Funny Cow (UK, 2017)

Bad old days

Maxine Peake is the key to the success of Funny Cow as she can embody working class characters with authenticity even if hearing her spouting racist jokes is uncomfortable. As Peake’s politically sound I’m sure she struggled to speak them but this was the state of the UK in the 1970s. Apparently partly based on Marti Caine, Tony Pitts’ script (he also plays the brutal Bob, Funny Cow’s husband) obliquely traces the rise of a female comedian. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the film was about but did enjoy it.

Maybe Pitts was offering a bleak portrait of working class northern England during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Unfortunately I remember it and it is not a time to revisit with affection which the film recognises. The supporting cast is strong; Alun Armstrong’s ‘zombie’ comedian (he’s died on stage many times) is particularly good though I didn’t find Paddy Considine’s aesthete convincing; it was nice, however, to see a middle class character shown to be a pretentious wanker.

Some of it was apparently shot around the corner from where I live (which I didn’t notice)! I did recognise Saltaire made shabby though. The movie has primarily been distributed in the north; I’m not aware that there are any films set in the south that we don’t get to see up here. That harks back to the ‘30s were Gracie Fields audience was primarily northern and suggests that the default culture in English is ‘southern’ (no doubt with a London bias). The north was fashionable as part of the ‘new wave’ films of the early sixities: ‘it’s grim up north’ narratives hit a chord because of their difference and maybe also because of their perceived authenticity. Funny Cow continues the ‘it’s’ grim’ tradition just as did the successful (and brilliant) TV series Happy Valley(2014-). As long as this image discourages southerners from coming up and spoiling our countryside then that’s fine… (joke)

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Salomé (US, 1922)

Fabulous costume and set design

It’s not often that you get a chance to see a silent film with live accompaniment; Salomé, with Circuit des Yeux, was screened in Leeds and London in the UK. In notes given out at the screening, Haley Fohr (who is Circuit des Yeux) asks that we:

‘re-contextualize [the film] in a new kind of satire… When I see Salomé’s need for John the Baptist I see a woman’s need to be heard, not desired.’

The score certainly did ‘re-contextualize’ as its modernity clashed, dialectically not in opposition, with the images to both heighten the drama and offer a 21st century frame to view the nearly one hundred year old text. However, I didn’t find Fohr’s reading of Salomé convincing and, disastrously, the protagonist was literally silenced because the intertitles were omitted; Fohr explains this is ‘perhaps… a bold choice’. The effect was to break the spell of the film every time the screen went blank where the intertitles would have been! It wasn’t difficult to follow the story but the immersive effect of cinema was entirely lost. Not a ‘bold choice’ but a stupid one.

My experience of the film was therefore fragmentary but it’s certainly an interesting production; apparently the major studios wouldn’t touch it and it wasn’t released until 1924 when it flopped. As one of the first American art films that wasn’t surprising. Salomé is played by Russian emigre Alla Nazimova who was the driving force behind the film, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play. It uses Aubrey Beardsley’s original drawings as the basis for the costumes which were ‘brought to life’ by Natacha Rambova (an American who was married to Valentino for a time). Charles Van Enger’s cinematography looks fabulous in a pretty good print; he worked with Lubitsch at Warners and his career lasted into the 1990s. The ‘dance of the seven veils’ was more of a convulsion and has nothing of the eroticism of Debra Paget in The Indian Tomb (1959). Disconcertingly Louis Dumar, playing someone with whom Herod’s wife flirts, looks like David Cameron, complete with supercilious grin; further evidence, if it were needed, that it was difficult to concentrate on the fragmentary film.

Fohr’s score might best be described as jazz with minimalist episodes. Her terrific vocals have an eastern vibe and, as noted above, add much to the film. If only there had been intertitiles.

 

 

60 years ago today: Vertigo

Hitchcock’s  Vertigo was first released 60 years ago today; to celebrate this classic here’s an extract from my guide to the film on its expressionist visual style (available here).

 

Expressionist mise en scene seeks to externalise the disturbed state characters’ minds through distorted perspectives created by, for example, settings in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Germany, 1920), the enormous sets of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (Germany, 1926) and chiaroscuro lighting in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, (Germany, 1922). Much of Vertigo is edited to be from the perspective of the mentally unstable protagonist so expressionist techniques are ideal to convey his weak grip on reality.

The scene where this is most apparent is when Judy is finally transformed into Madeleine. Judy’s cheap hotel has a green neon sign just outside her window that creates the garish green light that fills the scene. When she finally appears fully as Madeleine we see her, from Scottie’s point of view, suffused (by filters) in green light; she appears ghostlike – see below.  In a way she is a ghost because she is Madeleine returned from the dead and exists only as a creation of Elster and Scottie. Although the neon sign is casting the green hue the scene is not realistically lit; the exaggerated greenness makes it expressionist. The bed, where presumably they are about to have sex, is also in the frame.

The green light on the return of Madeleine makes her ghostlike

When they kiss, a virtuoso shot revolves around the couple and the background fades to black to be replaced by the stable at the Mission when Scottie had last kissed Madeleine. Before Judy was ‘made over’ he couldn’t bring himself to kiss her. He looks up and sees the stable, which is obviously not really there; we are seeing what he is thinking (see below). The troubled expression on his face suggests he suspects something’s not right.

The stable appears in Scottie’s memory as he finally gets to kiss Madeleine again but he’s thinking something’s not right

Hitchcock remarked that this scene was linked to an earlier one when Madeleine visited Carlotta’s grave which was also given ‘a dreamlike, mysterious quality by shooting through a fog filter’ (Francois Truffaut Hitchcock, 1978: 306). This link reinforces the idea that the dead have come back to life.

These expressionist moments emphasise that Scottie’s mental state is unbalanced and so his attempt to remake Judy is the product of a disturbed mind. It’s clear from the film that he should have loved her for who she was: as she said when composing her letter of confession, “love me again as I am for myself”. It is rare in Hollywood to find such a tortured protagonist, though these were a feature of film noir, particularly as James Stewart, whose star persona was of an uncomplicated good guy, is playing the part – see chapter five.

In Vertigo expressionist flashing colours are also used to signify mental anguish. For example, throughout Scottie’s nightmare colours flash on and off. At the start of Judy’s flashback, where the truth is revealed, the screen is suffused with red during a close up of her anxious and pained face (see below). The choice of Ernie’s restaurant as a setting was probably due to the décor, which is overwhelmingly red. The meaning of red depends on the context it is used however it is regularly associated with passion and violence and this fits Vertigo perfectly. Hitchcock also used the device in Marnie where flashing colours signified the protagonist’s mental breakdown.

The screen is suffused with red at the start of Judy’s flashback indicating mental anguish

Another expressionist device is the zoom-dolly used to convey Scottie’s acrophobia when he looks down. The camera zooms forward and simultaneously, at the same ‘speed’, dollies backwards so the background seems to fall away even though, because of the dolly, what we can see in the frame remains the same (see below). Camera operator Irwin Roberts is credited with creating this effect for Hitchcock.

The zoom-dolly makes the background appear to fall away while the composition of the frame stays the same

After Madeleine has fallen from the bell tower, the final shot of the scene is a typical Hitchcock high angle shot – see below. This unusual perspective, which has the effect of distorting what we can see hence its expressionist nature, signifies how disturbing the events are.

A typical Hitchcock high angle shot after Madeleine has fallen from the bell tower

A similar high angle shot is used to establish the scene when Scottie’s nightmare, after Madeleine’s death, presages his mental breakdown.

One of striking ways Hitchcock is an auteur is that even the casual filmgoer knew exactly what to expect from his films: he was the ‘master of suspense’. So it wasn’t just critics who were aware of his authorship, audiences knew they were more or less guaranteed to be thrilled by his films hence his box office success.

 

Dead End (US, 1937)

Lost love

It was a real treat to revisit Dead End as it was a reminder that Hollywood, via independent producer Sam Goldwyn here, didn’t always ignore working class poverty. Adapted by Lilian Hellman from Sidney Kingsley’s hit play, Dead End focuses on a day in the life of a poor neighbourhood in New York. It melodramatically mixes poor and rich; road works necessitate the latter using the service entrance for their ‘high end’ apartments. While the focus is on the ‘dead end kids’, teens who are already delinquent (played by members of the original Broadway cast), the generation before them is where the real interest lies. Joel McCrea and Sylvia Sydney are the leads playing decent folk being worn down by the lack of opportunity; the Depression was still causing economic ruin. Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor play the gangster returning to his roots to see his old girlfriend.

Goldwyn often employed William Wyler to direct and Dead End is also graced with Gregg Toland’s cinematography. There are scenes of chiaroscuro lighting that suggest film noir – years before the genre started – and a few years later he was photographing Citizen Kane. The film has quality everything: script, stars, direction, cinematography and great set design by Richard Day. Kudos to Sam Goldwyn for pulling it all together.

Although we unsurprisingly get a hopeful ending it’s not exactly happy and the rich are shown for the heartless leaches that they are. If McCrae and Sidney are a little too nice there’s no missing the menace of Bogart’s wanted man who’s found a life on the run is not good enough despite his wealth. The brief scene where he and his old flame are reunited is electric; Trevor easily matching Bogart’s understated brilliance. She’s had to become a prostitute and has one of those coughs that signify the character is dying. The joy they feel at seeing one another again after many years shows what might have been but their poverty ‘insisted’ instead that they lead lives of degradation. The scene is cinematic brilliance.

Apparently there’s some deep focus cinematography in the film, which Wyler was to become well known for, but that didn’t strike me. The shootout between McCrea and Bogart, the chiaroscuro I noted earlier, is brilliantly done. They don’t make ‘em like this any more. Film noir was about to enter Hollywood and became the darkness on the edge of its town.

The Wound (Inexba (South Africa-Germany-Netherlands-France, 2017)

Viewing others

The screening was preceded by brief talking heads, the director John Trengrove and lead actor Nakhane Touré, giving some insight into the film. Interesting though this is, I don’t want ‘insight’ into a film just before I’m watching it; I prefer sometimes to see films with no preconceptions. I’m not sure what the point of this preface is, A Fantastic Woman had one also, because it’s not selling the film as the audience are already in place.

Whilst I’m on a moan: I understand cinemas need to show adverts and trailers for economic reasons but it’s always a relief to see the BBFC certificate as that means the marketing messages are over. Except before this film after the certificate another promo – for Selfridges – appeared. Unlikely as it may be, if any marketing person for this shop is reading: the effect of this on me is to make me think ‘fuck off’ to the company that is further delaying my pleasure of the film!

I knew nothing of The Wound before sitting down in the cinema other than it was a South African film. The number of producers in the credits indicated a heavy European involvement which is presumably why the film has managed to get distribution in the UK. It’s a good film so deserves to be seen but I’m sure there are many good films from Africa that we never get a chance to watch. The fact that The Wound won best first feature at the London Film Festival also would have helped.

Although it is an international co-production this seemed an entirely African film; it focuses on the initiation rites of the Xhosa people where boys become men after being circumcised and spending a week on a mountain tended by a carer. The portrayal seemed authentic to me and there’s an ethnographic (to an ignorant westerner) fascination at seeing a portrayal of this rite. But there’s more to the film because the protagonist, superbly played, is a closeted homosexual and so he fails to be a ‘man’ in the traditional sense. Another outsider is the ‘city boy’, a place that is defined as effeminate by the rural tradition that the ceremony derives from. At the same time, it’s clear the ‘country boys’ envy urban wealth.

There’s plenty of melodramatic conflict in the narrative and it is shot in the beautiful ‘cradle of life’ World Heritage Site. Trengrove tends to keep his camera close to the men and boys which makes for some vertiginous wobbling when they are running but there are some artful compositions to enjoy too.

Trengrove’s introduction tells us the film was controversial because of its depiction of gay Africans; homophobia is, it seems, a traditional value too. Touré stated he had to withdraw from a film because of death threats. Hence The Wound is a brave film as it confronts a taboo subject and it does it with style.

 

Update 8th May: I suspect I was mistaken that the Selfridges promo appeared after the certificate however it did appear when I was primed to watch the film so engendered a hostile reaction!

I, Tonya (US, 2017)

The burden of representation

Although I remember Tonya Harding’s name and vague details of her ice skating notoriety I didn’t know the detail. Presumably I do now though the playfulness of Steven Roger’s script and Chris Gillespie’s direction allow for uncertainty; Tonya says to camera, when she fired a gun at her husband, “That never happened!”. This ‘kitchen sink’ approach works with the subject matter because Harding was clearly a no-holds barred woman and Margot Robbie portrays her brilliantly. Also impressive are the skating sequences where Robbie appears to be executing the extremely difficult ‘triple axel’ (see here for how it was done) Gillespie’s fluid camera with the sound of skate on ice high in the mix make the routines as thrilling as they should be. However…

In a sense my problem with the film isn’t the film’s fault. Harding was a working class woman who had to overcome economic difficulties, not to mention a monster-mother, and class prejudice: the skating establishment routinely under-scored her because her face didn’t fit (there’s an interesting story in that). I, Tonya, however, is a straightforward – apart from the stylistic tics noted above – biopic and the focus is on the stupidity of her husband and his crony, Shawn. The latter, in particular, is milked for his delusional self regard and the fact his is a ‘fat pig’ (the latter emphasised through close-ups of him incessantly eating). The impression I get is that these are typical working class people who are uncouth, stupid and pathetic; but working class people aren’t typically like that. The absence of the class from films in general means when they appear the burden of representation falls heavily on the text. During the end credits video footage of the actual Shawn shows him to be exactly as he is portrayed; so you can hardly blame the film.

Ultimately I found the representations offensive and even (Oscar-winner) Allison Janney’s mother is no more than an appalling cipher.

The City and the City (UK, 2018)

Not really there

Is anything ‘unfilmable’? Probably not because everything can be adapted but it was brave of the BBC to put China Mieville’s intriguing novel in a primetime Friday night slot. The premise of his novel, that two cities exist in the same place but it is illegal to acknowledge the presence of the other, is obviously a major challenge for the visual medium. Director Tom Shankland conveys the division brilliantly by blurring the forbidden parts and using the excellent David Morrissey’s troubled expression, in shot-reverse/shots, to indicate he’s trying not to see. Tony Grisoni’s script moves mountains to convey the weirdness of the place whilst keeping the detective narrative going. However, I’m not sure whether audiences without knowledge of the novel will cope.

Mainstream television narratives require momentum because if it stalls the remote is too close to impatient viewers. When reading a novel a stalling narrative is less of a problem because (my tendency at least) it’s easy to put down and have a break; very few of us expect to consume novels in one sitting. The same could be said for pre-recorded television though I suspect few break up individual episodes very often. Apparently the trend is for binge viewing where many episodes can be consumed at once. So in the weird world of The City it is essential that the strangeness does not get in way of comprehension.

I can’t imagine The City in the City being produced, say, 10 years ago. The explosion of ‘quality television’ has shown there is an appetite for complexity; for example, series three of Twin Peaks (2017) was typical Lynch in that events are never fully explained and he does shoot some scenes as longueurs. The second season of Twin Peaks failed because this weirdness was not allowed by the network.

The art direction (David Bowes) is superb, a scuzzy noir world that is a melange of times and places. The mixture of iconography (including I think East Germany (GDR) and Turkey), numerous accents and ethnicities give the programme a modern edge that is beyond postmodern eclecticism. In our world where borders are a key issue The City and the City is a timely and must-see broadcast.