Jackie (Chile-France-USA, 2016)

Blood and detachment

Blood and detachment

The buzz around Jackie has been about Natalie Portman’s fantastic performance as Kennedy in the moments between JFK’s assassination and his funeral. And she is brilliant. However, this has meant the contribution of Pablo Larrain’s direction and Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography (and his colorist Isabelle Julien) hasn’t been acknowledged to the extent it should have been.

In an excellent interview, in No Film School,  Fontaine explains how Larrain shifted the script’s emphasis from the story to Jackie’s interior world. Hence the preponderance of close ups and handheld shots that follow her grief stricken wanderings around the White House. This stylization contributes to the arthouse feel of the film which is no doubt contributing to the relatively low key box office performance. It’s not that it’s a difficult film to follow but it’s a little off-kilter for mainstream audiences.

The film’s shot on super 16mm, giving a noticeable graininess, and looks fabulous. The colours, very subdued for many of scenes with Jackie, reminded me of the iconic look of Time Life magazine in the 1960s. The shot of Jackie, in full funeral dress, standing at the graveside, where her pallour makes her look like a ghost, is stunning. Similarly, in the late night walks around the White House, the setting has a steely sheen that reminded me of Kubrick’s hotel at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A suitably otherworldly place reflecting Jackie’s dislocation from the world in her grief.

Portman’s performance anchors this technical brilliance, along with the pin point costume design; she also mimics Jackie’s eccentric pronunciation which adds to the eeriness of the narrative world. The support is superb, though John Hurt’s Irish accent should have discounted him from the role; Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby and Greta Gerwig’s assistant stand out.

Writing this coincided with Hurt’s death and it would be invidious to mark that with a criticism as he’s been such a superb actor for decades. Although I found his accent distracting, his craggy, worn out features, and intelligent demeanour made him perfect for the role of Jackie’s confidante.

This is the third film I’ve seen in the cinema this year and the others were good too: A Monster Calls (US-Spain, 2016) and A United Kingdom (US-UK, 2016). Add the fine Arrival (US, 2016), which I saw at the backend of last year, maybe I’ve rediscovered my love for cinema (‘Yeeeeeesssssss!’).

Jackie is likely to be one of the best films of the year.

Walesa: Man of Hope (Walesa. Czlowiek z nadziei, Poland, 2013)

Man for the people

Man for the people

Andrzej Wajda died last year having directed some of the greatest films ever produced; Walesa: Man of Hope was the last he completed. Appropriately for his oeuvre it is historically informed: a biopic eulogising the leading force of Solidarność (Solidarity), the union that led to the downfall of the Soviet-backed government in Poland in the 1980s. It was a strange at the time to see mainstream media  celebrating a trade union instead of demonising them.

Wajda’s first four films, including the famous ‘war trilogy’ (see Ashes and Diamonds), focused on the Second World War but he didn’t always deal in history – his Innocent Sorcerers tells a charming tale of ‘first love’. In my Innocent Sorcerers post I complained about the lack of availability of Wajda’s films in the UK; I particularly would like to see Landscape After Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, Poland, 1971) again if only for its hallucinatory opening sequence. I’ll try not to bang on again about how the BBC is abnegating its Public Service responsibility by virtually ignoring film culture. Although I saw Walesa on BBC4, where’s the career retrospective and documentary on one of the great artists in cinema history!?

I really enjoyed Walesa partly because it reminded me of my introduction to Wajda’s films, Man of Marble (Czlowiek z marmuru, Poland, 1977) and its sequel – that dealt with the same events as this film – Man of Iron (Czlowiek z zelaza, Poland, 1981). It’s a sign of my age that these events, which were gripping viewing via television news at the time, are now history and no doubt part of Walesa‘s purpose is to educate young Poles about their recent past. Focusing solely on the figurehead Walesa necessarily limits the focus and it may be difficult to completely follow the story if you had no knowledge of the events of the time. However, the film brilliantly brings to life the historical moment through the fabulous performance of Robert Wieckiewicz as Walesa, an ordinary man of great strength and charisma. Wadja, however, does not neglect Walesa’s wife, Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska), who might have been simply a domestic adjunct to the hero. In fact, the last shot of the film is of her suggesting that Walesa would not have succeeded without her support.

Come on BBC, where’re the retrospectives of Wadja’s films? Although we have more films available to us, including the more obscure, than ever a curated free-to-air presentation of cinema history is required or many people will never come across the gems of the past.

Review of 2016

Politically a shit year which probably had nothing to do with me falling out of love with film. There’s hope, for me, in that I’m managed to watch, and enjoy, a few films recently. However, not enough for me to declare with a scintilla of sincerity that I can judge the year’s top movies.

Top TV

  1. The Bridge – series 3
  2. The Night Manager
  3. War and Peace
  4. Undercover
  5. Happy Valley – series 2
  6. In the Line of Duty – series 3
  7. Marcella
  8. The A Word
  9. Follow the Money
  10. Trapped

Top live

  1. Anna Meredith – Belgrave Music Hall – Leeds
  2. Melt Yourself Down – Wardrobe, Leeds
  3. A Night at the Museum – Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield
  4. Orff: Carmina Burana – RLPO, Liverpool
  5. The Bad Plus – Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds
  6. Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra – Vladimir Fedoseyev, Leeds Town Hall
  7. Rachael Yamagata – King’s Head, Salford
  8. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennesse Williams, Royal Exchange – Manchester
  9. Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards, The Live Room – Saltaire
  10. Making Mischief, The Other Place – Stratford

Top books

  1. Satin Island, Tom McCarthy
  2. Olive Kitteridge, A Novel in Stories, Elizabeth Strout
  3. The Establishment, Owen Jones
  4. Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver
  5. But You Did Not Come Back, Marceline Loridan-Ivens
  6. The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross
  7. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O’Farrell
  8. The Other Hand, Colin Cleave
  9. A Whole Life, Robert Seethaler
  10. 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, James Shapiro

Top albums

  1. Shostakovich: Symphones 5, 8 & 9 – BSO -Nelsons
  2. Laura Gibson, Empire Builder
  3. Maarja Nuut, Une Meeles
  4. Melt Yourself Down, Last Evenings on Earth
  5. Rachel Newton, Here’s My Heart Come Take It
  6. Christian Scott, Stretch Music
  7. Phronesis, Parallax
  8. Ruby Hughes and Joseph Middleton, Nocturne
  9. Lisa Hannigan, At Swim
  10. Auntie Flo, Theory of Flo

I, Daniel Blake (UK-France-Belguim, 2016)

21st century penury

21st century penury

I was aroused from my film stupor by Ken Loach’s latest socialist message which is as devastating as Cathy Come Home (UK, 1966). The latter was a TV play which was apparently watched by 12 million people (there were only three channels to choose from) and led to the Britain taking the homelessness seriously. Although I, Daniel Blake is doing good business for a Loach film, in the UK (he’s more popular in France), nowhere near as many people will see this masterpiece.

It has rattled the right wing though. In attempt to discredit the truth of what’s happening to the benefits system influential idiot, Toby Young, has picked (health warning: the following link takes you to the Daily Mailflaws in the film, ably taken down by Mark Steel.

It’s a typical Loachian (and scriptwriter Paul Laverty) melodrama that focuses on individuals rather than the system. But who can watch the film and not realise we are turning the clock back to the Victorian values of penury for the poor? Young and his ilk choose not to believe it is happening. Others are happy for the working class Other to be degraded. We are living in an increasing divided society; we are living in an increasingly divided world.

But You Did Not Come Back, Marceline Loridan-Ivens (Faber & Faber, 2016)

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This brilliant memoir of Auschwitz and after is as much about memory and loss as about the depravity of the Nazi machine. Loridan-Ivens featured in Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France, 1961), which was ‘spotlit’ in the recently published 2nd edition of Introduction to Film:

SPOTLIGHT: CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER

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

Argos Films

Director: Edgar Morin, Jean Rouch

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France, 1961) grew directly out of Free Cinema:

 

Chronicle’s origins can be traced back to 1959, when Morin and Rouch served on

the jury for the documentary-driven Festival dei Popoli in Florence. Impressed by the

sympathetic portraits of complex social worlds in works like Karel Reisz’s We Are the

Lambeth Boys (1958) and John Marshall and Robert Gardner’s The Hunters (1957),

Morin asked his colleague if he’d be interested in collaborating on a film that tried

something similar in Paris. (Di Iorio, 2013)

 

As Michael Chanan puts it: ‘There are very few films that so completely break the rules and

invent new ones’ (2007: 177), making Chronicle of a Summer one of the most significant films

ever made. As co-director Jean Rouch says, in his voice-over 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. Like Direct Cinema, cinéma vérité used advances in lightweight equipment to shoot

events as they happened; however Rouch, with Edgar Morin (an anthropologist), departed

from Direct’s rhetoric that the filmmakers were bystanders merely relaying the action, as they

didn’t try to disguise the fact that they were making a film. Both, for example, appeared on

screen in Chronicle 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 how she felt 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 three students, an African student, an Italian car worker and a union

man. Rouch and Morin were trying to gauge what ‘France’ thought 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 a contemporary perspective 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 filmed at she walks through a deserted Place de la Concorde

talking to herself (her lips can be seen clearly moving some of the time) whilst the camera

dollies backwards in front of her. Chanan explains:

 

Marceline is talking into a lapel-mic clipped to her dress (they were still experimenting

with its use), the camera mounted in the back of a Citroën 2CV … (2007: 177)

 

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 below). This image bridges the moment

with the past when she was separated from her father in the concentration camp; it is emotionally

devastating.

 Marceline recounts her harrowing time at Auschwitz in Chronicle of a Summer

Marceline recounts her harrowing time at Auschwitz in Chronicle of a Summer

Later, when another participant, 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. Just as it seems to be becoming exploitative, we are

voyeuristically observing someone’s pain, Morin, who’s talking to her, says we shouldn’t talk

about it and the scene is immediately cut.

 

An African student, Landry, talks about how he’d like Africans to be appreciated for

more than their dancing, and he is portrayed as an African explorer in France: a brilliant

post-colonial characterization.

 

 

The film concludes with reflections on itself, fi rst 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 on the meaning of what they have seen (I say ‘appear’

because we are obviously seeing what Morin and Rouch decided to include in the fi nal version,

though I don’t doubt the veracity). Although Morin originally felt that these reactions

suggested the film had failed, he concluded that the contradictory reactions it generated were

proof of its strength because it showed how diffi cult it was to truly understand other people.

The views the participants have on Mary Lou’s emotional rawness range from suggesting

she is playing up for the camera to ‘she was wonderful’. The conclusion we can draw is that,

ultimately, truth is dialogical in that, in simple terms (following the work of Bakhtin, 1981),

it can only be arrived at through discussion.

Introduction to Film (2nd edition)

9781137463845

Movie watching has never been so wide-ranging or so popular (except with me – see previous post). The rise of Internet-based video on demand has transformed the way films are distributed and exhibited, with many previously unobtainable and obscure films becoming available for global audiences to view instantly.

The second edition of this concise yet complete introduction to film responds to these shifts in the medium, while continuing to address all of the main approaches that continue to inform film studies.

This new edition also:

• reflects the increasing importance of production contexts in chapters that focus exclusively on the film business, distribution and exhibition
• represents the significance of transnational cinema, moving away from Western-centric perspectives of film and drawing on a more global, non-Hollywood range of film examples and case studies from Europe, Asia and Latin America
• is now illustrated with a wider variety of film stills, representing world cinema from the classics to the latest in contemporary cinema.

Interweaving historical and current theoretical approaches, the book presents a tightly-focused and coherent overview of a discipline in transition. With its original narrative line and student-oriented philosophy, the second edition continues to enrich students’ appreciation of cinema, while equipping them with the essential skills and vocabulary to succeed in film studies. This is an ideal foundational text for all students and enthusiasts of cinema.

OK; even if I do say so myself. This is out today; you can get a sample chapter here.

The Pearl Button (El botón de nácar , France-Spain-Chile-Switzerland, 2015)

The disappearing

The disappearing

Patricio Guzmán’s poetic documentary returns, partly literally, to the territory of Nostalgia for the Light, his stunning 2010 documentary about Pinochet’s ‘disappeared’. Much of the imagery is beautiful and the tale of the disappearing, through colonial genocide, native Patagonians is interesting, but Guzmán’s attempt to link them to the victims of Pinochet’s murder squads over-stretches the point.

I’m, however, not sure I’m best placed to comment as I have lost my love of film. Since the turn of year the only film I’ve enjoyed is Enemy of the State. I’ve given up on many well-regarded films and seen critically lauded Leviathan and Spotlight, but neither moved me. A temporary malaise or, after 36 years of fairly intense film watching, have I burned myself out? At the end of last year I finally put the second edition of Introduction to Film (out this month) to bed: that was hard work so maybe my ennui was caused by writing the book. Roy Stafford commented, ‘I’ve never heard anything like it’. It’s extremely puzzling because I am enjoying television drama… Anyone come across this; anyone know the cure?

Hence I’ve barely blogged this year; I have nothing to say…