No Love for Johnnie (UK, 1961)

Unsentimental too

I knew the title but little else when I spied this on Talking Pictures channel and what a discovery it proved to be. Peter Finch plays a careerist Labour politician whose lack of success in government, and disastrous personal life, sets the scene for an unsentimental portrayal of a middle aged man in crisis. I expected the film to be sympathetic to him and feared the worse when he starts an affair, after his wife has left him, with a woman half his age. However, the film went against my expectation and the female characters are portrayed as stronger than he is.

As Roy Stafford outlines, the film doesn’t quite belong to the ‘new wave’ cinema of the time though there are ‘obligatory’ shots of ‘it’s grim up north’ – Halifax standing in for a generic northern town. Because the focus is on Parliamentary politics, and it’s obviously in the know as it’s based on a novel by Labour MP Wilfred Fienburgh, its metropolitan milieux takes it away from the working class world that reinvigorated late ’50s-early ’60s British cinema. Although the costumes of the characters, particularly the women, seem to belong to the ’50s, and the music they bop to is jazz, the mores of the time are more in keeping with the nascent ‘sexual revolution’. The uncredited Oliver Reed plays a drunk at a party and, in retrospect, gives the film a forward-looking feel. There’s no sense that the ingénue Mary (Pauline West) should be censored for sex outside marriage and Billie Whitelaw portrays the neighbour, who holds a flame for Johnnie, as a strong woman; though the scene were he gets violent toward her, with her forgiving response, sits uneasily today.

It was produced by Betty Box, one of the few women of influence in the industry at the time, and she’d made – along with director Ralph Thomas – the successful ‘Doctor’ series, starring Dirk Bogarde. She had a prolific career running from the 1940s to the mid-’70s. It’s difficult enough for women to succeed today so what a person she must have been.

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The Post (UK-US, 2017)

The woman in front of the man

The Post, with the award-baiting combination of Hanks-Spielberg-Streep, tells a tale from 1971 that is vital now. Spielberg reportedly ‘rushed’ the production because of the film’s topicality: who will hold governments to account, the role of the fourth estate, if newspapers don’t?

The Pentagon Papers were academic investigations into the Vietnam War commissioned by the Secretary of State for Defence, Robert McNamara, which found that the war was unwinnable. This conclusion was not shared with the American public and hundreds of thousands of people died because the war continued. McNamara, by the way, was the subject of the Errol Morris’ brilliant The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (US, 2003). It wasn’t until the New York Times scoop, they were leaked by Daniel Ellsburg, that the Papers were revealed.

The Post, however, focuses on the Washington Post which also ran the story, having received the Papers after the Times, when the Nixon administration took out an injunction to prevent further publication; this was the first time in US history that the government had gagged a newspaper. I’m not sure why the focus is on the Post though it has a good story to tell; the leader of the Times’ legal team, James C. Goodale, claims the film is good but ‘bad history’. I’ve no reason to disbelieve him.

However, it is as a film about now that The Post excels. Obviously the relationship between news reporting and government, particularly in America where Trump shouts ‘fake news’ at anything he doesn’t agree with, is particularly contentious. The newspaper industry has been declining for nearly 50 years but the rise of Google and Facebook, that suck up advertising, has destroyed the business model for the ‘quality press’ that relied on delivering valuable audiences to advertisers. The film shows the vital role the press has and so raises fears about the future as newspapers’ influence declines. In the UK, it seems that the press have retreated from their role as the ‘fourth estate’ (the other three are government, the courts and the church), which is meant to hold those in power to account, and become even more partial in terms of their political orientation. The Daily Telegraph recently led with the ridiculous claim from defence secretary Gavin Williamson that the Russians can kill thousands of people by interfering with the power supply. Giving credence to Williamson’s attempt to distract from a story that embarrassed him suggests their news standards are wallowing in the gutter.

The other topical aspect of the film is the role of women in the 1970s. The Post’s owner, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), constantly finds herself in rooms full of male executives who don’t take her seriously. She is shown to rise to the occasion and, in a great shot, when she leaves the Supreme Court, a line of adoring young women watch her. She makes a stand publishing the Papers even though it could have caused problems with the Stock Exchange floatation happening at the time. The film suggests this is to protect the newspaper but Goodale says it was to pay stockholders’ estate taxes. To further tarnish her apparent heroism, she became a print union buster later in the decade – see here.

When the paper finally goes to press, Spielberg ensures we see the whole hot metal process, an incredible technological effort required to produce newspapers in those ‘good old days’. Except, of course, they weren’t really good it’s just that things are worse now.

 

No (Chile-France-US-Mexico, 2012)

Ad exec takes on military dictatorship

Ad exec takes on military dictatorship

General Pinochet, whose CIA-backed coup overthrew Salvatore Allende’s democratically elected Socialist government on September 11 1973, was almost held accountable for his crimes when he visited the UK in 1998. He was let go on health grounds: the ruling classes certainly look after their own as there was nothing wrong with him! This film recounts how Pinochet was deposed: a Referendum, as to whether he should continue as President, in 1988 imposed on Pinochet by his western backers. They wanted him to have the veneer of democratic respectability but were surprised by the victory of the ‘no’ vote. No recounts how the ‘no’ campaign was successful and uses footage from both the actual campaigns and the brutality of Pinochet’s troops.

From a naive perspective it is surprising that many would vote ‘yes’ for a military dictatorship but that neglects the fact that many, in the middle class, had benefited from Pinochet’s rule. So it’s self-interest over democratic ideals and fairness; a ‘principle’ that goes some way to explain why many voted for the Conservatives in the May UK Election. Democracy is a fig-leaf that is useful to gain consent (‘hegemony’) from the masses and if people dare to misuse their vote – as in the Greek Referendum on the economic destruction of their country – they will be ignored; in the Greek case by the EU and  European Bank (the World Bank at least acknowledges that Greece can never pay back its debt under the terms it’s been given).

It struck me also how Pinochet’s Minister responsible for the ‘yes’ campaign referred to his opponents as ‘fools’; anyone who opposes their ideas must by definition, they think, be idiots. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, for the leadership of the Labour Party, have been characterised in similar ways. Corbyn is challenging the status quo and has a high level of support, this the Establishment cannot tolerate (because it means that they aren’t necessarily right) and cognitive dissonance kicks in, so they start ridiculing what is opposing them as they can’t rationally argue against them.

Back to the film: obviously well worth seeing but Larrain’s direction did irritate me. He seemed to delight in shooting into the sun presumably to give the film a documentary feel with its ‘uncomposed’ shots. It was shot on 1983 U-matic video camera (in the 4:3 ratio) which means the image quality is poor; that didn’t bother me. Gael Garcia Bernal, as the ‘heroic’ ad exec (that phrase doesn’t occur very often), is brilliant as usual. His appearance in a film, in itself, seems to guarantee quality.

Citizenfour (Germany-US-UK, 2014)

Citizenfour for as all

Citizenfour for as all

Edward Snowden is a very 21st century hero: whistleblowing on how everyone is being spied upon via compromised networks. Whistleblowers are the heroes of our time and it’s an indictment of our time that they often end up more vilified than the criminals they are revealing. Snowden says, in Laura Poitras’ fabulous film, he hopes that when he is ‘shut up’, like the beheaded Hydra, seven other whistleblowers will appear behind him. They haven’t, testimony to the treatment they know they will receive but also the complicity that those who work for ‘security agencies’ have in the destruction of our ability to have a private life.

Along with Wikileaks, Snowden revealed what many of the left have always suspected: the security services operate beyond the law and legislatures have no desire the rein them in. Although this fact wasn’t a surprise, the breadth of their infiltration of our communications is still shocking. Without people like Snowden, and reporters such as Glenn Greenwald, along with The Guardian newspaper, we would well and truly be screwed. Or would we? We probably are anyway.

It’s unclear to me what affect the revelations have had upon the NSA, in America, and GCHQ in the UK; the latter, Snowden says, has even greater penetration of British communications than the NSA has over American’s. The response of many people seems to be to shrug as if it isn’t important. This might be because they are politically on the right (though it is quite striking that the libertarian right – to which Snowden belongs – has mostly been quiet) or they don’t want to hear such disturbing talk.

Many years ago, when I sold hotdogs at Chester Zoo during the summer, my fellow salesman delighted in regaling me with his belief that the ‘general public is thick’. I still don’t believe this but I think ‘the general public is ignorant’. Part of this is due to consumption of the right-wing media. Take the Daily Mail‘s front page (yesterday) that expressed shock that the charity Cage, which assists people who’ve been ‘targeted’ by the security services, should say that it is possible that ‘Jihadi John’s’ unspeakable behaviour (in beheading victims on behalf of ISIS) was in part caused by harassment by MI5. The Mail, in particular, is like a child who avoids hearing anything contrary to their beliefs by putting their hands over their ears and sings ‘la-la-la…’ It’s obvious that harassment could cause radicalisation but to acknowledge this would lead to questions about the effectiveness of security policy. Toward the end of Citizenfour it’s revealed that the NSA has 1.2 million people on its watch list! Whilst computer surveillance can watch us all, the security services don’t have the resources to directly monitor everyone on the lists. At some point they may decide, in order for us to be safe, internment without trial of suspects is needed.

The ignorance of the public can also be ‘wilful’: they are more interested in celebrity gossip than issues that affect their lives. For example, on Thursday the FCC guaranteed net neutrality, a triumph against the increasing commercialisation of the internet, however the internet was ‘full’ of ‘the dress’.

UgbPOwi

Like George Romero’s zombies finding shopping malls reassuring, many won’t deal with the issues of our time (until they are the victims).

All this surveillance is done in the name of the bogus ‘war on terror’. Terrorists have no power to threaten nation states so they commit atrocities in the hope that the states will over-react and create a fertile ground for further recruitment of terrorists. I would say ‘stupidly our leaders over-react every time’ except I believe they know exactly what they are doing: terrorist acts become an excuse for more government control. In this way ISIS and governments have a symbiotic relationship: the victims are ordinary people of all cultures.

Well done to the Academy for awarding this documentary an Oscar; it was by far the most important film of the contenders but Radio 4’s Today programme managed to avoid mentioning it. Hopefully the award will raise its profile (it’s not available on DVD in the UK) as will Channel 4’s screening (in a graveyard slot but that matters little these days). Quite simply this is a film that all should see though it will be difficult to use in schools without plenty of background information but it is necessary to fit it into the curriculum!

 

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (US-UK-Qatar, 2012)

THE-RELUCTANT-FUNDAMENTALIST_STILL_1-1024x842

Who Do I Identify With?

I haven’t read Mohsin Hamid’s novel on which the film is based which is an oversight as anything, like Amy Waldman’s excellent The Submission, that tries to get to grips with the ‘war on terror’, which threatens to run as long as the wars in Orwell’s 1984, is important. There was a lot to like about the adaptation, not least Riz Ahmed’s performance in the lead. The subtleties of identity politics are well rendered as Ahmed’s Changez finds himself caught between tradition and rampant capitalism. Kiefer Sutherland, incidentally, excels as the slimy capitalist, a role he may be danger of becoming typecast in – see Melancholia.

The febrile atmosphere of Lahore is thrillingly caught; a fellow member of the audience told me that only a few exteriors were shot in Lahore, not surprisingly given the state of play in Pakistan at the moment. The glass mausoleums of capitalism are also well shot though the problems inherent in using ‘9/11’ footage (that it was far more dramatic than anything cinema can render) were not resolved.

But… While I understood the reasons for the romance narrative, Changez is after all a young man seeking his way in the world, this didn’t ‘come off’ at all. Changez is in his early 20s and while there’s no reason why he wouldn’t fall for a thirty something Kate Hudson (34), she looked far older to me; unlikely as it is, she seemed to have suffered from botox. But that’s probably just me.

Without spoiling the film, I can comment that I admired the way Changez developed convincingly throughout the film but found the final scene, with Liev Schrieber’s journalist, risible. The expression on Schrieber’s character’s face should be mortified and not a wry smile.

Incidentally I saw this at a packed out screening at the close of the Bradford International Film Festival.