The Ear (Ucho, Czechoslovakia, 1970) – LIFF9

What price freedom?

Like A Squandered Sunday, The Ear wasn’t released until the after end of the Cold War, in 1989, as its portrayal of Czechoslovakian political life, in the ‘Normalisation’ post-’68 period, is damningly satirical. When those in power can’t stand criticism you know you’re in trouble (see Trump). This is another of the Time Frames strand at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Ear narrates the squabbles of a government minister and his wife in the aftermath of an official reception at Prague Castle, which is shown in flashback.

The Ear’s writer, last films as he died of cancer in 1971. Procházka had done well to survive as a filmmaker for so long because he constantly pushed against official censorship. Director Karel Kachyňa continued to have a fruitful career (despite having made several films with the ‘frowned upon’ Procházka). Peter Hames, in The Czechoslovak New Wave, suggests that Kachyňa successfully portrayed Procházka as the ‘ideas man’ whilst he was merely a metteur en scene (he ‘just’ shot the script). Whether this was a betrayal I don’t know; it was just as likely to have been a pragmatic position to take against repression. Whatever the case, Kachyňa’s direction is perfect in its portrayal of Ludvik’s (the minister) growing conviction his days are numbered. 

He and his wife return from the party to find things aren’t as they should be at home. Doors are locked; then unlocked. Things have been moved and there are men in the garden (it is the middle of the night). Ludvik thinks back to the evening, using ‘subjective’ shots (we are Ludvik), trying to find clues that may signify his fall from favour. His wife, Anna, is both pissed (drunk) and pissed off because Ludvik has forgotten their wedding anniversary again. Radoslav Brzobohatý and Jirina Bohdalová are superb as the warring couple and their collapsing marriage mirrors the political paranoia of the time. The political is personal as Ludvik had only married her for convenience and all his actions as a government minister – and by extension true of all government ministers – are about self-survival.

The titular ‘ear’ are bugs the secret police have placed to listen for sedition. The couple even have to have sex in the kitchen to get some privacy. In the absurdist tradition of Czechoslovakian cinema, there are a number of batty scenes, including a toilet that won’t flush and an invasion by goons who want some booze.

The Ear is another example of the brilliant ‘new waves’ of eastern Europe during the ’50s and ’60s.

 

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The Swimmer (US, 1968)

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Swimming to oblivion

This is an interesting ‘New Hollywood’ film where the French ‘new wave’ can be seen infiltrating the commercially desperate Hollywood. Though it was an independent production, Sam Spiegel was pretty much establishment Hollywood and Columbia Pictures distributed. Of course the presence of Burt Lancaster brings the Hollywood star system into play but the fact that Spiegel took his name off the film and had Sydney Pollack reshoot some scenes give an indication that this isn’t a product of the Dream Factory.

It was filmed in 1966 but took two years to be released and so predated both Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, key films in the emergence of Hollywood films that challenged the American consensus about their ‘Dream’. Lancaster plays Ned Merrill who, an a whim, decides to swim via his friends’ swimming pools back to his house several miles away. What starts as genial romp deteriorates as it becomes clear that all’s not well with Merrill.

Lancaster looks terrific, although clearly middle-aged he’s in trim particularly compared to the peers he meets on his journey. The hard-edged optimism of his persona is used to good effect and, as the day progresses, Lancaster conveys his mental deterioration with some brilliance. The time he spends with the teenager (Janet Landgard), who had a crush on him as a child, are superbly creepy.

An interesting piece describes Merrill’s decline as tragic. My reading was less charitable as his treatment of women was full of self-regard and his fall is entirely deserved. The shallowness of the bourgeoisie, flaunting their wealth, is well presented and some of the dialogue crackles (the script was by Eleanor Perry) and was no doubt drawn directly from the source material, John Cheever’s short story of the same name.

Director, husband of the scriptwriter, Frank went of to make Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), which I remember enjoying a long time ago. The ‘new wave’ influence I mentioned above refers primarily to the occasional non-conventional use of film form rather than specific aspects. For example, the editing, particularly when Merrill’s on the move, sometimes uses very rapid montages to convey the dynamic movement. There is one very striking zoom into an extreme close-up of Merrill’s eye. It wouldn’t be mistaken for a classical Hollywood film.

The only other film I’m familiar with that Perry directed was the Joan Crawford ‘hit piece’ Mommie Dearest (1980). Would be good to see the Diary of a Mad Housewife again.

Privilege (UK, 1967)

Some targets hit

Some targets hit

Peter Watkins’ first feature followed two brilliant drama documentaries made for the BBC: Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). The latter so convincingly showed the consequences of nuclear war, and Britain’s ridiculously inadequate preparations for it, that it was banned and was only broadcast on Channel 4 (if memory serves) in the 1990s. He’d clearly not lost any of his anti-Establishment fire in Privilege, a dystopian world (‘in the near future’) where government and businesses manipulate pop music to control the masses. Paul Jones, of Manfred Mann, plays a suitably catatonic, or is it ’60s’ ‘cool’ indifference, pop star whose show consists in him being chained and beaten by the police. This stimulates manic ‘Beatlemania’ style screaming from young women. Fashion icon of the time, Jean Shrimpton, plays his ‘love interest’ who might redeem him from his alienation (if such a thing can be done). Add to the mix the Church getting involved in a quasi-fascist rally at the National Stadium and it’s clear Watkins is not holding back in his critique of late ‘560s Britain. Predictably the film was rubbished, as are most works of art aimed at a mass audience that challenges Establishment values, and Rank pulled it from distribution. This Bright Lights article gives excellent detail on the film’s reception.

As to the film itself… Whilst I admire Watkins’ determination to challenge the status quo I think his conflation of pop music with ‘mindless entertainment’ is as reactionary as the Establishment targets he takes on. At the start of the film the vapid close ups of women in tears suggest they are being dehumanised by their adulation of a pop star. Whereas, in the early sixties at least, embracing pop music was an, if not radical, oppositional position to take. Primarily it was an embracing of youth culture as reaction against their parent’s generation. Of course, by the mid-sixties this had been thoroughly commodified though music has managed to go through a variety of anti-Establishment reactions since – Punk, Acid House, Grime – it has always been recouped for the dominant ideology. Such is the logic of capitalism.

I was struck, haven’t recently visited Krakow, Vienna and Prague, how youngsters in the UK seem, more than their Eastern European counterparts at least, to be fashion conscious in a conformist way. On a recent visit to Liverpool (though I did spend some time in the prime shopping area Liverpool 1 so it was a self-selective sample) I was gobsmacked by the uniformity of look (‘C’m on Liverpool! Rebel!’). Maybe Watkins had a point…

Privilege, another of the BFI’s superb ‘flipside’ series, is certainly worth a look. Although it’s not a dramadoc, Watkins uses the same faux documentary voiceover (himself) as in his previous two works. Whilst this was effective on television, its rather intermittent usage, and lack of a particularly realist visual style, works against the immersive effect of film (particularly in cinema). It doesn’t appear to be a Brechtian device, to alienate the viewer from what they’re watching so and engage their thought, as the film would have worked better if it had engaged the emotions more directly. It is difficult to care for Jones’ Steven Shorter who seems to be as alien as David Bowie’s in The Man Who Fell To Earth (UK, 1976). Privilege is an interesting contribution to Britain’s science fiction cinema (notwithstanding Durgnat’s attempt to deny the genre’s qualities – mentioned in the Bright Lights article) and a sidelong glance at the Swinging Sixties though nowhere near as potent as films like Performance (UK, 1970) and Deep End.

Birdman (US-Canada, 2014)

All the film's a stage

All the film’s a stage

I’m not often keen on satirical takes on Hollywood, it’s too easy a target, however Birdman is so technically adept, and very funny in parts, it’s easy to like. Iñárritu’s decision to film the bulk of the film (the exceptions are the beginning and ending) as if it was shot in one take, unlike Russian Ark (Russia et al, 2002) which actually was, is surely a way of dramatising the difference between acting on film (usually in bits) and on stage (in ‘real time’). The film interrogates the actors’ profession: it concerns a ‘washed-up’ Hollywood star, Michael Keaton playing of sort of ‘alternate world’ self (for we cannot take what we see at face value), trying to gain artistic credibility in his Raymond Carver adaptation for Broadway. This interrogation focuses on theatre, we see the final few days before the opening night, but at the same time, because it’s Keaton we are watching perform as a ‘has been’ acting on stage, also raises questions about acting in film (which, of course, everyone in the film is doing).

If it seems a bit ‘clever-clever’ there is enough emotional heft (the actors’ insecurities; the ‘price of fame’ on family life) to deliver more than technical brilliance. The performances are outstanding throughout and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is both breathtakingly beautiful and virtuoso in its steadicam prowling. Both Mahler and Tchaikovsky feature on the soundtrack: Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world) signifies (along with his 9th Symphony) the protagonist’s angst whilst Tchaikovsky’s 5th represents the melodrama of Hollywood. This might suggest that the theatre, which is more likely to dramatise middle class ennui (and sometimes working class existence) than film, is the superior. Hollywood, through economic necessity as the international market becomes ever-more crucial, is now almost entirely focused on big budget spectaculars (more so than ever before) to please the masses more than the niches. However there’s enough ambiguity in the film to suggest…

The Riot Club (UK, 2014)

The state of things

The state of things

I hesitated to see this as I knew the antics of the ‘Bullingdon Club’ toffs would make me sick. Laura Wade adapted her play and Lone Scherfig directed what appears to be the ‘cream of British’ young male talent in this worthwhile film. The acting talent is very good: I don’t know their backgrounds but recent complaints, by the likes of David Morrissey among others, that unless you’re posh you’re not getting opportunities to join the acting profession, suggest maybe they know ‘posh’ behaviour intimately. Being ‘posh’ has always bequeathed an unfair advantage but after the increasing meritocracy we enjoyed in the post-war period, the pendulum has swung against the people since Thatcherism.

The Daily Telegraph reviewer thought the film to be humorous, whilst The Observer (not Kermode) felt we identified with the toffs too much to condemn their behaviour. There are accusations that the media is a ‘closed shop’, like acting, and it’s hard to square either of these responses with the film which is not funny and the ‘Riot Club’ boys, with one exception, are all scumbags.

I’m not sure my time was well spent as the film portrayed the British Establishment for what I know it is: corrupt and exploitative. Some might suggest it confirmed my prejudices but in a society where the poor are blamed for their poverty, whilst the rich wallow in their wealth, it is clear that we are fiddling whilst the planet burns.

California Dreamin’ (Endless) (Romania, 2007)

Cultures and generations clash

Cultures and generations clash

The debut director, Cristian Nemescu, along with his sound editor Andrei Toncu, died in a car crash before this film was completed; hence the ‘endless’ (i.e. ‘unfinished’).  The film world lost great talent because California Dreamin’ is a striking debut. It pits small town Romania against Americans, or specifically, NATO troops who are trying to get radar equipment, via train, to the Serbian border during the Civil War. However, the local station master, superbly played by Razvan Vasilescu) has a grudge against the US as they failed to liberate him, and his family, at the end of  World War II. He keeps the train ‘grounded’ for five days while the laborious government bureaucracy tries to catch up with him. Even when the Minister for Transport arrives, he remains implacable.

He’s also bleeding the village dry through his corruption. It’s something then, that we can have a grudging admiration for this character, Doiaru, as he fights a losing battle with his 17 year-old daughter, seductively played by Maria Dinulescu, who falls for one of the Americans.

Nemescu, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tudor Voican, is equally scathing, and sympathetic to, both his native Romanians and the Americans, embodied particularly by the ‘no nonsense’ Captain Jones (Armand Assante). He never fails to exploit the humour of the situation; the Elvis impersonator at the village’s 100th anniversary celebrations (which is a repeat of one they had a few months earlier) is a particular highlight. Monica’s (Dinelescu) whirlwind ‘romance’ with the soldier is well portrayed; she’s convincingly far more knowing than her 17 years.

Its two and a half hour running town could, and may have been, cut but it was right that the producer put the film out in the state it was at Nemescu’s demise. If Nemescu’s eye for the absurd is sharp I was less impressed by the Dogma style handheld camera, occasionally using telephoto lens which created a great deal of shake.

 

Xala (Senegal, 1975)

As usual, it takes a woman to talk sense

Sembene Ousmane was a remarkable filmmaker, he was responsible for the first black African film, Borom Saret (Senegal, 1963) and concluded his career with the marvellous Moolaadé (Senegal-Fr-Burkino Faso-Cameroon-Morocco-Tunisia, 2004). Xala, like Deep End, is a film I’d read about but never seen and I have to confess was slightly disappointed. Not that it isn’t an excellent film, it’s satire on post-colonial Senegal still hits the mark, but the often-wooden acting and stilted camerwork detract from the narrative. I can only imagine, judging by the director’s other work, that the direction was a result of financial constraints.

The film focuses on self-important businessmen who have simply replaced their colonialist masters after independence. They are corrupt and have western tastes, the main character El Hadji professes only to drink Evian water (see above). In contrast his daughter, framed and colour coordinated, in the above scene, with a map of Africa, speaks Wolof and she is ashamed of her father. Part of that shame is due to his habit of taking wives, he marries his third in the film; one patriarchal African tradition he is happy to follow. The women, as in Moolaadé, are shown to be extremely strong characters, much more in tune with the realities of the world than the self-aggrandising men though they are, ultimately, powerless.

It is a political film that makes its points through comedy. El Hadji is cursed, the xala, and becomes impotent and so can’t ‘service’ his young third wife. He thus goes to a witch doctor to be cured but, when his cheque bounces, the ‘marabout’ simply reinserts the curse. Sembene, on whose novel the film’s based, is suggesting that in becoming western the nation’s rulers are emasculated.

The location shooting offers some extraordinary shots, particularly of the group of beggars who eventually shame El Hadji in the finale; and the music, by Samba Diabarra Samb, is excellent. It is a shame that African film remains a rarity on British screens despite the plethora of platforms for distribution now available.