Daily Archives: April 18, 2013

BIFF 2013 #16: Somebody Up There Likes Me (US 2012)

Max (Keith Poulson) and his second wife Lyla (Jess Weixler)

Max (Keith Poulson) and his second wife Lyla (Jess Weixler)

BIFF19logoIn his introduction to the film, Festival Co-director Neil Young was careful to tell us that this was a ‘Marmite movie’ – some people love it, others hate it. I fear I’m unusual. It passed the time quite pleasantly after a beginning when I thought it was going to be awful. There were occasions when I laughed and I was always interested in what might happen next. The performances were generally good, the aesthetic was clean and bright and the animated chapter headings/intertitle cards that told us ‘5 Years later . . .’ etc. were very nicely done. I just can’t get too excited about it. That’s probably because of my general aversion to contemporary American Indies. Film festivals mean that you get to see some films simply because they are ‘there’ – and in this case because I wanted to see the short (more on that later). But what’s this film about, you ask?

The title isn’t very helpful (at least to me) and I don’t think the film bears any relationship to the 1956 boxing movie. Instead it features Max (Keith Poulson) a young man with seemingly few social skills who moves from one marriage to a second and then a second separation and a third relationship. Along the way he has a son and throughout he has a sounding board/friend/rival in the form of Sal (Nick Offerman). The wittiest scenes in the film involve these two exchanging misunderstandings. Max also has a suitcase containing something magical rather like the mysterious object in Kiss Me Deadly (but seemingly less dangerous!). The film’s other novel feature is that the central characters never age, but we see the evidence of time passing through Max’s son who is played by four different actors as he grows from child to man. The film’s Texan director Bob Byington (on his sixth feature) thanks both Richard Linklater and Terrence Malick in the closing credits but for me the reference point would be Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Or do all these Austin indies include a British pop song? The music in the film was quite enjoyable but it was a surprise when Sandie Shaw popped up. (The animated graphics are by Bob Sabiston who worked on Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and A Waking Life.)

Max may be autistic, but he may just be an example of indie cool. There are moments of casual racism and sexism which I think are meant to be taken ironically – in any case the three female leads easily match the men. After the screening I found people who did ‘really like’ the film and it has won festival prizes. It’s only 75 mins long and I think it’s out on DVD in the US.

BIFF 2013 #15: The Films of C. H. Wood

Filming at Listers Manningham Mill in Bradford. This shot shows a set-up in which Listers innovative velvet seat coverings for buses are explored. (Image from the C. H. Wood collection at YFA.)

Filming at Lister’s Manningham Mills in Bradford in 1955. This shot shows a set-up in which Lister’s innovative velvet seat coverings for buses are explored. (Image from the C. H. Wood collection at YFA.)

BIFF19logoOne of the definite achievements of British film culture, typically not celebrated by the national UK media obsessed by success in Hollywood, has been the development of Regional Film Archives to complement the National Film Archive. The Yorkshire Film Archive is celebrating its 25th Anniversary and it has recently merged with the North-East Film Archive to preserve a total of 50,000 film titles across the two regions. Several thousand hours of film, now part of the collection, came from a Bradford photography and film company set up by C. H. Wood which operated over eight decades before closing in 2002. The event at BIFF was presented by Graham Relton of the Yorkshire Film Archive who introduced a selection of clips across the range of productions completed by the company. The two sons of C. H. Wood who effectively ran the company from the 1960s onwards were in attendance.

I arrived late for the show and discovered a packed Pictureville Cinema with around 300 in attendance. I was lucky to eventually find a seat and although I missed a couple of clips, I’m sure I saw enough to appreciate what a terrific event this was. I should have guessed that there would be a large audience – my previous experience of these kinds of archive screenings has always been very positive in terms of audience reactions. We watched an extract from Crikey! (1947) a comic sequence from a film about Bradford’s traffic taken from a Road Safety film. Later we saw a 1980s public announcement film about the Green Cross Code with David Prowse (aka Darth Vader). C. H. Wood was well-known for aerial photography (and helped train photographers in the Second World War) but one of the main types of films made in the 1940s and 1950s were concerned with motor sports including motorcycle trial racing on the moors (this part of Yorkshire has produced world-class trial riders) and also Formula 1. We watched clips from the first win by a British Vanwall car driven by Tony Brooks and Stirling Moss at the 1957 Grand Prix held at Aintree, Liverpool – with pistons designed and produced by a Bradford firm! Other clips took us on a Wallace Arnold bus excursion and showed us all the various sports featured at Bradford’s famous Odsal stadium, the enormous arena that once reportedly held over 100,000 fans for a Rugby League Challenge Cup Final replay in 1954.

Shooting motorcycle trials. Image from the C. H. Wood collection at YFA.

Shooting motorcycle trials. Image from the C. H. Wood collection at YFA.

My two favourite clips were from a ‘works outing’ documentary and a corporate film for Lister, the Bradford textiles company. The works outing was from Salts Mill to celebrate 100 years of operation in 1953 and the large party took a railway excursion to Blackpool for the day. I now frequently visit Salts Mill and in 1953 I was a small child living in Blackpool, so this was a very personal viewing for me – and that is what archive film is often about. What was remarkable was the high quality of the camerawork and editing. Graham Relton told us that C. H. Wood became something of a ‘holder’ of films produced elsewhere in the city and this seems to be one of those films. We don’t know who operated the camera or who did the editing. In 1953 the 16mm cameras was an expensive piece of kit and the camera operator must have been trained. You can see the whole film (and others mentioned here) on the YFA website. What do you think of the footage?

The Lister’s film struck me as very revealing. The mill, a replacement for an earlier mill destroyed by fire in 1871, was the largest in the North of England. The Samuel Lister company was one of the major silk textiles companies in the world and Lister was a major innovator, especially in the production of velvet. The C. H. Wood film is a corporate promotion for the company. It reveals that everything in the production process was contained within the mill – which at one time employed 11,000 workers. We saw parts of this process, including the weaving of velvet and the testing of new dyes produced in the company’s own laboratories. In 1976 the company supplied velvet curtains to the White House. The business began to decline rapidly in the 1980s and the mill finally closed in 1992. I realised as I watched this colour film made in 1955 (30 mins with sound) by C. H. Wood just how much Bradford has lost because of the decline of the textiles industries in West Yorkshire. It wasn’t just the jobs in spinning and weaving, but all those technician jobs in the laboratories – and the associated engineering jobs.

At the end of the event David Wood answered questions from the audience, finishing by pointing out that the National Media Museum had been in Bradford for nearly 30 years and this was the first time he’d seen his films on the Museum’s screens. It’s good that omission has been put right and another similar event would be a good idea in future years. Meanwhile there is another opportunity to see archive films ‘made in Bradford’ on Friday evening at the Cathedral. There will be a posting on that event as well.

BIFF 2013 #14: The Sound of Old Rooms (Kokkho-Poth, India 2011)

Sarthak's son looks up at the old house

Sarthak’s son looks up at the old house

BIFF19logoKolkata is a city steeped in memory and cultural history. The principal city of British India, it has over the last fifty years fallen behind Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai in terms of economic development. But it won’t give up its self-image of ‘cultural capital’. 2011 marked 150 years since the birth of perhaps the greatest cultural icon in Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore – the Nobel Prizewinning writer of poetry and prose and the great polymath of Bengali culture. The Sound of Old Rooms is both a celebration of Tagore’s influence and cultural legacy and an attempt to look forward to the future. Sandeep Ray’s film focuses on teacher-poet Sarthak Roychowdhury. The filmmaker made an earlier film about the poet’s family and here he uses some of the earlier footage to trace the life of his ‘character ‘ from his college days through to the publication of a book of his poetry and up to fatherhood in his early forties. The 72 mins film uses a variety of formats from 8mm film to contemporary digital video footage.

For anyone who became interested in the world of Bengali students and aspiring intellectuals as seen in the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen in the 1950s and 1960s, this is a fascinating film. (But Sandeep Ray is not to be confused with Sandip Ray, the filmmaker son of Satyajit Ray.) But even without that background, audiences should quickly warm to the central character. Two of my favourite scenes concern the visits Sarthak makes to his literary agent/publishing broker. This wily character does a quick calculation on the margin of a newspaper page and agrees to find a publisher for Sarthak’s poems, confident that he will make a profit. Years later he appears to be hoarding the last few copies of the book which has nearly sold out its 500 copy print run and he tells Sarthak that Tagore didn’t have that level of success with his first publication. These are the kinds of scenes you don’t normally get in an arts documentary – the agent trying to open the bottle of booze that Sarthak has brought as a gift, Sarthak grilling the agent’s assistant to find out if there are secret copies. I like the reality of the writer’s life that the film presents. On the one hand, Sarthak has used up all his creative energy in producing this first book and faces the usual problem of how to follow it up. In the meantime he has to earn money giving home tuition and taking teaching jobs outside Kolkata. At one point he has to take empty beer bottles back to a shop and is dismayed that the return deposit rate has dropped. At other times he chides taxi drivers for trying to overcharge him by a rupee (a rupee is worth not much more than 1p in UK money).

But the film is also about Sarthak’s family and the old three-storey building in which they have always lived. We meet his parents and eventually his wife Ritu who Sarthak met at university. Sarthak’s father is mostly in the background but his mother and Ritu feature strongly. Sarthak’s relationships with the two women in his life are structured around tradition and modernity. At one point he reminds Ritu that she has come to live in Sarthak’s parents’ house just like his mother and his grandmother before her, but at another point he says “we got our Masters in friendship, now we’re working on our PhD in relationships”. Ritu and Sarthak’s mother are both strong characters and very likeable. The film is full of fascinating juxtapositions. In the cluttered old house with little more than a bed and some bookshelves, Sarthak and Ritu happily slurp bowls of Maggi instant noodles and in an old bar they discuss Gayatri Spivak (and Jacques Derrida in a taxi). At other times we see them taking train trips in much the same way as those characters in the earlier Bengali movies. Ritu teaches full-time up until the birth of her son. The birth changes the lives of Sarthak and Ritu and this is the film looking forward – even if the whole family will still be listening to the sounds of old rooms. Sarthak wants his son to be aware of the memories in the house even as he looks to the future.

This documentary has been very successful around the world and there is a useful Facebook page detailing its progress through various festivals. The filmmaker also has a website.

Here’s the trailer:

I found the film fascinating and hugely enjoyable. Sarthak is the filmmaker’s cousin and he participated in the production as well as being the subject. This relationship is only evident in the ease in which Sandeep Ray is able to present the events of Sarhak’s life on screen. There is never a moment when we feel that we are voyeurs or that the scenes are being manipulated for the camera. There are snatches of his poetry throughout and a music score by Sion Dey. I’d like to see the film again to get a full appreciation of both the poetry and the music. If you get the chance to see it, don’t miss it.

BIFF 2013 #13 1913 Massacre (US 2011)

356693254_640

BIFF19logoOn Christmas Eve 1913 in the mining town of Calumet, Michigan a group of miners and their wives and children were having a party in the Italian Hall when somebody shouted “Fire!”. In the ensuing panic, 74 people lost their lives, 59 of them children crushed and asphyxiated as they tumbled down the stairs. This happened during a strike at the copper mine. Ever since there has been controversy surrounding who started the rush for the doors and why so many died. In 1941 Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the events and called it ‘1913 Massacre’. In the documentary discussed here Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie plays the song in the town’s impressive theatre. A little later he visits the memorial for those who died which comprises a plaque at the sight of the last surviving brick arch of the Italian Hall (demolished in 1984). At the site of this memorial he tells us that he’s learned a great deal about American history over the years – not in a classroom or from a book, but from songs. The film turns out to be about the song, about the memories and about the narration of  history. And now this film has become part of that history. It’s clearly a history that needs to be retold for succeeding generations and also as an example of a ‘people’s history’.

1913 Massacre is a conventional documentary film but it is skilfully constructed so that it enables several discourses around the history, culture and politics as well as the personal tragedies of that day. Directors Ken Ross and Louis Galieri have put together eye-witness (or family memory) testimonies with home movies (what looks like 8mm and video footage), archive footage from the early twentieth century and even a corporate film from the mining company with Arlo Guthrie’s presentations to camera, his performances of the song and various statements by local historians. The filmmakers have worked on the film for many years, shooting hundreds of hours of interviews. Ken Ross is the filmmaker who has also taught film and Louis Galieri was first a university teacher of history and literature before moving into film production. The background to the filming of 1913 Massacre is covered on the detailed film project website.

I think I knew the name ‘Calumet’ but I certainly didn’t know the story and the film has resonated with me in many ways. Some years ago I remember being told about a similar incident in a Yorkshire coal-mining district during roughly the same period when 16 children died in a crush trying to leave a film showing in a public hall in 1908. This Wikipedia page also refers to an even worse disaster in Sunderland in 1883 when 183 children were killed in a crush at the Victoria Hall during a children’s variety show. Each of these three disasters took place in working-class communities in urban areas where the first mass entertainment venues were being developed. What was lacking was what we would now know as ‘risk assessment’ and specifically the development of ’emergency exits’ with doors opening outwards to allow crowds to ‘spill out’ in the event of fire or other emergencies. The direction in which the doors opened was a key issue in the Italian Hall disaster and discussion of this is supremely important in the film.

The filmmakers have found photographic evidence to show that the doors at the Italian Hall opened outwards, refuting what many of the townspeople have been told over the decades. Responses to the question “which way did the doors open?” are edited together with everyone saying “inwards”. It is then pointed out that it is suspicious when everyone trots out the same line. So, did someone block the doorway and then spread the rumour that the doors opened the ‘wrong way’? The film’s audience realises that the ‘disaster’ became a political issue.

Calumet was part of an extraordinary community in Northern Michigan in the 1910s. One of the biggest copper-mining regions in the world attracted migrant workers from Italy, Poland, Finland and many other parts of Europe. In 1913 workers began a major strike against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company – which didn’t want to see a unionised workforce and which persuaded the local authorities to send 2,000 armed National Guards to police the workers’ demonstrations. This was the context for the Italian Hall ‘massacre’ which the workers believed was started by a scab and exacerbated by deliberate police inaction/obstruction. The filmmakers present this material fairly dispassionately but in a key scene they record a group of supporters of the company who are then challenged by a previously ‘neutral’ speaker. In this way, the apologists are exposed. I wish I knew more about US labour history, but I’ve always thought that it was the brutality of the US capitalists and their hired thugs, especially towards migrant workers in the first three decades of the twentieth century, that prevented the development of democratic socialism in the US becoming part of mainstream political life and paved the way for the greedy materialist Amerika of the rest of the twentieth century. Imagine what a democratic socialist America might have done with all its wealth and the goodwill and hard work of its workers. Woody Guthrie had the imagination to promote that vision. “This land is our land” – for all Americans, not just the rich. That’s why he could see that the Italian Hall massacre was an important political-historical event.

Here’s the trailer:

and a short clip of the responses to the film after it was screened in Calumet:

The DVD of the film is available via the website. Watching the film brought back memories of similarly themed documentaries such as The Wobblies (1979), the story of the International Workers of the World (available in full on YouTube) and features such as The Ballad of Joe Hill (Sweden/US 1970), sadly unavailable and also Claude Jutra’s classic Mon Oncle Antoine (Canada 1971) set in a ‘company mining town’ in Quebec in the late 1940s. Watching 1913 Massacre in the UK on the day before the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the biggest union-basher in UK history, has made me think a great deal about the narration of ‘people’s history’. I suspect that I’ll return to these films.