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  • Minari Lee Issac Chung (US: 2020)

    Minari         Lee Issac Chung (US: 2020) Steven Yeun; Han Ye-re,Youn Yuh-jung

    Viewed: 28 March 21 BFI streamed

    metaphysics of overcoming

    Set in the early 1980’s Chung’s bucolic ramble is a feelgood type of product that documents the theme of overcoming. Unlike most movies these days it represents affirms and endorses the American Dream. This ‘Dream’ is the ideal that whatever your birth status, whatever your ethnicity, if you believe in yourself and your ambition, if you work hard and tirelessly to achieve it, America makes it possible for you to overcome all obstacles and succeed.

    I presume the movie is called Minari to encapsulate the immigrant success story theme. It’s a metaphor for the success of transplanted life forms. Minari is a Korean watercress type plant. Grandma carried some specimens of this plant from Korea which she plants by a creek on the Yi plot to see if it will grow. And Lo! After the fire that has destroyed Jacob Yi’s first years crop, Jacob wanders down to the creek and finds the Minari has taken root and flourished, it has gone forth and multiplied, sending out a message of hope and perseverance to the whole family enterprise. At this point it is best not to dwell on the invasive problems that can arise with imported species but that’s another story, a downbeat rather than an upbeat one.

    Despite its subplot of their young son having a heart condition, which plays out on the ‘cute’ factor, the script is worthy, correct but predictable in its direction of development. The attempts to build tension into the proceedings are addressed in two ways: the introduction of variegated unconventional characters and the relations between the Yi’s.

    The unconventional characters are drawn from the Hollywood stockpot of film drama stereotypes. We have in Minari, the straight-talking abrasive granny from back home untrammelled by the fears and inhibitions of the assimilating family; and there is introduction of a couple of full on Americana characters drawn from the substrate of weirdness in Cohn Brothers scripts. One of whose role, with his mangling of religious fundamentalism and the soil, is not to be dangerous but to attest to the tolerance of the Yi’s in their dealing with the local people. Perhaps as Koreans the Yi’s are all too familiar with the outer wild fringes of the Christian religion. But these American characters are kept well under control by Chung’s script, and the employment of these character tropes plays out as little more than baubles decorating the film’s structure.

    The other source of tension in Chung’s script, is the relationship between the Yi’s. Monica is never convinced by the move from California to rural Arkansas. The self sufficient farming life is Jacob’s dream project. Nevertheless she goes along with it, only to become increasingly disenchanted by the realities of both farming and the isolated nature of rural life itself. But their marital discord on this point never feels convincing rather it plays out like a carefully plotted script line. There is a managed deliberation in the manner in which their separate realities provoke Monica and Jacob to want to make different life choices.  What is lacking is an organic, psychic emotional strata at the core of their conflict. The mechanical aspect of their marriage is seen in the ‘Conversion of Monica’   This takes place at the end of the film in the resolved ‘happy ending’ to Minari. After the disaster of losing the harvest to fire, Monica sees that staying put, being resilient and believing in Jacob’s dream is the way forward. She is suddenly ‘happy’ in Arkansas. She is converted and so Minari ends on a high note of integration.

    In the name of ‘authenticity’ much of the film’s dialogue is in Korean. We know the Yi’s are first generation immigrants but in ‘Minari’ language functions as a token sign of the ‘otherness’ of the Yi’s, allowing the scenario to otherwise evidence their conformity and integration into American way of life. When we see Scorsese’s Italian families in New York, they speak English, but their life styles, their attitudes are Italian. They are Italians and they don’t have to speak Italian for us to understand this. The Yi’s on the other hand seem to have come right out of some Los Angeles suburb, to the extent that it is their suburban nature rather than their Korean nature that they have to adapt and bend to rural life.   Minari is a suburban epic rather than an immigrant odyssey.

    Chung’s film feels like a contemporary equivilent of the Soviet or Chinese propaganda films featuring young couples venturing forth into the hinterlands to till the soil. They come to the land; there is much is strange and unfamiliar, there are many obstacles to overcome and they have to get to know the local people. But with the correct ideology, the dream, they overcome all obstacles.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • A Time for Drunken Horses (Dema hespên serxweş) Bahman Ghobadi (Iran;2000)

    A Time for Drunken Horses (Dema hespên serxweş) Bahman Ghobadi (Iran;2000) Ayoub Ahmadi, Rojin Younessi; Amaneh Ekhtiar-dini

    Viewed Mubi 18 March 2021

    beware the pain of the child

    There is an overwhelming feel of shock from Ghobadi’s film of seeing what we do not normally see.   The shock of being exposed to a life that in the harshness of its conditions the rawness of its everyday experience shames the viewer seated in the comfort of his chair. What we see in ‘A Time for Drunken Horses’ may or may not be re-enactments, but it is evident what we see is real.

    ‘A Time for Drunken Horses’ (TDH) is Ghobadi’s first feature film. It is notable that he worked with Kairostami on ‘The Wind will Carry Us’ a year before directing this movie, the which will have given him much food for thought.

    Kairostami’s movies always start from an embedding a grounding in the fabric of life, and from within this fabric perspectives emerge which align the viewer to the images. There is often a sense of playfulness in Kairostami’s films, a sense of the absurd as part of the grain of existence.

    In Ghobadi’s ‘TDH’ there no gradated movement into the action, everything is immediately totally clear. The viewer is dropped straight into the cold stark reality of the lives of his protagonists, children in general but in particular the children of a Kurdish family living on the Iran-Iraq border, existing precariously through the business of smuggling and child labour.

    From the privileged European perspective, the scene of ruthless employment of child labour that opens the film is graphic. Of course Western economy is driven by child labour: textiles electronics the recycling of our discarded matter, all take advantage of the poverty of other countries in order to exploit child labour, because child labour costs little more than the price of feeding them, so there is a high return on the surplus value their work creates. A situation that in some respects resembles the Nazis use of forced labour. But for the most part, we the viewers are far removed from the reality of the work conditions that underlie the things we consume so avidly. So here is the reality into which Ghobadi plunges us like a bath of icy water. Ghobadi is making films in the situation, from within the people, so that he can show these things. Not as anything extraordinary but as the day to day ordinary life of these children, an actuality that is all that they know.

    Ghobadi’s film for the most part keeps a sense of balance in its depiction of the child subjects. There is an admix of the social and the personal, the use of the wide shot and the close up. There is of course no one line that divides these two zones rather they intermerge overlapping tapering into one another. It seems important that in the making of ‘TDH’ that Ghobadi avoid shots that in themselves exploit the vulnerability of children, that there is an integrity in the manner and style in which he films, an implicit contract with the viewers that Ghobadi avoids joining the ranks of the exploiters.  But there are moments when his choice of shot transgresses this contract. In particular a couple of shots of the stunted manchild who is the centre of attentive love at the heart of the family. The depiction of this manchild is central to the movie, the selflessness of the caring, the determination of the children never to let him go.   Mostly Ghobadi films the sequences with the manchild with economy and respect. But there are shots he uses that seem to be miscalculations. The manchild as part of the treatment for his condition, is on a course of painful intramuscular injections. For some reason Ghobadi decides to shoot him having these injections in close-up, so that we see his whole face and tiny body screaming trembling in pain. This close-up is surely unnecessary, a wide shot or even a cut away to one of the children watching whilst we hear his pain would have equally well if not better communicated the horror of the injection. But the shot as it is, a big close up of a manchild in pain, makes no sense and calls into question, even if momentarily, the integrity of the director. Why use this shot? You feel Kairostami would never shoot such a scene in this manner. The pain shot is overshadowed by the psychic pain embedded in the script of the rejection of the manchild by this society. Twice in the film he is cruelly rejected sent back home to die, by people who view him only as another burden. This is the sad reality realised in the script, that the love of the children in the family will not be enough to save the manchild from rejection. “Send him back! He’s another mouth to feed!” And given the harshness of the conditions experienced by this mountain society, this rejection is all too understandable.

    Shot in a mountainous border zone in Winter, the film is breathtaking in its depictions of the snowbound environment. An environment in which the people engage in a daily struggle to survive and to earn their bread. But for all that we wonder at the resilience and fortitude of these people, there is also the feeling that Ghobadi has embedded deep into the grain of the film his own sense of the absurd as a cosmic condition of life. The absurd as an existential condition. Even after these people have struggled against the pitiless nature of their snowbound environment, just at that point when they think they have overcome the obstacles of nature, they are then faced with the malicious antagonism of a human agency intent on destroying them.   Bandits or border patrols ambush them rendering their labours futile. Are these people not experiencing an absurd Sisyphean condition of life: that whatever you do however much you suffer, the outcome will be to throw you back where you started.

    The latent absurdity in TDH finally erupts intruding into the body of the film when the horses used to carry the contraband collapse to the ground unable to flee an ambush.    On these journey’s over the snowy mountains the horses’ water is normally doped with alcohol to help them combat the cold. On this journey they’d been overdosed with hooch and instead of being able to flee when the party is ambushed, inebriated and unsteady of their legs they are only able to collapse in a drunken stupour. In consequence instead of at least being able to escape with their goods, the smugglers lose everything. It’s a moment of pure farce conjured up by Ghobadi’s script, an absurdity that can be found only in extremis.

    There is a brittle quality to TDH.   Perhaps it is in the nature of the scenario: children coming to terms with taking on the impossible machinations of a complex and hard adult world, are doomed to fail. To his credit Ghobani doesn’t flinch from the logic of the cruelty that he presents to us.

    Ghobadi made his film 21 years ago, before the invasion of Iraq. Now everything will have changed but certainly life will still be as hard and brutal.

    adrin neatrour  

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

  • The Small Town (Kasaba) Nuri Ceylan (Turk; 1997;)

    The Small Town (Kasaba) Nuri Ceylan (Turk; 1997;) Cihat Butun, Emin Ceylan; Mehmet Toprak

     

    viewed on Mubi 4th March 2021

    As light as a feather

    There are four things I remember about Ceylan’s ‘The Small Town’: the feather, the tortoise, the long night and the final shot in which Asiya’s tentatively lowers the fingers of her hand into the waters of the stream.

    What I finally understood about the film is that it is styled as a gentle satire, a satire that is as light as the feather that mesmerises the children in the classroom, and as captivating. Ceylan’s film satirises the state’s use of education as an opportunity for institutional indoctrination; satirises the family’s role in the inevitable victory of the adult over the child and its inability to stop the replication of the cycles of judgement through its generations. But although the satire is gentle the substance of the film centres on an inner psychic structure of emotional ambiguities and conflict, innocence and cruelty that describes within an 80 minute scenario a cycle of time that connects childhood to old age and death.

    Ceylan’s film observes interactions observes relations between both people and people and their environment.   ‘The Small Town’ is shot in a particular place and time, provincial Turkey in the late ‘1960s’.   But it uncovers something of what is universal in the experience of people, highlighted in the discontinuities and intensities of immanent life which is concentrated in its black and white photography that in particular during the long night sequence draws out the expressive qualities of the individual faces which are stamped like etchings on the film stock. Ceylan choosing to exploit the feature of texture rather than colourisation.

    The opening sequence establishes a theme that runs through the “The Small Town’ like a thread running through human nature: cruelty. The cruelty of the world of the child and the cruelty of the world of adults.   The cruelty of the child stems out of innocence, a disconnection between action and pain. In the opening shots, laughing and enjoying the spectacle of his discomfort, children cause the town’s simpleton to fall in the snow; later in the film, Ali hearing from his sister Asiya, that tortoises are helpless and die if turned and left upside down, does precisely this to the little creature they have been looking at. The act haunts him, as it haunted me after viewing the film. Ali is innocent in his actions in the sense that he has not yet come to realise how precious life is. There is no such excuse for adults. Nor do they seem to want any.

    The long sequence in which the family gather together during the night around the fire in a small grove gives voice to both individual cruelties and those endemic in the world that have shaped these people. This scene shot amidst the trees around the fire, closes in about the viewer evoking a feeling of intimacy and awareness with the participants. The camera draws in on not just the individual’s present, but also on the fire which claims a presence of its own, as do the immediate surround of tree and field. The family gathering with its hesitancies lacuna and discontinuities, is presented as a dialogue of men; but the women have presence. At critical moments it is the women who assert a dominance controling the ebb and flow of the talk, the what ‘can’ and the what ‘cannot’ be said. As the men talk the cruelty of war is related both as personal experience by grandad and then triumphantly glossed as a glorified history by his son brushing off the questioning of his nephew, Safet, as to the vainglory of it all.

    After the war talk, the conversation becomes more personal.   The life of Safet from the failed side of the family, becomes the focus of the family’s barbs of disappointment. Safet whose prematurely dead father was also the black sheep of the family suffers the cruelty of judgement. There is nothing good to say about either Safet or his dead father. Not that his father’s loss wasn’t deeply felt, but both father and son are cast as lost causes.  Cutting away from this night talk one of the memorable shots in the film sees Safet leaving home to join the army. Waved off by his grandmother he walks up a long road. The shot observes his progress away from everything he knows. He looks back once. It is a lonely shot that captures the lost boy nature of his spirit.

    Ceylan’s ability to conjure satire out of thin air is marked in the school and classroom sequence. At assembly the children listen to the reciting of the catechism of Turkish nationalism. Dismissed to the classroom they are subjected to more of the same as they are tasked by their teacher to read aloud in rote the solemn justifications for enforcing the rules of social and family solidarity. But as these rules of the game are intoned there is a feather at large in the room. A feather that has possibility. A feather that becomes an amusing entertaining game as the children by deft and targeted blowing attempt to keep it up in the air as long as possible.  Light as a feather it defeats single handed the didactic weight of the Turking state.

    The last shot stayed with me. It seems to be part of a dream sequence in which Asiya, standing by a stream sees the body of her grandfather lieing on the ground; she also spies Safet, close by, bare bodied without his shirt. The which shirt in the next shot she holds up wet and like a shroud, before kneeling down to tentatively dip her fingers into the flow of the stream where the film ends on a freeze frame of her hand in the waters. It is hesitant nature of her action that holds attention. I can’t say I know its significance, but it feels like a premonition of death foreseen.  The boyish vulnerability of the actor who played Safet caught my eye.   Later I looked up the career of Mehmet Toprak who played him and see he was killed in an automobile accident in Turkey 2002, just after completing Uzak, his second film for Ceylan.

    This was Ceylan’s first feature film. Watching it is an extraordinary experience.   ‘The Small Town’ is a film that opens up vistas on life and living, enveloping the viewer in an immediacy of seeing. Ceylan implies questions but supplies no slick outcomes or answers, just the opportunity to reflect. The film has nothing to do with the one thing after another mechanics of script or technicalities of film making as such.   The Small Town is simply an understanding of time and space, and how to communicate them.

    Caylan happens to be a film maker; at this stage of his career he is also a poet.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

  • Bloodlands (episode 1) Pete Travis (BBC Prod,2021 )

    Bloodlands (episode 1)     Pete Travis (BBC Prod,2021 ) James Nesbitt, Charleen McKenna

    viewed as broadcast, 21 Feb 2021

    mechanical dulls

    ‘Bloodlands’ is the most recent example of that kind of ‘Who done it’ ( and why?) series that comprises a drama told over many episodes, wrapped round some kind of ‘police’ investigation. In the guise of ‘Bloodlands’ the genre starts to look more tired than ever. The appearance of this genre on TV screens, first announced itself some years back with the ‘Scandi Noir’ TV series re-purposing and transposing Agatha Christie type designs and devices into the mood of the current zeitgeist. These types of TV series may be well or badly made, served by lesser or better scripts and casts, but they all draw on the same implanted script mechanics.   They all comprise the same ingredients that can be shaken and stirred in infinite variation: the motivation puzzle, the false trails and red herrings, the usual suspect, the skeleton in the cupboard, the stooge, the patsy etc. But as readers of Agatha Christie discover in the end these plot designs tend to become outworn, the gears ground down through overuse.

    ‘Bloodlands’ judging from its first episode, looks like it’s come to the very end of the line: it’s hit the buffers. Even the title, ‘Bloodlands’ points up a level of desperation in marketing.   Its direct titular somatic reference looks to attract an immediate prurient interest. This is a gimmick more confident series haven’t needed: The Bridge, Line of Duty etc. The problem with this type of title is that is quickly leads to a sort of semantic inflation, producers feeling the title of their series has to ‘top’ that of any rival in attracting sales interest.

    The salient feature of all these types of cop/tec dramas is that their scripts define their form. They are a mechanical apparatus. The scenatios are built on a design that shares analogous properties to the maze: dead ends, circuitous paths that double back on themselves, false leads, the illusion of progress and the engendering of false hope of success. The popular appeal, as per Agatha Christie, is the posing of a certain type of problem whose solution is in theory possible through the application of logical reasoning and a ‘common sense’ understanding of psychology and motivation. Shake into the mix the fiery condiments of murder, corpses and kinked sex and you have the perfect distraction machine.

    These shows are Heath Robinson type artificial contraptions, but some certainly have successfully plumbed into other other areas of psychic resonance. ‘The Bridge’ characterised by its dark tenebrous setting, felt it was set in the Viking underworld of the dead, with the eponymous bridge as a sort of symbolic lifeline out of Hel. This may not have had much to do with the convolutions of the script but it provided quasi-mythical undertow to the drama.

    Nothing as interesting as this was evident in ‘Bloodlands’. Everything about ‘Bloodlands’ came across as a collection of tired clichés and repetitive tropes. The opening sequence was a series of night shots of Tom Brannick driving through Belfast. They were all very familiar types of images: the confusion of lights, the confection of refraction and reflection through the car windows, all intercut with Tom’s face and eyes, a montage assembled to express the man confronting the anarchic dangerous energy and dynamic impersonality of the big city.  But the opening section delivered nothing more than a visual cliché. The which opening was followed up with familiar story tropes: Tom, the tec with the murdered wife, the in-house police dysfunctional tensions, the suspicion of the local community, an act of sudden unexpected violence in the petrol bombing of a police car. Each card was played out by the script writers was a familiar contrivance, underscored by a dull script and workaday cinematography that occasionally resorted to drone shots to leaven the visual monotony.

    You might say that these crime series have good actors. But only if in saying that you mean that these actors are good at doing what they are told to do.  Because that looks like what they’re doing. Most of the directors of these pieces are instructed to keep a high level of control over the productions which are made with a view to being sold across the world. With this is mind the actor’s face must be rigorously disciplined to exude only appropriate expression: in practice this requires the actor hold back on the emoting. Their expressive palate is usually restricted to small number of face masks: the po face – hard eye/mouth muscles non reactive; the doe face – soft eye/mouth musculature, reactive; the gloat of trimph/self satisfaction, reactive. There are others, but not so many. The permitted expressions dominate because they are safe and easy to constrict within the undulating frantic plot and sub-plot lines. In relation to this ‘Bloodlands’ in its corralling of the expressive faces of its actors, in particular of course, Nesbitt and McKenna, goes to extremes, an indication perhaps of the world wide sales ambitions of its producers. By the end of episode 1, all we had seen of James was an invariant po face, sometimes hard eyes and sometimes harder eyes, there were some doe eyes from his daughter and some gloat face from McKenna as she made a cock joke. That was it. A kind of Europudding one dimensional playing that could either turn Europe on or turn the audience off, depending on who can be bothered to watch the expressive monotony of the next episodes.

    The scripting of ‘Bloodlands’ comes across as compromised. In particular in relation to its setting in contemporary Belfast with ‘The Troubles’ as backstory.   The main use of the setting and back story in this first episode was the justificatory phrase that was repeated again and again was: that at the time of the Good Friday peace accord nothing could be done about these suspicions as any action might have put it in jeopardy. This was repeated so often that I started to feel I might join in.  

    ‘Bloodlands’ looks like a cynical attempt to exploit its Belfast setting but it offers little else to its chosen format or genre. Dull acting, plodding dialogue, unconvincing script, predictible camera work.  The emphasis is to play safe. The Northern Ireland situation is not taken on, as represented it is nothing more than an interesting backcloth against which to play out the standard tec fare. Ironic at a time of course when post Brexit, that Irish question again looms large on the geo-political horizon. Across the water from the BBC’s England events are moving that might make ‘Bloodlands’ look more like history than it already is.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne de l’Arc) C T Dreyer (Fr. 1928; 1:34)

    The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne de l’Arc) C T Dreyer (Fr. 1928; 1:34) Renee Jeanne Falconetti.

    viewed: MUBI 4th Feb 2021

    Machinery of the Law

    When I saw ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (‘The Passion’) for the first time some years ago. I watched it in a cinema on a big screen; seeing it again at home, Dreyer’s film again took my breath away.   The first shot proper in the film, after the archive montage (which tells us where we are and what is happening) is a track of the Great Hall in which the ecclesiastical Court has been convened.   It’s a long tracking shot that travels quite slowly, moving behind the assembled clerics filming them from the rear or in profile as they sit and wait: some craning for a view, some rub their face, some look bored, some exchange gossip remarks and meaningful looks.

    These men are gathered for a purpose. As one by one we pass them they all present as domed forms: all of them have pronounced domed heads either tonsured or capped, introducing these men (and they are all men) as representatives of religion and also allowing us a premonition of their religious idea of mercy: severe. They look like men of severity. The shot is animated and given depth and vitality in that there are three separate planes of action recorded by the camera as it tracks: in front of the row of monks and prelates there is a line of soldiers, setting up laughing joking relaxing but in their uniforms, threatening. Interspersed is a third plane occupied by yet more priests some still and some walking, engrossed in meditation or prayer, looking absented from this gathering. This is Dreyer’s set up in the moments before before Joan’s entrance.

    This shot is remarkable in the associations it establishes between the images it brings together. Condensed in this one shot, the dome headed priests, the soldiers and the praying monks, is the presentation of huge judgement machine that has come togather togather to crush its victim.

    In next shot we see the intended victim of this huge machine: Joan.   She is small, hair cropped, dressed in a simple jerkin. She looks like a boy.  Her ankles are shackled in chains as she enters the hall. Her interrogation begins: after some hesitancy she tells the court she is 19 years old.   This is a shock! This mighty judicial show has gathered itself in this huge hall to crush a creature who is little more than a child? Joan shows no fear. She is not afraid in this place. She is herself. Before this Court, with its unbearable contempt and malice towards her as an insignificant unclean woman who sins by dressing as a man, who has mistaken ideas about her station sex and status, Joan is only herself.   And this is ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ and this is her trial before the Pharisees.

    Like the New Testament Jesus, Joan stands alone in front of her accusers. Dreyer’s ‘Joan’ is a Christ transposed as a woman, a Christ become woman. These high and mighty prelates are Pharisees, stooges of a secular arm whose only one use for her is as a dead heretic. In her ordeal her ‘Passion’ like Christ’s will show her voluntary renunciation of life itself, her self sacrifice in the name of the one who is ‘truth’ the one who is ‘higher’: God.  Joan will assume her ‘Passion’.

    Like Christ in front of Pilate, Joan’s simplicity and extraordinary vision of God shine through during her interrogation. She cannot be trapped into self incrimination because she is at one with with her own truth.   Like Christ, duplicity cunning evasion are unknown to her as she responds to those who would try to trick or trap her into a heretical reply to their questions. Her spirit takes on her accusers and reveals them for the vile bodies that they are.

    Against the background of Dreyer’s extraordinary set, it is the close-ups that dominate and concentrate the scenario. Much of the scripted exchanges between Joan and her accusers guards and wardens is shot using big close ups in classic montage style: shot – reaction –shot, cutting between the faces of Joan and her adversaries. Dreyer’s set is a white plastered simulacrum of Rouen Castle. In its abstraction it mimics Mediaeval form and critically it allows an even pale luminescence to fall across Joan’s face which heightens her screen presence. The pauses, the silences between question and response engender the cross questioning as a series of intensities as we look into Joan’s face trying to read her emotions. As the trial progresses, the huge male ancient harrowed faces of her judges, mocking and contemptuous, bear down on Joan. They are the same religious judicial machine that destroyed Christ and they will destroy her.  As Dreyer films her very close in long loving shots we see that Joan is psychically indestructible. She is an immovable object. Through Dreyer’s mode of presentation of Joan, he makes the demand that we look at her without flinching and as she fills the screen understand who she is. She is a Christ figure, a re-incarnation of the Word.    

    Dreyer’s script moves through the major episodes of a ‘Passion’. In her cell she is tormented reviled threatened with rape by her captors who mock her by giving her a crude Crown of interwoven willow that can only suggest the crown of thorns worn by Christ. Joan is led to the torture chamber (though she is not actually put to the Question) and beguiled by trickery before finally in full acceptance of her fate she is led out, tied to the stake and in public executed by being put to the fire.

    Although Dreyer’s film most strongly suggests a female iconographic recasting of Joan, Dreyer’s film also points up another sensibility: that of the coming era of the Show Trial. Dreyer will have been well aware of the Allies policy during the First World War of shooting both ‘deserters’ and ‘cowards’ after going through the motions of trial by military tribunal. These military trials with their brutal summary executions look as if they have fed into his scenario; they are present in Dreyer’s images of the British Soldiery, the Tommies, menacing and omnipresent, ready to see that the will of the Armed Forces be done. Dreyer’s ‘Passion’ also seems a presentment of the terrifying aspect of judgement machines that were yet to come, the judicial squalor of Stalin and Hitler as they liquidated their enemies by due process.

    My feeling is the size of screen surely plays a part in estimation of ‘The Passion’. Some criticism of the film points to the lengthy duration of Dreyer’s close-ups, in particular those of Joan. But is this criticism an affect of scale? When a still image is scaled down to fit on a small screen, the information stream is impoversihed, less data to hold the gaze and invite the eye to explore. The smaller image quickly exhausts the visual potential of a picture leaving the mind impatient for the next image to replace it.   Hence modern directors dictum to keep the image moving, keep the picture moving: that’s the way to tell the story: movement.  

    But when an image fills out the line of sight, the fact of little or no movement is not necessarily a problem; on the contrary it is potential. Stillness is an opportunity for the eye to engage with what is before it, to read into an image. The slowed or stilled image, in particular when it’s a face (and this is mostly the case in ‘The Passion’) becomes an affect image an invitation for the viewer to project meaning onto the the flow of events. As the eye has time to range across the screen, we may look, examine without flinching, at Joan and her tormentors. I think this was Dreyer’s intention: to make us look at Joan and see her. The design implicit in ‘The Passion’ is Dreyer’s refusal to compromise on this point. We are not allowed to forget Joan, whether she is before the Court, in her cell, in the torture chamber or tied to the stake where she will be burnt alive. She is herself, she is a simple human being, a women who has more spirit and soul than any of her judges guards torturers or executioners and is killed because she is a threat to them to the male world of judgementation.

    Dreyer’s film comes to end in spectacle. All public execution is by definition spectacle, whether it be crucifixion or burning at the stake. And of course this is always the final episode of the Passion, the public destruction of the body, the final most painful test of the spirit: “My God my God why hast thou forsaken me?’

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

  • L’Avventura   (The Adventure) Michaelangelo Antonioni (It. 1959, 2hrs 23min)

    L’Avventura   (The Adventure) Michaelangelo Antonioni (It. 1959, 2hrs 23min) Monica Vitti, Gabrielle Ferzetti; Lea Massari

    viewed Mubi 26 Jan 2021

    I love you

    I was thinking about Antonioni’s title for his film ‘L’Avventura’. What does the idea of ‘The Adventure’ point to? The final sequence of his movie suggests one answer. In this final section, after a number of close shots, the last image in the film, is a long shot of Claudia standing behind Sandro. He is sitting slumped on a bench overlooking an ocean vista with a mountainous island away in the distance. Claudia’s hand mechanically combs through his hair. They are not young people any more. They look like an elderly defeated married couple who are incapable of movement.  Antonioni’s title is perhaps mordant sardonic.   In a narrow sense ‘The Adventure’ that Antonioni points to, is that of women escaping ‘marriage’; the wider sense ‘The Adventure’ is that of women escaping men and the consequences of them not being able to do so.  

    In ‘L’Avventure’s’ scenario Anna gets away from men, escapes both her father her boyfriend, escapes from them radically permanently mysteriously. But Claudia for all her hesitation her doubts and uncertainty in that last shot denotes that she cannot escape, perhaps cannot even quite see there is a problem, she has become a adjunct of the male.  

    ‘L’Avventura’ is a woman’s film. Antonioni’s script concerns itself with and focuses on women.   To do this he uses ‘situation’. His female characters are trapped in the world of men, their souls snuffed out. This is not addressed directly by the female protagonists. The women simply don’t have the voice to confront what is happening to them, which is of course Antonioni’s point. Their entrapment is something he shows us, that we see directly on the screen. Through Anna and Claudia’s situation we see that something is terribly wrong in their world.

    The opening title sequence is underscored by a piece of contemporary jazz (repeated over the final shot and end credit). The music is driven by rhythmic guitar, it’s a dissonant nerve jangling track that might have been composed for a mystery murder movie. The music sets up the psychic state of the female protagonists (who are in effect being murdered). The music has edge; the women are edgy. They are suffocated. They are aware that they have no air but still they must breath. And it is this disturbance in the women’s psyche between the in-breath and the out-breath that interpenetrates ‘L’ Avventura’. As the camera focises on the faces of Anna and Claudia, the affect image we read in their expression is that of derangement. Their clothes are perfectly arranged but beneath the outer garments, under the skin, a derangement of body and mind.  

    Anna the fiancé, caught between Papa and Sandro, dives off the yacht and swimming out in the Mediterranean cries out: “Shark!” …there’s a shark in the water.   However she’s crying ‘wolf’ though no one realises it; this time she is playing a game, her next scream will be silent, next time she will not be heard because she has no voice with which to scream out: ‘Me!”. Another later scene: Claudia and Sandro are together in the country locked in a charade of intimacy. He looks across the landscape, remarks: “Look there’s the town!” Claudia replies: “That’s not a town, it’s a cemetery.” Sandro mistakes life for death, As he forcefully takes possession of Claudia, she has no defence against him, her face increasingly assumes an expression internal panic; the look of a wild bird in the hunter’s hand. Until that final shot when she appears to have resigned herself to entrapment in Sandro’s cage.

    Antonioni doesn’t confine himself to the private sphere of his female protagonists interpersonal relations. L’Avventura’s script extends out into the vulnerability of women in the public arena. This is the domain men have claimed for themselves, in which unaccompanied females are the subject not only to the male gaze but surrender their right to body space. They are prey to be hunted. In the scenes in Palermo and the small Sicilian town, Antonioni’s scenario unleashes scenes of the savage depraved nature of male desire unleashed by the appearance of the lone woman target. The scenes are a reminder of the reason for the disturbance underscoring Claudia’s derangement, that detached and out by herself on her own she is subjected to the hostility of men and their implied punishment of gang rape.   Without a voice she is defenceless.    

    ‘L’Avventura’ is set in the wealthy high bourgeois strata of Italian society. This a world of privilege where the men are judged by the degree of ownership and control they exert on others through their possessions: their cars their yachts and their women. It is a world where the women are trophies.   Their looks their couture and culture simply reflect back onto the glory of their consorts. The women have little actual significance, they are appendages, ultimately replicants, spare parts. If one goes wrong, vanishes or gets old, they can be replaced. Hollowed out and colonised by the male all that is left to them is an assemblage of deranged psychic responses. As Sandro moves with intent to replace vanished Anna with present Claudia, the interlinking theme of ‘L’Avventura’ is woman as a disposable entity; the one is as good as another. And of course the deal cuts both ways, as in one scene Claudia blurts out to Sandro: “You look like some one else.”   In times when we are increasingly defined by our consumption and leisure, people can start to look like some one else.

    The island setting used by Antonioni for his scripted ‘coup’ of Anna’s anti-climatic disappearance, is reminiscent of Rossellini’s film ‘Stomboli’ which is set on the eponymous Aeolian island.   Rossellini’s protagonist Karen is ravaged by malignant hostile social forces but in the final sequence the volcanic physicality of the island in itself overwhelms her being. She submits to the force of nature. It is certain Antonioni saw this film and that it’s powerful climax fed into his script for ‘L’Avventura.’  The raw power of the natural environment frees Anna from the chains of a world conformed to men’s authority. The island sets her free. Perhaps as with Karen, it becomes clear to Anna that she must answer to the logic of the island not men.

    Outside of the island section of ‘L’Avventura’, built structures dominate the locations. These buildings feed both Antonioni’s aesthetic and also the film’s subtext about the expression of power. The modernist construction of Sandro’s apartment, the new buildings in Sicily are the backdrops against which a new and more defined visible sort of power can be expressed: the coming of man the consumer giving clear and unambiguous unornamented expression to the world. The older buildings with their rococo interiors and exteriors signify a world where power is more concealed less brutally announced, more hidden, but nevertheless real.

    Seen today after 70 years after ‘L”Avventura’ was made, Antonioni’s film shocks as a reminder of the debasement of women’s role in this era.  There have certainly been critical changes since 1960 in the status of women. Feminist sensibility has primed both women and men to challenge the whole range of their social and economic relations. But Antonioni through his film still has something to say; something to show us. It has to do with being possessed or dominated by an externality, something that that you are not able to oppose with a voice. The consequence of this is aderangement, self obliteration. Also Antonioni shows himself to be a film maker, a director who uses film to that we may see. He doesn’t use polemic, he doesn’t preach through his characters, he simply shows us things, perhaps obliquely, giving us the space to think through what we have seen for ourselves. One piece of dialogue stays in my mind:

    “I feel like I don’t know you.’

    “I want what you want.”

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

  • Ratcatcher Lynne Ramsey (UK; 1999)

    Ratcatcher   Lynne Ramsey (UK; 1999) William Eadie, Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews

    viewed Mubi 14 Jan 2021

    After image

    ‘Ratcatcher’s’ opening shot is a slow motion long duration close up of a young lad as he twines and twists a net curtain around his head, surrendering to the immediacy of the moment. Seeing his visage through the delicate tracery of the lace, the boy’s image calls to mind the experience of an archaeologist who on removing the last bandages from a mummified corpse, catches a momentary glimpse of its face last seen thousands of years back, which then almost immediately turns to dust.

    Lynne Ramsey’s ‘Ratcatcher’ sets its stall out from the beginning as a quasi mythical recasting, a re-representation of life in the slums of Glasgow. The poverty, the trampled lives, the daily struggle are all represented in this milieu. But they are not her central focus. Her concern is to express this place not so much for what makes it particular but rather for the universal psychic qualities it shares with human experience  No matter that this is neither Ancient Greece nor ancestral Alba. But look, here in the Glaswegian tenements there’s a primordial landscape in which archetypal characters play out myriad variations of mythic themes.

    Running at the back of the old tenement blocks is a living river. Its spirits have coursed through the lives of all who have ever lived here. It’s a stream that in particular attracts and holds the young in its traces. These waters are an ever present motif coursing through the film which is set in the 1970’s. A time when the long strike of the rubbish men causes huge piles of black bags to pile up in the tenements and from the river comes the visitation of a plague of rats upon the people.  

    ‘Ratcatcher’s’ scenario is set in an unstable in-between time. A time between heaven and earth, between movement out of the old slum built by the river into the new arcadian housing development built by fields of barley. A drama is played out in the opposition between the old river gods of the slum and the coming gods of the new estate, a citadel of hope built close to the fruits of the earth.   Abandoned, the old river gods demand a human life and claim as their victim, Ryan the young boy seen in the first shot already shrouded as if preparing for his own sacrifice, his drowning in the waters.

    Ramsey’s script is a patchwork of themes and mythical strips that interlink to provide a mosaic like depiction of her subject.   She doesn’t use narrative. ‘Ratcatcher’ is an impressionistic imprint of evanescent experiences which nevertheless like the face of the mummy suddenly exposed to air, leave an indelible psychic scar. Her guide over and beyond the Styx is Jamie. In the script Jamie is fitted out with a full family but from way in which he moves through the scenario, Jamie is an orphan archetype whose fate is not linked to the past but is determined by other cosmic forces.   Jamie in the Celtic tradition is accorded the status of seer, one who is guided by visions and dreams. Ramsey occasionally uses point of view shots, but mainly we watch Jamie, the object of the camera, as he moves through space and time entering into relations of life and death.

    Scouring the land, patrolling the river are the Glaswegian gangs. Violent unpredictible hunters re-incarnates of the Fenians bands or Tuartha, but with nothing to hunt, they vent their warrior frustration on whatever crosses their path. The central female character is the young post-pubescent girl who takes on the opposing roles of sacred prostitute and virgin bride. Whore to the Fenians but sacred virgin to the chaste James who like Finn macCoul relates to seeing as much as to being. As Jamie’s dad becomes a ‘hero’, the river yields life in the form of fish insects and rats, so Jamie sees the escape to the newly constructed housing estate on the edge of town, surrounded by fields of gold. But as we see images of the gorgeous wind swept barley, and the last image of the film sees the family running through it, the thought occurs that the mythic cannot be avoided by simple re-location. In the midst of the fields although they have escaped the river gods ands spirits, John Barleycorn lies in wait.

    There will be those who watch this film and be troubled by Ramsey’s assembly of mythic types in the slums of Glasgow. In particular her depiction of the young girl, whore and virgin.  However it seems to be a core premise of her movie that she is not setting ‘Ratcatcher’ up as a judgement machine. ‘Ratcatcher’ sets itself to catch something else, physic reverberations. Ramsey is looking at reflections in the mirror of life and understanding these as archetypal images not ideals: violent gangs as deterritorialised Fenians, child whores, boy seers. All existing in this microcosm of a Glaswegian slum in phantom archaic form that stand apart from political correctness or conventional values.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

  • Festen (Celebration) Thomas Vinterberg (Den; 1998) Ulrich Thomsen, Paprika Stein, Thomas Larsen

    Festen (Celebration)   Thomas Vinterberg (Den; 1998) Ulrich Thomsen, Paprika Stein, Thomas Larsen

    viewed on MUBI 7th Jan 2021

    Overloaded

    ‘Festen’ was the first feature film produced after the Dogma 95 declaration which was written by Vinterberg and Von Trier. Dogma 95 was a film makers manifesto, pledging commitment by the signatories to a code of film making practice (‘The vows of chastity’, so called). Like most such artistic manifestos it was a manifestation of silliness (Frank Capra once said: ‘There are no rules in film making only sins and the cardinal sin is dullness) but of course Vinterberg and Von Trier knew that the sillier their Manifesto, the more seriously it would be taken by film critics and thus fulfil its purpose: assure them lots of publicity.

    Taken on its own terms Vinterberg’s ‘Festen’ delivers a film that in structure content and style, takes its cue from the core traditions of European film making. ‘Festen’ as a product of Dogma simply exemplifies continuity of film structure and form as exemplified by directors such as Renoir, Vigo, Bresson, and of course Luis Bunuel. Bunuel never bothered with manifestos, but many of his films fall within the parameters and technical imperatives of filmmaking set out in Dogma 95.   In respect to content it is Bunuel’s perspective as a film maker that Vinterberg also animates and re-visions. Two of Bunuel’s outstanding films, the Exterminating Angel and Viridiana, involve themes central to Festen: Epater le bourgeoisie: to make movies that are transgressive, blasphemous and that expose the hypocrisy of the middle classes and their rituals of eternity.

    Bunuel’s aimed his satiric barbs mainly at the Catholic Church; Vinterberg points his camera at ‘the family’ which by the twentieth century, with the invention of man the consumer, has replaced religion as the West’s most sacred institution. It is no longer possible to offend by blaspheming God, it is the family has become the quasi religious symbol of the times.   The family is the subject of Vinterberg’s movie. His setting is the 60th Birthday celebrations of a paterfamilias, the patriarch Helge.  The invited guests are his three surviving children, Christian Michael Helene and a host of other relatives, all summoned in effect to render their homage. Missing from the celebration is Christian’s twin Linda, who has committed suicide earlier in the year. ‘Festen’ is to the ritualised family gathering what the Black Mass is to the Holy Eucharist. It is a desecration of a sacred ritual that profanely mimics the very form that it inverts. The host at this communion is raised up not to be blessed but to be pissed on, spat at, reviled.

    ‘Festen’ is a comedy of manners that ridicules the complacency and inertia of the middle classes. When Christian exposes the gross sexual abuse perpetrated by his father on himself and Linda, the gathered family prefer to continue eating their celebratory dinner as if nothing had happened. They act as if they have heard nothing; at all costs embarrassment is to be avoided and everything should just continue exactly as before. All would be well if the inertia of the event was allowed to take its due and predictable course.  The scandal would simply go away if everyone surrendered to the soothing rhythms of the meal: the toasts, the soup course, the main course, the dessert, the wines the brandy and cigars in the drawing room. Everyone could, sort of, pretend nothing had happened.

    As course follows course at ‘Festen’s’ birthday gathering, an atmosphere is engendered that is similar to the situation in ‘The Exterminating Angel’. Bunuel uses ‘The Exterminating Angel’ to depict the emptiness of the mannered classes as the guests at a smart cocktail party find themselves unable to leave. Each attempt to leave further enmeshes them in the folds of the event. The lack of awareness of what is happening, the desire to continue as if nothing were happening has parallels with elements of the ‘Festen’ script. Unlike Bunuel’s movie, Vinterberg’s scripting employs a series of intensifications, as the provocateur Christian, refusing to be silenced returns repeatedly to his allegations, escalating the charges levelled against Helge which are finally vindicated by Linda’s retrieved suicide note.

    As in Bunuel’s two films, much of the humour in Vinterberg’s script is grounded in the structured opposition between the escalating violence of Christian’s accusations of sexual abuse, and the imperturbable aspect of the formal 60th birthday celebrations which continue like clockwork. Finally reaching to the point where Helge, after admitting to his crimes simply vacates the table as if leaving a boardroom meeting after being voted out as chairman. The family has become a corporate body.

    ‘Festen’ is superbly served by its actors as a set piece requiring both collective company discipline and strong idiosyncratic characterisation. But it is the stylistic imprint of the camera work, reinforced by the edit, that defines the film. The hand held camera, as per the ‘Dogma’ ‘Rules of Chastity’, works to energise the setting creating a vibrancy of relations between the main characters and the large numbers of extras filling out the screen as Helge’s friends and relations. The edit complements the camera movement with the cutting jagged and on the move. The end result is to make ‘Festen’ a stylistic statement of involvement that works on the audience both subjectively and objectively. The camera work creates an agitated framing analogous to the subjective experience of these sort of events: interactions that are superficial, unfinished , interrupted, half understood. Objectively the camera work and edit create a mood of edginess, inter-shot tension, insecurity, that sets up both the nature and manner of Christian’s interventions and underscores the brittle nature inherent in the pretensions of family ideology.

    Vinterberg works two diversions into his script. Parallel to the events taking place at the festive table the scenario tracks the events under the stairs in the kitchen where the multicourse feast is being prepared. The representation of this other world, the servants and their complex relations with their masters, works both as a muted reminder of other social realities necessary to keep the façade in order. It also functions as a distraction, a de-intensifer that takes the heat out of the main action. I thought at one stage that the ‘kitchen’ and the relations within it might have a key role in the play out of events in the dining room. This didn’t materialise but nevertheless the kitchen provided another perspective on the family upstairs.

    The second diversion was the arrival of Gbatokai, Helene’s black boyfriend. An arrival that immediately cues a racist reaction from Michael, a reaction that is taken up and repeated by the whole party when the boyfriend joins the table. My feeling is that there is not room in the ‘Festen’ script to shape a response to this racism. The whole film is directed towards the outcome of ‘exposure’ of ‘revelation of truth’. All the energy of the film is targeted towards those moments where we see this family for the ‘lie’ that it is. The addition of the black boyfriend, sub theme – motif, simply reveals something of which the audience are already aware: these people are vile bodies, unpleasant destructive human beings. The consequence of trying to overload ‘Festen’ with another social concern is that the occurrence of a casual socially primed racism is relegated to a mere script appendage, a secondary concern which few people who see the film will probably remember. It looks like this strand of the script has been included without being thought through. The problem is that as victim of the racist atmosphere Gbatokai is simply left to play second fiddle to the main concern of the film. Whereas the forces of righteousness in relation to the abusive father are finally justified and vindicated, the racist abuse is simply something that Gbatokai has to suffer. He has a few resources to confront the horror that assaults him. In the maelstrom of the melodramatic finale, he’s consigned to being wallpaper. My feeling is that Vinterberg should have seen that overloading his script with a somewhat gratuitously introduced secondary theme was an act of bad faith in his key material.   Viewed some twenty years after Festen’s original release, the role of the black boyfriend and its cursory treatment in the scenario castes a shadow over the production.

    As Gbatokai was writen into Festen’ he should have been acorded action. Had Lars von Trier made this movie, at the moment of revelatory truth the reading of Linda’s letter, Gbatokai would have picked up the cheese knife, climbed up on the table and smashing through the crockery and glass strode across to Helge and buried the knife in his belly.

    Adrin Neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

  • New Wave to Black Wave addendum to ‘Red White and Blue’

    New Wave to Black wave addendum to ‘Red White and Blue’

    Viewing the films made for the BBC by McQueen about black lives in the UK I got to thinking about the ‘British New Wave’ of the 1960’s. This movement marked a period in British Cinema when a fresh wave of film makers emerged who represented and described a neglected part of the social matrix: the lives of the British Working Class.   This ‘New Wave’ located their films within industrial and inner city locations, more importantly the intention of the scripts was to depict the lives of the people who lived and worked in these places. And these depictions were contextualised and more rounded, more gender balanced than the formulaic presentaton of working class people that characterised the scenarios of most British film productions in the post-war period. For example working class women were often key figures in these ‘New Wave’ films: sometimes as abused parties; sometimes as the lynchpins of family and community; sometimes as emotional amplifiers of the everyday. And these representations flew in the face of dominant cultural filmic norms that kept a tight rein on emotional expression.

    Prior to the films of Clayton, Richardson, Reisz, Schlesinger, Anderson, Forbes and slightly later Loach, my impression is that in British movies the working classes were subject to a more or less consistent character stereotyping. They were shown as funny loveable cockneys, criminals, respectable working people (including police officers) and of course often as servants, honest but poor.   ‘Ordinary’ working people were shown in this manner via Ealing Comedies, costume dramas, other ranks in War movies and as the criminogenic elements in Scotland Yard themed police thrillers. Parallel to the British theatre, the film industry in its scripting of working class people had barely moved away from the familiar Dickensian tropes.  But in the work of the above directors working class lives were centre stage, with camera and scripts focused on them. The political and artistic drive was for authenticity.

    Taking cue from writers such as Osborne and Sillitoe there was often a mood of anger underlying the ‘New Wave’ films. The anger was characterised by a feeling of working class betrayal, the experience of being cheated by a class system which exploited ignorance and vulnerability and left its victims with broken bodies and broken lives. There was also the observation made by Sillitoe about working class ‘pride’.   Working people had their own codes, their own sense of justice. They resisted being patronised but the ethos of the new consumeriusm weakened them, made them easy targets for manipulation.   As their lives were undermined by shifts in the socio-economic system, ie employment, some workers were absorbed into the new prosperity whilst others were simply abandoned, becoming long term dependents of the Welfare State, signing up to a future of drugs alcohol and mental illness. Cue some thirty years later, Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’.

    Many of the New Wave films read like reports back from another country. ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘A Kind of Loving’ were commercially successful, but the films taken as a whole were dynamic vectors of information, a kind of trans-social communication path to middle class sensibility about how life was lived on the other side of the economic divide. On re-view these films resonate as socio-cultural historical relics.

    I think there are significant differences and some similarities between today’s emergent black film makers and the British directors of the ‘60’s.  There are two pertinent similarities, which are related. Firstly, there is the use of the social tensions employed by both generations of film makers. Here I am refering not to the actual intra-dramatic tensions that are explored both within the scripts and the filming processes probing class and race interaction. The tensions I am thinking about are those that are excited between the screen and the audience. Both New Wave and this generation of Black Wave film makers intended that their films shock the audience  The films’ tensions cross the line and confront the audience with home truths about the nature of their own society. The audience have to watch the constant battle to find the money to live, they have to watch as two policeman savagely beat up Leroy’s dad, letting him know he’s just a black bastard. The audience have to carry these messages home in themselves and come to terms with the emotions released by exposure to the viewing experience.  

    The second similarity is closely related to the first and relates to the manner in which Black film makers, like their British New Wave forbears, have projected onto our screens an ‘other’ neglected area of life in British society. However well meaning thay may be, most white directors charged with realising scripts involving black experience have tended towards stereotyping or locating the lives of Black people in ways with which white people were familiar. Onwubolu, McQueen and Coel in very different ways fold their subjects within the ‘black experience’, as something with which they are familiar. They are able to present their characters and their relations with both the ‘black’ and the ‘white’ world as complex. As with the ‘New Wave’ directors their grasp of authenticity serves the intention of black film makers to push out through the screen and communicate to the viewing audience its own involvment, even collusion, in racism.  

    Onwubolu’s ‘Blue Story’ is reminiscent of British ‘New Wave’s’ way of seeing things. It is about entrapment, entrapment in a socio-cultural matrix. ‘Blue Story’ is a chronicle of young blacks living in a economic system that has little to offer them. Even their families are unable to provide a protective carapace.   Protection and succour are now found in the gang and gang culture which is all male. In relation to self empowerment, it is black male identity that is under threat. The re-acton to this threat is the adoption by young black males of an alternative ‘home’, the gang, with its own validating system, built about values that in many respects run counter to mainstream rules of the game.   There is some echoing here of the tensions found in ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ and ‘Saturday Night Sunday Morning’. ‘Blue Story’ seems to me to lack the direct anger expressed in these two films. But like them, ‘Blue Story’ is a report from a strand of social life that sits in our midst, which we don’t see, but has its own destructive dynamic.

    Looking at the output of Steve McQueen and to some extent of Michaela Coel (their recent work all on shown on TV) there is a break with the themes of the British New Wave directors.   The characteristic theme of McQueen and in a different way also of Coel’s, is: ‘overcoming’. ‘A Kind of Loving’ does play out the idea of social mobility, of self betterment, but even so Schlessinger hints at the price paid for this mobility. But the feel of most of these New Wave films is envelopment. The subjects are immersed in a reality where class and class differences in life chances are endemic; those who see the possibility of change and who confront the system, usually experience heroic failure, viz ‘This Sporting Life’.  

    Of course being black in UK society is different type of experience to being working class in the 1960’s, though there are some similarities in the economic coupling. Race to some extent overlays class but with the additional discriminatory factor of racism from all sections of society. Working Class culture always placed its hope of improving life and life chances through the political social mechanisms it forged for itself: Trades Unions, the Labour Party, NHS, Education. There was certainly improvement in Working Class life chances as a consequence of Working Class organisation.  But Black experience was different. Although Black immigrants had their own cultural legacy to draw on, there was no easy way to develop out of this the political and social mechanisms to improve life and to fight endemic racism. Working Class institutional resistance evolved over some 150 years. Black people did not have that sort of time. The solution, for many blacks was to use the system itself and the leverage available within it to improve life for themselves as individuals, to succeed in achieving some social mobility and hope that individual success would open the door to wider community betterment. The idea of individuals committed to an ethos of individual overcoming, is an optimistic perspective that has the ring of an imported value. It’s an outlook alien to the ‘New Wave’ directors of the ‘60’s but one that since Thatcher’s ideological war has become familiar.   The primacy of an individualistic ethos not only had political endorsement from the 1970’s onwards but it’s an idea that underlies much of the output of Hollywood feature films and imported US TV series.  It’s a theme taken up by both McQueen and Coel in relation to black experience and which they exemplify in very different ways.

    What is characteristic of McQueen’s films and makes them quite different from the ‘60s new wave is that they are stories built about precisely this idea of ‘overcoming’.   The main example is ‘Red White and Blue’ which tells an the story of Leroy who joins the Force with the explicit intention of ‘overcoming’ the systemic racism of the police in order to improve the life of the black community. It’s a true story, or shall we say based on a true story (I haven’t read the original auto-biography) but one that is directly out of mainstream Hollywood tradition (The reforming cop, the reforming politician: ‘Mr Smith goes to Washington’) Likewise, in ‘Education’ Agnes Smith takes the decision to fight for the right of her son to be educated in a mainstream school, to get him out of the backwater system of Special Needs where he has been dumped. Agnes’ action is about ‘overcoming’, both the discrimination of race and exploitation of class ignorance.   And Frank in ‘Mangrove’, finally takes up the challenge of his indictment and trial on charges of riot.   Frank fights and wins the case in an almost classic replication of US Court Drama movies (‘Inherit the Wind’, ‘The Chicago Seven’. Classic in the sense that in such dramas the individual takes on the might of a powerful institution, usually the state – and wins).

    McQueen’s precursors are American rather than British, and as argued there are particular reasons for this. To be clear there is no judgement here, implied or otherwise, of this ‘overcoming’ theme. It reflects the reality that in the British context this re-invention and re-casting of an American ideal, was perhaps the only way to oppose the cultural and institutional forces of discrimination in our society.

    I only watched some episodes of “I may destroy you’. Coel sets her drama in a milieu that is similar to American preppy sit coms. The drama centres on a clique of young hopeful successful multi-ethic Londoners whose lives revolve round bars and media, with relationships which are both straight and gay. But although the settings and locations are familiar, as a black film maker Coel has moved her story into new territory.   Coel’s self played hero, Arabella (beautiful arab), conforms to none of the stereotypes of race class or gender. She has made it, she’s successful and it is her look in itself that communicates this, that captures the viewers’ attention. Image rather than script dominates the screen.  Her outfits are visually arresting, but it is her hair, with its different and contrasting styles and locks, that is the medium that is the message. Arabella’s hair changes from shock peroxide to black entanglement, coding her identity in a series of contradictory symbols and claims that assert her right not to be defined by race or gender. Coel has moved beyond the messaging of McQueen to dis-locate blackness from its anchoring in both physicality and place. It is an ‘overcoming’ of any preconceptions about race, preconceptions which are integrated into the scenario where she is eloquently assertive and self confident in her pursuit of the malfactor who drug raped her.

    It is interesting how Coel’s and Onwubolu’s work come from radically different ends of the Black experience, the generative and the de-generative. Onwubolu’s gang members possessing few advantages are using a collective solution to the problems of identity, a solution that involves them creating their own distinctive subculture.  Coel’s characters with marketable abilities and life skills are progressing as individualistic success stories, but like their working class predecessors, they might also find that leaving behind their roots is the road to cultural assimilation.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk .

     

     

     

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  • Red White and Blue Steve McQueen

    Red White and Blue   Steve McQueen (BBC, UK, 2020) John Boyega

    Viewed terrestrial TV, 29 Nov 2020

    Just so…story                       

    Steve McQueen’s film, Red White and Blue (RWB), is one of five dramas he’s made for the BBC about the Black UK experience. RWB tells the story of Leroy Logan, the black police officer who rose to the rank of Superintendent in the Met before retiring from the force after some 30 years service.

    McQueen’s film follows the early days of his career and is a succinct portrayal and accounting of what it was to be a black man in an alien antagonistic environment like the Metropolitan Police in the mid 1980s.

    The early part of McQueen’s drama covers Logan’s extraordinary decision to join the Met. A decision he’d made, but hadn’t acted on, before the racist beating given to his father by two constables. Anyone who knows anything of the black community at this period will know that such treatment was routinely meted out to black men by police officers. It was a quasi – fascist technique used to remind blacks of their place in society. (Before the black community became whipping boys for the police, the Irish immigrants suffered similar attentions). Despite the severe injuries done to his father by the Force, Logan continued with his decision to join the police, seeing the decision as an attempt by himself to bring change to this homogenous close-ranked institution.

    McQueen’s film is a regulation drama structured about the idea of a situation, and it’s a situation that plays out, rather than a narrative.   It’s filmed in the conventional manner, with the camera operating like an unseen privileged witness or observer. RWB is well shot well acted and well scripted.  McQueen’s script works because unlike some polemic dramas it never becomes a formulaic polemic, it focuses on being in the moment, not a retrograde hindsight. It has classic fimic narrative virtues which both constrain it to some extent and but tellingly also enable it to portray the experience of Logan’s situation.

    McQueen’s account of Logan’s life is told not as a subjectivity, using techniques such as voice over, point of view shots etc. Rather it is shot as an ‘objectivity’ with the camera observing what happens when Black people encounter Police culture. RWB’s telling contribution to the cannon of TV is that it tells the story Black people from their perspective. It’s a rendering of the consequences of being black in this society at that time and what that meant. By extrapolation from the evidence today, the indication is that many of these features of police/black community relations, have not changed.    

    The Police as an institution were founded in the 19th century as a civic paramilitary force. From the beginning they were tasked with a political purpose: to suppress any overt unrest among the lower orders. They were established as a unit that patrolled and intimidated (Police officers has to present as physically dominant: vix – the helmet and until recently the minimum height requirement was 5ft 10 inches). Officers were recruited from either retired armed services personel or from the educated working class: a usually conservative gene pool. Like regiments in the armed forces the Police have significant tribal characteristics. The nature of the work promoting a mechanical solidarity relating to core identity (how they define who they are and what they are doing), a core ideology and justificatory system and a sense of being one. That the police should see themselves as White British, carriers of White British culture and values (or at least particular ‘police’ take on British life style – food – mores –religion), and closed off against outsiders, is not surprising. But a new situation arises when the official encompassing system of values and ethics, set by the political and managerial hierarchy, has to change to reflect major shifts in societal composition; but the mechanical value system the permeates the active organisation on the ground, simply continues, unchanged.  

    What happens is that there is a critical divergence between the official code of conduct and the actual operational code, between surface and substrate.  In the organisation those opposed to or with no interest in change (and from the top of the pyramid there may not be any real encouragement or insistence on actual change, the preference being to concentrate on image and how things look {they mustn’t look bad}) simply play lip service to the new code, and mostly continue as before. And of course this is the police service that Logan joins.   A milieu that McQueen objectifies in the person of Logan with its: hypocrisy, its coded language, its barbed interactions, its polite dismissals, its subtle implications of black inferiority, the smirking sardonic comments, the smiles on the faces of fellow officers following Logan’s complaints. These all leading up to the incident in which Logan when chasing a suspect finds that the mechanical forces governing the behaviour of his so-called colleagues close down on him: they refuse to back him up, to go support help him when he is in danger. Except for the circumstance that he is black, this would be an egregious violation of the tribal code: help, look after your mate. Because Logan is black, he is abandoned to his fate by his fellow white officers.

    So we witness what Logan lives through after ‘joining up’. Probably the key element of RWB is the manner in which the Met as an institution is inculpated as a black man takes steps to become ‘One of Them.’ Through McQueen’s rendering of Logan’s account the viewer gets some experience of what systemic racism is in British society through an institution like the police.  The viewer also understands that institutions such as the police where the formal and informal interactions merge in the behaviour of individual officers, are highly resistant to change. They are Red White and Blue, not Black.

    McQueen highlights the heroic stoicism of Leroy Logan but he also raises questions about the extent to which individual gestures such as Logan made with his life, can qualitatively effect change in institutions such as the police, a sort of white man’s tribe. As Logan progresses from situation to situation in the drama, the reaction is: how and why is this man persevering with this? To which the response is: his ideational intention to show the bastards what a black man is – he’s their equal if not better. McQueen’s script works because unlike some polemic dramas it never becomes a mechanical polemic, it focuses on being in the moment, not a retrograde hindsight.

    Looking at the faces of the Hong Kong Police, the actions of the CRS in Paris, the faces of the the Police in Belarus all seem to highlight the contradictions inherent in reforming the police, organisations that operate on the principle of assimilation and absorption not diversification.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.uk

     

     

      

     

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