Monthly Archives: April 2020

  • The Servant                 Joseph Losey (UK; 1963)

    The Servant                 Joseph Losey (UK; 1963) Script: Harold Pinter. with Dirk Bogarde; James Fox; Sarah Miles; Wendy Craig

    During lockdown I decided to re-watch some films that had made a considerable impression on me when I first saw them. One of these films was Joseph Losey’s 1963 movie ‘The Servant’, starring Dirk Bogarde James Fox and Sarah Miles, which I was able to access on streaming provider Mubi (Blu-ray and DVDs are readily available online). I was also able to view ‘Eva’ on the same platform, the film he made in Italy immediately before shooting the Servant. Both films evidence the effective devices that Losey employed to communicate his forebodings about the entangled nature of human relations. They are both films of ideas.

    These movies were shot against ‘classical’ backgrounds, Venice and Rome in the case of Eva, and a Georgian London terrace for ‘The Servant’. Losey chose these settings and exploited their character so that they are not just backcloths, rather they underlie and are intrinsic to the stories that unfold.

    ‘The Servant’s’ opening shot is a stunning 360º pan. The film begins with a shot of a spaciously appointed Georgian London terrace, the location of the house where the action will unfold. At first the camera locks onto a gated neo-classical building, perhaps a church or a college, before panning anti clockwise across some nondescript buildings then up through leafless plane trees moving round to a busy London street where finding the huge shop front signage of Thomas Crapper, sanitary engineers, we see the eponymous servant (Hugo played by Dirk Bogarde) and follow him as he crosses the busy road, walks into the terrace and makes his way towards the grand classical structure seen at the top of the shot.

    This shot introduces a specific thematic concerns that Losey weaves through his film: the passage of time and our reading of images .   The fine classical structure and the Georgian terrace that leads up to it, exude an image of timelessness.  But as the camera pans we see that these buildings, with their classical porticos and fine panelled doors, these discrete architectural expressions of wealth, are surrounded by recent upstart structures made up of all sorts of buildings in all sorts of styles. The initial image of an unchanging Georgian street is in fact misleading: if you look back the other way you see the vista is deeply compromised by its urban situation. But many people don’t turn round, they just see what they want to see.

    In the course of ‘The Servant’ Losey returns to this opening shot, the exterior of the Terrace, a number of times. Using it with ironic effect to intercut and break up both the action and the emotional charge of the film.  In its repeated use, the shot implies a number of interrelated ideas and purposes: ideas about the entrapment of time, the predilection to look only at the image presented, not to turn over to the other side of the postcard; as the emotional intensity builds between the protagonists these cool white painted regular exterior forms contrast with the dark destructive forces within; and intercut this terrace shot suggests that behind the surface of an unblemished exterior, corruption can spread through the interior of a body eating away at its flesh.

    Losey’s interest in time is evidenced in both ‘Eva’ and ‘The Servant’ where he uses shots such as ticking clocks and dripping taps as blatant references to its passage, time that hastens away with the quick leaving the dead behind. More subtle is the director’s use of mirror shots throughout ‘The Servant’ calling attention both to time and its reading. These mirror shots, often of long duration, split the subjective reading of time into two discrete sections: first to what is seen indirectly through the mirror, then as the camera pans off the mirror, to that which is seen directly. The shots move from the virtual to the actual.

    For the viewers, the mirror shots cause a momentary disorientation, a need to reframe what they are watching.  At some point in the camera movement the audience understand that initially they have mis-read the scene: “Ahhh! I see it’s a mirror shot!” Having to reframe what you are looking at, breaks the integrity of the shot sensitising the viewer both to the issue of accepting the images presented on trust and to the idea of time as a subjective dimension.  Losey’s use of long durational choreographed mirror scenes where the action flows out of the reflected into the actual splits the shots into two temporal sections, before realisation and after realisation. The cognitive fissures caused by the mirror shots are quickly assimilated; the effect is perhaps confounding but rarely disruptive.  But movement through or across a mirror causes a subtle re-orientation in the seer to the manner in which time and space have been experienced.

    Crudely in the ticking clocks, subtly through mirror image manipulation, time is a basic building block for Losey in ‘The Servant’. Events are running on fast in ‘The Servant’. Society, the pampered elite living off inherited wealth who live in the expensive houses, are running out of time so fast they can’t see what is happening. Admiring themselves in the mirror they don’t see the camera has panned round. They live as if they were insulated from change but are actually complicit with the forces which will inevitably destroy them.

    ‘The Servant’ is Losey’s morality tale; a contemporary allegory. Losey’s vision is pessimistic, perhaps cynical. Not for him the righteous outcome of the servants and the dispossessed inheriting the earth in a bloody but glorious revolution. In Western society Losey sees that traditional class oppositions  have been fatally compromised and undermined by emulative consumerism. The servant, intelligent clever and adaptive, doesn’t want to overthrow the toff, he just wants to turn the tables on him, and experience for himself the life of a leisured aristo. The servant’s intention is to use his increasing position of power to garner for himself the life style of the other.

    In ‘The Servant’ Losey and his script writer Harold Pinter suggest that those in close contact with the system of inequality will never overturn that system but simply enter the more deeply into collusive relations.

    Losey’s script for ‘The Servant’ charts a process of role inversion between master and servant. The script is a psychic machine ripping Tony (James Fox) apart finally consuming him and spitting him out as the spent husk of a retarded child. But it is the atmospherics of the film’s scenario registering the dynamics of the homoerotic relationship between Tony and Hugo, that charges the film with its intensity. The rising emotional tensions as the women, in particular Susan (Sarah Miles), are emotionally squeezed out, demeaned, barred from this dyadic male world. The sexual tensions are all the more potent for being implicit in the action, and given the script is by Pinter, in the pauses between the action; they are not made explicit in the flesh.   Less is more. Were the film re-made today the script would almost certainly include a full on sex scene between Tony and Hugo, and perhaps between Vera (Wendy Craig) and Tony. In Losey and Pinter’s work this type of roly-poly would simply have reduced the relational complexities to a banality.

    Ultimately ‘The Servant’ reads as Losey’s allegory for the the country in which it was made: Britain. A country sliding into psychic melt down: corrupted by the wealth of Empire, married to privilege and unable to change. Some of the things seen in 1963 by this ‘Un-American’ director and Pinter, that in 2020, still ring true.

    Adrin Neatrour





  • L’Age d’Or Luis Bunuel (1930; Fr)

    L’Age d’Or     Luis Bunuel (1930; Fr) Gaston Modot, Lya Lys.

    Viewed Star and Shadow shared screening 12 April 2020 during the plague.

    Download from YouTube.

    Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or were both privately financed, and like Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or was originally meant to be a collaboration between Dali and Bunuel. But some time along the way they fell out, and Bunuel went solo, though I am sure I spotted the ghost of Dali lurking between the sprockets.

    What impresses me with Bunuel’s scripting and direction is his certainty and confidence as he assembles juxtaposes incorporates the disparate and extraordinary chain of images that make up the film.

     Bunuel’s produces his effects of psychic dislocation both by using editing and montage techniques, and also employing devices or actions built into the flow of particular scenes.  In the latter case scenes are sabotaged by strategic interpolations that bring things to a stop, challenging the viewer’s framing of what they are watching. But before the brain has completely adjusted frame,  the scene moves on or shifts as if nothing has happened. In L’Age d’Or  a large cow is discovered in the bed, a little dog is kicked out of frame, a ox cart travels across a drawing room party.   These acts of ‘framing’ sabotage are witty disruptive but ultimately swallowed whole, like Desperate Dan and his Cow Pies.   This type of scene sabotage was certainly a feature of silent comedy, Max Sennett et al and also would feature in the cameo’s of TV shows such as Monty Python.   Comedy’s golden age in Hollywood specialised in short vignettes in which the whole purpose of an absurd intrusion is to get a laugh.   Something more happens in Bunuel’s scenario, as indeed it does in the Monte Python series.  Bunuel’s surreal interposed images of course have wit and invention but the interpolations with which Bunuel blocks out L’Age d’Or are an integral part of the film, if not the whole point of the film:  that we live in the world in a state of psychic suppression. And this state is under continuous threat of being overwhelmed by the raging and sometimes murderous forces of the psyche. L’Age d’Or is a state of mind.    

    As per montage,  L’Age d’Or is bookended by two completely contrasting and dis-associative sequences. An introductory section comprising a brief documentary about scorpions; a final sequence, shot on a set representing the exterior of the Chateau de Silling (the fictional  location de Sade’s 100 Days of Sodom) with a Christ like figure in attendance.  L’Age d’Or as a thing itself absorbs the invasion of rogue elements erupting into film. Montage is of course the perfect filmic device to enable scorpions, bishops, bourgeois gatherings, mass urban riots and Christ to become a part of the flow of consciousness. 

    Bunuel’s cornerstone is  of course frustrated desire.  Natural desire frustrated by the artifice of society. In this case it the desire of lovers wonderfully played by Modot and Lya Lys, to make compulsive all encompasing love.   The theme of frustration, of the particular frustration generated by Bourgeois hypocrisy and false propriety, is a recurring concern of Bunuel’s.  It is evident in his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire as well as other films such as The Exterminating Angel and the Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz.

    In L’Age d’Or as well of these other films, Bunuel is able to employ his mordent uncompromising humour against the lifeless dead people that he observes around him. Dressed up in their ridiculous constumes sustained by obscene belief systems they present themselves as: ‘society’.   ‘Society’ that has abandoned life for safety in sartorial conformity and the stifling postures of conventional behaviour. 

    Of course today the herd conformity of Bunuel’s age dictated to by social conventions, has been superseded by the dictates of self image.   But there are few film makers around of Bunuel’s ability to point with effect to the absurdity of enslavement of the self by the self. 

    Adrin Neatrour



  • Bakurau Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (2019; Brazil; Fr.)

    Bakurau       Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (2019; Brazil; Fr.)  Sonia Bárbara, Udo Kier, Barbara Colen, Thomas Aquino

    Viewed 4th April 2020; collective Star and Shadow viewing on MUBI

    SPLAT the rat movie

    Filho and Dornelles ‘Bakurau’ is made with a sense of urgency. They are saying what is happening in Bakurau is happening now in Brazil: people are being murdered.  But we can do something, together we can fight the forces that would kill us.

    In the penultimate sequence of the film the good folk of Bakurau watch as the murderous scumbag mayor, Tony, is led away.  He is naked, bound and tied backwards on a mule which will carry him into the cactus dominated scrubland where he will die.   This one’s for you Bolsonaro must have been the thought of the millions of Brazilians who flocked to see Bakurau which is a thinly disguised allegory of the state of affairs in the largest South American country.  

    Filho and Dornelles have made their film as a direct political statement as to what is happening in this land.   A polemic pointing the way in which Brazilians can take on and oppose the forces ripping up their society and their county: only by being together.

    Brazilians are being butchered.  Butchered for private profit.  The activities of the mining companies killing thousands; the pollution they cause poisoning millions.   The Amazon is being felled at a rate that is destroying the life of the people who live there and will hasten the process of catastrophic global warming.  Whereas it is Brazilians themselves who often seem to be overseeing the destruction, it is the unseen forces from the US and Europe who are the real instigators, spilling the blood of Brazil, the disregarded collateral damage of their private gain. 

    Two factors make Bakurau work.  Firstly its allegorical content neatly enfolds the different layers of exploitation at work in this neo-colonial rentier economy.   The mayor, Tony, the Bolsonaro shoo-in, is paid off to do the metafixing.  He provides the conditions for the sting:   squaring off the people with false assurances,  cutting off their water supply, interrupting the communication networks so that the victims either cannot be heard, or better still, seem no longer to exist, become non-people.  Once Tony has sold out to the exploitation powers, these managers of death can move in for the kill. Literally as scripted by Filho and Dornelles, the Americans can walk into Bakurau and enjoy the pure pleasure of distraction, shoot and kill the people there.  In actuality what happens is that the outsiders come and  pollute the water, build unsafe damns, strip forests, control the highways and rivers, kill people who get in the way.   But it amounts to the same thing: death.

    And there is no one to protect them – except the people themselves.  Everyone else is bought.  For  besides the big cheeses such as Tony, there are a multitude of local middle managers who are needed to organise the day to day operations of exploitation.  These necessary peons are held in contempt by their paylords but besides doing the useful dirty work they are also expendable nobodies who can be fed to the crocodiles at the first sign of trouble.   They are no help.  It is only the people, the oppressed who can stand up and fight.

    In Hollywood and now increasingly European films, the people are mostly absent.  People do not exist as an active force.  In our movies the Western individuated ethos dominates to the exclusion of all other themes.  Cinema tells the stories of individual protagonists, the scripts relate: overcomings, reconciliation, transformations, conversions etc.  But accounts of socio-political relational networks forming the basis of change and oppositions,  accounts of shared common struggles, are not told.  The people as a category exist only as objects and data, consumers to be manipulated, divided up into categories processed by algorhythms to be the raw material for political and commercial collation and manipulation:  a process called consumer choice. 

    Of course arguing against the above depiction of their industry film producers might say that their scripts and scenarios simply mirror what society has become.   There is little left of the old collectivities.  There are no communities no proletariats no Unionised workers in large monolithic industries.  There are no people for the film industry to represent, only isolated functionaries locked into systems from which they can either try to escape or within which they can redeem themselves.

    The reply to this is that of course the Cinema Industry itself is part of the same system and employs a late digital capitalist development strategy.   Cinema is a huge industry, dominated by multi-national corporations that itself utilises the same population control devices as governments.  Cinema’s commercial strategy has been to produce films that target specific demographics.  Movies that stratify and strategically divide up its audiences into marketing categories predicted by age gender status and known proclivities.  Cinema itself has become one of the socio-industrial elements dividing us.   

    But in ‘Bakurau’ Fihlo and Donnelles have made a film in which Cinema unites people – the people are present.  It is the victims as the people, who finally understand what is happening to them and that there is no alternative to active resistance.  Bakurau is touted in the publicity as a Western, but if the supposed model Western is a movie like the Magnificent Seven, this is a misrepresentation.  Bakurau has nothing in common with this movie in which the people cower in their houses whilst Bronson McQueen and Brenner get on with the action.  In Bakurau the people do call in the help of the local village bandito, but it is the villagers who  decide to take on the outsiders and collectively defend themselves.  In the end they kill them all, mostly Americans, symbolically entombing the last survivor in a deep pit built in the middle of main street.  Lest they forget.

    During Corvid 19 plague we in the industrialised economies are going to be pushed back into a deeper individuation, becoming for government and industry atomised units at the end of a telephone number.  The experience of Hong Kong does show that this does not have to be defining situation for the people, that the tools used to control them can also provide the means for organising and defining opposition.  Filho and Dornelles’ ‘Bakurau’ points to us that the moment to resist must be taken or lost forever and that resistance by people has to be defined by the resolve to see it through.    

    adrin neatrour

  • Grizzly Man Werner Herzog

    Grizzly Man   Werner Herzog (including original footage shot by: Timothy Treadwell; USA; 2005; doc) subject: Timothy Treadwell

    viewed at home in Newcastle upon Tyne on DVD; 2nd April 2020 during the plague

    Now here’s a cute little fella….

    Grizzly Man is Werner Herzog’s movie about Timothy Treadwell (TT), the Grizzly Man, self appointed guardian of the wild bears in an Alaskan wild life sanctuary.  

    Herzog splices together the material comprising his own interviews with relevant parties, with footage shot by TT in the last three years of his life, before he and his girlfriend were mauled to death and eaten by a bear. Herzog presents TT as the phenomenon that he was; in his cautionary commentary voice Herzog disagrees with some of the ideas expressed by TT; and at the end of the movie offers a line of explanation in relation to TT’s death.

    Seeing Herzog’s movie, I came to a quite different conclusion about the reasons for TT’s death than the director. Herzog talks about TT’s increasing alienation from the World of Man. This alienation, call it a line of retreat, pushes him deeper into the world of the bears with the direct physical dangers this entailed.   My own reading of ‘Grizzly Man’ was that TT’s death was mediated by the forces at work both in US society and in American media that shape and conform the ways and means by which we form and use images of ourselves in the world.

    As Werner Herzog edits clips from Treadwell’s footage into his movie, Timothy Treadwell like a Jack-in–the–Box pops up regularly in Grizzly Man. Treadwell is a prepossessing and insistent character, both in his immediate physical presence on screen and in his psychic make-up. But who is Timothy Treadwell? There is something in his look and presence that said to me, this is: Peter Pan.

    Perhaps like me, Treadwell saw Disney’s Peter Pan at an impressionable age. An age when ‘girls’ were remote creatures and the simple male bonded life of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys seemed perfect. But it was Peter Pan’s refusal to grow up that struck the most responsive chord. A chord in harmony with the Disney belief that we are all really eternal children free to lead carefree lives following our dreams.  This infantilisation of life has become an endemic part of US culture. And of course some guys never do grow up.

    TT’s physical presence is dominated by his shock of blond hair, an unruly ungroomed outgrowth either flopping straight over his forehead down across his eyes or like straw thatch protruding out through his headgear. His face sometimes shielded by sun shades, has a youthful ageless quality. As TT darts through frame in multiple takes and retakes, I realised that I was watching an embodiment of Peter Pan. Treadwell was the little boy who never wanted to grow up. The man-child and hero of Disney’s cartoon, who had left La La Land and come to Alaska, to create his own Neverland.

    Treadwell’s Peter Pan ‘look’ was matched by his performance. On camera he communicates the breathless excitement of an adolescent. In word and gesture we feel his uncompromising passion for the bears, the intensity of his self questioning, his self justification and his rage against the world that opposes him. TT in his being has caste himself as Peter Pan. He presides over a domain not of Lost Boys but of wild bears, surveying his kingdom with the innocent righteousness of the child determined to save them from the Captain Hooks of this world.

    This merging by Treadwell of himself into a recast image of Peter Pan is not accidental. It is a result both of forces at work in his own nature and of course the psycho-social forces working through US culture, in general the Hollywood film and TV industry and in particular the Disney Corporation.

    TT had a significant history in relation to La La Land. He quit college to go to Hollywood with the purpose of breaking into the movies. With an agent and auditions he is ultimately unsuccessful, failing (albeit narrowly) to land a prize part. What he will have learnt through all the photo-shoots and interviews is that in the movies, you are selling your image. He will have understood you need to be absorbed by your own image, to become the projection of an assemblage of adapted signs that signify the self. At its most extreme this is a process of demonic possession, and after his rejection there follows the death wish. Treadwell ends up in extremis, almost totalling himself on drink and drugs.

    He survives but finds himself with a residual problem. He has spent years creating an image for Hollywood. This hadn’t been successful but with an undeveloped sense of self, his need for an image lives on. The Hollywood Treadwell is a battered and wounded, but to survive he will create another persona, continuing the process he had begun of arresting the development of himself as an actual person and the concomitant relations the define actuality.

    Treadwell’s image is built around his physical presence: that mop of blond hair, the ageless face. Leaving La La Land, TT drifts back to his childhood connection with animals, and in the wild vistas of Alaska he finds the bears, the grizzly bears.   Here with them, there is time and space to develop a new persona. Alaska becomes Neverland; TT becomes Peter Pan.   In Neverland there are no agents no auditions no judgement.  Wrapped up in the protective carapace of a Pater Pan image, nothing can touch him. He will stay forever young. Treadwell, as Peter Pan, will turn his Alaska experience into a Disney movie. And he will be the star.

    When I was about ten years old I was taken to the cinema with my best friend Andrew to see Disney’s movie ‘The Living Desert’. This was Disney’s first nature film, his first feature film that was not an animation.    I remember only one fragment: a rat scuttles out of its hole and the voice over exclaims: “Now here’s a cute little fella!” . What I retain from seeing the ‘The Living Desert’ is Disney’s seductive idea that the world of wild creatures is in some respects no different from that of man. This of course was the working assumption of the Disney cartoon output: that the human and the animal worlds co-merge through the interaction of their similar emotional responses.     But in ‘The Living Desert’ this sentimental affiliation was extended to actual filmed images of animals and their behaviour. It was a significant development in a way legitimising Walt Disney’s commercially driven ‘ideology’ that animals and humans share similar feelings. Through Disney’s sentimental education we can understand each other.

    Walt Disney’s ‘belief system’ underwrites the construction of his huge media empire, the Disney Corporation. For Americans and many others world wide it is the Disney Corporation’s product range with its particular anthropomorphic image of the animal world that mediates understanding of nature.  

    Along with his Peter Pan persona Timothy Treadwell seems to have shared the Walt Disney Corporation’s view of animals. Living close to the bears (and other animals such as foxes) he projects onto their behaviour and relationships an exclusively anthropomorphic understanding. Through his eyes they are seen as creatures from the Jungle Book, with human personalities traits and desires. Treadwell spends thirteen years in Alaska, increasingly cocooned in his own private world. After 10 years there he starts filming and the video camera allows him to to take measure of his own performance. The image becomes a real projection.

    And then along comes Wendy.

    No Peter Pan without Wendy. And of course Wendy is the outside force that has the power to break through the shell of Neverland. To crack open the enclosed male world and threaten it with castration.

    Wendy is the new girl friend, Amy Huguenard. 

    The problem for TT is that the moment at which Amy becomes important, is the point at which Peter Pan the image and the bear movie have become seamlessly fused.   The bears are Disnified and Peter Pan’s forever young. But it is difficult for images to love; they only love themselves. It is difficult for images to have personal relations; they only relate to themselves.   Amy starts to become important to TT, he starts to feel for her, feelings that sound alarm bells that ring out the alarm at the inflexibility of the image. TT starts to feel an intimation of another type of development, intimations of a pressure to let Peter Pan go.

    But this pressure immediately puts TT into a dilemma. He thinks Amy loves the image! Wendy loves Peter Pan! And Wendy is with him all the time. Peter Pan is the object of her gaze and if she should see that he is not really Peter Pan, she will abandon him. Under the existential threat from a schizo discrepancy between the virtual and the actual Treadwell, his imaged self responded by radical self affirmation

    TT is trapped in his own image. In order to keep Amy he thinks he has to overplay Peter Pan; he has to live out the image of Grizzly Man, providing her with ever more extreme proofs that he is what he appears to be. A Disney character in a Disney world, he will push himself further into actions that conform to the image. To acquit himself he will be attracted into ever greater risky behaviour with the bears. Amy’s close proximity triggers a schizo crisis for TT. And this existential crisis precipitates both his and her deaths.So perhaps the explanation is that the image that shaped Timothy Treadwell also killed him. To live by the image; to die by the image; this is the story of Grizzly Man.

    adrin neatrour