Category: American Independents

Summertime (UK-US 1955)

summertime

To do or not to do

The opening scenes of this melodrama look like a travelogue graced by Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. I guess tourism was becoming more popular in the post-War era and the shots of Venice would no doubt have tempted many to visit. All these scenes lack is a complacent voice over selling us the place’s charms in a twee way. Fortunately the film stars Katharine Hepburn.

The slight ‘holiday romance’ story was adapted, from Arthur Laurent’s play, by director David Lean and H.E. Bates (and the uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart). Hepburn’s ‘independent woman’ persona is to the fore at the start as she’s touring on her own but finds the ‘romance’ of Venice casts her loneliness into the foreground: cue Rossano Brazzi’s Italian charmer, Renato di Rossi. What makes the film distinctive is the way Jane Hudson’s (Hepburn) loneliness is portrayed as it isn’t just something that is presented as a ‘narrative lack’ to be fulfilled ‘happily ever after’ at the film’s conclusion. There’s real pathos in Hepburn’s performance as she hesitates to go for the ‘holiday fling’. Her ‘middle aged spinster’ characterisation takes up a fair proportion of the film and the scriptwriters don’t compromise with their ending.

In a striking scene, when di Rossi first sees Hudson we get that rare beast: the male gaze directed at an ‘older’ woman (Hepburn was 48 at the time). We see him appreciatively look at her body, particularly her exposed calf. Even the ‘cute’ kid isn’t too irritating though Lean’s tendency to shoot a lot of the conversations in long takes and an immobile character tends to drain the drama. However, the numerous shots of Hudson wandering around a crowded Venice are skilfully executed.

Apparently the adultery fell foul of the Production Code and scenes were cut: the film leaves us with a firework display. Hepburn received one of her numerous Oscar nominations; Lean, too, was nominated.

Puzzle (US 2018)

Kelly Macdonald as Agnes and Irrfan Khan as Robert outside the ‘puzzle shop’

Puzzle stars two of my favourite actors on the top of their game in an American remake of an Argentinian film. Irrfan Khan has been widely recognised as a great actor within India and around the world for both festival films and international popular films but Kelly Macdonald has often been excellent but underused as a supporting actor. In Puzzle she is given the lead role for what I think might be the first time in 52 films. (Later, I realised I’d seen her in the lead in just her second film, Stella Does Tricks in 1996.) How did she manage to be overlooked for so long for a lead role? I’m tempted to say that is the ‘puzzle’ at the centre of this film and in a way it is.

Agnes completes her first puzzle

Although the narrative involves jigsaw puzzles and a national ‘jigsaw puzzling competition’, it is really a narrative about a woman who attempts to solve the puzzle of her own life – in effect to ‘find herself’ as the modern cliché has it. And it’s perhaps the case that few actors could pull off the performance achieved by Ms Macdonald that makes the film particularly interesting. She plays Agnes, the forty-something mother of two sons, Gabe, planning to go to college, and Ziggy, reluctantly working in his father’s garage repair shop. The father is Louie. Agnes is still living in her father’s old house in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her family are Hungarian-Americans and besides the housework she is a member of the Churchwomen’s Guild of her local Catholic church. Everybody takes Agnes for granted, more in an unthinking than an unkind way.

The family at the dinner table, from left Louie (David Denman), Gabe (Austin Abrams), Gabe’s girlfriend Nikki (Liv Hewson), Agnes and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler)

She seems to be even putting on her own birthday party to entertain everybody else. Discovering (or ‘rediscovering’) her genius for puzzle-solving one day leads her into another world and into a ‘partnership’ with Irrfan’s character, Robert, a wealthy man in Manhattan. She then finds herself commuting twice a week to New York to meet Robert and practice solving jigsaw puzzles against the clock. Sketching out this bare outline, I realise how conventional a story it must sound. I was reminded of another American re-make, that of the Japanese film Shall We Dance? (1996). Fortunately, Puzzle is much better than the dreadful US version of that film with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez (2004). The more I think about Puzzle though, the more I realise that it is a familiar story in terms of structure in which a husband or wife discovers something they can do well after many years of routine, but they don’t tell their family – with the inevitable consequence that they will be found out. But Puzzle is interesting because Kelly Macdonald is mesmerising and because the script by Oren Moverman, Polly Mann based on the Argentinian original, Rompecabezas (2009) written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff, is carefully nuanced and only occasionally a little too clever. Oren Moverman is a writer-director I remember for The Messenger (US 2009)

Out of the house and walking across Manhattan

What makes a film like this is the portrayal of characters who seem human because they aren’t perfect. Agnes certainly isn’t. As her confidence grows she perhaps says and does some things that might be hurtful and perhaps arising from resentment. Robert too isn’t perfect. Louie (David Denman) is a good man let down by a lack of education and an insensitivity perhaps caused by living in a relatively closed kind of community. He loves his wife. His sons are each differently challenged by the situations they find themselves in. The narrative ending works well for me. In real life there are always loose threads and things we could do, but which have consequences we might not be prepared for. It sounds trite but life is a puzzle. Macdonald and Khan are excellent – and so are the rest of what is a strong ensemble cast.

Agnes at the cabin by the lake

The technical credits are worth mentioning. Agnes and Louie’s house is quite dark and subdued inside and outside seems to be located in a fairly prosperous but conservative area. I’m still unsure how wealth and social class work in the US since Agnes is not employed and the repair shop is not making big profits, yet Louie has in the past managed to buy land in the interior which has a cabin, a lake and fishing rights. Robert’s house in Manhattan is spacious and beautifully furnished and the journey for Agnes by train and on foot across Manhattan is well presented through the cinematography of Chris Norr. The score by Dustin O’Halloran is effective without being overpowering. I was also struck by the subtle changes in the costumes worn by Kelly Macdonald, though when she arrives in Manhattan wearing a bright red sweater, the outcome feels predictable. The film was directed by Marc Turtletaub, best known in the film industry as a producer of independent films such as Little Miss Sunshine (US 2006). He chose to direct this film because of a personal interest in the script since he saw in Agnes a character resembling his own mother, to whom he dedicated the picture.

Puzzle is a quiet but strong and satisfying film that I found to be affective. In the UK the film is distributed by Sony Classics, opening on ‘100+’ screens. That’s quite a few screens and suggests either a high-profile ‘specialised film’/art film or a mainstream film that the distributer isn’t quite sure of. My feeling is that Puzzle is the latter. It could appeal to a fairly wide audience and we saw it in a late morning slot in a multiplex with just a tiny audience. It seems to be on at odd times here and there with little promotion. It has little chance of benefitting from ‘word of mouth’ if potential audiences struggle to find a screening. I’ve found this is a problem with Sony Classics before (e.g. with the excellent Maudie (Ireland-Canada 2016)). Do try and see Puzzle if you can, it’s well worth the effort.

Miles (US 2016)

A story about a boy and his mum?

I thought from the opening images of this film, beneath the credits, that I would enjoy this film. The CinemaScope images are nicely composed by Hunter Robert Baker and show us farmland and the local high school in Pondley, Illinois in 1999. For a UK viewer this announces small town life in the Mid-West. It’s early morning (6.39 AM) and 17 year-old Miles is on his computer with headphones for music from his Discman. Through a dial-up connection he’s looking for some action in a chatroom. His mother wakes and makes breakfast. Later we discover that his mother is the English teacher in the town high school and Miles, entering his senior year, is in her class. So this is going to be a teenpic, a high school film in a rural setting? (I thought of Election (US 1999) set in Omaha.) Well, yes, it is and then again, no, it isn’t.

The central conflict in the narrative is that Miles is determined to get a college place in Chicago, but circumstances mean that he doesn’t have access to the money for the fees charged by the prestigious film school he wants to join. The only option appears to be winning a scholarship and the one he finds is a sports scholarship. But the only sport that Miles is good at is volleyball. The school only has a girls’ volleyball team, so he applies for that. Miles is gay, but in this narrative that isn’t an issue. The biggest problem for Miles is that he is determined to leave the one-horse town (as he sees it) where people become zombies, accepting a dull life. The practical problem is that Miles is good at volleyball and when he gets on the team, they win too easily and parents in the district complain about their daughters having to compete against a boy.

Miles bonds with team-mates. His shorts are a bit long and loose?

Generically, we have a ‘sports movie’ hybridising with a high school pic. We don’t have a teen romantic comedy, but we do have a situation in which Miles’ mom sees her future as to some extent tied up with Miles being on the girls’ team. The film is announced as ‘inspired by a true story’ and may indeed be partly autobiographical for writer-director Nathan Adloff. Miles (skilfully played by Tim Boardman on his début) is not a tortured soul as a gay teenager and he takes inspiration and re-assurance from his online friend in the chatroom. We only see him in class on one occasion and the girls on the volleyball team are supportive, as is the coach (Missi Pyle). There is a limited negative response from some boys. The narrative manages to weave the story of Miles’ mum Pam (as played by veteran TV and film actor Molly Shannon) into Miles’ story. I enjoyed everything about the film up until the final section. The story had great potential but somehow it doesn’t quite make the last step into something really memorable. Ends get tied up with no real explanation. There is a high school graduation which would usually suggest the ending to a high school pic, but it’s a bit low-key here. There is a personal ending for Miles and for Pam (and possibly for the coach of the team) and in a sense, as one reviewer has suggested, there is a quasi-Disney ‘happy ending’ all round.

I’m a bit torn by the film. It isn’t the kind of realist drama the credit sequence promised. It did occur to me that some might find Miles too self-obsessed but more importantly, I think, the film is different in making its gay teenager someone who just gets on and does what he thinks he has to do. I’m not the gay audience but I note that the film has been successful at various LGBTQ festivals winning top prizes and ‘audience awards’. There is a sense of injustice in the reactions to Miles on the girls’ team but that sense of ‘rebellion’, often represented by music, fashion and other elements of youth culture isn’t really there. Miles argues that the state allowed a girl onto the boys’ team, so why not the other way round? In some ways the film is too sensible – only Pam gets really silly. Still, it’s good to see a film about a teenage boy and his mum.

Miles is now available on DVD from Matchbox films – click on the cover below for the Amazon page:

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (US 2017)

This is the most recent documentary from Frederick Wiseman. Since Titticut Follies in 1967 Wiseman has been a prolific and central figure in observational documentary: after all these years he is almost the definition of films that offer a dispassionate but detailed portrait, mainly of institutions. In this long film, 197 minutes, he examines both the famous landmark in Bryant Park on 5th Avenue (a key setting in the successful The Day After Tomorrow, 2004) and a number of the other libraries in the New York public network. I have been fortunate enough to visit the iconic central building and one of the pleasures of the film was how Wiseman explores both the parts I have seen and the less seen staff and machinery behind this.

The film opens with great style as we observe an event in the libraries main foyer; Richard Dawkins giving a lunch-time talk with all his eloquence and commitment. We see a number of such events, some like this less formal, and others in one of the library auditoria with a more formal presentation and a large audience. I particularly enjoyed the session of an interview with Elvis Costello. And we see smaller events, more open, at branch libraries. The most fascinating was a young black woman explaining the ‘southern ideology’ which criticised Northern capitalism from a right-wing standpoint; not quite as formidable as that by Karl Marx but an important component in the struggle over slavery. There are concert performances in auditoria but also less formal presentations and the odd amateur improvisation; not a part of the official library. Title cards identify performers and venues for the viewer.

Wiseman tends to wander around an institution and he records and presents his observations without comment. Seemingly these sequences are laid out in arbitrary manner. So along with the events we gets shots of the staff, both at the main library and at branches, occupied in their tasks, frequently involving library members and members of the public. One is a telephone enquiry service and we see and hear as an operator checks the word ‘unicorn’ on a computer and answers questions by a caller. This is one of those moments of sympathetic humour found in Wiseman’s films. We see staff checking in and out books and other library resources. Behind the scenes we see a group of male workers at a conveyor belt to sort books for return to their branches.

Wiseman offers repetition of groups and settings and the most frequent in this film are a series of meetings involving the library management. We see and hear them discussing the library finances: after some years of reductions 2016 saw a welcome increase in the budget allocated by the city. We also hear how important is the role of private funding for the library. And they discuss some of the processes in running the library, developments at particular venues and some of their longer-term goals.

Their discussions and the sequence of library staff and activity demonstrate how much wider than printed books are the resources of a modern library. British users of libraries will recognise this and both the parallels and differences in the library system. Certainly the New York Public Library network appears to have avoided the savage cutbacks experienced in Britain.

Whilst Wiseman presentation seems an ad hoc portrait of the public library the editing, in particular, provides a less formal and slightly ambiguous commentary. There are frequent touches of irony as Wiseman’s camera moves from one activity to another. One notable counterpoint follows a meeting of the management discussing (with liberalism) vagrancy and the problem of the libraries being used as a place of sleep rather than activity. Then we see a sleeping African-American user at a desk. This points up, (as do other parallels), that the management is also uniformly Caucasian.

As the film passes from branch library to branch library we get shots of New York streets and intersections. New Yorkers will probably place buildings in this way: less likely for British viewers. For me these felt rather more like the ‘pillow shots’ that fill films by Ozu Yasujiro, though Wiseman only provides natural sound.

The film is long but absorbing. However, I did find the last twenty minutes or so palled. This was not so much due to the length but to the repetitions. At the end we visit another management meeting, I forget the topic. Then we see a meeting of African-American women at a branch (Queens I think). They all talk volubly but briefly. The lengthy contribution comes from an African-American director of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. There follows a formal event in the main auditorium which fits into Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas regarding ‘aesthetic dispositions’.

There is clearly some irony intended here. But by this stage I felt we had had more of such events and of managers than of ordinary users and workers. I have not seen National Gallery (2014) again but my memory is that film had more of such moments; it certainly emphasised the ironic contrasts between British and North American staff at that institution. In fact we do not get a sequence where the ordinary workers in the public library discuss issues in the space offered repeatedly to managers. Nor do we see any Trade Union activity. I wondered if there as not an occasion where the workers of the conveyor belt seen earlier – the most repetitious and alienating activity in the film – had a gathering or talk. The managers are very liberal but by the end I felt that their behaviour was affected by their consciousness of the camera. I did not feel this with the ordinary staff.

The Sight & Sound, August 2018, review offers,

“Lofty idealism informs conversations about what kind of society the library wants to help to build, giving a surprising urgency to scenes of people sitting in rooms talking.”

From one angle this is true but I did not get a sense of what the pressures of budgets, routines , public demand and the compulsion of wage labour exerted on the staff/workers in the network. I suspect that they are there. Certainly one gets a sense of this in some of the other Wiseman documentaries.

Leave No Trace (US 2018)

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as Tom and Ben Foster as her father, Will consider taking the train

The team of Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini have created another marvellous film that stands alongside Zama and Sweet Country as a highlight of 2018 viewing. Rosellini is co-writer and producer and Granik is co-writer and director. The pair have made four films together. They all feature characters struggling to survive on the edges of American society in ‘marginal’ communities but also displaying strength of purpose and real humanity. Most reviewers have singled out the success of the pair’s Winter’s Bone (US 2010) as a good starting point for discussing the new film and there are certainly some important links, but it is unfortunate that UK distributors were seemingly unwilling to release Stray Dog (US 2014). That documentary film features a Vietnam veteran who forty years later has found peace and purpose as a biker who runs a trailer park in rural Missouri and cares for his extended family and his community of similarly-minded people. Several elements from this film are worked into Leave No Trace.

Tom and Will under their tarpaulin canopy in the Portland urban park and enjoying a father-daughter whittling exercise

The new film is inspired by the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock and the film credits list three other books used by the writers and actors in their search for some kind of authenticity in the representation of narrative events. Leave No Trace is one of those films in which the central characters are not given a back story, or at least it is not spelt out for us and we must work with only scraps of information. On the other hand, the story does have connections to both mainstream and independent film genres. It opens in a temperate rain forest where a father and his teenage daughter appear to have been living for some time as they are well-equipped and organised with set routines and even a small vegetable plot. Our first surprise is that the forest is not in a remote area, but actually close to a major road bridge and the urban mass of Portland. We follow the couple into town where they visit a military veteran’s event and a supermarket. We are in Oregon and I was reminded of the first Rambo film (First Blood US 1982) in which the hero is eventually chased through the forests of the North West and the very different Wendy and Lucy (US 2008) set, like some of her other films, by Kelly Reichardt in small town Oregon. Some reviewers have also mentioned Captain Fantastic (US 2016) which I haven’t seen. I think there might also be elements shared with Into the Wild (US 2007) and some European films such as Vie Sauvage (France-Belgium 2014)

Will (Ben Foster) is indeed a veteran, though we never find out where or when he fought. Only when he sells some prescription medication to men in a camp by the park do we realise that he might have some form of PTSD. Ben Foster is very good as Will and it was only after the screening that I realised that he was one of the stars in the excellent Hell or High Water (US 2016). He was also the lead in The Messenger (US 2009) in which he is a soldier close to the end of his tour of duty who is sent to deliver the terrible news of the death of loved ones to soldiers’ families. I see that I praised him for both roles so the fact that I didn’t recognise him says a lot about his ability to inhabit his roles. Will’s daughter is ‘Tom’ (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a young New Zealander with a big future). Her mother (and presumably Will’s wife/partner) is never mentioned. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but the shape of the story requires the couple to be first ‘discovered’ by the authorities and then placed in a ‘re-socialisation’ programme from which Will forces another escape. But this isn’t an action film. Its central focus is the father-daughter relationship and their love for each other. The problem is that while Will needs an escape/an alternative/a diversion from the world in his head, Tom is still open to anything that might happen. I found the film’s ending satisfying in how it tried to deal with this, especially when Dale Dickey appeared (she features in both Winter’s Bone and Hell or High Water). My hope and expectation is that audiences will be deeply moved by the central relationship.

Tom with Dale Dickey

Leave No Trace is a complex and many-layered narrative. The title also refers to the exhortation heard by anyone who ventures into a national park or area of outstanding beauty. I remember as a teenager in the 1960s been told not to leave orange peel on Lake District fells. Will is very disciplined in how he works with the environment and he has taught Tom well. The irony is that the forest in which we first see Will and Tom is so close to urban America so they exist in a kind of no man’s land – I did wonder where the eggs came from until I saw father and daughter stroll into town. As one review I read suggested, it is also surprising that the local welfare agencies assume the worst when they pick up Will and Tom – and Will is forced to answer questions asked by a computer in scenes reminiscent of I, Daniel Blake. The welfare agencies do seem polite and professional but I would find their controlling attitudes unbearable and there is a scene on a bus which quite shocked me. The other side of the authorities is represented visually when bulldozers arrive to knock down the shanty town/tent city occupied by rough sleepers close to the city. I remember similar scenes from films set in apartheid era South Africa and from recent films like Charlie’s Country (Australia 2013).

Tom makes a friend of Isaiah and his rabbit

The US is a very big country with plenty of land but it now all seems to be owned by the government and major landowners alongside the those who own their own homes. It’s seemingly difficult to find a place to pitch your tent and live away from people if you are poor. If you are rich you can build your own estate. Politically, ‘living in the woods’ now seems like a right-wing survivalist activity that stirs up all those American ideas about freedom and the right to bear arms. That doesn’t fit with Will and Tom but it seems like a discourse which Granik and Rosellini attempt to counteract in Stray Dog and again in Leave No Trace. There is another older idea about living in the woods which goes back to Henry David Thoreau and Walden or Life in the Woods (1854) and stresses the simplicity and direct contact with nature. Leave No Trace comments obliquely on this by showing the ‘home-schooled’ Tom reading her encyclopedia in her home-made shelter and crushing egg-shells (anti-slug protection?) to place around her tiny plot of brassicas (?). The sense of the natural world is carried by both the cinematography of Scottish DoP Michael McDonough (Winter’s Bone and Sunset Song (UK 2015)) and the sound design (a single ‘sound designer’ is not credited). In the first few minutes I recognised that sound of the rain filtering down through the tree branches in the forest. The music is under the control of composer Dickon Hinchliffe, another Brit and founder member of Tindersticks, who was responsible for the music in Winter’s Bone and as in that film, some of it here is diegetic and performed on ‘set’.

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie spent time in a New Zealand forest preparing for her role and it did occur to me that Leave No Trace has many of the same elements found in Hunt For the Wilderpeople (NZ 2016). The New Zealand film was more light-hearted and occasionally hilarious, but like Leave No Trace it also suggested that living wild could be educational/restorative and that not everyone you meet ‘off grid’ is out to harm you. There have been predictable claims that Thomasina Harcourt Brace could emulate Jennifer Lawrence’s success after Winter’s Bone. Her performance in Leave No Trace is as assured as Lawrence’s in Winter’s Bone. I don’t know if she has the same drive and charisma in other situations but I’m certainly looking forward to finding out. Leave No Trace should win prizes. The only other recent American film I’ve seen with the same quality is The Rider (still not on release in the UK).

Leave No Trace is a film to hunt down and watch on a big screen. You won’t be disappointed.

You Were Never Really Here (UK-France-US 2017)

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe

For just her fourth feature in eighteen years, Lynne Ramsay has again opted for a literary adaptation after Morvern Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). She has worked on several other projects in between her finished features but has walked out or been pushed out of many of her starts – she is a woman who knows what she wants and won’t be coerced into anything she doesn’t want to do. You Were Never Really Here won the screenplay prize at Cannes and the best actor prize for Joaquin Phoenix, despite Ramsay’s contention that the film was not ‘completed’. The film now on release is 90 minutes long and the Cannes cut was 85 minutes.

It’s ironic that a ‘visual director’ like Ramsay (who trained first as a photographer) should be interested in stories first published as novels or novellas/short stories such as You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames. But then perhaps Lynne Ramsay is interested in finding a visual world to convey what I imagine to be the inner world of the protagonist Joe as presented in the original. If so she has certainly achieved her aim along with her collaborators – principally Thomas Townend as her cinematographer, Joe Bini as editor and Jonny Greenwood as music composer. All three were also with Ramsay on We Need to Talk About Kevin (Townend was the DoP for the Spanish shoot on that film).

Joe with his mother (played by Judith Roberts)

Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe as a shambling hulk whose heavy beard and unkempt appearance belies his abilities as an enforcer/protector. His body carries the scars which perhaps represent his internal sufferings. He has just finished a job in Cincinatti and when he returns to New York the first clues to a possible unravelling of his business appear. Joe suffers flashbacks which reveal traumas from his time in the Army in the Gulf and in the FBI as well as earlier memories of abuse by his father. All the traumas involve memories of children or teenagers who have been killed or damaged. We are in no doubt that Joe’s next job, to find and rescue the teenage daughter of a politician believed to have been taken to act as a young prostitute in a brothel, is something he will be committed to completing successfully. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative except to observe that Joe has to deal with a spiralling chaos of events. This is a very violent film – many people are killed. But Lynne Ramsay is not interested in the acts of violence as such, more their effect on Joe himself. His weapon of choice is usually a ball-pein hammer. Townend’s camera is often close to Joe, framing parts of his body. Shallow focus blurs the lights of the night-time city. We cannot be distant observers because we are often dragged into the fray. If you are squeamish like me, you may find the explorations of Joe’s punished body too painful to watch. The young Russian-American actor Ekaterina Samsonov is excellent as the young woman Joe rescues.

Joe with Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov)

Several critics have made references to the film as a modern take on Scorsese/Schrader’s classic Taxi Driver (US 1976). It’s not hard to see why. Martin Scorsese, his cinematographer Michael Chapman and composer Bernard Herrmann produced a film that was as aesthetically powerful as that of Ramsay/Townend/Greenwood trio. In addition both films feature an army veteran, a young prostitute and a politician in New York City. But the films are actually quite different in terms of both aesthetics and plot even if they have a similar impact on audiences. Ramsay’s use of flashbacks and fantasy/dream sequences creates a different tone to that of Taxi Driver.

Lynne Ramsay on set with Joaquin Phoenix

You Were Never Really Here is such a ‘rich text’ in terms of camerawork, sound, mise en scène and performance that I need to see it again before making other comments. I’d like to congratulate Film 4, BFI and the French company Why Not Productions for having faith in Lynne Ramsay, one of the UK’s most talented and committed filmmakers. I hope she gets another worthwhile project underway whenever she’s ready to commit herself again.

Here’s Lynne Ramsay talking about the film on Film 4:

I, Tonya (US 2017)

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as a teenager when she first meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), photos courtesy of NEON and 30WEST.

I went into this screening with no expectations and came out wondering exactly what I’d seen. I remembered the furore about the figure skater Tonya Harding and her rival Nancy Kerrigan back in 1994 but I was unaware of how it had been covered in the US media. My immediate reaction to the film was that Tonya got a ‘bum rap’ from the authorities, but since the film begins by telling us that it is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true” interviews, I don’t know if this is a reasonable position or not. I will say that Margot Robbie as Tonya gives an amazing performance. Allison Janney as her mother gives the kind of performance you expect from a great character actor.

Tonya’s mother (Allison Janney)

For anyone who doesn’t know the background to the story, Tonya Harding in the late 1980s was a working-class girl who had shown genuine skating talent from the time she was a toddler and as an older teenager she was clearly a major talent with athleticism and a real drive to succeed. Aged 14 she was 6th in the American Championships in 1985 and a year later 2nd in the Skate America international competition. But from the start Harding felt she was treated unfairly because of her working-class background and for the next eight years she struggled to gain credibility even when she won or was well-placed in major international competitions. In 1994 she was charged, along with her ex-husband, his friend and two hired thugs that they had attacked Harding’s rival Kerrigan. Harding maintained she didn’t know about the physical attack but she confessed to the charge that she subsequently conspired to hinder the prosecution of the attackers. The whole series of events became a tabloid sensation in the US and when Harding was sentenced she received what amounted to a lifetime ban from skating.

Tonya becomes the first American woman to perform a successful ‘triple axel’

Given the coverage at the time, anyone over 40 in America today knows the story and younger audiences must be similarly aware: Wikipedia informs me that there have been several TV documentaries as well as a play and a musical plus references/spoofs in other entertainment media. Why then should you be interested in this new film? The first reason may well be Margot Robbie’s performance. The Australian actor is 5′ 6”. Tonya Harding is 5′ 1″. Robbie is not a look-a-like stand-in but she is convincing in ageing from 15 to 47. Much of the performance requires world-class skating (and Harding was one of the strongest athletic skaters around). The filmmakers (Robbie was also a producer on the film directed by another Australian, Craig Gillespie) managed to use CGI, literally drawing on Harding’s routines, but even so it is a tour de force by Robbie.

Jeff, Tonya and her trainer Diane (Julianne Nicholson) are approached by a police officer with a report of an anonymous threat

The key to the film’s approach is the choice of ‘mockumentary’ and reality TV as an aesthetic mode, so we are offered ‘straight to camera’ comments by the principals as if they were being  interviewed today (i.e. Robbie is aged to 47). During the historical narrative, the same principals will also turn to the camera and offer observations on the scene as it is unfolding. Several reviews reference Scorsese’s presentation of Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990) and that’s not a bad shout in terms of the use of music and voiceovers. I’m not a fan of reality TV and though I found some scenes amusing, I was also saddened to see a life marked by domestic violence that is played for laughs. I thought that the array of characters were exaggerated grotesques – only then to discover from the photographs at the end in the credits sequence that at least the actors did look like the real players in this biopic. The mockumentary tropes also get in the way of the other genre features which interest me more. I, Tonya is a sports movie of a specific kind. In the Guardian Anne Billson offers a useful piece in which she points out that the film deals with a sport in which women are not competing in a ‘man’s world’ and therefore we can enjoy a different kind of sports narrative. Billson also offers us brief descriptions of several other sports stories with female leads to underpin her argument, including the Drew Barrymore-Ellen Page film Whiplash (US 2014), which would make an interesting comparison for film students.

Ice skating is one of those sports with a relatively ‘niche’ following of devoted fans, but which occasionally produces a celebrity figure with wide appeal. The Winter Olympics is always a high point and this year it was the Canadian ice-dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, three-time gold medallists who wowed a Canadian public who seemingly want the couple to marry. On the same day as I, Tonya‘s release, The Ice King, a documentary about John Curry, the supreme ice-dancer from the 1970s also opened in UK cinemas – unfortunately overshadowed by the American film. Skating fans will no doubt seek it out on DVD or online.

There are several distinct features of skating as a sport. One is difficulty of access and the funding for equipment and training. Entertainment features tend to gloss over this. So, while I, Tonya makes jokes about abuse and the costumes that Tonya and her mother sew at home, it doesn’t represent the very real struggle to compete without adequate funds. The conservative attitudes of the administrators of American skating create another barrier to success. A sport like skating is in one sense linked to equestrian sports in the UK in terms of funding, access and potential class conflict. But in North America they might be linked to geographical isolation and small town communities. I, Tonya is odd in not exploring Harding’s home context in Portland, Oregon. I assumed at first that the Hardings were in the South (and the film was shot almost entirely in Georgia, supported by that state’s film commission). It also misses a trick in not exploring more of Nancy Kerrigan’s background (which may be down to permissions). Kerrigan was also from a working-class background in a small town north of Boston. She wasn’t a privileged skater, though in ideological terms her career success could be seen as the result of ‘hard work’ and ‘family support’ – factors difficult for Tonya Harding to draw on for various reasons.

I, Tonya is a well-made film with some great performances and I was certainly engaged throughout. It does give a sense of the impact of celebrity and tabloid sensationalism as it began to be used on cable TV news in North America, but it misses out on a real story about sport, class and gender. Harding’s life after her conviction could be the basis for a whole new narrative but in I, Tonya it is just a relatively brief coda.

Here is the trailer. It hints at the extensive use of popular songs on the soundtrack, which includes Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman’ and Chicago’s ’25 or 6 to 4′ plus Doris Day and a host of familiar 70s and 80s stuff.

GFF18 #14: The Bigamist (US 1953)

Harry (Edmond O’Brien), Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) and Eve (Joan Fontaine) discuss the possibility of adoption.

The final screening in the Ida Lupino retrospective again proved to be a fascinating production and an absorbing film. I’m indebted to the excellent detailed study of Lupino’s work on the Cinema Scope website by Christoph Huber for some of the insights explored here. After The Hitch-Hiker was a sleeper hit (earning over $1 million dollars) Lupino was persuaded by her partners at The Filmakers, against her best instincts, to end the link with RKO and distribute The Bigamist independently. Although by all accounts they promoted the film well, it failed at the box office and sent The Filmakers into a decline it never recovered from. That’s a shame because The Bigamist is definitely worth seeing and we were able to watch a 35mm restoration by UCLA. I understand that some of the other films from The Filmakers are now in the public domain and only exist on poor quality video transfers.

Phyllis (Ida Lupino) and Harry (Edmond O’Brien) meet on the bus trip round ‘ the homes of the Hollywood stars’.

The Bigamist is an example of how Ida Lupino managed to bring elements of film noir to bear on a social issue/problem film. The plot involves a couple, Harry (Edmond O’Brien) and Eve (Joan Fontaine) who want to adopt a child. An agency is pleased to help them and Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) sets out to investigate whether the couple will be good parents. Jordan is a complex character drawing on Gwenn’s signature role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947. He appears avuncular (he was 75 when the film came out) but also sharp as a tack when it comes to checking out a prospective parent. He follows Harry, a travelling salesman, from San Francisco to Los Angeles where he corners him and extracts a story, told in flashback in the best film noir style. Eve is the wife and Ida Lupino herself is Phyllis, the woman in another city who Harry turns to from loneliness. I don’t really need to say any more, except that Lupino handles the narrative with great skill and cleverly allows for an ‘open ending’ when the two women meet after the court hearing.

Harry presented in long shot ‘alone in the city’. This is just after Harry has attempted to make perhaps the most difficult phone call he’s ever made.

What I found fascinating was that Lupino injects a real sense of disturbance through Mr. Jordan’s investigation. Innocent actions by Harry can take on different meanings and eventually he will be ‘betrayed’. Lupino plays her part very well and she gives it a tone of the innocent young woman caught up in a film noir story. She knew all about that from her own acting career. She was 35 when she made the picture but feels younger. Having said that she has a mature woman’s playful response to Harry’s attempted pickup. Joan Fontaine is also well cast as Eve, unable to have children, super-efficient at building a business with Harry and concerned about her own parents. Harry’s actions are stupid perhaps, but not malicious. He tries to do his best for both women and that’s why it is oddly satisfying that we are denied a ‘resolution’. In the central role, Edmond O’Brien is very good indeed.

The Bigamist looks good and that’s probably down to the partnership of Ida Lupino as director and George Deskant as cinematographer. Deskant had been behind the camera at RKO since 1946 and he’d worked with Lupino, shooting On Dangerous Ground (1951) and another title from The Filmakers, Beware, My Lovely (1952). After The Bigamist he moved into TV – like Lupino herself and I think he must have shot several of the many TV episodes Ida Lupino directed. I suspect too that others from The Bigamist crew followed her into TV. Christoph Huber adds another twist, reporting that Lupino and Deskant decided to use a different camera crew for Eve’s and Phyllis’s scenes. I confess I’m not sure what this achieved. The other strange set of links about The Bigamist concerns Collier Young. His marriage to Lupino had ended in 1951 and in 1952 he married Joan Fontaine. Ida Lupino thus found herself directing her ex-husband’s new wife in a film he produced and for which he provided the original story and even took a bit part in a scene featuring Lupino. The landlady of the apartment house where Phyllis lives is played by Joan Fontaine’s mother Lilian. In one sense it sounds like a bewildering experience for Lupino yet I think it demonstrates how organised and disciplined she must have been. The result is a tight 80 minute feature with not a frame wasted. It’s not surprising that Ida Lupino was so prolific in directing episodes of TV series from 1956 until the late 1960s (during which time she also acted on TV). One other aspect of The Filmakers work that is interesting is an early embracing of product placement in The Bigamist – a clever way to make some extra money. I didn’t notice it until I found it mentioned in a useful Cineaste piece by Dan Georgakas (Vol XXV No. 3 June 2000).

I’m now on a search for more Ida Lupino films – those she directed and those she acted in. Thanks Glasgow FF!