Monthly Archives: November 2015

  • Witchfinder General Michael Reeves (UK 1968)

    Witchfinder General Michael Reeves (UK 1968) Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer

    Viewed: Tyneside Cinema 16 Nov 2015; ticket: free screening as part of the ‘Being Human15′

    The last witch trial in England

    Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General is another of those movies from the late 60’s and early 70’s which exploited violence as an expressive force to confront the resistance of bourgeois sensibilities to the knowledge that the body is the ultimate site upon which power is exercised. Perhaps Reeves and other directors at this time were fortunate in the sense that violence had not yet become a regular part of the cinematic diet. Violence today usually a formulaic indulgence, the casual recourse of distracted entertainment; violence disconnected from the either the real physical or from social or historical context.

    And Reeves’ film links violence society and the flesh to a historical context with a contemporary reference. Society for different kinds of reasons: chaos, insecurity, moral collapse and breakdown, seeks out scapegoats as: diversion, misdirection, self legitimisation. It then procedes to mark upon the bodies (or perhaps minds) of scapegoated individual, the signs of their transgression. A substitute victim on whom to imprint the pain of fractured social relations.

    Context: the Profumo Affair. Reeves as he wrote his script will have been familiar (sic) with the death of Steven Ward in 1963. And this death surely fed into and helped form some of Reeves’ ideas about the content of his film. Steven Ward, together with prostitute ‘witches’ Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies (the latter two as coerced blackmailed and pilloried witnesses against Steven), were subjected to very public trial both by gutter press, egged on and encouraged both by the establishmen the prosecutors (witch hunters) and judiciary. Steven Ward, tortured and shattered by the experience of his trial killed himself by taking an overdose (some point to a more sinister agent namely MI5) whilst awaiting sentence having been found guilty of ‘sex’ crimes.

    The whole scandal, took place in the context of a British political and social establishment engulfed by moral panic. Ward’s ordeal was, at time of writing, surely the last witch trial in England.

    The form of the movie adopted by Reeves stylistically resembles a Hammer Film production (Certainly in relation to the interiors; some of the landscape shots are of a different order). The rather rigid period shot ‘set ups’, the use of zoom lens for dramatic emphasis and a mis en scene set in Olde England, with the characters costumed up for ‘the period’ but with contemporary 60’s hair cuts. Reeves’ subverts this filmic formula by use of scenes depicting the direct physical violence perpetrated by the witchhunters upon their victims. The usual horror convention was to stay true to the conventions of costume and not to include images (sound was another matter; ref the Berberian Sound Studio) of raw violence in films. Hence Hammer Films’ reputation for rather camp/arch theatrical horror.

    Reeves’ story is real in the sense that his main character, Matthew Hopkins was an actual witchhunter, a bounty hunter, responsible for the deaths of many witches, nearly all women who had ‘confessions’ extorted out of them by torture and violence. But just as to tell the story of Mandy Ian and Christine, you have to tell the story of the body and the psychological violence perpetrated on them by power; Reeves’ ‘witches’ are not horror phantasms. There is a ‘moral’ purpose to show what was done to them. Otherwise we will not get it: we won’t see beyond the cozzies. Reeves’ shows us the blows, the prickings, the hangings, the burning. The violence in Witchfinder General is shocking because it has a moral purpose, that undermines the outer theatrical form of the film. Most critics at the time, including Alan Bennett, simply saw the film as as repugnant exercise in sadism. A comment sufficient in itself on the blinkered vision of the UK arts establishment at this time in relation to British movies.

    Vincent Price’s performance in Witchhunter is extraordinary. He is chilling in delivery, discipline and diligence. The psychic immobility of his sadism creates the image of the perfect psychopathic killing machine. As we watch his singular progress across East Anglia, his deft insinuation of righteousness, he calls to mind with vivid realisation the men who presided over other terror regimes. Hitler’s Stalin’s Polpot’s and latterly the Isis’ power ultimately rested on pain and physical degradation of the body, carried out by men and women all the more terrifying for their cynicism and pure self gratification justified in the name of ‘higher values. Adrin Neatrour

  • Taxi Tehran (Taxi) Jafar Panahi (Iran, 2015)

    Taxi Tehran (Taxi)
    Jafar Panahi (Iran, 2015) Jafar Panahi

    Tyneside Cinema Newcastle, All Saints Day 2015; ticket: £7.75

    perception that is not me…

    What is a film? It’s a perception, says Jafar Panahi talking to his niece about making films. But not just any perception: it is your perception, your awareness of what you are looking at, the mediation of the world through your mind.

    And in his taxi, picking up and putting down people thoughts ideas attitudes, Panahi places himself in the middle of a world in constant movement around him. Like a Mediaeval theologist placing man at the centre of the cosmos, Panahi in his cab locates himself in the midst of Tehran, and the series of encounters such a position inevitably entails.

    Jafar Panahi doesn’t drive like any big city cabbie I ever caught. The placement and light sometimes uncertain touch of his hand with the steering wheel betokens the driver/philosopher not a battle hardened hack . He manoeuvres his car gently sometimes haltingly through the mayhem of the Tehran streets, confesses uncertainty about destination, and has the look of a gentle soul searching for something that is not on the meter: by and large he doesn’t charge for the ride.

    So what is quality of the ‘perception’ Panahi intends to capture with his camera, that is mostly but not always mounted on the dashboard of his ‘taxi’? Obviously in one critical sense it must be himself. But not a static subjectivity rather himself in the world in which he’s moving. Although the camera often points at Panahi, the perception guiding the shots is not narcissistic. he is not one of these Big Shot TV presenters; his ‘film’ is never about ‘me Panahi’. The camera points at him but it is as if the ‘He that is Panahi’ dissolves into the context of the situation: the taxi. ‘Taxi’ is never ‘grounded’ or signified in Panahi’s subjectivity, because the role of the taxi driver is simply to serve others, to carry them, body mind spirit, a little way along. To hear where they are going. That’s all. The driver isn’t going to change their destination. Pick them up put them down.

    Panahi taxi driver stands for Panahi director. At this point Panahi has changed stance from earlier films which sold a point of view. When the taxi man sets out in the morning there is no direction to take. He sets out into the streets to find people. Panahi as director is an intermediary, a medium for the chaos of Tehran. He picks up the collectivist of the city thoughts, fears, beliefs and hopes. Panahi doesn’t judge disagree or dispute, responds only when cued. He moves across the city.

    Panahi drives without fear. he knows that in his situation he can be arrested, canned flung in prison anytime. Without fear perhaps because he knows the joke is on him. He drives his cab making a ‘film’ that is not a screenable ‘film’; knowing that until 2030 he is under legal ban from screenable film making. By the end of the film, we understand that Panahi has been setting ‘Taxi’ up as an exercise of gallows humour, the ultimate form of humour that pays homage to death with an assertion of life. Panahi’s film is suffused with humour; observational humour, like Chaplin’s, grounded in the small details of the everyday. An angle that sees life in Tehran the way the people of Tehran see life: as a movie. Everyone caught up in the same farce, the contradictions between the orthodoxy of the sacred precepts of fundamentalist religion and the boisterous profane celebrations of secular life.

    Life rages in the cab. The appeal of the uncompromising humourless nature of Sharia. In the cab we understand that how the religious abyss has opened up and swallowed those including women, for their transgressions of the code. In the cab we understand that there are important rules you have to obey to make a screenable film; Panahi’s niece recites them for his benefit. And the camera in the taxi complies with none of these rules. We see men wearing neck ties, scavengers, pornography peddled, dissident lawyers questioning the operation of the law, and more, superstition and parody. As the camera records all of this, its material cannot by definition be a screenible film. So Panahi has not violated the terms of his sentence. ‘Taxi’ is joke in itself; it is not a film. The conclusive proof that it is not a film is that it has: no credits. There is nobody at whom to point the finger of accusation. No name only the image of a self effacing cabbie, who is there to help people to move around the city.

    We know from the final scene that Panahi can be obliterated at any time by the state and its projected force. He can be beaten up, his camera smashed, arrested detained put in gaol. But he isn’t afraid because he can look them in the eye and say: I haven’t made a screenible film; this is not a movie: Gallows humour, just a joke! Just a taxi. Adrin Neatrour