The Aeronauts (UK-US, 2019) – LFF4

Invisible CGI

I tend to choose my films ‘blind’ at film festivals: i.e. I pack as many as I can in the time available. So I was a bit dismayed to see I’d chosen a mainstream film that will be in ‘cinemas everywhere’ in a couple of weeks. Add to that it is a period drama, not my favourite, and reliant on CGI for much of its running time, I could have been in for a stinker. I wasn’t.

There’s barely a film made without CGI (Bait is one) but the question is whether the audience notices it. It’s always been the case that there are two types of special effects: invisible and visible. The visible ones show us impossible scenes so Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts (UK-US, 1963) are visible as are all the superheroes in Marvel movies. Invisible special effects are those that simulate what happens in the real world but are too expensive to stage – as such they are easily not perceived as special effects. One example of a ‘visible’ ‘invisible’ special effect would be the ‘in orbit’ location of Gravity because we know the actors were not filmed in space. The same is true of the brilliant staging of the balloon journey in The Aeronauts because we know that Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne could not be filmed in that location. I’m not arguing against visible special effects, only against films that rely upon them for their dramatic effect. There’s been a Twitter debate lately about whether Marvel films are cinema (Scorsese and Loach say ‘no’) and although The Aeronauts is CGI heavy the thrill of the narrative is such that it is very easy to forget that these special effects are visible.

The film is based on a ‘true story’, the highest balloon ascent to date in 1862, I’ve no idea the degree of truth contained in the narrative. That’s not the point of the film: it’s clear the gender politics, Jones is the action hero, are today’s. The narrative covers the 90 minute flight with numerous flashbacks to give context and it is the human drama, of Victorian adventurism and female repression, that roots the film in a believable world thus allowing us to truly care (well, I did) for the protagonists in peril.

Tom Harper directs the action sequences very well and credit is due to Michael Dawson and his team for the special effects. The suspension of disbelief is still required for the appreciation of film, I think, which is why most CGI-heavy movies leave me cold as I don’t believe them. It’s as because they look convincing, yes I can see the Hulk exists, that I don’t believe in them and they usually fail to engage me either intellectually or emotionally. In The Aeronauts I knew the actors were ‘green screening’ but was so engrossed I forgot.

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Monsoon (UK, 2019) – LFF2

Seeking identity

I enjoyed writer-director Hong Khaou’s debut feature, Lilting, and we’re in similar territory investigating the issue of diaspora identity. Though the protagonist (Henry Golding’s Kit), as in Lilting, is gay, unlike the first film the emphasise isn’t on sexuality but on his attempt to understand where he belongs. Kit is returning to Saigon, having left as a young child, and finds himself a stranger in the land that nurtured him. His dislocation is not presented in any way as dramatic, it is just something he tries to work though.

Like LiltingMonsoon is a melodrama, but eschews extremes: there is no deluge of emotion. To criticise this would be unfair as it’s clearly not the intention of the film to engage in histrionics; I like my melodrama to be meaty. Although we all have crises in our lives they are usually played out in a low-key fashion, as is Kit’s.

Kit hooks up with Parker Sawyers’ Lewis, son of a Vietnam veteran. Lewis’ relationship with his adopted home is also conflicted as he’s obviously troubled by America’s role in the country. However, there’s no suggestion from the film about how to deal with this other than through an angry denial that he ‘isn’t one of those’ (gung-ho) Americans.

Typically of melodrama, mirrors proliferate and often disorientate as we’re not sure whether we’re seeing the character or his (women are marginal in the film) reflection. For me it was setting up interesting themes but never developing them; we never learn who is in the mirror. Of course there are no easy answers but I’d’ve liked the film to suggest some with which I could argue or agree. The widescreen compositions are immaculately framed.

Similarly melodramatic, is the manic traffic (which I’m told is absolutely Saigon) which makes it hard to think. So maybe that’s why there are no ‘answers’.

Clearly I’m lukewarm about the film for it was too cool for me. However, it is certainly worth seeing. In a world of shifting identities (one of the reasons why bigots like Farage and many Brexiteers crave for the certainty of Britain’s ‘great’ past) we need cinema to interrogate what it means to be who we are.

Bait (UK, 2019)

Realist expressionism

It’s heartening that writer-director-editor Mark Jenkin’s Bait is doing decent business at the UK box office. A low budget, black and white film about Cornish fisherman could easily get swamped by the flotsam from mainstream distributors. What Bait has is a USP (unique selling point) as its ‘low-fi’ Bolex camera approach offers difference to jaded palettes; manna for the bourgeoisie. It is also an excellent film.

One moan first: the film is scored with scratches as if it was an old classic on 16mm that has been in distribution, and maltreated, for decades. These look as if they have been digitally added as they appear in patterns not associated with conventional print blemishes. Apparently these were caused, no doubt intentionally, by the unusual processing materials (including coffee and washing soda) Jenkin used. In my eyes it appeared he was trying to age the look of the print and so enhance the analogue ‘authenticity’ of his monochrome cinematography. In other words, it was an unwanted distraction; unless he was trying to be Brechtian? The obvious post-synching of the sound also supports ‘estrangement’ from the film.

Jenkin has written a Dogme95 style manifesto, ‘Silent Landscape Dancing Grain 13’, which ironically appears to be only available on Facebook (which I won’t use). Here a screenshot from:

Fortunately he hasn’t followed Dogme95 with his approach to composition, and one of the pleasures of the film is the beautiful mise en scene. Unusually there are a number of sequences of montage-editing; another anti-realist technique with Brechtian associations. Overall it struck me as a brilliant debut where the director stretches every sinew to make the film interesting; sometimes he over-reaches himself but there’s no danger of blandness.

I’m not sure what the ‘bait’ of the title is (Ian Mantgani says, “The double-meaning of the title – literal fishing bait and the colloquialism meaning something flagrantly shady”) but the film focuses on the economical difficulties of the traditional fishing industry in Cornwall. Absent landlords arrive at the start to rent out cottages to tourists who want ‘peace and quiet’ whilst the protagonist, Martin (superbly played by comedian Edward Rowe), obstinately sticks to the ‘old ways. His daily routine is shown in realist detail but he also talks to what appears to be the ghost of his dad putting an expressionist mix into the narrative; this is daring and successful. The use of sound is also occasionally anti-realist, for example, objects fall with more weight than they contain, reverberating with their significance rather than simply being caused by molecules of air.

In his Sight & Sound review (September) Jonathan Romney interestingly suggests the film’s form can be compared to comic-book frames and the obviously post-synched dialogue to speech balloons. The framing does use sudden extreme close-ups which is certainly comic-book like. In addition, in some sequences the frames almost appear to be shuffled as inter-cutting between scenes (in the same and different spaces) is very rapid indeed.

There’s no reason why Jenkin’s ‘hand-made’ approach shouldn’t work with other subject matter but, clearly, he was well at home with the difficulties of Cornish fishermen. It’s a fascinating debut.

 

The Levelling (UK, 2016)

It’s grim in the countryside

During the British New Wave of the late-fifties and early-sixties, ‘it’s grim up north’ was something of a trope; three recent fiction films suggest tough lives are now in the countryside. The Levelling follows God’s Own Country and Dark River (both UK, 2017) in representing traumatic lives on farms. The latter two are set ‘up north’, in Yorkshire; whilst the film under discussion is on the Somerset ‘levels’. I enjoyed the three films all of which deal with repression of some kind: sexuality, sexual abuse and male stoicism. It is the latter in The Levelling.

Ellie Kendrick (above) plays Clover, a trainee vet, who returns home after the suicide of her brother. Her blustering dad, Aubrey (David Troughton), matter-of-factly tries to deal with what’s happening whilst ‘in denial’. Slowly, Clover’s doggedness uncovers the events that led to her brother’s death. Both actors are superb.

The film is writer-director Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature and superbly done it is. She cites the Darndennes brothers as an influence and early on the handheld camera follows Clover through the farm; my heart sank at this, my least favourite shot, though one the Dardennes have used effectively, but it doesn’t overstay its ‘welcome’. Leach captures the grimness, and the lack of sentimentality, of life on an economically challenged farm well. Dark River highlighted more the difficulties of making farming pay other than through ‘industrialisation’. However, all three films are melodrama so any politics is worked through the personal rather than looking at the macro issues of society. That said, God’s Own Country does include a scene in a local pub emphasising the hostility of some toward migrants.

Another recent film also dealt with the countryside, though in documentary form, was Paul Wright’s Arcadia (UK, 2017). Wright used ‘found footage’ to create a poetic montage of the changing attitudes towards nature in Britain. There’s some striking footage: a single black child in a school; a ’60s vox pop where the speaker claims he doesn’t care if birds disappear; a trippy hippy who says he loves ‘everyone’. As is the way of the form, it’s difficult to isolate the film’s ‘preferred reading’ (what it’s trying to say) but the impression I got was the countryside is a place where urban inhibitions can be shed (that’s probably a townie’s reading).

God’s Own Country achieved respectable box office in the UK for a low budget film, but most of the film-watching population will not have seen any of the four. Hence although all four films interrogate our relationship with nature they are unlikely to affect the zeitgeist. With global warming, looming Brexit and increasing urbanisation, it is important we (specifically in the UK but everywhere is affected) understand the natural world in 2019, so congratulations to all the filmmakers for speaking about our place and time.

If… (UK, 1968)

Relevance returning

I first saw If…, rather bizarrely, at school as part of an English lesson. Presumably the whole year (4, I think – 10 in ‘new money’) was seeing it as there was a buzz about the ‘sex’ scene. Unfortunately our teacher stopped it at the point Malcolm McDowell and Christine Noonen wrestle naked, explaining to us that we wouldn’t understand the symbolism. It was an all boys class and we weren’t interested in the symbolism. I’m not sure why they showed us the film and don’t remember any follow-up lessons; maybe these Comprehensive teachers (though we were a Secondary Modern year having failed our 11+s) were being subversive. This would have been 1976-7 so nearly ten years after the film was released; I guess it had recently been shown on TV and recorded to videotape. My only other memory was puzzlement about the ending, but then I did live a life ‘sheltered’ from any sense of the Swinging Sixties and Punk which was getting going at the time.

40+ years on If… has lost none of its power; if anything, its relevance has returned given the extreme public school bozos currently in office in the UK. In recent years a few victims of the ‘public school’ system, such as George Monbiot, have gone public about the trauma they suffered whilst being educated. Certainly the beating McDowell’s rebel Mick takes is grotesque, but it is the mental cruelty the system imposes that has a greater impact. I remember when we went to Secondary School the rumours were we would have a head put down a toilet; in If… it happens.

The self-perpetuating oligarchy, seen in the ‘old boys’ network’ and employment practices of many influential institutions (such as the Press), that is so damaging to the life chances of those outside the ‘gilded circle’ and the country as a whole. The Othering of anyone not like themselves allows the ruling classes to create such obscenities as the Universal Credit in the belief it is the right thing to do.

Lindsay Anderson is an interesting director who made few feature films; I notice he directed some of the TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-60). His filmic roots were in Free Cinema, where the representation of working class life was less patronising than mainstream productions of the time. This fed into the ‘gritty realism’ of the British New Wave, though my memory of This Sporting Life (1963), Anderson’s first feature, is that it has expressionist elements as well. By the time of If…, his second feature after the short The White Bus (1967), surrealism had become integral to the narrative; it’s present in the short too.

Anderson had taken This Sporting Life to the Karlovy Vary film festival, in Czechoslovakia, where he met director Miloš Forman and cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček who were shooting A Blonde in Love. Anderson invited Ondříček, who with Forman fell foul of the censors after The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko, 1967), to shoot in the UK. Ondříček told Anderson he couldn’t guarantee the colour consistency in the chapel scenes of If… so they were shot in black and white. Ondříček also shot The White Bus which also mixes film stock.

Capriciously Anderson decided to shoot other scenes in monochrome too and this adds to the decidedly Eastern European new wave look of the film; something that also is accentuated by the surreal moments. The first of which is the aforementioned ‘sex’ scene where the characters are suddenly naked and roaring like tigers; apparently McDowell suggested to Anderson they do the wrestling naked and Anderson said ‘Okay in Noonan agreed.’ Of course McDowell put the suggestion to Noonan as Anderson’s idea… Some commentators seem to think the sex scene is ‘real’: Mick’s mate, Wallace, places a saucer on the coffee to keep it warm while it’s happening. However, I think that act is motivated by Mick putting Missa Luba (played by Les Troubadours du Roi Baudouin in an arrangement by Father Guido Haazen) which he seems obsessed by. Wallace knows that Mick’s going to be absorbed in the music for its duration; the naked wrestling is the fantasy he has while listening.

Whether the wrestling happens or not is immaterial, but ‘the Girl’, as she is known in the dismissive ‘sixties’ way, is clearly a fantasy figure. Her second appearance is through a telescope leaning out of her window which cannot possibly be in Mick’s view. She turns up at the conflagration at the end too. In this film calling her ‘the girl’ works because she is a figment of imagination.

The marginalisation of women in the film is understandable given its milieux. Mary McLeod plays the apparently buttoned-up wife of housemaster (Arthur Lowe at his lugubrious best portraying ineptitude) is seen wandering around the boys’ quarters naked whilst they are all watching a rugby match. It is a brilliant scene emphasising the repression of women, both sexually and as individuals, in the school..

The surrealism highlights the ludicrousness of the public school rituals of fags and ceremonial beatings. These probably appear more ridiculous now than they would have at the time (you could get caned at the school I attended) but Anderson clearly has nothing but contempt for the ‘system’. It certainly chimed with the zeitgeist as it was a box office success, coming out in the year of youthful rebellions across the world as the forces of reaction met an end game. Unfortunately the right has been in the ascendent since the ’70s and are having to be fought again.

McDowell’s Mick reappeared in Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982).

Defence of the Realm (UK, 1985)

When the fourth estate meant something

As I remember it, Defence of the Realm was well-received when it was released; I certainly enjoyed it at the time. The film follows investigative journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) as he digs into a politician compromised as a possible spy. What’s striking now is how naive the film seems (or is it me?), although the idea that the security services use the press to disseminate propaganda wasn’t new it seems to suggest it is surprising (The Sunday Times‘ ‘death on the rock’ story rubbishing witnesses to the state-approved assassination of IRA members in Gibraltar was just around the corner). I suppose you could take Mullen’s naiveté to be a narrative device, though the ‘world weariness’ of Byrne’s persona makes it difficult to believe he would be so gullible, to lead the unsuspecting in the audience through to the ‘horrific’ realisation about the corruption of the British Establishment.

The film is an effective thriller, though the newsroom and printing presses are oddly ‘unbusy’ too often. Denhom Elliott is excellent as the ‘shabby malcontent’ who has seen it all but now observes the world through the bottom of a glass. Another aspect that dates the film is the marginalisation of women: Greta Scacchi doesn’t get much to do.

Are people more aware nowadays about how the press is both compromised by proprietors’ commercial interests (noted in the film) and their links to the security services? Whilst social media has facilitated the expulsion of bile into the ‘public sphere’ it has also served as a tool of education. Media Lens‘ analysis, for example, must surely have lifted the scales from many people’s eyes about the corruption of the fourth estate (which is meant to hold those in power to account) and Mark Curtis is always informative on foreign policy.

It’s easy to assume that things were better in the past but I find it hard to believe any newspaper would have had the front to suggest that Boris Johnson is fit to be Prime Minister before the ‘post-truth’ age. Fake news is not new but brazen lying by politicians, and not getting held to account for it, is a curse of our times. Part of the problem we have in the UK is the complete failure of the BBC as a news organisation (Tom Mills is an excellent commentator on this); whilst it’s always been an Establishment mouthpiece (one Director General who tried to fulfil the BBC’s news role, Alisdair Milne, was forced to resign by a Thatcher appointee) its editorial decisions have shifted so far to the right that it can no longer be considered centrist (there are too many examples: giving a platform to the ‘far right’; not only the failure to investigate Leave.EU’s criminality but inviting them to spin their version whilst ignoring their accusers; the vilification of Julian Assange; hit jobs on Corbyn and so on.

Defence of the Realm reminds us of the controversy of nuclear weapons on British soil that precipitated the Greenham Women protests. How they were vilified by the press at the time, just as Extinction Rebellion is now! There’s a, not particularly good, exhibition on at Manchester Art Gallery, Get Together and Get Things Done, that shows us what the Establishment vilifies as an unacceptable attack on the status quo, is often later eulogised (co-opted) if the protest succeeds.

A Kind of Loving (UK 1962)

Unkind loving?

In a recent post on The Day the Earth Caught Fire I suggested that British new wave films had a tendency to be misoygnist and two films I’ve seen recently seem to confirm this. I wasn’t taken enough by Look Back in Anger (1959) to blog about it but A Kind of Loving is a brilliant film and stands up well 57 years after its release. Its tale of sexual frustration and repressive mores is both of its time and universal (or at least what passes for universal in western culture). Alan Bates’ Vic’s fumbling seduction of newcomer June Ritchie’s Ingrid is a story no doubt enacted many times, even today when the shadow of the 60s’ sexual liberation has at least, for most, meant a ‘shotgun wedding’ is unnecessary.

This passage from Chris Beckett’s recent novel Beneath the World, A Sea is apposite:

‘…there were a million songs to tell you that, a million movies–but she should know by now, without needing duendes to remind her, that those exciting and ridiculously hopeful feelings were basically a trick played by biology, which saw an opportunity for reproduction looming, and duly turned on a tap to flood your bloodstream with a drug not unrelated to heroin to dampen down your critical faculties and accomplish the formation of a couple. As soon as you reached that longed-for peak, the descent began almost at once, not necessarily to some sort of hell, obviously, but back to a place where, as before, you were essentially alone again, except that, if you’d not been careful, you were now shackled to another person–not a ‘soulmate’, and not your missing ‘other half’, but simply another person–whose needs you were now required to take into account every single day unless and until you could summon up the courage and energy to disentangle yourself.’

For Vic the entanglement of marriage includes Thora Hird’s battleaxe mother-in-law and a wife who is compliant to her mother rather than husband. James Bolam is already channeling his ‘likely lad’ of two years hence as Jeff, whose cynicism allows him to characterise women a ‘praying mantises’ who eat their sexual partner; as he says: “And you know what they eat last don’t you?” Of course such misogyny was mainstream at the time even if it has just about been shoved to the margins now (though by no means absent from right wing discourse; a recent headline in The Times stated, ‘Tory leadership contenders show off their wives and policy’). There can be a fine line between a film representing something, in this case misogyny, and condoning it. However, in one scene Vic is standing under the marquee of a cinema showing Victim that suggests the film is on Jeff’s side.

As John Hill noted, in Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963, women in the new wave were often associated with the new consumer culture which was represented negatively when compared to ‘authentic’ working class culture. In A Kind of Loving Vic misses his Dad’s brass band concert after he’s cajoled to watch a crass TV game show.

The script, by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, is great as is the source novel by Stan Barstow published two years earlier. It is also not entirely on Vic’s side. After he decides to leave Ingrid he seeks validation from both his sister and mum and it’s forthcoming from neither. When the couple have sex Ingrid asks about ‘precautions’ and Vic replies he ‘wasn’t able to’ when we know he bottled buying condoms from a woman pharmacist.

As is often the case with the British New Wave, the location shooting is as crucial as performance and narrative. Denys Coop’s cinematography is superb, evoking the grimness of ‘up north’ and offering some fabulous chiaroscuro shots of back alleys. John Schlesinger directs what was his first feature brilliantly and he went on to make two other new wave classics, Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965). The cast are also exemplary: it’s a British classic.