Monthly Archives: July 2012

MexFest, London, 17-19 August 2012

The inaugural MexFest runs in London in August. A celebration of Mexican film and culture, taking place at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, it spans three full days, starting on August 17th with the world première of Made in Mexico (Hecho en Mexico) by Duncan Bridgeman, followed by a concert from Amandititita the Mexican queen of Anarcumbia. We are happy to promote new festivals of global cinema so here are highlights from the website and the following sources:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/LondonMexFest

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/LondonMexFest

General Info: http://www.richmix.org.uk/whats-on/festival/london-mexfest/

Festival Highlights include:

  • World première Made in Mexico (Hecho en Mexico), a kaleidoscopic portrait of the music of Mexico, its people and their way of life, by UK filmmaker Duncan Bridgeman (dir. One Giant Leap), followed by a live concert from Amandititita, the Mexican queen of Anarcumbia, an urban blend of rock, reggae, rap, and traditional Mexican cumbia.
  • The festival closes with a screening of Daniel and Ana (Daniel y Ana), which follows the kidnapping of a brother and sister and is the first feature from acclaimed director Michel Franco (his second feature, After Lucia, won this year’s ‘Un Certain Regard’ prize at Cannes).
  • Documentary film highlights include award-winning The tiniest place (El lugar más pequeño), by Tatiana Huezo, which follows the struggle of five families to rebuild their lives in the middle of war and Draught (Cuates de Australia) by acclaimed director Everardo González.
  • Short film highlights include Carlos Cuarón’s The Second Bakery Attack starring Kirsten Dunst and Elisa Miller’s Watching it rain, winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes and two programmes of vibrant, short animations including the Best Animated Short at Morelia International Film Festival, Black Doll (Prita Noire).
  • Rare opportunity to view sci-fi classics from Mexico hardly screened before in the UK.
  • A series of talks with Mexican filmmakers.
  • A Sensory Pop Up Studio by Sight of Emotion charity.
  • The first ever UK exhibition of Lucha Libre photographs by Lourdes Grobet and the first ever projection onto the Rich Mix facade by renowned artist Tupac Martir, titled ‘The Gentleman, The Mermaid, Mexican Cinema, Lottery!’

LondonMexFest is part of the Shoreditch Fringe Festival www.shoreditchfringe.org


Access to African Cinema

‘Hyenas’ by Djibril Diop Mambéty

There are hundreds of films released every year in the US and the UK but films from one part of the world are still scarce. African films are screened only rarely and knowledge about African cinema is restricted. We are pleased therefore to promote two organisations doing something to plug the gap.

Cinémathèque Internationale of Philadelphia has launched a new film series in collaboration with the African American Museum of Philadelphia. The series will present one film every third Thursday of the month to be screened at the museum, located at 701 Arch St. Philadelphia, PA 19106. The programme began with Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl(Senegal/France 1966) and will feature Moustapha Diop’s The Doctor from Gafire (1986) in August. Jean‐Marie Téno’s 1993 political documentary Africa, I Will Fleece You!, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s surreal allegory Hyenas (1992), and Issa Traore de Brahima’s 2006 The World is a Ballet fill out the rest of the programme. The initial series ends in December with the locally shot Night Catches Us, a Black Panther narrative starring Anthony Mackie. Director Tanya Hamilton will be in attendance for a Q&A following the film.

The series programmer Neal Dhand says:

“It’s a great reflection of our combined mission: bring films, some of which have never been screened in Philadelphia, to a larger audience and open a discussion on the politics and issues at play, as well as the evolving cinematic values in African filmmaking and how they compare to the aesthetics that an American audience is accustomed to.”

So, if you can get to Philadelphia, you’ve got the chance to see some rare African films. The Cinémathèque is a repertory foreign film programmme curated by an independent media art collective. It shows a range of international cinema and we like the statement that heads its webpapges:

“Conceived to be hands-on and intimate, screenings are coordinated at various designated venues within Center City Philadelphia. The intention of these screenings is to expand the discussion surrounding international film language.”

You can subscribe to a newsletter from the Cinémathèque (via the website) and keep up to date with events.

In Scotland, African in Motion (AiM) offers something similar with screenings and discussions throughout the year and a festival in Edinburgh which this year runs from 25 October until 2 November with a theme of ‘Modern Africa‘. There will be a Symposium on African Popular Culture and a Short Film Competition. Screenings will be in both Edinburgh and Glasgow.

AiM lists a range of events that take place in Edinburgh and Glasgow and also provides news about other African cinema related events elsewhere in the UK and in Europe via its very useful newsletter. The festival has also been on tour around Scotland and the website has a resources section on how to buy African films. AiM also runs a Facebook page and a blog. It really is an excellent access point for African cinema and we like its approach, set out on the website:

“The main aims of the festival have been, since its inception, to introduce Scottish audiences to the brilliance of African cinema and to overcome the under-representation and marginalisation of African film in British film-going culture. We believe that the best way to learn about Africa is to listen to African voices and to view representations created by African themselves, as these often counter the stereotypical representations we see from Africa in mainstream media in the West. But our main reason for screening the films is because we believe they are great films which should be seen the world over. Over the past six years we have screened over 200 African films to audiences totalling around 15,000 people!”

Cross of Iron (UK/West Germany 1977)

Senta Berger and James Coburn (Grab from DVD Beaver)

Researching anti-war films for an event, I remembered Cross of Iron. Unfortunately, the current DVD from StudioCanal doesn’t have any of the extras which come with Sam Peckinpah’s Hollywood Westerns – but we do now have several books on Peckinpah that fill in some of the background to the production. The Region 2 DVD is the full length version, the equivalent of 132 mins in the cinema. I think the film was shorter on its original US cinema release. (There is now a Blu-ray disc that does have extras.)

Cross of Iron is a war combat picture set during the German retreat from the Crimea in 1943. It is most definitely not a ‘Hollywood’ film. The production was backed by the final survivor of the UK studio system, EMI, and the package was put together by a German independent producer whose background was in soft porn films. He had little experience of what was intended as a $4 million war film to be shot in Yugoslavia and post-produced at EMI studios in Elstree. Since Peckinpah was by this stage seriously out of control on cocaine and booze and the German producer didn’t have enough money to pay for all the necessary props, the whole thing should have been a disaster. Fortunately the outline story of the book on which the script was based (by Willi Heinrich, published in 1956) was one that Sam could identify with and he became fascinated by the archive footage used in German and Russian propaganda films that he found in Koblenz and London. The opening credits sequence which utilised these archive findings is as good as any of those in Peckinpah’s more famous films. Perhaps only Saul Bass was as good at creating credit sequences as Peckinpah. Bass used graphics, but Sam used editing. Peckinpah followers will recognise the use of children in the credits montage – much as in The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs.

As far as I can see the film extends far beyond the scope of the novel. The Hollywood screenwriter Julius Epstein (of Casablanca fame) was first attached to the project, but Peckinpah managed to ditch him and conducted a complete re-write with James Hamilton and Walter Kelley, two men with wartime experience. The plot of the film is straightforward, focusing on a single Wehrmacht company that is gradually destroyed as the Russians advance. There are several set piece battles in which Peckinpah’s crew attempt to represent major engagements using military equipment (and presumably extras) from the Yugoslav forces. But the real drama is the interplay between Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) and his men and with the three officers played by James Mason, David Warner and Maximilian Schell. Mason plays an old style Prussian Army colonel, Warner (in his third Peckinpah role) plays a seemingly anachronistic cynical/philosophical captain, perpetually drunk. Steiner is a professional soldier who has won the Iron Cross, saving his colonel (Mason). He is now devoted to his men but otherwise alienated from the army. Captain Kransky (Schell) is a Prussian aristocrat, recently transferred from France, who seeks an Iron Cross because his family honour expects it – but Kransky is a coward. Combat is thus as much between Steiner and Kransky as between the Russians and the Germans. The Russians are largely a faceless enemy appearing in great numbers, but first a young boy soldier and then a group of female soldiers are captured by Steiner’s men. These encounters ‘humanise’ the enemy – but they also both end badly and the representation of the women helped to fuel the debate about Peckinpah’s alleged misogyny. I think it likely that the producer insisted on both the Russian women and the bedroom scene with Senta Berger who plays a nurse looking after Steiner in an army hospital. Even so, I suspect Peckinpah wasn’t too unhappy to include the scenes.

What is most interesting for me is the range of responses to the film. I’m relying for background detail on David Weddle’s 1996 book (If They Move . . . Kill’ Em). He tells us that the film flopped badly in the UK and the US, but that it was one of the most successful films of its period in Germany and Austria and generally did well on the international market. I was surprised to find that despite its initial problems, the film now has American fans – its IMDB rating is 7.5. Even so there are many detractors and even some of the Peckinpah scholars seem to call the film wrongly. Several critics refer to this as a film which either depicts ‘Nazi soldiers’ or which ‘de-Nazifies’ the Germans by making the enemy Soviet Communists in a Cold War film. Several US blog posts are just completely wrong in their observations. One I read suggested that “Schell is one of the few German actors in the film”. In fact the entire squad, apart from Steiner and the officers is peopled by quite well-known German actors, helping to explain perhaps why, along with the casting of Schell and Berger, German audiences so took to the film. The same blogger (and many other commentators) see Mason as personifying a ‘good German’ as if this was simply a cliché or something reprehensible. There are few ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters as such apart from Captain Kransky. You could argue that Peckinpah helped to revise the Western by trying to present characters who have been brutalised by experience of violence in as humanistic a way as possible.

I did actually stumble across a neo-Nazi website which validated the film, but which called it a ‘Marxist’ representation of German history. Peckinpah’s politics were quite complex as far as I can see, but he wasn’t a Marxist – nor were his writers as far as I know. But Peckinpah is perhaps a combination of liberal and anarchist. The Peckinpah character here is Steiner who hates the army, officers in particular and his own government. His enemy, Kransky, is an aristocrat. The other officers are professional soldiers. There is only one Nazi amongst the soldiers and he is exposed and then tolerated. Stephen Prince, one of the best-known Peckinpah scholars makes a strange argument in his book Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies (1998) when he claims that Peckinpah misunderstood Brecht in using a famous quote from The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The play is Brecht’s satire on Hitler’s rise to power which uses an allegory about a Chicago gangster. The quote used by Peckinpah is: “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.” It appears at the end of the film (which lacks a clear narrative resolution, but implies that the main characters in the film are killed by Russian troops). Peckinpah was fond of quotes like this (Straw Dogs opens with a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, which is the source for the film’s title).

Prince argues that Peckinpah aimed to ‘de-Nazify’ Steiner and his squad and that using the Brecht quote was an insult to Brecht. Peckinpah didn’t understand Brecht according to Prince. This sounds like nonsense to me. As I’ve already noted, there is only one Nazi in the squad. The other soldiers are not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘moral’ men, but their loyalty is to each other, not to the Nazi Party. How could Peckinpah not know Brecht? He was a theatre scholar, he read widely and he directed experimental theatre in the late 1940s (see Weddle 1996: 68) He must have been aware of Brecht having been in Hollywood and his subsequent return to East Germany.

I’m not going to claim that I completely understand the closing section of Cross of Iron and therefore the use of the quote. But it seems clear to me that Peckinpah’s overall intention (and that of the writers and James Coburn) was to present the events as evidence of the futility of war and its consequences which included the barbarity of the battlefield and the corruption of the men who fought it. The opening credits montage intercuts images of children, including a Hitler youth group climbing a mountain, with the rise of Hitler and the gradual deterioration in conditions for the armies (German and Russian) on the Eastern Front. (Two separate music tracks are also intercut – one of children singing, one of martial music.) The closing credits repeat the contrast between children and Nazi officers – but now the images refer not just to partisan children executed by the SS and refugees from the front, but also children suffering in more recent conflicts such as Vietnam, the Middle East and Africa. One reading of the opening and closing of the film is that Hitler corrupted a whole generation of children, causing many to be killed or to become killers. In this context the Brecht quote seems appropriate, the corruption certainly hasn’t ended with child soldiers in Africa and conflicts across the world. For me, Cross of Iron works as a statement against war.

Here is the opening sequence (from the Region 2 DVD):

Monsieur Lazhar (Canada 2011)

Sophie Nélisse as Alice and Mohamed Fellag as Bachir Lazhar

Nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar, Monsieur Lazhar lost out to A Separation in February this year. No contest, you might think – but I wouldn’t have liked to choose between them. A Separation was the film shown in the UK last year and I don’t begrudge it any prizes. But Monsieur Lazhar is my film of this year so far. We had a quartet of star films from Cannes 2011 that opened here a few months ago, but they all signalled their qualities from afar. Monsieur Lazhar seemingly promises little – a new teacher takes over a class in a Montreal primary school after the sudden death of a popular classroom teacher in rather unfortunate circumstances. Against all the odds, the new teacher will triumph with his class and all will be well. Not quite. From the same producers who brought us last year’s Canadian triumph Incendies, this shows that Quebec cinema is on a hot run at the moment.

The triumph of this film is that it attempts a great deal with two strong central narratives – one about the school and one about the new teacher’s own story – which it succeeds in bringing together through a tight discipline of constraint. The script utilises five familiar types for the individuated pupils in the classroom but in the hands of director Philippe Falardeau the child actors (all excellent) are allowed to perform in an unrestricted way. The point about social types is that we recognise them for a good reason – we do commonly find them in society. Who can’t remember in their childhood the overweight klutz who is the butt of jokes, the kid who is always suffering from nosebleeds, the very bright one with obnoxious pushy parents? Occasionally Falardeau teases us with the possibility that the typical character will complete the typical behaviour and we will groan with the inevitability of it all – but each time he just stops as if the punchline is the restraint itself and then moves on to something else.

The school community itself is extremely well observed and the teachers are well cast, especially Danielle Proulx as the Principal. My viewing partner, with long experience of primary classrooms, said she would have loved to work in this school – a perfectly ordinary inner-city school with a nice mix of children from different backgrounds. For UK audiences caught up in the nightmare of the current government’s assault on the education system it’s fascinating to be offered a view of education seemingly from another time. It was only afterwards that we realised that here was a school in which there were classrooms with conventional desks, no sign of children with mobile phones  – and no computers! The new teacher finds a laptop on his desk and immediately tries to put it into his desk drawer (it doesn’t fit). I’m not sure if the school is meant to be representative of the Quebecois school system, but we haven’t seen classrooms like this for many years in the UK. But this doesn’t mean that the classroom issues aren’t still relevant – the layout of the desks, the appropriateness of reading material, discipline and most important of all the policy that doesn’t allow teachers to touch children in any way whatsoever.

I should explain that the reason why these all become issues is that the replacement teacher is Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian migrant who appears in the principal’s office like an angel when she is convinced that a replacement teacher is not going to be found  immediately. Bachir tells her that he is a permanent resident in Canada and that he has many years of teaching experience. Unfortunately neither statement is true. But he is clearly a decent man with an engaging personality and he gets down to work without any fuss.

The sudden death has upset the children in the class, especially Alice and Simon. Bachir finds himself at odds with the school in how they should deal with the trauma experienced by the children and with the children themselves over his very traditional ideas about classroom activities. What he decides to do is in some ways pedagogically conservative and he finds himself needing to adapt for a group of contemporary young Canadians. He sets them a dictation exercise reading from Balzac – perhaps a reference to Truffaut and the classroom in 400 Blows? On the other hand, his ideas about discussion of his predecessor’s death (which is still clearly an issue for the children) seems quite progressive compared to the strict use of sessions with a psychologist for the children at which he is not present. You may disagree, but this is the point, Bachir Lazhar is only like an angel in his ability to materialise when needed. Like everybody else in the school he has some ideas that work and others that don’t. This is carried through to the film’s resolution, which seemed fine to me – there is no feelgood Hollywood moment.

Monsieur Lazhar has a backstory that I won’t reveal but it means that his interactions with the other staff are sometimes a little difficult – i.e. there are other issues as well as his unfamiliarity with aspects of Quebecois culture. In her otherwise supportive review in Sight and Sound (June 2012), Hannah McGill suggests that the script is clumsy in the way some of these moments are handled and she implies that the plot needs contrivances to enable certain themes to develop. I disagree. I don’t mind plot contrivances – if the events themselves are believable and they all felt very recognisable for me.

The film is conventional and possibly ‘literary’. It’s based on a play written by Evelyne de la Chenelière, who has a small part in the film as Alice’s mother. The origins are evident in the limited locations used (mainly in the school or the homes of a limited number of characters). As I’ve indicated, the school itself may be a little anachronistic, but otherwise this is a straight realist drama. There was just one moment when I thought the film deliberately moved into fantasy (I’m probably remembering it wrongly, but I don’t think it matters). M. Lazhar is marking books at his desk in the school. It is evening and a general hubbub of voices, laughter and music is coming from a school party. M. Lazhar gets up, stretches and with his back to camera starts to dance. At this point, non-diegetic Algerian music comes on the soundtrack and his dancing becomes more sure in its movements. Pure magic! See the film if you can.

Here’s the official trailer (pretty good – doesn’t spoil the film):

En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair, Den/Czech/Ger/Swe 2012)

Mads Mikkelson as Struensee and Alicia Vikander as Caroline (photo by Jiri-Hanzl)

A Royal Affair was a major box-office hit in Denmark in March and has received some rave reviews in the UK and other European territories. It also appears to have done very well in Australia and it will open in North America in November through Magnolia. Perhaps we are seeing the return of costume dramas? The young female lead in this film, Alicia Vikander from Sweden, is next up in the Joe Wright/Keira Knightley version of Anna Karenina. She’s very good and definitely a name to watch.

A Royal Affair is an enjoyable and interesting film for many reasons. In one sense it is a familiar Nordic co-production, a €6 million budget film that easily holds its own against much more expensive British, French or Hollywood productions – demonstrating once again how Lars von Trier’s Zentropa has the capacity to be a major European producer. In the UK, part of the fascination with the film comes from the success of recent Danish and Swedish TV drama series showing on BBC4. The high quality of the performances in the film is enhanced for audiences who can also enjoy spotting familiar faces in the background. What is unfamiliar is the history – I suspect that the intricacies of Scandinavian and German history in the eighteenth century don’t feature strongly in the curriculum in most Anglophone countries. I confess that I had to do some digging to fully appreciate the story which is fairly closely based on the facts of a real ‘royal affair’.

Alicia Vikander plays Caroline Matilda, a member of the British Royal family and younger sister of the Prince of Wales. (Alicia’s father was German of course since the Hanoverian family ascended the British throne in 1701). Her arranged marriage to Christian VII lands her in Copenhagen in 1766 (when the real Caroline was just 15, he was 17) having to learn yet another language (she already spoke three or four). She is beautiful, intelligent and accomplished, but unfortunately Christian is an immature young man who may be mentally ill. Certainly he is unwilling or at least unconcerned about his marriage duties or running his country and Denmark-Norway is a reactionary state governed by a conservative council of ministers. Caroline herself is interested in the Enlightenment and is taken aback when her books are confiscated as ‘unsuitable’. She becomes embroiled, unwittingly at first, in a political narrative in which one group seeks to smuggle Enlightenment ideas into the court, exploiting the weakness of the king, while another, led by the Dowager Queen, seeks to replace the King with his younger step-brother. The agent of the Enlightenment group is Johan Struensee, a German doctor who is appointed as the King’s doctor. He manages to develop a strong bond with the King – and also with the Queen.

Struensee is played by Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps the biggest Danish star of the moment. He’s very good of course but perhaps just a little too rugged as a doctor and self-educated scholar. The King is played by Mikkel Boe Følsgaard who won the Berlin Film Festival acting prize for his performance – while still at drama school. It is certainly a remarkable performance. The three central characters are ably supported in what is on the one hand a relatively conventional ‘illicit romance’ narrative but on the other a powerful political thriller. The romance works pretty well I think and the costumes are gorgeous – I can imagine that the film will be enjoyed by the audience that sought out The Duchess.

The first few scenes of the film seem to promise a strong visual style but really what follows is fairly conventional and presumably limited by budget considerations. It still looks wonderful, however. More to the point, there is so much crammed in to the 137 minute running time that too extravagant a mise en scène might obscure the plot developments. I confess that my attention did wander in the middle of the film – but only for a moment. The script by director Nikolaj Arcel and his writing partner from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rasmus Heisterberg is based on a novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth. I think it works very well though I do have a few queries. At one point the King is distracted by being ‘given’ a young African boy, almost as a pet or playmate. He is told that the boy escaped from a Dutch slavetrader’s ship. He is delighted by something so ‘novel’. However, Denmark had its own slave ports in West Africa in the eighteenth century. Is this a deliberate obfuscation? The other odd aspect of the plot is that although we meet Caroline’s mother at the beginning of the film, after that we never hear any more about her family. When Caroline is later in difficulties it seems surprising that she never contacts her brother – who was George III, the British monarch and one of the most powerful people in Europe. History seems to suggest that it was the German connection that was the problem. All the royal families of Northern Europe seem to have been interconnected and family relationships were somewhat fraught.

I surprised myself by feeling quite emotional at the end of the film, partly because of what happens to the characters and partly because of the political outcome – perhaps this is a romantic melodrama/political thriller? On the latter score my feeling was that it is all very well reading Rousseau and Voltaire but as a young Queen it is advisable to watch your back and to read Machiavelli.

The official UK trailer:

Buck and the Preacher (US 1972)

Sidney Poitier as a Western hero

Following the release of the Harry Belafonte ‘bio-documentary’ Sing Your Song in UK cinemas, I decided to look at some of the Belafonte movies available on DVD. In all the coverage of the new documentary relatively little has been said about Belafonte’s film work – which though not extensive was important in the development of African-American cinema, not least because the actor-singer produced his own films at a time when few African-Americans had any direct power in the industry. Belafonte’s second independent production company, Belafonte Enterprises, made the film in conjunction with Columbia. Belafonte took the second lead, but the star and director of the film was Sidney Poitier (who took over from the first director, Joseph Sargent). Ruby Dee, often paired with Poitier as an actor and with Belafonte as an activist, was billed third. The script was by the distinguished TV writer Ernest Kinoy who had written another Sidney Poitier script, Brother John, a year earlier and who would go on to contribute scripts to the TV serial Roots (1977) and its sequel in 1979. The music for the film was composed by Benny Carter, the great jazz band leader, and includes contributions from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Buck and the Preacher belongs to the cycle of ‘revisionist Westerns’ in the early 1970s when the counter culture and the anti-war movement in the US managed to find an outlet in the New Hollywood. This was the period of Soldier Blue (1970) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), but the most popular Western of the 1970s was Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles (1974). What links these three very different films is a debunking of the mythology of the West and a reappraisal of the representation of characters who would later be known as ‘African-Americans’ and ‘Native Americans’. This same period also saw the commercial success of a range of ‘Blaxploitation’ films, led by urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and this development also included Blaxploitation Westerns, especially the cycle of films starring Fred Williamson – The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), its sequel The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (Black Bounty Hunter, 1974). The creation of Black ‘super-heroes’ in different settings attracted audiences (partly because of the provocative titles which created controversy) but didn’t really engage with the Western myths or the conventions of the genre as such. In his magisterial BFI Companion to the Western (1971), editor Ed Buscombe argues that Buck and the Preacher did precisely that – and that makes it an important film both for African-American cinema and the Western.

Outline

The narrative focuses on an aspect of American history largely neglected by Hollywood – the attempt by freed slaves from the South, after the Civil War ended, to head West on wagon trains, seeking new lands. Poitier plays ‘Buck’, an ex Union Cavalry sergeant, who sets himself up as a wagonmaster who will pilot wagon trains through hostile territory. He makes a deal with the local Native American chief to allow the wagon trains an unhindered passage, but he also has to battle a band of ex-Confederate soldiers. These men have been hired by plantation-owners in the South to drive the freed slaves back into low-paid employment in the cottonfields and their tactics are vicious and uncompromising. Ruby Dee plays Buck’s wife and Belafonte plays a con-man preacher who clashes with Buck but eventually forms an uneasy alliance with him to fight the ex-Confederates.

Analysis

The history of African-American cinema is usually presented via three distinct phases in Hollywood and then a question mark about what is happening today. In the first phase early American cinema and Hollywood in the silent era drew upon a range of Black stereotypes that had been developed in the nineteenth century. Donald Bogle’s ‘Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films’ revised in 1992 has the main title of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. These five types defined the roles offered to Black actors in mainstream Hollywood (although initially, following the practices of minstrelsy, white actors ‘blacked up’ for some roles). In the 1930s Black entrepreneurs struggled to offer an alternative to this Hollywood condescension but they did manage to produce low-budget independent Black films exploring popular genres – including Black Westerns such as the ‘Western Musical’ Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and the much earlier The Bull-Dogger (1922).

Hollywood eventually reacted to the potential of the Black popular audience with the gradual development of mainstream films with Black themes – and predominantly Black casting – by the late 1940s and early 1950s when Poitier and Belafonte were young actors seeking work. This was the second phase of African-American cinema with films that were presented as ‘liberal’ dramas attempting to deal with some elements of social realism. However, the old stereotypes remained in place. Sidney Poitier was the 1950s ‘good Negro’, essentially a ‘Tom’ derived from the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ruby Dee was the ‘good Negro wife’ and Harry Belafonte was seen as the ‘beautiful, sexy young man’ – the ‘Buck’ (which he resisted strongly and which no doubt was one of the reasons why he focused more on his musical career). The third phase was associated with the Blaxploitation cycle which critiqued the old stereotypes and the most immediate signal of change was evident in the casting of Poitier, quite literally, as ‘Buck’ with Ruby Dee still his wife, but now supporting him in actions which under the conventions of the Western represent resistance to the dominant ideology. Meanwhile, Belafonte is cast as the ‘Preacher’, a con-man role which featured in several of the earlier Black Westerns of the 1930s/40s.

Harry Belafonte as the long-haired ‘Preacher’

Buck and the Preacher is partly a comedy and that may be both why the film was a relative commercial success, but also why it hasn’t perhaps been given the status it deserves. As Ed Buscombe points out, the script is intelligent and knowing in its play with the conventions and the performances are very enjoyable. Poitier doesn’t just play the ‘Buck’, he overplays the role, sporting two mini-howitzers rather than conventional six-guns. There is an exhilaration in the way in which all three leads become ‘Western heroes’ and Bogle tells us that Black audiences cheered at the sight of the three heroes racing their horses across the screen pursued by a sheriff’s posse – I won’t spoil the narrative by revealing why they are on the run. The smiles are more wry in the key scene when Buck negotiates with the Native American chief who responds to the argument that Black and Red men have both suffered at the hands of the Whites by pointing out that Buck had served in the Union Army. This again feels like a commentary on Poitier’s previous roles in Hollywood – as well as, perhaps, a comment on the way in which Black soldiers had become a crucial element in the US Army in Vietnam.

I highly recommend the film as an enjoyable Western and a film that at least lifts a corner of the carpet under which the African-American experience of the ‘Old West’ has been carefully swept by Hollywood. You can download my notes on Harry Belafonte and Hollywood here: BelafonteNotes

The Hunter (Australia 2011)

Willem Dafoe is the hunter in a Tasmanian wilderness (photo: Matt Nettheim)

The Hunter is the kind of film that will enthrall many audiences and infuriate others. It’s an intelligent and well-crafted exercise in combining elements from several different genre repertoires and presenting them via great cinematography of relatively unusual landscapes. The performances are very good and there is an engaging sense of suspense. The film’s resolution will provide many audiences with the basis for arguments in the pub, although the script in the end is the weak point as it rushes to its conclusion with several narrative threads dangling. But this shouldn’t detract from the pleasure of watching the film in the cinema (and not waiting for it on DVD).

‘The hunter’ is a professional and at first we think he is a typical Hollywood/European hitman as he receives a commission – but quickly we realise that we have the wrong genre and instead we are plunged into a Deliverance-type story, set in an isolated part of Tasmania. ‘Martin David’ (Willem Dafoe) is given the task of finding the last surviving specimen of the supposedly extinct Tasmanian tiger in order to kill it and retrieve blood samples and organs which a typically mysterious corporation (‘Redleaf’) intends to use to develop new biotechnology products. The tiger’s last sighting was in a mountain region where a dispute about logging on the lower slopes between local loggers and a group of ‘eco warriors’ means that the hunter is less than welcome in the bar of the nearest town. However, unlike the hapless townies in John Boorman’s Deliverance, the hunter is highly capable of looking after himself and at times in the wilderness he resembles the John Rambo character in the first film of that series. However, The Hunter has another genre repertoire to explore. Martin’s cover story is that he is a university researcher and he has rented a room in a house in the forest owned by Lucy (Frances O’Connor) and her two small children ‘Sass’ and ‘Bike’. Lucy’s partner was a local scientist who disappeared on a trip into the wilderness. When he arrives, Martin finds Lucy crashed out on sleeping pills and he is greeted by the assertive Sass and her brother who refuses to speak but who has a remarkably expressive face. The narrative will allow plenty of time to explore the relationship between Martin and these children – and their mother when she eventually emerges.

So, self-reliant, professional hunter seeks prey but also has to deal with a grieving family and a hostile local community. On top of this, we may be in an eco ‘conspiracy thriller’ concerning Redleaf. It’s a fascinating mix and director Daniel Nettheim, cinematographer Robert Humphreys and composers Andrew Lancaster, Michael Lira and Matteo Zingales generally succeed in presenting a compelling narrative. It’s unfortunate that they never solve the central problem associated with a narrative built around two very different generic modes – the hunter in the wilderness and the family melodrama in the boarding house. It’s not that the two narrative strands aren’t connected – Martin builds a relationship with the mute boy that clearly has a relevance for his task in the wilderness. Rather it is the problem of frequent moves between the locations so that the mountain range where an extinct animal might have been spotted seems only a few miles down the road by car. The script by Alice Addison appears to have been developed from a previous adaptation of a novel by Julia Leigh, who last year saw her own film, Sleeping Beauty in competition at Cannes. I haven’t read the novel but some of the comments on The Hunter suggest that it doesn’t succeed in presenting the full complexity of the original story. I can only guess budget considerations and the possible uncommercial length of a ‘faithful adaptation’ gave rise to the compression of the film narrative in its final quarter. I can’t explain more without giving away the plot twists. My advice is to sit back and enjoy the film for what it is – an engaging twist on familiar genre narratives with great performances (Dafoe is perfectly cast) – but don’t try to second guess the plotting.