Monthly Archives: July 2013

Like Someone in Love (Japan-France 2013)

Takanashi Rin as Akiko

Takanashi Rin as Akiko

What a pleasure it is to watch a film by a great director. This film by Abbas Kiarostami takes its title from a classic Jimmy van Huesen/Johnny Burke song and it has only a rudimentary plot, beginning and ending seemingly in the middle of something. Yet the simple events of the narrative, involving no more than seven speaking parts, are presented in such a way that concentration never lapses and the mundane appears extraordinary. The plot involves Akiko, a young woman from ‘out of town’ attending university in Tokyo and working as an escort/bar girl in the evenings. She should be meeting her grandmother who has come to the city for the day, but she should also be revising for an exam. She tries to put off her boss who wants her to visit a client – a man he ‘respects’. The boss is insistent, so she will have to go.

Kase Ryo as Noriaki, the fiancé

Kase Ryo as Noriaki, the fiancé

The whole narrative covers less than 24 hours and most of that time is taken up by conversations, recorded messages, phone calls etc. featuring Akiko, her boss, the elderly client and Akiko’s boyfriend. As in Kiarostami’s earlier films, it isn’t so much ‘what’ is said, but more the mode of speaking and the effectiveness (or not) of communication that carries the meaning. Kiarostami provides the audience with beautifully composed and arranged scenes in which questions are raised but not answered with any conviction and we are left to provide our own meanings.

Following Certified Copy (France-Italy 2010), this is another Kiarostami film in which the Iranian filmmaker makes a film outside his own language and in a completely different culture. There is always a question over how filmmakers from ‘outside’ will represent Japanese culture, but most non-Japanese watching this film will probably not notice that this is an external view. Much has been made of the possible Ozu connections in the use of the camera, especially given Kiarostami’s own comments on the Japanese master. I’m not sure about this but I did feel some connection with another Ozu disciple, the Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, especially via his Tokyo-set Café Lumiere. Kiarostami chose Yanagijima Katsumi as his cinematographer and his background includes work for Kitano Takeshi. I also enjoyed his work on Dreams for Sale in the last London Film Festival screenings. It’s possibly the opening nightclub scene that makes me think of Hou, but much of the rest of the film utilises long takes inside a car (as in the image at the head of this posting) and these are very much part of Kiarostami’s own style.

The question most cinephiles will ask themselves when they leave the cinema is about how they should interpret the title. I went straight to YouTube to find the version of the song used in the film. It’s a glorious track by Ella Fitzgerald from 1957. Its use is, in Kiarostami’s own words, there to represent what a person of his generation (Kiarostami is in his early seventies) might still be listening to. This is reinforced in the film’s dialogue when the client, Professor Watanabe, sings a few lines of ‘Que sera, sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)’ which for me will always refer to Doris Day’s version in the Hitchcock 1956 re-make of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much. The suggestion is that the old man perhaps acts ‘like someone in love’ or that he experiences events ‘like someone in love’. On the other hand, Akiko is interested in the old man’s music and his copy of a well-known Japanese painting. But we can’t be sure what she feels and indeed the main discourse in the film is ‘miscommunication’ – perhaps caused by more than one ‘someone in love’. I should also report that there is an element of danger and violence lying beneath the surface. Overall this is a film that is pleasurable to watch but which will also make you think, especially after its provocative final shot.

Inseparable (Xing ying bu li, China 2011)

'Chuck' (Kevin Spacey) and Li (Daniel Wu) meet on the top of Li's apartment block.

‘Chuck’ (Kevin Spacey) and Li (Daniel Wu) meet on the top of Li’s apartment block.

This is an important film in terms of the current developments in Chinese cinemas and I enjoyed watching it. Whether it captures the imagination of audiences in China or overseas is another question but it is about to be released on DVD in the UK and deserves serious consideration. I first came across the title at the Chinese Film Forum in Manchester earlier this year and I’ve been intrigued ever since.

Writer-director Dayyan Eng was born in Taiwan in 1975 and trained at both the Beijing Film Academy and the University of Washington. In China Eng is known as Wu Shixian. Inseparable or ‘Follow like a shadow‘ in its Chinese translation is one the first Chinese features to cast a leading Hollywood player, Kevin Spacey, in a leading role. Spacey speaks English in the film and plays a character who gets very close to Li, a young man played by the Hong Kong star Daniel Wu. Wu was born in the US and he speaks in English when with Spacey. The rest of the dialogue in the film is delivered in Mandarin and subtitled in English. The third lead is Gong Beibi who plays Li’s wife Pang.

Dayaan Eng came to the fore with festival prizes for his shorts East 22nd Street (1997), Bus 44 (2001) and his feature Waiting Alone (2004), but Inseparable aims for the popular market and its mix of popular genres might turn out to be a problem because I suspect that it will confuse some of both the popular and specialised film fans who would otherwise enjoy the film. But, if approached with an open mind, the film is enjoyable and mildly provocative in terms of social commentary. Inseparable is a difficult film to discuss because I don’t want to give away too much of the plot and spoil its narrative pleasures. I’ll try to give something of its flavour.

The pair dressed as superheroes – HLF refers to the Maoist era 'hero' figure Lei Feng.

The pair dressed as superheroes – HLF refers to the Maoist era ‘hero’ figure Lei Feng.

Lei Feng poster (from Wikipedia)

Lei Feng poster (from Wikipedia)

Li works as an engineer developing prosthetic limbs for a large corporation – enabling Eng to explore aspects of the office culture in modern China, including the pressure on workers at all levels. (The film looks great throughout courtesy of Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography, reminiscent of his work with Luc Besson.) Li has a good income and a nice apartment but is clearly unhappy and depressed. His wife is often away working as a reporter for a TV company. When Spacey mysteriously appears in Li’s apartment block neither Li or the audience is sure what to make of him, but he is persuasive and full of advice. He convinces Li that he needs to ‘discover himself’ and in effect become a ‘Superhero’, seeking out injustices and vanquishing the bad guys. This leads to the possibility that the film will become a comedy-action-drama with a focus on some of the social problems of China’s growing urban areas including the boorish behaviour of the newly wealthy, the adulteration of foodstuffs and scandals involving the health system. Li’s concept of a superhero refers back to a Mao era ‘hero’, Lei Feng – a figure used in official part propaganda as a role model. But enjoyable though this side of the film may be, the question remains, who is ‘Chuck’ the character played by Spacey? Does he exist at all? Is he like the imaginary friends of childhood? In turn, do we really understand what is going on inside Li’s head? In some ways Inseparable resembles those Charlie Kaufman-scripted films such as Being John Malkovich or Adaptation. There is also a suggestion that Li might be one of Phil K. Dick’s ‘ordinary Joes’ caught up in a world of uncertainty.

The UK trailer is here:

 

InseparableDVDMy fear is that the action fans and the science fiction/fantasy fans will not get enough of their genre pleasures from the film. Kevin Spacey’s presence may draw his fans in. I’m not a Spacey fan and for me his presence was the weak point of the film. However, it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment too much and I’d recommend the film as an interesting example of what global film is now starting to become. The technical credits are excellent, the performances are good and there are many pleasures – the battle against rogue tofu suppliers was my favourite.

Inseparable is released on Region 2 DVD on August 19th. Here’s the link to Amazon’s offer on DVD pre-orders. The film is also available on Blu-ray. Thanks to Matchbox Films for sending me a review copy.

London Indian Film Festival #1: Josh (Against the Grain, Pakistan-US 2012)

Josh

Josh is the first of three screenings of films from the 2013 London Indian Film Festival to be shown ‘on tour’ at the National Media Museum in Bradford and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Screening at 6pm during Ramadan is possibly not a real test of its popular appeal and the local Urdu-speaking audience was not in evidence. For audiences more used to popular Punjabi comedies at the local multiplexes the film may not have appealed even without the difficulties created by religious observance. Josh has been described as a ‘social drama’ and that is a reasonable description of a narrative that takes in class differences, feudalism, violence by the rich towards the poor, the empowerment of women and the youth movement in Pakistani politics. ‘Popular’ themes like the relationship problems of young men and women are included somewhat lower down the priority list.

JOSH

Iram Parveen Bilal on set in Pakistan

Writer-director Iram Parveen Bilal is an American-trained filmmaker (ten years in the US) who returned to Pakistan to make this film based on important local news stories about women as both victims and forceful agents of change. One of the problems about discussing the film is that the Pakistani film industry is still in the early stages of recovery from long-term decline. My local Bradford contact, with direct experience of Pakistani film and television culture, explained to me that in her view cinema was still not really respectable amongst the Pakistani upper middle classes. Television with its long-form narratives is still dominant. This perhaps explains the presence of several women as directors in a Pakistani film industry that is not fully ‘institutionalised’ – and why the lead role in this film is played by one of the big stars of Pakistani TV, Aamina Sheikh.

Fatima (approaching from the background) and a local street artist

Fatima (approaching from the background) and a local street artist

The plot outline of Josh sees Fatima (Aamina Sheikh) as a wealthy young woman in Karachi, still living at home with her widowed father, a leading lawyer. Fatima is a teacher in an English-medium secondary school. She hasn’t married, but has a boyfriend Adil, an aspiring artist who may be about to leave for America. She has friends in the Westernised milieu of upper middle class Karachi and is introduced to Uzair, a rising politician representing the Pakistan Youth Party. Uzair is played by Aamina Sheikh’s real-life husband Mohib Mirza (also a well-known actor in Pakistan). The equilibrium of Fatima’s comfortable life is disrupted by the disappearance of her ex-nanny Nusrat, a woman who has been heavily involved in trying to alleviate the suffering of her home village community outside Karachi. When Fatima discovers what has happened to Nusrat (who she considers her ‘second mother’), she finds herself in conflict with the village landlord and his group of armed thugs. Who will help Fatima – her father,  Adil or Uzair or her other friends? Can the villagers help themselves in their struggle?

This bald outline of the plot connects Josh to Hindi social films and Indian parallel cinema. It isn’t a ‘popular film’ in the Indian sense. Although there is some use of music that might correspond to contemporary Bollywood (i.e. in a montage sequence as might be found in independent Indian films), on the whole the music is used more in a Western mode – and there are no dance sequences. In fact I was a little disappointed in the music soundtrack, a mixture of Pakistani songs and Western film scoring. Despite the presence of Pakistani star names, the film has a low budget feel. The image was soft (and appeared to be projected from a DVD or Blu-ray disc) but more of a giveaway was the uneven sound recording. In one scene involving a conversation between two people, the background sound was completely different for each of the speakers in the same location. A quick glance online reveals that Bilal as producer-director had great difficulty getting financial support together and that the film’s completion was dependent on funds from Netflix administered through The Women in Film Foundation.

Given Ms Bilal’s difficulties in raising funds – and the important nature of her social issues-based themes – I’m a little reluctant to criticise the film. I will say that I was engaged throughout and the emotion of at least one scene brought me to tears. On the downside, I didn’t enjoy some of the montages that used ‘flash editing’ – sequences comprising shots only a few frames long, producing a kind of strobe effect. I could work out what they were supposed to mean but they still irritated. Equally, I was dismayed when I learned after the screening that the lead actors were married when they created so little erotic energy on screen. The rest of the cast seemed much more ‘authentic’ – perhaps there is a clash of acting styles? Overall, I think that the film tries to do too much and in doing so loses some of its potential to move the audience.

In trying to categorise/classify the film it is worth considering Ms Bilal as a diaspora filmmaker. The film’s narrative makes only limited references to studying/working abroad, themes common to some of Mira Nair’s films (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding etc.) but there are aspects of the film that suggest American style filmmaking and several of the key technical staff work mainly in the US. It seems unfair to compare a young filmmaker with established names such as Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta – and anyway the context of filmmaking in the sub-continent has changed markedly since those directors made their first Indian films back in the 1980s and 1990s respectively. Thinking about the national identity of the film also means that a more appropriate reference point might be a Pakistani diaspora director such as Jamil Dehlavi (Jinnah 1998). We might ask why the London Indian Film Festival decided to include a Pakistani film for the first time. Personally, I’m glad they did because I got a chance to see it. A release in both India and Pakistan has been announced for the Eid festival period. I fear for the film’s reception in India and I’m not sure what to expect when it is seen in Pakistan. It has however been a festival success, first at Mumbai in October 2012 and then at various other festivals.

Iram Parveen Bilal is clearly a talent to watch and there are various ways in which to explore her background. She has a website here. The official website for the film lists many of the positive reviews. Here is the trailer from the London Indian Film Festival:

And here is a set of interviews with the filmmakers. Bilal herself describes the film as a ‘mystery thriller’:

The social issues that the film tackles are very important and the current coverage of the campaign led by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who refused to be silenced by the Taliban emphasises the auspicious timing of the film’s release. Josh didn’t start out as a feature film and it will be interesting to see if by presenting the social debates in this way they get wider coverage and more attention. Despite its flaws, it would be good if it attracted audiences in the sub-continent and in the UK. 

It Always Rains on Sunday (UK 1947)

John McCallum, Patricia Plunkett (stepdaughter Doris) and Googie Withers in Robert Hamer’s IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (1947). Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures.

(This post was mostly written last year when It Always Rains on Sunday was in cinemas again. It is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray from the BFI.)

This welcome digital restoration by the BFI brings one of Ealing Studios’ best releases back into UK cinemas. It’s a thoroughly entertaining film offering a range of different pleasures and represents the peak period of Ealing’s output very well. Reading up on the coverage of the re-release however, I think that some of the writing could be misleading about the British cinema of the time. British reviewers refer to this as a ‘precursor to kitchen-sink dramas’ and American reviewers seem to focus on the film noir aspects. Both descriptions have some validity but the film is a mix of genres and the same elements can be found in several British films of the period – other Ealing films and also titles from Gainsborough and other studios. The East End depicted here is not the ‘near slum housing’ and desperate hand-to-mouth existence that some reviewers discuss. It’s a thriving working-class community making the best of enjoying life in ‘Austerity Britain’ (much like the present in fact!). Having said that, there is evidence that some of the residents of Bethnal Green objected to the depiction of their neighbourhood – an indication of a time when audiences were less used to seeing their locality on screen perhaps?

The film is notable for many other reasons, including its presentation of Ealing’s biggest star of the period, Googie Withers, and the direction by Robert Hamer, one of the leading Ealing directors alongside Sandy Mackendrick. The cast is chock-full of British character actors and for those of a certain age offers a treasure trove of remembered performers. The camerawork from Douglas Slocombe is very good, though the budget constraints are obvious and models had to be used for some of the action scenes. 1947 was the year after British cinema audiences peaked at 1.6 billion admissions and there were 30 million cinema visits a week. Production levels were still relatively low, so Ealing did well to release five films in 1947. Googie Withers starred in two of them (the other being the ‘realist historical’ drama The Loves of Joanna Godden in which Ms Withers is an Edwardian farmer on Romney Marsh). It was a vintage year since the other three films were Basil Dearden’s fine Frieda (in which David Farrar brings home from the war a German bride – to the consternation of his family), the Charles Crichton comedy Hue and Cry and Cavalcanti’s Nicholas Nickleby. It Always Rains on Sunday came out late in 1947. Film Review considers it as a 1948 film and reports that the Daily Mail Readers Poll made it one of the 10 most popular British films of the year with Googie Withers and her co-star (and new husband) John McCallum similarly honoured. Film Review also makes what I think is the best critical summary in saying that: “This careful, observant study of East End life bore the touch of genius. Its characters were believable, its actions normal and its background authentic.” The first half of 1948 was an unusual period in British cinemas since a dispute with Hollywood meant that no new American films were released, leaving the field open to British films. Perhaps audiences had more chance to discover the qualities of home-grown films?

The family melodrama: after a violent argument with her stepmother (Susan Shaw) has a torn dress – a reference to the cheap austerity clothes? Edward Chapman, the girls' father is coming up the stairs.

The family melodrama: after a violent argument with her stepmother Vi (Susan Shaw) has a torn dress – a reference to the cheap austerity clothes? Edward Chapman, the girls’ father is coming up the stairs.

It Always Rains on Sunday details one day in the life of East End housewife Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers). Her Sunday routine is disrupted by her discovery of her ex-lover Tommy Swann (John McCallum) hiding in the wartime Anderson shelter in her backyard. He’s broken out of gaol and come to her as the only person he can trust. She hasn’t seen him for ten years but feels compelled to keep him safe despite the need to hide him from the older man she married after Tommy’s capture, her two stepdaughters and her young son. This is the central plotline of the film but there are several sub-plots, mostly involving the two stepdaughters (the elder of whom is played by the Rank starlet Susan Shaw), three petty crooks and a Jewish extended family including such archetypal figures as the amusement arcade owner and ‘fixer’, the musician/record shop owner and the charitable worker. (Bethnal Green had a long-standing Jewish community, also represented in other films of the period.) The script by Ealing regulars Angus McPhail and Henry Cornelius, alongside Hamer and taken from a novel by Arthur la Bern, is full of witty exchanges and the film fairly zips along through its 92 minutes.

Why has this film survived so well while dozens of others from the period have virtually disappeared? It is a good representation of community and that was an important part of Ealing’s success. As George Perry points out (Forever Ealing, Pavilion Books 1981), Ealing’s peak years of 1945-51 exactly match the Labour government of Clem Attlee which did more than any UK government before or since to foster the sense of ‘doing things together’ through nationalisation of major industries and the expansion of the welfare state. Ealing’s films in this period, though never overtly ‘political’, often feature communities coming together to fight for something or at least being represented as having a sense of living and developing with a collective responsibility. Bethnal Green is presented as a place where people are ‘known’ – whether because they help others or because they are up to no good. Jack Warner’s CID man knows everybody and especially the petty crooks.

A classic noir image from IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (1947). Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures.

A classic noir image from IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (1947). Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures.

It Always Rains on Sunday includes several scenes that regularly recur in British films of the period. The action scenes are familiar from I Was a Fugitive (1947) (the escaping prisoner) and numerous films in which police cars with tyres squealing race through East End streets. The chase across the railway marshalling yard is a staple of British crime films and the East End dockland roads with their high walls are perfect for the entrapment of the doomed man. The scenes of cramped family life in a terraced house are similarly familiar but Googie Withers stands out as a genuine film star with real presence. She seems right for the period with that shapely, strong and powerful body and that wonderfully-sculpted mane of hair and she commands the screen. Ealing needed a female star of this magnitude to compete in a period when female stars ruled British cinema (this was the era of Anna Neagle, Margaret Lockwood, Deborah Kerr, Phyllis Calvert, Jean Kent, Patricia Roc, Ann Todd and many more).

I would contend that the greatness of the film resides in the combination of script, star performance and overall ‘quality’ of the Ealing production, both technical and creative. I include in that reference to quality the work of Robert Hamer, but I wouldn’t want to single him out quite as much as some of the high-profile commentators have done. Hamer and Mackendrick are usually singled out as the star directors at Ealing and there are various publications and online resources devoted to them. I’m a supporter of the ‘Ealing as community’ school but Hamer is definitely worth investigating on sites like Screenonline and this Criterion essay by Philip Kemp. Kemp suggests that Hamer was attempting to bring the poetic realism of Marcel Carné to the East End in It Always Rains On Sunday. I’m not sure about that but the film is as important as those French films in its combination of art and entertainment.

Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (Australia 2012)

Alexander England as the English cricket captain Tony Greig (left) and Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer

Alexander England as the England cricket captain Tony Greig (left) and Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer

Howzat! is an Australian television mini-series (2×90 mins) first broadcast in Australia in 2012 and now being shown in the UK on BBC4 to coincide with the start of the latest Ashes Cricket Series. I confess to not having had particularly high hopes at the outset, but I found the story to be compelling, even though I knew the outcome. The series deals with the challenge to ‘World Cricket’ in 1977 posed by the Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, owner of the commercial Nine Network in Sydney. Before Murdoch, Packer was the businessman prepared to take on the cricket establishment in Australia and ultimately in London where the International Cricket Conference had its HQ. Recognising that the most famous cricket players were very poorly paid, Packer realised that he could lure them into contracts to play cricket for his cameras (he had been refused exclusive TV rights to international cricket played in Australia, despite offering far more money than the state broadcaster). When he secretly signed 35 leading players, the cricket authorities fought back and for two years Packer’s ‘World Series’ existed alongside a weakened official programme of official international cricket. The ICC eventually regained control of the players, but Packer got his exclusive contract and cricket was never the same again. Packer has since been credited with many of the innovations that characterise modern cricket (day/night cricket, the white ball and coloured clothing etc.).

My description of the conflict might not sound too enticing if you aren’t a cricket fan but as a drama this mini-series has several advantages. Firstly it has the eternal battle between Aussie and Pom – the brash Australian and the stuffed-shirt Englishman. Social class is also part of this with the cricketing authorities located in Lords cricket ground  in London and Packer and the players generally around the pool and the barbie. In reality, however, Packer isn’t as uncouth as he acts. He came from a wealthy family and his father had edited the newspapers within the media empire. There is a nice moment in the script when Packer demonstrates that he knows exactly what ‘fancy phrases’ mean and part of the pleasure of the film is watching the stuffed-shirts (the ‘old farts’ as the similar Rugby Unions officials were memorably termed) under-estimate Kerry Packer. The film is partly a biopic and we learn that Packer’s interest in cricket is very much linked to his memories of his father. But it is also a boardroom thriller (Packer spent rather more money on his challenge than the company could really afford) as well as a historical film about sport. Having said that, there wasn’t much actual cricket in the first episode and what intrigues most is the politics of the game.

Howzat! has a conventional narrative structure and visual style. The script by Christopher Lee and the central performances by Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer and Abe Forsythe as John Cornell are very good and lift the film above routine drama. Packer is a larger than life character, rich and boorish but with a keen eye for a business opportunity. He is a universal figure whereas Cornell is defined solely in Australian terms. It seems an indicator of the production’s intentions to appeal only to a local audience that the Cornell character is never properly explained. He is the one who, as fast bowler Dennis Lillee’s agent, takes the original idea for World Series cricket to Packer. Cornell is young and attractive with a beautiful young wife – but the narrative does not also explain (until the final credits) that he is also the comic foil for Paul Hogan the comedy superstar of Australian TV and with Hogan he produced the hit film Crocodile Dundee in 1986.

The series was made by Southern Star Productions (now part of Endemol) with support from Packer’s own Nine Network. It might be seen as a vanity project except that Packer himself died aged only 68 in 2005. The politics of the series are interesting in their attempt to present Packer as the driven man, haunted by his father’s preference for Kerry’s brother Clyde. Packer in this film narrative has no home life or seemingly much interest in women – the script instead offers a typical mix of bullying cruelty laced with sentimentalism in Packer’s working relationship with his secretary Rosie and the suggestion that Packer opened the hallowed Members’ Pavilion of the Sydney Cricket Ground to women in 1978 (a significant move in the antediluvian world of cricketing behaviour). This ‘personal story’ obviously precludes any real discussion of the overall questions about the power of the media moguls in Australia on other media organisations and indeed on other sports organisations. It tends to focus on the central battle in which Packer is clearly a force for change.

PackerDVDThe second episode includes more cricketing footage and more focus on the players. I suspect much of the script is fairly bland in its attempt to represent the players and their camaraderie and personal rivalries. Some of the reviews of the series in the UK have joked about the players’ appearance (those 70s shaggy haircuts and facial hair, huge collars, browns and yellows etc.) I actually thought the actors looked the parts pretty well. A personal observation is that, at the time, Tony Greig was probably my least favourite sporting character – a white South African as England captain during the apartheid era – but in this series and in the glowing tributes from former players that followed his death in 2012, he comes over as a much more attractive figure.

I think there are other Australian mini-series like this, including one about the battles between Packer and Murdoch that I’d like to see coming to UK television. In the meantime, Howzat! is still available on the BBC iPlayer and a DVD is released in the UK on July 22. If you have any interest in cricket this is a ‘must watch’ and there is plenty for the non-sports fan as well.

Stories We Tell (Canada 2012)

Sarah Polley (right) with cinematographer Iris Ng. Image from National Film Board of Canada, Ken Woroner.

Sarah Polley (right) with cinematographer Iris Ng. Image from National Film Board of Canada, Ken Woroner.

I was very much looking forward to Sarah Polley’s film. I hoped that I would enjoy it and I did – very much. This is a wonderful film in many different ways. A great deal has been written about the film and so I’m wary of spoilers. Having said that I found that the ‘twist’ in the final frames that I’d heard about didn’t seem very surprising after what had gone before. It’s very difficult to say anything about the film’s formal qualities and its overall approach without a SPOILER about how scenes are presented. So if you want to see the film ‘unprepared’, read no further until you’ve seen it all the way through.

At one point in the film Sarah Polley is interviewing her brother and he suddenly stops and says “what is this film about?” (in that Toronto accent that I can’t work out how to write down). Polley hesitates for a moment and then says that it is about many things – and indeed it is. It’s produced by the National Film Board of Canada, famous for the quality and range of its documentary projects. This ‘project’ started in 2007/8 and has had a long time in preparation, shooting and editing during which time Sarah Polley an actress and filmmaker best known for fiction material joined a documentary filmmakers ‘lab’ and was mentored by, amongst others, Wim Wenders.

Ostensibly Polley’s film is a story about the Polley family from roughly 1967 to the present day. It begins as a story told by Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, literally by him reading a narration, presumably based on his own memoir, in a recording studio under his daughter’s watchful eye (and being asked to repeat lines – she’s a perfectionist). But gradually a cast of characters appears, commenting on aspects of the story and in particular on their memories of the only missing family member, Sarah’s mother Diane who died when Sarah was only 11. Eventually too, the story will change its focus to become not just an investigation of the mystery of who Diane was and what she did, but also the truth behind a long-standing family joke that Sarah doesn’t resemble her father.

It did occur to me at one point that this was at least associated with a Rashomon type of narrative – the same story as seen by different witnesses. As similar questions are asked of a group of interviewees, they give similar and sometimes one-word answers. Polley cuts them together in a staccato montage – just as one of the interviewees predicted she would. Now if all the answers to all the questions were the same it wouldn’t be at all like Rashomon, but in fact they do differ slightly at first and then much more as the narrative develops. This is sophisticated filmmaking.

Sarah Polley with the Super 8 camera in one of the interview locations (love the cat).

Sarah Polley with the Super 8 camera in one of the interview locations (love the cat).

At the beginning of the film, Polley ‘exposes’ the artificiality of the interview process. We see the cameras, lights, microphones etc. and hear the embarrassed asides of some of the interviewees. But in the closing sequences of the film, when Polley returns to showing some of these distancing devices, we realise that the layers of meaning and the artifice of constructed documentary realism is much more subtle than we had imagined. We know now that one of the things the film is ‘about’ is documentary itself as a narrative form. The most obvious instance of this – which has certainly ‘shocked’/puzzled audiences – is that Polley has interwoven ‘real’ home movie Super 8 footage of the Polley family with ‘staged’ scenes similarly shot on Super 8 in which actors play the principal ‘characters’ in important scenes set back in the 1970s and 80s. The actors are very carefully chosen and no indication is given as to which footage is ‘real’ and which is ‘reconstructed’. Added to this are further sequences taken from other film archives (Sarah’s parents were well-known Canadian actors and they appear in some of these clips) and footage taken by Polley herself on Super 8  – we actually see her with a camera on a few occasions. Sometimes she cuts between these different sources of digital film and Super 8, showing the same scene in the different formats. The producer Anita Lee tells us in the Press Pack that: “the Super 8 film format is loaded. It already comes with this notion of nostalgia and the past. It’s a medium of a certain time. We associate Super 8 with home movies lost in basements, and we literally searched through people’s basements for the right Super 8 camera”.

The reception of the film is interesting. I suspect it is slightly different in Canada where Sarah Polley is a leading figure in the Canadian film and TV industry, but in the US and here in the UK, while the majority of critics have lauded the film, a minority have seemed to find it slight or indulgent or just not interesting. I can only think that they just haven’t seen things in the film or that they don’t have any interest in families or memories or ‘truth’ – fundamental I would have thought to our existence.

Sarah and Michael Polley in a family photo

Sarah and Michael Polley in a family photo

The film opens with a quote from Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace (which Polley is set to adapt) and soon after, Michael Polley quotes Pablo Neruda “Love is so short, forgetting is so long”. Polley skilfully pulls at the different skeins of wool in the ball to reveal the complexity of memories and viewpoints and indeed who it is who is trying to exert control over the narrative. Contrary to the reviewer who moaned that the film is too long, I immediately wanted to watch it all over again. On a second and third viewing I think I will learn even more about how the different viewpoints are developed. Polley is fortunate that her siblings and her ‘fathers’ are highly articulate and also, for me at least, very engaging characters. This is certainly one of my films of the year. Please go and see it, and if you haven’t already, do try and catch up with Take This Waltz (2011) and Away From Her (2006), her fiction features which apply the same intensity to family relationships but as comedy-drama and melodrama. Stories We Tell confirms Sarah Polley’s talent as a filmmaker and also marks a triumph for the National Film Board.

100 Years of Cinema in Keighley

Bob Thorp of Keighley Film Club introduces the programme

Bob Thorp of Keighley Film Club introduces the programme

As an addendum to my earlier post about the centenary of Keighley’s Picture House Cinema, the cinema operator Charles Morris decided to hold a centenary celebration (some two months late) on July 10 in conjunction with the town’s Film Club which began  to screen films at other venues earlier this year.

Wednesday’s film programme put together by the Film Club comprised a free afternoon programme, part of which was then repeated in the evening alongside a screening of The Artist (France/US 2011) for which tickets were sold. The afternoon programme was introduced by Charles Morris, fresh from lunch with invited guests. He quickly handed over to the Film Club’s Secretary Bob Thorp who explained that the Film Club would in future be showing films once per month in the cinema. We then watched a short film by one of the film club members on the history of early cinema and also a documentary on the Picture House itself made last year (see it here). The main part of the programme which I want to comment on here was the selection of Maya Deren’s At Land (US 1944) and Episode 1 of the Fantômas serial directed by Louis Feuillade and starring Renée Navarre as Fantômas and which was released in five episodes each of 54 minutes in 1913.

Maya Deren in 'At Land'

Maya Deren in ‘At Land’

At Land was shown first with a musical accompaniment – a piano in front of the small stage, played very well (but the pianist’s name wasn’t given). However, I’m not sure whether Maya Deren ever intended that her silent films should have accompaniment. Some of Deren’s films had music soundtracks created by her collaborators, but not this one to my knowledge. Music does change the experience of watching a silent film. Commercial film screenings of films without soundtracks up to the early 1930s usually had some form of accompaniment but later avant-garde films (often shown in non-theatrical spaces) might be shown silent. Anyone who has watched a film in a cinema without any sound at all knows what a strange experience it is, so perhaps accompaniment here was a wise decision. As an aside, the three major texts on Deren and the 1940s American avant-garde that I consulted all failed to discuss soundtracks (or at least to include a reference in an index).

Maya Deren had arrived in the US from Ukraine as a small child in 1922 and by the mid 1940s she was becoming a leading figure in the ‘New American Cinema’ as the group of avant-garde filmmakers working out of New York became labelled. Her collaborators included the composer John Cage and her husband Alexander Hammid and others who appear in At Land. Hammid co-directed and photographed Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), Deren’s first film (but not Hammid’s first). At Land was photographed mainly by Hella Heyman. This creative collaboration is just one of the reasons why Maya Deren has been so celebrated within feminist film studies. She effectively controls her own liberated image on screen – ironically, she photographs so well that her image equals if not surpasses those of the artificial Hollywood goddesses of the period. Her background was in anthropology and poetry. She wasn’t a trained dancer but she was interested in dance cultures which featured directly in her later films and her work generally acquired the tag of ‘trance films’. The films are indeed ‘dreamlike’, not just in the strange juxtaposition of sequences but also in their rhythms which through careful camerawork and editing create almost seamless transitions and a sense of swooning. At Land begins with Deren washed up on a beach, but as she pulls herself up on a tree stump she climbs directly onto a long dining table where she is seemingly oblivious to the diners. Later she enters a building with an array of doors to open. There is clearly a relationship with surrealism, but most critics of avant-garde film see Deren as an original rather than simply a follower of Buñuel and Dali.

Maya Deren’s work is now easily accessible on DVD and much of it is also on YouTube. If you haven’t seen it before, it is well worth seeking out. I always assumed that Kate Bush must have been a fan.

fantomas

The selection of Fantômas was announced as simply an example of a film released in 1913. Bob Thorp said he didn’t yet know whether Fantômas ever played in the Picture House at the time. Nevertheless it was an interesting choice and given its great influence on subsequent filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock it reminded us of some of the thrills and spills that cinemagoers of the next forty or fifty years would have enjoyed. I haven’t seen the serial before but from the little I’ve read the first episode was perhaps not the best to show since it is mostly setting-up the battle between Inspector Juve and the mysterious criminal Fantômas. The vision behind the adaptation of a successful novel is such that at first it is easy to forget that the film is 100 years old. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that most scenes are still conventional tableaux with a more or less static camera. The main movement comes in the sequence detailing  a remarkable prison escape. At the end of the episode is a piece of Méliès camera trickery, matching some of the promotional footage for the series which emphasises Fantômas as a master of disguise, constantly changing his appearance – and demonstrating what we would now term ‘morphing’ on screen.

The Film Club programme was enjoyable and it showed imagination and enthusiasm from what is essentially a volunteer group. There were a few problems in the projection of the films but the projectionist assured us afterwards that these had been sorted in time for the evening screening. The next step is to attract audiences to the monthly screenings being organised by the Film Club in this grand old venue and we wish them well.