Friday, 21 November 2014

A scene from Girlhood (2014)

Girlhood (Bande de filles, Céline Sciamma 2014) takes place in the banlieues at the outskirts of Paris, among concrete and poverty. It is focused on the teenage girl Marieme who joins a little group of three other girls, much tougher than Marieme is, but she quickly becomes one of them, becomes like them, and even tougher in the end. In the process she takes on a new name, Vic. Their lives are hard, and it is a rough and uncompromising environment to grow up in, with bullying and street fights part of the routine.

At one point the four girls, with stolen money and stolen, pretty, clothes, check in to a nice hotel. They come to their room, play around on the big bed, and change into their new, nice clothes. They also put on make-up and make themselves as pretty as they can. Not for anyone else's benefit, but for their own sake. Then they start to sing and dance to a song by Rihanna, Diamonds. And the shot lasts the entire song.

This sequence is without a doubt the best I have seen all year, as energetic as it is immensely moving. It is so moving because even though their life is often shit, here, at this very minute, and with the help of Rihanna's song (which could be about them) everything is perfect and life is pure joy, a bubble of happiness, that is all theirs. The grading makes everything look blue, so in all aspects this scene stands out from the rest of the film.

Eye to eye, so alive
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky

The scene was more or less improvised, and the girls, who are not actors but ordinary girls living in these neighbourhoods, just did what came natural to them when they came into the room. Sciamma had only decided beforehand that they would be in a hotel room, and had also managed to get the rights to use Rihanna's song. And no matter what it might have cost, it was worth it. The power and the exuberance of the scene is not only deeply moving, but also intoxicating, and a perfect example of the power of music and how it helps people bond and connect. Music can set you free and sharing a song together is about as powerful as it gets, and screw the rest of the world.

Marieme / Vic is played by Karidja Touré. The cinematographer of Girlhood is Crystel Fournier and it is Céline Sciamma's third film. The other two are Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres 2007), which is fine but somewhat conventional and hesitant, and Tomboy (2011), which is exceptional and the best of the three.

Here is an article about one such banlieue, Sevran, which you pass through if you take the train from Charles de Gaulle airport to get into Paris.

Friday, 14 November 2014

On time and Tavernier - A Sunday in the Country (1984)

One of the things I like best about A Sunday in the Country (Un Dimance à la campagne, Bertrand Tavernier 1984) is the way it deals with time. It is the kind of film where the past and the present seems to exist almost simultaneously, and occasionally even the future appears, as if it was now. Time here is not just relative but transcendent, and the past might be as real and materialised as the present.

The film is set in 1910 and focused on an old man, a painter who lives with a housekeeper in a big house outside Paris. His wife is dead and he feels lonely, but on the Sunday the film is set he is visited by his son (with family) and his daughter. They play, eat and quarrel, and go for a ride in the daughter's fancy car. But every now and then there will be a scene that is set in the past, when the wife was alive, or when the children were small; sometimes past and present are combined in the same shot. In addition to this the old man's son has premonitions of his father's death and the dialogue too moves effortlessly between past, present and future.

This is close to my own perception of time, with the past a constant presence in the present and things that has happened before, earlier, are not old or passé or even forgotten, it all exists and is the material of which the present is built, of which it/we exist. We are the sum of our memories and our genetic inheritance; the past flows in our veins. (This is similar to how I think about films. Not as new or old but just films, seen or not-yet-seen, each film building on those that came before it.)

Father and daughter

Bertrand Tavernier, who wrote and directed A Sunday in the Country, has made several films about time and memory, and how the past lives on, and this might be the one film of his I like best. It is as close to perfection as any film has come. The cinematography is sumptuous and fluent, Tavernier and the cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer use their colours to evoke the style in which the old painter might have painted, whilst keeping the camera moving and agile. The film is not trying to tell a story but to capture some truths about these people; their fears, grievances and joys. It is in turns funny and painful, and flawlessly acted by the cast, old, middle-aged and young, even the dog is perfect. The film is sensitive to everybody's needs and regrets, and Tavernier uses the very French type of voice-over, more of a literary device used frequently by Truffaut, of an unknown yet all-knowing voice occasionally explaining the characters feelings. The son is hurt because his sister was always their father's favourite. The father is disappointed by how seldom his daughter comes to see him. But all of them have things hidden from the others, and they do their best to get along. It is a film of great beauty.

Some 15 - 20 years ago, Tavernier was one of my favourite filmmakers and I tried to watch everything he made. Then I lost track of him and I have seen very little of his work after the magnificent It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujourd'hui, 1999). But revisiting A Sunday in the Country made me remember all the films by him I have seen, not least the exceptional The Clockmaker (L'Horloger de Saint-Paul 1974) and  Daddy Nostalgie (1990), with Jane Birkin and Dirk Bogarde, and eager to explore the later ones.

Other films in which the structure of time becomes a quality in itself are Two For the Road (Stanley Donen 1966), the films of Hong Sang-soo, Alain Resnais, Wong Kar-Wai and often Theo Angelopoulos. Joseph L. Mankiewicz is another time artist.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Ministers of Fear - on Lang and Hobbes

There are several filmmakers who have made conspiracy their particular niche, a kind of films I like to call "urban paranoia". Among the key directors are Alan J. Pakula and especially John Frankenheimer. But the most essential filmmaker here, and one of the definitive artists of the 20th century, is Fritz Lang. From the late 1910s until the early 1960s, in several countries and continents, he used his camera (with sharp, cool, clinical images) to tell us that the world was a crazy and scary place where we are all victims of the forces of evil. The threat can come from criminals, or the state, or the Nazis, or your friends and neighbours, but it does not really matter who they are; what matters is the existential fear. Thomas Hobbes had said in his book Leviathan from 1651 that we once lived in "worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.", and there is a feeling that Lang believed that this was still the case. Like Lang, Hobbes was no stranger to fear. He was born prematurely in 1588 because his mother got so scarred when she heard the Spanish Armada was gathering outside England's coast that she went into labour. "At that point my mother was filled with such fear that she bore twins, me and together with me fear." Hobbes later wrote in his autobiography.

The bleakness of Lang's vision is sometimes staggering, just look at the ending of Scarlet Street (1945), and repeatedly in his films the audience are being fooled and deceived. People we think are dead are really alive, people we think are alive are really dead, the person we thought was guilty turns out to be innocent and the innocent turns out to be guilty; frequently what we think we see happening is a lie, a fraud. Nobody can be trusted, least of all the filmmaker himself.

Occasionally people say that when Lang left Germany in the 1930s and went to the US he lost his touch, and the films faltered, but this is a peculiar view that is not at all backed up by the actual films. There are more things that unite than separate the German and the American Lang, just consider such films as Dr Mabuse Der Spieler (1922), M (1931), You Only Live Once (1937), The Big Heat (1953), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) and The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). Regardless of what kind of films he made they are usually all as pessimistic.

The Big Heat

Although not his best film, Ministry of Fear (1944) has the best title and is perhaps the one where the rampant paranoia is given its most extraordinary expression. The first ten minutes or so in particular are like nothing else, almost incomprehensible, and sound and image are so controlled and so unsettling it is like a horror film by Samuel Beckett. It is set in England and based on Graham Greene's novel with the same title, a book Lang loved and really wanted to adapt. Unfortunately Lang and Seton I. Miller, who wrote the script and was also the producer, did not get along, and Lang hated the finished film. That is unfair, the only major weakness is the obvious fake last scene but that can easily be disregarded. Seton I. Miller should not be disregarded though, he was involved in writing many great films in the 1930s in particular and was once a writing partner of Howard Hawks. Ministry of Fear have not much in common with Hawks's films, but it is especially close to Lang's earlier Spies (1928).

Ministry of Fear is easy to find, and below is a fine celebration of it; a collection of scenes cut together without apparent coherence, which is exactly in keeping with the tone of the film itself. It is very good.

It should perhaps be mentioned that Lang's work was prefigured by serials such as those by Louis Feuillade, for example Les Vampires (1915) and Tih Minh (1918). It was a popular kind of film in early cinema, and Feuillade's work is almost as paranoid and haunted as Lang's films would be. But maybe paranoia is not the right word here. As Andrew Sarris wrote: "Lang might argue that in a century that has spawned Hitler and Hiroshima, no artist can be called paranoiac; he is being persecuted." or, as they say in Catch-22 (Mike Nichols 1970), "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you."

Joe Wilson in Fury (1936) was not paranoid, and this is what the town did to him:

There are visual links between Lang and Michael Curtiz, whom I wrote about last week. Seton I. Miller is also a link. The links between Lang and Alfred Hitchcock are more important, and plentiful. In the 1920s and early 1930s Hitchcock aspired to be like Lang, but then the roles were switched. Lang was envious of Hitchcock and wanted to be more like him, and made some films with that in mind. Together they mapped the 20th century from a Freudian angle, bringing forward its neuroses and fears. But whereas Hitchcock was more interested in guilt Lang was more interested in punishment.

This post is yet another of those challenges among Swedish-based bloggers to write something around a set theme, the theme this time was "conspiracies". Here are the other contributors.

In English: The Velvet Café

In Swedish: Rörliga bilder och tryckta ordJojjenito, Fiffis filmtajm, The Nerd Bird, Mackans film, Har du inte sett den (pod), Filmitch, Fripps filmrevyer, Flmr filmblogg, Absurd Cinema.


Friday, 31 October 2014

The romantic expressionism of Michael Curtiz

A couple of years ago I was switching from one channel to another on the TV. On one channel there was a film showing. I did not recognise it, and since I had not seen it from the start I did not watch it for very long, only a few minutes. But I guessed that it was directed by Michael Curtiz, and to satisfy my vanity I had a look in a TV Guide later. It was indeed a film I had not seen and it was directed by Curtiz. I recognised his style almost immediately. Perhaps no filmmaker ever had such an infatuation with shadows, and few have been able to equal his expressive use of camera movement, mise-en-scène and lighting to make the images glow and dazzle. He had a remarkably dynamic style and I have always thought that Gunnar Fischer and Ingmar Bergman were visually influenced by Curtiz. Curtiz and Marcel Carné. It is not just the initials Curtiz and Carné have in common; Curtiz, like Carné (working with Jacques Prévert), was also something of a romantic, making his shadow play enhance the often doomed love affairs, or even the tentatively successful. James Agee once wrote that Curtiz "has always seemed like Franz Murnau under onions". I assume he meant F.W. Murnau, and I do not exactly understand "under onions" but although it is not perhaps a compliment he did notice Curtiz's expressionist style.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

All of the films are not like this, he was too uneven and had many bad days but when he was inspired, which was often enough, he could make anything come alive and shine. His work in the late 30s and early 40s is usually singled out for praise, when he made films such as Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942), but it was there before and it was still there in his last films, at least as late as 1958, when he made The Proud Rebel, in which almost every single interior shot is a masterpiece. The story is not much, but it looks better than practically any other film you might see, and might be the most visually stimulating colour film Curtiz ever made. It was shot by Ted McCord, who worked with Curtiz several times in the later years. Perhaps the finest film they made together is Breaking Point (1950), a film that also has one of the saddest and greatest ending I know.

Breaking Point

The Proud Rebel could very well be the title for most of Curtiz's best films, it was one of his favourite themes. But themes are not all that important with Curtiz, style is what matters here. The producers and writers often complained that he did not care for the story but was only interested in compositions, and actors complained that he was not interested in them either. But there are many great performances in his films, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, James Cagney and Claude Rains for example, and Olivia de Havilland is marvellous in The Proud Rebel, much older than she was in Captain Blood or Robin Hood, and a better actress. What is more is a general warmth that fill his best films, which also help make them rise above their often humdrum stories. While We're No Angels (1955) is rather uninspired visually, a rare failure in that respect, it too is rescued by its warmth and charm. A better film, also filled with warmth, is Life With Father (1947), so well-directed it should be mandatory at film schools. Beyond the acting and the lighting there are three things worth studying: the use of mirrors, the use of space (which parts of the house are used and for what purposes) and how people move in that space between scenes.

Life With Father. Who but Curtiz would shoot a discussion between husband and wife this way?

It is conventional wisdom to consider Casablanca a happy coincident yet it is really a typical Curtiz-film when he is inspired. The combination of wit, romance and cynicism is intoxicating and a lot of it comes from writers Howard Koch and the Epstein brothers, but after being attacked and expanded upon by Curtiz's forceful personality and camera it became something else. In addition, Curtiz was Hungarian (with a large but rather unknown European body of work), and he lost family members in the Holocaust, so the subject of the film was probably close to him.


Although not his best, the film in which his visual creativity reigned particularly free was The Unsuspected (1947), a convoluted story about greed, jealously and murder told with extraordinary boldness. It was also the first film produced by Curtiz's own (short-lived) company Michael Curtiz Productions. The cinematographer was Woody Bredell and Curtiz made it together with his wife Bess Meredyth, who worked on the script. She often did that but The Unsuspected is one of the few times she got a screen credit.

A useful compare and contrast study can be made between Curtiz and Raoul Walsh. In the 1930s Curtiz was one of the top directors at Warner Bros. (together with Mervyn LeRoy and Roy Del Ruth) and Walsh came to Warner in 1939. They made (superficially) similar films, and often with James Cagney, Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart, yet they were also very different, with Walsh being the more complete and more interesting filmmaker, and less uneven. They differ in style too, Walsh's visuals are nowhere near as expressionistic and energetic as Curtiz. Walsh had a more naturalistic style, with a few exceptions. A typical Curtiz image is claustrophobic but a typical Walsh image is open and boundless. But whereas Curtiz's style is more energetic than Walsh's, Walsh's characters are more energetic than Curtiz's, always on the move. Walsh also had a clearly defined and consistent outlook on life in his films. But even though Walsh is the greater artist, Curtiz is good enough.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

The Sea Hawk (1940)

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Friday, 24 October 2014

Context, conspiracies and subtext creep (part 2)

Some time ago I read an article about vampire movies and why they are so successful among teenagers now. The answer, according to the article, is that the vampire movies allow the teenagers to process their fear of terrorists, and that the vampire craze is a result of 9/11.

I was reminded of this the other day when I spoke to a film scholar friend who had had an article about recent developments in TV genres rejected because the article did not contextualise contemporary TV genres with references to 9/11 (or words to that effect). I remembered also when Down With Love (Peyton Reed 2003) came out and I was asked the question "Why is this coming now?" meaning, what does it say about contemporary gender roles that Down With Love is being released now. (My non-too serious reply was something about "feminism light")

That was three examples of the attempts to "explain" why something is popular and what something is "really" about that are so popular among film scholars and journalists. But these arguments are rarely substantiated by anything solid. It was not the case that teenagers who liked vampire movies had been interviewed about how they felt about terrorists. It was just taken for granted, as such things so often are. Teenagers might like vampire movies for any number of reasons, it might be because they are scary, or sexy, or thrilling, or whatever. You could just as well argue that the reason teenagers like any kind of films is because they are afraid of terrorists and the films provide an escape from this fear. But then again, are teenagers actually that concerned about terrorists at all?

9/11 is a very popular reference point, but it was 13 years ago now. A lot of things have happened since then. The horrific tsunamis that have taken place in Thailand, Indonesia and Japan, the financial mayhem of recent years, the rise of Putinism and European fascism, and so on and so forth. To take one event and use that as some kind of benchmark for discussing culture is more often than not just laziness.

Sometimes articles and books that try to explain why something is popular reminds me of conspiracy theories, with the thinking being that there has to be a large force that explains things, something must be blamed, I suppose in both cases it is an example of human's dislike of randomness and chance. It is not that I am against contextualisations as such, only against the often sloppy ways it is done. (X came after Y, therefore X can only be understood as a reflection of Y.) But, as they say, correlation is not causation.

Speaking of conspiracy theories, when people discuss science fiction films from the 1950s it is often with the understanding that they are "really" about the fear of communists. But why? For one thing there is not always a subtext; sometimes a film about an alien invasion is just a film about an alien invasion. I am a bit suspicious about subtext thinking in general (see an earlier post about it here) but even when there are subtexts in these films, it can be about a number of things other than communists. It can be about a fear of nuclear war, or nuclear waste. It can be about fears of diseases. It can be a critique of conformity and/or racism. Of course, some of these films are about the fear of communists, but there is a lot more to it than that and there are many possible interpretations. When H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in the 1890s he was not afraid of the communists taking over so why assume that a film based on it must be about such a fear.

On the other hand there is Susan Sontag's argument that there is "absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films." A statement that is impossible to understand since it is so obviously wrong. (She wrote that in her 1967 essay The Imagination of Disaster.)

There is a film called Invasion U.S.A. (Alfred E. Green 1952) which tells the story about a Soviet attack on the USA. Maybe it is an allegory, and really about the fear of an invasion of aliens from outer space.