Monthly Archives: May 2013

Rossellini #3: Europa ’51 (Italy 1952)

Rossellini on set with Ingrid Bergman and an unknown cast member in 'Europa '51' from: http://reflectionandfilm.blogspot.co.uk/

Rossellini on set with Ingrid Bergman and an unknown cast member in ‘Europa ’51’ from: http://reflectionandfilm.blogspot.co.uk/

Europa ’51 is an extraordinary film. It’s quite difficult to see outside Italy – although it has appeared on TCM in the US, the only DVD available does not have English subtitles according to Amazon’s contributors. I was overjoyed to stumble across a version online with English subs. It is an important picture from the period of Roberto Rossellini’s output during his relationship with Ingrid Bergman. In some ways it offers a link between Stromboli (1950) and Viaggio in Italia (1953), in others it relates to both Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950) and to the earlier neo-realist films of both Rossellini himself and Vittorio de Sica.

It was conceived as a commercial proposition – backed by the combination of Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis (for Lux Films), already producers who would go on to be the major figures in Italian production in the 1950s and 1960s. For Rossellini it was a very ‘personal’ project. In 1950 he married Ingrid Bergman soon after their son Robertino was born. The twins Isabella and Isotta Ingrid followed in 1952. Bergman scandalised American society when she left her first husband and her young daughter to live with Rossellini. This ‘betrayal’ was compounded by the ‘secondary circulation’ of Bergman’s star image which was informed by her roles as a nun in The Bells of St Mary’s (1945) and as Joan of Arc (1948). Stromboli had been financed by RKO in 1950 and had been a commercial flop in America. Europa ’51 was given the title The Greatest Love when it was eventually released in the US in 1954. Bergman’s husband in the film is played by Alexander Knox, the Canadian actor who was blacklisted during the McCarthy period in Hollywood. As with the other Rossellini-Bergman films, there were different cuts of the film for different markets. I saw the Italian cut in which Bergman and Knox are dubbed by Italian actors. There is also a version in which they dub themselves in English (the version seen in the US, I think). Rossellini created the film’s story himself and he co-wrote the script with several collaborators, some of whom, including possibly Federico Fellini, were uncredited. The music score, for what is certainly a melodrama, is by Rossellini’s younger brother Renzo and the cinematography – a major feature of the film – is by Aldo Tonti.

Outline (Some spoilers, but this isn’t a plot-driven film as such)

Irene and George Girard (Bergman and Knox) are a wealthy couple living in a spacious Roman apartment with servants and the use of luxury cars to get about the city. He is an American acting as the Rome representative of an American corporation. Irene’s family background is more complex. Her mother comes over from America, but she seems to have Italian relatives as well and she spent the war in London with her young son.

The film actually opens with an elderly couple on the Rome streets complaining about having to walk because of a transport strike. Irene then appears driving her luxury car (I wish I knew more about these models – it looks like a Bentley/Rolls/Jaguar). She is late because of the traffic problems and doesn’t have much time for her son Michele who has been home all day. There is a dinner party to be organised and Irene is busy. But during the dinner there is a dramatic incident that ends in tragedy and the boy dies after being hospitalised. Irene is distraught, blaming herself for his death and this ends the first part of the film.

Irene down by the river close to the shanty town and new-build blocks where she seeks some kind of penance.

Irene down by the river close to the shanty town and new-build blocks where she seeks some kind of penance.

Struggling to regain her confidence after days of retreating to her bed, Irene turns away from her family and goes to meet her cousin Andrea who is a campaigning journalist and a communist. He urges her to face the world and he tells her about a recent case covered by his paper of a child in a desperate condition because his family can’t afford the necessary medicine. Irene and Andrea visit the family and soon Irene is involved with a community of new migrants to the city living in the newly-built apartment blocks on the outskirts of the city in a district similar to that where De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is set. George and Irene’s other friends and family become increasingly concerned about Irene’s behaviour. This central section of the narrative reaches a climax at the end of which Irene is arrested because she has helped a young man escape from the police (though she has urged him to turn himself in). In the final third of the film, Irene’s relatives and the authorities conspire to place her ‘in care’ in a psychiatric institution.

Commentary

There are many ways in which to approach this film. In thematic/ideological terms it represents the tension between Catholicism and Marxism that seems to underpin the critical reaction to Rossellini’s work. It’s noticeable in the film how both the Marxist journalist and the Catholic priest are at a loss with how to respond to Irene’s behaviour in the latter part of the narrative. Rossellini’s aim appears to have been to explore what would happen if a figure like the 14th century San Francesco was to help the poor in contemporary Rome. Rossellini had just completed Francesco guillare di Dio (Francis, God’s jester) with a script he wrote himself with Federico Fellini. Francesco and his band of brothers represent the incarnation of love for all living things, impossible to beat down and always joyous. In what was perceived as the desperate and cynical world of post-war Italy – and indeed of Europe as a whole – the prospect of Franciscan love for community must have seemed attractive. In his commentary on the film from My Voyage to Italy, Martin Scorsese quotes Rossellini as stating in 1963 in relation to Europa ’51 that, “People can now only live in ‘society’ not in a community. The soul of society is the law, the soul of community is love”.

The Italian poster for the film emphasises the conventional melodrama device in which the woman looks into the mirror, creating two versions of herself.

The Italian poster for the film emphasises the conventional melodrama device in which the woman looks into the mirror, creating two versions of herself.

This is a powerful thematic and it is one of the foundations of the film’s greatness. Another is the luminous performance of Ingrid Bergman and the third is Rossellini’s aesthetic strategy. After the opening scenes in the opulent apartment that suggest traditional modes of melodrama, the scenes when Irene visits the shanty towns and new-build ‘worker’s flats’ move directly into neo-realist imagery. At one point, Irene spends a day working in a factory so that a woman with six children (played by Giulietta Masina) can look for a better job. This is an extraordinary expressionist sequence reminiscent of Chaplin’s Modern Times or Lang’s Metropolis. Europa ’51 is a full-blown melodrama and towards the end of the film Bergman becomes a saint in visual terms. She had already played Joan of Arc in Hollywood and she was around this time also touring with a stage presentation of Joan at the stake for Rossellini. The couple made their Joan film in 1954. Credit for the transformation must go to cinematographer Aldo Tonti as well as to Bergman herself and it doesn’t seem excessive to claim that the film’s narrative development is played out through the changing presentation of Bergman’s extraordinary face.

I haven’t been so impressed by discovery of a ‘classic’ film for a very long time. If you get the chance, do watch this film.

In researching this film I came across this excellent collection of posts on Rossellini’s films with useful screengrabs.

Rossellini #2: Paisà (Italy 1946)

Roberto Rossellini (standing beneath the lighting reflector) on location in the Po valley for Paisa.

Roberto Rossellini (standing beneath the lighting reflector) on location in the Po valley for Paisà.

This is another earlier set of notes from 2006, now slightly updated during current work on Rossellini.

The second of Rossellini’s post-war films, Paisà (‘countryman’) is often quoted as the film that comes closest to the neo-realist ideal that Rossellini himself described some years later. If neo-realism was concerned with ‘finding’ stories in the world rather than imposing a fictional narrative on a location, then surely Paisà is that film. Equally, it meets the criterion of a film that refuses to be an ‘entertainment’ and speaks directly to the memory of the recent past. As the Taviani Brothers, filmmakers themselves who were inspired by Rossellini when they saw the film in 1946 as teenagers, have commented: “It presented what we had just experienced, but now we understood that experience through the presentation on the screen”.

Paisà tells the story of the Allied (here, very much the American) advance through Italy, from the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 to the fighting in the North in the winter of 1944, and their interaction in each episode with the partisans and ordinary Italians. Different characters appear in each of six separate episodes – there is no possibility of us identifying with an individual American hero who ‘makes it through’ (or indeed with a British squad like that in The Way Ahead, UK 1944) to a triumphant conclusion with a German defeat.

The story derives, in Rossellini’s terms, from the concrete reality of the situation and the approach he takes to the production supports this aim. The six episodes are intercut with actual newsreel footage, titles and voiceover in such a way that it is difficult to distinguish ‘real’ from staged footage. The Americans in the film are professional actors (but not ‘stars’), but many of the Italians are played by local people in the ‘real’ locations which Rossellini uses whenever possible. In the final episode, the incidents are based on events recounted by the ‘real’ partisans. The bleak ending of the film would not be possible in a Hollywood film, but for Rossellini it is not the end of the ‘story’. As Bondanella (1993) points out, for Rossellini the ‘reality’ is the triumph of the human spirit over adversity as understood in Christian philosophy. When the film begins, the Americans and the Italians are clearly unknown to each other, but the experiences they have through the course of the narrative prove their humanity and the development of their understanding. Pierre Sorlin suggests that:

Paisà might be considered as a history film – but it is a history not told from without by a historian trying to clarify the issue. It is the subjective, intuitive vision of an Italian who thanks the Allies for their support and condemns them for having taken so much time and let so many Italians be killed. Open City asserts the cohesion of the Roman population, Paisà wonders what has been left of Italy after two years of war. (Sorlin 1996: 101)

Sorlin’s comments prompt some consideration of the British characters in Episodes IV and VI, who seem (at least the military, not Harriet) to be ineffectual and arrogant. This may just be Rossellini recognising that the Americans were paying for the film.

The partisans and the Allied agents on the Po delta.

The partisans and the Allied agents on the Po delta.

Episode IV and Episode VI feature the use of Rossellini’s ‘long shot, long take’ approach to action. The argument in favour of the long take and the long shot is clearly demonstrated in the production still above. We are presented with a series of long takes in which the action unfolds, often in relatively long shot. The scenes are carefully orchestrated to flow almost seamlessly. Although there is clearly a ‘leader’ (the American officer), we are not invited to adopt his viewpoint. When mid-shots or medium close-ups are used, they pick out particular narrative incidents rather than develop individual characters. Most of all, the camera is used to create for us the viewpoint of the partisans who live in this unique environment. As André Bazin writes:

. . . the horizon is always at the same height. Maintaining the same proportions between water and sky in every shot brings out one of the basic characteristics of this landscape. It is the exact equivalent, under conditions exposed by the screen, of the inner feeling men experience who are living between the sky and the water and whose lives are at the mercy of an infinitesimal shift of angle in relation to the horizon (Bazin 1971:37) )

Robin Wood (1980) makes some important observations which place the analysis of style and content in Paisà in context. He reminds us that what distinguishes Rossellini is his refusal to make a ‘well-made film’ and that his placing of the camera is governed by a desire to reveal the actions of characters and their consequences. Comparing the final episode of Paisà with the famous Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, he comes down on the side of Rossellini who, unlike Eisenstein is not producing a film from a position of having triumphed in the Revolution. Instead, Rossellini’s camera suggests: . . . “total instability, the sense of a world where nothing is certain except ultimate desolation, physical and emotional, a world of random and casual cruelty . . . “ (Wood 1980: 889) In other episodes, especially the one with the MP and the boy, Wood sees Rossellini as undermining our expectations of conventional stories with familiar ‘types’ and predictable outcomes, “leaving us in every case, not only without complacency, but without hope”.

Paisà was, not surprisingly, shunned by popular audiences in Italy at the time, but does it work now to bring home the horrors of war and the capacity for human suffering? We could argue that Paisà was the ultimate achievement of Rossellini’s neo-realist approach. Its episodic structure, long shot compositions and avoidance of star performances focuses absolutely on the concept of liberation won by partisans and soldiers en masse.

References

André Bazin (1971) ‘An Aesthetic of Reality’ in What is Cinema?, Vol. II (originally published in Esprit, January 1948), Berkeley, Cal: University of California Press

Peter Bondanella (1993) The Films of Roberto Rossellini, Cambridge: CUP

Pierre Sorlin (1996) Italian National Cinema, London: Routledge

Robin Wood (1980) ‘Roberto Rossellini’ in Richard Roud (ed) Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, London: Martin Secker & Warburg

Roy Stafford 20/5/06

Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002) – Narrative, Genre and Representation

Jess is surrounded by her teammates when it looks like she will be unable to play.

Jess (Parminder Nagra) is surrounded by her teammates when it looks like she will be unable to play.

This is one of our occasional archive publications of notes on specific films for film and media studies students. These notes were originally published in 2004.

Introduction
Bend It Like Beckham (BILB) is in many ways an excellent case study for British film, in terms of both ‘industry’ and ‘culture’. The release of the film in the UK in 2002, during the run-up to the football World Cup (at a time when David Beckham’s injury was front page news), represented something of a gamble for the distributor Helkon, with a wide release on over 380 prints – the kind of release usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. The gamble paid off so well that the film became the most successful ‘non-Hollywood’ British film of the modern era with a UK box office of over £11 million. The ‘universality’ of the central theme then went on to win large audiences in North America where the ‘Beckham factor’ was (then) of little importance. An American box office of $32 million and healthy returns in Australia, India, France, Italy and Germany guaranteed that director Gurinder Chadha would have carte blanche for her next project. Keira Knightley, the second lead in the film also become ‘hot property’ with subsequent starring roles in major American films. (Parminder Nagra had success on US TV, but nothing like that of Knightley.)

The success of the film was also associated with the way in which it presented aspects of British Asian life in accessible ways for a mainstream audience – attracting little or no controversy in the process (cf East is East, 1999). These notes will discuss the film in terms of narrative, genre and representation and also raise questions about contemporary British Cinema.

SynopsisSPOILERS (These notes discuss the film’s narrative in detail, so this is a full synopsis)

Jess Bhamra is an 18 year-old school-leaver who dreams about football and being able to ‘bend’ a ball like David Beckham. Her mother expects Jess to follow tradition in their Punjabi Sikh family and prepare for marriage, like older sister Pinky (but only after she has got a degree). One day in the local park, Jess is spotted playing football by Jules who is a member of the Hounslow Harriers women’s football team. She invites Jess to watch the team play and persuades the coach, Joe, to give Jess a trial. Jess is accepted but she decides to keep her new activity secret from her family. Mother finds out and tries to stop her, but Jules persuades her to carry on (being similarly under pressure from her own mother, who worries that Jules is too ‘tomboyish’). Preparations for Pinky’s wedding are in full swing, but Jess uses her clothes budget to buy new football boots – angering her parents. Jules gives her some suitable shoes but the two are seen by Pinky’s future parents, who thinking Jules is a boy, declare that Jess brings shame on the family and they call off the wedding. Jess is banned from football. Joe visits the family to plead her case. He fails, but Jess is determined to carry on and secretly joins the team on a trip to Germany where Jules sees for the first time that Jess and Joe are attracted to each other.

Mr Bhamra has worked out what is happening and meets the team on their return. He despairs of Jess and Pinky. Meanwhile, Jules falls out with Jess. Mrs Paxton overhears the row, convinced it is a lovers’ tiff. Jess confides in her cousin Tony and discovers that he is gay – but his family don’t know. Jess is playing in a game when her father sneaks in to watch. Jess is pumped up and gets sent off. Father discovers Joe comforting Jess. When they return home, Teetu’s family have come to rescue the marriage. The new wedding date clashes with the final of the football competition. Jess gets her A Level results, but Jules is looking forward to the American scout seeing her play.

On the day of the wedding, Father relents because Jess looks so unhappy and he allows her to leave the reception to play. Jess scores the winning goal – ‘bending it’. Jules and her mother arrive at the wedding and cause a scene because Mother sees Jules kiss Jess. At Jess’ house Tony tries to help Jess by telling the family that they are getting married. But Jess wants the truth – she announces that she has won the scholarship in America and her father says she can go. Jess goes to see Joe – she tells him she can’t start a relationship, but she offers hope. David Beckham is glimpsed in the airport as the girls fly off.

Gurinder Chadha
Gurinder Chadha was born in Kenya, but brought up in the UK, in Southall, West London. She first came to attention as a features director in 1993 with the release of Bhaji on the Beach, a social comedy which followed a group of Asian women on a day trip to Blackpool. In the best traditions of the genre, the narrative of this film provided the opportunity for women of different ages to exchange ideas about men and their own lives. The Blackpool setting also allowed some comic moments of culture clash. Overall, however, the film offered a serious discourse about the issues facing Asian women in Britain and it found an appreciative audience, despite restricted distribution.

“You have tradition on the one side and modernity on the other, Indianness on the one side, Englishness on the other, cultural specificity and universality – but in fact there is a scale between each of these polarities and the film moves freely between them.” (Gurinder Chadha quoted on www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/502103/)

In 2000, a second feature, What’s Cooking? moved Chadha to Los Angeles and a multi-strand narrative about four families from different ethnic backgrounds experiencing familiar domestic problems which are brought into focus by the pressures of Thanksgiving Dinner. Again more of a critical than a commercial success, What’s Cooking confirmed Chadha’s skills as a filmmaker and her ability to explore cultural diversity without emphasis on cultural difference.

Recipe for Success

It’s difficult to escape from culinary puns in describing Gurinder Chadha’s work and Bend it Like Beckham was presented with the tagline “Who wants to cook aloo gobi when you can bend a ball like Beckham?”. Much of the success of the film derives from perfect timing in combining an interest in football and celebrity, at a time when ‘Beckham mania’ was beginning to peak in the UK, with the increasing popularity of Indian culture and all things ‘Bollywood’. A further significant factor in easy recognition in the UK was the success of the television series Playing the Field (1998-2002) created by Kay Mellor. This series had already introduced the idea of women’s football as an interesting site for dramatic narratives. Although the series generally concentrated on older women players, it was important in appealing to a female audience, especially an older audience, notoriously difficult to attract to cinema features.

Overall, BILB can be seen as a British ‘feelgood’ film which appealed to audiences much in the same way as The Full Monty (1997) and Billy Elliot (2000). It differed in being ‘Southern’ rather than ‘Northern’ and female-centred rather than male-centred. It is also ‘feelgood’ in a British Asian context. The more affluent Punjabi/East African Sikh family setting also distinguishes the film from the other major British Asian comedy success, East is East (which like the other two examples represented Northern working class life). For the British film industry, the most important difference between BILB and the other films mentioned here is that it was made and distributed without Hollywood studio money. The rather complicated financial arrangements saw the lead taken by the German media group, Helkon AG which set up a distribution arm in the UK, eventually taking a 51% stake in the UK ‘start-up’ company, Redbus (which itself had hired staff from the disbanded Polygram distribution arm in the UK). Helkon has since gone into bankruptcy in Germany, but Redbus survived (and was sold to Lionsgate in 2005). German and British money went into BILB, but essentially it is a ‘British’ film.

It is worth noting that BILB breaks many of the ‘rules’ that low budget British films being ‘groomed’ for feelgood success are normally expected to follow. The film is arguably too long for its subject matter at 112 mins (80-95 mins. is the norm for a film of this kind in the UK). It does not boast either the ‘star’ cameo performance of a Julie Walters in Billy Elliot (Juliet Stevenson could be argued to fill this role, but her star status was less established) or the leading role recognition of Robert Carlyle in The Full Monty. Similarly, the film lacks the range of familiar ‘character actors’ and the ‘gritty’ social realism of films like Brassed Off (1996).

BILB is in many ways a youth picture, but one more in the mould of a Hollywood ‘teen picture’ rather than a British ‘social problem’ film. (Youth pictures in the UK have often concentrated on the problems associated with young people – drugs, delinquency etc. – rather than on their aspirations.) Youth pictures, by their very nature feature tend to feature younger, lesser known actors. They also tend to feature popular music and this is certainly the case with BILB which not only sports an extensive range of music clips, but also uses them in a series of montage sequences, often associated with football training and action from featured games. The reliance on these montage sequences is perhaps the defining stylistic feature of the film. (The film is in the main very conventional in terms of aesthetics. It is filmed on location with studio inserts for the Bhamra home. Apart from a couple of crane shots and extensive steadicam work on the football field, camerawork is not particularly expressive.)

Narrative

The central idea of BILB is the linking of two ‘conflict narratives’ – effectively doubling the narrative potential. The first narrative concerns the attempts of Jess (Jasminder, played by Parminder Nagra) to live her life ‘independently’, according to her own interests rather than those expected of her by other family members, and especially by her mother. The second narrative concerns the possibility of women’s football as the basis for a successful career (i.e. rather than as a recreational activity) – something which is extremely difficult in a British context.

A different way to present this ‘double’ would be to assess the problems or barriers facing Jess. She wants to be a footballer, but not only is she a woman, but she is an Asian woman. Note that the image of ‘Asian woman footballer’ has to contend not only with the concept of a young woman challenging traditional roles for women in British Asian families, but also the almost complete absence of Asian role models in professional British football. In this sense, the narrative of BILB is set up like a traditional Hollywood ‘quest narrative’. Jess might as well be tackling dragons and wizards, so fantastical does the challenge sound.

The other characters in the film are all developed in relation to Jess’ quest. Jules, played by Keira Knightley, at first appears to have so many advantages in her parallel quest for football success – not least her greater experience and her height and athleticism. But Jules has to contend with her mother and her fears about lesbianism. Mrs Paxton provides a kind of counter-balance to the similar negative feelings of Jess’ mother.

It is noticeable that in contrast to other British Asian films (My Beautiful Laundrette, East is East, My Son the Fanatic) – all of which feature British Muslim families – the main dramatic focus is on the mother figure. This does not mean that father does not have an important role, only that the opposition to Jess comes mainly from her mother. Interestingly, it is only via the father and his memories of playing cricket in Kenya that the film makes direct reference to forms of institutional racism. Father is a patriarchal figure in this Sikh family, but he is also prepared to be flexible in dealing with his daughter.

The other characters in the film have similar personal battles that contrast with those facing Jess and to some extent provide other dimensions to her struggle. Sister Pinky offers a stereotype of a young British Asian woman who can be both ‘modern’ (in dress and appearance and in attitudes towards sex with her boyfriend) and ‘traditional’ in the way she accepts that she must marry according to the customs of her community.

Tony carries a secret that he cannot reveal to anyone other than his cousin, Jess. His gayness is even more unacceptable to the family. Joe carries several burdens – he is estranged from his father, has had to give up his career as a player and is unsure about his future as a coach. In dramatic terms, both Tony and Joe are seen as supportive of Jess – almost as if they sympathise with her position or because they want to see her succeed where they can’t. The male power in the film lies with Mr Bhamra and it is because he is understanding that a resolution is possible.

The two narratives come together in the final act with the crosscutting between the wedding and the football final.

Representation

The representation issues in the film clearly relate to gender and ethnicity. Less obvious are the questions about social class, which are raised less by the film itself and more by audiences attempting to read the film. BILB is essentially a (young) woman’s film. Gurinder Chadha herself has said that she got the idea for the film after watching the reactions to England’s failure in the 1996 European Nations Cup. She was intrigued by the prospect of putting an Indian girl into the ‘testosterone-fuelled’ world of British football. At the centre of the film is the mother-daughter relationship in the Bhamra household. The similar relationship in the Paxton household emphasises this relationship. For Jess, the alternatives seem to be the life as mapped out for Pinky or the camaraderie of her teammates.

Shaheen Khan as Mrs Bhamra, playing older than herself and representing a woman of her own mother's generation.

Shaheen Khan as Mrs Bhamra, playing older than herself and representing a woman of her own mother’s generation.

Chadha has also stated that many of the lines of dialogue attributed to the two mothers came from her own experience – listening to her own mother and the mothers of her (white) friends. She suggests too, that young British Asian women went back to see the film for a second or third time, just to hear how Jess’ mother berates her. (Comments taken from the DVD commentary.) Here we have confirmation of one of Richard Dyer’s arguments about representation. Gurinder Chadha as writer/director ‘speaks’ in the film. Hers is the authentic voice of a woman brought up in an Asian family in Britain. This is further emphasised by actors playing older than their real ages (Shaheen Khan as Mrs. Bhamra and Harvey Girdi as Teetu’s Mum) – effectively playing their own mothers. How audiences read these scenes depends very much on how ‘real’ they take the situations to be. (It might be argued that while the plot is formulaic, with its expected actions and its repetitions, the confrontations themselves ring true.)

The contrast between Jess and Pinky is expressed in a number of ways. Dress and appearance are important, but casting and acting style contribute as well. As Pinky, Archie Panjabi has to suggest the modern/traditional contradiction of a particular kind of Southall girl. Parminder Nagra was 27 when she played Jess as an 18 year-old and she has an uncanny ability to look even younger at times – to be almost childlike. But in some of the later scenes with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, with her hair down, she looks much older (older than him in fact). This switching suits her character which is innocent and direct, but also capable of maturity. In this respect she represents authenticity – Pinky seems a much less mature woman. Other issues surround Pinky’s behaviour. She hasn’t gone to college which might affect her ‘marriageability’ and she has also slept with Teetu, another mark against her in the marriage stakes for a traditional community. Yet, she does love Teetu and she wants to marry him for love, not just because the families approve. So there is an ‘authenticity’ about her behaviour.

The running joke about food also becomes part of the discourse about gender and ethnicity. In the famous line that developed into the tagline for the film’s poster campaign, “Anyone can make aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”, Gurinder Chadha is again making a reference to her own childhood and the traditional view that a young girl must be taught by her mother how to make a ‘full North Indian meal’. The DVD commentary is again interesting on this point and provides an explanation for the scar on Jess’ leg. The explanation in the film is that this is the result of an accident when she was heating up baked beans as a child and her trousers caught fire. Gurinder Chadha tells us that this is what really happened to Parminder Nagra.

Ethnicity

BILB is a film in which, although ‘ethnic difference’ is several times the basis for comedy or dramatic effect, it is almost never a ‘problem’. The film is set firmly within the community that has produced both the filmmaker and the story. Gurinder Chadha is completely ‘at home’ and the narrative is infused with her love and affection for her family. There are only two moments in the film where racism becomes an issue.

One is when Mr Bhamra recalls his own treatment as a cricketer from Nairobi who is excluded from a local club in England. He goes on (with complete justification) to point out to Joe that there are no British Asian players in the Premiership. “They won’t let our boys in, so what hope is there for Jess?” Jess responds by saying that Nasser Hussein became the England cricket captain. The argument ends, but in the credit sequence at the end of the film, we see Joe bowling to Mr Bhamra on the green outside the Bhamra house, with all the players properly dressed in cricketing whites. (The same experience is also used in the closing scenes to explain why Mr Bhamra let his daughter play in the final – he wants her to make decisions in which she wins and doesn’t regret.)

Mr Bhamra (played by Hindi cinema star actor Anupam Kher) backs Jess partly because of his own frustrations over institutional racism that stopped him playing cricket.

Mr Bhamra (played by Hindi cinema star actor Anupam Kher) backs Jess partly because of his own frustrations over institutional racism that stopped him playing cricket.

The second moment of potential conflict over racism comes when Jess is sent off in the match watched by her father. After the game, Joe berates her. She tells him that he wouldn’t understand, because the opposing player had called her a ‘Paki’ and that is what caused the incident. Joe responds with “Of course I understand. I’m Irish.”

It could be argued that in both these instances, the reference to racism in UK society ‘works’ in a narrative sense, especially in the case of the father’s actions. However, it could be argued that both offer a fairly rosy view of UK life from within an established and confident community. Racism in UK sport is still very much a ‘live issue’ and the different experience of immigrant groups in the UK is not to be discounted. These representations also become problematic for audiences in other territories (see comments below on social class).

Social class

Issues of social class remain a problem for UK filmmakers. Despite the protestations of politicians about the creation of a ‘classless society’, most British films are read by audiences in class terms. In other words, audiences make sense of what happens on screen because of their own knowledge of the nuances of social behaviour and they choose the films they want to watch, partly at least, on the basis of what they assume to be the audience address of the film. So, for example, films such as Notting Hill (UK 1999) or Love Actually (UK 2003), written by Richard Curtis are perceived as ‘middle class films’. In the most extreme recent example, most (middle class) UK film reviewers fell upon the comedy Sex Lives of the Potato Men, which they identified as a ‘working class film’.

Many of these differences are difficult for overseas audiences to follow. This is important because most British films need overseas sales to make significant profits. Successful films abroad have tended to celebrate a certain (arguably nostalgic and certainly ‘realist’) view of working class communities in the North of England or selected areas of London. Alternatively, they have attempted to promote a generally affluent England (i.e the South East) with as few local ‘quirks’ as possible. BILB falls some where between the two. It is set in a definable and recognisable place – the borders of Southall, Heston and Hounslow, west of London. The houses where the two lead characters live are ‘semi detached’ and suburban. The Bhamra house looks out onto an attractive green or common. Location, and especially housing, have always been key indicators of class in Britain.

Given the high cost of housing in contemporary London, these houses scream ‘middle class’, especially to audiences outside the capital. Yet, the narrative information suggests that the Paxton family is to be read as ‘nouveau riche’ ( a view supported by the DVD commentary). Social class in the UK is judged not by money, but by education, taste, ‘lifestyle’ etc. The gauche behaviour of Mrs Paxton (plus her accent, dress etc.) are crucial. The Bhamra family is rather different. In East Africa the family would have been relatively wealthy. On arrival in the UK, they would have had to rebuild their lives – thus the early struggle and the need to work overtime etc. Because of the extended family system and the family work ethic, as well as other factors, many such Punjabi and Gujurati families have been able to achieve material success in the UK relatively quickly. The development is emphasised in BILB by the fact that Jess is qualified to enter university, unlike her older sister. Mr Bhamra’s uniform suggests that he has progressed in his Heathrow job, although precisely what he does is not clear. Note also that he reads the Guardian – a sure sign that he associates himself with a liberal middle class. It isn’t possible to pigeonhole the Bhamras. ‘Lower middle class’ might be the best description. What is important is that the film goes to some lengths to avoid the possibility that audiences will make an automatic assumption about social class and ethnicity. In this respect a comparison with My Son the Fanatic (UK 1998) is useful. In this contemporary melodrama, the Bradford setting for a taxi driver’s family suggests a more traditional Northern working class community in which a second generation Muslim youth is growing up (although again this film shows different experiences within the Muslim community).

The confusions in BILB for North American audiences are neatly summed up in these two quotes from review articles:

What sets Bend It Like Beckham apart, however, is that director Gurinder Chadha exposes the social and historical context that drives this personal story. In a brilliant scene not central to the plot, Chadha subtly draws attention to Jess’ class background when she reveals a gruesome burn that she suffered as a young girl fixing her own dinner while her mother worked the night shift at London’s Heathrow Airport. Chadha is equally skillful in revealing the racist white English culture that keeps the girl’s parents, despite their rise from their working class immigrant roots into the middle class, in a space of cultural seclusion.

It is a theme to which many Asian Americans can surely relate. Perhaps it was easier for Asian American college students to buy into the hype of Better Luck Tomorrow (US 2002) because of that film’s middle class ennui in contrast with the immigrant politics of Bend It Like Beckham. (from: ‘Better Buzz Tomorrow’, Anmol Chaddha, 6/5/03 on Alternet.org)

and . . .

In promoting Bend It Like Beckham, Chadha implores, “the film celebrates the processes of cultural change, the experience of living in a diverse environment from one generation to another and not only the difficulties involved but also the pleasures in becoming more integrated.” Yet surely the film shows that whites next door to a south-east Indian wedding celebration can continue to live in blissful ignorance of the party going on next door. Where interracial alliances are shown, we find the new lower middle class in England comprising well-educated visible minorities reading the Guardian alongside the Del-boys (or Boycies) made good – white English (who are impressed by the respect for elders in ‘exotic’ cultures) or Irish (who are allowed to – absurdly – explain that they understand what being called a ‘Paki’ means) individualists from working class backgrounds. (Daniel McNeil, University of Toronto, in The Multiracial Activist, April/May 2003)

The first of these quotes is from an Asian American, praising BILB in comparison with a recently released Asian American film. The second is a Canadian postgraduate student who clearly knows British culture very well. Taken together (and putting aside understandable American confusion with class boundaries in the UK), the comments are reminiscent of those in the debates that surrounded The Cosby Show on US (and UK) TV in the 1980s. Bill Cosby was at the time, the highest paid performer on US television and he produced his own show which a middle class African American doctor and his beautiful and talented family in a sitcom. Black audiences were divided between those who enjoyed the assertion of family values and saw the show as ‘aspirational’ and others who were concerned that it was not representative of the lives of most African Americans at the time. Similar feelings were expressed in the UK.

Jess and Pinky (Archie Panjabi) represent nuanced differences in second generation British Asians – but the wedding is a possible shared experience if it wasn't for football.

Jess and Pinky (Archie Panjabi) represent nuanced differences in second generation British Asians – but the wedding is a possible shared experience if it wasn’t for football.

The main ways in which the film represents Punjabi identity is through the narrative leading up to the wedding. The sights (and sounds) of the wedding party in the Shepherd’s Bush gudwara seem very familiar to any filmgoer with more than a nodding acquaintance with Indian Cinema. Even those British arthouse audiences who would not normally see a Bollywood film, would have enjoyed a similar spectacle in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). Crucially what the wedding celebrations emphasise is the confidence of the Punjabi community in a set of traditions that are at the same time able to refer to a rural past and to embrace a modern future. The wedding is just as ‘at home’ in Southall as in New Delhi. Because of partition in 1947, Punjabis are scattered around the globe, but family and religious celebrations keep the community together. The wedding and the references to food and music (see below) are part of what has been argued to be cultural diversity rather than cultural difference. The community celebrates in a traditional way, but is also happy to participate directly in the culture of the ‘majority’ or ‘host’ community. The images of Southall Broadway – a ‘real’ London high street with national chainstores and Asian grocers side by side – at the beginning of the film represent the sense of a hybridising of UK culture. Punjabi culture contributes to and draws from a new culture which mixes traditions. (Difference still exists in the lack of comprehension shown by both white and Asian characters towards the behaviour of others, but mostly this is a factor in older generations, not the second generation characters like Jess and Tony.)

Music

Music is essential in BILB, not just to provide ‘background’ for montage sequences of football training etc., but also to represent the ‘feelgood’ ethos of the film and also to promote the ‘hybridity’ that Gurinder Chadha obviously supports. Again the DVD commentary provides some explanations of why particular tracks have been used. Throughout the film there are musical sequences which combine traditional film music scoring with Punjabi popular music. There are songs written for the film (e.g. from Melanie C.) and examples of songs from other traditions given a Bhangra treatment (e.g. ‘Hot, Hot, Hot’ originally a hit for the Trinidadian Soca star Arrow in 1983 and then used as the theme for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico – a link in BILB to ‘Nessun Dorma’, used so successfully in the BBC coverage of Italia 1990 and here signalling the moment of Jess’ triumph with her ‘bent’ free kick).

Perhaps more about ‘personal politics’ is the use of Curtis Mayfield’s 1971 hit ‘Move on Up’. Chadha states that this song was particularly important for her because of the singer and the context of the original song. Curtis Mayfield was for many African-Americans one of the major voices of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the lyrics of this song are all about ‘empowerment’. It plays in the film as Jess sets off for football training for the first time and again at the end of the film when the two girls fly off to America.

Genre

Issues of narrative and representation are also bound up with questions of genre. BILB is a ‘feelgood’ film. This isn’t a traditional generic category, but it is certainly a recognisable set of elements, especially in the context of contemporary Hollywood. The ‘feelgood’ narrative often centres on the ‘quest’, clearly evident in BILB.

Gurinder Chadha has been quoted as referring to the film as a ‘teen comedy’ and this may be the most useful focus for a genre analysis. ‘Teen comedy’ is a Hollywood concept, usually associated with a high school setting, but also applicable to a range of other settings and mixes with other genres, including science fiction and the combat film (e.g. in Starship Troopers, US 1997) and the whole cycle of ‘teen horror’ films.

The term ‘youth movie’ is a useful broad category term and fits BILB well. Several aspects of the youth movie repertoire are referenced in the film:

  • generational conflict, parents v. daughter
  • forms of ‘rebellion’ by daughter
  • focus on clothes, food, use of language to represent ‘difference’
  • narrative with time constraint – takes place over the summer holiday before university
  • climax at major social event – wedding/football final
  • extensive use of popular music

These are elements found in a whole range of youth orientated films. ‘Youth movies’ usually set out to target a youth audience and so alienate older audiences. BILB clearly appeals more broadly, even though it has all the other elements in place. This is partly explained by the added ingredient – the focus on the Punjabi family and the importance of elements of the Bollywood formula, especially the wedding as climax of the narrative. BILB has been described as a ‘Bollywood film’, but this is only valid in terms of the wedding and the internal family conflicts. The musical sequences, for instance, are derived from Hollywood cinema, not Bollywood.

The American dimension

BILB was successful in North America for different reasons than those which helped The Full Monty etc. Rather than a ‘British film’ adapted for an American market or marketed as ‘distinctively British’, BILB was conceived with aspects of the American market already addressed in the script. Gurinder Chadha’s husband and writing partner, Paul Mayeda Berges, is American and Chadha herself had previously made an American film, the Los Angeles set What’s Cooking? After living in America she was aware of some of the audience needs. Although the Beckham name was not so important in North America and the title of the film would baffle most American audiences, Chadha also knew that ‘soccer’ in America is arguably more important as a participatory game for women and girls, than as a male spectator sport. It is very much a ‘college game’ and therefore it is important that the film ends with the two protagonists flying off to a ‘soccer scholarship’ in California. The women’s game in America also has a professional presence and the stars of the American Women’s team that won the World Cup in 1999 are household names in America. In Jules’ bedroom she has a poster of Mia Hamm, who for most of the late 1990s was the best known female sportsperson in America.

In preparation for BILB Chadha watched sell-out women’s soccer games in California and she knew an audience was there. As part of the promotional tour for BILB in North America, Parminder Nagra made a public appearance at a men’s professional league game and launched a new season with the kick-off (see www.filmjournal.com)

What may seem puzzling from a UK perspective is that the US release, several months after Europe and therefore not related to the World Cup, followed the huge American success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Some American audiences took BILB to be primarily a feelgood comedy romance about an ‘immigrant community’ and its wedding conventions.

Conclusion: BILB and British Cinema

Since there are very few British films that have massive international success (BILB’s cinema box office was ten times the production budget), it is inevitable that each ‘winner’ will become the next film to be emulated (or rather imitated). In the case of BILB this is going to be very difficult as can be perceived from the ‘success factors’ apparent in the film’s production and reception by audiences:

  • relatively low budget production (£3-4million)
  • writer/producer/director with knowledge of subject
  • all the benefits of ‘hybrid culture’ without the possible barriers
  • ‘feelgood’, upbeat narrative
  • well targeted for audience plus possibility of ‘universal appeal’
  • good timing for release re Beckham/World Cup etc.
  • full distributor support for release

Gurinder Chadha herself used the success and her new status to get finance for Bride and Prejudice (UK/US 2004) – a Bollywood version of Jane Austen. Whilst this film was still under the creative control of Gurinder Chadha, it had US (Miramax) money in from the start as well as an Indian star. It was certainly not a low budget ‘British’ film. BILB is likely to remain a one-off until another combination of factors produces a similar success in a few years time. Other attempts to carry on in the same way have not succeeded at the box office (e.g. Peter Cattaneo followed up The Full Monty with the relative flop Lucky Break in 2001 and Damien O’Donnell followed East is East with the little seen Heartlands (2002).

Questions for discussion

1. In what ways is Bend It Like Beckham clearly targeted at an audience of young women?

2. Using specific scenes from the film as examples, show how Pinky and Jess have different attitudes towards their parents ideas about marriage.

3. Discuss the ways in which camerawork, music and editing are used to link the two main narrative lines in the film during the wedding/football final.

4. How would you analyse the concept of ‘hybridity’ in relation to Punjabi culture in Britain as represented in the film?

Resources

There are many reviews and interviews on websites. This is a selection of some of them (including those quoted in the notes above):

www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/502103/

www.alternet.org/story/15835/better_buzz_tomorrow

www.multiracial.com/readers/mcneil5.html

http://www.scope.nottingham.ac.uk/filmreview.php?issue=may2003&id=717&section=film_rev

film.guardian.co.uk/features/featurepages/0,4120,682376,00.html

Claire Monk’s generally negative review of the film in Sight & Sound May 2002 is an interesting example of the problems associated with ‘judging’ a film on a preview screening. It is difficult to argue with any of Monk’s general criticisms of the film (“. . . artless and mediocre . . . unsatisfying viewing for thinking adults”), but she can’t predict its power to move audiences.

Bend It Like Beckham is available on DVD from Helkon (the DVD includes a very useful director’s commentary). All text in these notes © 2004 Roy Stafford/itp publications unless otherwise indicated. Images © Helkon.

Cannes Preview 2013

Indian Cinema's birthday card from Cannes – a screening for 'Bombay Talkies'

Indian Cinema’s birthday card from Cannes – a screening for ‘Bombay Talkies’

Cannes started today and the media frenzy that surrounds the festival seems to get greater each year. The Guardian‘s film editor Catherine Shoard has written a piece which perhaps reflect a mood amongst mainstream newspapers – focusing on celebrities, glamour and whether Cannes can predict Oscar contenders or offer sneak previews of Hollywood product to come. Fortunately, the festival organisers have done a pretty good job in attracting a more diverse range of films and filmmakers this year. There are perhaps too many American independents and French productions but that’s seemingly inevitable. At least one of those French productions is directed by Asghar Farhadi and another by Abdellatif Kechiche; the single female director in competition, Valeria Bruni Tedschi comes under a French banner and Arnaud des Pallières is unknown to me. François Ozon and Arnaud Desplechin count as ‘usual suspects’. It’s good to see a Dutch and a Mexican director both returning after previous Cannes outings and there is a semblance of recognition for the importance of East Asian cinemas with the presence of Kore-eda Hirokazu, Miike Takashi and Jia Zhangke. Nicholas Winding Refn and Roman Polanski should stir things up  and the Americans are all reliable performers. Paolo Sorrentino is almost a Cannes fixture and it’s good to see the return of  Mahamat Saleh Haroun as the sole African representative – I hope he wins another prize.

Here is the full competition line-up:

Now I’ve run through the list it looks encouraging. Strangely though, some of the leading women in film seem to have been placed in ‘Un certain regard‘ where you’ll find Claire Denis and Sofia Coppola amongst eight female directors. Again it looks an interesting selection. Still no South Asian directors in the two main strands however, but the rise and rise of Anurag Kashyap continues and he features in the Special Screenings selection with the portmanteau film Bombay Talkies (which includes other segments by Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar and Dibarkar Banerjee) a film presented as a ‘birthday card’ to ‘100 Years of Indian Cinema’. Kashyap’s own film Ugly shows in the Directors’ Fortnight and he also turns up as one of the producers of Monsoon Shootout (UK-Netherlands-India) by Amit Kumar and showing ‘Out of Competition – sounds like an interesting little film, a police drama set in Mumbai. Kumar is an FTII graduate and has worked with Asif Kapadia who is also an exec producer. I hope this gets a UK release.

Rossellini #1: An Introduction to Roberto Rossellini (1906-1977)

Ingrid Bergman with Roberto Rossellini during the filming of Europa ’51. Rome, 1951 (AP Photo / Walter Attenni) from http://www.ilpost.it/2013/02/01/foto-darchivio-12/italy-rome-roberto-rossellini-and-ingrid-bergman/

The British Film Institute has just released a digital restored print of Roberto Rossellini’s important film Viaggio in Italia (Italy 1953). I’m preparing an introduction to the film and I realised that there is nothing on the blog directly about Rossellini, one of the most important directors in the history of global film. I’ve dug out some notes that I compiled for an earlier event in 2006 at the time of Rossellini’s centenary and I’ve updated them slightly.

Introduction: Rossellini and the ‘problem’ of Fascism and ‘neo-realism’

Any presentation of the work of Roberto Rossellini has to deal with a central issue in fi lm studies and more generally in cultural history. In most popular histories of the cinema, Rossellini is associated with the influential film movement known as ‘Italian neo-realism’. In particular, Rossellini’s film Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City), produced in 1945 has been hailed as the first ‘neo-realist’ film. That position was later challenged by scholars who made claims for Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (Obsession) made in 1943. But by the 1970s and the development of film studies, scholars began to re-assess their ideas about Italian cinema and to recognise that the roots of neo-realism were to be found in the early 1930s cinema of Jean Renoir in France and in the Fascist Cinema of Italy in the late 1930s. But the re-appraisal of Italian Cinema faced two problems. On a pragmatic level, most of the Italian films of the later Fascist period are difficult to see (certainly in the UK and US). Secondly, what Hay (1987) refers to as the “almost sacred trinity” of neo-realist ‘auteurs’, Rossellini, Visconti and Vittorio de Sica, had all been involved in the Fascist industry and it was difficult for them personally and for their supporters to re-assess their relationships with the Fascist state of the 1930s. De Sica did cover this period in his 1970 film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Federico Fellini (a boy in the 1930s) famously gave his view of the period in Amarcord (1973). But Rossellini, who became part of the Fascist film industry in 1936 did not look back to the period. Indeed, one feature of the late 1940s discussion of neorealism’ was the rejection of Fascist cinema as ‘worthless’.

Fascist Italy and the cinema

Roberto Rossellini was the son of a successful architect in Rome and he was 19 when Benito Mussolini assumed full dictatorial powers over Italy in 1925. On 27 April 1937, Mussolini inaugurated the new film studios of Cinecittà in Rome and the establishment of Centro Sperimentale – an élite film school. Both these innovations survived the Second World War and became part of a successful postwar Italian Cinema. Rossellini stumbled into the industry when he needed to earn money – having spent his family’s money on a playboy lifestyle. He counted as friends at this time not only Mussolini’s son Vittorio, but also future leading figures in the Italian Communist party. Through his connections he was able to get work as a sound technician, an editor and eventually as a scriptwriter. The three films Rossellini made during the war, La Nave Bianca (about a hospital ship), Un pilota returna (a pilot escapes from a prison camp) and L’Uomo della croce (an army chaplain on the Russian front) are all ‘propaganda films’ presenting heroic images of individuals in wartime. To some extent, they sound like British propaganda films of the time. Guarner (1970: 11) suggests that:

“. . . if they are considered apart from their set purpose as films, they reveal a personality distinct from other Italian films of the time . . . they do show sufficient respect for reality, care for objective mise en scène and perceptiveness over detail to raise them above the other Fascist films of the period.”

Guarner was writing at the height of the ‘authorship’ phase of film studies and he possibly overemphasises the ‘personal’ approach of Rossellini. What is more likely is that Rossellini learned from other filmmakers who had also developed some ‘realist’ techniques.

Rossellini and ‘neo-realism’

The roots of neo-realism are now seen to be in the 1930s, but there is no doubt that, in 1945, Rossellini’s film Roma città aperta caused a sensation in cinemas not only in Italy but also in the US and the UK, where it arrived in 1947. Film Review in the UK, a popular film annual, greeted the film with the following tribute:

. . . one of the most completely damning , moving and altogether inspiring anti-Nazi films ever made . . . tremendously effective both as entertainment; by turns exciting, amusing and terrifying . . . varyingly photographed, technically inferior [Open City] was always beautifully acted. Direction was assured, witty and full of brilliance; inspired to the extent of giving those sudden, human, familiar little touches to a movie which makes it suddenly, breathlessly alive.

This is a very fair and perceptive review. Rossellini and his collaborators made the best of what equipment and filmstock they could fi nd in the ruins of Rome and mixed it with melodrama, comedy and action. The film has since become mythologised as ‘realist’, but it was the more considered Paisà (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1947) that more clearly fitted the developing neo-realist ideal. All three films include location shooting and use of non-actors in many roles, but they also required studio shooting and they made use of the highly emotional music provided by Rossellini’s younger brother, Renzo.The failure of Germany Year Zero, a very bleak and emotionally shattering film, saw the end of one kind of realist filmmaking for Rossellini – ironically before Rome, Open City had been fully distributed. Rossellini went on to be a great innovator, but also a good interviewee about his methodology. The following quote is a useful guide to Rossellini’s cinema and to neo-realism more generally:

The subject of the neo-realism film is the world; not story or narrative. It contains no preconceived thesis, because ideas are born in the fi lm from the subject. It has no affinity with the superfluous and the merely spectacular, which it refuses, but is attracted to the concrete. . . It refuses recipes and formulas. . . neo-realism poses problems for us and for itself in an attempt to make people think. (Roberto Rossellini in Retrospettive, April 1953, reprinted in Overby (1978))

This argues for cinematic realism as a progressive aesthetic opposed to ‘entertainment cinema’ and in favour of ‘education’. (Rossellini was taken up by Marxist critics in the 1970s, but he remained a Catholic humanist intellectual throughout his life). One of the central features of Rossellini’s camerawork in his ‘neo-realist trilogy’ is the combination of the ‘long shot’ and the ‘long take’. The long shot is the ideal framing device to show crowds and the movements of soldiers in battle. Its use in Hollywood tends to be restricted to establishing shots and genres like the western where ‘figures in a landscape’ are important. Usually, however, stories are told in mid-shot and medium close-up with attention paid to individual characters. Long shots are also difficult to organise on studio sets, where framing is often required to disguise the fact that a set is just a collection of ‘flat’ walls without a ceiling. Allied to the long shot is the use of deep-focus which allows the filmmaker to compose a shot in-depth with objects in the foreground and the background, both in sharp focus. Different actions can take place within the frame and the audience can select to look at the foreground or background. Deep-focus works well on location and like the long shot was common in silent cinema before bulky sound equipment began to restrict camerawork.

A long take is any shot lasting longer than about 20 seconds (the Hollywood average throughout the studio period is about 12 seconds). For the filmmaker, the long take poses problems because all the actions must be carefully worked out in advance. Long shots and staging in-depth help because they give greater possibilities of movement in the frame. Alternatively, moving the camera by panning or tracking allows greater freedom. The panning and tracking camera, shooting in long takes, is a feature of Rossellini’s films at various times, especially in the more action-orientated episodes of Paisà.

Rossellini’s fi lms tend to focus on stories about ‘ordinary people’ in situations which are in one sense ‘ordinary’ – except that in Italy in the late 1940s ‘ordinary life’ was often quite ‘extraordinary’. Here is a useful quote from another spokesman for neo-realism, scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini describing the starting point for a typical neo-realist film:

“A woman goes into a shop to buy a pair of shoes. The shoes cost 7,000 lire. The woman tries to bargain. The scene lasts perhaps two minutes, but I must make a two-hour film. What do I do? I analyse the fact in all its constituent elements, in its ‘before’, in its ‘after’, in its contemporaneity. The fact creates its own fiction . . .” (See Williams (ed) 1980: 29-30)

Zavattini can ask himself, “Why does the woman want the shoes?”, “What else will she not spend the money on if she does buy the shoes?”, “How important is the sale to the shopkeeper – does he know the woman?” etc. In Rossellini’s terms the narrative comes from ‘the world’, from the ‘reality’ of an everyday experience.

Rossellini and Bergman

In 1948, Rossellini received a telegram from Ingrid Bergman offering to work for him for next to nothing, so impressed was she with his neo-realist films. Rossellini didn’t know that Bergman was at the height of her popularity in Hollywood, but he saw the possibility of Hollywood money and invited her over to Italy. They started a passionate affair and she starred for him in Stromboli (Italy 1950). Stromboli saw Rossellini shifting his approach in two significant ways. The story involves a Lithuanian woman who in the aftermath of war finds herself in a displaced persons camp in Italy. Karin (Bergman) chooses marriage as her passport out of the camp and finds a Sicilian fi sherman on his way home from a prison camp in South Africa. With Hollywood money, Rossellini made the most of the landscape of the volcanic island of Stromboli. He also continued a policy of using several local people in acting roles, but this time placed amongst them one of the biggest fi lm stars in the world. Suddenly the film becomes almost a documentary on Bergman as a sophisticated woman attempting to act with an amateur cast – just as the character, Karin, finds herself stuck on a ‘primitive’ island from which she feels she must escape. The Hollywood studio, RKO cut the film by nearly 20 minutes and it flopped badly in an English language version in America. Now the film, at its original length is considered by many critics to be a masterpiece. Audiences are likely to dismiss the film or to be overwhelmed by it. Partly this is a function of the completely ‘open ending’ when it is not clear what Karin will do about ending or maintaining her marriage.

Eventually, Rossellini and Bergman were divorced from their previous partners and they married. Rossellini proved a jealous husband/director and would not allow Bergman to work for anyone else. In 1953 he cast her in a fi lm often cited as having a major influence on the French New Wave in the late 1950s, Viaggio in Italia. This film continued the idea of using the predicament of the actor as a feature of the narrative. Bergman plays the wife of an English ‘gentleman’ who inherits a house in Italy. The couple have a ‘difficult’ marriage and they think that a holiday to complement their trip to Naples to sell the house might improve their relationship. George Sanders plays the husband and he found working for Rossellini very difficult, not least because Rossellini and his scriptwriter constantly changed the script the night before a day’s shooting so that Sanders and Bergman were unaware of what might happen. In one famous scene, the couple are sent to the ruins of Pompeii where Rossellini knew that a startling archeological find was to be revealed. Their consternation became part of the plot. On this film Rossellini proved that, as long as you have a clear overall plan, you could make it up as you go along – something Jean-Luc Godard has never forgotten.

‘The cinema is dead’

Rossellini and Bergman split up in 1957 and in 1961, Rossellini declared cinema dead and launched into a television career. From now on he eschewed conventional narratives and sought to make ‘historical films’ with a strong educational purpose. There were clear links to his earlier films in that he concentrated on his characters as ‘people’ first and important historical figures second. He concentrated on detailed research into the clothes, furnishings and everyday rituals of the central characters who were played by non-actors, or at least non-stars. The details were accurate but the sets were not lavish and the camerawork was as simple as possible.

Rossellini wanted an unobtrusive camera that could record the action without unnecessary cuts or dramatic close-ups. To this end he invented a remote control zoom device that enabled him to easily change the focal length as the camera moved just enough to capture the whole scene and the movements of the characters in a restricted area. The most acclaimed of these films, made for French television, recorded The Rise to Power of Louis IV (France/Italy 1966). Others focused on Socrates, Blaise Pascal and Cosimo de Medici. In 1976 he produced a life of Jesus and when he died in 1977 he was said to be working on a film about Karl Marx.

Conclusion

These notes refer to only a selection of Rossellini’s film credits from a career spanning forty years. By necessity, they are limited to the films that have received public distribution in the UK. Apart from Rome Open City, Rossellini’s films have not been major box office successes – they have been more discussed by critics and other filmmakers than by popular audiences. Yet Rossellini’s films and his ideas about films have been very influential, both on filmmakers outside the US entertainment system attempting to apply neo-realist ideas and to modernist filmmakers like those of the French New Wave, as well as his early collaborators such as Federico Fellini and younger Italian directors such as the Taviani Brothers. Since his centenary in 2006 one or two more titles have become accessible with English subtitles in the US and as imports from Italy. I hope to watch some of these and write about them on the blog.

Roy Stafford, 20/5/06

References and further reading

Peter Bondanella (1993) The Films of Roberto Rossellini, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jose Luis Guarner (1970) Roberto Rossellini, London: Studio Vista

James Hay (1987) Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy, Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press

David Overby (ed) (1978) Springtime in Italy: a Reader on Neo-Realism, London: Talisman

Pierre Sorlin (1996) Italian National Cinema, London: Routledge

Christopher Williams (ed) (1980) Realism in the Cinema, London: Routledge Kegan Paul

Robin Wood (1980) ‘Roberto Rossellini’ in Richard Roud (ed) Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, London: Martin Secker & Warburg

The best starting place for a websearch on is via Senses of Cinema

Agantuk (The Stranger, India 1991)

Utpal Dutt as the stranger (Uncle Mitra)

Utpal Dutt as the stranger (Uncle Mitra)

Channel 4 celebrated the 100th Birthday of Indian Cinema with five late night/early morning screenings of Satyajit Ray films. Perhaps we should question this strategy – why not five different directors? But this is what we got and at least Channel 4 (a pale shadow of its former self these days) still shows Indian films. I’m certainly grateful for the chance to see Ray’s last film which turned out to be a very enjoyable watch and a moving tribute to the director and to Indian cinema.

The narrative is on one level very simply structured but also rich in provocations about Bengal, India and the wider world. The ‘stranger’ of the title announces himself by a letter that arrives one day in the comfortable Bose household in Calcutta. Wife and mother Anila is startled to read that her uncle, who she barely knew when she was an infant before he left Calcutta 35 years ago, is on his way to visit her family. Anila’s businessman husband Sudhindra is immediately suspicious but his small son Satyaki is delighted at the prospect of seeing his ‘great-uncle’. I don’t really need to give any more of the plot outline. You can probably guess much of it and the kinds of little dramas that arise. This is a very familiar narrative with ‘the stranger’ always likely to shine a light on whatever are the dark secrets of the family or to stir up the hopes and dreams of family members etc. One of the strongest ‘echoes’ for me was of a similar character appearing in the Charles Burnett film To Sleep With Anger (US 1990). Danny Glover is the character from ‘back home’ in the South who arrives in an African-American household in suburban Los Angeles and ‘disturbs’ the household. In the case of Uncle Mitra who disturbs the Bose family, Ray is to a large extent embodying his own ideas and values in the character and subjecting bourgeois life in Calcutta to an analysis based on his own global perspective. (The 35 years that Mitra has been ‘away’ correspond almost exactly to the length of Ray’s cinema career which began with the release of Pather Panchali in 1955 and finished with the making of this film.)

Most of the film is set in the confines of the Bose household – in the living rooms and bedrooms – with a brief sequence on the Maidan where Mitra meets Satyaki’s friends. Significantly, it ends with a trip to the rural area where Rabindranath Tagore developed his education communities at Santiniketan (and where Ray studied). Mitra shares Ray’s interest in music and his main interest is in anthropology which he has pursued by travelling the world and living with various communities ‘outside’ bourgeois society. Ray also explored the tension between the Calcutta bourgeoisie and the rest of Bengali society, most clearly in Days and Nights in the Forest which has several echoes in Agantuk – the final section of the film includes a dance sequence involving a group of Santals (‘tribal people’). Mitra’s arrival challenges the materialism of Calcutta society and in confrontations with Anila and Sudhindra’s friends and colleagues, Mitra questions whether Bengali intellectual life has really sustained the vigour which Tagore instilled in it and whether or not it is too much in hock to Western values. It’s significant that the film was made just at the point when the Indian economy was beginning the process of ‘de-regulation’ – there is a nostalgic reference to Thums-Up, the local Coca Cola substitute (Coke was not available in India during the 1980s).

The film has been described as a comedy and it is true that there is a lightness about it, but also I think it offers a serious critique in what seems like a very personal statement. The playing of all the roles is very good but in particular Utpal Dutt as Uncle Mitra really nails it.

Keighley Picture House is 100 today!

Keighley Picture House in 2006

Keighley Picture House in 2006 with its birthdate proudly presented to the world

The focus for film scholarship should be global – and local. I’m delighted then to celebrate the 100th birthday of my local cinema. The Picture House in Keighley opened its doors to the public for the first time on Saturday 10th May 1913 and it’s still showing current releases today on its two screens. Unfortunately there were a couple of periods in the 1980s and 1990s when its doors were closed for repairs with the building changing ownership, but it has seen more than 90 years of film projection as well as occasional variety performances and pop concerts.

The Picture House wasn’t the first cinema in Keighley. It wasn’t even the first purpose-built cinema, but it was the first to fully embrace the possibilities of cinemas as distinctive architectural expressions of a new entertainment form and as important social amenities. The period from roughly 1910 to 1914 is recognised as the beginnings of the cinema industry that would come to dominate mass entertainment for the next fifty or sixty years. During this period films developed rapidly in terms of production, distribution and exhibition and it is interesting to place the emergence of the Picture House in this context.

In the 1890s Keighley was a thriving manufacturing town with significant employment in textiles mills and engineering. The population of the town, which is located at the confluence of the Rivers Aire and Worth in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire, grew rapidly and reached 43,000 by 1911. It had become a municipal borough in 1882 and it had all the ambitions of a modern urban community. Bradford, some ten miles away, became a city in 1897 and an early centre for entrepreneurship in cinema (See Mellor 1996). Keighley was determined not to be left behind. Films were first shown in Keighley in the autumn of 1896 and filmshows became part of the mix of programmes at the Mechanics Institute – the centre for all kinds of activities in the industrial towns of Northern England and elsewhere in the anglophone world. The first purpose-built cinema in Keighley was the Picture Palace in Russell Street that opened on 27 December 1909. A year later the same entrepreneur, Walter Pallister, opened a second cinema in Cavendish Street, just days after the opening of the Theatre de Luxe in Market Street by John Watson. This latter cinema was financed by the London Animated Film company which had previously shown films at the Mechanics Institute. In March 1911 the Oxford Hall opened on Oakworth Road and in 1912, the Cosy Corner in an alleyway off Low Street. These cinemas were located within a few hundred yards of each other in Keighley’s town centre (with the Oxford Hall slightly further out). They also competed with the town’s Frank Matcham-designed theatre, the Hippodrome – previously the Queen’s Theatre.

With all these local attractions, the new Picture House had to be something special. It was funded by a group of local business people including the Smith family of ‘Dean, Smith and Grace’, one of the town’s major employers. The cinema was built on North Street, one of the two main streets in town. It was conceived as a ‘superior’ amenity with specialist cinema contractors brought in to create an 800 seat cinema with a balcony (a ‘grand circle’) and two cafés, a small one in the foyer which had an Italian mosaic floor and a larger one upstairs with ‘wicker furnishings, potted plants, best cutlery and Foley china’ (Liddle 1996). The cinema had its own four-piece orchestra and a stage for live events. The local newspaper’s coverage of the May 10th opening emphasises the lavish decorative work and the safety features (fire hoses and ‘chemical extinguishers’ – fires were a major problem in early cinemas), the new electric lighting and the electric fans that drew out the smoke from all the pipes and cigarettes smoked by audiences. Local historian Cathy Liddle suggests that Keighley cinema audiences were predominantly working-class until after the First World War but the descriptions of the Picture House appointments suggests an attempt to attract the gentry. The opening programme ran from 2.30 on the Saturday afternoon for  two and a quarter hours and from 6.30 for four hours. Tickets were 3d and 6d in the ‘Body of the Hall’ in armchairs and 9d and 1/- in the Grand Circle.

Liddle goes on to suggest that the Picture House did not take customers away from the existing five cinemas, but that eventually it was forced to lower its prices (which elsewhere were more like 2d, 4d and 6d). After the war Keighley got another new cinema, the Regent Picture Palace built almost opposite the Picture House in 1920. It proved to be very popular and the building survives today as a nightclub. In the 1930s the Picture House also hosted live variety performances by the Arcadian Players from Morecambe – and later in the 1960s, pop music concerts. Keighley’s last new cinema, the Ritz, was built in 1938 for the Union circuit but by the time it opened Union had been bought by the ABC chain. The Ritz was the ‘next step’ up from the Picture House with seating for over 1500 and a ‘mighty organ’. It also had the advantage of being able to take the circuit releases from ABC which by the late 1940s had become part of the duopoly of British cinema production, distribution and exhibition with only the Rank Organisation as its major rival. However, the Ritz was tucked away in a back street round the corner from the Picture House and behind the old Keighley Grammar School. I don’t know how well it did compared to others in the chain, but it was closed as a cinema by 1974, switching to bingo (which still operates today). When I researched Keighley’s cinemas operating in the early 1950s, most of them were still open with only the two earliest, the Russell Street and Theatre de Luxe having closed. The Picture House was eventually sold to the Essoldo chain and then became a Classic briefly before closing first in 1983. By this time the upstairs café had become a second small screen and the Picture House was the only survivor of the original eight cinemas. After some extensive repairs paid for out of public funds it re-opened in 1984 as a workers’ co-operative, only to close again in 1991 when it was proving difficult to get new releases and even the addition of a video rental business wasn’t enough to keep the operation afloat. Bradford Metropolitan Council bought the building and sought to find an exhibitor to take it on after further building repairs. At one point it looked like the building might become parts of an arts complex  linked to the town’s Central Hall, but in 1997 the cinema finally re-opened as part of the Northern Morris chain run by Charles Morris. The 1913 Picture House joined three 1912 cinemas in Skipton (Plaza), Elland (Rex) and Leeds (Cottage Road) plus the Royalty in Bowness (1926) and the Roxy in Ulverston  (1937). Keith reported on the Centenary of the Cottage Road cinema last year and a history of the Rex is available from the cinema.

Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any signs of celebration at the Picture House this week, though the ‘100 Years of Cinema’ banner did figure in the cinema’s advertising for a few weeks. For the record, this week the cinema is showing Iron Man 3  and Star Trek into Darkness with matinees/early evening showings of All Stars and The Croods. Cinema 1 has 300 seats and Cinema 2 has 93 seats. The lack of celebration is perhaps explained by the uncertainty surrounding the cinema’s future. Cineworld have been announced as one of the the tenants of a new development in Keighley with plans for an 8-screen cinema. The site has been cleared and the development is scheduled to be built over the next two years. Charles Morris has reportedly said that he will end his lease with Bradford Council as soon as the Cineworld operation becomes a reality – leaving the council with an empty 1913 building. Let’s hope the building, now the oldest working cinema in Bradford can find a suitable new purpose for many years to come. In the meantime. Happy Birthday!

References/Sources

Mellor, Geoff (1996) Movie Makers and Picture Palaces: A Century of Cinema in Yorkshire 1896-1996, Bradford Libraries

Liddle, Cathy (1996) Picture Palace: Cinema and Community, Silsden, West Yorkshire: Sleepy Heron Publishing

Keighley News Archives

[For various reasons I haven’t been able to finish my research on the cinema’s opening programme in 1913, but I’ll try to add further details later.]