At the lighter end of any festival’s line-up (not least Sheffield Doc/Fest’s) are the films about films. 2018 saw Shirkers, though that investigation of a lost bit of cinema history blended personal essay with criticism and went rather dark in the process. A different approach is taken by this film premiered last year, that provides a bit of cinematic film criticism, entirely made out of clips from the genre suggested by the film’s title.
This personal essay film/reflection on the titular genre borrows a lot of its approach from Beyond Clueless (2014, directed by Charlie Shackleton né Lyne), from the clip-based structure, to the poster design right down to the musical collaborators (plus Mr Shackleton shows up as one of the commentators, which is one way that it differs from that film at least, which relied instead on a single narrator). It may not offer any insights that aren’t obvious enough to anyone who watches the films (that they glorify a lot of extremely creepy male behaviour, and pander to the patriarchy) but of course it’s nice to hear it all expressed in one place. It even, thankfully, moves into what is compelling about romcoms, why they continue to be made and gain a lot of success, though I did appreciate the way it used the genre’s format to pull in some other titles that aren’t usually considered as romcoms. Some of the use of the commentators’ voices was to speak to experiences outside that of our director/writer Elizabeth Sankey, namely those of women of colour and gay men, though those sequences were touched on only very briefly towards the end. What becomes clear is that the bulk of the form has long been dedicated to heteronormative, white, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class desire, so while counterexamples exist (for at least some of those categories), the strength of the genre in future will rely on a far more equal acknowledgement of all kinds of love.
Director/Writer Elizabeth Sankey; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 16 May 2020.
One of the major reasons I like to watch documentaries is that they bring me stories from all parts of the world, from all walks of life, and from the perspectives of people whose lives and experiences I will never share and could often never be part of. This film is directed by two British women (from an anthropology background, I gather), but is filmed in Nepal, touching on child trafficking and exploitation but in a way that really benefits from the time the filmmakers spent with their subjects. It’s a real problem with documentaries that the best ones require a huge amount of time and patience to make, whereas ones which are dashed off quickly tend to be insubstantial and misleading. This film is produced by Elhum Shakerifar (Hakawati Films), who has also produced the excellent Of Love & Law and A Syrian Love Story amongst others, and programmes Middle Eastern and North African films at the London Film Festival (quite often providing some of my favourite film experiences at the LFF each year).
Seeing a synopsis of this documentary, I was not expecting very much, but in blending an account of human trafficking of children from poor, rural areas of Nepal into travelling circuses in India, with the story of their rescue and rehabilitation into their own native circus based in Kathmandu, the film ends up being rather lovely. It’s certainly not a combination that one might expect to pay off: earnest accounts of the wonder of the circus arts hardly make for a natural bedfellow with harrowing accounts of what is essentially slavery, you would think. However, there’s an assuredness to the direction and photography that is aided by, as ever, charismatic and watchable lead characters, most notably two women who have grown up in these circuses, and have found a new sense of direction once reunited with their families. Of course, there are difficult questions — most notably, why their parents sold them in the first place — but the women are all united in trying to ensure that this practice does not continue, as well as fighting against the prejudices people have against circus performers (which seem to roughly align with what 19th century Victorians thought about actors).
Directors Kate McLarnon and Sky Neal; Cinematographer Ben Marshall; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 16 April 2018.
The fact of Alec Guinness playing eight roles is of course always the headline fact about this Ealing comedy of 1949, but that alone would certainly not make it a great film. He’s not even the only actor to take on a dual role as its lead, Dennis Price, plays social climber Louis Mazzini as well as (briefly) his own father, but his character is the core of the film, a sleek and urbane charmer who, as an opening framing scene makes clear, has managed to get himself sentenced to death, and who as we discover from his prison-penned autobiography, the narration of which provides most of the film’s incident, has made a habit of knocking off the obstacles to his becoming the Duke of Chalfont. We may be thankful that his half-Italian heritage was changed from the Jewish one of the original source text, though there’s some disturbing (for us, now) use of the N word near the end which clearly was not considered bothersome at the time for its British makers (indeed, its use in the ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ children’s rhyme was still around the schoolyard when I was a kid in the 1980s I’m fairly sure, though even the contemporary American release version changes it, so it can hardly be said to have been unproblematic at the time). That aside, this is an astute satire on the presumed superiority of the nobility, that a fine education and a quick wit somehow makes you a better person — whether it’s the callous behaviour of the d’Ascoyne family (Alex Guinness) which leads to Louis’ crimes, or the similarly high-handed way that Louis treats those he presumes to be below him from the very outset. Very few characters are indeed likeable throughout, though Louis does at least have the wrong done to his family, a sympathy increasingly worn thinner by his every subsequent action. Still, and perhaps for that reason, it remains a great black comedy about social climbing.
- This two-disc DVD release has on the first disc a trailer and some photo galleries, both stills taken of the actors as well as behind-the-scenes production photos, including some rather striking costume designs and handsome portraits and group shots.
- There’s also the American ending to the film, which differs just in the final shot, which (sorry, obviously spoilers follow for those who are concerned) makes Price’s inevitable come-uppance all the more clear by instead of showing his tell-all memoirs sitting on his prison table unread, has a guard run up to the warden and thrust them under his nose. This clarification was due to the Production Code requiring all crimes to be clearly punished.
- The main extra on the second disc is a feature-length episode of the BBC documentary series Omnibus called Made in Ealing (1986). This is a straightforward run down of the history of Ealing Studios, particularly focusing on when it was acquired by Michael Balcon (whom everyone calls “Mick” or “Mickey”) and taking it through its heyday in the 40s and 50s, backed up by clips from the films and interviews with some of the key figures (archival footage of Balcon from 1969, along with contemporary interviews with his daughter and those directors and crew who still survived, like Sandy Mackendrick and Douglas Slocombe, amongst many others). It’s all narrated with a calm BBC gravitas, and is a decent introduction to the studio’s output until it was sold off in the mid-1950s.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Hamer; Writers Hamer and John Dighton (based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman); Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe; Starring Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 24 May 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 13 June 2020).
Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.
Continue reading “Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)”
In a sense this film is about one person, Stuart Hall, a prominent cultural theorist who sadly died the year after this was made, but in talking about his work and life, it touches on the history of the United Kingdom, its colonialism and its own struggles in relationship to that colonial past, that continue to echo today, that continue to in fact resound very loudly at this very specific moment.
Despite being born in the UK, I wasn’t educated here and therefore was never really introduced to the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, having found out about him near the end of his life when this film was made (he died in 2014). However, the archival clips orchestrated here by John Akomfrah, with a backing of musical clips from Miles Davis records, impresses upon me that he really was one of that dying breed of accessible public intellectuals, so thin on the ground in contemporary discourse and surely never more sorely needed. He speaks of his West Indian roots, of coming to Britain to study at Oxford, and of the persistent racism and colonialist attitudes he encountered. In dealing with periods of his life, and of the history of late-20th century Britain, the film also elucidates the social changes that Hall dealt with in his work, the ways that dreams of the past may have died and that other newer ideals came to replace them, but with a throughline relating to the immigrant and postcolonial experience. The film is as much about the construction of identity itself as it is about telling a story of Hall, but it sort of manages to do all of these things, and though I can’t claim to be a great intellectual, it was persuasive and likeable, and idiosyncratic in its ways as something of a multimedia art project (which Akomfrah has done several of, including about Hall), but also a compelling documentary.
Director/Writer John Akomfrah; Cinematographer Dewald Aukema; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player on Amazon streaming), London, Wednesday 10 June 2020.
It can sometimes feel to me as if too many people in the UK (or, say, Australia or NZ, as other examples) look to race riots in the United States and feel somehow as if they are unrelated to struggles taking place in their own country, as if the toxic legacy of slavery in the US doesn’t somehow also apply to other countries, especially ones with their own long colonialist histories. Another sad theme of my week dedicated to the ‘cinema of resistance’ (as I’m calling it), is that struggles that were documented playing out decades ago, and sometimes centuries ago, are still relevant.
Looking to the situation in the UK, these two films were made almost 35 years ago, dealing with race relations — and, in the case of the first film (a documentary), race riots — playing out in the United Kingdom. The impetus to rioting may have been somewhat quelled by a report which identified institutional racism within the police and took steps to alleviate the immediate problems, but it’s certainly very far from the case that the police in the UK (or Australia or NZ) are somehow colour-blind or that there are no cases of violence against the bodies of minority ethnic people. You can look to more recent films like The Hard Stop or Generation Revolution to see that clearly enough, and the ongoing fight against injustice. Race, often intertwined with class, continues to be a source of conflict in most Western countries, and the police and forces of state violence continue to be the main actors, even under conditions where it seems unrelated (witness a report even just today in the UK linking Black and minority ethnicities to higher instances of COVID-related deaths).
For those interested, Handsworth Songs can be watched on YouTube (so look it up), though I can’t find anywhere you can see The Passion of Remembrance.
Continue reading “Two 1986 British Films about Race Relations: Handsworth Songs and The Passion of Remembrance”
I watch plenty of films but I’m still not sure I have the language to express how this post-Red Shoes fantasia by Powell and Pressburger comes across, because more than most films it seems to move somewhere beyond the reach of mere words. It blends ballet and opera on sets that don’t merely defy naturalism but seem to actively conspire against it in every dimension, as people vanish into the floors, run down grand staircases in 2D, float in the sky or disappear into the trees. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the gaudy costumes, each colour-themed to the film’s three segments and framing story. It’s a film about a writer called Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville), in love with a dancer called Stella (Moira Shearer), who waits for her during one of her performances and regales the lads down the pub with some stories of his past loves. If this were taken as being about the nature of women, then it comes up a little short (as Shearer she’s a puppet, as Ludmilla Tchérina she’s a courtesan, and as Ann Ayars she’s tragically doomed), but it’s really about this self-regarding man and his obsessions, which doom him never to be happy with a woman. It’s as much an aesthetic experience as it is a film, and it will weary you if you’re not a fan of opera, but it’s certainly something special.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Writers Powell, Pressburger and Dennis Arundell (based on the opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach with libretto by Jules Barbier, itself based on the short stories “Der Sandmann” [The Sandman], “Rath Krespel” [Councillor Krespel] and “Das verlorene Spiegelbild” [The Lost Reflection] by E.T.A. Hoffmann); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring Robert Rounseville, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tchérina, Ann Ayars, Léonide Massine; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 13 May 2020.
A film that’s just come out online at the end of last week is this documentary looking at the start of the Rock Against Racism movement and organisation. It expanded on an earlier short film by the same director and was premiered at the London Film Festival last year, where my mum saw it (she was in town), but it’s been good to catch up with it since, supported by a Q&A with the director and a couple of participants, hosted by Mark Kermode and which is on YouTube.
A documentary looking back at the work of the organisation Rock Against Racism, founded in the mid-70s amidst anger at the increasing pro-fascist rhetoric bandied around by big names like David Bowie, Rod Stewart and most of all Eric Clapton, whose fondness for Enoch Powell and his blood-soaked send-them-all-back-to-*waves hands vaguely* rhetoric, inspired not just anger but also the creation of this movement. Our main guide and entry into this story is “Red” Saunders, the founder of RAR, a man with a big desk and nary a modern device to be seen on it. There’s a certain nostalgia at work here, but I can’t deny it gets to me: the tactility of old zines pulled out, collective remembering of the turbulent times from Red and the people he pulled around him, whether his compatriots at RAR putting together the musical events and their punk publication, or else the musicians with whom he collaborated to get the message out. The archival clips are great, not just of the gigs but more interestingly of the ferment of the time, the rise of the National Front (NF) and their Nazi-embracing thuggery, the complicity of the police. It’s a film that tells a story and doesn’t spare those to blame, but as is only too evident to all of us watching it, has hardly dated in 40-45 years. They may not be called the NF anymore, but the same forces are still with us in British politics, and still need to be called out.
Director Rubika Shah; Writers Ed Gibbs and Shah; Cinematographer Susanne Salavati; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Thursday 30 April 2020.
One of the primary ways in which I tend to use YouTube is as a resource for watching short films, which are often ill-served by other platforms (whether online streaming services or physical media, not to mention film festivals and cinematic screenings, or even TV). Whether that’s catching up on the work on the LA Rebellion’s women filmmakers, random recommendations like Possibly in Michigan, the short films that feature on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s favourite 1000 films list (one of which, Adynata, I review below), some short films littering the lower depths of Kristen Stewart’s filmography (I can’t bring myself to review them here though I pondered doing a post), or of course music videos, amongst other ephemera. There’s a lot there to enjoy, and I expect if I do future posts about short films, YouTube will be a key resource.
Continue reading “Two Experimental Short Films from the 1980s Directed by Women: Measures of Distance (1988) and Adynata (1983)”
Time and memory moves in strange ways. I loved this film when I first saw it, only a few years after it was originally released, but rewatching it over two decades later I find myself a lot less tolerant of David Thewlis’s witty, wisecracking Johnny. He’s a toxic figure, a man who is introduced to us before the credits raping a woman in a Mancunian back alley before stealing a car and driving to London. His erudition tends towards the apocalyptic and his constant allusions and references are a linguistic distraction, the dangers of a first class education wasted on idly baiting those with less education than he has without really saying very much at all. He is fatuously condescending towards anyone he doesn’t want to engage with, and particularly seems to like picking up women he considers his intellectual inferiors. (Which every woman character here seems to be; like many of Leigh’s films the women feel so shallowly drawn, an assemblage of actorly tics in some cases, and I wonder if that’s just because he devotes less time to drawing out their characters.) In any case, you spend the entire film waiting, maybe even hoping for Johnny’s comeuppance, and the only thing that makes him in any redeemable is that there are even worse men in this world (the oleaginous yuppie landlord Sebastian/Jeremy, for example).
The way that Johnny is placed into situations has an affect to it of course: this is not so much a kitchen-sink bit of neorealism as a very constructed series of self-aware Socratic dialogues, as Johnny’s interlocutor engages those he meets in one-on-one conversation, during which he reveals his deep cynicism at the state of the world and its future. His is an attitude very firmly tied to the legacy of the Thatcher years, and that is I suppose where the film’s anger lies. Like the recent Criterion release Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), this is a bleakly comic film angry about bourgeois privilege which is focused on an unkempt outsider who shuns society’s norms. And like that film, I find it hard to connect with its antihero, though there’s a sort of purity to its unrelentingly grim apocalyptic message.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring David Thewlis, Katrin Cartlidge, Lesley Sharp; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 5 April 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).