Monthly Archives: December 2009

My Year in the Cinema

This year has been my most productive in terms of cinema visits for a long time. Not counting multiple screenings of films for study events, I managed 75 screenings this year. One notable aspect of this was the relatively small number of Hollywood films in the list – only 13 titles and of these only three mainstream studio films. Star Trek was OK but watching a digital blow-up on an IMAX screen didn’t win me over to the new Hollywood action cinema. Gran Torino made me angry and Public Enemies was always interesting but in the end rather flat. The other American films were archive prints or new independents. There were the same number of British films and also a similar number of French and Hispanic films (Spain, Mexico and Cuba). So, two-thirds of all the films that I saw in cinemas came from four main industries. Partly this was because I taught courses on the French New Wave and attended screenings celebrating 50 years of the Cuban Revolution, but it is also a reflection on the limited numbers of films from other major producers that get significant distribution opportunities in the UK. So, for instance, I missed the one Korean film that got a significant release in the last year (The Good, The Bad and The Weird).

Here are some of my picks from what I saw at the cinema this year.

The ‘best’ film: 35 Rhums (Claire Denis, France/Germany 2008). No contest really.

The runners-up: Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden 2008), Tokyo Sonata (Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Japan/Neth/HK 2008), Bright Star (Jane Campion, UK/France/Australia 2009), Looking For Eric (Ken Loach, UK/France/Italy/Belgium/Spain 2009), Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey 2008)

Best first-time feature: Shifty (Eran Creevy, UK 2008) and Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, UK/Romania 2009)

Most appreciated evening class screening: Eve’s Bayou (Kasi Lemmons, US 1997)

Best post-screening discussion: (Re Narrative study) Pour elle (Anything For Her, Fred Cavayé, France 2008)

The film I missed, but most wanted to see: Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, UK 2009)

Most anticipated film to be released in 2010: Une prophète (Jacques Audiard, France 2009)

For comparison, Sight and Sound published its list compiled from the votes of 60 critics around the world in November (note that release dates vary and critics probably saw these films before release at international festivals):

1. Une prophète

2.= The Hurt Locker and 35 Rhums

4. Das weisse Band

5. Let the Right One In

6.= Up and White Material (Claire Denis)

8.= Bright Star and Antichrist

10. Inglorious Basterds

I don’t have any problems with this list. Amazingly, I’ve seen half the films (to be more accurate four and a half if you count Up on a long distance flight). There are three I’m keen to see and two I have chosen not to see (Antichrist and Basterds) – but I recognise that many people do and have found the experience worthwhile. The list is encouraging, especially with four films by women – including two by Claire Denis. More worrying is the lack of any films from outside Europe and North America.

Robin Wood, 1931-2009

I was saddened and shocked to discover today that Robin Wood, one of the most important figures in the development of film education worldwide, had died on December 18 at his home in Toronto aged 78. It’s always sad to lose the writers who helped you to become passionate about something, but the shock is that no-one in the UK seems to have noticed his death. It seems like an indictment of the insularity of UK film culture that I should discover this news by stumbling across it when idly surfing movie blogs and chancing on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s. Credit to the New York Times and the World Socialist Website for carrying proper obituaries.

When I first started to take Film Studies seriously in the early 1970s, Robin Wood was one of the leading figures in the UK, setting up the first of a new round of degree courses at Warwick University in 1973. I’m not sure when I first discovered his writing, but it was probably in the early 1970s, around the time that I bought his books on Hitchcock and and Chabrol (with Mike Walker) and then his writings in the relaunched Movie. I soon became aware of the divide between Screen and Movie, but I always tried to follow both. Robin Wood turned left in his politics in the 1970s but didn’t lose his grounding in practical criticism. Towards the end of the 1970s he moved to Canada and his interest in gay and feminist approaches to film became more pronounced. I continued to read his material in CineAction, but also in the 1980s re-discovered some of his earlier writing and it was through his championing that I developed a deeper interest in and then a passion for Mizoguchi Kenji.

I’ll be interested to see how he is eventually remembered in UK film studies/film criticism writing. For now, I just want to recall my admiration for what he achieved as an English teacher in the 1960s – hiring 16mm films to show to his students and writing up his incredibly detailed readings of a broad selection of titles. In these days of DVD and YouTube, it’s hard to imagine just how much energy and commitment it took to be a ‘film teacher’. I know that somewhere I once read about Robin Wood’s early writings as a teacher, but I’m indebted to the NY Times obit for the story about how a Wood essay on Psycho in the early 1960s, when he was still a secondary school teacher, was turned down by Sight and Sound but accepted by the notoriously anti-British film Cahiers du cinéma. More on this if I can find the refs.

Just now found this entry on The Auteurs.com with at least one UK contribution via Catherine Grant’s Film Studies for Free with an excellent collection of links to tributes and online material by Wood himself – great work Catherine.

Added January 4: The Guardian has finally managed a decent obit penned by Charles Barr – good choice.

Babette’s Feast (Denmark 1987)

Stéphane Audran as Babette – preparing her feast.

Someone asked me to introduce a screening of this film and I agreed because I remembered how popular it had been, even if I’d chosen not to see it at the time. I’m so glad that I did accept the offer and then research the film because now I know what I missed.

Directed by the veteran Danish director Gabriel Axel (born 1918) as an adaptation of the short story by Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast was the 1988 Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It is also adorned by the presence, in the title role, of the wondrous Stéphane Audran.

The narrative has a flashback structure, but the plot is straightforward. The story is set in a remote fishing village on the Jutland coast in the 19th century. Two beautiful sisters assist their father in his Lutheran ministry. They are named Martine and Filippa after Martin Luther and his friend Philip Melanchthon. The young women are so devoted (and devout) that they both turn down suitors and when their father dies several years later they carry on serving his (now ageing) flock in the village. After a few years they are surprised to receive a woman at their door one stormy night. She carries a letter from one of the original suitors who asks them to offer the woman sanctuary. This is Babette, who has had to flee from Paris after the 1870 Revolution. She persuades them to take her on as an unpaid but highly competent cook/housekeeper. The final part of the story occurs several more years later when Babette gets the chance to prepare a special meal – her ‘feast’. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment so I won’t offer any more detail, only to say that the feast is very special indeed.

Karen Blixen wrote under several pseudonyms including ‘Isak Dinesen’ – a reference to her maiden name. Born in Denmark in 1885 she married her second cousin, a Swedish Baron, and set up a coffee plantation with him in Kenya in 1914. The marriage did not last and she moved into a long affair with an Englishman. When she began to write short stories in earnest in the 1930s, she wrote first in English and then translated the text into Danish. She was based in Denmark during the German occupation when she completed her only full-length novel. In the 1940s and 1950s she wrote several more books of stories including Babette’s Feast, first published in an American magazine in 1953. She died in 1962, only a few years before the first celebrated cinematic version of one of her stories was directed as The Immortal Story by Orson Welles for French television in 1968 (starring Jeanne Moreau). Her book based on her Kenyan experience was later adapted as Out of Africa winning seven Oscars in 1986 (with Meryl Streep directed by Sidney Pollack). Some of her other writing has also been adapted for Danish television and for the Italian film Ehrengard (1982).

Blixen’s writing is mainly set in the past and sounds as if it shares with some of the great 19th century short story writers a sense of mystery and wonder. If Babette’s Feast is slight on the surface it offers plenty to reflect on. It’s one of those narratives which require you to invest heavily in concentration and patience before delivering – little happens in terms of action but there is plenty to observe and then to infer. Why do the women never marry? What do they think that they gain through pursuing a life of simplicity? It occurred to me that some of the pleasure contemporary audiences may get from the film might be similar to the pleasure of watching BBC costume dramas such as Cranford – and yet Babette’s Feast is different in that there is an element of Danish/Swedish Lutheran severity that cuts across any sense of cosiness and is in dramatic conflict with the French sophistication brought into the community by outsiders. The two most obvious filmmakers to reference are Carl Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman. But I think that these names might put off audiences who fear that the film may be too grim and austere – it is in many ways a gentle comedy.

A great deal has been written about the story and its adaptation and many web references are accessible via the Karen Blixen website. There are a few confusions in the various materials collated on this site and it is worth clearing these up if you watch the film or read the book. The film is set in Jutland, but this was the decision of the Danish director who transferred the setting from the original which places the settlement in Norway. The soldier in the film is actually in the Swedish Army. One reason for the confusion is that over several centuries Sweden, Denmark and Norway were often part of the same kingdom. In the 19th century Sweden and Norway were one kingdom and Denmark was separate (although attempts were made to bring it into a union). Jutland is physically close to both Norway and Sweden. Some viewers/readers have challenged the idea that the locals would have understood French at this time but I think it is the case that educated people in this region would have known French as the major European language and certainly the lingua franca of travellers.

I’m not going to offer a reading of the film or the short story (which I haven’t read) – there are plenty on the websites. But it is interesting that many offer a reading based on ideas about Christianity, possibly around the differences between Protestant and Catholic traditions, and the idea of celebration through food. But as some other accounts point out, Karen Blixen was a Romantic novelist interested in travel and adventure and her interests went far beyond local religious beliefs. The preparation of food and the rituals associated with feasting are important in most cultures. This is the beauty of the story which is in one sense very simple, but also allows everyone to explore their own meanings.

The power of the film comes through the script, the performances and the use of setting and casting. Axel fought to have Swedish and French actors of standing play the French and Swedish characters. The Danish casting draws on the higher echelons of Danish theatre. The film shares that sense of the magical/mystical that can be found in Michael Powell’s British films set in the Western Isles of Scotland such as The Edge of the World and I Know Where I’m Going. The people who grow up in such places are perhaps attuned to the wildness of the environment, whereas those who come from outside (like the suitors in the film) are overwhelmed by the sense of natural forces released. One way to read the story is that the two sisters have suppressed their passion – sublimated it to the service of others – and perhaps it needs an outsider to release it again.

I think it would be a shame if this wonderful film is remembered only by foodies and those who make specifically religious readings. It should be a film for anybody interested in the human condition.

Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (India 2009)

Ranbir Kapoor is Harpreet (bottom right) in this collection of images from the film's Press Kit. Gauhar Khan is Koena (bottom left), can anyone fill in the other two names?

When you only see one or two Bollywood films a year it’s a rash move to claim that a film is in some way ‘new’ or ‘progressive’ or similar adjectives. In the case of Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, however, all the signs point to another step away from mainstream Bollywood towards something approaching a crossover film that might please NRIs and a western audience more generally. So far the headlines read flop in India with the mass audience and many critics, but high praise in New York from the critics and some good reviews by bloggers and IMDB users. This doesn’t surprise me since I think that ideologically this is a film from early populist capitalism in the US – in many ways it is Capraesque, but possibly less sentimental, certainly in its restrained romance element. For the mass audience the problems are no dance choreography, just a couple of music-based short montages, no great comedy set-pieces, no big romance, no car chases or shoot-outs, no big special effects and no stylish camerawork. Sounds dull? Well I wasn’t bored for any of the 154 minutes, so something is going on in the script and the performances.

Here is the outline. Harpreet Singh Bedi graduates with a bare ‘Pass’ in his B.Comm and a grade of 38%. Undaunted he lands a job as a computer salesman through his confidence and charm. Amazingly, he is unaware that corruption is rife in Indian business dealings and he is so shocked by the assumption that he will offer bribes to get contracts that he exposes his client and loses the order. Suddenly he is a pariah in the sales company. From this point on he fights back, maintaining his ethical standards at the same time that he hoodwinks the company. The direction is conventional in the main and the aesthetic is similar to UK/US sitcoms – the UK series The Office comes to mind. Everything is in the script and the performances, all of which I enjoyed. This is the ‘little person’ against corporate greed and sleazy business. Harpreet is an orphan brought up by his grandfather. He is tagged as a ‘Sardar’, which I take to be a traditional male Sikh. He eventually makes friends with a small group of his colleagues, all of whom have been marginalised in some way (or who come to see that he is right about the company). They include a guy I took to be from the South, a Muslim woman and a man who is called (according to the subtitles) a ‘peon’ (does this Spanish term have an Indian equivalent, perhaps ‘peasant’?). This group of ‘minorities’ in the business community challenges conventions. The film clearly focuses on business ethics and makes all the right noises about caring capitalism. I don’t agree with its politics as such (although I’m all in favour of ethical business) but they are certainly preferable to corporate greed. The important point I think is that this is a film which takes a major social issue in India seriously.

The film has been marketed as a comedy but although there are certainly comic moments, and I laughed out loud several times, overall this is a comedy drama with a strong moral/social commentary base. It isn’t leaden and didactic but it is intelligent and engaging. Ranbir Kappor as Harpreet is clearly a young star to watch. The writer-director team of Jaideep Sahni and Shimit Amin have already had hits, both commercial and critical, such as Khosla Ga Khosla (2006, written by Sahni) and Chak De! India (2007, written and directed by the duo) and I hope that they keep going.

One of the major entertainment websites in India reviews the film negatively and suggests both that Harpreet is a ‘simpleton’ and that the audience will not work out what is happening until the second hour! Harpreet may be naive and too trusting but he’s as bright as a button and it never pays to underestimate audiences. On the other hand if you tell them that the film is disappointing because it is a ‘documentary’, you aren’t helping as a reviewer. What this really shows, I guess, is the range of obstacles faced by filmmakers who want to change conventions.

One last thought: I’m working on Satyajit Ray’s 1975 film The Middleman and there is a scene in it which is almost identical. The young salesman goes to a chemical company to get an order and discovers the ways of the world (at least in Indian Cinema). Ray’s young man is just as naive but possibly less able to deal with his own sense of ethical practice. I’m not sure that Jaideep Sahni means to make the connection but he’s certainly exploring the same discourse. Ray infuses his film with elements of both realism and humanism (his young man is quite believable in his actions). Harpreet is not represented within a realist environment and his character is possibly larger than life, but as my viewing companion noted, the final scenes draw upon exactly the kinds of best management practice now being taught in progressive business schools.

Kolkata IFF screening 7: The Unburied Man (A temetetlen halott) Hungary/Poland/Slovakia 2004

Imre Nagy and his wife are 'taken away' by soldiers in Romania loyal to the Soviet Union

The films of Márta Mészáros tend not to be released in the UK, so I was pleased to take this opportunity to see one of her recent productions. I don’t think I’ve seen one before, only knowing Mészáros as one of the East European directors that I should have been watching in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact she has been involved in filmmaking for over 50 years, documentaries first after film school in Moscow and later fiction features. Coming to the fore in Hungary (and also in Romania and Poland) in this period represented a double success – as a woman making films in an intensely patriarchical society and as a Hungarian socialist attempting to make radical films under the heavy weight of Soviet influence. In 1960 she married Miklós Jancsó, arguably the highest profile Hungarian director of the period and the one most associated with exploring Hungarian history since 1914. The marriage lasted until 1973 but Jancsó’s two children from an earlier marriage have both worked with her on films. Nyika Jancsó photographed The Unburied Man and Katalin Jancsó was costume designer. Mészáros herself had been taken by her parents to the Soviet Union in 1936 – a trip that would later turn out to be a tragic mistake. (See the interview in Senses of Cinema.) There is clearly a great deal about her story that hasn’t been properly explored in the West except in a handful of books of film scholarship – kudos then to the Kolkata International Film Festival for making her one of its ‘honoured’ directors and screening eight of her films. Unfortunately because of my difficulties in registering I wasn’t able to see any of the other seven films or to attend her Q&A session. I’m stuck with a response to The Unburied Man and I feel inadequate in dealing with a film that is both an important statement about Hungarian history and a deeply personal film.

The ‘unburied man’ of the title is Imre Nagy, the figurehead of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Nagy had been Hungarian premier from 1953-55 and he was called back in the brief moment of freedom before the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest. He had been captured by the Russians in the First World War and had joined the Red Army. He lived in the Soviet Union from 1929-44 and returned to Hungary with the Russian occupation. During the 10 days that he led ‘free Hungary’ he appealed to the West for support but was then forced to trust the Russians to respect his democratic ideals. After sheltering in the Yugoslav Embassy he was handed over to those Hungarian politicians who were prepared to work with the Russians. He was then separated (with his wife) from his family and his colleagues, detained in a Romanian farmhouse and eventually returned to Hungary for trial. He refused to confess to his ‘crimes’ and was executed in 1958.

I have to say that Variety‘s review from 2005 is spot on. The film falls between several stools. It is generally very well made and elicits the necessary emotional response with a strong central performance by the Polish actor Jan Noweki (also married to Mészáros at the time of this film). However, there is some suggestion that the script changes some of the facts in order to represent the story of a man who was literally ‘unburied’ for thirty years until he could be officially re-instated as a Prime Minister who should be publicly recognised. More problematic, I think, is the lack of contextualising material referring to Hungarian history generally and to the other two men also executed at the same time who were also part of the revolutionary government. It isn’t a dull or heavy biographical piece and there are some interesting stylistic flourishes plus a clever montage representing the events of 1956, but I don’t think that the narrative escapes from the familiar story of the man who stood up for his ideals in the face of Cold War realpolitik. I remembered a now largely forgotten film by Costa-Gavras, L’Aveu (France-Italy 1970) with Yves Montand in a role based on the real-life memoir of Czech politician Artur London who was arrested and eventually forced to confess (l’aveu = the confession) to disloyalty to the Party in 1951 – a falsity conjured up by the Russians to keep the Czech leadership in line. London was not executed but his memoir was one of the most successful in telling such stories about life under Russian domination. Many others have followed and the story of Imre Nagy is in one sense just another: terrible and tragic and important in Hungarian history (and to Mészáros personally) though it was, I think the film needs something else to attract a wider audience. Nevertheless, I’m glad I saw it and I will now look out for the earlier Márta Mészáros film, Diary For My Children (Hungary 1982) which has now been released on DVD in the UK.

Hungarian distributor website (in Hungarian and English) for The Unburied Man.

Kolkata IFF screening 6: Song from the Southern Seas (Kazakhstan/Russia/Germany/France 2009)

Vladimir Yavorsky as Ivan, the 'Russian' father

Another first for me – a film from Kazakhstan. It’s a not quite so dramatic as it sounds since there was material from Central Asia during the era of Soviet Cinema and, like many such ‘world cinema’ productions, this has French and German funding. It was directed by Marut Salaru who was born in that part of the Soviet Union that is now Kyrgyzstan (where I think some of the filming took place). The budget of €1.4 million mens that it generally looks good and it shares with many of the other films screened in Kolkata an interest in national identity and history.

The basic story is very simple. A man of Russian origin (at least he is blonde-haired and generally fair) and his Cossack wife live in a remote settlement where their next-door neighbours are a Kazakh couple. The film opens with the delivery of the Russian couple’s baby – a darker-skinned boy with obvious Central Asian genes. Fifteen years later, the boy often truants from school and has developed a sideline in horse-rustling that does not endear him to the true nomadic horsemen. Our Russian hero’s other problem is that his Cossack in-laws think that he is a wimp and try to persuade his wife to leave him. (Wikipedia describes the Cossacks as ‘military communities’ spread across present-day Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan whose origins are open to ‘scholarly dispute’).

There is also a sub-plot in which the local employer, a hydro electric plant-manager, tries to persuade one of his staff – like himself of German origin – not to leave for the West. So here in a neat little arrangement, we have the different groups within Kazakh culture – the Central Asians, the Cossacks, the Russians and the Germans. (The Germans, a community of over 1 million in 1989, were mostly deportees from Western Russia sent to Kazakhstan by Stalin who feared that they would be collaborators or fifth columnists in 1941. Since 1991 and the end of the Soviet Union, some 900,000 Germans have migrated to Germany from Kazakhstan – see this UN Report. )

The main narrative sees the Russian father, feeling abandoned by his son and wife, seeking out an elderly uncle and finally learning something about his own family background. There are a few nice twists in this final section. The other element in the film refers to the title. At various points in the narrative, the live action is interrupted by a sequence featuring the kinds of ‘shadow figures’ created by tracing outlines on paper cutouts that are then moved across a screen on the end of sticks – something I associate with the work of Lotte Reiniger and known generally as ‘silhouette animation‘. In these scenes a traveller approaches a female character in local dress who is Queen of the Northern Seas, Western and Eastern and finally Southern Seas.

There is an ending which in some ways explains each of the plot strands without offering a ‘resolution’ as such. It’s a short film and while not artistically exceptional, it is informative and enjoyable. I hope it gets some kind of European release. One thing it did for me was to reveal my enormous lack of knowledge about Kazakhstan – the ninth biggest country in the world (bigger than Western Europe). Global cinema certainly has the capacity to surprise us.

Bright Star (UK/Australia/France 2009)

Abbie Cornish as Fanny and Ben Whishaw as John Keats

I hope that we are going to get some discussion of Jane Campion’s film about Fanny Brawne and John Keats. I’ve had an entertaining trawl through some of the IMDB comments and though the majority are well behind the film, there is a significant minority in total denial of the film’s artistry. My view is that it is an outstanding achievement in every department and one of the best films of the year. I did feel, immediately after leaving the cinema, that there was something unsatisfactory about the narrative, but when I looked back at the trailers I realised that I’d enjoyed every aspect of the film.

It may be that I’m not the target audience for the film, even though I admire Campion’s work. It’s certainly true that I know little about Keats, never having studied the Romantic poets as such and that I probably knew more about his short biography than about the poems he wrote, so I wasn’t engaged by a fascination with his ‘artistic muse’. (But if you know the poems, you will find plenty of references – the film is a romance though and it doesn’t attempt to explore the writing of the poems as such.) But then, the title of the film is ‘Bright Star’, named after a poem Keats dedicated to Fanny. Perhaps the narrative is really Fanny’s. She starts and ends the film and I thought that Abbie Cornish headed the cast on the print I saw (IMDB lists Ben Whishaw as Keats first). It would make more sense for Campion to focus on Fanny – in all of her films I think it is the relationship between director and leading female actor that is the central point of the production.

Abbie Cornish is terrific. Attractive, intelligent, assertive yet vulnerable, inventive and creative, she ought to be highly sought after by any man – even in the socially stratified society of Regency London. My only slight hesitation is that she looks so wonderfully healthy and vital – especially next to a consumptive Keats. If getting your man depended on dancing all night and arm-wrestling your competitors I suspect that Abbie’s Fanny would win every time. Fanny is in many ways a modern woman struggling to fulfil her dreams in a hierarchical society.

My hesitancy is, I think, simply the perennial problem with biopics. If you know anything about Keats you know the resolution of the narrative and, even if you are enjoying the film, there is the possibility that you are already wanting the story to end. It’s difficult to sustain a romance narrative, even a doomed one when the ending is known. Perhaps it would have worked better for me if there had been more melodrama? Fanny has one emotion wrenching scene and I could have taken more of that.

However, Campion does an excellent job on all counts constructing her take on the story, avoiding all the pitfalls of the costume drama (i.e. the BBC serial style), creating interesting characters and conjuring fine performances from supporting players. Mention must be made of the cat – the best film cat for a long time – and of the butterfly wrangler. The locations, set dressing, costumes and lighting cinematography make this one of the most beautiful films around  not the ‘chocolate box’ beauty of the conventional classic serial but a real evocation of the rural Hampstead before the spread of London into the suburbs and the darkening of British cities with industrial revolution – fitting really for the Romantic Poets who raised the standard for passion and nature against the onslaught of science and industry. Still, science did bring the antibiotics that might have saved Keats!

Here is an excellent trailer demonstrating the film’s strengths.