31 March 2009

JUVENILE LIAISON I (Dir. Nick Broomfield / Joan Churchill, 1975, UK) – The failure to act

Sergeant Ray and Glen in the Prison Cell

I had always overlooked the early documentaries that Nick Broomfield made with his long time collaborator and co-director, Joan Churchill, but with the recent release of a DVD box set featuring much of his early work, it has been an eye opening experience in many different ways. Having steadily shifted to feature film making with the critically acclaimed and neo realist ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Battle for Haditha’, Broomfield will continue to be judged by his skills as formidable documentary film maker. The documentaries Broomfield initially made in the UK and then later in the US embraced the pioneering work of the American ‘direct cinema’ movement in the 1960s, imitating the techniques of observational camerawork to produce fascinating ethnographic studies of strange sub cultures. Broomfield’s performative style, regularly appearing in many of his documentaries as both an investigative journalist and purveyor of the truth continues to influence film makers like Michael Moore and Louis Theroux who seem to have modelled themselves on the Broomfield aesthetic.

Made in 1975 ‘Juvenile Liaison’ was the first documentary that Broomfield and Churchill made together and ironically enough it ended up being banned by the BFI as a result of pressure from the British police. Broomfield has been making documentaries now for little over thirty years and ‘Juvenile Liaison’ reveals the formation of a distinctive cinema verite approach. It would be fair to say that Broomfield’s early work was closer to the doctrine of the direct cinema documentary film makers like Leacock, Pennebaker and The Maysles. In ‘Juvenile Liaison’ Broomfield’s presence is rendered more or less invisible as the narrative does not rely upon interviews nor do we ever see the documentarian intervening in anyway on screen. Such principles would be challenged later by Broomfield as the documentaries he made on America culture in the 90s would be largely motivated by his persuasive presence within the frame, arguing and debating with the subjects being documented. ‘Juvenile Liaison’ seems more subjective than Broomfield’s later work as the camera is used to film events as they unfold and the minimal interference on part of the film makers means the reality being captured feels altogether more authentic.

Controversial documentaries like ‘Aileen’ and ‘Fetishes’ cannot help but reveal a level of emotional and personal involvement that certainly influences the representation of reality, distorting it so that we are faced with questions related to ideological preferences and the truth. No documentary can ever be entirely subjective in how it captures reality but the aesthetics and ideological imperatives of the cinema verite/direct cinema style come closest to making the presence of the film makers invisible, rendering the process as an unobtrusive one. ‘Juvenile Liaison’ is a study of how society fails those who need help the most. Here is a synopsis of what the documentary entails:

In 1968, juvenile liaison sections were attached to a number of local police departments to function as a kind of bridging operation between young offenders, their homes and their schools. The programme is about the day to day working of one such section, attached to the Lancashire police in Blackburn in dealing with juvenile offenders. Intended for police, probation officers, social workers and professional organisations of film makers, teachers and students.

The BFI Film and TV Database

Broomfield follows the intimidating figure of Police Sgt. Ray who heads up the Juvenile Liaison Section in Blackburn, Lancashire, over a number of weeks and we get to see at first hand the counter productive tactics implemented by the government in an attempt to tackle the problems of juvenile behaviour. Sgt. Ray’s answer to unruly kids, many of whom are at primary school, is to bully and victimise them so that by the end of the interrogation process they feel dehumanised and worse than before. It is clear to see that such a failed social policy advocated by the government of the time refuses to come to terms with the roots and origins of such juvenile behaviour by never wanting to probe the reasons behind the emergence of such a deprived underclass of children. Unlike documentary film makers today who are far too dependent on superficial modes of address, Broomfield and Churchill never really resort to any kind of preaching or politicising, rather using their subjects as tools for wider didactic purposes. The reason why ‘Juvenile Liaison’ was banned is largely to do with the disturbing moment when Sgt. Ray decides to take an 8 year old school boy, Glen, to a prison cell so that he can get him to confess about stealing. Broomfield and Churchill shoot the confrontation in the cell using a long shot that positions Glen and Sgt. Ray in between the doorway, underlining their estrangement from one another but also suggesting how such a nightmarish scenario is likely to have the opposite effect on society. It is a cruel indictment of the systematic failings of the government to support and care for those who are products of a deeply divided and unequal British society.

Nick Broomfield on location in Jordan filming 'The Battle for Haditha'

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Nick Broomfield in which he talks about how he felt that the documentary did in fact harm the career of Sgt. Ray:

NB: I think the only two films that I've really felt that about are, actually, funnily enough in Juvenile Liaison, I felt very bad for the sergeant and all the trouble that he got into afterwards. Sergeant Ray for example, the guy in the cell, was given to us as being the best Juvenile Liaison officer in the entire scheme, you know, and he was very highly regarded. But once the film came out, he pretty much lost his career and his job and they didn't take any of the points really that the film was making at all. And, you know, which was very unsatisfactory really. I mean I thought that there would actually be a debate about the scheme and what the scheme should be about. And, you know, the British Film Institute turned it into a debate about film aesthetics, and the police more or less just finished Sergeant Ray's career off.

Nick Broomfield, The Guardian Interview, 1997, Interviewed by Derek Malcolm

Broomfield and Churchill followed up their 1975 documentary by returning to Blackburn in 1990, producing ‘Juvenile Liaison 2’. Hiring a private investigator, they managed to secure interviews with the children from 1975, examining how after fifteen years they had changed and in what ways they had been effected by the government’s failed juvenile policy. None of the children have really been able to elevate themselves out of the familiar social milieu and some are shown to have evolved into self confessed criminals. The follow up is as equally powerful and if not more poignant in it how reflects on the vacant aspirations of those who were left behind and excluded from the mainstream of British society. I doubt if Broomfield and Churchill have made anything as grim and devastating as this social document. Broomfield is by far the most accomplished documentary film maker of the last thirty years. I just hope one day he makes a documentary about George W Bush and Tony Blair in the way that he stalked Maggie Thatcher.

27 March 2009

LINHA DE PASSE / LINE OF PASSAGE (Dir. Walter Salles, Daniela Thomas, 2008, Brazil) - Contemporary Neo Realism

‘Do you see me?’, is the question one of the characters from the favelas asks a representative of the Brazilian middle class near the end of Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas’s hard hitting neo realist film. For me, this moment is possibly the most affecting and also one immersed in a political reality that many accept as normal and natural in Brazilian society. Much has been written about Salles latest film and he continues to be the most celebrated film maker in Brazil and perhaps even Latin America. He is definitely the most important and active director/producer of his generation, having been largely responsible for the renaissance in Latin American cinema, achieving widespread critical acclaim for projects like ‘City of God’, ‘The Pope’s Toilet’and ‘Central Station’. I don’t want to focus that much on the film itself but concentrate briefly on the sequence in which the oldest of four sons, Denis, who works as a motorcycle courier is forced to flee after a ‘snatch and grab’ incident at a traffic junction ends badly.

Denis (João Baldasserini) is trying desperately to hold down the one job he has but a motorcycle courier on the chaotic streets of Rio is a risky proposition especially when he witnesses one of his fellow couriers mowed down in busy traffic. His social predicament is made worse by his inability to provide financial support for his baby son who lives with his girlfriend in a run down apartment. Denis lives with his three brothers and football crazy mother in the favelas but he sees the stark reality of his social position. As a courier, Denis gets very little work and is paid unfairly considering he is literally risking his life on the city streets and roads. It is inevitable that Denis naturally turns to crime so that he can make ends meet and attempt to rise above the deprived economic underclass of the favelas. Upon witnessing two men on a motorcycle smash the windscreen of an expensive car and speed away with a handbag, Denis realises how he can turn his mobility and position to his own favour. At first he is successful but such a criminal proposition is fraught with the risk of not only being arrested but vilified by those around him especially his pious brother, Dinho.

This is pure neo realism in that Salles never resorts to sentimental techniques or obvious emotional manipulation, but by revealing the typical problems and dilemmas faced by the underclass from the favelas he makes us consider our own position in relation to that of characters like Denis. Once Denis flees the incident at the traffic junction, he is knocked over by a middle class businessman. Injured, Denis forces the businessman back into his luxury jeep and pretending to have a gun, forces him to drive them away from the nearby sound of police sirens. Ironically, the businessman drives Denis to some wasteland but as he waits for Denis to instruct him on what to do next, the businessman never once glances or even looks at Denis. Even though this narrative situation is very conventional and quite formulaic in how it unfolds, what makes it so remarkably effective is the film makers decision to represent the separation between the dispossessed and elite of Brazil as one in which any kind of positive interaction is a near impossibility. Though the businessman is frightened by what may happen, his refusal to look at and acknowledge the presence of Denis is powerful in underlining the invisibility of those who exist on the margins of what is a deeply unequal society. To the middle classes and ruling elite, people like Denis don’t really exist, they are invisible and deserve no sympathy whatsoever. For me, it is the most truthful moment in what is a very humanist social drama.

26 March 2009

PARKING (Dir. Chung Mong-Hong, 2008, Taiwan) - The New Wave?

Premiering at Cannes in 2008, this directorial debut from Chung Mong-Hong is one of the clearest illustrations of the possibilities of a new wave that could emerge from Taiwan in the next ten years. It might be safe to say that Taiwanese cinema is nearing a point where we will begin to see a new series of young film makers trying to get to grips with contemporary society but in a way that has some broad mainstream appeal for audiences. Asian cinema particularly South Korea continues to demonstrate incredible technical accomplishments and a sincere commitment towards maintaining a viable indigenous home grown cinema in which the domestic box office is not simply dominated by a deluge of Hollywood films. Taiwan has consistently produced respected and influential film makers over the last thirty years and the critical success of a film like ‘Parking’ seems to point to a stylised and technically adept cinema currently associated with other South Asian film makers like Park Chan Wook and Bong Joon-ho.

Parking is not groundbreaking or a masterpiece by any means, occupying a middle ground with a narrative that centres around a youthful, middle class Taiwanese couple who one could even label as espousing yuppish attitudes. Many critics have drawn comparisons with Martin Scorsese’s much under rated ‘After Hours’ and it is pretty obvious to see why. Unlike Scorsese’s Kafkaesque labyrinth in which the doomed protagonist of Paul Hackett is pursued by the forces of chance, ‘Parking’ seeks to use the idea of nightmarish entrapment to offer a gentler comment on contemporary relationships. The main character of Chen Mo is played effortlessly by one of Asian cinema’s rising stars, Chang Chen, who has the potential to become the next Tony Leung. Asia’s answer to Johnny Depp, Chang Chen has already worked with perhaps two of Taiwan’s most recognisable film makers; Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Three Times).

Chen Mo’s impulsive decision to stop to buy cakes for his girlfriend ends with his car being blocked by a series of erratic drivers. Effectively trapped for the night, Chen Mo encounters an assortment of oddball and eccentric characters including a prostitute and her pimp and a tailor indebted to the local gangsters. Cutting back and forth between a multitude of characters and their relative narratives, many of which trigger flashbacks, is perhaps where the film begins to get confusing and a little overwhelming. Nevertheless, the flashbacks illustrating the stories of both the prostitute and the tailor points to displacement and migration, two themes which are not really fully explored but linger in the background. The naive Chinese girl who makes the journey from mainland China to the Utopian promises of Taipei ends with her shift into prostitution and seems to point to a wider social concern regarding forced economic migration. Mong-Hong Chung’s camerawork at times replicates the cinematographic aspects of Christopher Doyle especially in the sequence when the pimp chases the prostitute into the markets of Taipei.

In terms of the links with American cinema, the noir conventions are most evident in the moody lighting, themes of fate and chance and the film’s fascination with documenting the deserted midnight streets of Taipei, which incidentally look gorgeous under the impressive camerawork of Mong-Hong Chung who also takes a credit as cinematographer. Though ‘Parking’ is noirish in its conception, the denouement is rather uplifting in how it opts to reject the cynicism of the urban city and choosing instead to offer closure for Chen Mo’s biological predicament. I struggled to find a worthwhile critical opinion on the film but a website dedicated to Asian cinema offered one of the best readings of the film:

The characters all hail from different Chinese areas - Hong Kong, Mainland China, Taiwan - and each is stuck in a stifling circumstance, trapped by their lives or choices, with the their inertia bleeding into their everyday lives. It's almost like they're all parked in, just like Chen Mo! Perhaps that interpretation is a bit pretentious, but it's one way that viewers can read Chung Mong-Hong's work.

If such a reading is valid then maybe Chung Mong-Hong’s directorial debut hints at the possibilities of exploring the diaspora experience in Taiwan through the perspective of American genres and postmodern sensibilities.

23 March 2009

IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA (Dir. José Luis Guerín, 2007, Spain) - In The Shadow of Rohmer

Part of me had only wanted to pursue this world cinema film because of the stunningly beautiful image of the girl on the poster and stills that circulated in film magazines, journals and newspapers. I guess we are motivated by all manner of things when we decide to watch a movie but part of the attraction of world cinema has always been its ability to offer an alternative gaze. Ever since Godard decided to make the rejection of classical narrative fashionable way back in the 60s, film makers have deliberately and at times indulgently deconstructed the language of traditional narrative cinema so that the spectator is sought to depend solely on extrapolating as much information they can from the mise en scene and on screen space. Catalan film maker, José Luis Guerín, pushes the notion of radical narrative address to its minimalist extremes in what is an incredibly cryptic and poetic example of contemporary world cinema.

American film critic and regular contributor to ‘The Village Voice, J Hoberman sums up quite well what I also think Guerin is trying to do with this wonderfully bold and enigmatic film:

In the City of Sylvia is pure pleasure and pure cinema. The fifth feature by Catalan filmmaker José Luis Guerín (shown once at the 2007 New York Film Festival) celebrates the love of looking, while placing a crafty minimalist spin on the Orpheus myth.

In the City of Sylvia: Pure Pleasure and Pure Cinema, J. Hoberman, Dec 9th 2008

I have to agree as this film is entirely about the process of looking, studying and gazing at people’s behaviour. In that sense, it is deeply psychological cinema that offers very minimal dialogue and relies greatly on a hypnotic series of subtle, understated camera movements that are barely noticeable in many of the scenes. The story is as slight as the invisible directorial style; a young man’s fixation with a long lost love called ‘Sylvia’ whom he is searching for in an unnamed city. Some critics have pointed out the various cinematic allusions to films like ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Rear Window’ but I failed to spot anyone of these. (A second viewing may help). The main leads are extraordinarily beautiful and Guerin’s aesthetically motivated casting works to ensnare our gaze completely, which perhaps underlines how the act of gazing is something quite natural in cinema but how in reality it can complicate relationships. The decision to shoot at the height of summer also lends the film a laid back atmosphere that is quickly established in the opening sequence with our grungy romantic intensely scrutinising the faces, gestures and demeanour of a group of people relaxing at a summer café.

The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw’s praise for the film which he inappropriately and obviously describes as a ‘date movie with a difference’ picks up on some other noticeable cinematic influences that Guerin draws upon for his romantic tale:

It has a Bressonian attention to mood and moment, weirdly combined with Alfred Hitchcock's brazen knack for suspense. These two names have in fact been widely invoked by admirers since the film first surfaced in 2007; to them I would tentatively add those of Richard Linklater, for his Before Sunrise and Before Sunset movies, and Eric Rohmer, for A Winter Tale.

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, March 13 2009

Though I am not entirely sure about the Bressonian similarities, the influences of a film maker like Eric Rohmer have appeared more frequently in the films of recent American film makers like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach than the new generation of European directors. Interestingly, Rohmer seems to be more widely respected and recognised as a director of considerable importance in America than he does in France. Rohmer may just be the allusive missing link in the language of romantic cinema today and his unpretentious style has already influenced world cinema directors like Wong Kar Wai. It is encouraging to see a specialist film with a challenging narrative like 'In the City of Sylvia' receiving distribution in the UK but the fact that it was made in 2007 hints at the likely problems it faced in finding a willing distributor.

21 March 2009

THREE TIMES / ZUI HAO DE SHI GUANG (Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2005, Taiwan/France)

'Three Times' is a beguiling viewing experience and proves to be a worthy companion piece to Wong Kar Wai's masterpiece of unrequited love, 'In the Mood for Love'. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's control over every single aspect of the frame is refreshing to see. This is such a beautifully judged film and succeeds in capturing relationships without reverting to sentimental pondering and pointless reams of dialogue. The first section titled 'A Time for Love' is set in 1966 and is somewhat of a masterpiece in terms of cinematographic compositions; Hou Hsiao-Hsien has an envious natural instinct for knowing how long to hold a shot without making it seem redundant. The other remarkable achievement of this first section is the delicate pacing and inspired use of music that is used to capture an aspect of life (two people falling in love) which to me is very difficult to represent on screen without resorting to an emotional bankruptcy. 'A time for freedom' forms the second segment of the narrative and is set in 1911 but Hou Hsiao-Hsien's bold decision to shoot this part as a silent movie is both frustrating and equally rewarding.

Where the film falters slightly is in the third and final section titled 'A time for Youth', which brings the narrative up to date by focusing squarely on contemporary Taiwanese society and its relationship with the alienated youth of today. I felt this final section somehow didn't work as well as the other two and maybe that has largely to do with the deeply morbid tone which is maintained throughout. What was quite striking though about this final section was the moving image of our two lovers on a motorcycle, speeding across a bridge and contemplating on the uncertainty of their fragmented relationship. This is my first Hou Hsiao-Hsien experience and I am still trying to figure out why such an important world cinema film maker has not crossed my cinematic radar before. I am looking forward to working through his body of work, that is if I can get hold of his films on DVD.

The following extract is taken from a very complicated but worthwhile appreciation of the film by a Norwegian film critic from the senses of cinema website:

Considerations of brevity allow this author to present merely a fraction of what ought to be known about this film. The unravelling of its dense, beautiful patterns is an integral part of experiencing it, and its complexity mirrors our information-saturated and impenetrable modern life, which art should reflect and of which Three Times is an outstanding example. It is an emotional film with an intellectual heart.

The Complexity of Minimalism: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times by Dag Sødtholt, 2006

20 March 2009

ELEPHANT (Dir. Alan Clarke, 1989, UK)

Lasting just over thirty minutes and featuring some of the most startling uses of the Steadicam you are ever likely to come across in British cinema, Alan Clarke’s devastatingly grim experimental study of violent executions carried out in the context of the Northern Ireland troubles is unlike anything else I have come across in British cinema. Alan Clarke is arguably one of Britain’s greatest film makers and his probing examinations of British working class male identity provide some of the most telling political statements about the effects of Thatcher’s conservative agenda upon society. Though I am still not sure whether or not social realism is a style, genre or movement makes it difficult to categorise the work of Alan Clarke. Yet realism is an aesthetic that has become associated with many of his films and many of his most powerful sequences brilliantly utilise the Steadicam. Such a technique characterises ‘Elephant’ as the camera tracks, glides and stalks the executioners as they exit out of cars and walk down empty corridors to reach the oblivious victims.

It may seem repetitive to show eighteen violent executions but Alan Clarke’s camera strips away everything in terms of the mise en scene so that we are left with merely the executioner and the victim. This minimalist approach is very grim as the absence of dialogue forces the spectator to become a virtual voyeur, gazing at the emotionless figures of death and their footsteps of doom. Essentially, Clarke keeps returning to the problem of violence and death but by the time we reach the fifth and sixth killing, we begin to question our position in relation to the carnage being exacted on screen. It is agonising to observe the aftermath after each killing as Clarke’s camera surveys the scene, never pausing to allow us to catch our breath and ready ourselves for the next killing. Produced by Danny Boyle for the BBC, ‘Elephant’ has had an indelible influence on the recent films of American independent film maker, Gus Van Sant, and he replicated the long takes and endless Steadicam shots of Alan Clarke in what has come to be known as his death trilogy; ‘Elephant’, ‘Gerry’ and ‘Last Days’.

‘Clarke takes isolated behaviour and the distilled physicality of reality to the greatest extreme in Elephant (the last of these one-word titles that aim to pare down to the essentials). The title refers to the figure of speech about an ignored problem (the elephant in the room), but the film's aesthetic stringency could well evoke the parable of the blind men and the elephant: 18 pursuits that end in gun murder are shown in succession, through a series of long Steadicam takes without any exposition or narrative, and almost zero dialogue. For a viewer who does not recognise the unremarkable Belfast locales or the unnamed murders from news accounts, the anonymous action could remain unidentified as the Irish sectarian murders which, from actual incident reports and statistics, are what Clarke is dutifully reproducing…’

Alan Clarke, Nicholas Rapold, September 2005

'Elephant' is still difficult to track down on DVD and given the fact that Alan Clarke directed many dramas for the BBC, his career continues to be reappraised as more of his work is steadily becoming avaliable. It is possible to watch 'Elephant' online though:


18 March 2009

BUCK AND THE PREACHER (Dir. Sidney Poitier, 1972, US)

It’s strange to think that this black western was made at a time when the Hollywood studios were capitalising on the unexpected commercial success of blaxploitation films like ‘Shaft’ and ‘Superfly’. Blaxploitation emerged at a time when Hollywood was experiencing one of its worst economic periods and America was going through a series of turbulent social and political crises. Some outspoken voices in the black community were quick to criticise the regressive stereotypes perpetuated by blaxploitation films. Though many of these films featured black actors in prominent roles and were directed by black directors, the financial success enjoyed by films like ‘Shaft’ was not shared by all those involved and Hollywood was merely exploiting the recognition that a black audience existed. A star vehicle for Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, ‘Buck and the Preacher’ was also Poitier’s directorial debut. 1967 – 1968 had given Poitier an unrivalled box office position as Hollywood’s most bankable film star. Even though Poitier had managed to break into what was still considered a largely white institution, he was still limited by the types of roles available for black actors. Accusations of playing the dignified black man as somewhat passive and subservient to the demands of Hollywood narrative cinema overlook the reality of Poitier’s unique position. ‘In the heat of the night’, released in 1967, presented Poitier as a homicide detective in a role that would traditionally have been played by a white actor. The critical success of Poitier’s role as the iconic Virgil Tibbs seemed to silence even the most vitriolic of voices in the black community yet the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 would bring a premature end to the civil rights movement. Poitier succeeded in paving the way for future black film stars like Denzel Washington and Will Smith.

Having consolidated his status as an A list box office draw, Poitier had naturally earned the right to make his move into directing and producing. Bearing in mind that blaxploitation was still in its early phase, it was still unheard of to find black directors being given a significant budget and supported by a major Hollywood studio to direct their first feature. The traumatic events of 1968 signalled a new era in black politics and the prominence of the black panthers fuelled the need for a belief in a brand of black militancy that was both politically explosive and partially segregationist in terms of its ideology. One could argue that Poitier had the option to make any kind of film project but the stark reality of Hollywood mainstream cinema meant that he would be discouraged from pursuing a project that was overtly political in fear of alienating a large segment of the white audience which regularly went to watch his films. Nevertheless, Poitier’s decision to make a film in a genre that continues to be dominated by a white hegemony was a daring one, especially considering that few westerns had been made at the time by Hollywood that featured a black cast and dealt with the issue of slavery, emancipation and race. The western genre is still an area that has the potential to offer black film makers with the chance to explore the history of America through a revisionist perspective. Yet the genre’s dormant status makes any studio nervous at the prospect of financing films that have no guarantee of succeeding with audiences anymore unless a major star is attached to the project.

Poiter’s 1971 revisionist western provides an emblematic example of genre anxiety in a moment of social crisis…the opening scroll presents the film as a tribute to people resting “in graves as unmarked as their place in history”…by calling attention to the erasure of black migration to the West from history books, the film announces its intention to make visible what has previously been invisible…'

American Studies: In a moment of danger, George Lipsitz, 2001
Chapter 8 – As Unmarked as their place in history: Genre Anxiety and Race in Seventies Cinema, Pg 187

Poitier’s 1972 film is a valuable and intriguing example of what is possible in terms of challenging the racial representations of Hollywood cinema. Poitier plays an ex-army trail guide who along with the reluctant assistance of Preacher (Harry Belafonte) helps a group of freed slaves to make the perilous journey west. On a superficial level, Poitier’s film is an effective example of reliable Hollywood storytelling but his skills as a director are uneven and rather flat. It’s also rather conventional and formulaic in how the film repeats certain elements of the western genre. What makes ‘Buck and the Preacher’ succeed most formidably is in the purely ideological agenda. Not only do we see Buck and Preacher legitimately massacre a room full of bigoted, white ex soldiers and ride away as outlaws, we also see genocidal sentiments shared by the black slaves and persecuted Native Americans. Ideologically, Poitier rewrites many of the social and political norms of the western genre and is no better expressed than in the final gun battle between buck/the preacher and a frenzied lynch mob in which our black anti-heroes overcome the oppressive tyranny of ‘the man’. Not many black westerns have been produced by Hollywood and Poitier’s film largely succeeds in addressing the absence of genre film making by black film makers and actors. With ‘Inside Man’, Spike Lee most recently proved that race should not be a barrier when it comes to taking on genres that have often been ignored or dismissed by black film makers because of their long association with tokenism and stereotyping. The distortion of historical truth and endemic misrepresentation of ethnic groups is something that must be contested indefinitely or else Hollywood will continue to rewrite history from a perspective that seeks to propagate white dominant ideology.

17 March 2009

NISHANT / NIGHT’S END (Dir. Shyam Benegal, India, 1975)

Indian film director Shyam Benegal made a series of films in the 1970s that would came under the auspice of a parallel art cinema. Beginning with ‘Ankur’ (The Seedling) in 1974, the ideological interest with feudalism characterised much of the social criticism typically evident in the fiercely angry films of Benegal. ‘Nishant’ was the film Benegal directed after ‘Ankur’ and it occupies a strange place in his career as it is often eclipsed by films like ‘Bhumika’ which is considered by many to be his greatest achievement. Benegal’s pared down approach to film making illustrates his commitment to representing the aesthetics and ideology of realism:

His debut film Ankur (The Seedling, 1974) was a breakthrough in more ways than one. It defied all the ground rules of popular Hindi cinema. Without a star cast, without a song and without melodrama, Ankur was produced with a paltry sum of Rs. 5 lakh but fetched more than a crore for producer Lalit M. Bijlani.

‘India’s Art House Cinema’ by Lalit Mohan Joshi

Released in 1975, ‘Nishant’ is Benegal at his angry best and it is an anger largely directed towards the treatment of women in a traditional Indian village ruled by a powerful zamindar (landowner). Most of Benegal’s work is still largely unavailable on DVD in the UK but it is possible to order many of his more widely seen films through specialist DVD websites. The difficulty with this option is that many of the DVDs available are often poorly subtitled and suffer from inconsistent picture quality. Many of the prints have simply been imported from inferior VHS copies including an indistinct soundtrack. In many respects, the films of Benegal have regularly played at film festivals internationally and his reputation as a world cinema auteur continues to fascinate contemporary film critics and academics. Most recently, the BFI published a book on the films of Benegal and he is still very much active in the film industry today, having just released ‘Welcome to Sajjanpur’ with the financial support of UTV Motion Pictures. The DVD that I watched of ‘Nishant’ was of a reasonable standard and though the subtitles seemed to have an annoying delay, overall, the print seems to be more or less intact and did not suffer from the endless scratches commonly found on Indian films from the 70s and 80s.

It might be an idea to begin preserving the films of Benegal and those of the parallel cinema movement as they are in danger of becoming extinct and obscure. The Indian government and film industry must implement some kind of programme that receives funding to catalogue and preserve the original prints of many of these hugely important films. I am not sure if such an institution exists in India already but the difficulty I have had in trying to access much of the work produced by the parallel cinema movement has been deeply frustrating.

The 1970s found Benegal at his creative best. His first three films form a thematic trilogy. Ankur deals with the slow transformation of the feudal system in India. Nishant (Night's End, 1975) shows a kind of actual confrontation between feudal value systems and a new emerging rural society in India. In Manthan (The Churning,1976) one sees social change actually coming. The popular acclaim of these three Benegal films (Ankur, Nishant and Manthan), made him the pioneer of new cinema in the 1970s.

‘India’s Art House Cinema’ by Lalit Mohan Joshi

‘Nishant’ is a harrowing study of the power and gender relations in a village that is dictated by the hegemonic impulse of a feudal law that marginalises women and provides moral immunity for the male landowners. In one of the most disturbing moments in the film, Sushilla (Shabana Azmi), wife of the local school teacher, is abducted by the abusive sons of the zamindar (Amrish Puri) and literally held against her will in the local farmhouse. Sushilla is repeatedly raped and becomes a prisoner, forced to co exist with the wife (Smita Patel) of the youngest son, played by Naseeruddin Shah. The abduction of Sushilla is made altogether more powerful as it takes place before the very eyes of the villagers who like the school teacher are powerless to resist feudalism. At first, Sushilla’s husband criticises the villagers for their complicity in his wife’s abduction but his plea for help from civil institutions like the local police unveils a system that is corrupt, oppressive and regressive. Benegal politicises the school teacher and gradually he realises that the frightening ancestral impunity and political influence manifested by the zamindars can only be contested if feudalism and orthodoxy are openly challenged through collective revolution and in this case, violence as a means of self defence. The rage unleashed by the villagers at the end of the film upon the zamindar is bloody and chaotic, bringing about a justifiable reconstruction of power relations. ‘Nishant’ is provocative cinema in how it asks a multitude of pertinent questions relating to patriarchy, feudalism and feminism.

Though the film does not set out to provide any kind of firm solutions to the many social problems plaguing rural India at the time, Benegal is nevertheless uncompromising in how he approaches such issues. It is also important to mention that Benegal sympathises strongly with the contemporary plight of women and his collaboration with both Shabana Azmi and Smita Patel characterises some of his best work. The ensemble cast is made up of an amazing array of talented actors; Amrish Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patel who incidentally would forge parallel careers in mainstream Indian cinema, starring in instantly disposable, formulaic masala films whilst remaining committed to supporting the evolution of a burgeoning art cinema. One could argue that Benegal has become somewhat of an institution in Indian art cinema today and his reputation as a film maker who has been able to make films on his own personal terms reminds emerging film makers of the need to retain some sense of artistic integrity.

14 March 2009

MARADONA BY KUSTURICA (Dir. Emir Kusturica, Spain/France, 2008)

A cycle of recent documentaries on iconic and controversial figures from the world of sport has included Zinedine Zidane and Mike Tyson. James Toback's self financed documentary on Mike Tyson is set for release very soon but I am not sure if Serbian film maker, Emir Kusturica's hyper kinetic dissection of Maradona as a football player, worldwide celebrity and self confessed drug addict will likely to be endorsed by much of the mainstream British press. The controversial 'hand of god' moment in the England vs Argentina match of 1986 becomes somewhat of a motif in Kusturica's documentary. Maradona suggests how the triumph over England was not merely a victory for a nation that had suffered defeat in the Falklands war but it was a chance to defeat imperialism. Kusturica thankfully presents Maradona as a revolutionary figure in his country and the player's surprisingly passionate political points of view underlines how he has used his celebrity status to channel the adoration of his fans to resist the forces of American imperialism. Kusturica's approach is from the perspective of a fan and he never really stops to criticise Maradona, preferring to let him speak about his notorious relationship with drugs and how this effected his position as a father and husband.

Documentaries like Tyson and Maradona by Kusturica pose a number of interesting questions related to distribution. A similar criticism was made against the Al Gore documentary 'An Inconvienent Truth' and I can sympathise with critics when they put forward the perfectly valid argument concerning the uncinematic nature of some documentaries. Perhaps a documentary like this one would be better suited to the small screen but then I would be overlooking the fact that Maradona is one of the most recognisable sporting icons of the last 30 years or so. Nevertheless, it does make for a fascinating documentary, especially in the moments in which we see Maradona conversing with political figures like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

12 March 2009

THE HOUSEHOLDER (Dir. James Ivory, 1963, India)

Belonging to an incredibly influential cinematic dynasty has become somewhat of a tradition in Indian cinema today and though accusations of nepotism may be true in some cases, it is largely accepted that the children will inevitably inherit the legacy of their parents. The Kapoor dynasty has maintained a grip over Indian cinema since the 1940s studio era when Raj Kapoor’s Chaplinesque star image and directorial ambitions ensured that his siblings around him would reap the benefits of his significant contributions to Indian cinema and culture. Shashi Kapoor, the brother of Raj Kapoor and son of Prithviraj Kapoor was always the the quite one. He entered the industry as a child actor and by the 1970s had achieved mainstream commercial success, starring opposite Ambitabh Bachchan in a string of big budget hit films including the classic angry young man film, ‘Deewaar’.

To many in India his career existed very much in the shadow of Ambitabh’s overwhelming star persona yet Shashi Kapoor like other actors who also yearned for the existence of a parallel cinema had started in the early 1960s to supplement mainstream projects with a concern for arthouse, independent and low budget film making. Shashi Kapoor’s interests with marginal film makers and difficult subject matters saw one of its clearest fruitions in the Shyam Benegal 1976 feature film, ‘Junoon’, an anti colonial critique and a key work of the Indian art cinema. It is the films he made with Indian film producer, Ismail Merchant and American director, James Ivory between 1963 and 1970 that Shashi Kapoor delivered some of his most versatile and notable performances. His first major starring role was interestingly enough as a shy college lecturer, Prem Sagar, in the 1963 film, ‘The Householder’, a film which was also the first collaboration between Merchant and Ivory, a collaboration that would evolve into much more than just a stint.

Scripted by Merchant-Ivory regular, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, ‘The Householder’ established a number of key thematic preoccupations that would be repeated more explicitly and worked out more fully in their widely acclaimed ‘heritage’ films. One theme of particular concern in ‘The Householder’ is that of imprisonment by tradition, a theme specifically aligned with the female character of Indu (Leela Naidu). Whilst the film explores the strained relationship between a young Indian couple who have had an arranged marriage, Prem’s search for some kind of recognition of his place within the world makes him stand out as a prototype for the classic Merchant-Ivory character who faces an existential crisis of metaphysical proportions. Satyajit Ray acted as a consultant on the film and his influence is indelibly evident in much of the emotionally motivated framing, intelligent editing and naturalism of the performances. In many ways, the raw and unfinished aesthetics of the film makes it seem like an extended homage to the cinema of Satyajit Ray who had successfully brought Bengali cinema to the attention of the world in the style of Italian neo realism.

Financed on a low budget, ‘The Householder’ shifts from Prem’s humiliating position at the college at which he works to the modest confines of his house. This constant movement between work and home serves to underline the relative anonymity of his existence but the difficulty he has in separating the two so that they don’t impose upon his relationship with his wife illustrates the relative immaturity of his character. Prem has no real understanding of how people around him think so cynically and his inability to forge an intimacy with Indu manifests itself most readily in his childishly sentimental dependency on his doting and deeply conservative mother. The unexpected arrival of Prem’s mother creates yet more friction between the couple, causing the premature departure of Indu. However, the prolonged absence of Indu forces Prem to reconsider his affections and he slowly realises that her presence was somewhat of a distant comfort. Prem’s existential quest is answered cryptically by his encounter with a mystical swami who instructs him of the important role he must play as a householder in the lives of his wife and unborn child. It seems like an overly simplistic answer but it makes Prem confront the reality of his predicament, forcing him to accept life as determined by social forces and contradictions.

Oddly enough the film ends with Prem and Indu on a bus smirking coyly at one another in an expression of how their love is something that will grow with time. However, it is also a deeply ambiguous moment as the bus and their journey is clouded with uncertainty and perhaps point to a future that is open to infinite possibilities. It reminded me of the ending to ‘The Graduate’, a film that had yet to be made and which would also finish on an uncertain note with Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross appeared exhilarated but overcome with an expression of uncertainty. Supported by a wonderful score by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and expertly shot by Ray’s regular cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, ‘The Householder’ was merely the beginning of what would be a fascinating and imaginative series of films set in India and starring the allusive Shashi Kapoor.

10 March 2009

GRAN TORINO (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2008, US)

I probably should not be writing about a film that has already been widely reviewed by the mainstream UK film magazines, journals and newspapers but Clint Eastwood seems to be an exception to the rule when discussing the merits of contemporary Hollywood cinema. The longevity of his star image and wide populist appeal has become something almost sacred to American culture and like John Wayne and Gary Cooper before him he offers an iconic vision of a nation’s past that is inextricably tied to the western genre. Now 78 years old, Clint Eastwood has said that ‘Gran Torino’ may just be his last starring role and his presence in the film is certainly evident of how Hollywood films seem mildly bereft of actors who do lend a certain gravitas to the narrative proceedings. I feel the key to Eastwood’s success as a film maker has certainly been his uncomplicated approach to cinema; preferring simple camera set ups and never allowing the aesthetics of the frame to detract from the traditional aim of telling a linear story. The emotional power of his most recent films seems to come from a series of award winning performances delivered by some of Hollywood’s strongest actors; names like Sean Penn and Hilary Swank come to mind.

Yet what is it with much of contemporary Hollywood narrative and the final third? ‘Gran Torino’ continues a current trend of Hollywood films that have completely missed the mark when it comes to closure. A similar fate befalls ‘Gran Torino’ with the narrative unravelling in the perplexing climax of what is effectively a contemporary updating of Eastwood’s most iconic on screen persona; Harry Callahan. Having performed amazingly well in both the US domestic box office and internationally, ‘Gran Torino’ suggests that even at 78 Clint Eastwood is still a bankable film star. When Spike Lee recently hit out at Clint Eastwood’s supposed airbrushing of historical truth in his World War II films by marginalising black soldiers, it caused a bitter war of words between the two that ended in Spike Lee reminding Eastwood that they ‘were not on a plantation’ anymore. As controversial as this very public dispute was between two very different film makers, Spike Lee seemed to overlook a glaring truth about Eastwood’s body of work; his revisionist westerns especially ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ and ‘Unforgiven’ readdressed the misrepresentations of minority racial groups like the Native American way back in an era which was still coming to terms with the absence of black film makers.

Strangely enough, ‘Gran Torino’ is a film entirely about how racial attitudes and cultural misconceptions can be challenged, leading to greater understanding. At the same time, it is a star vehicle, tailor made for Clint Eastwood’s on screen persona and his performance as the grouchy, aging and bigoted Walt Kowalski is an amalgam of understatement and simmering anger. In some respects, the film falters quite badly, failing to paint a realistic and convincing picture of Asian gang culture. At its core, this is really an exploitation film that is benefited by the graceful presence of Clint Eastwood who returns to the familiar thematic territory of revenge which has tended to form a significant part of his most popular films like ‘Mystic River’. The other question that preoccupies the character of Walt is death, and like ‘Million Dollar Baby’, it is something that Eastwood treats with dignity.

7 March 2009

ARMY OF SHADOWS / L’ARMEE DES OMBRES - (Dir. Jean Pierre Melville, 1969, France)

I have seen Melville’s neglected and newly discovered masterpiece a number of times now on DVD. Unfortunately, I missed out on the chance of catching this film whilst it had a limited release but both Criterion and the BFI did a spot on job in the release of the DVD. Each viewing of ‘Army of Shadows’ not only demonstrates Jean Pierre Melville working at the peak of his powers but also how some films can be totally misunderstood by critics upon their original release. Film critic, Amy Taubin declared it as Melville’s masterpiece in her exhaustive and intelligent essay for the Criterion DVD release of the film. Taubin provides some kind of a plausible contextual explanation for the film’s rejection in 1969:

‘The timing of Army of Shadows’ initial French release, in the fall of 1969, could not have been worse. Most serious French critics, including those of the influential Cahiers du cinéma, savaged the film for what they saw as its glorification of General Charles de Gaulle, who, then president, was despised as the betrayer of the May 1968 student uprising’

Army of Shadows: Out of the Shadows, Amy Taubin

This seems highly probable especially considering how an indistinct snobbery was also beginning to take hold of French cinema. Directors who represented the old guard were grouped together as symbolic of a cinematic orthodoxy that required challenging and even defeating by a radicalism associated with the New Left. Army of Shadows is a complex and ambitious film, and regarded by some in the circles of French film criticism as the best film about the French resistance in World War II. Melville does exceptionally well, creating and sustaining an incredibly tangible mood that is sublimely fatalistic especially in how it represents the lives of what were the quiet, forgotten heroes of a war that has often been recreated the perspective of soldiers. Melville’s film never received an American release until recently in 2006 but it is beguiling cinema and compellingly rendered through an engrossing narrative. This is one of the best films of the 1960s and perhaps Melville’s greatest achievement.

4 March 2009

ALONE ACROSS THE PACIFIC (Dir. Kon Ichikawa, 1963, Japan) - From Osaka to Frisco

I think this might be the first Kon Ichikawa film I have seen. To be honest, I am in a similar position to many cineastes in that my perceptions of what constitutes Japanese cinema has tended to be shaped by the films of Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima and Yasujirō Ozu. Ichikawa’s reputation as a film maker had been overshadowed by the domination of Kurosawa until recently with much of his work now steadily being made available on DVD. Eureka’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ label is doing an impressive job in releasing the films of Kon Ichikawa on DVD in pristine transfers and with some insightful extras. Japanese film maker, Ichikawa’s oeuvre is very eclectic, demonstrating versatility throughout his career in tackling an infinite number of film genres. In this respect, Ichikawa was perhaps less hung up about gaining an auteur status than his fellow contemporaries. Writer and critic, Jessica Winter, intelligently argued profile entry on Ichikawa offers an overview of his work and rejection of the auteur tag that is so readily associated with world cinema film makers:

“I don’t have any unifying theme”, Ichikawa once said, adding that he simply made the films that he liked and the films that his studios assigned him”

The Rough Guide to Film: An A-Z of Directors and their Movies, Jessica Winter, Penguin, 2007, Pg 243

Based on a true story, the film is a road movie by sea?, which focuses on the journey of an uncertain Japanese man who secretly sails from Osaka to San Francisco across the pacific ocean in a tiny little boat. I think what works about this film is that Ichikawa never embellishes or sentimentalises the journey, stripping away all extraneous elements and constructing a narrative that is convincing and compelling. Supported by a wonderful score and a denouement that is uplifting, this has made me take notice of a film maker that I have criminally overlooked for a long time. I hope the rest of his work is as equally pleasurable as this gem of a movie.