Category: Film history

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.

Friese-Greene at the Bioscope

Friese-Greene experimental film

May 5th is one hundred years since the death of this British film inventor and pioneer. The Kennington Bioscope is streaming a discussion on his life and work by three researcher/historians; Ian Christie: Peter Domankiewicz: Stephen Herbert; ‘Back in focus: The Centenary of William Friese-Greene’. Wednesday May 5th at 7.30 p.m. [BST] and subsequently on line on You Tube. [NB it seems that there is 50 seconds of a blank screen with no sound before the You Tube broadcast kicks in.]

Friese-Greene was one of  a number of people in the 1880s experimenting on techniques to produce the illusion of a moving image from projected photographic film. He produced several working cameras between 1888 and 1891 and issued a patent for these. However, like some of the other inventors, he was not successful in projecting these images in a public showing; it was the Lumière Brothers success in this that made their work historic.

Friese-Greene ran a successful photographic portrait studio but his main interests were his experiments and the costs of his work on moving images led to bankruptcy. In the early 1900 he then experimented with early colour film. One of these, Biocolour, was projected successfully but it was eclipsed by other examples; it suffered from heavy flicker and colour fringing. Examples of his early films are available on You Tube, including a refurbished version of ‘The Open Road’, shot by his son Claude using his father’s system.

Friese-Greene‘s last public appearance was attending and speaking at a meeting of members of the British Film industry. Ironically he collapsed at the meeting and died.

He was for a long time a forgotten figure. The film biopic,The Magic Box, produced in 1951 was planned  to accompany the Festival of Britain in that year. The film was produced by Festival Film Productions, partly funded by the National Film Finance Corporation with contributions from all the major British production companies either for free or at cost. The script was by Eric Ambler based on a book by Ray Allister and directed by John Boulting. The film was shot in Technicolor, at that time reserved for prestige production in Britain. The technical side and the casting benefited from the varied contributing companies. There is is excellent colour cinematography by Jack Cardiff, fine production design by John Bryan and excellent costume design by Julia Squire. There are a host of cameos by British stars but there is a lack of dramtic effect. The film was a failure at the box office.

The film’s focus is the travails of his career. The sequences showing his experiments are brief. That depicting colour does not give much sense of the technology but that showing his working camera and projector does give a greater sense of its operation. There are some dates, such as the Industry meeting, but others, like the success with projecting his film,or his work on colour film, is curiously undated.

Brian Coe in The History of Movie Photography, Eastview Editions, 1981 is sceptical of the claims put forward in the film. He questions whether the machine described in Friese-Greene’s patents actually projected at the required frame rate of 16; and he reckons that the inventor only used celluloid after its use in the Edison workshops. Friese-Greene’s Biocolour system has more credence but fell foul of a patent suit by Charles Urban for his Kinemacolor. There is more on the Blog William Friese-Greene & me. Happily it also includes posts on another pioneer in Britain, Louis le Prince. The Bioscope presentation will likely shed more light on Friese-Greene and his contribution to cinema history.

Remaking The Mosquito Coast

Peter Weir and Harrison Ford on set for The Mosquito Coast (1986)

Last night BBC Radio 4’s Front Row confirmed for me that it is completely in line with the middle class view of the arts in the UK. I have moaned about this several times before but this was an almost perfect example of the programme’s lack of interest in cinema and its preference for literature and ‘quality’ TV.

The first item on the show was a discussion about the new serial on Apple TV+, an adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast which happens to star Theroux’s nephew, Justin Theroux. Regular presenter Tom Sutcliffe, who is usually very good, had two guests, Tanya Motie and Kohinoor Sahota, whom he invited to discuss the new serial as an adaptation of the novel. At no point did he mention that the novel had been adapted for a Hollywood feature in 1986. That film was directed by Peter Weir and starred Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and River Phoenix as the husband, wife and son who attempt to set up a new type of family enterprise in Honduras. The script for the film was written by Paul Schrader. So, the adaptation involved five of the most important figures in 1980s filmmaking. Ford was an A list star, Schrader was an A list writer-director, Peter Weir was perhaps the most reliable director available in Hollywood with a string of top-rated films to his credit, Mirren was a top line British actor and River Phoenix a rising teen star before his tragic early death. But the adaptation was not mentioned by Sutcliffe. One of the guests did mention River Phoenix and later mentioned the film as an adaptation in the 1980s but Sutcliffe ignored the possible link completely (almost as if he had a fixed agenda that precluded discussing the film). I don’t know if you find this odd. I certainly do.

I should say that I haven’t read the novel or seen the 1986 film. I was never attracted to Theroux’s writing but I have been a big fan of Peter Weir and this was one of the few films of his that I didn’t see in the 1980s. He made five major features in Australia and a further eight in Hollywood. I would bet that many more people have seen films directed by Peter Weir than read books by Paul Theroux, but Weir didn’t win literary prizes, he directed intelligent mainstream features, including some literary adaptations (and he received six Oscar nominations). As far as I’m aware, The Mosquito Coast was the least successful of Weir’s Hollywood pictures, despite Schrader’s script and the three talented leads. I would have thought it would be interesting to work out why Weir failed as a line of enquiry about how well, or not, the new serial works. But presumably the Front Row team have forgotten about Peter Weir (who is a few years younger than Paul Theroux). He is, after all, only a director whereas Theroux is a writer.I recognise that the remake is a TV serial and will have different narrative requirements but it will still share with the film the task of finding ways to represent the ideas and the characters in the novel.

I never have great expectations about the coverage of film on Front Row, though I respect Tom Sutcliffe as a general arts commentator. I do recognise that it’s quite difficult to see the 1986 film which is only available to rent on certain streamers at a relatively high price (around £7) but then Apple TV+ is also a niche offering, so why cover the serial at all? As regular readers will know, I don’t watch US TV and don’t have access to US streamers. But I do see a lot of films from around the world. I don’t feel catered for by Radio 4 which seems to dote on American TV and and English language literature, alongside music, dance and art. Fundamental is the bottom line that the BBC approach to cinema as an art form is to accept Hollywood promotions or whatever is the most high profile arthouse offering of the moment but not to treat the medium seriously. The only BBC film critic who might raise the level of debate is Mark Kermode, but he is rarely allowed onto Radio 4. My other thought re The Mosquito Coast is to link it to John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest (1985), another story about an American intrusion into the rain forests of South America, though a different kind of story. Boorman like Weir is one of the best directors to emerge in the 1960s/70s and has rarely received his due from critics. The Emerald Forest also had a mixed reception in the 1980s but as with any Boorman film it was never dull and often surprising in its ways of delivering ideas and a story. Weir and Boorman both deserve reappraisal but our film culture as presented on Radio 4 doesn’t seem to have a place for such discussions. The anti-consumerism of The Mosquito Coast and the ecological discourse of The Emerald Forest have a contemporary resonance that is worth exploring. Perhaps I should try the Radio 3 coverage which I’m told is more intelligent?

Piero Vivarelli, Life as a B Movie (Italy 2019)

Italian popular cinema in the 1960s and 1970s is a thing of wonder and I certainly haven’t seen enough of it. MUBI are currently offering a short season of recent Italian films which are mostly not the kind of Italian films that currently achieve international distribution. I’ve moaned on this blog frequently about Italian films I’ve seen in festivals that should be seen in the UK but they never seem to get here. Life as a B Movie is very welcome as an online offering because it tells a story about a singular figure in Italian media and does so with numerous clips from the films which benefited from his involvement.

Vivarelli appearing as the saxophonist in Urlatori alla sbarra (Howlers of the Dock, 1960)

The subject of this documentary biopic is Piero Vivarelli (1927-2010) who was perhaps most importantly a writer but also a music promoter and director of a broad range of ‘B’ pictures. His first interest appears to have been music (pop and jazz) and his obsession appears to have been variations of the ‘youth picture’ or as he was more prone to express it, the battle between the young generation and their parents’ generation. We get to see clips from several pop music influenced youth pix, one of which, Howlers of the Dock (1960) has a squadron of Vespa riding youths well before Quadrophenia. Vivarelli co-wrote with many people and seemed to have a real knack of finding talented people to work with including Lucio Fulci who would later become a well-known genre film director. With Fulci and others Vivarelli wrote the song ’24 Mila Baci’ or ‘24,000 Kisses’ which became a No 1 hit in Italy and Spain. This was a period in which Italian pop music became popular across Europe and was even covered in the UK and the US. I was amazed to realise that ’24 Mila Baci’ features on the soundtrack of Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida (Poland 2013), set in 1962. We also see an interview with the Serbian director Emir Kusturica who used a performance of the song in an early film.

Franco Nero as Django

Vivarelli’s own films include an intriguing youth romance set in Berlin at the time of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1962, known as East Zone, West Zone in English and starring Helmut Griem who became an international film star in the 1970s. Perhaps his most prominent role for international audiences was as one (arguably the most significant) of the writers of Django (Italy-Spain 1966) the Western with a host of later ‘sequels’. The documentary includes interviews with Franco Nero, the central character and explores the role of Vivarelli alongside director Sergio Corbuci and co-writer Franco Rossetti, who like Vivarelli came from Siena.

The documentary’s directors offer this statement:

To depict this offbeat, complex, unsung Italian pop culture personality we chose a non-linear narrative style with several intersecting thematic story lines weaved into an only partly chronological tapestry. The key to our narrative is the deep interconnection that we came across between his life and his movies. The title is not a gimmick.

Our intention was to bring to fore the pioneer aspects of the pioneer/provocateur Piero Vivarelli in Italian music and movies, trying to place him not just locally, but within the broader context of the post-war global pop culture explosion. At the same time we tried to provide a sense of a very particular typically Italian post-war vitality that he encapsulates. It’s the particular energy that prompted Tarantino’s passion for the Italian B-movie genre. Last but not least, we tried to recount his extraordinary erotic sensuality, the driving force for everything Piero did.

Fabrizio Laurenti, Niccolò Vivarelli

Niccolò Vivarelli is (according to Cineuropa) Piero Vivarelli’s grandson. This doesn’t mean that the documentary shies away from Vivarelli’s less savoury qualities. He was a determined womaniser and not averse to cheating on wives and lovers with the singers and actresses he met. He was not a good father and he lost a son to drugs, but the many interviewees, including those who might be expected to be hurt, seem prepared to praise him. He was attracted to women of colour and married the Jamaican actor Beryl Cunningham who was a leading player in Il dio serpente (1970). This film was made in Columbia and developed Vivarelli’s interest in erotic movies. It was followed by The Black Decameron (1972), again with Cunningham, but this time made in Senegal. I was amazed to discover that Vivarelli knew Djibril Diop Mambety, who has a role in the film.This seems so unlikely and I can’t find any supporting evidence in, for instance, IMDb but it seems a confident claim. Claims are also made that during the shoot in Senegal, (which had support from President Senghor), Vivarelli was able to meet rebels from Guinea-Bissau, led by Luís Cabral, who were fighting for independence from Portuguese colonialism and we see photographic evidence. Vivarelli does seem to have been an extraordinary man and the documentary’s title seems apt. His life defied any neat description or classification.

Late in his life, Vivarelli (right) with Fidel Castro

Throughout the film the two directors mix and interweave the stories of Vivarelli’s films, his numerous relationships and his political life. As a teenager he had joined a notorious fascist commando troop (a combination of parachutists and navy seals), partly because of his father’s death as an Italian soldier killed by partisans. Soon after the end of the war he switched to join the Italian Communist Party. He seems to have been radical/leftist from then on. His increasing interest in erotic movies meant further films focusing on women of colour with Codice d’amore orientale (1974) an ‘erotic documentary’ filmed in Thailand and involvement as a writer on Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976) and Emanuelle in America (1977), both with Laura Gemser. Despite the reputations of these films, interviewees assert that Vivarelli was not a colonialist. His final film was La rumbera (Italy 1998) which presented the Cuban revolution via the story of a dancer. The film was made in Cuba and Vivarelli met Castro as seen in the photo above. Im intrigued as to what Fidel is thinking when he looks at Vivarelli.

I’m sure I haven’t done justice to this remarkable film, but it’s on MUBI until April 29 I think. Do check it out if you have a subscription. One last thought. The films Vivarelli and his collaborators made are very difficult to see now, but as one of the interviewees suggests, during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of Italian film production, many of these films sold well in Italy and overseas and they helped pave the way for the more celebrated Italian art films to gain international distribution. Vivarelli was in many ways an innovator. This trailer gives a good sense of the delirium of the documentary.

John Ford’s legacy in the 21st Century

John Ford on location at West Point for ‘The Long Gray Line’ (1955)  produced by Columbia Pictures. ©SPE Archives & Collections

John Ford (1894-1973) was born to parents who arrived in New England in 1872 as migrants from the West of Ireland. ‘Jack’ Feeney was the 10th of 11 children. He moved to Hollywood in 1914 where his older brother Francis was already a successful actor, director and producer. He became first Jack Ford and then John Ford in 1923. He directed his first film in 1917 and his last in 1966. In the intervening years he became the most successful Oscar winner as a director winning 4 times plus two more wins for his wartime documentaries. This is a ‘global film’ blog, so why the interest in Ford? Hollywood is too important to ignore but most of contemporary mainstream Hollywood doesn’t interest me. I am interested in some aspects of American Independent cinema and certainly in African American cinema. I’m also interested in 1940s-1970s Hollywood, especially if it has been influential in global terms.

John Ford made films in Ireland (2), UK (1) the South Pacific (2) Mexico (1) and Kenya (1) as well as numerous territories as required by the US military. He was also one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century with ardent admirers such as Kurosawa Akira in Japan, Xie Jin in China, Satyajit Ray in Bengal, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden and many other leading filmmakers worldwide. His impact on global film was considerable.

But I wonder what younger filmmakers and younger audiences make of a director who died over 40 years ago? The Ford film that is arguably the most remembered is The Searchers (1956), a film that was successful at the time with audiences but took much longer to become a critics’ favourite. Younger audiences are most likely to know it because it became an important influence on George Lucas who refers to it in Star Wars (1977) and perhaps also Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) which borrows narrative ideas from it expressed in Paul Schrader’s script. Many younger cinephiles might not have seen The Searchers but they will know the opening and closing shots of the film which have been endlessly re-cycled over the last 40 years. But there is still resistance to The Searchers, exemplified by a recent Guardian piece by a senior film writer who agreed to watch the film having avoided it during his career as a film journalist. In fact, he hadn’t seen any of Ford’s films. Why is that? The answer is that, like several of Ford’s films, this is a Western starring John Wayne. Not only that but Wayne’s character is an embittered racist – or at least that is what is assumed. I’m not criticising anyone who has avoided a Wayne film for that reason – there are several Hollywood stars whose performances I don’t particularly enjoy and therefore whose films I don’t watch (including several of Wayne’s). However, Ford’s relationship with Wayne is complex and The Searchers is, on every level, a remarkable film that does not succumb to straightforward readings.

There are several reasons why John Ford’s films (over 140 of them in all, but a more ‘modest’ 50 or so features since 1929) are still important in 2020:

  • his ideas about African American social history and the Civil War
  • his ideas about Native American history
  • his sense of Irish identity
  • his respect for the US miltary
  • the roles for women in his films
  • his ‘independent’ status throughout the years of the Studio System
  • his status within the industry as a highly-skilled visual technician, editor, director and dialogue writer
  • his position re the concept of ‘film author’

No doubt there are more but that’s quite enough for now. I will attempt over the coming weeks to explore some of those 50 films and their associated discourses. Perhaps Keith will say something about Ford’s silent cinema films about which I have very limited knowledge? At this time of lockdown, it’s worth pointing out that three Ford Westerns are on BBC iPlayer for the next few months. Otherwise it is becoming quite difficult to find the films on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK. Presumably quite a few are available on Amazon Prime and Netflix? Over the years I have worked with several of the films, but few have made it onto the blog from ‘draft’ to ‘published’, mainly because there is so much to say and they never seem to be completed. One you might find interesting is Sergeant Rutledge (US 1960), a landmark film in some ways.

Spark – A Festival of Revolutionary Films

This Autumn is the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of London’s independent cinemas are hosting a season of films by Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and Shub – plus Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) based on the personal account of the events of the Revolution by John Reed. The Phoenix in East Finchley and the Rio in Dalston have screenings on alternate Sundays mostly starting around lunchtime/early afternoon. If you’ve never seen these Soviet classics, here is a great chance to catch up on an extraordinary period of filmmaking. Download further details here: Spark Programme.