Monthly Archives: December 2013

Gravity (US/UK 2013)

Sandra Bullock – alone in space?

Sandra Bullock – alone in space?

Gravity works with audiences – in industry terms it has ‘legs’. Although it was released in early November, it still pulled in a healthy audience at the 3D screening I attended this week. It also works as a technical exercise in creating a ‘realist’ representation of the work of astronauts on a space station in orbit above the earth. (I am not commenting on the scientific ‘truth’ of the operations depicted, rather on the sense of ‘being there’ experienced by the audience.)

Alfonso Cuarón and his DoP Emmanuel Lubezki are masters of the long take, though when bodies are floating through space and cameras are ‘virtual’ in the world of CGI, this means something rather different than it did for Max Ophuls or Jean Renoir. Cuarón is certainly ‘in control’ since as well as directing, he produced the film, co-wrote the script with his son Jonás and co-edited it with Mark Sanger. Perhaps he might have relinquished one of those roles and focused a little more on the script and possibly the casting? The film works for me as a thriller and I was squirming in my seat with the tension I felt. It also did make me think about the prospect of slow death if I was ever cast adrift in space. The 3D generally worked, although I found the objects being thrown at the audience became too distracting after a while. The three flaws for me were: (1) the dreadful music, (2) George Clooney and (3) the ‘re-birthing’ and spiritual/religious symbolism of the last third of the film.

I can see that each of these ‘flaws’ could be attributed to the commercial constraints facing Cuarón. I’m sure that I remember early discussions about this not being a ‘studio picture’ but instead some kind of ‘super indy’. With a budget of $100 million and a massive international roll-out, this seems like a blockbuster to me and therefore in need of various conventional touches. Clooney is a likeable star with a ‘big’ persona but the role in Gravity would have been better filled by a lesser-known actor who would not have drawn attention away from Sandra Bullock (an effective, restrained performance, I think). Space would be more ‘other’ and even more terrifying with only the ‘natural’ sounds of the space station or the diegetic music on the intercom.

The re-birthing symbolism is more problematic – Sandra Bullock is seen several times getting out of her spacesuit (like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis?) and coiling up in a foetal position. I guess much of the resonance of these scenes comes from 2001? My concern is that these images come as part of what is a general slide into a ‘Hollywood ending’ to the film. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but it did seem to me to be disappointing for a film which seems to promise something different. I’ve seen Gravity referred to as a ‘science fiction film’ but this does not seem helpful – action thriller seems the best description (Speed with Sandra Bullock would make an interesting comparison.)

Alfonso Cuarón showed in his best film, Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001) that he is capable of subverting the mainstream and that he can work effectively with genre repertoires as in Children of Men (US/UK/Japan 2006). Of course, Children of Men proved a difficult sell to audiences and dented Cuarón’s ‘bankability’ after his earlier success with a Harry Potter film. Gravity has restored his status, so something with more bite next time?

Alfonso Cuarón is a transnational filmmaker working in Mexico, the US or across Europe on international projects. I see that IMDB lists Gravity as simply a ‘US’ production. In fact it was co-produced with David Heyman in the UK (his company also co-produced the Harry Potter movies) and most of the studio work was completed at Shepperton. UK crews and facilities deserve some credit for the technical virtuosity of the film.

Nebraska (US 2013)

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte)

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte)

Immediately after I saw Nebraska my impression was that I had seen one of the most enjoyable films of the year and also one of the best. Since then I’ve thought about it several times and it’s in danger of becoming the year’s No 1. There are several reasons why it stands out. First it looks terrific in Black and White CinemaScope with slow pans across the flat landscapes and a higher than usual number of long shot framings by Phedon Papamichael, director Alexander Payne’s regular DoP. Second, the excellent casting and wonderful performances give us convincing representations of communities in the small towns of the ‘high plains’ of Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. This is a film about a ‘real America’ – strangely beautiful even when run-down and tired. I should also mention the excellent score by Mark Orton. I’m actually listening to the soundtrack streamed live as I write.

Of course, part of my fascination is because the film speaks specifically to men of a certain age. The narrative offers us a father and son on a road trip – which, as someone who didn’t like the film pointed out to me, combines two of the most common traits of American cinema. The trip involves a bemused and possibly bewildered retired man who wants to travel from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his ‘winnings’ in what he thinks is a lottery but which in reality is just a marketing promotion by a magazine publisher. This is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). His wife and sons attempt to dissuade him, but in the end the younger son David (Will Forte) decides to drive him to Lincoln, hoping that the journey will give him time to re-build his relationship with a father who he felt was ‘absent’ during his childhood.

The setting takes Alexander Payne back to his home state and reminds us of both Election (set in a high school in Omaha) and About Schmidt (a road movie, starting from Omaha, with a similarly aged character at its centre played by Jack Nicholson). Like those two films, Nebraska has both comic moments and ‘real’ characters with elements of both hero and anti-hero. One difference, however, is that both the earlier films were literary adaptations but Nebraska is an original script by Bob Nelson, himself a native of South Dakota. Nelson and Payne know the territory and the people and, apart from the intrusion of some black comedy ‘business’ with a couple of ‘goonish’ cousins, the film is pretty close to Rossellini’s ideas for neo-realism. It’s a story taken from a real community with family secrets and relationships that most of us can recognise as ‘real’. I’ve heard criticisms that the film is depressing but I found it to be uplifting and optimistic because it seems to deal with life as it is and not as fantasy.

Father and son outside the old family house in Hawthorne, Nebraska

Father and son outside the old family house in Hawthorne, Nebraska

It has been fascinating to read some of the commentary on the film and some of the interviews and to discover the influences and references, many of which occurred to me watching the film and others which make sense on reflection. The strength of the film in aesthetic terms is its representation of landscape and characters in that region which represents the spine of ‘middle America’ and in Hollywood terms the terrain of the classic Western. In cultural and geographical terms this is the region from Montana down through Wyoming and South Dakota to Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and North-West Texas. The two films that came to mind as I studied the landscapes were Brokeback Mountain and Hud (1963). I remember from Brokeback the opening scenes in Signal, Wyoming and the drama of the huge skies. Similarly with Hud, I remember the Texas landscapes presented in Black & White ‘Scope.  Those two films are linked by the inputs of Larry McMurtry, the great storyteller of the ‘Twilight Western’ who helped to adapt Annie Proulx’s short story for Brokeback and whose novel Horseman, Pass By was the source for Hud. McMurtry has the feel for landscape and communities in the region and I wasn’t surprised to discover that Alexander Payne had always wanted to cast Bruce Dern, a ‘1970s character actor’ in what Payne saw as his own version of a ‘Peter Bogdanovich film’ (see this informative interview with Kevin Tent, the editor on the film). Bogdanovich made two black and white films in the early 1970s – the depression-set road movie (travelling through Kansas) Paper Moon (1973) and the Twilight Western, The Last Picture Show (1971) – based on Larry McMurtry’s novel and set in a Texas town in the late 1940s/early 1950s.

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Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar walking into the town of Signal, Wyoming at the start of Brokeback Mountain

The Last Picture Show – at the Royal in McMurtry's creation of 'Anarene'

The Last Picture Show – at the Royal in McMurtry’s creation of ‘Anarene’

The small Texas town in Hud

The small Texas town in Hud

The Last Picture Show is the most often quoted reference for Nebraska. As well as the monochrome landscapes and small town views of the plains, there is also a thematic resonance with all three films I’ve mentioned here. The Twilight Western is in this particular formulation a contemporary story set in the geographical ‘West’ as defined by Hollywood. There are usually two central male characters, one upholding the honour/traditions of the West and the other negotiating with ‘modernity’. In both Hud and The Last Picture Show there is also a generational narrative with an older and younger man attempting to learn from the other. These primarily male narratives are about loss – the loss of ‘freedom’ and the ability to ‘act’ with dignity and honour. Perhaps it is a push to equate the confused Woody with older characters such as those played by Melvyn Douglas in Hud or Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show (or indeed Robert Preston in Junior Bonner with Steve McQueen as the younger man) – but the links are there. Woody has turned to drink and to lassitude, remembering his past as the owner of a small garage. We learn later that he might have been an honourable man in business – but also that he might have suffered from his experience of the war in Korea. Several commentators refer to him as an alcoholic but he seems to me to have been a man who drank beer in bars rather than face his demons at home. That judgement is something audiences have to think through for themselves – the narrative doesn’t judge the man as such. I’m not sure he is suffering from any form of dementia either. He doesn’t say much and his belief in his ‘win’ is perhaps pathetic, but he still has an identity that he cares about. Bruce Dern’s performance is remarkable but it would be a shame if it overshadowed that of Will Forte as David – the genuine protagonist of the narrative. Forte seems to have worked mainly in TV, but he is very good in this film.

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Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’

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Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’ (print held by the Museum of Modern Art: http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78455)

The interview with Kevin Tent throws up two more interesting references in terms of the look of the film. One is to note that ‘Woody Grant’ is a name that reverses ‘Grant Wood’, the artist who painted ‘American Gothic’ the iconic portrait of the rural American couple and a potential model for Woody and his formidable wife Kate played by June Squibb – another terrific performer mining the comedy in the script. There is also a suggestion that another iconic painting, Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’ (1948) was an influence – even though Wyeth was from Maine. ‘Christina’s World’ is possibly my favourite painting so perhaps my appreciation of the beauty of these desolate landscapes is somehow triggered by memories of the painting?

The music is the final part of the aesthetic construct. Again, I have to confess that American ‘roots music’ is my favourite form. In this interview from Film Music Magazine, Mark Orton explains his own background and that of his colleagues in the Tin Hat trio:

We had all studied classical music but were all improvisers as well. We listened to Smithsonian records, Thelonious Monk, Iannis Xenakis, and Willie Nelson. We were a composer’s collective and the only thing we had decided about the group early on was that we would stick to an acoustic instrumentation and use extended techniques and preparations rather than anything electric or processed. Whatever of bluegrass’s past that found its way into my/our sound did so naturally. (http://www.filmmusicmag.com/?p=12017).

That’s a pretty eclectic mix and the interview is well worth reading. As Orton puts it, the music takes the film away from a specific genre while at the same time firmly locating it in the American ‘Heartland’. The characters are at one remove from the rural people of the dustbowl stories and the cowboys of the Twilight Western, but they certainly ‘connected’.

Nebraska is a triumph of aesthetics and storytelling. I’m sure there is a great deal more to say. What did you all think?

Whisky Galore! (UK 1949)

George (Gordon Jackson) rescues The Biffer (Morland Graham) as the SS Cabinet Minister threatens to sink.

George (Gordon Jackson) rescues The Biffer (Morland Graham) as the SS Cabinet Minister threatens to sink.

BBC4 is such a blessing. Without it UK TV would be unbearable. This Christmas holiday the channel revived the traditional Yuletide TV schedule and gave us a run of Ealing films. The standout for me was Whisky Galore! which I hadn’t seen for many years. For anyone who doesn’t know the story, adapted from Compton Mackenzie’s novel, it is inspired by a real-life incident in which a ship went aground off the isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides in 1941 – enabling islanders to ‘salvage’ much of its cargo of whisky. Mackenzie was himself the local Home Guard commander who turned a blind eye to the salvage operation. In the film, the locals of the mythical island of ‘Todday’ (a play on ‘toddy’?) are offered a similar opportunity during a period when their own supplies of whisky have run out. The only barrier to their enjoyment of the spoils is the local Home Guard commander, the English Captain Waggett played by Basil Radford, one half of the comic duo ‘Chalders and Caldicott’ with Naunton Wayne who appeared in several British films from 1938 onwards. Waggett brings in the ‘Excise men’ to hunt for the whisky hidden by the islanders. In doing so, he finds himself at odds with nearly all of the islanders.

Whisky Galore! is now considered a ‘classic comedy’. Initially it was only a moderate hit in English cinemas, playing better in Scotland but scoring an unexpected success in the US (as Tight Little Island) and in France where the title translated as ‘Whisky a GoGo’. Its release in 1949 alongside Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets, helped to establish the idea of the ‘Ealing comedy’. As Philip Kemp points out in his book on director Sandy Mackendrick, (Lethal Innocence, Methuen 1991), once a film gets the ‘classic tag’ it is often difficult to step back and view it objectively. But let’s try anyway.

The film’s production context is crucial. It was made in 1948 when the UK attempted to keep Hollywood productions at bay through import tariffs as part of the struggle to achieve a balance of payments. Hollywood responded by embargoing British cinemas and UK producers attempted to fill the gap with increased production. Alexander Mackendrick was a young filmmaker at Ealing given his first directorial task on a location shoot (with all available studio space taken). Mackendrick was American-born but part of a Scottish family and he would go on to become one of the stars of Ealing and a director and later film teacher with an international reputation. His first film, not surprisingly was a little uneven and took twice as long as the budgeted 60 days to shoot on the remote (from London) island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

Watching the film now I’m struck by three immediate observations. First, there is a great deal of music, both in terms of score and the diegetic music used for local celebrations. Second, the location photography and the use of local non-professionals creates a very strong sense of place. Third, the narrative is actually pretty thin with the one central conflict and a couple of romantic sub-plots involving the two daughters of the island’s central entrepreneurial figure Macroon who runs the general store. This means that one of Ealing’s bigger stars, the husky-voiced Joan Greenwood is rather under-used. In fact all three central female roles (the other daughter and Waggett’s wife) are similarly under-used apart from a few one-liners. On the other hand, the film celebrates that Ealing trait of the small community working together and the film succeeds because of the sheer vitality of the camerawork and editing supporting the performances and the direction of the central narrative.

The interest for film scholars now, I think, lies in the film’s representation of certain ideas about ‘Scottishness’ and its relationship with similar films in terms of location and thematics. This dossier of materials compiled by Paul Cronin on the website ‘The Sticking Place’ provides many interesting starting points for debates. I’d like to pick up on what is sometimes referred to as the ‘kailyard’ tradition. This term can be traced back to at least the sixteenth century and it refers to the practice in rural areas whereby worker’s cottages would have attached a small plot of land to grow cabbages or other brassicas such as kale. In the 1890s the term was used to describe a certain kind of Scottish literature perceived as sentimental and nostalgic at a time when the Central Lowlands of Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh) had developed into major urban centres within the British Empire. In 1982 Colin Macarthur re-ignited the debate in his book about Scottish cinema, Scotch Reels, and the kailyard and ‘tartanry’ traditions. (‘Tartanry’ refers to the whole paraphernalia of the Victorian construction of Highlands culture.) It’s not for sassenachs like me to lecture Scots on national identity but I would point out that the kailyard has its equivalent in Ireland and the parts of England that I’m familiar with – workers’ cottages with a garden for the spuds and cabbage and a pen for a pig. The kailyard itself is authentic but the problem comes when it becomes the central focus of national identity and is disproportionately represented in comparison with the industrial tenement.

Whisky Galore! with its ‘Highlands and Islands’ setting is certainly rural and culturally Gaelic, but in fact the film makes relatively little of local culture apart from the narrative necessity of a whisky-fuelled celebration for the nuptials of Macroon’s daughters. What is important is that the central narrative hinges on the response by the locals to the actions of ‘outsiders’ – Waggett and the Excise Men. This sets up a romantic, idealised local community opposed to the rational, orthodox ideas of the English ‘colonial’ administrators. This rather than the kailyard seems to be the way in to the narrative and its ideological readings. Whisky Galore! is interesting in its relationship with what went before – Robert Flaherty’s documentary Man of Aran (1934) and Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World (1937) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945) – and what came after, including The Wicker Man (1973) and Local Hero (1982). These films (and several others) all celebrate the resistance of the ‘spirit’ of the Celtic fringe in resisting the intrusion of the ‘modern’ consumerist and regulated world into the organic but fantastic community of the Irish/Scottish Highlands and Islands.

One of the important decisions about the film’s script was to jettison the local religious conflict between two different island communities. In the novel, the wreck presents a salvage opportunity for both the Protestant (Calvinist) community of a ‘Northern Isle’ and the Catholic community of a Southern isle – the ship grounding on the dividing line in the Outer Hebrides. Ealing was terrified of the religious question and Mackendrick himself , although not a practising churchgoer, was a Protestant who said he did not understand the local Catholic community who seemed more Irish than Scottish. The result is that the film fails to convince when the Todday men, confirmed whisky drinkers, are unable to go to the wreck for 24 hours because they respect the Sabbath day (surely more of a Calvinist concept).

I enjoyed watching the film again. I was thrilled by the overall presentation and, like several other commentators, I was intrigued by the use of conventions relevant to 1948 – the noirish lighting of the salvage scenes and the war film references in which the excise men seem like the Gestapo searching houses for contraband whisky. But I would have liked more Joan Greenwood and more of the romance on those wonderful beaches – one day I’ll spend some June nights in the Hebrides!

Whisky Galore! is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Japan Film Foundation UK Tour 2014

Parade (Paredo, Japan 2010) one of the titles in the Japanese Film Foundation's 2014 UK Film Touring Programme.

Parade (Paredo, Japan 2010) one of the titles in the Japanese Film Foundation’s 2014 UK Film Touring Programme.

Advance warning of next year’s Japan Film Foundation UK Touring programme was released on Monday 23 December. The tour reaches venues in London, Belfast, Edinburgh, Dundee, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sheffield, Bristol and Nottingham between January 31st and March 27th 2014.

Full details including which titles (selections from 11 in all) are playing at which venues can be found on the Foundation’s website. This year’s theme is ‘youth’, under the title ‘East Side Stories’, with films from the last ten years, most not previously seen in the UK. There is also one archive print, 18 Who Cause a Storm (Arashi o yobu juhachi-nin) from 1963: “A worker in a shipbuilding yard is offered the chance to boost his wages by managing a dormitory inhabited by a pack of eighteen adolescent ruffians. This early film by Yoshishige Yoshida (Eros Plus Massacre) is a neo-realist account of the conditions for Japanese temporary workers in the 1960s, and rare to see outside Japan”.

We hope to get to at least a couple of these screenings. It looks an interesting programme.

The Selfish Giant (UK 2013)

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Arbor (Conor Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas). Photo by Agatha A. Nitecka http://film.agathaa.com/the-selfish-giant

This is Clio Barnard’s second feature and I feel much the same about it as I did about the first, The Arbor, in 2010. It’s extremely well made with excellent performances and it acts as a challenge to anyone who has a complacent view of the lives of working-class families in the less salubrious parts of the UK’s major urban areas. I admire it very much but it disturbs me. The film is again set in the housing estates of South Bradford, but this time less precisely than in The Arbor. Indeed, the camerawork at times uses shallow focus to obscure road signs and blur backgrounds so that we can’t be sure exactly where the story is set.

Audiences in Bradford have been very healthy for what is a specialised film with only a restricted distribution to cinemas. The bigger than average audience I was part of was noisy and appreciative in the early stages of the film but very quiet at the end. As usual for a film of this kind, the major public reaction has come from metropolitan critics who don’t venture up here that often – they can treat it as an art object, safely ‘cased’ in a specialised cinema, but to me it feels much more compelling as a form of public document. A couple of features of the Leeds/Bradford conurbation are important for the narrative. Bradford has a large and dispersed population as a ‘Metropolitan District’ – over 500,000 people, many of them living in smaller communities in rural areas. In both Leeds and Bradford the richer leafy areas of middle-class accommodation are mainly to the North of the cities and the ‘badlands’ are to the South. It is the latter that are featured in The Selfish Giant. I live in the Northern part of Bradford Met and I don’t make any claim to know the area the film is set in. Perhaps that’s what leads to my discomfort – so near yet so far in terms of what the film depicts.

I’ve seen references to ‘post-industrial’ Bradford and even Clio Barnard herself has made references to Ken Loach, Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold as well as the Dardenne Brothers in terms of ideas about social realism. I think that these comments should be approached with some caution – simply because these different filmmakers tend to focus on different aspects of an overall realist approach. For instance, I don’t think that The Selfish Giant has much to do with the view of a working-class mining community in 1969 offered in the Barry Hines/Ken Loach presentation of Kes (which Barnard herself compares to the horse in this film), but there certainly is a parallel of sorts with the Paul Laverty/Ken Loach world of Sweet Sixteen set much later in 2002 in post-industrial Greenock.

The inspiration for The Selfish Giant came from the Oscar Wilde short story with the same title. I haven’t read the story but I understand that it involves an ogre/giant who at one point prevents children from playing in his beautiful garden with the effect that the garden dies until children find a way to sneak back in. The theme of the story appears to be redemption, ultimately involving a form of Christian religious allegory (I was surprised to learn this). Barnard certainly pursues the idea of exclusion and offers some kind of hope at the end without resorting to religious meaning (as far as I could see). She creates a kind of magical tale that involves tragedy before the final sequences. I can see that there might be some connections to the Dardennes Brothers’ stories – and particularly the most recent ‘inspired by fairy tales’ story of The Kid With a Bike. In the same way, I can see a kind of ‘magical’ touch in the presentation of the urban meets rural landscape that is also there in Lynne Ramsay’s wonderful Ratcatcher.

In all of these films there is the warmth of a humanist depiction of families in difficult situations. Is it there in The Selfish Giant? I think it is, but it is presented with a bleakness and the almost complete absence of social structure/social networks – in short, any sense of community apart from the culture that surrounds the scrapyards of South Bradford. Clio Barnard has spoken about the research she has done into the traveller communities in the region and this is evident in the depiction of the scenes featuring illegal ‘trotting’ races using ‘sulkies’ – two-wheeled lightweight carts – on major roads in the early hours of morning. The film has to tread a fine line in these kinds of representations – there is a danger I think that they might be viewed through the lens of the reality TV camera. Bradford has been the subject of several recent reality TV programmes. The most recent of these, Bradford City of Dreams on BBC2 in May this year, was actually quite a decent stab at representing the city’s diversity but I am reminded of the scene in La haine when the youths chase off a TV crew who have come to shoot on their estate for a news report on local protest marches. What Bradford needs most is investment and economic regeneration rather than more attention from cultural commentators.

The two central characters who are ‘excluded’ are Arbor and Swifty, 13 year-old boys excluded from school because of behavioural problems, marginalised in society generally because of poverty and unemployment and struggling in families with other social problems including alcoholism and drug use. Swifty escapes into communion with horses but Arbor is more active in seeking to earn money ‘scrapping’ for anything he can find. This leads the pair into the dangerous world of copper cable theft and into the ‘giant’s den’ – a local scrapyard run by ‘Kitten’, an unscrupulous dealer who also owns a prize trotting horse.

I don’t need to spell out what happens in the narrative. The dangers associated with stealing copper wire from the railways, electricity sub- stations or telecommunications hubs are obvious. I suppose what disturbs me is I can’t see any way out for the lads. There isn’t any political solution or indeed any form of collective action put forward to rescue these communities from their exclusion. I can quite understand why Nick Lacey, as a local teacher, despairs at the depiction of the school that excludes the pair (see his blog entry). And watching them in the opening scenes make off with a length of cable stolen by other scrappers from a local railway line isn’t really ‘magical’. I’ve sat on too many trains delayed by signal failures after cable thefts.

That opening scene by a railway line reminded me of Ken Loach’s The Navigators, so I wasn’t too surprised to find that The Selfish Giant was shot by the same cinematographer, Mike Eley. There are other names that stand out in the crew including Harry Escott for the music and production design by Helen Scott. It’s great that Clio Barnard and her collaborators have had international festival success and the shoot did bring a production team to Bradford, but perhaps we could have a comedy next time?