Cold War (Zimna wojna, Poland-France-UK, 2018)

Love in a divided climate

My response to Pawlikowski’s films has been mixed, I positively disliked The Woman in the Fifth (FrancePoland-UK, 2011) but can’t remember why. However both Ida and Cold War are undoubtedly excellent. Stylistically the new film is more self-consciously ‘arty’ than Ida and both feature beautiful cinematography by Lukasz Zal. Cold War‘s also narratively elliptical with the audience left to fill in missing bits; such as how Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) establishes himself in Paris. The focus in on his relationship with the luminescent Zula (Joanna Kulig, remarkably only five years younger than Kot when she seems much younger in the film), that is not so much caught up in the Cold War as in fighting their own temperaments.

The film spans 1949 to the early ’60s and so the borders created by the Cold War do act as barriers between them but their relationship would have probably been as fractured, though intense, in other times.

As in Ida, Pawlikowski uses the Academy Ratio that, with the startling black and white cinematography, gives the film an old fashioned look. The scenes in the ruined church reminded me of Ashes and Diamonds and the scenes in Paris, particularly, evoke the nouvelle vague. However, there’s no doubt that this is a 21st century film possibly because it is not particularly concerned with the politics of the time.

There are numerous bravura compositions: in one scene, where a Party conformist praises Wiktor for his ethnographic work in Polish folk tradition, the use of a mirror is disorientating; it looks as though he is standing behind them but is in front. The camerawork that captures Zula’s joie de vivre when she dances to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is brilliant.  The way the music, song and dance, is shot also suggests a modern aesthetic; they are allowed to run without being constantly ‘sutured’ into the narrative by eyeline matches from characters (in other words: the shots of the audience reaction to the performance are few).

A review in the right-wing Daily Telegraph unsurprisingly thinks the film equates the east with repression and the west with freedom; Wiktor, for instance, plays jazz in Paris. It’s certainly not that straightforward. The focus on the folk music suggests where authentic experience lies, the Polish Communist party wants to use it for political purposes, and the authorities are not keeping Zula and Wiktor apart. Pawlikowski has said he based the protagonists’ relationship loosely upon his parents’ and the ‘cold war’ is as much enacted between them as in the social context.

Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are brilliant in the lead roles and the music is sensational: a proper melodrama where it (almost) takes centre stage.  Marcin Masecki’s arrangements of the Polish folk song into different idioms ‘Dwa Serduszka’ (‘Two Hearts’) signifies the emotional development of the characters. There isn’t a soundtrack album but someone has put together a Spotify playlist.

Is one of the best films of the year so far.

 

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Fragment of Fear (UK, 1970)

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Blown up again

I’ve never been convinced about David Hemmings as an actor until this film. Whilst he was good in Blow-Up (UK-Italy-US, 1966) where he was playing a cool, ’60s hipster (based on David Bailey) so taciturn was appropriate as his standard expression. Four years on he could almost be the same character, a successful writer rather than photographer, and once again his grip on reality is being challenged. In Fragment of Fear, however, the paranoia is a product of his mind (or is the ‘stepping stones’ organisation real?) rather than the stoned ambience of Swinging London. Hemmings’ performance brilliantly articulates the slow disintegration of his mind.

That said, it isn’t in the same league as Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Sarafian’s direction is workaday (a year before his cult Vanishing Point, US 1971) and Gayle Hunnicutt, as the protagonist’s girlfriend, is badly under drawn (script not her). She won’t have sex with him before marriage which might have contributed to his mental state but this is under-developed.

Paul Dehn’s script, based on John Bingham’s novel, superbly captures everyday dialogue when confronted with bizarre occurrences. The film is slightly ahead of its time as, although its focus isn’t political, it could fit with the paranoid thrillers of early ’70s New Hollywood, such as The Parallax View (1974). In the early scenes, set in Italy, the film could also be a giallo but the lack of any virtuoso direction compromises the suggestion.

Another (slightly) obscure film exhumed by Talking Pictures; not quite a gem but worth a watch.

BlacKkKlansman (US, 2018)

Emotional truth

Spike Lee’s brilliant return to form has been criticised for not being true to the facts. Although it is based on Ron Stallworth’s memoir of infiltrating the KKK, most of the film is fiction. Anything that’s ‘based on a true story’ is unlikely to be trying to be a documentary so assuming the film must be entirely based on actuality is nonsense. That said, if it hadn’t been based on a true story, black cop infiltrates the KKK but needs a white cop to appear in his stead, the central premise would seem ridiculous. As it is, we get a slightly surreal situation entirely in keeping with the stupidity of racists, even though Jasper Pääkkönen’s portrayal as the demented Felix is slightly too ‘swivel-eyed’. However, it must be remembered that ‘going over-the-top’ is how Lee often works as he is a melodramatist at heart.

Lee’s also a political filmmaker with his focus on racist America and his Do the Right Thing is rightly lauded as a classic on this topic. Melodrama and politics are somewhat antithetical as the former couches its narrative in terms of individuals whilst the latter requires analysis of society. Lee overcomes this, to a degree, with Brechtian devices, where he draws attention to the fact that we are watching a film in order to get us thinking. For example, in BlacKkKlansman a discussion of blaxploitation films of the time (it’s set in the early ’70s) is illustrated with split screen film posters: the ‘fourth wall’ is clearly broken. More powerfully the film ends with footage from Charlottesville, August 2017, and Trump’s disgraceful excuses for the fascists: there’s no doubt what Lee is saying about now.

Spoiler alert: Jack Lowe’s critique that the film whitewashes the police force makes some good points. The scene where the overtly racist cop is arrested contradicts Flip’s (the Jewish cop who was Stallworth’s proxy) statement earlier in the film that the police are ‘family’ and so even tolerate racists in their ranks. Both the chief of police and Stallworth’s sergeant come across as too liberal particularly as Stallworth was the first black cop in Colorado Springs; the conventions of portrayals of the time, from a liberal perspective, would suggest that Stallworth would have had a much harder time. The arrest of the racist cop is so unbelievable that maybe that was Lee’s point and the seemingly happy resolution is a fantasy. Lee saves his trademark ‘double-dolly’, a shot where characters ride on the camera and are moved without walking, for the final scene when Stallworth, and his black activist girlfriend, move forward in tandem, guns drawn, as a KKK cross burns in the distance. This shot signifies that the characters are not in control of events and so further undermines the happy ending. That this is followed by the Charlottesville montage is further evidence of this.

Lee proselytises through Kwame Ture’s (aka Stokely Carmichael) rousing speech and Harry Belafonte’s cameo, discussing ‘old time’ racism with youngsters. These are powerful scenes. In addition, whilst at film school (New York University) Lee almost didn’t get to complete his studies as some in the faculty objected to his short ‘The Answer’ where he emphasised that the ‘classic’ The Birth of a Nation (1915) is a racist film. His professors (as did mine) merely used it to demonstrate innovative film craft rather than a disgraceful recruiting tool for the KKK. Lee incorporates footage of the film where, in different places, both the activists and the KKK watch the film with predictably different reactions.

It’s gratifying to see BlacKkKlansman do good business at the box office, Lee won the Grand Prix at Cannes for the film, and kudos to Jordan Peele (of the brilliant Get Out) for suggesting Lee make the film and for Blumhouse Productions for producing.

Pan’s Labyrinth Guide (El laberinto del fauno, Spain-Mexico-USA, 2006)

I’ve just published a new study guide (buy it here). Here’s the introduction: 

Pan’s Labyrinth  is set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish civil war, when the last of the resistance to the fascist forces of General Franco were being crushed. However the inspiration for the film was the 11thSeptember 2001 terrorist attacks on America. In his illuminating ‘Director’s commentary’ Guillermo del Toro states his perception of “brutality, innocence and war” changed after the destruction of the ‘two towers’ in New York. He saw that the response in America to the attacks was one of fear and obedience to a national authoritarian mandate. An example of this was when the American press failed to challenge President George W. Bush’s insistence that Iraq had to be invaded because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of ‘mass destruction’. This proved to be a lie and although the military intervention deposed the dictator it resulted increased conflict in the region. More recently the authoritarian instincts of President Trump have further tarnished America’s reputation in the world.

In his commentary del Toro was emphasising that the film is not specifically about Spain in 1944, although it has much to tell us about the psychology of fascists. By using the tropes of the fairy tale the film juxtaposes the worldview of an 11-year-old girl, who is open to new experiences, with the restricted mind-set of her fascist stepfather. By mixing the ‘innocent’ world of the pre-pubescent girl with grim realities of Franco’s repressive Spain, del Toro shows that the brutality inherent in the authoritarian mind-set has no place in civilised society.

Del Toro’s film blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy and illustrates how close-mindedness and self-interest corrupt the human spirit. There is a feeling of doom hanging over the film because we know the resistance, who fought against the fascists, lost their battle and Spain suffered over 30 more years of Francoist rule. Because of this we may feel that Ofelia is better off dead as Princess Moana than alive in a corrupt world. Whether she is dead or actually transformed into a princess is a key question in the film. As we shall see for del Toro there’s no doubt that she survives but the film itself is more ambivalent.

Although the film isn’t about the Spanish civil war only it is helpful to understand the historical context.

The Spanish Civil War

The Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931 and in 1936 the Popular Front, a coalition of left wing organisations, won power in an election. Later that year a coup d’etat was thwarted however this led to the start of the civil war where right wing groups, led by the military, rebelled against the democratically elected administration. In Morocco, part of which was at the time a protectorate of Spain, General Franco emerged as the rebel’s leader and, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, was victorious after nearly three years of war. The Catholic Church, highly influential in Spain, supported the fascists.

Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. Afterwards, the monarchy was restored and democracy returned though only at the cost of burying the past. The ‘Pact of Forgetting’, instituted during the transition to democracy, meant that there could be no recriminations for crimes committed during the Franco years but also that memorials to Franco were no longer maintained. It wasn’t until the Law of Historical Memory became law in 2007 that it became possible to officially exhume the past, both actually and metaphorically. Attempts were made to identify victims buried in mass graves and to acknowledge the crimes of the Franco era. However, when a conservative government was elected in 2011 support for the law was withdrawn. When, in 2018, the socialists regained power they proposed a ‘truth commission’ to ensure, amongst other things, those with criminal records for opposing Franco would have their names cleared.

Unsurprisingly a number of Spanish films from these years focused on the theme of coming to terms with the past and ghosts were often used as a metaphor:

Their here-but-not-here borderline existence, between the dead and the living, blurs the binary divide that constructs our perception of reality. Ghosts remind us that we need to confront our past if we want to move ahead and construct a better future. (Colmeiro 2011)

Del Toro was responsible for two of these: his third film as a director, The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo, Spain-Mexico-France-Argentina, 2001), and The Orphanage (El orfanato, Spain, 2007), which he produced. The blurred ‘binary divide’ between reality and fantasy is important in Pan’s Labyrinthtoo. This film reminds us of those who fought a losing battle against fascism to ensure, hopefully, we do not allow fascists to take power again. 

Although del Toro is Mexican, tens of thousands of Spaniards went into exile in his country so the war is also part of his heritage. This no doubt helped him represent a Spanish perspective on the war convincingly unlike Ken Loach whose Land and Freedom (UK-Spain-Germany-Italy-France, 1995), whilst a gripping film, is more obviously one made by an outsider.

Conclusion

Pan’s Labyrinth was a considerable box office success, even outside Spain. The hegemony of Hollywood in the west means that, generally, non-American films struggle to make an impact outside their home markets. Pan’s Labyrinth was successful because of the emotional engagement audiences had with Ofelia’s plight and the supreme craft of the film. It is a terrible state of affairs that his warning against the fascist mind set is even more relevant today than it was when the film was released. After the failure of ‘free market capitalism’, seen most obviously in the financial crash of 2008, right wing populism has made strides at the ballot box in many countries. Del Toro’s humanism is a potent antidote to this inward-looking politics and his film can be read as a warning, through Ofelia’s death, that we are in danger of giving in to the fear whipped up by demagogues.

The Cruel Sea (UK, 1953)

The wobble beneath the lip

As a kid I saw many British war movies from the 1950s, World War II loomed over my generation as it had had a great impact on our parents, and no doubt they inculcated me with a belief that the British are the best. Maybe Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees Mog and their ilk watched too many war movies too but have never grown up. The genre requires many stiff upper lips in the face of adversity and there’s plenty of that in The Cruel Sea but also, strikingly, tears from the hero (Jack Hawkins) as a consequence of his necessary killing of British seamen. Apparently the producer Michael Balcon and director Charles Frend had doubts about the scene; it does stand out against the conventions of the time.

Less worthy is the film’s treatment of the working classes: the faithful efficient types are there but Stanley Baker’s first lieutenant is shown to be far too uppity (and drunk) – he was a used car salesman in ‘civvy street’ – so he has to be dispensed with by the narrative. Women exist only as a virgin-whore dichotomy: Virginia McKenna’s nice girl vs. Moira Lister’s promiscuous show-biz wife.

Charles Frend had directed documentaries during the war, for example San Demetrio London (1943), as well as propaganda fiction films, such as The Foreman Went to France (1942), so he knew his onions. Documentary footage of sea battles – the film mostly focuses on ‘the battle of the Atlantic’ – are used but only serve to show up the weakness of the model work. To cavil about the (relatively) poor special effects misses the point; the film succeeds in giving us a sense of how terrifying the experience must have been. Frend also goes for some distinctive close-ups of characters to reveal their inner turmoil.

The ‘fifties cycle of war films can be seen as reassuring audiences of Britain’s greatness as it divested itself of the Empire and lost its preeminent position in world affairs (memo to Farage et. al.: ‘we no longer have an Empire’). The films celebrated the extraordinary war time effort but The Cruel Sea, at its conclusion, also reminds us of the futility of war when rescued German seaman are described as being ‘no different to us’ and Hawkins’ commander comments that they’d only sunk two U-boats in five years as they sail past numerous captured vessels.

The film was a box office hit, did good business in America, and made a star of Hawkins.

The Night Caller (UK, 1965)

Trouble with blondes

The American title for this low budget SF film was Blood Beast from Outer Space which, while making its exploitation credentials clearer, is more than misleading. Spoiler alert: the beast is kidnapping young women, who aspire to be models, for procreation purposes on Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter). As Steve Chibnall points out in ‘Alien women: The politics of sexual difference in British sf pulp cinema’ (in ed. IQ Hunter British Science Fiction Cinema), the British at the time were worried about young women, not aliens.

Although the beginning of The Night Caller suggests Cold War paranoia, Patricia Haynes’ blonde scientist is soon portrayed as rebuffing John Saxon’s advances. No doubt at the time his double entendre (about beds) would be seen as flirting; now, hopefully, we realise that this behaviour isn’t appropriate in a work situation. So she is characterised, despite being blonde, as somewhat frigid. On the  other hand, female scientists are thin on the ground in film (and life) and she is a particularly dynamic character and takes it on herself to act as a bait by replying to the ‘beast’s’ advert in Bikini Times to be a model. During this confrontation the beast explains:

‘I fear what I cannot control, and I cannot control an intelligence which is almost equal to mine. A mind such as your searches and destroys’.

Clearly young ’60s women were giving men some problems and, of course, she is punished for her ‘uppityness’.

As you may have gathered, The Night Caller is more interesting as symptom of the mores of the time than drama. It has the production values of early Doctor Who though cheapie specialist John Gilling does direct with some vigour. The best scene is when a victim’s parents explain their bewilderment about their young daughter: Warren Mitchell and Marianne Stone are hilariously deadpan culminating in the moment when the former produces a requested copy of Bikini Time from beneath a sofa cushion.

Deadfall (UK, 1968)

Not quite as bad as its tagline
This is an interesting period piece: a genre movie with pretensions of art. That’s not to say I believe genre texts are not art, of course they are, but writer–director Bryan Forbes was obviously trying to channel the French ‘new wave’; with a dash of existentialism, and the shadow of the Nazis, to spice up the narrative. Michael Caine plays his laconic protagonist as a cat burglar drawn into a sort of menage a trois with Eric Portman’s gay patriarch who has Giovanna Ralli playing his wife. Stylistically Forbes tries to enliven the material with distinctive compositions and often uses a zoom lens to pick out details; a technique fashionable at the time. One burglary is cross-cut with a performance of a guitar concerto (which the owners of house are attending) directed by the film’s composer John Barry. The sequence lasts about 15 minutes and I’ve no idea what the purpose of the cross-cutting was as it can’t be ‘will he crack the safe before the concert ends?’ could it…? If so it is a perfect example of how not to generate tension. Another ‘arty’ technique is the extended lap dissolves during a post-coital conversation with a crossed 180-degree line. The credit sequence, with animated graphics, was graced by a belter by Shirley Bassey and seemed to suggest a Bond-type film. Caine had just come off the third and final Harry Palmer film, Billion Dollar Brain (UK, 1967), and I’m guessing audiences didn’t get what they expected from Deadfall. Another eccentricity is the casting of Nanette Newman as – in ‘swinging ’60s parlance – ‘the girl’. Apart from a brief early appearance, the film’s well into its second half before she gets much screen time and she’s listed fourth in the credits (being the director’s wife may have helped). The eccentricity is not the casting as such, Newman does ditzy well (another ’60s characteristic of attractive young women) but she is entirely unimportant to the narrative. Maybe that’s the point and Forbes was playing with filmic convention. Deadfall may not have seemed good when it was released, Roger Ebert was not impressed, and it certainly hasn’t dated well.