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The Adjustment Bureau (US 2011)

Anthony Mackie (nearest camera) and John Slattery (in focus)

I’ve been asked to run a day event on ‘dystopias’ – especially as envisaged by the American SF writer Philip K. Dick. A good excuse then to catch The Adjustment Bureau which may become my study text. It’s interesting to note that most of the films based on Dick’s work have drawn on the short stories that he wrote as a ‘pulp’ writer for various magazines in the 1950s (the exceptions are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (as Blade Runner), A Scanner Darkly and Confessions of a Crap Artist). Radio Free Albumeth is awaiting a distributor, I think. This short story focus may be because some of the early 1950s work is now in the public domain or was acquired cheaply some time ago – Dick only saw a few dollars from many of his stories.

Orbit Science Fiction was published for just five issues in 1953-4

The Adjustment Bureau is ‘freely adapted’ from a story called ‘Adjustment Team’ (written in 1953 and published in Orbit Science Fiction in 1954). Writer-director George Nolfi has expanded the 24 pages offered by Dick to a full length feature script. In the process he has changed the central character from an ‘ordinary Joe’ into a potential Presidential candidate and placed him in a romance and a form of ‘conspiracy thriller’. Dick’s story was much simpler – but more terrifying in its exposure of the ‘unreality of the everyday’. It begins with a talking dog – Dick wrote several ‘fantasy stories’ in the early 1950s – and finishes with an open ending but one that is definitely not part of a romance. Witnessing an ‘adjustment’ is a much more terrifying experience than is depicted in the film. Dick’s protagonist is married and his wife doesn’t trust him. Having said that, Nolfi appears to know his Dickian stories and several aspects of his film work in recognisably ‘Dickian’ ways. Overall, I’m not sure that the film works completely but it is an enjoyable diversion and as Dick adaptations go it sits alongside Imposter and Screamers as one of the better ones. (I would agree that the narrative also resembles those of classic TV shows such as The Outer Limits.)

The simple premise of this dystopia is that a mysterious group of ‘adjusters’ are able to ‘fix’ future events by carefully nudging individuals into particular meetings and situations. At various points of history and geography they can then ‘stop’ time and re-arrange the world to ensure that events follow a set pattern. This is a perfect scenario for speculative fiction since some schmuck somewhere will inevitably fall through the gaps in the planning. In this case it is an adjustment operative who dozes off and fails to stop David Norris (Matt Damon) from boarding his morning bus to the office. As a consequence, Damon not only meets again the young woman who inspired him to make a great speech after he lost a senatorial election but also to arrive at his office in the middle of an ‘adjustment’.

Norris now finds himself trapped in a situation where he will risk forcible ‘re-adjustment’ (or a ‘lobotomy’ as he terms it) if he pursues Elise (Emily Blunt) the woman who has stolen his heart. The Adjustment Team warn him in no uncertain terms about what might happen. They appear to be like ‘angels’ in their powers and motives. At this point astute film fans might think of A Matter of Life and Death (or Stairway to Heaven in the US), the classic Powell and Pressburger film in which David Niven defies Heaven in order to pursue his love for Kim Hunter. Unfortunately, Matt Damon isn’t David Niven – or Roger Livesey. He’s a good actor and clearly a bright guy but for me he doesn’t have any charisma. I’ve read that some think he is the ‘sexiest man in America’, but I can’t see it. Emily Blunt on the other hand is terrific in this film. I’m not quite sure if she’s meant to be a Brit in the script but she doesn’t attempt a strong American accent and her dialogue is peppered with colloquial British English. I don’t think I’ve heard someone dismissed as a ‘tool’ (i.e. a ‘prick’, a ‘dick’, a penis) since the 1970s. (I realise ‘tool’ means something else in modern American slang, but this is Elise/Blunt speaking.) And to hear an actress in a Hollywood movie saying ‘bugger’ is a joy. In fact there seems to be quite a lot of swearing that’s got past the censors for a 12A. The image below is quite suggestive of all kinds of possibilities for Nolfi’s mise en scène and the overall look of the film lensed by John Toll (New York locations in particular) is attractive but I’m not sure it all adds up to much.

Elise (Emily Blunt) and David (Matt Damon) meet 'by chance' at the start of the narrative.

In some ways Damon is perfect as a Dickian ‘ordinary Joe’ – rather than as Presidential material. The possibility that the adjusters are some kind of divine intervention also fits in with the Dickian sense of paranoia and interest in various religious ideas which is there in most of the stories but comes to the fore in the later work. Dressing the adjusters with coats and hats like 1950s/60s FBI agents (see the image at the start of the post) is a stroke of genius and casting Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terence Stamp is also a good move. Overall then this movie has things going for it. Of course, a lot of the latter part of the narrative is based on chase sequences. But if that draws in audiences and makes a Dickian adaptation more successful, I guess that is a positive.

The reviews/user comments on the film are interesting, partly because of the divergence towards science fiction or romance rather than both and for the inevitable claims that the film is ‘Inception lite’. The truth is that Inception was inspired by Dick, as are dozens of contemporary films. In fact the Dickian view of the world has now almost become the norm – in itself a Dickian outcome. Dick wrote over a period of thirty years or so. He was amazingly prolific in terms of story ideas and his writing developed during major changes in American society – and dramatic changes in his own personal situation. Adapters are able to take the ideas and attempt to fashion them into workable narratives for contemporary audiences but I’m not sure that mainstream Hollywood is the best place for such adaptations. Presumably Nolfi needed Hollywood to stage his story and this meant that he needed a star like Damon. An adaptation of the original story closer to Dick’s intention would have worked well without stars in a low-budget flick. It’s the terror of discovering that behind the façade of everyday reality there is a team of adjusters that should be the draw, not the excitement of a chase or the possibility of a fulfilled romance. Dick did feature strong emotional relationships in some stories – but rarely are they fulfilled.

A Day in the Life – Four Documentaries by John Krish (UK 1953 and 1961-3)

John Carter Ronson, the subject of ‘I Think His Name is John’

These four short documentaries make up a 93 minute programme, part of the ‘Boom Britain’ project showcased at BFI South Bank in November and now on a short tour around the UK. They are also available alongside many other fascinating titles in a box set of 4 BFI DVDs with the title Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-77. Since the box set costs £34.99, I suspect that its audience will be limited to academics and documentary fans. That would be a shame. Some of the films discussed here are also available free in the UK, streamed to computers in libraries and educational institutions via screenonline. If you teach film or media studies you really should watch these four films and show them to your students – I watched them with Nick Lacey and we were knocked out by both the technical expertise and the artistic vision on show.

Each of the four films was written and directed by John Krish (born 1923) whose main career achievements were in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. He appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme Front Row discussing his work when the films screened again in London and he is interviewed on the BFI YouTube Channel. The four films have been restored and are presented on a 2K digital print for cinema screenings.

The first film is The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953) (11 mins). This tells the story of the last tram to run in London in 1952 (trams have since returned in Croydon and Wimbledon). ‘The Elephant’ refers to the Elephant and Castle which lay on the old route ’36’ between Central London and New Cross via the Old Kent Road. Made for British Transport Films, this got Krish the sack for making his own ‘people-centred’ documentary rather than simply recording the end of an ‘outmoded’ transport system on behalf of a ‘forward-looking’ public transport body.

They Took Us to the Sea (1961) (26 mins) was made for the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). It shows a day out for quite a large group of children from the poorer districts of Birmingham, involving a train trip to the seaside at Weston-super-Mare.

Our School (1962) (28 mins) was made for the National Union of Teachers and focuses on a new secondary modern school in Hertfordshire called the Francis Coombe School.

I Think His Name is John (1964) (28 mins) is a beautifully realised portrait of a widower, a retired miner, living a solitary life in a block of flats. It was made for the Samaritans.

There is a great deal of reference material and both scholarly and fan discussion of these films readily available, so rather than duplicate many of the arguments, I’ll just list the sources and make some general remarks.

A good starting point is the website for Illuminations, the independent TV company making arts programmes. This is actually the blog of the company’s founder John Wyver and it’s an excellent source and well worth exploring. There are links here to many of the other sources on the Krish films and a great deal of background and discussion.

There is an interesting forum discussion of the DVD box-set on the Criterion forums.

Boom Britain is introduced on this BFI webpage (with further links).

Krish is interviewed at BFI Southbank by Patrick Russell, the Archive Curator of Non-Fiction Film and author of the book, Shadows of Progress. This is a gem.

This BFI YouTube clip gives some indication of the Krish method. (I don’t think I can embed BFI clips)

Our School is an extraordinary film for several reasons. It’s a fascinating social document simply on a level of how the teachers and students are dressed, their hair styles and ways of speaking etc. It also represents a very specific ideological intervention by the NUT, showing a ‘modern’ school with what were then quite radical ideas about changing teaching methods. This is a model school in many ways but that doesn’t invalidate its presentation of new education ideas in 1963. Viewers outside the UK should be aware that the school shown was at this time part of the national selective system. The most academically able students were ‘creamed off’ for the grammar schools. The students in the Francis Combe school in Hertfordshire were mostly expected to leave school at 15 and go straight into work (at a time of ‘full employment’). Such schools still exist in some parts of England (and across Northern Ireland) but most were replaced by comprehensive schools. The subject matter of this clip was highly topical and may seem now to present a rather authoritarian teacher position. But there is good humour and informality in the mix as well and the other classroom scenes in the film suggest a new breed of confident, articulate and dedicated teachers with the students’ needs paramount in their approach (I hope the NUT were impressed!).

But in some ways, the most extraordinary aspect of the film is the shooting method devised by John Krish. If you look carefully at the clip, you’ll quickly notice that it is very different to the direct cinema films of the time in the US or the so-called ‘fly on the wall’ techniques of later UK TV documentaries which claimed to be unobtrusive ‘observers’. Krish worked for many hours to get these shots with their beautiful framings (all four films present stunning portraits in close-up of all kinds of characters). The students behave in a seemingly natural way and Krish worked hard to get his subjects used to the presence of the camera. He was producing ‘art’ from ‘reality’ and in his Southbank interview he makes this very clear. This particular clip involves a small group discussion but other parts of the film involve wider shots, some stunning tracking camera and a range of classroom situations. Films like this, part of what was a major sector of ‘industrial’ and ‘sponsored’ films up to the 1970s, were not usually seen in cinemas. They were much more likely to have been seen as 16mm films in education, training or business contexts. (The last tram film was very popular and showed at the Odeon, Leicester Square, the most prestigious UK cinema.) But the four films here are so well made that seeing them on the big screen in High Definition in a cinema is akin to watching a contemporary art film. This is certainly the case with I Think His Name is John.

Film history has focused on the ‘Free Cinema’ movement of the 1950s/early 1960s as the important manifestation of documentary filmmaking in the UK in the post-war period. ‘Free’ in the sense of being ‘independent’ of studios, government or industrial sponsors as well as the conventions of the form, the movement helped the careers of major feature directors such as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and some of the European auteurs who came to the UK in the period. Krish is quite disparaging about what he saw as a fairly ‘amateurish’ bunch. You can see his point (and anyway, Anderson and Reisz both worked first in ‘industrial films’). As in quite a few other cases, film history has been only partial in its coverage. We can’t any longer ignore the talents associated with industrial and sponsored films in this period and as well as the films of John Krish, there are plenty of other filmmakers whose work can be ‘tasted’ on the BFI YouTube Channel. I recommend Anthony Simmons and his 1953 film Sunday by the Sea.

Fifty Dead Men Walking (UK/Canada 2008)

Dead men

This co-production has a Canadian director, Kari Skogland. It deals with what the British quaintly call ‘The Troubles’, the British occupation of northern Ireland. Unfortunately, distance does not lend detachment, and the film recycles the stereotypes of earlier British films that purport to deal with the conflict.

The film’s story is ‘inspired’ by a recounting by a republican informant (Martin McGartland) for the northern Ireland Special Branch. The ‘inspired’ indicates that the film deals fairly freely with the events recounted in the book. Certainly the film has a number of serious factual errors. Most bizarre, an end title claims that the British Army has now left northern Ireland. The director cum scriptwriter clearly has not been watching the news recently.

The film is engaging, mainly due to fine performances by Jim Sturgess as the informant Martin McGartland and Ben Kingsley as Fergus, his intelligence handler. However the style of the film rather gets in the way of their characters. The film opens in Canada in 1999 as McGartland is shot by a masked assassin, [this actually occurred in the UK]. There follows an extended flashback of his earlier activities. By the end of the film we discover that he actually survived the shooting. I was puzzled as to what an audience was meant to draw from the flashback structure. It does help provide a noir feel, but does not add to character or development. There seems contemporary tendency to use flashbacks without necessarily adding to the story experience. There are also frequent passages of rapid editing, presumably designed to give the feel of a thriller. However, much of the film is closer to a noir story and the changes give a discordant feel. This is accentuated by an amount of over-the-top music tracks.

But the serious problems with the film are political, or to be exact the absence of politics. Unfortunately this is the norm for this subject. Typically there is hardly any engagement with the actual political relations of the conflict. And the characterisation offers over familiar stereotypes. Martin and Fergus are fairly sympathetic, but this is mainly due to the negativity of the characters that surround them. Fergus’s Special Branch and British Intelligence are presented as manipulative and more concerned with intelligence turf wars than the enemy. But that is fairly positive compared with the republican characters, who are violent and tend to the psychotic. Martin’s IRA friend, Sean (Kevin Zegers), reminded me of Cal’s friend Crilly (Stevan Rimkus) in the earlier film (1984), both treating the violence as ‘fun’. The IRA organiser, Mickey Adams (Tom Collins), is reminiscent of Skeffington (John Kavanagh) the IRA leader in the same film. John Hill’s analysis of that and other films set in Northern Ireland (Cinema and Ireland, Routledge, 1987 Images of Violence) is applicable to this film. Hill comments on the sexuality and repression in the earlier films. In Fifty Dead Men Walking we also have a female IRA intelligence officer, Grace (Rose McGowan), who seems pre-occupied with both ‘guns and cocks’. Revealingly she is listed fifth among the cast, ahead of performers who appear more often on screen. This character is reminiscent of the psychotic Jude  [Miranda Richardson) in The Crying Game (1992). In what I take to be a sub-Freudian twist Martin plants her with an unloaded gun and she is seized by the British intelligence.

The film recycles noir style and northern Ireland stereotypes with depressing familiarity. I found it did not really maintain a strong interest, what kept me watching was checking out how it recycles the old and now tired representations.

Truffaut and his women: Anne, Muriel and Catherine

A couple of weeks ago in the Guardian Review, Germaine Greer wrote an interesting analysis of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (France 1962), based on the novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. A week later Xan Brooks gave the re-released film a 5 star rating and several other commentators have reminisced and reflected on Truffaut’s work (not least since Cannes 2008 inevitably prompted memories of Cannes 1968 when Truffaut was one of those leading a walkout by young French directors).

Jules et Jim is arguably now the most revered Truffaut film and it only seems to be a few years since it was last re-released. I remember introducing the film in a cinema and feeling slightly uncomfortable because although I was a Truffaut fan in the early 1970s, I had for some time felt that I couldn’t cope with his portrayals of women. I seemed to have grown up, but Truffaut somehow remained within a kind of adolescent fantasy. Greer’s essay is well worth reading and she has some interesting things to say about the formal and emotional appeal of the film and the strange representations of sexuality and sexual behaviour shown in the ménage à trois between the three central characters, Jules, Jim and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). Greer argues that, bowled over by Catherine in 1962, she now sees all the problems associated with both that character and all the other representations of women in the film. She also worries what a 2008 audience might make of the film 46 years on.

I don’t always find myself agreeing with Greer, but on this we are as one. By chance, however, I picked up another Truffaut in a DVD bargain bin last month. This was Les deux anglaises et le continent (Anne and Muriel) (France 1971) and it’s Truffaut’s adaptation of the other novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. As with Jules et Jim, Roché wrote this late in life, referring back to his days as a journalist and art collector in the early 20th century. (The novel was published in 1956 when he was 76.) This time, the ménage à trois involves two (Welsh not English!) sisters and a man who collects artworks in Paris (he is given the name ‘le continent’ by the two girls). The man meets Anne in Paris, then visits Wales where Anne helps to shift his interest towards Muriel. The two fall in love, but Muriel’s widowed mother suggests that they should have a trial separation to see if they are really in love. From this point, things start to go wrong.

In style terms, Les deux anglaises is a very different film to Jules et Jim. The freewheeling Black and White ‘Scope photography by Raoul Coutard of the former is replaced by painterly colour images composed by Néstor Almendros in 1.66:1. These are very beautiful, but not in the chocolate box style of a Merchant Ivory. The landscape (actually Normandy) is well handled. It’s an altogether quieter film with voiceover narration and slow fades between scenes instead of the lively montage and decoupage of Jules et Jim. The rather serious tone is also emphasised by the performance of Jean-Pierre Léaud as the Frenchman. Léaud is Truffaut’s alter ego in the Antoine Doinel films and also the earnest young man in some of Godard’s more political films. I confess I now find him rather irritating, though in 1971 I identified with him quite closely. In this film his acting style is contrasted with that of the two English actors, Kika Markham and Stacy Tendeter, both of whom are terrific. The character, Claude, is of course Roché and he is Truffaut.

The film is introduced on the DVD by Serge Toubiana (there is also a commentary by the screenwriter Jean Gruault). Toubiana helpfully explains that the film was a flop on its release and that Truffaut was wounded by its failure. Toubiana suggests that audiences post 1968 were ready for sexual ‘permissiveness’ and that they were not interested in a film in which three characters fell in love, but instead of consummating passion, wrote about it at length in diaries and letters (which give the film its narrative flavour through voiceovers). Truffaut is reported to have said that Les deux anglaises is not so much a film about physical love as a ‘physical film about love’. (And indeed, in some ways the film is more realistic and ‘physical’ in its discussion of sex – but not in ways that might be expected in this kind of story.)

I’m not a big fan of the biographical/auteurist approach to films, but it does seem relevant that Truffaut embarked on this film after his break-up with Catherine Deneuve. He had been close to both Deneuve and her sister, Francoise Dorleac who was tragically killed in a car crash. Deneuve went on to have a child with Marcello Mastroianni. These two events are to a certain extent echoed in Les deux anglaises.

The film is essentially a tragedy in which love makes the three characters ill because of the moral quandaries and self-questioning it invokes. For me, this film has survived and now seems a timeless tale, whereas the ‘celebration’ of love in Jules et Jim seems to be questioned by the representation of Catherine.

Here are some slightly different views of the film.

Filmsdefrance

Senses of Cinema

Outline development of Chinese Cinema

In the late 19th century, China was a large country with a big population and a long cultural history. It was ruled almost as a feudal medieval state and was open to exploitation by Western powers who controlled much of the trade from major port cities such as Shanghai and Canton. At first, cinema was confined to these cities and to Peking (Beijing).

Chinese cinema drew upon earlier theatrical forms – in this case Chinese opera (‘classical’ in Peking, more ‘popular’ in different regions away from the capital). With a concentration on melodramas, Shanghai was the main producing centre up until the 1930s, but development was slow and limited. For most of the first part of the 20th century, China suffered from some form of civil war between political factions attempting to seize control after the collapse of the last imperial administration. The Communists and the ‘Nationalists’ fought each other and the local warlords and after 1931 they began to fight the Japanese invasion forces as well. In these circumstances, cinema inevitably became ‘political’ – either by offering an ‘escape’ or by attempting to offer political messages as the basis for simple narratives. Chinese filmmakers have struggled with the political implications of film narratives ever since. With the success of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949, the political dimension became even more central and filmmakers (of both the left and the right) fled mainland China for either Hong Kong or Taiwan. Most peasants in the Chinese countryside still hadn’t seen a film at this point.

1949–1966
Zheng Junli’s Crows and Sparrows (1949) was started before, but finished after, the revolution. This transitional period film focuses on the residents of an apartment block, literally the crows (right wing decadents) and the sparrows (honest, hard-working peasants). The Communist Party, aware of the potential propaganda power of cinema, in the years after the revolution nationalised the industry and phased out all foreign films except those from the Soviet bloc. They also sought to expand exhibition through mobile units and to make films that would appeal to the rural masses. Filmmakers were forced to adopt Soviet ‘socialist realism’ as their model, and the industry became dependent upon Soviet training and equipment. The resultant films, with their noble heroes, ‘bad’ characters who betrayed the revolution and stirring soundtracks, made use of Hollywood ideas in presenting their relatively simple messages.

Just as in Eastern Europe, there were periods of ‘thaw’ (less restrictive e.g. during the Hundred Flowers movement) when quality production increased, and periods of ‘freeze’ (heavily restricted e.g. during the Great Leap Forward) when production could not meet the targets and expectations. Chinese films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, such as those of Xie Jin, display high production values and a polished look that belies their political agenda. Also in this period, the government opened the Beijing Film Academy, regional studios and a national archive, whilst severing their links with the Soviet Union and thus losing equipment and expertise. The filmmakers who emerged from the Film Academy in this period were later termed the ‘Fourth Generation’.

1966–1976
The Cultural Revolution was Mao Zedong’s attempt to recapture the spirit of the revolution from the 1940s in Yunan – to revitalise the process of building the people’s republic. This was to go spectacularly wrong, not least in the attacks upon the intellectuals and the cultural workers.
The first signs of the effect of the Cultural Revolution on film were the extended official criticisms of certain films from mid 1964. Then fiction filmmaking was stopped altogether from 1966 to 1970, and after that only the limited production of ‘revolutionary model operas’ was permitted. many of the creative artists from the traditional centres of the film industry in the big city, and especially their children, were sent out into the countryside to learn about the revolution at first hand. For young people born in the same period as the ‘baby boomers’ of the West (i.e. 1946-54), experience of forced work in rural areas and a disrupted education were fundamental to their approach to filmmaking in the 1980s. Compare the formative years of Steven Spielberg (born 1946) and Zhang Yimou (born 1951).

1976–present
The film industry began to recover in the years after Mao’s death, following the introduction of reforms by Deng Xiaoping. The Beijing Film Academy reopened in 1978, and the ‘Fifth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers enrolled.

Western scholarship of Chinese cinema has primarily been interested in the Fifth Generation, through a canon of films and directors who have brought international acclaim to contemporary Chinese cinema. The most well known directors are Chen Kaige (Yellow Earth, 1984), Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, 1987) and Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite, 1993). Again, as with the film industry in Eastern Europe, state support was withdrawn from filmmakers who were seen to be critical of state ideology and film studios were forced to find private funds. This created contradictions for both the state and the filmmakers. Some of the early films of Zhang Yimou were very popular at home, but increasingly they were appreciated by overseas audiences. This brought both prestige and income to the Chinese state, but it was also threatening in allowing the filmmakers more freedom to ‘make statements’ – hence censorship. Different filmmakers reacted in different ways. Zhang Yimou’s career offers a fascinating case study of a filmmaker twisting and turning in order to negotiate the opportunities to make films. Currently he is the director of traditional ‘martial chivalry’ blockbusters which sell well in China and in Asia generally, but he has also made more intimate, almost neo-realist drams such as Not One Less and The Road Home (both 1999).

The Sixth Generation of filmmakers are those who have emerged since the early 1990s (although the term has been dismissed by some of the directors to whom it has been applied). Their emergence signals a new era in China’s modern history, with filmmakers appearing to work with increasing freedom even though censorship is unpredictable at best. The generations do overlap, Fourth Generation director Xie Jin made the epic The Opium Wars in 1997, and all of the above mentioned Fifth Generation directors have released films in recent years. Leading Sixth Generation directors include Zhuang Yuan (Beijing Bastards, 1993), Wang Xiaoshai (Frozen 1997, Beijing Bicycle 2002) and Lou Ye (Suzhou River, 2000). This generation has built up a reputation for headstrong independence, and their films often reflect the poverty and marginalisation of China’s urban masses whilst demonstrating an international cinematic influence.

Increasingly, as new technologies in production, distribution and exhibition open up the possibilities of a global film industry, the role of Chinese filmmakers changes. China is the site of both legal and illegal advances in digital cinema. International film companies now operate across China and Hong Kong and also Taiwan, Korea and Japan. The huge potential of the Chinese film market is not lost on the major Hollywood studios either. None of this will ensure a place for new Chinese filmmakers but there will be opportunities. It will be interesting to see if the legacy of twentieth century concerns with political and cultural ‘memory’ survive into a ‘Seventh Generation’.

The Ice King: John Curry (UK 2018)

I do remember John Curry’s Olympic Gold medal at Innsbruck in 1976 but I don’t think I took much notice at that time. I didn’t follow his career as a professional skater who then took skating into theatres and opera houses as well as arenas. I was therefore surprised and intrigued to discover Curry’s story in this documentary directed by James Erskine, a prolific director of film and TV documentaries and fictions, many with a sports background. The film was released in February this year in the UK just as the Olympics in Pyeongchang were ending. It also coincided with the UK release of the American film I, Tonya (US 2017) based on the experiences of another, rather different, Olympic skater Tonya Harding. The Ice King opened on 5 screens, I Tonya Harding opened on 338 screens. The Ice King struggled to find audiences in cinemas despite excellent reviews, mainly because Dogwoof only placed it in only a handful of cinemas. Their strategy is to use the release profile to promote it on other platforms. It screened in the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ documentary slot this week and is currently available on iPlayer in the UK as well as online and on DVD from Dogwoof.

The Ice King is a conventional sports ‘biodoc’ that benefits from some excellent film archive research and the use of material which on-screen titles suggest is “the only known record” of the various ice dance performances by John Curry and his company of dancers.  Some of this archive material is presented inside a form of masking that signifies its status – and preserves its aspect ratio – the mask allows the jagged edges of the film frame to show, suggesting it is running through a projector. Most of the TV material appears to have been cropped to fit the 16:9 ratio, but there might be some slightly squashed images. Overall, I didn’t find this a problem.

The beautiful young man?

Research also finds home movie footage and clips from Curry’s appearances on well-known TV programmes of the time (i.e. in the 1970s) on the children’s programme Blue Peter and The Michael Parkinson Show (chat show). Looking at these clips now, of John Curry outside of his performance arenas, I recognise him as a gay man and simply a very beautiful and charming interviewee. I didn’t see those clips at the time and it’s difficult to think back and try to re-discover the attitudes of a time of transition when, in the UK, consensual sex between men (over 21) was no longer illegal but being forced ‘out’ was still a major issue, especially for athletes and sports personalities. It was also the period just before AIDS terrified populations in the early 1980s. The documentary leads us into this story by showing a clip of the British TV series Man Alive and American film from the 1960s when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. The American clip is simply terrifying when a large audience of children is warned (especially the boys) that same sex relationships are dangerous and that they could ruin lives forever (“1 in 3 of you could turn queer and the rest of your life will be a living hell.”. This clip reminded me of those propaganda films warning of nuclear attacks and instructing small children how to behave when the sirens go off.

In John Curry’s case his problems began with his father who refused to allow him to train as a ballet dancer but accepted skating because its athleticism could be seen as more ‘manly’. Curry was able to train as a skater from an early age but he found that the skating competition authorities were also prejudicial in how they constructed and judged performances. The sport was dominated by Cold War antics and the film suggests that it was a Czech judge who broke ranks and voted for Curry that helped him become a champion. Curry would become a pioneer of an expressive dance style which gradually moved ice skating from purely ‘figure skating’ exercises towards the idea of the ice dance. When in 1976 he won Olympic Gold to go with his European and World titles, he retired from the sport and moved into professional presentations of ice shows in which he hired well-known classical and contemporary dance choreographers and was able to pursue his love of ballet. The second, and longer, section of the documentary deals with the highs and lows of his career as dancer, choreographer and promoter. I was unaware of this career and it was a revelation to watch the beautiful and imaginative performances that he and his dancers produced in the most unlikely places (the Albert Hall in London, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York) and to marvel at how ice rinks were constructed on an opera stage. The film suggests that Curry accidentally ‘outed’ himself in an interview with an American journalist and was then subject to tabloid coverage in the UK. Since he left ‘sport’ as such and became a dance ‘performer’ he didn’t suffer the UK media pressure that had a more damaging impact on the footballer Justin Fashanu when he confirmed he was a gay man in 1990.

The older John Curry

Although the documentary is generally conventional in format, it does begin with John as a competitive dancer who is lucky to find a family of skaters in New York in 1971 who provide a room and friendship for a lonely young man. Later he finds an American millionaire who becomes his sponsor and helps him with expenses. Flashbacks to his childhood then fill in the background. There seems to be a conscious decision at this point to avoid further discussion of his father’s negative feelings and his death when John was only 16. There is no mention either of his schooldays. His father was an engineer who owned his own small factory and John was sent to independent schools, boarding for a period. This must have had an impact on a lonely teenager, whose only outlet seems to have been competitive skating. There must be a reason for this omission but since a large part of the film is John Curry’s struggle with his own demons and his sometimes difficult relationships it seems odd. His ‘inner thoughts’ are expressed in the film through passages from his personal letters which are read by Freddie Fox and appear on screen as hand-written text.

In her Sight and Sound review Hannah McGill suggests that the title ‘The Ice King’ refers to both Curry’s prowess on the ice and to his emotional state. I can see this but several of the interviewees suggest that once you got to know him, this ‘iciness’, proved to be false. Loneliness and the memory of his father’s rejection (his mother later became his biggest supporter) that created insecurity seem to have been the main drivers of his perfectionism. The Ice King is based on a book Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry by Bill Jones (Bloomsbury 2014) which offers more revelations than some of the earlier accounts of Curry’s life. He died of an AIDS related illness in 1994. McGill suggests that director Erskine tried to make a film like Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010) or Amy (2015) but seems to leave too many gaps in the story. She suggests that Curry was never the kind of global star that Ayrton Senna became, nor was there the social media material about Curry’s life so there perhaps wasn’t enough ‘extant material’ to tell the story in the Kapadia way, i.e. without a commentary or explanatory talking heads. These are good points and it is perhaps significant that the film is relatively short – 83 mins on TV. Still, I think Erskine succeeds in thrilling us with the material he has found and perhaps performing a service by suggesting that John Curry did have friends he loved as well as enjoying the gay scene in the late 1970s/early 80s before AIDS struck. I’ll certainly remember him now and I recommend The Ice King.

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.

The Lady Without Camellias (La signora senza camelie, Italy 1953)

Clara (Lucia Bosè) as she appears in her first film.

What is the status of Michelangelo Antonioni today? In the 1960s he was in some ways the archetypal figure of the European art director. His three English language films, Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1975) and The Passenger (1975) then transformed him into a new kind of celebrity artist. For older cinéphiles his great works might be the trilogy of ‘alienation’ films from the early 1960s, L’avventura (1960), La notta (1961) and L’éclisse (1962). But what about the 1950s? Antonioni was born in 1912, making him roughly a contemporary of Bergman (b. 1918) and Kurosawa (b. 1910), but unlike those two prolific filmmakers who were active in their film industries by the early 1940s, Antonioni’s progress is more hesitant. He co-writes A Pilot Returns with Rossellini in 1942 and directs eight documentary shorts between 1947 and 1950 before making his first feature, Cronaca di un amore (A Chronicle of Love) in 1950. Penelope Houston, editor of Sight and Sound from 1956, made the observation that unlike the Cahiers du Cinema writers who became filmmakers in La nouvelle vague or the Free Cinema directors in the UK who formed part of the British New Wave, Antonioni had no clear beginning, no celebrated first film and no clear ‘film movement’ identity. She quotes an interview in 1959 for Positif in which Antonioni explains that in 1943 he was directing a documentary about fishermen on the Po River – the same location used by Visconti for Ossessione, often quoted as the first neo-realist film in 1942. “Today, perhaps I would be cited in a discussion about the birth of neo-realism”, Antonioni suggests. (In Cinema: A Critical Dictionary Vol 1: Aldrich to King, Richard Roud (ed) 1980, Martin, Secker and Warburg.)

A typical neo-realist long shot of a street scene

What then of La signora senza camelie?, one of three films that Antonioni directed or part-directed in 1953. Neo-realism was still a recognisable influence in Italy in the early 1950s and it certainly informs some of Enzo Serafin’s cinematography in the film. (Serafin worked continuously from 1942 and in 1954 shot Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia.) The narrative is familiar. Clara (Lucia Bosè) is a shop girl from Milan, an outstanding beauty who has been snapped up by a pair of film producers. They have put her into a mundane exploitation film and when the narrative of La signora senza camelie begins she is waiting in the street outside a cinema where her debut is being previewed in a public screening. These opening shots seem to promise distinctive location shooting. What follows certainly has neo-realist moments, especially because of the cinematography, but it is primarily a melodrama and in generic terms, a film about the film ‘business’ rather than about filmmaking per se – though there are some direct comments about performance. There are ‘pre-echoes’ of certain well-known films. It’s difficult not to think of Godard’s 1963 Le mépris (1963) in which an American producer wants to put Brigitte Bardot into a ‘classical drama’. In La signora senza camelie, Clara marries one of her producers, Gianni (Andrea Checchi) who installs her in a beautifully furnished by soul-less apartment and then casts her in a version of Joan of Arc. She goes to the Venice Film Festival and is humiliated when the film fails. In the meantime she has linked up with another hopeless lover, a diplomat who is not prepared to risk being seen with her publicly. She would be better off with the experienced actor Lodi played by Frenchman Alain Cuny, who in one scene teaches her how to make love for the camera. The film’s title presumably refers to The Lady of the Camellias or simply ‘Camille‘, a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas, an opera, La traviata, by Verdi and then a film made famous by Greta Garbo. Poor Clara has none of the mystique of Camille (though possibly all of the beauty).

Clara watches herself as Joan of Arc in the disastrous Venice screening of her ‘art’ film. Her would be lover, Nardo (Ivan Desny) is in the row behind, third from the right

La signora senza camelie is very much a film about mise en scène – the apartments, the beautiful clothes – and the cinematography. I’m sure there is music too – Clara sings in her début, but I didn’t really notice the music. Cinecitta, the great studio complex in Rome plays a role in the closing stages of the narrative, as do the paparazzi of Rome, ever-present in the studio canteen. Earlier, the two producers (the other one is much more pragmatic) first find a beautiful house belonging to the aristocracy and then fail to make use of its possibilities. Overall, I found the film beautiful to watch (and that includes the luscious Lucia Bosè, who I realise was in the Spanish film The Death of a Cyclist a couple of years later – she married a Spanish bullfighter). The narrative is in one sense quite cynical and in another an exposé of the celebrity culture of Italian cinema and what eventually came to be known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’. Fellini’s films make much more sense when you’ve seen this film and perhaps Visconti’s Bellissima (1951) the more ‘neo-realist’ film that traces the story of a mother’s attempt to get her child into the film world. I feel I appreciate Antonioni’s skill more than I did before, but he still feels a bit like a ‘cold fish’.

Clara with the producer who will become her husband on the night of her screen début

Like all Italian films of the period the dialogue is dubbed. I was surprised that this is very badly done at one point.

Clara in the bar at Cinecitta with the paparazzi

I watched the film on MUBI. It is currently available on a Masters of Cinema dual format DVD/Blu-ray. In the clip below (no English subs) we see Clara and Lodi playing the love scene in her second film. The director is the man in charge, though both the producers are also on set. What are those extras, seen through the window, doing outside?