Youth (Italy-France-UK-Switzerland, 2015) and 45 Years (UK, 2015)

It was a coincidence that I saw these two films about aging close to one another. The timing was apposite as I’m at the time of life where there’s a definite sense of ‘before and after’, like being a parent, but now it’s to do with the ending of a career.

 

Not getting any younger

Youth is Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘laddish’ take on old age; Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel play characters in their eighties. While Caine, a composer, has retired, Keitel is a director and is trying to script his ‘greatest film’. They have been friends for 60 years and cantankerously deal with failing memories with some very droll lines: “Remember yesterday we were talking about children?” “No”.

Caine is particularly good, his large glasses evoking his ‘60s persona when he was British cinema’s ‘dish’. The pair rattle around a luxurious Swiss spar – cue beautiful landscape – observing bodies both youthful and decrepit. The pleasure in the film is in the dry comedy and the performances including a great cameo from Jane Fonda. Sorrentino directs with panache, some of his compositions are magical.

‘Who are we?’

45 Years, on the other hand, is more philosophical. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney’s couple are about to celebrate 45 years of marriage when the latter receives news that the body of a former love has been found preserved in a Swiss glacier. The corpse, Katya, predates Rampling’s Kate but the letter catapult’s Geoffrey into his past and his wife is unsure suddenly about her status in their relationship. If Youth focuses on thinking about the past then 45 Years drags the past into the present.

Haigh, whose debut Weekend was impressive, keeps the camera mostly on Kate as she struggles to deal with the secrets she finds after 45 years of marriage. The final shot, a long dolly into her amongst a crowd of people, is a brilliant ending.

I can’t say I’m any wiser having enjoyed both films. As a youngster film was so vital because it could teach me so much however, having watched several thousand films, not to mention the other art I have consumed, it becomes harder to find the insight art can provide. The protagonists of both films are much older than I but they do give me a glimpse of what may be ahead of me.

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On Chesil Beach (UK, 2017)

Beach to nowhere

I loved Ian McEwan’s novel and he’s adapted it for screen apparently having to add several hundred lines of dialogue. I can’t remember the novel well enough to compare but the film seemed different and might be an interesting case study on adaptation. Although I enjoyed it, particularly the devastating final scenes, I wasn’t particularly gripped. Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle are both excellent as the leads either of whom may have become the narrator of Larkin’s ‘Annus Mirabilis’ a few years after the 1962 setting of the film.

I’ve noticed a couple of reviews complaining about the ending; no doubt the ‘over-the-top’ melodrama was too much for them. However it is essential as the final scene, set in 2007, gives perspective to the events of 45 years earlier. At the end of the film the present defines the past, opposite to the film 45 Years (post to follow) where (the time span is coincidental) the past erupts into the present.

The class divide of the time is well sketched and snobbery was more obvious in those days. After the allegedly egalitarian (allegedly) ‘swinging’ ’60s the barriers to ‘success’ no longer seen to be insurmountable for those with a working class background. It’s clear the Right want them back, hence the Tory government’s insistence on boosting the class-divisive Grammar schools; they lie when they claim selection at 11 improves social mobility. On Chelsil Beach is a reminder of how terrible sex education was and its events are highly unlikely to happen today although we can see some of the repressed values, that so crippled the characters in the film, in the shape of William Rees-Mog, darling of the unreconstructed right.

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)

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!

Do the Right Thing (US, 1989)

I’ve just published a guide to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Here’s the introduction:

In Florida on February 26th, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who had been shopping at a convenience store, was shot and killed by vigilante George Zimmerman. Zimmerman had called ‘911’ to report Martin’s apparently suspicious behaviour and was told not to follow him. However the vigilante did so and claimed self-defence after shooting the boy. Florida’s ‘stand your ground law’ meant, as officers accepted Zimmerman’s version of events, he was not charged. After a national outcry he was eventually sent to trial where he was found ‘not guilty’. For many this outcome was another example how the American legal system discriminates against ethnic minorities and, in response, the activist movement Black Lives Matter was created.

This lack of concern about black lives certainly wasn’t new: in 2009 Oscar Grant was shot and killed, when he was lying face down on the ground being arrested, in Oakland, California; the killing was dramatised in Fruitvale Station (2013). The officer, Johannes Mehserle, was prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter and served very little time in prison.

Initially Black Lives Matter seemed to have no effect as African American lives continued to be lost in contentious circumstances. Michael Brown, an 18-year old, was shot in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, and several days of protests followed. Earlier that year, in New York, Eric Garner died after being held in a chokehold by officers even though the NYPD had banned the use of this method of restraint. Nearly 30 years after Do the Right Thing featured the death of a black man at the hands of the NYPD using a chokehold, it is clear that the sore of racism, with its roots in slavery, still festers.

Spike Lee’s emergence as a high profile filmmaker wasn’t simply due to the quality of his films but also because he became, for a time at least, an African American voice that mainstream media could not ignore. Although Lee’s messages were often misrepresented, the success of his films and skill in promoting himself led him to be considered to be a spokesperson for African Americans. Due to the institutional racism that restricts Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) access, non-white voices are heard relatively rarely in mainstream media. Hence Lee, one of the few high profile African Americans in the film industry, became the conduit through which the mainstream media and audiences heard an African American perspective. Although his ambition was to be a filmmaker, not a spokesperson for his race, he hasn’t shirked the responsibility and has ensured that, in most cases, he has control over his films so he could say what he had to say.

However putting the burden of representation on one person’s shoulders is not only unfair but also impractical: one person cannot speak for a variegated group. One of the consequences of this is that Lee became a focus of criticism from African Americans because his films didn’t represent black culture the way they understood it.

At the other extreme, racist critics attacked Lee simply as a tactic to shut up a ‘diverse’ voice. The burden carried by Lee, and other ethnic minority artists who have mainstream appeal such as Beyoncé, is their art is inflected by race in a way that white artists’ work rarely is.

In 2017 Michael Slager was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for killing, when a police office, African American Walter Scott. Maybe this is a sign that the Black Lives Matter movement is working. As Do the Right Thing suggests, it is vital to continue fighting against racial oppression.

 

Available at Amazon here.

Dark River (UK, 2017)

Outsider trying to get back

Spoilers ahead!

I must admit I had reservations when it became clear that the trauma suffered by Alice (the excellent Ruth Wilson) was being sexually abused by her father when a child. There is a danger that such a horrendous breach of trust will become a cliché if it is wheeled out too often; I first felt this when seeing Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. However, in the film Clio Barnard does manage to add to our (my) understanding of the lingering effects of the abuse.

Ruth returns home after the death of her father, played with brooding presence by Sean Bean in the flashbacks. Her brother, Joe, a slightly unhinged character played by Mark Stanley, is less than welcoming but the film is nuanced in its portrayal of characters that – dad aside – can mostly be seen to also have a ‘good side’. Ruth is a character of immense strength who single-handedly looks to be capable of turning the farm around but the absentee landlords ensure that profit comes before the land.

What makes Barnard’s film interesting is the way the flashbacks are integrated, like Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, into the continuity editing so that the past is integral to the present. The scene shifts back many years with an eyeline match editing; Ruth’s memories momentarily seem as if they are happening now. This shows how the abuse Alice suffered 15 years earlier is still ‘present’ in her existence.

Adriano Goldman’s cinematography captures the ‘it’s grim up north’ beauty of the moors more effectively than God’s Own Country (UK, 2017). The farming community is unsentimentally and sympathetically portrayed. In one scene Joe eulogises about the millions of insects that can be hosted on one field in stark contrast to this week’s report that bird populations in France are plunging because of insecticides.