Z (France-Algeria, 1969)

Doing the right thing

Z‘s one of those increasingly rare films that I’ve wanted to see for years. I first heard about it around 35 years ago and I’m sure my reaction to it then would have been different to now. Z follows the investigation into a politically motivated murder of an opposition senator in an unnamed country. Costa-Gavras is Greek but as Greece was controlled by a military junta at the time, he made the film in Algeria. Not that the country is meant to be Greece as one of the police chiefs says, we live in a democracy. Costa-Gavras’ film shows democracy is a sham in this place.

I imagine my twentysomething self would have been gripped by the juge‘s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) investigation as he doggedly resists pressure to arrive at the truth. Challenging ‘authoritative’ voices was the zeitgeist for the young, in particular, in the ’60s but now we are far less likely to believe the official story. Indeed, for some anything that doesn’t follow their ideological preference becomes lies. Trump didn’t create that trend, though he would probably take credit for it, but he is riding the wave of disinformation and propaganda. So now the film doesn’t seem as exciting as I would have (probably) felt if I’d seen in my twenties.

I’m not sure what I would have made of the way the film slides increasingly into farce after Z’s (Yves Montand) death. The serious tone gradually gives way to absurdity that, from 2017, seems perfectly valid. In fact, farce and satire are what constitutes much of political discourse today; a potentially dangerous situation.

Z is (unsurprisingly) also dated in its visual style. The then fashionable use of the telephoto lens is distracting but it remains, nevertheless, a film well worth seeing. Another retro aspect of seeing the film was the sound in Leeds Town Hall, where it was screened as part of the Leeds Film Festival. It’s a long time since I’ve experienced that mono echoey effect of old cinemas; a long way from the focused soundscape we here today.

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Vertigo: An Introduction

I’ve just published a guide to Hitchcock’s Vertigo; one of his best films. Here’s the Introduction:

Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has made a long critical journey in the sixty years since it was first released. At the time critical reaction was cool and the box office for a Hitchcock movie was weak. However by 2012 it was regarded as the ‘best film ever made’ in the Sight & Sound magazine ‘once a decade’ poll of film critics. Some of the original reviews were positive; the New York Daily News called it ‘an artistic triumph for the master of mystery’ (Sandford, 2015). Others were lukewarm; Variety’s critic liked the film but she (identified only as ‘Stef’) also thought ‘the plain fact is that the film’s first half is too slow and too long’; she also committed the sin of revealing the key plot twist.

Vertigo was one of five films that were not legally available for over 10 years until 1983; the others were Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). After they had been on release for eight years the rights to these films became Hitchcock’s and it seems he kept them out of distribution to give his family a windfall after his death (Waymark, 1985). As Hitchcock had ordered all prints in distribution to be destroyed it was virtually impossible to watch them. Before videotapes became consumer items, in the 1970s, it was difficult to see films once they had completed their initial release unless they were screened on television. The inability to see Vertigo may go some way to explaining why it took so long for its greatness to be generally appreciated.

Another reason for the lack of appreciation was that during the 1950s it wasn’t usual to treat Hollywood films as art, they were seen simply as commodities designed to make money. It wasn’t until the intervention of enthusiastic critics during the 1950s, writing for the French magazine Cahiers du cinema, that it was widely understood that even commercial films could be regarded as art.

Francois Truffaut’s 1954 Cahiers article ‘Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Français’ suggested that the best directors (auteurs) could make films that transcended the limitations of the Hollywood studio system and include personal statements in their films. Regardless of the genre, the same themes were present in the films of auteurist directors like John Ford; Peter Wollen suggested that Ford was ‘concerned with the problem of heroism [and] meaningful action in life’ (1972: 81). Auteurs were also likely to have a characteristic visual style in their mise en scene (what’s ‘in the picture’ referring to the content and composition of the image), camera position and camera movement. Ford, for instance, in his black and white films at least, favoured deep focus cinematography. Because of these traits, their films could be regarded as works of art as they were the expressions of a personality rather than simply movies made to make money.

Truffaut’s idea became the ‘auteur theory’ and has had a lasting influence on film culture and there is a widespread belief that the director is the key influence in most films. The problem with this ‘theory’ is it loses sight of many other vital contributions such as the script, cinematography and performance. There is no doubt, however, that Hitchcock is a director for whom the auteurist approach is useful, as we shall see in chapter four. Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock in the early 1960s about his films and the resulting book, Hitchcock (Faber & Faber), was very influential on filmmakers.

For audiences in the era of Classical Hollywood (roughly the 1920s to the early 1960s) the director of the film was of little importance. However they, even before the intervention of Cahiers, did admire Hitchcock and his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62), short ‘tales of the unexpected’, made him a household name. Paramount liked him because he was profitable and a marketable name, much the same way as Christopher Nolan is now. Like Nolan, Hitchcock had a high degree of control over the films he made because he was commercially successful. Critics admired his technical finesse but because he made genre movies (thrillers apart from the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, 1941, and the 1949 melodrama Under Capricorn, UK), his movies weren’t regarded as the equal of those made by, say, Jean Renoir or Fritz Lang (his German films).

By 1972 Vertigo was 11th in the Sight & Sound poll so, despite its muted reception 14 years earlier, it was already considered to be a great film. Hitchcock died in 1980 and three years later, after a deal with Universal, it was re-released. In the first poll after this, in 1992, Vertigo had moved up to fourth. Such lists, while interesting, are only expressions of (albeit well-informed) opinion and the most important reaction is the one you have to a film. At the time of writing Vertigo is one of my favourite films. One thing for sure is that having spent months immersed in the film my admiration for it has increased. I hope that this book helps you enjoy this great film even more.

You can buy it here.

Dunkirk (UK-Netherlands-France-USA, 2017)

Wishing you weren’t there

I’ve admired Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking, Memento (US, 2000) and The Dark Knight (US-UK, 2008) in particular, but his previous films did not prepare me for the brilliance of Dunkirk; I almost felt literally blown away. I was certainly hanging on to my seat as the visceral representation (without needing gore) of the evacuation of Dunkirk was utterly gripping.

Nolan has spoken about his desire not to make a conventional war film (see interview in August Sight & Sound) but to show what it was like to have been involved in the evacuation, either on land, sea or air. At first I was confused by the titles telling us that land (‘the mole’) story was ‘one week’, the sea ‘one day’ and ‘the air’ one hour not realising that the film was collapsing three time scales into a 106 minute narrative. Inevitably, toward the end, they increasingly overlap and we see the same events from different perspectives. I can’t think of any film that has done this and it is dramatically daring and effective.

I was unfortunate enough to see a tweet by Nigel Farage urging everybody to see this film (he had pictured himself in front of the poster) even thought Dunkirk was a ‘great’ British defeat. As David Bordwell points out:

‘A cynic could call the movie Profiles in Cowardice. Tommy flees German bullets and instead of helping the French hold the barricades, he keeps running. The French boy steals boots and an identity in order to get off the beach sooner.  He and Tommy try to slip on board a departing Red Cross ship as stretcher bearers. When that fails, they hide among the pilings. When the ship is hit, they leap into the water, the better to pretend to have been among the survivors and get a new ride. The Shivering Soldier wants to cut and run, and the soldiers who drift beyond the perimeter plan to use the blue trawler to carry them to safety, jumping the evacuation queue. All too often, despite acts of aid and comfort, it’s every man for himself.’ (‘The art film as event movie’)

Maybe Farage was overwhelmed by the immense evacuation, Zimmer’s score morphs momentarily in Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ for the arrival of the civilian flotilla, and Churchill’s ‘on the beaches’ speech we hear at the film’ conclusion. Although the Dunkirk story plugs into the myth of Britain’s greatness, Nolan’s Dunkirk isn’t interested in that, as Bordwell’s comment shows. His film portrays raw survival in all its ugliness as well as the bravery of the RAF pilots, in particular, and Mark Rylance’s Dawson, who represents the stoic civilian response.

The sound design was particularly effective in conveying what it was like to have been there, especially Hans Zimmer’s score which exploits the Shepard tone (and Shepard-Rissot glissando) a clever way of generating tension (see here for an explanation).

The editing between the three narratives works well; for example, an RAF pilot fighting to get out of his ditched Spitfire as the water flows in is cross cut by men scrambling to get out of a sinking ship. The chronology also allows us to understand the trauma of war: Cillian Murphy’s ‘shivering soldier’ is introduced as  suffering from PTSD but we see him later in the film, but earlier in the story, calmly telling men that they can’t get on an overfull rowing boat and they should swim back to shore. The contrast between the two, from authoritative to useless, strikes home.

At the climax, though to be honest most of the film felt climactic, Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot saves the day in an impossible way; his plane is out of fuel but he still manages to down (off screen) a Stuka. Given the realism of what’s gone before this might have struck a sour note however I read it as foretelling what happened over the next five years. Britain won the war against impossible odds… Except, of course, it didn’t. The allies won the war for Britain would likely have lost if it had had to stand alone: we were all in it together and isolationism has no role in greatness.

Hell or High Water (US, 2016)

Trapped by malicious circumstance

As American cinema, at last, sinks into artistic irrelevance it’s a delight to find the possibilities for interesting cinema haven’t completed died over the ‘pond’. I’m guilty of hyperbole here; for years snooty critics, only interested in art for what it says about their ‘cultural competence’ rather than genuine appreciation, have berated Hollywood in particular as being worthless. American cinema has produced, both in the indie and commercial sectors, many great films.

However contemporary Hollywood is, with its belief that franchises are the only game in town, neglecting the medium sized, not to mention small, movie so that 1970s ‘New Hollywood’ seems even longer than 50 years ago. Maybe even the most commercially oriented executives might be sweating over the box office under performances, in North America, of many of this year’s ‘tent pole’ releases; although the international market is baling them out at the moment.

Hell or High Water does hark back to ‘70s Hollywood and it probably just about broke even on its $12m estimated budget. The presence of Jeff Bridges, not entirely convincing in the role of the retiring sheriff, evokes that era’s The Last Picture Show (1970) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974); particularly the latter with the outlaws on the road element. Director David Mackenzie’s insists that the setting, rundown Texas in the main, is an important character and, like its ‘70s forebears, politicises the narrative. Taylor Sheridan’s script ensures we understand that the financial crash of 2008 has damaged the American poor as much as the 1930s Depression.

Chris Pine shows himself to be a fine actor and Ben Foster, playing the older and wilder brother, is equally good. The film combines suspense, mystery (the brothers’ motivations) and humour as well as an excoriating critique of banking in America. I must catch up with Sheridan’s Sicario and David Mackenzie is one of my favourite contemporary directors.

The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi, S.Korea, 2016)

Sensual thriller

It’s great that The Handmaiden has been an arthouse hit as the sector has been getting increasingly desperate over the last few years. Exhibitors’ tame policies, exemplified by Picturehouse’s ‘discover Tuesdays’ (in Bradford at least) where we get one chance to see often interesting films: yer buggered if your busy on Tuesday! Maybe Carlton’s online streaming service, where its films are released the same time as in cinemas, are encouraging stay-at-homers. It’s easy to see why The Handmaiden has done good business: Sarah Waters has fanbase, as does director Park Chan-wook, and there’s the promise of lots of sex.

I enjoyed Waters’ novel, Fingersmith (2002), which may be why I felt slightly distanced from the narrative in the film until… (no spoilers). However, even when I wasn’t fully engaged, Park’s luscious mise en scene was captivating. He (Park adapted the novel with  Jeong Seo-kyeong) transfers the story to 1930s Korea when it was a Japanese colony so in addition to the theme of class, the film deals with ethnicity.

The sex is explicit and it’s to your taste whether you found it exploitative; the women’s bodies are well bared. I thought it was not because the sexual relationship between the characters was entirely germane to the narrative’s development. Discovering the delights, and beauty, of the female body, from a lesbian perspective, is under-represented in mainstream cinema and Park’s film subtlely emphasises this.

I saw what Picturehouse marketed as the ‘director’s cut’; 167 minutes to the standard release’s 143 minutes. I’m not sure what was added but chose it on the basis that an extra 20 minutes, for a two and a half hour film, wasn’t going to kill me. However, in the credits it was called an ‘extended edition’. Director’s cuts are usually the version without the producer’s or distributor’s interference, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Puzzling. I didn’t find the running time long; it felt shorter than the dire The Ghost in the Shell (2017).

Park’s one of the most interesting filmmakers around and I will watch The Handmaiden again.

Elle (France-Germany, Belguim, 2016)

Just the ticket

Thrillers are mean to take us out of our comfort zone. If our lives are routine and safe then the urge to feel afraid, whilst in a position of absolute safety, can be a strong one; particularly amongst the young. Director Paul Verhoeven succeeds in creating this discomfort through the visceral portrayal of rape; making us jump in our seats with shocks and squirm in suspense; and, most importantly, he skewers bourgeois ideas by challenging our expectations about women (and reinforcing them, sadly, about men).

That said I’m not sure what say about Elle and that might be the point of the movie. It is a typical Verhoeven film and although I’m not keen on the auteur ‘theory’ in a few cases it is enlightening. His Hollywood films were often provocative: the possible homophobia in Basic Instinct (1992) and misogyny in Showgirls (1995); the sledgehammer satire of Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997). On the other hand, Black Book (Zwartboek, Netherlands-Germany-UK-Belguim, 2006) was more straightforward in focusing on the wartime thrills and so may it not be ‘typical’ Verhoeven. Which is one of the problems of auteurism: forcing films into preconceptions.

What provocations does Elle offer? The April issue of Sight & Sound has for/against pieces: Ertika Balsom and Ginette Vincendeau respectively. The brilliance of Elle lies, in part, in the fact that both writers are possibly right.

Roland Barthes described ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts: the former is closed and offers a clear ‘preferred’ reading; the latter is open allowing the reader to ‘write’ their own text; in other words, decide what it means. Elle is a ‘writerly’ film, though all texts are open to an individual’s interpretation some, such as this film, offer much latitude when it comes to trying to pin down meaning.

I suppose, what I am saying, is I’m not sure about what I feel about Elle. And this ambiguous response is what, I think, Verhoeven is after. He’s not offering us pat ideas or a black and white representation of the world but one that requires thought, particularly about areas we don’t necessarily want to think about. At this point stop reading if you haven’t seen the film as spoilers follow and preconceptions about the film are likely to muddy the spectator’s response.

The only preconception I had for the film, apart from the baggage of Verhoeven, was that it was a rape revenge thriller and Huppert was brilliant (of course). I also thought, probably because it was feted at Cannes, it would be more arthouse than commercial. Huppert is brilliant but, even though it started with a rape, it doesn’t follow the revenge trajectory (this rewriting of the genre is one of the most interesting aspect of the film) and whilst it is a commercial film it is far too unsettling for 21st century Hollywood (early ‘70s Hollywood might have made it) and it’s not surprising that Verhoeven could find no A-list actors to pay the Huppert role as he had intended it to be an American film. He had Nicole Kidman in mind; her glassy fragility would have offered a very different performance to Huppert’s indestructible visage. Kidman may have played the character as more neurotic than Huppert which would work against most of the film (or at least the film as it appears with Huppert) but might have made the film’s conclusion more convincing (except I’m not sure he wanted it to be convincing). I apologise for the lack of clarity but ambiguity is the response the film encourages.

Michèle is raped in the first scene and it is surprisingly restrained in the way it’s filmed (for Verhoeven) but that’s only because we return to the event on two more occasions where the restraint is undone. Then Michèle clears up the smashed crockery; doesn’t inform the police; does not tell her friends until a few days later. So it is immediately clear that we are dealing with a very unconventional kind of ‘she’ . This is reinforced when we find she’s the co-owner of a video game company that produces texts that include rape as part of the gameplay. She’s forthright in telling her mother to look her age and not play with toyboys; she also tells her son he’s been duped by his girlfriend and that the baby isn’t his (based on skin colour) while everyone else coos at the newborn. Although she is hard it is clear that she’s also protective of her son. Her decisiveness is clear including the fact that left her husband after he hit her, though they remain friends. This friendship does not stop her gleefully driving into his car when she’s parking next to it.

The rape-revenge tag would suggest that Michèle would spend the film tracking down her assailant but while she does take measures to seek out who assaulted her, this isn’t the prime narrative thrust. We are observing her life in the aftermath of the rape and we’re not invited to like her; she’s having an affair with her best friend’s husband, and her sexual tastes appear to be unconventional (which may make her more likeable – that depends upon you). She’s a member of the bourgeoisie, classical music is prominent in her home and she gives dinner parties. Some commentators have mentioned the film’s debt to Bunuel in the portrayal of these parties but they owe more to soap opera, with their bickering, than surrealism. The point is that, other than her friend Anna, there are no wholly likeable characters in the film; a bit like real life then. The men, in particular, are pretty rancid and it ironic that the weakest of them all should be the one that… That’s a spoiler too far.

Motivation for Michèle’s refusal to engage the police is explained through her serial killer father who was caught when she was 10; she was even implicated in the psychotic slaughter of 27 people. Her father, who’s seeking parole 40 years after the event, killed after he was preventing from blessing the children of the village. The Catholic faith also looms in the devoted neighbour who wants to watch the Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve during one of Michèle’s parties; at least one of which was thrown to get at her ex-husband’s new (younger) girlfriend.

As you can see, there’s lots going on but it is adeptly welded together until the final scenes. As a thriller it’s very effective: I jumped three times which is a record for me in my fifties. However, the ending… pat resolutions abound so much so that I doubt Verhoeven believes we should take them seriously and the last shot, of a reconciled Anna and Michèle deciding to live together, walking arm in arm though a cemetery must be a joke… isn’t it?

 

Enemy of the State (US, 1998)

They ARE all around us

They ARE all around us

I really enjoyed this film when it came out and have used it in the classroom. I wondered how it stood up given the Edward Snowden revelations about how our online and telephonic presences are surveilled and the answer is ‘very well’. That’s because it’s a superbly scripted (David Marconi), shot (Daniel Mindel), directed (Tony Scott) and performed thriller. The cast is stellar and Will Smith’s malleable charm works well against Gene Hackman’s flinty cynic. I was gripped and it’s telling that the spooks could penetrate our lives fully at the end of the 20th century and appalling to know what they are doing now see Citizenfour.