Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France, 1961)

History made alive

History made alive

Chronicle of a Summer is one of the most significant documentaries ever made; as stated at the start of the film:

‘This film was not played by actors, but lived by men and women who have given a few moments of their lives to a new experiment in cinema truth.”

The last two words in their original French, cinéma vérité, became emblematic of the type of film they created. Although, like Direct Cinema which was being developed for television in North America at the time, cinéma vérité used developments in lightweight equipment to shoot events as they happened, filmmaker Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin (an anthropologist), were not suggesting that they were passive bystanders merely relaying the action. They didn’t try to disguise the fact that audiences were watching a film and both directors appear onscreen talking to the participants about a range of contemporary issues such as the Algerian war and racism.

The film begins with a conversation with Marceline Loridan about her feelings of being involved in the documentary. Initially her role is as a vox pop interviewer asking passers-by if they are happy. These early scenes are shot candidly with poorly composed framing. After this the film focuses on six participants: three students, an African, an Italian, a car worker and a union man. Rouch and Morin are trying to gauge what ‘France’ thinks about the world in the summer of 1960.

The film’s ability to capture these spontaneous conversations was no doubt extremely impressive at the time. From the perspective of now the technical brilliance is somewhat lost however the snapshot of the time ensures that the film remains vital viewing.

For example, Marceline, it transpires, is a survivor from Auschwitz and in a harrowing monologue she recounts her time there. This is shot at a deserted Place du Concorde apparently with her talking to herself (her lips are clearly moving some of the time) whilst the camera moves backwards in front of her. It could be coincidental, but when she talks of being a little girl the camera noticeably recedes from her, making her look relatively small (see above). This image bridges the moment with the past when she was separated from her father in the concentration camp; it is an emotionally devastating sequence.

Later when Mary Lou is talking about her fears of being alone, the close up of her visibly distressed face, though she is trying to smile (put on a ‘brave’ face), portrays the raw emotion she is feeling. It may seem to be exploitative however Morin, who’s talking to her, says we shouldn’t talk about it and the scene cuts immediately. An African student, Landry talks about how he’d like Africans to be appreciated for more than their dancing; he is portrayed as an African explorer in France, a brilliant post-colonial characterisation.

The film concludes with reflections on itself, first from the participants and then Morin and Rouch in conversation. The participants’ views are fascinating as, after they have seen a rough cut, they appear to disagree with the meaning of what they have seen (I say ‘appear’ because we are obviously seeing what Morin and Rouch decided to include in the final version though I don’t doubt the veracity). Sam Di Iorio’s excellent Criterion essay (here) quotes Morin’s reaction to this:

Morin eventually saw the contradictory reactions it generated as proof of its strength: “My dream that this film would end with mutual understanding failed,” he wrote in 2010, “but its ultimate success lay in showing how difficult it is to understand others.”

And this is part of the film’s greatness, showing that truth is a dialogic concept and not absolute. Clearly, I’m strongly recommending this great film.

 

’71 (UK, 2014)

Desperate times

Desperate times

The ‘Troubles’, which was a Civil War, haven’t entirely gone away but, as a tour guide said, I visited Belfast a couple of years ago, when glass-fronted buildings appeared in the city the people knew things had changed. ’71 takes us back to the time when the violence was escalating and shoots from the perspective of a typical squaddie. Jack O’Connell embodies, which is the apposite term as there’s not a lot of evidence of grey matter, Hook (the soldier) brilliantly as he is immersed in a war he knows nothing about. One of the few clearly good characters in the film, a Catholic ex-army medic (the terrific Richard Dormer), states the army is ‘Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts’; an apt summary,

Hook is immediately immersed in street fighting and Yann Demange casts the film as a thriller which certainly grips with its febrile handheld camera; these scenes reminded me of Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday – high praise indeed. First time director Demange only shows his inexperience in a tense scene where Hook is trying to avoid the Provos on the stairwell of a block of flats; the continuity is more confusing than tense. David Holmes’ score is a standout.

As others have commented, the Sight & Sound review is particularly good, the lack of politics means it is a limited portrayal of Belfast in 1971; however within these limitations it is a particularly good film.

The Riot Club (UK, 2014)

The state of things

The state of things

I hesitated to see this as I knew the antics of the ‘Bullingdon Club’ toffs would make me sick. Laura Wade adapted her play and Lone Scherfig directed what appears to be the ‘cream of British’ young male talent in this worthwhile film. The acting talent is very good: I don’t know their backgrounds but recent complaints, by the likes of David Morrissey among others, that unless you’re posh you’re not getting opportunities to join the acting profession, suggest maybe they know ‘posh’ behaviour intimately. Being ‘posh’ has always bequeathed an unfair advantage but after the increasing meritocracy we enjoyed in the post-war period, the pendulum has swung against the people since Thatcherism.

The Daily Telegraph reviewer thought the film to be humorous, whilst The Observer (not Kermode) felt we identified with the toffs too much to condemn their behaviour. There are accusations that the media is a ‘closed shop’, like acting, and it’s hard to square either of these responses with the film which is not funny and the ‘Riot Club’ boys, with one exception, are all scumbags.

I’m not sure my time was well spent as the film portrayed the British Establishment for what I know it is: corrupt and exploitative. Some might suggest it confirmed my prejudices but in a society where the poor are blamed for their poverty, whilst the rich wallow in their wealth, it is clear that we are fiddling whilst the planet burns.

Pride (UK, 2014)

All in it together

All in it together

I’m amazed the first I heard of this heart-warming collaboration between Welsh miners and lesbians and gays, during the mid-eighties strike, was in an Observer feature a few weeks ago. Did I just miss it or did the media duck this class conscious alliance? Whatever the reason it’s a great story and is superbly told in this film which, I hope, becomes a big hit. It opened at number three last weekend but I expect the middle aged audience will have been catching weekday screenings. It’s imdb rating is over 8 suggesting the film is hitting the right notes for many.

The strong script, by Stephen Beresford, is aided by an ensemble cast where the well-known, Bill Nighy, Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton and Dominic West, are matched by the rest, including the up-and-coming George Mackay, Jessica Gunning and, particularly, the American Ben Schnetzer, who plays the charismatic Mark who organises support for the miners. Although Mark is closest the film has to a hero, it’s gratifying that the film is careful to represent the actions as collective rather than individualist. It is through collective action that change is wrought.

There’s plenty of humour gained from the apparent mismatch of macho miners and homosexuals at a time when Gay Liberation was only just finding its voice in UK mainstream media. The choice of music, and there’s lots, made it clear that many of the best songs of the era were part of gay culture. Although the miners lost the strike (how could they have succeeded alone against the repressive state apparatuses?) it’s clear, from the film’s epigraphs, that the events shown in the film had a direct influence on the Labour Party officially supporting Gay rights.

There are many threads to the narrative that are stitched together expertly in this never overlong two hour film and I reckon the only misstep was not to include how the miners were correct in their contention that the Thatcher government were not interested in efficiency in the industry, they simply wanted to destroy the miners as a force of working class politics.

Gloria (Chile-Spain, 2013)

A lust for life

A lust for life

When discussing ageing with pupils I suggest that everyone wants to grow old. After a moment of derision they usually realise that the statement is true. However, the ageing body is clearly a monstrous Other in western society where we, women in particular, are urged to avoid showing the outward signs of decrepitude. Gloria, played brilliantly by Paulina Garcia, is a woman who is ‘past her prime’ and a lone divorcee who we meet in a singles bar. She has a lust for life and that, another taboo in mainstream cinema, includes a lust for sex. Few films deal with sex in old age though Hollywood has dipped into this demographic with films like the funny It’s Complicated (2009) and the dreadful Hope Springs (2012) (where giving her husband a blow job solves the marital problems). However neither of this films show the sex, Gloria does in all its glory and ageing bodies.

Sebastián Lelio directs (he also co-wrote) in a detached fashion, often framing in a medium to long shot with a static camera, in a relatively long take, allowing us observe the ‘always-on-screen’ Gloria at a distance. Sometimes this means the action isn’t clearly framed, however the technique works well to offer a certain detachment to the melodrama allowing us to more readily admire Gloria rather than be too emotionally involved in her situation. Gloria doesn’t want our sympathy, she just wants to get on with her life. There are a couple of marvellous melodramatic emblems: a street puppeteer has a skeleton dancing leading Gloria to give her on-off lover one more chance, it repreesnts mortality writ large; she finally rids herself of the ‘lover’ by shooting him with his own splatter gun.

Gloria’s lust for life includes her children but they, whilst loving, are detached from her and have their own lives; they obviously feel their mother no longer has much of a purpose for them. Garcia is marvellous at portraying her disappointment at her offspring whilst never showing them that she is hurt. This dislocation from the past is also a key part of the film’s politics. A dinner table discussion about Chilean society leads Gloria to suggest that children have been hard done by in the post-Pinochet period. Understandably Chileans want to move on from the brutal dictator’s time but Leilo suggests that the bourgeoisie are only concerned with their own cosy existence.

The film isn’t simply about ageing it’s also about gender and men come across as particularly pathetic. Gloria’s paramour, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), whilst undoubtedly in lust, and maybe in love, with Gloria cannot break from his past – particularly his needy daughters. He’s shown to be emotionally stunted as if he believes his desire for  Gloria should be enough to sustain the relationship. He gets what he deserves when she shoots him. At the end we see Gloria, as she was at the beginning, dancing alone. At the start of this dance, however, she is surrounded by women. Leilo may be a bit too  harsh one men: we’re not all that bad!

Gloria is a cracking film that shows us oldies still have a lot of life in us.

Better Mus’ Come (Jamaica, 2010)

Couldn't be worse

Couldn’t be worse

Jamaican film made a rare and welcome appearance on the BBC earlier this year with this powerful film made by Storm Saulter and Paul Bucknor; well they directed, produced, edited, wrote and shot it between them. A prodigious effort that tells a story of the infamous extra-judicial killings of the Green Bay Massacre in 1978; the army set up and shot supporters of the opposition Labour Party. Although the narrative is sometimes sightly confused (well I was, it could be a cultural misunderstanding or that it was late) there’s no denying the power of the film. Storm, as he’s known on the credits, directs and films well using the bright colours of the Jamaica to contrast with the extreme poverty of the slums.

The largely amateur cast, well I assume so as they have appeared in few, if any, other films, do well and Sheldon Shepard is a convincing protagonist as the gang leader who wants to ‘go straight’. There are also hints of a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ‘across the tracks’ love story and if the narrative is somewhat cliched this doesn’t detract because the setting is so unusual.

Lucy (France-Taiwan-Canada, 2014)

An American superhero made in France

An American superhero made in France

In the film ‘corner’ of cyberspace, amongst liberal circles at least, there’s much debate about when Disney/Marvel are going to produce a female superhero. This is when Russia is invading Ukraine; an apocalyptic cult is enforcing Middle Age justice on anyone they can; Ebola is devastating western Africa; citizens can’t feed and house themselves, not new I know but increasingly a problem in the UK. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is the only high profile female superhero in recent films and she only plays a supporting role in The Avengers and Iron Man 3. Yet here she is playing Lucy, a woman who acquires superhero powers blitzing the box office; she’s currently taken nearly three times as much as the ageing males of The Expendables 3 in North America.

Writer-director Luc Besson has a reputation for producing female protagonists, though I found La Femme Nikita (France-Italy, 1990) misogynist, and he’s scored with Lucy. It’s not strictly a superhero film, there’s no costume, but there are superpowers. In this sequel-driven industry it’ll be a surprise if she doesn’t come back and it would be a welcome return even though the film isn’t anything special.

Johansson, as usual, is excellent, particularly as the scatty student inveigled into giving a Korean gangster a suitcase. The gangster is played by the great Korean actor Choi Min-sik and his characterisation will have to down as another example of EuropaCorp’s (Besson’s company) xenophobia – see here; there are no positive East Asian characters. Once Lucy becomes ‘super’ she becomes less interesting but there’s plenty of cod philosophy, and physics, to keep audiences distracted. I liked Besson’s use of Eisensteinean montage in the early scenes when shots of wildlife hunters and prey and cut into the scene when Lucy is the prey of the Koreans.

As far as I remember, Johansson’s body is only objectified once; a shot at the airport that moves up her body from behind. There’s far more of her body on show in Under the Skin a film that probably won’t titillate much given its disturbing qualities. This is an important issue because patriarchy tries use women’s body as a way of controlling females – see the recent ‘hacking’ of nude, personal pictures of female ‘celebrities’. That is as absurd as Seth McFarlane’s ‘We saw your boobs’ song at last year’s Oscars and parades male stupidity to anyone with a maturity beyond adolescence. A Jennifer Lawrence, one of the victims of the release of the images, parody account tweeted today:

‘If a man stands in the middle of the forest speaking, and there is no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?’

It’s a fair comment even if those of us who do not feel the need to prove they are men are categorised with the idiots who deal with their own inadequacies by trolling women that have the audacity to speak their mind and/or have a high profile.

Lucy is a film with a powerful female protagonist and I particularly like Amr Waked’s cop who can do nothing but get out of Lucy’s way in order to help her.

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