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.

 

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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.

The Final Hour (La Hora Final, Peru, 2017)

Political-personal civil war

Spain has numerous films that deal with the psychological aftermath of Franco’s fascist state (such as the recently blogged Marshland) and Peru, too, is trying to come to terms with what was effectively a civil war between authoritarian government and Maoist guerillas. The Final Hour refers to the endgame when the terrorists’ (the ‘Shining Path’) leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured. Afterwards, the revolutionary movement started to splinter and fade.

Writer-director Eduardo Mendoza de Echave has used the tropes of the detective genre to investigate both the political machinations of the time, and the impact the war had on individuals. Generically it’s conventional (the maverick detective, an under-resourced unit, office politics getting in the way, dysfunctional families etc.), however by placing it in the context of Peru in 1992, we get a fascinating insight into the reality of that time and place.

I was particularly taken by the performance of Nidia Bermejo (above right) as a nurse-turned-cop; the career switch was in response to the indiscriminate bombings of the terrorists. She’s indigenous and her brother is involved with the ‘Shining Path’ and so her loyalties are severely torn. Although the film is clear about who the good guys are (the detectives), the state is shown to be as bad as the rebels.

The film’s based on fact and it is interesting to see how Guzmán was finally captured but it is the personal costs involved in living in a state of civil war that are the most important aspect of the film. Apparently it was a hit in Peru, suggesting a hunger to deal with the past. Imdb lists its budget as a barely credible $30,000; for that it is an astounding achievement. (Netflix)

The Reckoning (UK, 1969)

No place like home

With John McGrath writing the script you can be pretty confident there will be a sensible political message and this thriller (well, generically it’s not quite clear, but thriller might be the best category) is both of its time and about a system that is still with us.

At the start, where Nicol Williamson’s protagonist (Marler) is having ‘rough sex’ with his wife to be followed by aggressive driving of his jaguar, I thought we were in a gangster film. It has a similar look to the concurrent Performance (UK) and shares the time’s love of exaggerated zoom shots; both had major studio backing: Columbia and Warner Bros. respectively. However, it soon becomes clear he’s a go-getting executive (not so different from a gangster really). However, he has to return to his roots, a Liverpool that still has pre-war housing and bomb sites, as his father’s ill.

Unsurprisingly, for he’s been living in Virginia Waters in a massive detached house, he finds Liverpool’s anti-establishment ethos gives him perspective. On his return south he gatecrashes his wife’s dinner party (it is in his own house), drunk, and tells the pinstriped tossers what he thinks of them. The class tensions remind us that although the 1960s were more egalitarian than the decades before, however McGrath makes it clear that the ‘old order’ is still in charge.

Apart from the distracting zooms, Gold’s direction is confident. He shoots crowd scenes well and there’s a great moment at a wrestling match where the contestants suddenly realise that the audience has erupted into a riot. They stand together bemused, watching the mayhem. McGrath was born in Birkenhead which vouches for the authenticity of this portrayal Liverpool.

Williamson’s career was ended by drink but he’s a formidable presence in the film, even if it is difficult to understand why he has such a ‘way with women’ (the misogynistic tones are of its time). Rachel Roberts is great as a ‘good time’ mother who clearheadedly knows what she wants and what she can get.

Apparently McGrath suggested that his script prefigured Thatcherism and it’s true that the ruthless corporate culture is still with us, evidenced by the CEO of Bet365 paying herself £217m in 2017.

Peterloo (UK, 2018)

Words not actions

Mike Leigh was quite right to say that the Peterloo massacre should be taught in schools and he should be credited with bringing it to the screen; however it would have been better with a different writer and director. Leigh allows the film to be carried, up to the massacre, by speeches made by reformers. In the way of middle class Victorians, who never used one word if they could squeeze in ten, there’s a lot of rhetoric. This does give a sense of authenticity, Leigh made his name with ‘realist’ portrayals of the working class, but it also induces extreme torpor in the spectator.

Worse, Leigh’s weakness for caricature, which always marred his representations of the working class for me, leads to distracting characters such as Tim McInnerny’s Prince Regent. Caricature is used for humorous satire and whilst I don’t doubt that the Prince was a buffoon his words are sufficient to damn him; his presentation as a preening peacock is distracting and Ian Mercer’s Dr. Joseph Healey is straight out of the Leigh’s catalogue of the ridiculous grotesque. Worse, to ensure we understand the Salford Yeomanry were drunk before they commenced to slaughter the demonstrators, we are shown them toasting by flinging their beer into the air three times. Apart from the fact that I doubt Northerners would waste their ale in such a way, it has the impact of a sledgehammer entirely unnecessary for the narrative point. Sure, melodrama is about exaggeration and excess but this was plain stupid.

In addition, just as the slaughter is about to commence, Maxine Peake’s character complains she can’t hear the speaker. Fair enough, but the way it is shot evokes Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (UK, 1979) (‘blessed are the cheesemakers’); to introduce farce at this moment was farcical.

There’s more: Leigh cannot direct an action sequence, a large failing at the climax. His constant use of long lens, which foreshortens the perspective and fails to give a convincing sense of space, and placing his camera in ways that seemed to be chosen as the most convenient position (rather than an expressive position) serve only to sow confusion in the audience. It’s not giving a sense of the characters’ confusion and then panic so the horrendous slaughter fails to emotionally engage, a shocking failing when portraying a disgraceful moment in British history.

Dick Pope’s cinematography and Suzie Davies’ production design are good; as are most of the performers. But the result is a massive wasted opportunity to educate in an engaging way a shameful event. Of course the ruling classes don’t slaughter the poor with weapons any more but repress, with sometimes fatal consequences, through institutional means such as Universal Credit. We’re left with a film that will ensure no one makes one about the Peterloo massacre for many years to come and it would have been better if Mike Leigh had never made it.