The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, Czechoslovakia, 1965)

Two buffoons

With concentration camps on the America-Mexico border and white supremacists regularly being given a platform on the BBC, remembering the Holocaust is a vital activity in 2019. Education is a battleground and learning about the Nazi atrocities was a key part of growing up for many, in the west at least; always with the thought that it couldn’t happen again. How naive was that belief: in America a high school Principal is removed from his post because he refuses the acknowledge the Holocaust happenedThe Shop on the High Street (Main Street in America) is a Holocaust movie but without the camps and Nazis.

Whilst it’s nominally a Czechoslovakian film, it’s actually Slovakian in terms of its creative input, setting and language. During the war the Slovakian government supported the Nazis; their Hlinka Guard became the equivalent of the SS. Jozef Kroner plays Brtko, a small town carpenter who has the misfortune to be related, by marriage, to the town’s fascist leader. The latter gifts Brtko an elderly Jewish woman’s (Rozalia Lautmannová played by Ida Kaminska) shop, she’s going deaf and struggles to understand the situation. Kroner has some resemblance to Steve Carrell and shares the American’s talent for entwining seriousness with comedy. He’s too mild mannered and conflicted to take over the shop so pretends, after key ‘encouragement’ from a friend who opposes the fascists, to be Lautmannová’s assistant.

Spoiler alert: the first two thirds of the film is a mild comedy of Brtko trying to please his money-grubbing wife without upsetting anyone (though when pushed he does slap his wife; I’m unclear whether this is meant to show a dark side to Brtko or show how pushy his wife is – I fear the latter). I was mildly entertained thus far and wondered about the ethics of a comedy that had the Holocaust in its background (I still haven’t seen Life is Beautiful, La vita è bella, Italy, 1997, which like The Shop on the High Street won the Best Foreign Language Oscar). Then the film turns when the Hlinka Guards start rounding up the town’s Jewish population. Brtko can no longer finesse his ‘appeasement’ position’, trying to offend no one. The last half hour in particular, which takes place almost wholly in the shop where we can see the round-up going on outside, is truly devastating as an increasingly drunk Brtko tries to find the right course of action.

The immensity of the Holocaust is difficult to comprehend and Ladislav Grosman’s screenplay, by focusing on an ordinary man, enables us to understand how such an atrocity came about: few people are willing to make a stand against tyranny that would compromise their safety or economic well-being.

The film was co-directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, though accounts suggest that most of the creative decisions were made by Kadár. Despite the year of its release, it’s not a Czech New Wave film as it is, stylistically, conventional and both directors had been working in film well before the 1960s. It was a key film, though, in alerting the world to the brilliance of the films coming out of the country; its Oscar win was followed by three other films being nominated: A Blonde in LoveClosely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) – which won – and The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko). The film, however, is stylistically interesting as the increasingly expressionist mise en scene, and febrile handheld camera, both signify Brtko’s mental breakdown. Mishearing his name, Lautmannová calls him Krtko which means ‘mole’ in Slovak and so stands for those who bury their heads in the sand rather than dealing with unpleasant reality.

Post-1945 the story ended well with the defeat of fascism though the ensuing Cold War ensured conflict for decades afterwards. It seems we’re now returning to the 1930s with a rise in right wing populism, economic stagnation and fascists in power in some places. The Shop on the High Street reminds us we have to take a stand.

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The Great Hack (US, 2019)

Pod person takes over planet

The Great Hack tells an essential tale of the corruption of, the already wonky, democratic process; however it does so in such an incompetent way the detail is lost in the broad sweep. It could be that the complexity of Cambridge Analytica’s debasement of the democracy is so complicated that a two-hour documentary will only be able to offer a vague impression. However, I think the decision to structure the information via two individuals, the admirable David Carroll and the conflicted Brittany Kaiser, has compromised the film. I’m not a fan of ‘expository’ documentaries, which employ an omnipotent ‘voice of god’ voiceover to anchor the meaning, but in this case it was probably the only way to ensure understanding.

However, the film has been well reviewed, The Guardian gave it five stars, and my difficulty with it may be because, having followed Carole Cadwalladr’s diligent reporting, I knew most of the content. In other words, I’ve now got my own way of understanding what happened. That said, there are moments where the documentary is opaque: for example, when a top executive of Cambridge Analytica talks about his devastation when C4 news reported Alexander Nix’s mendacity: was he devastated because his boss lied or because the company was about to go up in smoke? Steve Bannon gets a sound bite but the links between him, Farage, Trump and the Mercer family are not dealt with. The only thing I learned was that Cambridge Analytica had also screwed the 2010 election in Trinidad and Tobago..

Tech companies’ hegemony over information is a key issue of our time. The fraudulent Leave.EU has been under investigation for over a year by the Metropolitan Police and the chances of Banks, Wigmore, Bilney and co. being held to account have greatly diminished given the British Cabinet is now constituted with many of those implicated with the lies used to prise the UK out of the EU.

One sane response to The Great Hack is to get rid of your Facebook account (as I did over a year ago). PM Johnson is already using the platform to gain information prior to disseminating propaganda during the next election. It would be great to know how many people watch the film to try and assess its impact but Netflix is now also a tech company and the only time it releases figures are for PR purposes. The next General Elections in western countries are all going to be key for if the right consolidates its power then the tech companies will have no regulation to fear and authoritarianism will rule while the planet burns.

 

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.

The Candidate (US, 1972)

There’s no business like politics

It’s striking that, although it was made 40 years before The Ides of March,The Candidate is almost as up-to-date. The cynicism, alongside extraordinary naiveté, that characterises American politics is beyond satire with The Trump in the White House; I should say the same is true for the UK with our on-going Brexit-driven stupidity. The only striking difference I noticed in the film is the Republican candidate keeps emphasising how they need to keep America great; nowadays Trump’s tagline is ‘make America great again’. Otherwise the bullshit remains the same.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t a difference between left and right politics (the former is far preferable of course!). Robert Redford’s ‘candidate’ is an idealist who, despite is best efforts, gets enmeshed in the ‘machine’ of party politics. However, he would be a far better senator than his opponent. One of the exciting things at the moment in American politics is Senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who brilliantly emphasised the corruption inherent in the American democratic system – see here. She, single-handedly it seems, has shifted the Overton window (which frames what can ‘legitimately’ be discussed) to get a progressive taxation on the agenda.

Jeremy Larner’s script for The Candidate reeks of authenticity which isn’t surprising as he was principal speech-writer for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential bid; he won an Academy Award for his effort. Michael Ritchie’s direction complements the script brilliantly, shooting in Academy Ratio (to give a televisual feel thus mimicking the way many watch political campaigns?), the camera moves in a documentary style seemingly chasing the action rather than shooting action staged for it. I’m not sure whether Ritchie counts as a New Hollywood director as I haven’t seen Prime Cut, released just before The Candidate; his debut was a Redford vehicle Downhill Racer (1969). The Candidate, though, certainly fits into New Hollywood as it’s a thoughtful film with a ‘message’ and was distributed by Warner Bros. Redford and Ritchie made the film through their own company; presumably constituted solely for this film as they didn’t produce another together.

I saw the film nearly 40 years ago and could remember the ending clearly, an indication of how effective it is in a low-key way. I doubt Redford was ever better (I have little to say about his recent The Old Man & the Gun (US, 2018) other than Sissy Spacek was great): his star charisma is undercut by uncertainty in his eyes as his doubts about what he’s doing dog him throughout. I love his puzzled expression when an old mate, from his ‘eco-warrior’ days, congratulates him on doing well whilst knowing it’s ‘bullshit’. The candidate has clearly been taken in.

 

Norma Rae (US, 1979)

They won’t get you if you’re part of a union

Norma Rae is a bit of an outlier of New Hollywood cinema that thrived at the start of the 1970s. The big studios had lost their audiences and the surprise hit, backed by Columbia, of Easy Rider (1969) allowed an auteur directed cinema to, relatively, thrive for a few years. Peter Bogdanovich, Bob Rafelson and Martin Scorsese (amongst others) made films that were consciously art rather than ‘mere’ entertainment. Although Easy Rider was a watershed film, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967) had already tapped the counter cultural zeitgeist and, as is so often the case in history, the transition between periods is blurred. So New Hollywood began before it flourished and continued, in a diminished form, after it ended. Of course, mainstream entertainment never went away but it was a time when Hollywood would back interesting films.

In a simplistic manner we can ‘blame’ Jaws (1975) for the end of director-driven movies and the beginning of the producer-dominated High Concept film. Star Wars (1977), with its backward-looking aesthetic, signified the end of innovative filmmaking (apart from the special effects) in Hollywood that, arguably, we are still in with superhero films and Disney remakes being virtually the only game in town. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), which bankrupted United Artists, was the last straw.

Why is Norma Rae one of the last gasps of New Hollywood? It was directed by Martin Ritt, who was one of the most reliable of Hollywood’s liberal film directors, and focuses on working class people, in cotton mills. The narrative is driven by the attempt of a union organiser (Ron Liebman) to get the workers to join. It also features a female protagonist, Sally Ann Field as the titular character (who won a Best Actress Oscar), and an entirely non-sexual relationship between her and the organiser: not even a chaste kiss even after they go ‘skinny dipping’. It’s unusual for Hollywood not to hint at ‘romance’ between female and male protagonists. Field’s Rae is sexual but it is on her own terms. The film was based loosely on Henry Leifermann’s Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance, a biography of Crystal Lee Sutton, w woman who did actually stand on a table holding a sign saying ‘union’ after she had been sacked (more details here).

The scenes in the cotton mill are superbly authentic, the horrendous racket of the machines defeating conversation and, indeed, making organisation difficult. The difficulties of everyday life, on poor wages, are admirably delineated and the workers aren’t patronised as being ‘stupid’ for not being in a union. Company propaganda is shown to divide the workers, sometimes on racial lines. These were, and are, very real battles and the inevitable triumph, it is a Hollywood film after all, is a rallying call to all non-unionised folk.

Norma Rae deserves its place, alongside films like the independent John Sayles’s Matewan(1987), as one of the best American films about trade unions. Field was on The Graham Norton Show (BBC1) recently promoting her autobiography. It was quite scary seeing her as she hadn’t seemed to have aged much in 40 years. She was more like simulacrum and it is an indictment of our age that high profile people, women in particular, aren’t allowed to age properly.

A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 años, Uruguay-Spain-France-Argentina-Germany, 2018)

The fruits of tyranny

I’ve bashed Netflix a few times on this blog but am grateful to it for A Twelve-Year Night, an extraordinary biopic of three political prisoners who were tortured and kept mostly in solitary for 12 years up until 1985. Writer-director Álvaro Brechner does a brilliant job of conveying the hell the men lived by focusing on their experience firstly by laying out the restricted routine of their lives before opening out the narrative, mainly through flashbacks. Through this we get a sense of the claustrophobic lives they were forced to live having being imprisoned for opposing the military dictatorship. The ‘opening out’ is obviously a relief to the spectator and the contrast with the early part of the film gives us a sense of the mental torture of loneliness and depravation suffered by the men.

The prisoners were three of six who spent 12 years being taken from prison to prison (40 in all), presumably as a way of keeping them away from their families who were trying to use the courts to get access to them. Brechner never explains the machinations of the state as his focus is on the men, we (sort of) experience what they experience, so when a family suddenly are able to get a prison visit we are as surprised as the men. There is one scene that gives us a sense of what was happening on their behalf in the ‘outside world’ and this is when they are hauled in front of a committee from the International Red Cross but are only able to state their name before being taken away. This shows us the men had not been forgotten but effective help was not seriously forthcoming until the return of democracy.

If it all sounds gruelling, and the first hour is tough, the film is leavened with humour such as how one of the prisoners advises a guard on how to write love letters. The script is based on two of the prisoners’, Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, book about their experiences; the third prisoner was Jose “Pepe” Mujica. As is conventional at the end of a biopic we find out what happened after the end of the film; I was truly gobsmacked by what the men did afterwards. My astonishment was, in part, caused by my ignorance about Uruguay; I’ve only seen one other film from the country, 25 Watts and  Alfonso Tort (Huidobro) features in both. Antonio de la Torre (Mujica) may be familiar from the television series The Night Manager (UK-US, 2016); Argentinean Chino Darin completes the triumvirate as Rosencof.

All the performances are convincing but it is Brechner’s script and direction that elevate this film to the truly special. As there is a danger of Latin America sliding back into American-backed authoritarianism at the moment (here’s an alternative view to MSM’s propaganda about what’s happening in Venezuela), we need reminding of the horrific consequences of rule without law. ‘Strong men’ only bring order through crushing dissent.

Incidentally the film ends with a fantastic version of Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence by Sílvia Pérez Cruz.

The Official Story (La historia oficial , Argentina, 1985)

Officially captivating

Many ‘subversives’ disappeared during the fascist dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s/early 1980s. From 1977 The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ensured the missing were not forgotten and I was surprised to learn they are (at least two years ago) still having to protestThe Official Story, apparently based on a true story, is a gripping political melodrama focusing on bourgeoise wife, Alicia (a Cannes winning performance by Norma Aleandro), who suspects that her adopted five-year old daughter may have been taken from one of the ‘disappeared’.

Aida Bortnik’s and director Luis Puenzo’s script brilliantly draws together numerous strands: Alicia is a history teacher whose class is far more clued up to the way ‘assassins’ are the ones who write history; her husband, Roberto (Héctor Alterio), has close ties to the military but whose brother and dad all but disown him as he berates them as ‘losers’. Central is the relationship between Alicia and her daughter which is suddenly thrown into doubt when an old friend, Ana, returns from exile. The scene when the friends are drunkenly reminiscing and Ana tells Alicia the truth about why she went away without saying anything is extraordinary. At first Alicia is chuckling along but the significance of what Ana is saying clearly doesn’t immediately sink in but then she realises Ana is describing how she was tortured; Aleandro’s performance in this scene is enough to justify watching the film.

Alicia’s cosy, bourgeois is punctured and she then seeks the truth in the face of her husband’s cynicism and worse. In such a male dominated society as Argentina was at the time, it’s not surprising that it required women to join together to seek justice and how brave they were (and are) to do so in the face of male oppression.

In the UK we keep hearing from politicians that we shouldn’t upset the extreme right wing or their violence will get worse. While this may be simple (in more ways than one) politicking because they want PM’s May’s mess of a deal to leave the EU to be voted through today, such appeasement is obviously dangerous. With the new president of Brazil threatening a return to the bad old days of fascist governments in Latin America (usually propped up by America), The Official Story is important in reminding us of the evil perpetrated against ‘the people’ in the region. The film won best foreign film Oscar and whilst those awards are often poor arbiters of taste I suspect they got it right in 1985, only two years after the dictatorship had fallen.