans in the shoe shop – Lee has had several commissions from Nike). Washington is both zen-like, gentle and vulnerable, crumpled even, but also hard and vicious as the occasion demands. I think he also works well with Ray Allen, a ‘real’ basketball star without acting experience who plays Jesus.

There are good and bad reviews of the film. The ones that suggest Lee only deals in stereotypes really piss me off. On the contrary, Lee always picks out interesting Black families with characters who live in real places doing believable things. Jesus is not a stereotypical Hollywood Black youth. He is a basketball player (all the basketball plays are ‘real’ not simulated) and a boy who has, understandably turned against his father. His little sister is that rare thing in American cinema, a believable child torn between brother, a surrogate father and her real Dad.

The film is not without its flaws. As usual, unfortunately, Spike’s writing for women seems less developed than for the male characters and I can’t really see why the film needed its sex scenes to be presented in such detail. Presumably both Jake and Jesus had to be seen having sex with prostitutes to emphasise the father-son similarities and possible differences (i.e. in the circumstances in which they found themselves). One of the better reviews (from a fan) suggests that there are many matching shots of the son and the father doing similar things. The film is also too long at 134 minutes – but apart from trimming a few scenes, I don’t think I could see where to cut it significantly. Finally, there is the race question. From one line of dialogue and the brief appearance of Jesus’ mother in a flashback, I gathered that Spike wanted to say something about mixed marriages, but I couldn’t work out what.

The film is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it and worth watching again to savour the basketball scenes with the Copland music.

Here’s the trailer – quite good at suggesting rather than revealing the narrative, I think:

and here is part of the opening sequence:

Well, do you want to watch the rest?

Those Spike Lee Joints

The home of 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. Photo © Sparkdance as shown on Flickr

The home of 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. Photo © Sparkdance as shown on Flickr

It’s twenty years since the release of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (it feels a lot longer, not sure why). The BFI is celebrating the occasion with a season on the Southbank in London and we are also going to get some screenings up here in Bradford. I’m also planning a course, so it seems a good idea to revisit the work of Spike Lee, one of the most controversial directors working today. I’ve seen most, but not all, of Lee’s features so I’ve got some catching up to do and some re-viewings. I’m not qualified to judge how well he represents African-American culture, though I feel like I’ve learned a lot from his films. Although race is a major topic for him, his films are also about gender, social class, the family and a host of other issues. Most of all though he is a stylist and I think that his films are distinctive because of their visual qualities, the use of music and great casting. Lee is a genuine auteur. There are few filmmakers whose work is instantly  recognisable from their company’s name. But when you see the announcement that a film is from ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks‘, you know that it is a Spike Lee Joint, sho’ nuff.

I’d have to say that I haven’t yet seen a bad Spike Lee film or perhaps more accurately, I haven’t yet seen a Spike Lee film that wasn’t interesting in terms of style, content and commitment. I know that there are commentators that I respect, such as Armond White, who are very down on Spike and accuse him of blocking out other more worthwhile filmmakers because of his vigorous self-promotion and propensity to ‘say it like it is’ as loudly as possible – but even when I don’t necessarily agree with him, I think it is better that he is out there saying things than keeping schtumm.

Spike Lee was born in 1957 in Atlanta but grew up in Brooklyn, New York City. He went back to college in Atlanta at the famous Black school, Morehouse, before developing his filmmaking skills back in New York at the Tisch School a couple of years behind Jim Jarmusch. Lee’s father is a noted jazz musician and composer and his mother was a teacher. His father has worked on the music for several of Lee’s films and his family life has clearly influenced his filmmaking.

In 1986, Lee’s first ‘commercial’ feature She’s Gotta Have It, a low budget independent film, was one of the earliest successes of what became known as American Independent Cinema. Since then, Lee has been continuously working on fiction features, documentaries, TV dramas, music videos and commercials, all produced by his own company. As of August 2009, Lee had released 20 features (fiction and documentary) and another 20 TV/video/commercials etc. This is a staggering achievement given the conservative nature of the mainstream American film business and the forthright arguments put forward by producer/writer/director/actor Spike Lee. This hasn’t prevented major features like the last Spike Lee Joint, the Miracle at Santa Anna (2008) from failing to get a proper release outside North America. Personally, I find it difficult to imagine what the winning documentaries must have been like that prevented Lee’s 4 Little Girls (1997) and When the Levées Broke (2006) from claiming Oscar success. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised given the commercial failure of Bamboozled (2000), the biting satire on the racism in American television. In the same year, Lee had a big commercial success with a documentary/concert film featuring four African-American comedians, The Original Kings of Comedy. Lee is tough and sharp when it comes to surviving in the American film industry. It would be good to discuss what we think his films have contributed to global film culture over twenty years and more.

I would put Spike Lee into my Top 10 American filmmakers of the last twenty years without hesitation.