Monthly Archives: January 2016

Different Cultures – Different Films

ten-canoes-9

Films are made all over the world but the most widely seen are those intended either for commercial release in mainstream cinemas or on the international film festival circuit. This means that they follow certain widely understood conventions. But what of films produced in countries with few, if any, cinemas? Or films made from within communities with only limited connections to the mainstream cultures of West or East? Are we forced to ‘read’ them through the critical faculties we apply to Western films? Do we worry about finding them ‘exotic’? Do we underestimate the vision and imagination of local filmmakers? The Day School will explore several different filmmaking approaches from Africa, Asia and Indigenous Australian Cinema (such as Ten Canoes, Australia 2006 – see the image above) that attempt to allow local peoples and local cultures to present themselves as they might wish to be seen. We’ll also consider the barriers faced by these productions.

(Please note there will not be a full screening as part of this event. We will, however, discuss aspects of Timbuktu (France/Mauritania 2014) screened on Wednesday 18 (Kala Sangam) and Thursday 19 November (Dean Clough) and we will introduce Theeb – to be screened on Wednesday December 2nd at Kala Sangam and December 10th at Dean Clough).

 

A modern film artist: the work of Andrey Zvyagintsev

Andrey Zvyagintsev with the Golden Lion he won at Venice in 2003 for his first feture, The Return.

Andrey Zvyagintsev with the Golden Lion he won at Venice in 2003 for his first feture, The Return.

Every few years the international film community discovers a new director whose films win prizes at festivals and new fans around the world. Andrey Zvyagintsev first attracted attention with The Return in 2002, followed by The Banishment in 2007 and Elena in 2011. The director’s fourth feature Leviathan was one of the most celebrated and controversial films of 2014 and given the current belligerence of the Russian state, Zvyagintsev’s oblique commentaries on Russian society have begun to attract attention in the news media. What makes these films so compelling and distinctive? 

This day school introduced Zvyagintsev as an unusual figure in contemporary cinema who worked for many years as an actor before directing an episode of a television drama series aged 36 in 2000. The move into feature films was rapid and The Returns award of the Golden Lion in Venice was a reminder of another début win by Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood in 1962.

Zvyagintsev’s film’s have attracted audiences for three main reasons and these were the focus of the Day School:

  1. The stories resonate because of strong characters and universal themes (often with Biblical allusions) – which can also be interpreted in specific Russian contexts.
  2. Some fruitful collaborations with talented filmmakers to produce a powerful aesthetic appeal in terms of cinematography, music and sound and use of settings and landscape.
  3. A dedication to the ‘art’ of cinema and an obvious debt to several of the giants of art cinema such as Andrei Tarkovsky as well as an affinity with other contemporary art directors such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

 The day included a complete screening of Zvyagintsev’s third feature Elena plus discussion-based sessions with extracts from the other three films and complementary material from Tarkovsky and Ceylan.

Tangerines (Mandariinid, Georgia/Estonia 2013)

Ivo (in the back of the jeep) with the two Chechen mercenaries. Sortly after, one will be killed and the other wounded.

Ivo (in the back of the jeep) with two Chechen mercenaries. Shortly after, one will be killed and the other wounded.

Tangerines is a humanist drama with an anti-war discourse. The sizeable audience I watched it with at Square Chapel in Halifax certainly seemed to enjoy it and many were visibly moved by its story. A co-production between Georgia and Estonia it was written and directed by Zaza Urushadze from Georgia and stars the very experienced Estonian actor Lembit Ulfsak. Set during the period of nationalist and ethnic conflicts in the early 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the story is set in the Caucasus region where two Estonians, Ivo and Margus, are all that remains of a larger community who have returned to their homeland. (The titles at the beginning of the film suggest that an Estonian community has been in the Caucasus for 100 years – I haven’t been able to verify this.) The two men have stayed on to harvest a valuable crop of tangerines. But the conflicts have enveloped their little community and after one engagement the Estonians find themselves with three dead soldiers to bury and two wounded soldiers who need to recover in Ivo’s house. The problem is that one is a Georgian and the other a Chechen mercenary allied to the local Abkhazians (who are fighting for a breakaway state from Georgia). When they recover, both men seem determined to kill the other. Ivo, whose house becomes the convalescent home, is getting on in years but he has strong convictions. Can he keep them apart and alive?

The location may be exotic for western audiences, but this is a familiar scenario from narratives about war. In fact Tangerines is a conventional film in many ways. It isn’t difficult to imagine it as a TV play from the 1960s – there is a small group of actors and only two main locations – Ivo’s house and the grove of tangerines and their limited surroundings. Only at the end of the film does the camera give us a sense of the terrain across the whole area. Just when I thought the narrative drive had slowed too much, something dramatic would happen and the narrative then built to the inevitable climax which provided a clear resolution. This was ‘satisfying’ in one sense but also seemed as if it was imported from a more generic action film – the rest of the narrative being much more of a personal drama. I enjoyed the film and I was moved by it. But thinking about it later I came up with the more distanced appraisal outlined above. I think mostly I was affected by the performances and the tight direction. Ivo is the kind of man we all hope we would be in a crisis – calm, resolute, able to see the best course of action (and able to produce fresh bread and cheese to feed his new house guests seemingly out of thin air). These performances and the overall direction help to produce an audience-pleasing film which has had a good festival tour, an Oscar nomination and now a release in the US and the UK (albeit in only a few cinemas – this is a film to pick up on DVD). However, in one of those ‘coincidences’ that seem to crop up regularly in film production/distribution, there is another film, another Georgian co-production, made around the same time with many similar narrative ideas.

I saw Corn Island (2014) at last year’s Leeds Film Festival and thought it very good indeed. Set in the same location at the same time, ‘Corn Island’ refers to temporary islands formed after Summer rains wash silt downstream. Another grandfather and his grand-daughter attempt to grow a crop of maize on one of these temporary islands before it is washed away by the next year’s rains. As well as the elements, the old man has to deal with patrols of soldiers from both sides of the conflict – and at one point a wounded soldier who shelters on the island and gets rather too friendly with the teenage girl. Tangerines was the Estonian nomination for the 2015 Oscars and Corn Island was the Georgian nomination. I think my preference is for the latter but it is revealing that whereas Tangerines received distribution in the UK, Corn Island didn’t, despite being a bigger budget film with a more cinematic feel. This perhaps says more about distributors’ views on UK audiences than on the films themselves. Tangerines did make the final Oscar shortlist of five, so perhaps we could argue that either distributors know how Academy members vote – or they are influenced by the votes. I stick by my preference but I’d still urge you to watch Tangerines as well as looking out for Corn Island. Both films were made by Georgians and I have seen one negative comment on Tangerines claiming it as ‘Georgian propaganda’. I can’t really comment on the political realities of the conflict, but I would see Tangerines as within a broad perspective of humanist/anti-war cinema.

Book Review: Stars in World Cinema

WorldCinemaBook

Stars in World Cinema: Screen Icons and Star Systems Across Cultures, eds Andrea Bandhauer and Michelle Royer, I. B. Tauris 2015, £62 (hardback) 272 pp, ISBN 9781780769776, eISBN: 9781857738356

This new title in the World Cinema series from I. B. Tauris presents a collection of essays offering ideas about theorising film stars and stardom. Such studies have conventionally developed in studies of Hollywood and European cinema but here they are applied in the wider context of ‘World Cinema’. It is unfortunate that the publishers decided to use that term for the series since it perpetuates that Hollywood v. ‘World’ binary, but the editors for this volume emphasise the ‘pluricentric’ nature of the essays (the same idea, I think, as ‘polycentric’ in other similar collections). The editors also use the term ‘transnational’ and refer to the ‘interconnectedness’ and ‘commonality’ of accounts from five continents. As several of the essays point out, even when the stars themselves have crossed borders to appear in Hollywood films, many other star studies start from the preferred Hollywood model rather than recognising how star personae are developed in different cultures.

There are sixteen essays in total, divided into four sections. The first, Film Icons and Star Systems, offers four different case studies of stars and star systems outside Hollywood. The second, Stardom Mobility and the Exotic, focuses on examples of actors who have become ‘transnational’ in appeal, but for whom ‘crossing borders’ makes them ‘exotic’ in the cinema that is not native for them. In most cases this translates to travelling to Hollywood and being treated as exotic, but in the case of Viggo Mortensen it means appearing in Spanish films as ‘Danish-American’ and speaking fluent Argentinian Spanish. Section three is The Politics of Stardom with four studies of stardom in distinctive film cultures/industries where individual artistic expression and control have wider implications. Section four, Stars, Bodies and Performance, studies more or less what the title implies in relation to four further case studies.

This sounds like a carefully considered structure to the collection and it does indeed make sense. However, there are inevitably the pros and cons of a multi-authored text. The main pro is that the study has a genuine ‘local’ perspective and therefore a collective overview that no single author could produce. The main con is that there will be some repetition of basic arguments. But this is probably helpful as it serves to emphasise the ‘interconnectedness’ of these studies. More practically the sheer range of the case studies means that most readers will come across stars they have not encountered before or film cultures they know little about. For me the discussion of two specific female stars of the ‘post-studio Philippine Cinema’ was new territory as were the specific stars of Egyptian and Greek films. In other chapters I could always find something that I recognised. I think that the sixteen essays represent a good selection. They include studies of global figures such as Amitabh Bachchan, Antonio Banderas, Jackie Chan and others still active in contemporary cinema as well as earlier stars such as Romy Schneider, Emmanuelle Riva (in relation to Hiroshima mon amour and the more recent Amour) and Carmen Miranda (on the book cover – see above).

The two editors are Australian academics, as are several of the contributors. Most of the others are based at UK universities. Rachel Dwyer, who writes about Amitabh Bachchan, is perhaps the best-known name but Scottish readers will be pleased to see the founder of the Africa in Motion (AiM) Festival, Lizelle Bisschoff of the School of Culture & Creative Art, Theatre Film and TV Studies, Glasgow University, writing about Nollywood. The real question is who would read/use these accounts outside quite specialised areas of study and how accessible are the individual essays? I’m going to mention just a few essays in detail in the hope that they offer a useful sample.

Hara Setsuko was the great female star of Japanese studio films, best known in the West for her roles in Ozu Yasujiro’s post-war films, including Tokyo Story (1953). Mats Karlsson titles his essay ‘Japan’s Eternal Virgin and Reluctant Star of the Silver Screen’. Hara is a star who became emblematic of Japanese womanhood, representing in the 1930s the young girl/woman who supported the men going to war in the propaganda films of the period but then switching dramatically in the first post-war films to be first the ‘new woman’ of democratic Japan and then switching again to the traditional woman during the 1950s and the return to patriarchy. As Karlsson highlights, the Japanese Studio System operated in a similar way to Hollywood with Hara contracted to Toho for much of her career but able, because of her status, to work with Ozu who was usually working for Shochiku. But Hara can’t be studied just like Hollywood stars because her star image was restricted in ‘secondary circulation’. As an intensely private person she maintained a silence outside the studio walls. Garbo had to retire to become anonymous but Hara could continue to have a strong screen persona and still be a private person. Karlsson’s is a useful essay especially since two contrasting roles for Hara are available for study on UK Region 2 DVDs of Naruse Mikio’s Repast and any one of her six films for Ozu.

One of the most accessible and contemporary studies that students might undertake is of the way in which Chinese film stardom operates in conjunction with Hollywood’s current interest in the extraordinary recent growth of the Chinese box office. ‘Dancing with Hollywood: Redefining Transnational Chinese Stardom’ by Sabrina Qiong Yu approaches such a study fully aware of the difficulties and the problems associated with earlier scholarship. She begins by noting that Hollywood seeks Chinese stars to appear in its blockbusters for purely commercial reasons and not to help diversify the range of representations. This has recently meant that Chinese stars have been seen in insignificant roles and are on screen only fleetingly – resulting in the observation from audiences that they constitute ‘Hollywood soy sauce’ – an attempt to enhance the flavour, but nothing substantial in the dish.

Yu uses Bourdieu’s concept of four forms of capital – economic, social, cultural and symbolic – to analyse how succeeding generations of Chinese stars (and later Korean and Japanese) have worked on Hollywood productions. She concludes that social capital is very difficult to develop for any star based outside the US since it requires the kinds of social networks associated with politics or social activity such as charity work (e.g. for a Clint Eastwood or an Audrey Hepburn). Symbolic capital based on ‘fame and fantasy’ associated with a star image can be converted into economic capital if the star’s presence increases investment in the production, helps to secure distribution etc. Cultural capital can accrue for stars with specific skills such as dancing or combat skills. Otherwise it is economic capital that is most important. Yu demonstrates that while Bruce Lee and to a lesser extent Jackie Chan and Jet Li had the opportunity to develop their status because of martial arts skills, other major Chinese stars such as Chow Yun-fat are better known for straight dramatic performances and their skills are less distinctive in cultural capital terms. Yu notes that the more recently-established stars Chinese stars have smaller roles in bigger Hollywood blockbusters, but that some of these films are being made in two versions so that the Chinese stars have more screen time in the versions for the Chinese market. This is a rich field with scope for ongoing study.

From the third section I would pick Karen O’Brien’s essay about the indigenous Australian star David Gulpilil. Beginning with Walkabout (1971) Gulpilil has received international recognition which has proved important in his activist role in promoting authentic representations of indigenous Australian life through films like Ten Canoes (2016) which stars his son Jamie.

Indigenous Australian cinema is perhaps more accessible (partly because there are several recent examples) than some of the films featured in the fourth section. From this section I would opt for the essay by Michelle Royer which considers the two best-known roles for Emmanuelle Riva in the context of how cinema represents the ageing process. Royer argues that cinema has great potential to be a site for real understanding of what ageing means but that too often older characters are presented only in heavily typed roles. By focusing specifically on Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Amour (2012) Royer is able to offer a fascinating perspective on how a study of ageing might proceed.

I could certainly use this book and I would imagine that it offers something for everyone. It’s a shame that the current economics of publishing means that this only available in hardback. The book carries an e-ISBN number as well but I can’t find any sign of a digital copy online.

[This review first appeared in Media Education Journal No. 58, Winter 2015/16 and is published here with permission – see http://www.ames.scot/mej.html]

Crimson Peak (US-Canada 2015)

Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wiakowska

Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Edith (Mia Wasikowska), the potential couple at the centre of a gothic romance.

Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a companion piece for his early films The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, Spain-Mexico 2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Spain-Mexico-US 2006) and the film he helped to produce, El orfanato (The Orphanage 2007). But whereas these films combined the ‘gothic romance’ with a Spanish Civil War story via various rich metaphors, del Toro’s new film is essentially a re-working of a classic gothic romance narrative set in the early Edwardian period. Compared to the earlier films Crimson Peak is even more beautifully conceived and designed but unfortunately does not carry the same powerful political message. It does, however, offer a worthwhile commentary on the gothic romance and the presentation of ‘phantasms’.

The narrative involves an English ‘gentleman’ and his sister, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), who visit Buffalo NY where Thomas seeks investment funds from the banker Carter Cushing. Thomas wants to build a mechanical extractor for the deposits of red clay on which his family property sits in the wilds of Cumberland. The blood-red clay is valuable for firing high-quality tiles but is also threatening the foundations of the great old house and seeping through the ground like blood. Thomas and Lucille leave America without investment funds but with Cushing’s daughter Edith (Mia Wasikowska) as the new Mrs Sharpe. They return to the great gothic mansion where the rest of the narrative plays out.

Edith begins to explore the gothic house . . .

Edith begins to explore the gothic house . . .

. . . in which there is often somebody watching – here Jessica Chastain.

. . . in which there is often somebody watching – here Jessica Chastain as Lucille.

Once in the UK, Crimson Peak becomes more focused on a three-way power struggle in the classic gothic house with strict colour coding of costumes and fantastic attention to mise en scène, lighting and cinematography. The background to the production suggests that del Toro had been trying to make the film for a long time, but that he hung on until he found backers prepared to let him have the $50 million that he knew would be needed to create the spectacle that he wanted to create. This passion for the project is evident in the number of promotional videos that accompanied the film’s release, including one in which del Toro himself takes us through aspects of set design and the SFX needed to create his ‘phantasms’ – creations that are part digital effect and part traditional effects work (see the clip below).

I went to see Crimson Peak on a large multiplex screen, primarily to immerse myself in the production design and the richness of del Toro’s imagination. I wasn’t sure what kind of narrative to expect and I’m still not sure why I didn’t enjoy it more. Everything about the production is first class, including the three central performances. Del Toro’s ideas are gloriously realised in the set and I enjoyed the presentation of the phantasms. The film was shot in Canada and the one feature that didn’t work for me was the presentation of landscape. The mystery is why del Toro and his co-writer Matthew Robbins chose ‘Cumberland’ as the location for the house – and then presented it as an isolated house on a featureless snow-covered moor, so that it could really have been anywhere. There is a strong sense of landscape in British gothic stories set in the late 19th and into the 20th century. Think of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Hitchcock’s Rebecca or the more recent The Woman in Black. The landscape doesn’t have to be ‘factually correct’ but it should resonate with the story in some way. I seem to remember that del Toro shot in Northern Ireland on the Devil’s Causeway for Hellboy 2, so he has had some experience of the possibilities. Perhaps I’m just complaining because I want to see Cumbrian landscapes – I don’t worry about the Spanish locations in the earlier films, but that’s because they do seem to be part of the overall presentation of the Civil War.

Crimson Peak didn’t find the large audience that might have justified its production spend. I think that’s partly because gothic melodrama/romance is currently out of favour and is only acceptable as part of a package in which the potential horror story is strong enough on its own. By mixing the two in the way it is done here – appealing to two different audiences – del Toro has not really satisfied either. I suspect that the focus on the production design has meant that the script received less attention than it should have done. Thinking back, the ingredients are there for a great melodrama – there are narrative elements about childhood and parenting that might have come from a Wilkie Collins novel – but somehow they don’t cohere.

Perhaps Crimson Peak will become a cult film through theatrical revivals – I’m glad I saw it on a big screen.

Guillermo del Toro introduces one feature of his elaborate studio set:

. . . and here’s another:

Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-set films are discussed in Chapter 4 of The Global Film Book.