Monthly Archives: February 2011

Howl (US 2010)

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in 'Howl'

This little film seems to be causing a fuss in the US and over here quite a few people don’t seem to like it – but it seemed to me both eminently watchable and useful in exploring how poetry can be a political form.

Howl is the story of how a poem by the beat poet Allen Ginsberg became the subject of an obscenity trial in 1957. Some critics have termed it a biopic but I wouldn’t classify in that way since this is not about a character’s life as such, but about a very specific period of it and the impact that his best-known work had on ideas about free speech. Instead, I think it is a form drama-documentary and this is possibly why it is controversial – though a gay-themed movie still seems capable of attracting bigoted comments in the US.

The film is about the ‘beat generation’. I only know of the characters involved at secondhand through the writings of Jack Kerouac and the poetry (written and performed) by the so-called Mersey Poets of the late 1960s in the UK, most of all Adrian Henri (who modelled some of his performances on Allen Ginsberg). Most of the central characters in the beats story appear in the film. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the publisher of Howl, the long poem at the centre of the trial in which he was the defendant. Kerouac features in the story alongside his travelling companion Neal Cassady (who was instrumental in helping Ginsberg to face his homosexuality – as it was usually termed in the 1950s).

The film has four elements which are interwoven. The trial in San Francisco is presented as a straight courtroom drama with a cast of excellent American character actors such as David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, John Hamm, Mary Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels etc. James Franco plays Ginsberg who is seen in two different elements. In one, he ‘performs’ the poem ‘Howl’ in front of an audience of beats and supporters in San Francisco’s Six Gallery – a hangout for ‘hipsters’. In the second he is interviewed by someone offscreen and we see flashbacks/stills of his relationships and adventures (Ginsberg took many photos himself). Finally, there is an animation section which illustrates some of the lines of poetry picking up on 1950s comics but also expressionism and various other forms. At the end of the film we get a brief archive clip of the real Ginsberg towards the end of his life and stills with titles explaining what happened to the other characters.

The issue at the centre of the film is freedom of speech and the trial follows a similar pattern to the ‘Chatterley Trial’ three years later in the UK, i.e. academics give evidence for and against the literary merits of the work. Whereas the British case was heavily circumscribed by issues of social class, the taboo in the American trial is more concerned directly with the use of sexually explicit language. As in the British case, the prosecution look rather silly. But despite the supreme importance of artistic freedom, the film is actually about so much more. The experiences of the beats that formed the material for the poem took place in America in the early 1950s – that period of rising affluence but also rising alienation as felt by anyone who didn’t conform to the consumerism and anti-communism of Eisenhower’s America. The beat generation is associated with the jazz scene, avant-garde literature, drug use, sexual liberation – everything in fact associated with ‘alternatives’ to conformist society.

The key to the way in which the film elicits its responses is probably related to the use of animation. My companion at the screening knows much more about the beats than I do and though he enjoyed the film overall, he wasn’t that keen on the animation. I’ve seen similar comments in UK reviews and from other friends. I didn’t really have these problems. Perhaps I am the more naïve viewer for whom the animation is designed to be an attractive way into the poem? This was certainly the intention of the very experienced co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Epstein was responsible for one of the first major documentaries about the gay community with The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and with Friedman he made the fascinating and very useful Celluloid Closet in 1995, exploring the history of representations of gays in the cinema. My first reaction to the animated sequences (which literally illustrate parts of the poem, so that we hear the lines again over the animation that we have already heard Ginsberg/Franco delivering in the gallery) was that I recognised what I thought were comic book graphics. I think Ginsberg says something about this at one point. From the excellent official website (download the Press Pack) I learned that the person with overall responsibility for the animation is Eric Drooker, a New York artist and ‘graphic novelist’. Ginsberg collected Drooker’s work for several years before the two collaborated on Illuminated Poems, an illustrated version of Ginsberg’s poems including ‘Howl’. There is an interesting interview with Drooker about his work on the film here.

An example of Drooker's work on 'Howl' from the website link above.

You can get a sense of the film from the official trailer:

If your interest in the beats and associated American ‘alternative’ films is piqued by this film, YouTube has plenty of other material, including these films by Shirley Clarke and Robert Franks both important starting points for Epstein and Friedman:

It’s also worth listening to Emile de Antonio on documentaries and the beats:

Never Let Me Go (UK/US 2010)

Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan as they appear in the 1980s segment of the film.

Never Let Me Go is an interesting film that is, in relative terms, ‘failing’ at the box office. It’s in some ways a brave film. It doesn’t always happen, but the spread in Sight and Sound (March 2011) in which novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and writer-director Mark Romanek make their case for the film, is for me quite convincing. Unfortunately, the audience who do go to see the film probably won’t read the journal and may well be disappointed.

I’m not going to ‘spoil’ the film narrative, but most potential viewers will know that the film is ‘dystopian’ and will therefore expect the characters to be struggling against some form of tyranny or chaos. But many such stories end with a triumph of some sort. Some potential viewers may also expect a strong romance element and a consequent depiction of the agonies of love – the pain and the passion. All of these expectations might be dashed.

Ishiguro’s novel is set in an alternative history of the UK. This makes it an example of speculative fiction. All we are told at the beginning of the film is that medical science has helped to transform lives. In the Sight and Sound piece, it becomes clearer that the basic premise is concerned with an alternative to the success British science had in the 1940s re nuclear physics. ‘What if’ all that research work had gone into medicine and ways had been found to extend life-spans to 100 years or more for most of the population? I’m not sure if this starting point was more explicit in the book, but in the film, apart from a single onscreen statement, we first see 28 year-old ‘Kathy H’ (Carey Mulligan) watching a medical procedure. This is the mid-1990s and we flashback to the late 1970s when Kathy is at a boarding school with her close friend Ruth and new boy Tommy, who is having problems settling in. Later, we meet the three characters when they have left school but have been transferred to a hostel in a remote rural setting – this is the mid 1980s. The older Ruth (Keira Knightley) has by then developed a relationship with Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but Kathy remains celibate working to maintain her friendship with Ruth and repressing her desire for Tommy – she was the first to befriend him. So far, so ménage à trois, but we know something terrible is going to happen (we actually learn what this is, but not all of its consequences, during the boarding school phase).

Audience expectations

Part of my fascination with this film is to disentangle the original proposal and its treatment in an industrial/commercial context and the ways in which it has been approached by several distinct potential audiences. The first adaptation of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel was The Remains of the Day in 1993 which proved to be a major arthouse success starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. There would certainly be an audience of Ishiguro readers who would consider another adaptation favourably, although speculative fiction offered by ‘literary’ authors is sometimes a more difficult sell. This audience may also be concerned by the ways in which film adaptations can emphasise action over reflection, changing the tone of the novel. With this audience in mind, Never Let Me Go could perhaps have been a small-scale ‘specialised film’. When the film production got underway, this might still have been possible. Carey Mulligan was cast on the basis of early sightings of her performance in An Education – before she became a celebrity figure. She persuaded her friend Keira Knightley (and the producers) to appear as Ruth. Knightley is a major star/celebrity figure, but she has appeared in smaller films without noticeably disrupting those films via her star image. However, I think that in this case the casting of Andrew Garfield probably helped tip the scale. As with Mulligan, when production began Garfield was a highly regarded young actor, but not a big ‘name’ Hollywood star. Now he is a lead in a hit film, The Social Network, and is currently ‘in production’ as the new Spider-Man . When Never Let Me Go opened in the UK, there must have been a potential young audience, longing for a sight of these stars in a mainstream romance film. At the same time, the specialised cinema audience which enjoys intelligent and intriguing speculative fiction/science fiction may have been put off by the prospect of a Hollywood-style romance. So, three different audiences all with possible problems. My first inkling of the problem was during the London Film Festival when I couldn’t help overhearing the woman behind me telling her friend that she’d seen Never Let Me Go as the Opening Film of the festival. She had found it so harrowing that she had immediately bought the biggest box of chocolates she could find and taken it to a screening of the Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz film Knight and Day as an antidote.

How can I explain what Never Let Me Go is about without a spoiler? Let’s just say that the three young people face a terrible prognosis of what is in store for them. This is hinted at quite cleverly in the opening sequence of their early schooldays. They don’t have full names – just a first name and an initial, rather like the character in Kafka’s tales of paranoia. There is something decidedly spooky about the school – not least Charlotte Rampling as the headteacher. In a Hollywood movie our heroes would intuit the danger, find out the true story and then fight to be free. In real life, as Kazuo Ishiguro argues, most people faced with a terrible prognosis don’t fight it in a Quixotic way (though a handful do – and they often become the subject of biopics or melodramas). Most of us would focus on mundane daily routines and on our relationships with those nearest to us. Under pressure and frightened of losing control we look for something we can hold on to. In this film, the trio have only each other and the complicated feelings they have for each other. They each love the other two in different ways. But what is love? What do you want for the person you love and how do you express that love?That’s what this film is about and how it ends, how that love is expressed, is the key to the film’s resolution. The film’s title is echoed in a ‘fictional’ song that the child Tommy gives to Kathy on a music cassette and in a way ‘letting go’ becomes the crucial question for the characters – whatever it may mean. I confess that while I enjoyed the film as I watched it, I found the Sight and Sound material very helpful and I’ve thought about it at some length since.

Technically, the film is very well made with cinematography, editing and sound beautifully representing the tone of the narrative and the fictional world – the ‘not quite there’ feeling of the time periods and the strange but familiar English landscapes (at least one location in Scotland though). The casting and acting performances are excellent all round and the young actors morph into the well-known faces in quite an uncanny way. I did feel sorry for Keira Knightley in that her role is as the least sympathetic of the main characters and the least likely to gain favourable notices. On the other hand, Carey Mulligan couldn’t ask for a better role and she is extremely good. She’s now at the point where she will be offered the roles that could make her a major star. I hope she chooses wisely.

Afterthought: I meant to mention that the script adaptation is by Alex Garland, known recently for his two science fiction scripts for Danny Boyle (28 Days Later and Sunshine). This may have contributed to audience expectations. By all accounts, his script keeps close to the novel’s narrative.

Mehta, Winterbottom return to South Asia

Film industry buzz over the last couple of weeks highlights two new productions with settings in India during 2011.

Shooting of Deepa Mehta‘s adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is now underway in Sri Lanka according to Screendaily. Mehta has worked for two years with the author on the adaptation of his most successful book (recent winner of the ‘Best of Booker’ Award) set at the moment of India’s birth and thereafter. Mehta previously shot in Sri Lanka on Water (2006) after her attempts to shoot in India were interrupted by demonstrations by Hindu activists. This new UK/Canada production has been pre-selling briskly at film markets. Mehta’s earlier two films in her ‘elements trilogy’, Earth (1998) and Fire (1996) were both made in India (and caused some controversy). The Midnight’s Children adaptation is listed on IMDB under the title Winds of Change (which will be confusing in the UK since it is also a famous quote from Harold Macmillan about the end of British colonialism in Africa). IMDB gives a cast list featuring the cream of Indian film acting talent including Shabana Azmi, Irrfan Khan, Nandita Das, Rahul Bose and Anupam Kher and many others.

Here is Deepa Mehta talking about the adaptation in 2010:

Meanwhile, Michael Winterbottom is reported to have put aside his project dealing with the Jewish guerilla campaigns against the British in Palestine in the 1940s to start another Thomas Hardy adaptation. This time it’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles which will be re-imagined as the tale of a British-Asian man who travels to India to look after his father’s property investment in Rajasthan. Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, Centurion) in his second role for Winterbottom (the first was The Road to Guantanamo) is the male lead and Frieda Pinto is the Tess character in a story with the title Trishna. Michael Winterbottom shot A Mighty Heart partly in Pune but mostly in Karachi, which also featured in The Road to Guantanamo. His 2002 feature In This World followed two Afghan refuges on the perilous trip from Pakistan across Iran and Turkey and into Europe. The previous Hardy adaptations were Jude (from Jude the Obscure) with Kate Winslet in 1996 and The Claim (based on The Mayor of Casterbridge) with Sarah Polley and Nastassia Kinski in 2000.

We’ll try to follow what happens to these productions, both of which look like creating some kind of stir.

The Coen Brothers: Serious Men?

Ethan and Joel Coen at the 'True Grit' press conference during the opening day of the 61st Berlin International Film Festival on February 10, 2011 (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

I’m booked to run a day school with this title at the end of February and I’ve been working on some ideas in preparation for watching True Grit and then deciding how to structure the day. Films and filmmakers associated with major Hollywood studios are not the focus of this blog, but the Coens occupy an odd position, critically and commercially, a kind of no man’s land between mainstream and independent. At this time of year with virtually no high-profile releases from outside the US because of the awards season, they are getting a lot of attention. Their anomalous position is part of the their appeal to festival organisers – as in Berlin last week.

However, I realise that I’ve been watching Coen Bros. films since the 1980s without ever spending too much time thinking about them. What I do remember is an interesting presentation in the NFT by Julia Short, then of Polygram (?) explaining how the marketing of Fargo (1996) was handled in the UK (i.e. quite differently than in North America). Later I worked on a presentation about O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) which was mainly I think about Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the (then) new ways in which colour grading could be altered significantly at the digital intermediate stage. O Brother is possibly my favourite Coen Brothers film – primarily because of the music and the ensemble comedy playing of George Clooney, Holly Hunter, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro et al.

In a sense, I think I’ve just skated over some of the key Coen Brothers traits: excellent casting and performances, great music (e.g. T-Bone Burnett), great cinematography and a slightly odd position re Hollywood studios (UK production company, Working Title via Universal have been the consistent funding source since Barton Fink in 1991). Against this is a feeling that the Coens are talented filmmakers who sometimes just seem to make lazy choices of project. After the disappointing Intolerable Cruelty (2003) I decided to give The Ladykillers remake a miss. I’m not sure what I made of No Country For Old Men (2007) but I’m not sure it added that much to my experience of reading the novel, apart from the usual excellent ensemble acting and technical credits on cinematography etc. To begin my preparation for the school I watched The Big Lebowski (1998) and A Serious Man (2008). Predictably perhaps, I found the first entertaining with an interesting soundtrack, but not much more, whereas the latter seemed quite clever with an intriguing narrative structure and a refreshingly different approach to representing the Jewish community of their youth in the Mid West.

On Saturday Will Self, the novelist and once newspaper film reviewer, wrote a piece in the Guardian which felt rather like my own view of the Coens, though I suspect that we might disagree on which Coen Bros. films we preferred. I then watched the 1969 adaptation of True Grit directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne in his Oscar-winning role. I don’t think that I’d watched it before (Wayne’s Green Berets put me off him for several years I think) though I remembered the Glen Campbell song and the iconic Wayne/Cogburn charge towards the end of the film. I found the film entertaining, mainly for the dialogue which presumably comes from the novel and Kim Darby’s performance which was at least different. It is also beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard who also shot Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country (1962) and was one of the top visualisers of the West. I’m intrigued to see what Roger Deakins does for the Coens. At first, I thought that the film was very old-fashioned, reminding me of Western TV series and the ‘cleaner’ look of the 1950s movies. In the latter half when it becomes a ‘mountain Western’ I was reminded of Ride The High Country, in which a young woman is similarly in the charge of two (much older) men. In 1969, however, Peckinpah was bringing out The Wild Bunch and consciously changing the Western. The Wayne True Grit did seem more like a literary adaptation, i.e. of a classic novel – I’ve seen Mark Twain mentioned – rather than a Western novel. I’ve ordered the book to check out its style.

The Coen’s True Grit has been hyped to the skies and has been rewarded with a strong box office and heaps of critical praise. They have spoken at length about their intentions and how they have ignored the Wayne version. In another Guardian piece they are quoted as saying that their film isn’t really a Western at all. My feeling is that much of what they say could be just flim-flam, but I’ll wait and see what I make of their film this week. In some ways the most interesting aspect of all of this is to try to work out what audiences are getting from the film, the most successful ‘historical film’ from Hollywood in recent times. Why does something that at least looks like a Western appeal now? Is it because there is a more satisfying story than most contemporary Hollywood films – or because the folk memory of the Western as ‘the great American story’ is comforting during a recession (i.e. that genre recognition means more than the Coens claim)? After the first couple of weeks of the film’s run outside North America we’ll know if the feeling is similar for audiences globally. If it is, that prompts other questions. (The opening weekend in London saw True Grit topping the chart. In the rest of the UK it also did very well but couldn’t dislodge The Kings’s Speech from No 1 film outside the children’s market.)

I’m hoping to explore these ideas at the National Media Museum in Bradford on 26 February.

NEDS (UK/France/Italy 2010)

Conor McCarron as John

According to the film’s title sequence, NEDS stands for “non-educated delinquents”. I’m pretty sure that this is nonsense. There is an interesting debate about the origination of the term on the IMDB message boards and I take it to be a term equivalent in some way to ‘chav’ in England. Sociologist Alex Law in the Media Education Journal 39, Spring/Summer 2006/7, tells us that ‘schemie’, ‘tinkie’ or ‘gadgie’ are similar terms on the east coast of Scotland to compare with ‘neds’ on the west coast. I’m surprised that Peter Mullan as writer-director (and actor) would fall into this trap. Let’s just take it to be a term used by the middle (and lower-middle) classes to abuse working-class (white) male youth on housing estates. It may indeed have been in use in the 1970s when this film is set, but not based on this rather snotty acronym (one suggestion is that ‘Ned’ is another word for ‘Ted’, both nicknames for Edward, used to describe the ‘teddy boys’ of the 1950s).

Outline (no spoilers)

1972. John McGill is just about to leave primary school where he has been a star pupil. On the day of his school prize-giving he is threatened by a boy who is only marginally older. But John’s brother is Benny, a well-known gang-leader who soon takes revenge. John moves to the unreconstructed hell of the local Catholic high school where at first he seems to be an assertive but academically gifted student. But this doesn’t last. Eventually he is caught between the disruption at home caused by his mostly absent brother and alcoholic abusive father (Mullan) and the condescension of middle-class Glasgow. He falls in with a local gang. How will he survive?

Commentary

I was completely with the film for the first half and then I gradually lost my faith in the narrative and I’m not sure why. I confess that I found the dialogue hard to follow. I’ve been familiar with it for brief periods throughout my life but I always need time to adjust to the sound of the Glaswegian voice. As a result, I’m sure that I missed some of the narrative cues contained in the dialogue. Whatever he is, John is not a ‘ned’, though some of the other characters may be. I realise that in writing that, I’m already abusing ‘neds’. So let me retract. John is a bright, intelligent boy who is insulted many times but somehow keeps his cool. Then he snaps. Perhaps that is the point that Mullan wants to make. Poverty, ignorance and a lack of ‘culture’ (in the broadest terms) saps your soul, especially when you are coralled by a strong but limited father and an authoritarian and stupid education system. You either give in to lassitude or you lose control. If that is the message of the narrative, it is a powerful indictment and is to be applauded.

But it isn’t as simple as that. Peter Mullan clearly still has issues about Catholic education and I have heard arguments that this is a narrative of redemption. I’m not that keen on this idea – it seems a very American take on resolving narratives. The resolution of NEDS is either ‘open’ or ‘closed’ depending on your view on the redemption scenario. I want to take it as ‘open’ – to the possibility that John might find himself again in later life without having to be ‘redeemed’.

As to the style of the film, I can’t remember Orphans, Mullan’s first film, that well and I haven’t seen The Magdalene Sisters. I’m therefore thrown back on Lynne Ramsay’s Glasgow-set feature, Ratcatcher and her shorts, Ken Loach’s Glasgow films and the comedies of Bill Forsyth. Casting connects this film to Loach and Laverty’s My Name is Joe (1998) in which Peter Mullan is also paired with Louise Goodall. Gary Lewis appears in that film as well and in Orphans. (IMDB fails to give the full cast list of NEDS.) But I think it is Ratcatcher (1999) (also set in the 1970s) which offers links to the fantasy sequences in NEDS. (The importance of Glasgow buses in the narrative links the film to Ratcatcher and Loach’s Carla’s Song.) The other, English rather than Scottish, links are to Alan Clarke and Shane Meadows. I did think, going into the film, that I was going to see something similar to Scum (at least from the trailer). However, I don’t think that NEDS has the relentless drive of Scum or the two strong performances at the centre of that film (Ray Winstone and Mick Ford). That isn’t necessarily a criticism of NEDS. Conor McCarron in the central role of the older John gave a stand-out performance – even if not all the critics thought so (Gregg Forrest is also good as the younger John). This Is England seems somehow more optimistic and lighter – despite its harrowing final sequence. All of these films are ‘youth pictures’ and associated with the idea of ‘coming of age’.

Overall, NEDS is an interesting film, well worth anyone’s time and I suspect that with further acquaintance I might get even more from it. It manages to tell us something about the lives of working-class boys in urban Britain.  I presume that it will be dubbed or subtitled for North America.

Malaysian Cinema Part 2: Exhibition

The Veenai Odeon in Georgetown, Penang – built before 1960 and now the only traditional cinema in Penang showing the latest Tamil releases.

In most film territories around the world, screens are dominated by Hollywood and popular ‘domestic’ cinema. Malaysia is a striking exception in that although Hollywood is present and overall takes the largest proportion of the nation’s box office takings, it nevertheless has to share the pot with films from the three different film cultures representing Malaysia’s principal ethnic groups plus a significant minority of films from elsewhere in Asia.

There are at least a couple of useful websites covering film in Malaysia and I’m going to use these alongside the annual Focus International Market Reports and some primary research based on newspaper cinema listings.

Malaysia as a film market

To place the Malaysian film market in perspective, according to Focus 2010, Malaysia is a ‘mid-market’ film territory, ranked alongside Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong (now increasingly enmeshed with the mainland Chinese market). Malaysia is relatively small (28 million population) but also relatively affluent with a per capita income well ahead of all the others, barring Singapore and Hong Kong (both, in a sense, ‘special cases’ in their roles as important financial centres and entrepôt ports). In 2009, Malaysia produced only 25 local titles but still managed to capture nearly 14% of its total box office. With total admissions of 44 million, Malaysia was well ahead of larger countries such as Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. The country is ‘underscreened’ and there is plenty of capacity for expanding the market. With a per capita attendance rate of only 1.59 visits per year (compared to the 4.63 of Singapore) we might expect to see expansion in the market.

What’s on?

The Star is one of the English language newspapers in Malaysia and on Saturday 22 January it carried display ads from Malaysia’s six major cinema chains, Cathay, Golden Screen, Lotus 5 Star, MBO, BIG Cinemas and TGV plus one single screen. I checked all the titles being advertised. Some were playing several times a day others only once and I was slightly confused by some of the ads for ‘de luxe screens’ – I wasn’t sure if I was double counting. Still, the results do reveal some of the interesting facets of Malaysian exhibition practice. Helpfully, the convention is to list the language of each title in the ad, so I am at least confident of the range of titles.

Here are the raw results which show the number of prints from each producing country/language across all screens.

Hollywood: 176

Domestic Malay: 53

Tamil: 75

Chinese (Mandarin & Cantonese): 47

Thai: 18

Japanese: 16

Indonesian: 6

Hindi: 5

Iranian: 3

South Korea: 2

What do these figures mean in actual film titles? The Hollywood films are usually either the family orientated blockbusters (Gulliver’s Travels and the latest Narnia film both played during our stay in Malaysia) or action titles such as Faster, Season of the Witch and The Tourist or comedies such as Meet the Parents.

The Malay language numbers refer almost exclusively to Khurafat with occasional listings for two other horror films. The Indonesian, Korean and Thai imports all seem to be horror or action. The ‘art film’ sector appears to be confined to Kuala Lumpur which boasts three cinemas screening the Iranian title The Song of Sparrows (the Iranian 2009 Academy Award entrant) and one showing Dhobi Ghat in Hindi (the other Hindi screenings are mainstream Bollywood). The Japanese title was the main new 3D offer – an important development in the face of Hollywood 3D domination. This is Shock Labyrinth 3D: House of Horror, a 2009 film by shlockmeister Shimizu Takashi which is very poorly rated on IMDB and is only now creeping around international markets.

Great Day (Malaysia 2011)

There were surprisingly few Chinese films on release in the period just before the New Year, but two titles stand out, Great Day and Homecoming are both family comedy-dramas for the New Year and both appear to be products of the domestic Malaysian-Chinese industry. The Yahoo Malaysia Movies website synopsis:

Great Day tells the story of two uncles who live in an old folks home. Aggravated by an argument and with the help of Ah Hock and Ultraman, the two men decide to escape from the home and find their children, just to show off whose children are better. The fun catches on with odd circumstances one after another, but in the end of the day it’s going to be a big reunion at the old folk’s home.

Homecoming

Homecoming is a Malaysia-Singapore co-production mining the generic possibilities in stories about Malaysians working in Singapore. Both these films, as far as I can see, include dialogue in Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkienese and Malay and I suspect that they are also subtitled in English and/or Mandarin/Cantonese. They have a good chance of cleaning up before the arrival of the fifth sequel to the Hong Kong New Year Favourite All’s Well Ends Well. The other Chinese titles on offer are action films like Shaolin with Jacky Chan.

Kaatu Rani ('Queen of the Jungle')

The strong showing for Tamil films might possibly be explained by the local festivals at this time of the year (e.g. Thaipusam and Thai Pongal). There is usually at least one Tamil film in each large multiplex and also in traditional cinemas such as the Penang Odeon shown at the head of this post. Distributors take the current Tamil film release from India on a ‘day and date’ basis and these may last a couple of weeks. Siruthai is an action comedy, Kaavalan is a romantic drama and Aadukalam a sports film based on cockfighting in Madurai. At the same time, there appears to be a local Malaysian Tamil industry and I came across Kaatu Rani in a newspaper cutting from the New Straits Times. This local horror film was made for just RM180,000 (around £37,000) with local cast and crew but some post-production in India. After two première screenings in local cinemas the film was scheduled for an immediate DVD release. Subtitled in English the film will also be sold in Singapore, Sri Lanka and India.

This posting has ended up much longer than I thought, so I’ll discuss what I’ve found out about the Malaysian film industry generally in a third post.

Westerns: A Routledge Film Guidebook

Westerns, A Routledge Film Guide Book by John White (2010), £16.99, 208pp ISBN 9780415558136

The Routledge Film Guidebooks are slim A5-sized books. The list so far includes director studies (James Cameron and Jane Campion) as well as genre guides such as Horror and Romantic Comedy. With the imminent UK release of True Grit by the Coen Bros., the appearance of John White’s guide is timely.

The first task for the reviewer in this instance is to consider exactly what can be fitted into a relatively small guidebook when dealing with a genre as extensive as the Western. Inevitably, what to leave out and what to make a focus becomes a major issue. The decision will also determine the address of the book to a particular audience. Unfortunately John White doesn’t give any direct indication of who he thinks his readers might be. Since he teaches undergraduates at Anglia Ruskin University but also writes textbooks for A Level film students in the 16-19 sector, his target presumably spans this range. The book’s blurb and the short explanation of the film guidebook project inside suggests that this will be an ‘introductory book’ and indeed all the guidebooks seem to have a similar structure: the evolution of the genre/movement/directorial career, discussion of a variety of critical approaches that could be applied to the films and then a more detailed discussion of key films.

Herein lies a problem. White argues in his opening that many books on the Western spend too much time re-telling the stories of a wide range of films. His focus instead will be on the exploration of different critical approaches, so he tells us that his outlines will be kept to the minimum and he will assume that “readers are already familiar with the basic plot”. Well, he may well be right since the repertoire of elements of the Western has permeated not just American but global culture over a long period. On the other hand it seems to me that younger audiences viewing one of the relatively rare Westerns in contemporary cinema (such as Brokeback Mountain or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two of his key films) are coming to the Western in quite different ways than similar-aged audiences in the 1950-70s. Apart from any other contextual/conjunctural factors, audiences now are not being exposed to Westerns as ‘genre texts’, available everywhere in a more or less constant stream (during the 1950s literally dozens of different Western TV series played on American television every week). Instead, a Western is now a ‘one-off’ (unlike horror films which do still appear in a constant stream, even if some of them are marketed heavily as single titles).

But perhaps I am being unreasonable? John White lays out his aim and pursues it. The chapter on ‘the evolution of the Western’ manages to cram a great deal into under 30 pages and I found the material on ‘silent Westerns’ in particular informative and helpful. For students without detailed knowledge of the genre, this short section will provide a useful primer. White references key films and important scholarly work – and at the end of the book he provides a timeline of important historical events that inform the narratives of many Westerns set in the nineteenth century. He then continues the timeline to include the release dates of key films and the events in later American history that help to contextualise production and reception of the films. The guide overall is well served by its bibliographies, index and endnotes.

The second part of the book offers 5-6 pages on each of a range of critical approaches: genre, semiotic analysis, representation, ideology, discourse analysis, narrative structure, realism, auteur theory, star theory, psychoanalytical theory, postmodernism and audience response. In each case, two or three films are used as case studies. The film choices seem to me to be pretty sound, but the brevity of each analysis means that students will probably need supplementary material to get the most from them.

The third section then applies combinations of the critical approaches from section two to eight key films: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Shane (1953), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Unforgiven (1992), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Again, this seems a good selection and offers a film from virtually each decade from the 1930s onwards. All the films are easily available and many of them are accompanied by extensive online critical commentaries. I do wonder if some films/directors could have overlapped a little more – enabling more depth at the expense of more examples. For instance, the critical approaches section references another two John Ford films, plus John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as actors and directors. But suggesting other ways of organising the material is not particularly helpful – we will all have our own preferences.

This little book does what it sets out to do. It’s well-referenced and will provide a good introduction. You can’t ask for too much more.