Category: American Independents

Louder Than Bombs (Norway-France-Denmark-US 2015)

The first English language feature by the Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier, Louder Than Bombs, was released on MUBI as part of the lead up to the launch of the director’s latest film, The Worst Person in the World (Norway 2021) in the UK. I remember the original release of Louder Than Bombs, because it seemed to be part of a cycle of films related to journalists in war zones. I’m not sure why I didn’t watch it at the time but I realise now that it is a more complex form of narrative. It represents a particular kind of European filmmaking presented in an American context which has divided audiences and it is a particularly interesting film for this blog.

Isabelle and Jonah

Trier joins a long list of European filmmakers buoyed up by success at Cannes, Berlin or Venice who then attempt to move into productions with bigger budgets and the kind of distribution muscle that international stars and English language dialogue provide. The results are often varied, but North Europeans and Scandinavians in particiular often have the advantage of more ease with English. The Danes, such as Susanne Bier, Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier, have made a number of English language films and Lone Scherfig has been particularly successful in the UK. Joachim Trier to a certain extent hedged his bets with an international co-production and four lead actors with recognition in both Europe and the US (though primarily more in relation to American Independent cinema perhaps). Trier worked with his usual writing collaborators Eskil Vogt, music composer Ola Fløttum and cinematographer Jakob Ihre.

Father and younger son

The film’s title is a play on the different effects of the trauma of war. (It’s also the title of an album by The Smiths.) The journalists here are Isabelle Huppert as ‘Isabelle’, a photojournalist and Richard (David Strathairn) who appears to have worked for the same agency. But the narrative is mainly concerned not with the direct experience of conflict reporting but with the trauma that it causes in Isabelle’s home life. In fact the narrative begins a few year’s after Isabelle’s death when her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is being shown a short video about his wife that will appear as an installation in a retrospective exhibition of her war photographs. Gene agrees to the video and learns that Richard has also been commissioned to write a newspaper piece about his colleague. Gene realises that he is going to have to speak to his sons Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). Jonah is a university teacher and a new father but Conrad is still in high school – the same school where Gene is a teacher. The narrative enigma involves Isabelle’s death in a road accident. Did she fall asleep at the wheel or did she deliberately allow herself to lose control? David tells Gene he doesn’t want to romanticise Isabelle’s death, implying that the strain and stress (and excitement) of reporting conflicts ‘has its toll’. Gene can’t be sure exactly what David means but he is aware of what was happening in the family. Now he must talk to his sons to prepare them for what the exhibition and David’s piece might mean for all three of them.

Gene meets a new young teacher at his school

Why has the film divided audiences, especially in the US? I think it may be because Trier does not confirm a specific linear narrative, providing a clear resolution. Instead he offers different stories concerning the father and two sons, bringing them together at various points when they overlap. We follow the grieving Conrad through some familiar adolescent rites which don’t get any easier for him when Jonah and his dad attempt to intervene. They have their own problems and memories of Isabelle are interwoven in their separate stories. The presentation too is not conventional, though with Eisenberg and Strathairn being familiar from various independent films we perhaps accept this and don’t expect ‘Hollywood’. Conrad’s story includes his fascination with a particular online videogame but the music and other elements of teen films are not there. As one reviewer suggests, the film does take teenage grief and depression seriously and there is a real attempt to explore what grief means to each of the family members. Trier presumably wants us to pick up clues  but doesn’t make this easy for us. For instance, Gene was once an actor and we see a clip from a fairly obscure film featuring Gabriel Byrne (Hello Again, US 1987). We don’t see Gene teaching and I had to freeze frame the image to see that a whiteboard carried notes about analysing Moby Dick is in the classroom where he unpacks his briefcase. It could be another teacher’s room, but an English teacher seems most likely.

The brothers together

I was engaged by the film but there is something about its presentation that I couldn’t quite clue into. I think I liked the story about Conrad the most and I felt it worked better than those concerning Gene and Jonah. I usually respond to Jesse Eisenberg’s performances but I did find Jonah to be an odd character. I don’t think his strange hairstyles helped but it his interactions with Conrad, which we might expect to be difficult, didn’t work for me at all. According to IMDb the budget for the film was around $11 million. I wonder if this is just an American production mark-up on a standard European budget for a film that seems to have been made mainly around the small town of Nyack in the Hudson Valley north of New York. Did Trier have to pay more for Huppert, Byrne and Eisenberg? Was it really necessary to cast Huppert as the photojournalist? I’m always happy to see her in any role but here she is inevitably more like an iconic portrait or a memory on tape. Would a less well-known face make for a different kind of memory? But perhaps I’m arguing for a different film. This one has introduced me to Joachim Trier and I enjoyed it enough to look forward to watching his latest film and perhaps exploring some of his other early work also on MUBI.

Girlfriends (US 1978) and Claudia Weill

Anne (Anita Skinner) and Susan (Melanie Mayron) on their way to a new apartment

Girlfriends was re-released in the UK in July 2021. It is also available on a Criterion Blu-ray with an array of supplementary material. It’s an important film in the history of US cinema and its appearance now reminds us that ‘films made by women, about women and their stories’, is not something that has suddenly become an important issue in the US since the impact of the #MeToo movement. In August 1978 the studio picture An Unmarried Woman, starring Jill Clayburgh as a divorcée in New York, was a critical and popular ‘hit’. But it was directed by a man, Paul Mazursky. A couple of months later Girlfriends, directed by Claudia Weill, was released in the UK and in his Monthly Film Bulletin review in September 1978, Geoff Brown compared the two films, noting that the central character of Girlfriends, Susan Weinblatt, was not played by a star. Melanie Mayron was a ‘supporting actor’ in features and ironically she had a supporting role in Gable and Lombard (1976) in which Jill Clayburgh played Carole Lombard. (Paul Mazursky and Jill Clayburgh were also known by Claudia Weill, I think). Brown’s review of Girlfriends goes on to discuss how Susan is presented on screen, suggesting that Mayron makes an unconventional lead because of her weight, teeth, hair etc. This seems an unnecessary description and it’s probably sufficient to say that she is not the usual Hollywood lead. Brown goes on to recognise the ‘feminist commitment’ of the filmmakers, by which I assume he means the producer-writer Claudia Weill and her writing collaborator Vicki Polon. What was slightly problematic for film reviewers at this point is that Girlfriends was distributed in both the US and UK as a Warner Bros. film. We would tend to see it now as an American Independent (wholly produced for Cyclops Films, the company set up by Weill and Eli Noyes).

Susan and Eric (Christopher Guest)

There have been many different attempts to categorise ‘American Independent Cinema’. There were several important ‘independent’ producers working during the studio period and there have always been independent films. One of the first independent filmmakers of the 1950s was Ida Lupino. She was one of the first to tackle distinct ‘social issues’ and to implicitly link the idea of ‘independence from the Hollywood studios’ with some form of social commentary – though she still needed a studio to distribute the films. Second wave feminism in the 1970s saw several attempts to make films that in some way told women’s stories differently from those produced by (or for) the studios. I would see Girlfriends as one of the films in the late 1970s that suggested that it was possible to make low budget films that offered an alternative to studio films but which could appeal to a broad audience (i.e. not only to an avant-garde audience). The first film from John Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi, Return of the Secaucus Seven appeared in 1979. The documentary Rosie the Riveter, about women workers during the Second World War by Connie Field appeared in 1980. Harlan County USA, the powerful documentary about a mining community by Barbara Kopple was a 1976 release. There are other titles as well. I’m just making the point that films like this appeared in the late 1970s and preceded what has now come to be seen as the new ‘American Independent Cinema’ of the 1980s, often seen as marked by the success of Sex, Lies and Videotape directed by Steven Soderbergh in 1989. Soderbergh’s film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and several other prizes. This was undoubtedly significant for independent filmmaking but it’s worth noting that Girlfriends was also screened at Cannes in the ‘Director’s Fortnight’ strand and after the screening it was acquired by Warner Bros.

Susan and Rabbi Gold (Eli Wallach) who finds her jobs as a photographer at weddings and bar mitzvahs

Bob Balaban as Anne’s husband Martin here framed between the two friends

What makes Girlfriends different? The narrative offers us vignettes of two or three years in the life of Susan Weinblatt. She’s a young woman in her early 20s trying to make her way in New York as a photographer. As the title suggests, the main concern in the film is Susan’s relationship with her girlfriends. The most important of these is Anne, arguably because she is almost Susan’s opposite in some ways but also someone looking to fulfil herself on her own terms. Anne is a slim WASP with conventional tastes who hopes to become a poet and a writer. Susan is a Jewish New Yorker with would-be Bohemian tastes. Their friendship is important to both young women. Susan has different kinds of relationships with three or four other women, mostly concerned with her photography which will eventually see her achieve a small exhibition. She also has relationships with a couple of men, one her own age and one much older. These relationships are important too, but the narrative will return to the central relationship with Anne. The focus on Susan obviously means that the film relies heavily on the performance by Melanie Mayron and she is very good throughout. The film began as a low-budget production financed by various public funds (something which clearly marks the film as having European-style backing for an independent). The $80,000 budget was soon spent and Claudia Weill had to look for private investors. The shoot actually began in 1975 but the few weeks of filming had to be spread over a couple of years to make the 88 minute feature. There was no money to spend on complicated outdoor set-ups and much of the film is therefore set in New York apartments, offices and on street corners. The success of the film depends on all the performers and crew but crucially on the remarkable Claudia Weill. I’ve been able to learn a great deal about her, partly from online archive material such as this New York Times piece and this from ‘Harvardwood‘. Claudia Weill studied at Harvard but became so interested in working with her camera that she entered the film industry as a ‘craft apprentice’ and gradually learned filmmaking from the ground up. This way she met Vicky Polon, a writer who also worked on shoots as an editor.

Melanie Myron and Claudia Weill

The extras on on the Blu-ray include a couple of Weill’s earlier short films, Joyce at 34 (1972) made with and about the filmmaker Joyce Chopra and Commuters (1970) made with Eli Noyes. There also several interviews and discussions about the film, featuring Weill and Polon and the leading players. The Criterion website for the film also includes essays by Molly Haskell and Carol Gilligan. Claudia Weill’s later career is also interesting. She did go to Hollywood and made a feature with Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas written by Eleanor Bergstein. This was It’s My Turn (1980) released by Columbia. The film was not a success and I don’t think Claudia Weill enjoyed the experience. She turned to theatre direction in New York for a few years and then returned to Los Angeles when she married. What happened next again takes me back to Ida Lupino’s career. Weill began to get work in television directing single episodes of several well-known series plus TV movies. She found TV work practical when her two boys were young. She also felt it gave her more freedom: “If it’s not ‘yours’, you can be more creative about how to solve problems,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be exactly the way you’ve always seen it in your mind.” (from the ‘Harvardwood’ interview by Dayna Wilkinson, 2015, see above.) In 2013 she directed an episode of Girls for Len Dunham who had seen Girlfriends a few years earlier and this connection helped to make a new connection with a contemporary generation of young women making films and television drama. In recent years she has returned to theatre direction in the North East and has also spent time teaching film, television and theatre direction in California and in New York.

Ceil (Amy Wright) is a dancer whose physicality is something of a challenge to Susan

Susan with Julie (Gina Rogak), a friend who might know how to find work in photography?

Let’s get back to Girlfriends. The film is successful on many levels. At its centre are the relationships between Susan and her girlfriends and for many audiences it is the novelty of a film in which these relationships are central that has proved so inspirational. Why has it taken so long to return to this kind of storytelling? On a more general level Weill and Polon succeeded in putting on screen the kinds of people who were their friends and colleagues, ‘real’ people not Hollywood creations. Finally, in terms of representations they put on screen New York as it was in the late 1970s, a scruffy but vibrant city with young creatives in cheap apartments. It is a low budget film but it is very well-made. Claudia Weill was an accomplished documentary filmmaker when she started making the film but she had to learn how to deal with actors. She was a quick learner. Many of the cast were not experienced actors at the time but later went on to have long careers. Two leading Hollywood actors, Eli Wallach as a Rabbi and Viveca Lindfors as a gallery owner fitted in very well for me. What I’ve noted with my male gaze is that it is the small actions and snatches of dialogue that really resonate with female audiences. This film was genuinely revolutionary and it’s great that it is widely available again. I saw it twice over 40 years ago and it stuck with me. I enjoyed watching it again. If you get the chance to see it, I recommend it highly.

The ‘International Epic’: El Cid (US-Italy 1961)

El Cid is currently available on BBC iPlayer (in a cropped form). I’m not sure why it’s there. I had assumed that it was an Easter offering like King of Kings (US 1961) and Barabbas (US-Italy 1961) but that’s not the case and it is available for a year according to iPlayer. I watched the film again for the first time in decades and I realised that it is a good representative example of international cinema at a particular moment in film history – and therefore an important title for this blog. It is classifiable as an ‘epic’ for two reasons, first as a sprawling action adventure and romance set in mediaeval Europe and secondly as an example of a film using 1950s technologies of widescreen and stereophonic sound to combat TV. Added to this, El Cid is not a ‘studio film’ and more precisely it fits into the cycle of independently-produced films made in Europe by Hollywood creatives in the 1950s and 1960s.

Charlton Heston as El Cid with Douglas Wilmer (right) as Emir Moutamin his Moorish ally

There is a great deal of information available on the Wikipedia page for the film so I’ll try not to repeat too much of it here. In 1960 Variety reported that the independent producer Samuel Bronston planned to make three ‘epic’ productions in Spain. These would become King of Kings, El Cid and 55 Days at Peking (1963). A fourth Spanish-based epic, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) would eventually bankrupt the producer. Across these four productions, Bronston hired many of the same personnel on more than one film. El Cid was arguably the most successful of the four in commercial and critical terms and it has some particularly interesting aspects as a production. In one sense there was nothing ‘new’ about the production of El Cid. Historical epics were first popularised in Italy with the spectacular film Cabiria in 1914. Producers associated with Hollywood had been making such films overseas since the 1920s but the 1950 production of Quo Vadis by MGM took over Cinecittà in Rome, one of the largest European studios, to create an English-language film. Succeeding American productions at the studio in the 1950s and early 1960s led to the description of ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ and more prosaically the use of the term ‘Runaway productions’. The aim was for Hollywood to make large scale productions for lower costs than in California, though eventually costs would escalate considerably. The studios were generally making fewer but ‘bigger’ films as audiences declined. These epics led to more ‘Roadshow releases’ with higher seat prices, for a more theatre-like experience.

Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren as Jimena

Bronston made two significant decisions. He based the production in Spain with only some interiors shot in Italy, but he co-produced the film with Dear Films of Italy which ultimately released its own Italian language version. He raised the rest of the budget himself and then sold distribution rights separately to Allied Artists in the US and the Rank Organisation in the UK and some parts of Europe. Allied Artists was the successor to Monogram in the US and it wasn’t a Hollywood studio (i.e. not part of the MPAA). The film was intended for roadshow exhibition in 70mm (in a 2.20:1 ratio) with stereo or a standard ‘Scope 2.35:1 and mono option. The capture format was Super Technirama and Eastmancolor/Technicolor. Bronston’s strategy included recognised Hollywood creatives in the form of Anthony Mann as director, Miklos Rosza for music, Robert Krasker for cinematography and Robert Lawrence as editor. Bronston himself had been born in the Russian Empire, Rosza in Austria-Hungary, Krasker in Australia and Lawrence in Canada. Only Mann was American-born. Yakima Canutt was Second Unit director (following his similar work on Ben Hur and Spartacus). The writers included Philip Yordan working on Fredric M. Frank’s script and later Ben Barzman. Barzman had been blacklisted in the McCarthy years and Yordan was often seen as a front for blacklisted writers. Bronston himself was a nephew of Leon Trotsky and it does seem odd that he and the writers were willing to work on a production shooting in Franco’s Spain.

Sphia Loren as Jimena and Raf Vallone as Count Ordóñez

The creative team was multinational and so were the cast. Sophia Loren and Raf Vallone were the two major Italian stars in the film. Genevieve Page was the French star and Charlton Heston as the ‘Cid’ with Hurd Hatfield in a minor role were the Americans. Most of the other main speaking roles went to British actors, including Herbert Lom, John Fraser, Gary Redmond, Douglas Wilmer, Ralph Truman and Andrew Cruikshank. The spectacle of the film was created by shooting in Spanish landscapes with an array of castles and literally ‘armies’ of extras from the Spanish military. Sets were dressed and costumes made with great attention to detail.

John Fraser as King Alfonso and Genevieve Page as his sister Princess Urraca

El Cid is the story of the eleventh century nobleman Rodrigo de Vivar from the Burgos district who became an heroic figure. He ignored the animosity of Christian kings and Moorish emirs in Spain and forged an alliance to prevent a new invasion from North Africa led by Ben Yussuf (Herbert Lom). This placed him in a difficult position re the court intrigues of the Kingdom of the Asturias, Léon and Castile and subsequently a difficult  romance and marriage to Jimena (Sophia Loren), the daughter of King Ferdinand’s champion knight. Rodrigo as ‘El Cid’ became a mythical hero in Spanish literature and song and the film narrative is accurate in most aspects of historical detail, though not the famous and memorable narrative conclusion. Made primarily for American and British audiences, most of whom who would know little of the history of mediaeval Spain, the narrative does not attempt to explain the historical background. The impression is given that El Cid helped to “drive the Moors from Spain” as some contributors to IMDb suggest. The so-called ‘Reconquista’, the ‘recovery’ of Spain as a Christian country in fact took several centuries from the eight to the fifteenth when the final Moorish emirate of Granada was taken in 1492, three hundred years after El Cid died. I was pleased to see that the set decoration for the walled city of Valencia (filmed at the 13th century castle of Peñíscola) shows the beautiful arches of Moorish architecture which in my eyes were to become despoiled by Christian ‘reconquerors’. The film is not so much about driving the Moors from Spain but more about trying to achieve peace and tolerance. However, this 1961 film betrays its Hollywood ideological roots by casting white British actors with brown make-up as the Moorish leaders, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Douglas Wilmer is very good as Moutamin the emir who becomes El Cid’s most loyal supporter. But Herbert Lom as Ben Yussef is so heavily typed as the evil invader with his black-clad army that he becomes almost cartoonish (a terrible fate for such an excellent actor and stalwart of British cinema since he arrived from Czechoslovakia in 1939).

Herbert Lom as the North African invader Ben Yussef

The world premiere of El Cid was held at the Metropole in Victoria outside London’s West End in December 1961. This was an old cinema acquired by Rank which was used to launch roadshow films and the film ran successfully for over a year, while it also rolled out to major cities and seaside resorts (which often played roadshows for several weeks in the summer). I think I saw it in the Summer of 1962 in a cinema which closed soon after El Cid‘s run. There seems to be some confusion over the length of the film. IMDb suggests ‘lost footage’ was restored in the 1993 work on the print. Monthly Film Bulletin suggests that the UK print from Rank was a 180 minutes and most records suggest that this was the length in Europe. The BBC version runs for 172 minutes which with a PAL speed-up equates to roughly 180 minutes. This version is, however, cropped to 16:9 (1.78:1) resulting in some odd compositions. I presume the TV version goes back to the early 2000s when cropping was still standard practice. I note that there are several, mainly European Blu-ray discs on offer and the running times seem to vary from 172 minutes to 182 or 188. This might explain the ‘lost 16 minutes’. All the discs use the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

El Cid’s army of Christians and Moors enters the Moorish city of Valencia behind the crucifix

The MFB review of the film is rather mean I think, arguing that El Cid is only marginally better than all the other epics. How does it look now. I’ve already indicated the now outdated practice of casting Europeans in dark make-up to represent Moors. I think the narrative is too loose and rambling to justify three hours and the romance element doesn’t really work. On the other hand Heston is undeniably ‘heroic’ and Loren is very beautiful. Reports suggest that she was paid $1 million for her limited days of filming. As far as I can see Bronston gambled correctly and she was the star in Europe, including in the UK where she was listed ahead of Heston and in news stories promoting the film. The triumph of the film is Krasker’s cinematography with its use of Spanish locations, including several real castles, and the action sequences involving the thousands of extras. On this score the film is more successful than the modern blockbusters relying on CGI. The critics of the time praised Rosza’s score but a TV set is not the place to judge and I didn’t really notice it. The one trick that is missed is the opportunity to  show that Islamic Al-Andalus (at its greatest extent covering most of present day Spain and Portugal) had been the centre of European civilisation up to the 10th century with Cordoba as the great centre of learning in the second largest city of Europe. I recommend a visit to the city now to see what the Christian kings did to the great mosque of Cordoba.

Emperor (US-Japan 2012)

The poster presents General MacArthur as an ‘Emperor’ figure

An unusual film, Emperor is an independent US-Japanese co-production with an ambiguous title. The narrative focuses on the dilemma presented to the Allied Occupation forces in late August 1945 concerning the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Should he be tried as a war criminal (and possibly executed) or be allowed to remain as Head of State with restricted powers? The ambiguity is that the decision ultimately rested with General Douglas MacArthur who as SCAP (Supreme Commander of Allied Powers) was the effective ‘Emperor’ of Japan from the moment of Japanese surrender in August 1945 up to the establishment of the new democratic Japan in 1947. In fact he remained the most powerful figure up until 1951 when he was replaced as SCAP by General Matthew Ridgway before the formal end of the Occupation in 1952. The film shows MacArthur, played by Tommy Lee Jones, as a quasi-imperial figure, very alive to his media presence. I realised, watching the film, that my knowledge of MacArthur’s ideas and actions at this time were limited even though I had studied the Japanese social situation under Occupation. The situation in Japan in 1945 was different to that in Germany because the American had virtually complete control with only a minor role for British and Commonwealth forces. In Germany there were four Allied powers each controlling a different sector of the occupied country.

General Bonner Fellers and his interpreter Takahashi (Haneda Masayoshi)  approach the Imperial palace, still intact in the centre of a devastated Tokyo

The script for Emperor, written by Vera Blasi and David Klass and based on the book His Majesty’s Salvation by Okamoto Shiro, was directed by the British filmmaker Peter Webber. It builds the action around another historical character, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), a ‘psychological warfare/intelligence’ officer who is charged by MacArthur with finding the evidence to either indict or exonerate Hirohito. For the purposes of the narrative, MacArthur gives Fellers a strict 10 day deadline. In reality it took rather several months. This is a film which constructs its narrative around real historical events and real historical characters. It also attempts to present its story against an authentic background of a devastated Tokyo. As such it provided a field day for historians, both amateur and professionals. If you check out the reviews on the usual sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, you will probably get the impression that the film was both a box office and critical flop with little to recommend it. But dig a little deeper and quite a few critics and audiences liked the film. I think it is certainly worth exploring and pointing out some of the misunderstandings by prominent critics and some audiences.

The most impressive aspects of the film for me are the sets and location ‘dressings’. All but two days shooting were carried out in New Zealand and you can find the whole story of the shoot on the New Zealand Film Commission website. The key to this aspect of the production is perhaps the producer role of Narahashi Yôko who was an associate producer on The Last Samurai (US-New Zealand-Japan 2003), which also used New Zealand locations extensively. The most problematic aspect of the script for critics appears to be the ‘tacked on’ romance narrative which sees Fellers attempting to discover what has happened to the young woman he met as an exchange student in the US and who he eventually tracked down in Japan before the Pacific War began. As I understand it, the ‘real’ Fellers did once meet a Japanese exchange student in the US but he married an American and although he did visit Japan in the 1930s, the ‘romance’ element of his time in Autumn 1945 is fictitious. Why then add the romance – is it simply a cliché in a Hollywood film? I think not. Its purpose is to engage Fellers in a ‘human story’, which is arguably also the case for another narrative strand that involves Takahashi, the interpreter assigned to Fellers. Fellers speaks some Japanese fairly fluently but the importance of his mission means that an interpreter is essential. The romance narrative also allows flashbacks to Fellers’ earlier visits to Japan, including a meeting with the young woman’s uncle who is a Japanese General.

Fellers and the Japanese teacher Shimada Aya in Japan before the Pacific War

The young woman is Shimada Aya (Hatsune Eriko) and her function is really to ‘humanise’ Fellers in the context of his mission and to facilitate his contacts with various Japanese civil servants and politicians. This is achieved partly through the meeting with General Kajima who is still in his rural villa in 1945. Kajima also serves to explain to the audience (Fellers should know this already) why and how Japanese culture means that the conduct of the war and the attitudes towards Hirohito are so different to how most Americans understand them.

It occurs to me that Emperor has something in common with Gurinder Chadha’s film Viceroy’s House (UK-India-Sweden-US 2017) in which the historical figure is Lord Mountbatten as the Viceroy who must deliver the Partition of India and which features a romance between two young lovers from different religions in the Punjab, one of the territories subject to most anguish in the Partition. I think there is no easy answer to the question of how to make a commercial, popular, film about such momentous events without in some way fictionalising the narrative. If it helps wider audiences to engage with the general narrative and to understand something about the history, I think it can serve a useful purpose. Such films don’t necessarily ‘distort’ history since the important factual elements are included.

What disappointed me in this film was that it presents two American characters who each deserve more screen time. General Douglas MacArthur is an important and controversial figure in modern American history who took his role in Japan very seriously and believed it would lead him to a potential nomination for  the US Presidency. Both President Harry S. Truman and his Republican successor in 1952 feared MacArthur’s growing power base and he was sacked as SCAP during the Korean War. There are American films about MacArthur that tell his story in more detail. The best known of these is the biopic MacArthur starring Gregory Peck in 1977. Tommy Lee Jones is matched against this portrayal and marked down by several critics and audience members. I haven’t seen the 1977 film so I can’t comment, but MacArthur isn’t the real subject of the Emperor narrative. It is aspects of Fellers’ character that are more relevant.

General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito ( Kataoka Takatarô) pose for a photograph

It is hinted at, but not really developed in the film, that one of the factors influencing both Fellers and MacArthur is fear that any unrest in Japan could provoke a Soviet invasion. In fact Soviet troops did invade the Kiril Islands off the North East tip of Hokkaido, following re-possession of the whole of Sakhalin Island. MacArthur seems to have taken a fairly pragmatic view of how to handle the Japanese Communist Party but Fellers was very much part of the anti-communist right that was growing in power in the US and who saw support for Hirohito as part of the defence against Soviet expansionism. This would later inform American military activity in Korea and then Vietnam. I don’t think this side of Fellers is given sufficient weight in the film. When he returned to the US and retired from the military in 1946 Fellers became active in politics supporting the conservative wing of the Republican Party and later joined the right-wing John Birch Society.

For some background on this period I used John Dower’s magisterial 1999 study Embracing Death: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II (Penguin Books). This gives the full text of some of Fellers’ reports to MacArthur and it generally concurs with the view that Fellers’ ‘beliefs’ about Hirohito were accepted even though no actual evidence of Hirohito’s behaviour during the prosecution the war could be discovered. On the plus side this meant that for the rest of his life (he died in 1989), Hirohito’s presence helped to keep Japan as a stable ally within the American sphere. On the other hand, it has meant that today Japan still struggles to come to terms with what happened after the military takeover of the country in the early 1930s and the subsequent conduct of the Chinese and then the Pacific War. All of this is beyond the scope of Emperor but the Fellers narrative is certainly an important element in the wider story. The film made only $3.34 million at the US Box Office and most of its cinema audience was in Japan where it made $11 million. Its UK release was on only a handful of screens, making little or no impact.

Emperor is available on various streaming services and I think it is worth watching for its presentation of events in late 1945.

LFF 2021 #6: Wild Indian (US-France 2021)

Michael Greyeyes as Makwa/Michael

I think I chose this screening for the same reasons that I chose Queen of Glory. That film was made by a Ghanian-American and Wild Indian was made by a Native American filmmaker. Both films are début features and there are some similarities in two relatively short features which perhaps struggle to make exactly the film they envisaged. Partly this may be because of budget restrictions, which inevitably mean a relatively short shoot (only 17 days for Wild Indian) and partly just that making your first feature is particularly difficult. But both films are blessed with strong central performances and they tell tales we haven’t seen before, at least in these distinctive cultural contexts.

Chaske Spencer as Teddo

Writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr told us in the Q&A that his film had been seven years in the making and the narrative had  slowly transformed over time. In the version he finally filmed, a prologue presents an Ojibwe man suffering from smallpox at some indeterminate point in history and moving westward. We then meet two characters who are high school students in the 1980s. The school appears to have a strong church connection. Whether all the students are from reservations isn’t clear. Makwa and Teddo are close friends. Makwa in particular has a difficult time at home. The two become involved in a violent incident and the narrative moves forward to 2019. A tall and lean man is practising his golf swing. It’s California and eventually we will realise that this is Makwa who has changed his name to Michael and has become successful in some form of profitable business. Meanwhile back in the Mid-West, Teddo is being released from prison. What happened back in 1988 will now come back to confront both men. I won’t spoil the narrative further, except to note that the film ends with a character on the beach in California, looking out to sea. It’s a scene familiar from many Hollywood narratives but not usually one with Native Americans as central characters. There is also an epilogue involving the man with smallpox discovering a dead man, another Native American.

The film has been promoted as a thriller and it does its job efficiently, helped by the terrific performances of the four actors who play the younger and older versions of Makwa (Phoenix Wilson and Michael Greyeyes) and Teddo (Julian Gopal and Chaske Spencer). The casting delivers an authenticity element in that Wilson and Lisa Cromarty (who plays Reddo’s sister) are Canadian actors from the family of First Nations, the Anishinaabe which includes the Ojibwe of Wisconsin, the director’s home band. Michael Greyeyes is a leading First Nations actor from the Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. He also appears in Jimmy P. (US-France 2013). That film too, though set in the US, cast Canadian First Nations actors in several roles. Indigenous North Americans are not bound by colonial borders but the US and Canada have different policies towards indigenous cultures. Does this affect the development of actors? The production finally shot the reservation scenes in Oklahoma which provided support. Director Mitchell Corbine suggests that the look of the Oklahoma locations has some resemblance to Wisconsin. I understand that there are also Anishinaabe in Oklahoma. Chaske Spencer is also seen as a Native American actor, born in Oklahoma. I’m not sure about Julian Gopal.

The priest lectures students on the story of Cain and Abel

The prologue introduces the idea of the fate of indigenous peoples during the colonisation of North America. The ‘choice’ has always been to remain within the family and the band or to assimilate with the white majority. Of course, it was not usually a choice at all. Assimilation was forced on many as the recent outrage at the history of the Canadian residential school deaths attests. In Wild Indian, however, the two central characters take different steps following the events at school in the 1980s. We do learn something about what happened to Teddo but frustratingly not how Makwa became Michael. The repeated narrative is about the difficulty of surviving life on the reservation versus the material wealth offered by assimilation. Mitchell Corbine explores this narrative dichotomy with just two scenes that present white authority figures passing judgement. One is the priest lecturing the high school students about Cain and Abel and the other shows the local DA being dismissive about the re-opening of the investigation of the original violent incident involving Makwa and Teddo. Several of the reviewers who generally praise the film want to know much more about the two central characters. I can understand this but I think I like the more oblique take on the characters’ life choices. The film works as a crime thriller but there is enough to challenge us to think about the politics.

Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr

I’ve listed the film has having French involvement and this comes from the participation of the French company Logical Pictures Group which operates from Paris and Los Angeles. The group’s website covers its associates and on one of them, Loveboat, there is a profile of Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr and a chance to watch his two earlier short films, Shinaab (2017) and Shinaab Part 2 (2019) which explore the ‘two paths’ concept at the centre of the struggle for identity for a young Anishinaabe man. The director was selected by Variety as one of its 10 Directors to watch for 2021. There is certainly enough in the two shorts and Wild Indian to make me look out for his future projects.

Wild Indian has been listed as an acquisition by Vertigo Releasing for the UK, so look out for it in cinemas or on download in the coming months. I’ve not included a trailer here as all the available ones give away too much of the plot.

LFF 2021 #2: Queen of Glory (US 2021)

Sarah Obeng (Nana Mensah) is back in the Bronx

This shortish first feature (78 mins) is fronted by an outstanding performance by its writer-director-star Nana Mensah. An experienced actor with credits on several TV series and some Independent Cinema titles, Mensah had not intended to direct or to star in the film she was writing. But circumstances eventually pushed her into the other roles and as she said in the included online Q&A, it was good that she wrote the script first not thinking she would play the central character. That way she didn’t cut herself any slack or attempt to avoid certain potential scenarios. The outline narrative of the film is relatively simple and, at least on a structural level, familiar as a universal experience. But because of its specific cultural focus it is also distinctive in its narrative events and settings.

After a credit sequence featuring a montage of Ghanaian textile designs, drumming and dancing, we first meet Sarah in her office at Columbia University. She’s a science grad research student with some supervision duties. She’s hoping her boyfriend, who has been appointed to a more senior post in Ohio, will leave his wife and she can share a house with him. She seems sure this will happen. The ‘inciting incident’ when it arrives almost overwhelms Sarah. Her mother dies suddenly and Sarah is faced with a series of responsibilities, the weight of which severely throws her off-balance. First she learns that she has inherited her mother’s house and her Christian bookshop in the Bronx. Second she must organise not one but two large-scale celebrations, one a ‘white person-style funeral’, but the other a traditional Ghanaian funeral with expectations of attendance by many in the ‘Little Ghana’ community in the Bronx. Third, her estranged father arrives from Accra with expectations of a family reunion. No wonder she has little time to check in with the boyfriend, who I think is probably already mistrusted by many in the audience – he can’t even pronounce ‘Accra’ correctly.

One question for me was trying to work out what kind of a film this was. It has been widely promoted as a comedy and I was relieved that the BFI host of the introduction and Q&A, Grace Barber-Plentie, asked Nana Mensah directly about finding the right tone. Mensah was willing to describe her film as a comedy and said that the mixing of grief and comedy was something that did happen in her culture. It strikes me that the same is true in most cultures. It is often said that weddings and funerals have much the same capacity for comedy and drama in my Northern English culture and I suspect it is the same in most others.

A rather dazed Sarah is measured for a new dress for the Ghanaian funeral gathering . . .

From my perspective the narrative suggests a form of realist family melodrama with comic elements. The real story is about Sarah’s struggle to understand what she might be losing if she sells the house and the bookshop and follows her boyfriend to Ohio. This includes questions about the value she places on family ties and friendships within her community. It’s also a question about what a ‘hyphenate’ identity means in the US today. In other words, it’s a diaspora narrative. As I watched the film I realised that I probably know more about Francophone West African cultures both in Africa and in France than the Anglophone West African cultures in the UK and US. This is because of the way film and TV have developed in West Africa in the post-colonial period. I’m aware of a triangular relationship between Nigeria and Ghana with the UK and US, but I don’t have much access to the films and TV produced even though Nollywood and Ghallywood are prolific producers. The films are hard to see in the UK outside specific cities with a Nigerian or Ghanaian community. Nana Mensah’s film feels more like an American Independent film, but there are elements of Ghanaian Cinema as well, I think. She uses archive footage at various points to offer a sense of traditional ceremonies and life on the streets of Accra. One of the key cultural ‘threads’ in the narrative focuses on food. Early in the film Sarah eats pizza and snacks. For the funeral parties she makes, or buys in, Ghanaian food. The prospect of going to the meat market in the Bronx is also intercut with footage of street abattoirs in Ghana, and buying meat (i.e. ‘real meat’) is something she can barely stomach. By the end of the film, however, she is making rice and meat stew for her father.

. . . emerging transformed in this stunning outfit

I enjoyed the film but I agree with at least one other reviewer who recognises that it is almost as if the production ran out of money (and time) since some narrative threads are left in the air and others are quickly resolved. Nana Mensah discussed her positive experience with Kickstarter in the Q&A, but also stressed the work needed to deal with the funding. I don’t know if the production was affected by COVID. This is still an impressive début picture. I enjoyed the ‘Scope photography by Cybel Martin and the editing by Cooper Troxell. I also enjoyed the music in the film, especially the song over the closing credits. I should also mention the actor Meeko who plays the important role of the Christian bookshop manager. The ‘King of Glory’ shop is a ‘real’ location, owned by one of Mensah’s relatives. Anya Migdal was one of the producers of the film and she also plays the the first generation Russian-American next door neighbour in the Bronx who remembers Sarah from the local high school. This was also a promising narrative strand, but like the bookshop perhaps not fully realised.

Queen of Glory won a prize at its home festival Tribeca and it was well-received by Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ghanaian-American reviewer. I’m sure it would find a UK audience if some form of release is possible. Here’s a festival trailer.