Monthly Archives: February 2012

Forget the Oscars – where's the politics?

The Oscars this year celebrated nostalgia and the overall quality was poor. Far more interesting was the attempt in a recent issue of Cineaste to raise discussion of ‘The Prospects for Political Cinema Today’. You’ll note that the cover of Vol XXXVII No 1 (December 2011) features A Separation, probably the best film on the Oscars list, coming from a country where making a film still seems like a political act. Nick’s recent postings remind us how rare it is to find films with political aspirations.

Cineaste‘s symposium rounds up the thoughts of 14 filmmakers with a variety of perspectives on what makes a political film. In his introduction to these responses British film studies academic John Hill, one of the UK’s leading writers on social realist cinema, offers some reasons why now is a good time to revisit the concept of political cinema. He suggests that recent political action in response to economic crises in the West and political crises in the Arab world in particular have seen the growing importance of the impact of ‘social media technologies’ and new types of political action which were inconceivable before the era of digital media. He then wonders what an ‘old medium’ like the cinema still has to offer.

We don’t have space here to summarise all 14 contributions and you can buy the issue concerned direct from Cineaste. Cineaste posed four questions to the filmmakers (as well as asking for any personal insights):

1. What do you understand by the idea of a political – or ‘politically oppositional’ – cinema in the current economic and political climate?

2. What specific role does political cinema have in an era of social media and instant communication?

3. What aesthetic models of political cinema do you believe are most relevant today? Which styles work best to engage an audience? What’s the difference between documentary and fiction in terms of political effectivity?

4. What are the main political and economic obstacles to making political films or getting them adequately distributed?

In response to Q2, Costa-Gavras said: “Film needs time and space in order to be thought out and created. Instantaneousness the enemy of film’s thoughtfulness.” Amos Gitai refers to the “image rebellions expressed through social media” as being “almost in the midst of a Jean-Luc Godard wet dream. The image is becoming a very powerful vehicle of change. It’s not really cinema – they’re raw images, crude images. It’s not a coherent discourse, not articulated. It’s just images.” Gianni Amelio concludes on the same question: “Film must, above all, find in the new means of communication a stimulus to renew itself, without losing its own nature”. Kelly Reichardt ponders why there are so few Hollywood films referencing the economic downturn and she suggests that we should look back not at the 1960s and 1970s but at the 1950s: “Can you imagine Bigger Than Life getting made today?” (We commented on Nick Ray’s work in our review of We Need to Talk About Kevin.) John Sayles says that the biggest problem in getting his movies to a general audience is not their ‘political’ content but their complexity. He suggests that in mainstream cinema the place to find political comment is buried in fantasy movies like Iron Man where the audience is “free to attend to it or just let it slide past with the reassurance that this is ‘just a movie’.”

There are some good points here (and plenty more in the other contributions) so I’d like to invite our contributors to pursue some of them and discuss the four questions, perhaps selecting specific films as case studies? Contributions and comments please!

Izzat (Norway 2005)

The three friends as part of the East Side crew in 'Izzat'

Izzat is exactly the kind of film this blog is all about. It’s a crime genre film from Norway – a filmmaking country better known internationally for serious social drama until hits like The Troll Hunter and Headhunters in the last couple of years. But Izzat is also one of the first films (possibly the first) to emerge from the Pakistani community in Norway and as such belongs to the broad category of diaspora film.

Migration has become a visible social issue in Scandinavian countries over the last thirty years, but in the UK we are mostly familiar with representations of migrant communities in Swedish and Danish films and TV. Norway has experienced similar inflows from Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa and the Pakistani community is the largest of the non-European groups in Norway – around 35,000 mostly living in and around Oslo, especially on the East Side of the city.

‘Izzat’ is the Urdu and Hindi word referring to ‘honour’ and ‘respect’, particularly in relation to the family and the onus on men to maintain the reputation of the women of their family. In a European context this has led to rather negative representations of South Asian family relations and made it difficult to report objectively on so-called ‘honour killings’ in which young women have been murdered by family members. These kinds of actions are not part of the plot of this film Izzat – but the plot does use the protagonist’s desire to protect his family, particularly his brother and sister, as an important narrative device.

Narrated as a long flashback (but starting pre-credits with a crucial scene from later in the story) Izzat presents us with three young Pakistani boys in their early teens growing up in East Oslo in the 1980s. Bored in “the safest city in the world”, they fall in with a Pakistani criminal gang, ‘The East Side Crew’ led by two brothers, Sadiq and Khalid, and gradually they become part of the gang. The narrative then moves forward several years and we see Wasim and his two close friends, Riaz and Munawar now established as part of a drugs operation. The East Side Crew are opposed mainly by a local operation run by ‘The Bullet’ and his gang of Nordic skinheads. Inevitably the two gangs clash but Wasim also finds it difficult to reconcile his family responsibilities and his close bond with his two friends with the realities of working in a criminal gang and this is where the main narrative conflict arises (there is very little about the police attempts to control the gangs).

The models for this kind of narrative are The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas and Once Upon a Time in America – all of which have been popular and influential across global cinema. But films about organised crime have always been a staple of major film cultures from Europe (France, UK, Italy), Japan, Hong Kong and India. Izzat is on a much smaller scale than the Hollywood films, but it looks very good in CinemaScope and it successfully combines elements from Hollywood, Europe and South Asia. There are a couple of sequences shot in Lahore where Wasim is first sent as a teenager and then later as a gang member. Written by two Norwegian-Pakistanis, one of whom Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen is also the director, the film does to my mind offer a pretty slick crime film. It has scenes reminiscent of the Swedish TV crime series seen in the UK, but also has elements of the domestic cultural world of Pakistani migrants and narrative moments that are quite specific. At one point when Wasim is arguing with Sadiq he points out that he is a Norwegian citizen but that Sadiq can always be deported if he is convicted. The Oslo setting also throws up some interesting juxtapositions with shootouts taking place in near deserted streets. One climactic moment involves a suburban bus and a tense meeting between two gangsters takes place in a genteel coffee shop to the bemusement of the elderly customers. Colour is used quite carefully in the film so that the 1980s has a conventional ‘golden glow’, present day Oslo is relatively muted and the Pakistani scenes are quite vibrant.

The technical credits on the film are very good. There is an extensive use of Norwegian rock music on the soundtrack (with several songs featuring English lyrics) and the central character, Wasim (as an adult), is played by Emil Marwa. I thought he looked familiar but I didn’t realise that he was born in Norway to a Norwegian mother and Kenyan-Sikh father and has had a long career in British TV and film. His first big break was as one of the sons in East is East in 1999. Although he speaks Norwegian (and presumably Punjabi), his accent was considered wrong for the Oslo-based character so his voice is dubbed (something which didn’t go down too well with some Norwegian commentators). Overall Norwegian audiences seem to have been split between enjoying a relatively new kind of action film and criticising it for not being as slick as Hollywood.The film doesn’t appear to have been seen outside Norway where it had 130,000 admissions which doesn’t sound much but would make it a hit.

I have been wondering why in the UK there is no cinema film that I can think of that uses this kind of crime genre structure in a British-Asian context. Instead, British-Asian films tend more towards social comedies or melodramas or, more recently, have become absorbed into the less ethnically-defined category of ‘urban films’. On the other hand, all the elements of Izzat have turned up in UK TV series or TV films. I’m not sure what this tells us about the differences between the UK and smaller European countries – both in terms of representing migrant communities via popular genres or about the roles of TV and cinema films. It would be interesting to know if anything similar has appeared in Norway (or Denmark or Sweden) since 2005.

Our evening class discussed the film in the context of the development of ‘Nordic Noir’ cinema. With its focus on the Pakistani community the film offers us the obverse view to that of writers like Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson in which the effects of globalised crime and migration are viewed from the perspective of a host community gradually realising that a settled social democracy is being challenged. The Pakistani criminals in this film are a threat to order but the community as a whole is not represented as a victim or a problem. What is more obvious is that the Norwegian welfare system is simply puzzled by how to handle the boys in school and how the family ties re-exert themselves. I won’t give away the film’s ending, which is possibly a surprise, but it makes a further comment on the relationship between Norwegian liberalism and Pakistani culture.

The Winter War (Talvisota, Finland 1989)

Exhausted Finnish soldiers in 'The Winter War'

This remarkable film is a good example of what some film theorists have called the ‘national popular’ film. By that I mean a film that explores an important national event, is made by a local production company and seen by a significant audience both in the cinema and subsequently on TV/DVD etc. ‘The Winter War’ was the relatively short and bloody war in which Finland managed to stave off a Russian invasion in late 1939. The war ended in March 1940 with some Finnish territory ceded to the Soviet Union. Technically this was a victory for the Soviet Union but Finland remained independent and the Finnish forces proved a match for a much larger Red Army that suffered casualties on a 4:1 basis, arguably because of poor leadership and misguided strategic and tactical decisions. (The ‘Continuation War’ started in June 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union when Finnish forces attempted to win back territory, this time with German support.)

The Winter War was the most expensive Finnish film production to date in 1989 and it isn’t hard to see where the money went with many extras and scenes of destruction. The PAL Region 2 DVD available in the UK from Scanbox Entertainment offers quite a poor transfer of what I assume was the original print in the European aspect ratio of 1.66:1 – which makes the film seem much older than 1989. The DVD runtime is just over 120 mins which means it offers only two-thirds of the original running time. The Finnish PAL Region 0 DVD runs to over three hours. I found my copy in my local library but if I’d known about the original version I’d have gone for that (it seems to be easily available in the UK). Because I’ve only seen the shortened version, I’ve got be wary in commenting on the narrative – which not surprisingly seemed to be somewhat elliptical!

Director and co-writer Pekka Parikka adapted a novel by Antti Tuuri focusing on a Finnish regiment that is quickly recruited and armed and sent to the front in the Karelian peninsula (strategically the most important target for the Russians as the original border was relatively close to Leningrad). Here the Finns are eventually forced to defend the rudimentary ‘Mannerheim Line’ of trenches against a large Soviet force. The Finnish forces comprise some grizzled veterans alongside a larger proportion of young recruits. They have makeshift uniforms and a motley array of light weapons. The Russians have all the tanks and aircraft and far more artillery. The Finns know what they are doing and they are at least camouflaged by their white capes and outer tunics. In the truncated version of the film, the major achievement is the representation of war as brutal and relentless. The Russian tactics were stupid with massed infantry walking towards the trenches alongside the tanks. Hundreds were shot and killed by the defenders but nevertheless we understand the terror of the defenders faced with successive waves of attackers. The film is remarkable for two absences. We have no access to the Russian perspective so they remain a faceless enemy apart from a few individuals killed or captured at close quarters. There is no representation of Finnish politicians or senior military figures and apart from one speech by a senior officer to his men there is relatively little jingoism. The Home Front focus is on the young wives and girlfriends and the mothers. Because the frontline was so close to home, some of the men get leave – but as one of them says the likelihood is they will go home in a box.

Perhaps because the narrative features an older brother looking after his sibling, several American commentators have compared the film favourably to Saving Private Ryan, suggesting that Spielberg might have seen it. I can’t comment on that except to say that the Finnish film is mercifully free of the sentimentality that too often overwhelms Spielberg’s films. For me the Hollywood films that this reminded me of were those combat films about WWII and Korea made by Sam Fuller and Robert Aldrich – and of course, Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron. But then the real comparison might be with Russian films about the ‘Great Patriotic War’.

So, despite the truncated narrative, I’m glad I’ve seen this – it helps to explain some of the background to those Nordic crime fiction and horror stories I’ve been reading in which Danes, Swedes and Norwegians are fighting as volunteers alongside the Finns and against the Russians in 1939.

A Dangerous Method (Can/Ger/Switz/UK 2011)

Sabina (Keira Knightley) takes notes as she and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) play Wagner's Die Walküre to an audience in Jung's clinic

When I mused on the possibility of showing A Dangerous Method to A Level students a few months ago, it was suggested to me that it was too wordy – with the implication that students would be bored. Now I’ve seen the film, I wouldn’t worry about the dialogue at all. The narrative seemed to race along to me. If the film has a flaw it is in the closing stages of the narrative when I felt I was being rushed through some short scenes which spanned several years and in which a great deal of narrative development needed to be inferred. For such weighty subject matter the film is actually quite short (99 minutes) and at the end I was enjoying it so much that I could happily have taken another 30 mins. As usual, I read an interview with director David Cronenberg (in Sight and Sound March 2012) after seeing the film. Perhaps I should have read it first because the interview explained several points I’d puzzled about during the screening.

The ‘Dangerous Method’ is a reference to the ‘talking cure’ constituted by the nascent medical practice of psychoanalysis as practised by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) in Vienna and taken up by the psychologist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) in Zürich in the early 1900s. At first there is almost a father/son, master/pupil relationship between Freud and Jung – something which events will ultimately undermine. The two confer over the case of a young Russian-Jewish woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who arrives at Jung’s clinic suffering from ‘hysteria’ but who will eventually become a leading psychoanalyst herself. Sabina is a historical figure who was murdered by the Nazis in 1941.

The film does seem to have provoked a very hostile reception from fans of Cronenberg’s earlier work in ‘body horror’ and from others with a strong interest in either Freud or Jung or both. As a squeamish film watcher I avoided Cronenberg’s earlier films and only began to be interested in his work at the time of Crash (1996). I was painfully aware of Freudian ideas when they were fashionable inside film studies in the 1980s and I’m aware of him as a historical figure but I’ve never read Freud and I know even less about Jung. I’m not sure if this is an advantage or a disadvantage in watching A Dangerous Method, but I think some of the criticism of the film that I’ve read is plain silly.

Here are just a few observations about the film narrative. The screenplay is by Christopher Hampton who wrote a play The Talking Cure first performed in 2003. There was also a book by John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method (1994) and various historical documents that also informed the screenplay. This review of Hampton’s play by the Guardian‘s Michael Billington is interesting in that I had the opposite response to that of Billington (an excellent critic) when I watched the film. I noticed, but didn’t think too much about, the points Billington makes as I was too busy enjoying the spectacle. Billington argues is that the play is about ideas but that an over-fussy set is distracting and that perhaps a film would be better. However I saw a film about characters in a particular historical context. Cronenberg creates a world of order in Vienna and Zürich. The sun is nearly always shining, the houses, rooms and, most of all, the formal gardens are beautifully designed, clean and sparkling. The clothes are exquisite (and Knightley and Fassbender wear them beautifully). The cinematography by Cronenberg’s long-term collaborator Peter Suschitzky uses the settings to create a composed world. The film deals with the period between 1904 and 1912 when the five great empires in Europe were at their height (Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Britain). Only a few years later and the five would be at war and in Central Europe (apart from in Switzerland) the certainty of outlook and status of rich scientists like Jung (the money was from his wife’s family) would be severely questioned. The insights that Freud and Jung has into the psyche would become potentially even more important in the aftermath of the ‘Great War’.

Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross

(Some spoilers in this para)

The ideas in the film are about sexuality and mental health, about social status and about anti-semitism. Freud needed Jung because his Swiss Protestantism diluted the Jewish Austrian identity of the Viennese group of psychoanalysts. Freud was also disturbed by Jung’s class position and possibly felt undermined. He despaired when he learned of Jung’s interest in the possibilities of parapsychology, having hoped that Jung would help psychoanalysis achieve status as a scientific discipline. Hampton’s strategy in the screenplay is to explore these ideas first through Jung’s treatment of Sabina’s hysteria. Hysteria (literally a condition associated with the uterus) appears to have been a socially constructed ailment afflicting young middle class women whose sexuality was severely repressed in polite society. Sabina has to ‘face up’ to what has caused her physical ailment and she does so through the talking cure when she finally admits to Jung that she became sexually excited after being beaten by her father and felt a desire to masturbate. In order to represent the symptoms of hysteria Keira Knightley ‘gurns’ (pulls very exaggerated facial expression), squirms and shouts excitedly in a performance that some viewers have interpreted as ‘over the top’. As far as I can see Knightley and Cronenberg researched this and I think her performance is terrific. I think she is well-cast and certainly matches the two male leads. When Sabina asks Jung to spank her as the final act of her abreaction, the narrative leads us into a potential sexual relationship with Jung. He is in turn egged on by a provocative and dangerous psychotherapist, Otto Gross – played with enormous brio by Vincent Cassel. Gross is all in favour of therapists having sexual relationships with their patients and discovering more about human sexuality. Cassell reminded me of the figure of the satyr or the god Pan – all hair and testosterone. As an actor he has always reminded be of Michel Simon – this time perhaps as the tramp in Boudu Saved from Drowning. Our interest in Jung’s possible infidelity also prompts us to think about Mrs Jung, seemingly always pregnant (and serene) played very well in such a difficult role by the young Canadian, Sarah Gadon. What we should also remember is that Otto was recommended to Jung (as a patient) by Freud and that Sabina will eventually move to Vienna when she has qualified as a psychoanalyst herself.

The film narrative is essentially about the triangle of Jung, Sabina and Freud, although Jung and Sabina are the main focus. I found the first 80-90% of this narrative fascinating but lost it in the final stretch. There is an interesting sequence on the liner taking Jung and Freud to New York – which tells us a great deal about the state of their relationship, but frustratingly little about why they were going to America and what happened when they got there. Otherwise, I think this is a great watch and I’ve praised many of the others so I should finish by congratulating Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen as well. I’ve seen many reviews by disappointed Cronenberg fans who think that the film is ‘staid’, ‘conservative’ etc. but I think that they miss the point. Cronenberg, Suschitzky and production designer James McAteer have created a representation of a world of sexual repression and bourgeois respectability within which some intellectual breakthroughs are achieved through and perhaps in spite of some interesting personal relationships. Now, perhaps I should read that book on Jung and Film (Hauke and Alister 2001) that has remained unopened for so long? We’ll see.

The Inheritance (Arven, Den/Swe/Nor/UK 2003)

A happy moment for Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen) backstage with Maria (Lisa Werlinder) (Image from outnow.ch)

After the first few Dogme offerings in the late 1990s, Danish filmed drama didn’t get much of an outlet in the UK until the TV series of The Killing and Borgen came along (with the exception of Lars Von Trier of course). The Inheritance did get a UK release of sorts but I’d certainly forgotten about it. In several ways the film is related to Festen (Celebration, 1998), the first ‘official’ film of the Dogme ’95 manifesto group. Festen is a form of family melodrama which lays open the wounds of a bourgeois family and something similar happens in The Inheritance. The central character is again played by Ulrich Thomsen and there is a supporting role for Lars Brygmann from Festen (he is also in Borgen). Like Festen, The Inheritance is shot on video, but Digibeta this time giving a better definition, and much of it is handheld cinematography using two cameras. Mostly I didn’t notice the camerawork as it is quite ‘composed’ but the opening did set the tone of ‘edgy intimacy’ with handheld work in the confines of a hotel room. (The film is listed on IMDb with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 but the Drakes Avenue Region 2 DVD seems to be cropped to 1.78:1.)

Christoffer (Thomsen) is a youngish restaurateur in Stockholm where his beautiful young wife is a rising star of the Swedish Royal Drama Company. A sudden visit from Christoffer’s father, head of the family steelworks in Denmark, at first seems of no great importance. But a few days later Christoffer finds himself parachuted in to take over the steelworks at the behest of his rather formidable mother. This isn’t what he wants and his life is turned upside down. We learn that he had previously found working in the family business far too stressful, but he seems to do whatever his mother demands – can it all work out? I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasures of the film so I won’t go into detail but what impressed me (alongside the performances from some of Denmark’s best screen actors and Swedish actor Lisa Werlinder) was the clear-eyed dissection of family relationships and the manoeuvring within the family business. There is no sentimentality here and no pandering to notions of ‘feelgood’ cinema or happy endings. If anyone has illusions about the personal costs that dealing in this kind of business can generate, this will dispel them effectively. There are plenty of French films that deal with family businesses like this, and some of them (such as Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources (1999)) have the same intensity, but I was also reminded of Christian Petzold’s Yella (2007) – a very different kind of film but one that links to the cold business practices of contemporary European capitalism. Part of the narrative of The Inheritance involves a possible merger with a French steel company and it is interesting to see Danish characters who can move easily between Denmark, Sweden and France, speaking fluently (when we know thy could just as easily speak English). Why can’t British and American filmmakers produce interesting stories set in the business world? Instead of intelligent dramas like this on television or in the cinema we seem obsessed with tawdry reality TV shows.

Directed and partly written by Per Fly, The Inheritance is the second in a trilogy of films set in three different strata of Danish society. Christoffer’s family are industrialists of the haute bourgeoisie (in one scene preparing for a politically-correct hunt with careful rules about what you can shoot). The other two films are Drabet (2005) and Baenken (2000), but these don’t appear to have made it to the UK – despite Draben being an official UK co-production. The Inheritance has been the most successful of Fly’s films but I’m surprised that after the domestic market and that of co-production partner Norway, the best territories for the film have been Italy and Spain rather than Sweden and the UK (the other co-producers) Germany or France (see the Lumiere database). So typing this as ‘North European Drama’ doesn’t quite seem to work out.

If any UK readers are feeling withdrawal symptoms after the end of Borgen Series 1, I heartily recommend The Inheritance which is available on offer at Amazon.co.uk at just £3.89. I doubt that you would be disappointed if this replaced your evening’s TV viewing.

Obsession (UK 1949)

Robert Newton (left) and Naunton Wayne have a discussion about 'Royal Scot' locos and their tenders – one of the brilliant dialogue exchanges which mask the cat and mouse game the would be murderer and detective are playing. Behind them is the large model railway set-up that the Newton character uses to help him wind down from his work.

This title turned up in my monthly LoveFilm rental list. I don’t remember ordering it and for a while I was puzzled as to how it got there. On reflection, I think it may be connected to Keith’s evening class on British Film Noir (read the comments on the posting). Anyway, it turned out to be an interesting find – despite a poor DVD transfer on the disc distributed by Fremantle Media.

The script is by Alec Coppel and is adapted from his novel ‘A Man About a Dog’. The Australian Coppel was a prolific screenwriter but is perhaps best known as one of the writers on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The director for this independent production by Nat Bronstein was Edward Dmytryk, by 1948 famous for a couple of classic Hollywood films noirsFarewell My Lovely (1944) and Crossfire (1947). However in 1947 Dmytryk was one of the ‘Hollywood Ten’ as fingered by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and was blacklisted by the Hollywood studio chiefs. With no chance of work in the US, Dmytryk followed several other US-based film creatives and re-located to the UK where he worked on two productions before returning to face HUAC again in 1950, this time ‘naming names’. (His other UK film was the now obscure Give Us This Day (1949) a drama based on an Italian novel and set in Brooklyn.)

Another HUAC victim, Phil Brown, plays one of the four central characters in Obsession, an American diplomat who falls into a relationship with the beautiful but flighty young wife of a London psychiatrist played by Robert Newton. The wife is ‘Storm’ (wonderful name for the character!) and she’s played by Sally Grey. The quartet is completed by the surprise casting of Naunton Wayne (one half of the comic duo of ‘Charters and Caldicott’ who enlivened Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes as well as some British wartime films) as a Detective Superintendent at Scotland Yard. Storm’s affair with the young American is the ‘last straw’ for Newton’s psychiatrist and he determines to abduct the young man and hold him captive for several months before killing him and disposing of the body in a foolproof way. They say that you should never act with children or animals. I would add – or plan murders with them. It is the accidental intrusion into the plan of Storm’s dog ‘Monty’ that steers the narrative towards its inevitable conclusion. Thus the title of the original novel. The American release via Eagle-Lion (set up to distribute Rank films in the US) had the title changed to The Hidden Room which typically plays on the intrigue created by a narrative device in the story but which misses the real attraction which is the obsession to detail and the calm shown by Newton’s character.

Overall this is a very good suspense thriller – cerebral rather than action-packed. All four central performances are excellent and Dmytryk keeps the narrative moving as he allows the audience to enjoy the trading of great dialogue between the principals. The dog is very good too. A couple of other interesting names are Kenneth Horne as co-producer and Nino Rota as music composer. Horne later became the host of two famous UK comedy radio programmes in the 1960s. Rota was one of several leading figures from Italian and French Cinema who worked in the UK at this time. In the 1950s and 1960s he went on to work on the films of Fellini, Visconti and then in 1972 on The Godfather. I confess that I hardly noticed the music in Obsession – but that may be a tribute to the appeal of the narrative.

If you are interested in films like Obsession, the key text is Robert Murphy’s Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1939–49, London: Routledge, 1989. Bob is also listed here as having a book on British Film Noir in preparation for Palgrave Macmillan. I owe the little I know about the films to Bob’s evening class on the sensationalist melodramas and crime films of late 1940s British Cinema at the BFI in the 1980s when he used his research to construct a course which showed several obscure examples – the best of which was an earlier Robert Newton film, Temptation Harbour (1947) with Simone Simon (and based on a Georges Simenon story).

I’m still not sure what we mean by British film noir but Obsession has links via its central characters to two films based on the novels of Nigel Balchin, Mine Own Executioner (1947) with its psychologist attempting to help a soldier with what we might now call ‘post traumatic shock’ and The Small Back Room (1949) with its ‘boffin’ at the end of his tether and facing the terrors of withdrawal from alcohol as he defuses a bomb. This trio of cerebral heroes/villains are emblematic of a certain kind of British crime melodrama.

24 Frames: The Cinema of Scandinavia (2005)

Could this be the first book I’ve bought that I can’t review? Perhaps you, the reader, should decide. We’ve reviewed two other entries from this Wallflower series, but this collection of essays on Scandinavian films presents me with an unusual problem – I haven’t seen any of the 24 films selected as case studies. Now I admit that my specific interest in ‘Nordic Cinema’ is fairly recent but my experience of Swedish and Danish Cinema over the years is not too bad. I don’t think that it is just me – the brave editor of this collection has decided to go for a much wider perspective on regional cinema than I have seen elsewhere in the series.

The selection of 24 titles spans 1905 to 2004 and begins with ‘actualité‘  footage of the arrival of the King of Norway at Christiania (Oslo) in 1905 at the moment of Norwegian independence and the founding of the nation state. Elsewhere in the selection we find three advertising films, two of them by leading filmmakers from Sweden, Ingmar Bergman and Roy Andersson, and two of the sex films made in the 1960s, one from Sweden and one from Denmark (intriguingly categorised as a ‘happy porn’ film). There are two documentaries (one of which is the extremely successful 2001 film about a Norwegian choir, known internationally as Cool and Crazy) and a children’s film Elvis, Elvis (Sweden 1977). And would you expect The Wake (Denmark 2000) to be 462 minutes of art installation work? The selections do span 100 years but it’s noticeable that seven of the films date from the period 1945-55, more than any other ten-year period – and there are some periods that are not represented at all (e.g. 1956-68). As for the five Nordic countries, Denmark, Finland and Norway are represented roughly equally but Sweden has nearly twice as many entries. There is no selection representing Iceland. And just in case you were wondering, besides Bergman and Andersson there are films from other internationally-known auteurs such as Carl Dreyer, Aki Kaurismaki and Lars Von Trier.

The reason I bought the book was because I needed a general introduction to Nordic Cinema and there is only this or the Routledge National Cinema series entry available at the moment. When I first realised that I hadn’t seen any of the films, my first reaction was very negative, but now that I think about it, there is still plenty to learn from the guide. All the authors except one are based at universities in Sweden, Finland, Norway or Denmark and this may partly explain the selections since presumably they have better access to the older films than most audiences outside the region. I’m not sure what to make of the exclusion of Iceland. In her introduction Tytti Soila explains that Iceland produced very few films before the late 1970s and that Icelandic film culture has had a tendency to look more towards Anglo-Saxon culture. It still seems a shame though that there isn’t one entry. (The introduction also points out that as well as the similarities which help the Nordic identity to be meaningful, there are also significant differences between each of the five countries.)

Soila’s introduction sets out the reasons for the approach to selection and the conscious attempt to avoid the “list of canonised feature films that the cultural industries, as well as literature abroad, usually present as ‘interesting’ or ‘culturally valuable’ or , even worse, ‘typical for Scandinavia'”. Thus the attempt to have a serious look at the porn films which helped several smaller companies stay in business at a time of crisis, at the folksy comedies and at the children’s films, advertising films and documentaries. The introduction is extremely useful and I hope that I can learn from the approach adopted in the chapters, even though I haven’t seen the film being discussed. It some cases I have seen other films by the same director or similar films by other directors. I should add that many of Roy Andersson’s other TV commercials are available on YouTube and very funny they are. I don’t think I can hold the editor of this collection responsible for the fact that most of these films are not available in the UK so having waited several months for Amazon to find me a copy I’m just going to read it and get the most from it that I can.