Tag Archives: Films

Home, sweet home

 

Why did people go to the cinema to see Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter  in 1978 and 1979? Because it was the latest film starring Robert De Niro, one of the big new stars? Because it was a highly praised adult drama – a little reminiscent of those by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, other Italian-American directors of the time? Because it dealt with the still pertinent issue of the Vietnam war? Because of its widely publicised and controversial scenes of Russian roulette? Perhaps yes to some or all of those questions.

Why is it worth seeing now? Because it is a rare example of big-budget Hollywood presenting the lives of the America working-class, and of a working-class experience which has been since the Vietnam war largely decimated through industry closures, unemployment, “globalisation”. A political issue correctly identified by Donald Trump during his US Presidential campaign – although possibly not, as argued by J.D. Vance, one which can be suitably tackled by him.

The Russian-American community of Clairton, Pennsylvania, depicted in The Deer Hunter is one of modest prosperity, mutual support, religion, hard work and hard play. The wedding of a young steelworker, Steven, is the main event of the first part of the narrative and the banner at his wedding reception which also marks the departure of him and two friends Nick and Michael to serve in Vietnam reads “serving God and country proudly”. Many scenes are shown of the church wedding service (presumably in a Russian Orthodox church) and religious choral music serves as a backdrop elsewhere. Several scenes of the location show a landscape dominated by smoking factories, which make people and other buildings seem small and insignificant. Steven and his friends are presented as bound together by work, the wedding, hunting in the mountains and the continual drinking of alcohol.

The Deer Hunter is in many ways similar to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2  – a largely masculine narrative, with the male characters involved in physical activity; the depiction of collectivist values; the influence of Christianity as practised through weddings and funerals; the acting presences of Robert De Niro and John Cazale. However, there are differences. The collectivist values of The Deer Hunter characters tend to be civic and religious rather than family values; the church is genuinely the centre of the community whereas in the Godfather films it is more marginal; characters’ parents are distant or intrusive or violent rather than supportive or influential.

However these positive community values are threatened by forces elsewhere. Two scenes of foreboding intrude into the wedding reception. The friends meet a soldier in uniform to whom they offer a patriotic toast but he brusquely replies “fuck it” – which hints that their eagerness to join the US forces in Vietnam may be misplaced. At the wedding it is traditional that the bride and groom drink from a dual loving cup and must spill nothing in order to guarantee good luck– but Angela the bride spills a little red wine down her white dress. We are reminded of this when we see the blood dribbling down Steven’s face after he is forced by Vietcong soldiers to take part in the Russian roulette game on the Vietnamese river and the fired gun shoots a bullet which grazes his temple.

At the end of Steven and Angela’s wedding, Nick says to Michael that he loves their home town – so it is essential that, if anything happens to him in Vietnam, Michael must not leave him there but must bring him back home. Tragically Michael is not able to do this. In the final fateful Russian roulette game, Michael does use such language to reach out to Nick – “Come home”, reminding him about the “trees” and “mountains” – but Nick’s memory has been fatally damaged by his war experience.

It is perhaps ironic that the one character who travels away from the home community to the battlefields of Vietnam yet does return safely is Robert De Niro’s Michael, since he is shown at the start as something of an isolated outsider. During most of the wedding reception he is observing events while other male friends join in dancing, and, while he loves the group hunting trips, he is still willing to risk spoiling the last one before Vietnam with an argument about sharing equipment. When he returns from battle, he at first rejects his friend Linda’s succouring advances with “I’ve got to get out, I feel a lot of distance, I feel far away”. However, he and Linda do later become intimate and at the end he appears to have found some sort of calm and composure.

The collectivism of the characters is also represented several times through music. “You’re Just Too Good to be True” by Frankie Valli is featured twice, sung together by the friends accompanying the jukebox in a bar, then performed as part of the wedding celebration by a guest singer: Valli and the Four Seasons is appropriately energetic pop music for a 1960s/1970s narrative about a group of male friends from an ethnic working-class neighbourhood just as it was in Sleepers. The deer hunting trip before leaving for Vietnam evokes a more spiritual mood. This is shown, first, by the use of religious choral music while Michael and Nick hunt, then, again, when the group return to the local bar with a deer corpse, by the playing by John, who has already been seen as part of the church choir, of a tuneful but sombre piece of piano music which silences the others into rapt attention – a moment of group harmony and empathy which contrasts with earlier scenes of argument and competition. Finally, at the funeral breakfast for Nick at the close of the film, John leads ensemble singing of “God Bless America” with its final line of “America, my home sweet home” which the group of friends do find consoling.

The Deer Hunter is a flawed film by a director who had an erratic career. The time and money spent immediately afterwards by Michael Cimino in the making of Heaven’s Gate, another narrative about American immigrant communities at a time of conflict, is one of the best-known stories of Hollywood self-indulgence. Although The Deer Hunter was publicised as a film about the Vietnam war, its best parts have long outlasted Hollywood’s fondness for that genre.

The Deer Hunter is one of the many topics of history, politics, religion and culture covered in the excellent weblog of Ross Ahlfeld.

 

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The great over-achiever

 

Richard Curtis must surely be counted one of the great over-achievers, at least in the commercial sense, in UK cinema. He started off on television as just one of the many writers on the Not the Nine O’Clock News comedy show before bagging a high-profile job as the co-writer of the first series of Blackadder with fashionable comic performer Rowan Atkinson. Although the show was at first poorly received, it eventually became a great success with many repeats of its next three series (although this happy result was surely helped significantly by the arrival of co-writer Ben Elton) and with the final series gaining regular credit as an important contribution to the modern appreciation of World War One.

Whereas Blackadder caricatured the customs and peoples of past periods, Curtis’ solo scripts for the films Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill covered the ins and outs of contemporary romance.  Famously their cinematic machineries were oiled by a certain amount of  modern risquéness,  photogenic scenes of the UK, the burgeoning popularity of Hugh Grant and glamorous American co-stars Andie MacDowall and Julia Roberts.

The great success of these films will be at least partly responsible for the fact that Curtis’ next script, Love Actually, was a multi-character narrative, which he had the opportunity to direct himself, and which was able to recruit many big UK acting names, like Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. At the time of its release in 2003, one journalist, David Smith in the Observer, suggested that the starry romantic Christmas story was so perfectly packaged that it might become the best-selling UK film of all time! I don’t think it has reached those heights , but regular TV repeats suggest that longevity is guaranteed.

 From 1985, Comic Relief was the comedy equivalent of the musicians’ Band Aid,  popular professionals co-operating to raise money to help ease the continuing problem of Third World hunger and poverty.  The charity’s website credits Curtis as one of the founders, although in its early years on-screen performers such as Lennie Henry, Griff Rhys Jones, Jonathan Ross, Billy Connolly and French and Saunders were certainly more visible representatives. By the 21st century, perhaps as other people’s profiles had waned, Curtis had become more openly associated, and a TV film The Girl in the Café was a high-profile part of Comic Relief’s association with the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign. Almost as if Curtis was saying, “I know nobody thinks of me as cool and modern, but people should pay attention to my contribution!”

The next film Curtis wrote and directed was The Boat That Rocked, about a pirate radio station during 1966-1967. I would have thought that Curtis is a bit young (born in 1956) to harbour nostalgia for the pirate stations and their musical period, but the answer to the conundrum may lie in the theory, often repeated in the media, that the next series of Blackadder, planned for after World War One but never made, would have been set during those same Swinging Sixties, full of pop music, fashion, youth culture and sexual licence. Certainly here the character of Thick Kevin seems very similar to Blackadder’s Baldric.

The Boat That Rocked allowed Curtis the unlikely chance to blend some old-fashioned narrative ideas of harmless fun oppressed by reactionary authority such as from the St Trinian’s films with others of masculine heroics during maritime danger like from Titanic. Meanwhile, the overall picture of UK society and culture is again a fond and positive one. Alongside the elongated adventures of the staff of Radio Rock are repeated scenes of school pupils, workmates, housewives and teenagers in bedrooms, all gathered around their sets, thus arguing the illegal radio station’s role in bringing the nation together.  

It is historically true that the pop/rock music stations of the period were heavily influenced by US fashion – with the genuinely American “Emperor Rosko” on Radio 1, the faux-American Tony Prince on Radio Luxembourg and almost all other disc jockeys adopting American accents and colloquialisms – so in this case a big American star, Philip Seymour Hoffmann, in the cast could be said to be perfectly reasonable from a narrative point of view, however much it might also be connected with the film’s length, budget and commercial ambitions.     

Curtis is the British Spielberg, TV producer John Lloyd has been quoted as saying, both because he has a golden commercial touch and because he wants to make the world a happier place with his work. Perhaps a fairer reason to compare him with Steven Spielberg is that in neither case would it have been easy to foresee by looking at their earlier efforts how their careers would develop and how much they would produce. One percent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration, as Thomas Edison is supposed to have said about genius. You feel certain it is an adage that both Spielberg and Curtis live by.   

And another Hollywood quote:  George Clooney once said that he knew he would get to “play” with the film-making “toys” for only a little while, so was aware he must make as good use of them as possible. Richard Curtis must also be amazed by his good luck and how long it has lasted. Those of us of Curtis’ age who are ever tempted to sneer at any of his output might reflect that we might not have done any better with the opportunities than he has done. 

 

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The later Counts of Monte Cristo

 

Two films of similar genre released within a couple of years of each other in the mid 1990s were The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont, and Sleepers, directed by Barry Levinson. Both are now regular fixtures on UK television and the former has been for some time the number one film in the IMDB 250.

That these films are heavily influenced by the works of older Hollywood is admitted almost explicitly by their producers through their choices of when the narratives are set. The events of The Shawshank Redemption, based on a story by Stephen King, start in 1947 and last until 1966-1967. This mid-1960s period is coincidentally the setting of the first section of Lorenzo Carccatera’s novel Sleepers, whose second part takes place in 1981. Both films have similar plots where the lead characters endure imprisonment and further physical suffering just as does, for instance, the James Cagney character in Each Dawn I Die in 1939. Among other echoes from the past are that most of the faces in both films are white and that Sleepers is set among New York’s Italian and Irish communities with a Catholic priest playing a key role. One significant difference (unsurprisingly) is that both stories take about half an hour longer to tell than their 1930s-1940s equivalents.

Often in such dramas, the leading characters are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and therefore their escape and revenge appear perfectly just. However, Sleepers and The Shawshank Redemption come from a time when film makers are willing to be more morally ambiguous. The teenage leading characters in the former film are associated with the local mafia boss and are definitely guilty of the killing for which they are sent to reform school. The Shawshank Redemption spends most of its length ignoring the crimes for which all of its prisoners have been jailed, and only half way through does it raise the possibility that hero Andy Dufresne may have been convicted unfairly of the murder for which he was tried.

The explicit literary antecedent of both films is The Count of Monte Cristo. In Sleepers, Dumas’ novel is a favourite of the young narrator, “Shakes”, and later the grown-up Michael adopts Edmund, the first name of its hero, as a code word within his revenge plan. The novel is also mentioned as a notable volume in the prison library at Shawshank which Andy sets up. The novel was filmed at least once during Hollywood’s “golden age” as was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which has a similar plot of suffering and endurance. However, the popularity of Sleepers and The Shawshank Redemption may also be connected to that of Nelson Mandela, the most esteemed ex-prisoner of the 1990s, who was widely and deeply admired even by people who would normally disapprove of violence used for political ends.

One modern element of both films is the overt reference to how new arrivals in prison face the risk of sexual abuse as well as physical brutality. Andy in Shawshank is able to defend himself against this, but the young boys in Sleepers are not, and their suffering at the hands of prison guards provokes the revenge depicted in the second half of the film. The scenes are not shown graphically, but the indirect references are chilling enough.

Stories of suffering and endurance usually require some suspension of disbelief from their audiences, but for me each of these films is imbalanced by the implausible ways in which the leading characters develop. While it is certainly believable that a child’s torture in prison might lead to an adult life of crime or addiction, it is not for me believable that the four young boys of Sleepers would remain close friends into adulthood when two have become violent criminals with addictions to alcohol and drugs while the other two are respectable law abiding college graduates, with one actually a district attourney who prosecutes criminals. This inconsistency makes the final scene of a comradely meal of triumph highly fanciful, where social worker friend Carol can even make a joke about whether the two criminal buddies will soon “go and shoot somebody”. The weakness in Shawshank is that the main evidence we are given of how the intelligent and successful young professional Andy changes during 20 years in prison is through regular large-scale (never small or personal!) acts of altruism, despite experience of solitary confinement, brutality by guards and fellow prisoners and routine accommodation in primitively bare and cramped conditions. We see him negotiating beers for one group of prison comrades, helping in the schooling of others, stocking the prison library single-handed, broadcasting Mozart music around the whole prison, and, although his skills are also used in large-scale financial corruption, he is always presented as a figure of nobility, almost of saintliness.

I once read Catherine Cookson say that that she had to set her stories in the past because the reader knew that in the present there were government social services to help people who suffer poverty and unemployment whereas she wanted her characters to succeed through individual effort and courage or through good fortune or the benevolence of others. Sleepers and The Shawshank Redemption will have retained their popularity because they are archetypal stories of endurance, resilience and reward, with only a few knowing modern touches, and audiences find such stories inspiring. You do still hope, though, that modern viewers will discover the older cinema prototypes which were made at the same time as these were set.

Few films are without some saving graces. For me, those of Sleepers are its convincing if idealised portrait of Manhattan at a time when it was home to working-class families rather more than corporations, millionaires and tourists, and the performance of Robert De Niro in the old-fashioned role of the Catholic priest, pillar of his community, one of his last before his film characterisations became more often broad or caricatured. In Shawshank Morgan Freeman’s role as the narrator/friend of Andy Dufresne is probably the one which established his status as the Spencer Tracy of his generation, a man of warm and authentic if hard-won gravitas and authority, which would lead coincidentally to the role of the aforementioned Nelson Mandela.

Present-day Hollywood producers are guilty of typecasting actors just as much as their predecessors from decades past. Some years after The Shawshank Redemption and Sleepers, Tim Robbins from the former film and Kevin Bacon from the latter were among the lead actors in Mystic River, whose plot bore notable similarity to that of Sleepers: an incident of violent abuse which involved a group of childhood friends and also affected their lives as adults.

 

 

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A former Mr Cool

 

So many Hollywood actors from past decades whom you used to see regularly on television are now far rarer – presumably because many of their films have not been digitised.  A striking example is Humphrey Bogart.

His films seemed omnipresent on TV in my youth in the 1970s and a check on the BBC Genome website provided some evidence to support this impression. Films on BBC in this era were frequently screened in thematic seasons based on genre or starring actor. One series I clearly remember was “All-Time Greats” on Sunday nights, because, as recently posted, it gave me my first view of Citizen Kane. This group of 30 films on BBC1 over the winter and spring of 1972-73 featured four which starred Bogart, more in that series than with any other leading actor: The Caine Mutiny, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Then, immediately after “All-Time Greats” ended in the June, five further Bogart films were screened on subsequent Sundays.

I don’t remember any particular reasons offered for Bogart’s resurgence in the 1970s, over a decade after his death, but here are some possible factors. There were now many older actors such as David Niven who could eulogise on TV about Hollywood’s “golden age” and its many personalities. Bogart’s own widow, Lauren Bacall, still fairly young and glamorous, was also a regular on the talk show circuit. Woody Allen had written a successful play and film Play it Again Sam, where the main romantic loser character seeks guidance from the ghost of Bogart. Some US musicians of the period adopted Bogart’s name as a verb, as in “don’t bogart that joint”, thus suggesting that Bogart was still a model of cool to be copied. Perhaps most significantly, modern versions of the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett-style private eye which Bogart had played earlier were appearing in the Robert Altman version of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and TV’s The Rockford Files.

The Bogart persona – a man who is tough, free-thinking, experienced, resilient, able to defend himself by violence if necessary but still on the right side, good at cracking jokes, respected by other men but attractive to women, still ready to love and be loved – was appealing especially to young men trying still to forge their independent identities – and perhaps still is.

The IMDB website credits Bogart with 86 films, but most are now forgotten. That Mr Cool reputation probably always rested on a handful of performances, many of which were originally planned for other actors: The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, Key Largo, In a Lonely Place, and perhaps also the more masculine, less romantic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Bogart’s powerful impact in these films owes a lot to his co-stars and skilled directors like Howard Hawks and John Huston. He was certainly an actor of limited range. Like many in that hugely productive and successful era of Hollywood, he seems to have preferred more often to enjoy the material benefits of his acting work rather than stretch himself creatively.

The Bogart film which is most popular today, judging by TV screenings and the IMDB 250, is certainly Casablanca, perhaps because its story of wartime romance is still easy to appreciate and because of its wide range of rich supporting characters, such as Claude Rains’ chief of police, Paul Heinreid’s resistance leader and Dooley Wilson’s club pianist.

While I share the enthusiasm for Casablanca, my own preference is for The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks’ version of the Raymond Chandler novel, if only for the comic turn where Bogart’s Philip Marlowe pretends to be an effeminate book buyer and the tantalising exchange of horse race innuendo between Marlowe and Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge.

 

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The elements which made this war highly effective if not lovely

 

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One of the dozens of cemeteries of named and unnamed casualties from World War One in northern France and Belgium.

 

The great World War One commemoration machine is never far from view. Recently the Battle of Jutland, imminently the Battle of the Somme. So my very first viewing of Richard Attenborough’s film of Oh! What a Lovely War has been of particular interest.

Joan Littlewood’s original production in 1962 has passed into theatre mythology, a huge influence on a generation of political theatre.

However, it has been suggested that, by the time Attenborough’s film version was released in 1969, the show and its style were already a little out of date. The success of The Great War, the 26-part BBC TV documentary with its detailed use of archive photographs and film, plus the less hierarchical social habits which were developing, had spread a more balanced and more critical, less imperialistic and less jingoistic account of the War.

At that time, too, film producers were often employing black and white film to add authenticity to war stories. For instance, in the heroic epic The Longest Day, the small-scale anti-war King and Country and more conventional masculine dramas like The Hill and Guns at Batasi. Did Attenborough ever consider that treatment, one wonders? 30 years later Steven Spielberg talked about how the decision to film Schindler’s List in black and white relieved him of pressure to make such very serious material too commercial. The Angry Silence, the working-class factory drama which Attenborough produced, had certainly benefitted from the use of black and white. But Oh! What a Lovely War was Attenborough’s first big directing project and he and his co-producers probably felt that colour went hand in hand with the big budget, big stars and a long running time.

It is also interesting to compare Attenborough’s all-star cast with a similar ensemble (including literally many of the same people: Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Kenneth More, Robert Flemyng, Edward Fox, Susannah York) at exactly the same time in Battle of Britain, a film with a more familiar heroic tone. When people first went to see Oh! What a Lovely War, did they know how different in content and tone was its source material?

 

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Brighton Pavilion, undergoing refurbishment in 2006. “Oh! What a Lovely War” was mostly filmed in and around Brighton.

 

I think the film today still comes across as a notable piece of work. The more realistic trench locations blend satisfactorily with the metaphorical one of the seaside pier, which is particularly effective in the interior scenes where the hazy white light backdrops the elite power politics at the start and end of the war. That scene near the end where the solitary infantryman is led along the blood-red tape past the armistice partners and is seen by them as a distraction in their important business is no less powerful for being theatrical. In fact, it actually seems more effective to me than the famous finale of the hundreds of white crosses on the green country hillside. Olivier’s unflattering characterisation of Sir John French neatly foreshadows his last film role as the wheelchair-bound veteran in Derek Jarman’s War Requiem.

The use of period songs as ironic commentary was of course the major part of Oh! What a Lovely War. Songs with simple and sweet arrangements like “Bombed last Night”, “Hush, Here Comes a Whizzbang” and “If the Sergeant Steals Your Rum” came across now as especially effective. Another “what if?” muse: might a jagged, dissonant Kurt Weill-esqe arrangement have been more powerful and more in tune (pun partly intended) with Joan Littlewood’s didactic sardonic staging style?

What I actually didn’t know until very recently was that the whole structure of Littlewood’s show derived from a BBC radio programme by Charles Chilton called The Long Long Trail, which also used period songs to tell the story of the war experience from the perspective of the ordinary soldier.

Oh! What a Lovely War has been revived again in this period of World War One commemoration, apparently still to considerable effect. This demonstrates not just how those Brechtian theatrical devices can still work, but also the astonishing staying power of those popular songs from so long ago.

 

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A multi-lingual sign at one of the World War One cemeteries.

 

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A period poster at a former Edwardian music-hall: the Panopticon in Glasgow

 

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Forty years with Kane

 

In 1973, I saw Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane for the first time. Its reputation as the greatest film ever made, having been voted as such in the Sight and Sound polls in both 1962 and 1972, was already widely held and shared. 

I do remember clearly that a first viewing did not convince me: I was much more impressed by Welles’ sinister but alluring performance in Carol Reed’s The Third Man which I saw around the same time.

Subsequent viewings of Citizen Kane spread infrequently over the years, so it took time for my opinions to clarify . There were occasions when the old-fashioned bits glared out, such as the make-up used to age Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten into the older Kane and Leland, or perhaps Dorothy Comingore’s rather shrill, forced performance as Kane’s young second wife. Mostly, however, and most recently when BBC4 screened it at the start of this year, it seemed brilliantly entertaining as well as brilliant.

The aspect which has thrilled me most in my later viewings is the way Welles used so confidently and skilfully the modernist technique of a multi-perspective narrative. He gives the audience layers of information and understanding about the recently deceased newspaper magnate Charles Forster Kane from different sources in different ways. First, some basic biography from the “News on the March”  cinema newsreel, and from the spontaneous conflicting responses of reporters. One reporter Jerry Thompson gleans further information from reading the memoirs of Kane’s guardian Walter Thatcher in the cathedral-like surroundings of the Thatcher Memorial Library. Then, always discreetly on the edge of the camera, he interviews some real-life witnesses: loyal business manager Bernstein, disaffected friend Leland, failed singer and ex-wife Susan, butler Paul.

One of my favourite sections has always been the New York Inquirer staff party where Kane introduces (with the puff of a photographer’s bulb like a conjurer) his new journalism staff, all recruited from the previously more successful Chronicle, and announces that the Inquirer now has the highest circulation in the city. The triumphal frivolity continues with the performance of the laudatory vaudeville song about Kane which he joins in with – while Leland wryly wonders to Bernstein whether this money-led business model can be maintained. The answer, of course, is that Kane’s extravagance and flamboyance will fatally undermine his progress.

Another memorable scene, which I would certainly have over-looked in younger listens to the Oscar-winning dialogue written by Welles and Herman J.Manciewicz, is Leland’s later criticism of Kane’s patronising of his working-class readership and voters. The “working man” whom Kane boasted he represented and protected has now assembled itself into “organised labour”, mocks Leland, and will see a privileged capitalist like Kane as an enemy rather than a friend – and Kane is a man who wants to be loved and admired by everyone.

Although it scored highly in the latest (2012) Sight and Sound poll, Citizen Kane is much lower down the IMDB list of the best 250 films. This league table, which appears to show the tastes of younger viewers, currently places Welles’ film lower than other 1940s films which have perhaps more straightforward narratives, It’s a Wonderful Life and Casablanca, as well as three Charlie Chaplin films, City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator which had mostly stayed out of fashion since Chaplin died in 1977.

Citizen Kane’s time will surely come round again. Although Welles’ sets and some effects are plain by today’s standards, most of what we see on screen looks modern and convincing. The flashbacks, the voice-overs, the time compressions, the sharp camera angles, the crane shots, close-up faces combined with middle-distance action, the use of sound and music. Wedded to a narrative both male and female  –  power, money, family, romance, friendship, politics, culture – which you need only two hours to watch again.

 The anonymous article “The Secret Life of Citizen Kane” from the Movie Movie website provides some rewarding insights.

 

 

 

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Remembering the Rising

 

Nobody now sees Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising entirely in the romantic and heroic light in which it was once presented, even if they respect the great writers associated with it, such as W.B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. Plenty of information is now available about such features as the fatal and avoidable flaws in its organisation and the number of civilian casualties which resulted.

Heather Jones’ two programmes for BBC Radio 4, The Easter Rising 1916 ,were informative and fair about the actual events of April 1916, but, for me, especially enlightening on the different ways the Rising has been remembered since.

A key role in this has been played by the controversial and divisive but intriguing figure of Eamon de Valera. The one leader of the Rising who was not executed, possibly because he was a US citizen or possibly just due to his good luck; who later undermined the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiated by his friend and comrade Michael Collins which led to the Civil War; and who then led Ireland over 40 years as Taioseach and President during a period which is generally felt now to have been one of unhealthy social, religious and cultural conservatism.  

It was de Valera’s anti-Treaty Republicans, the losing side in the Civil War, who “appropriated ” the first commemorations of the Rising, said one contributor, Mary Daly, and it was they  who “claimed the spirit of 1916”.  Over the next decades, as Jones expressed it, de Valera “sacralised the Rising as a way of unifying the Irish people”. Gradually, however, perspectives did shift.  From the 1960s to the 1990s, said Fearghal McGarry, it was the violence of the Rising which was emphasised and criticised, while, in the 21st century, its socialist and feminist elements have been given greater attention.

 

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The Four Courts in Dublin, one of the combat zones during the Rising.

 

In general, the established commemoration of the Rising over the decades meant that the Irish fighting alongside the British during World War One became overshadowed, said John Horne. With subsequent Irish neutrality in World War Two and the later Troubles in Northern Ireland, it became “almost a taboo” to mention it, “a frozen memory” which, he suggested, has only recently become “unfrozen”. Furthermore, the British casualties of the Rising are rarely remembered, with the small memorial in the grounds of Trinity College Dublin regularly overlooked.

The 50th anniversary commemoration of the Rising in 1966 was on a large scale and envisioned by President de Valera as a way to “rejuvenate a nation”. It included what sounds like a fascinating television programme by the national broadcaster RTE called Insurrection, a drama documentary which presented the events over eight nights in the format of news bulletins. An artistic device which was employed around the same time by the Peter Watkins film The War Game and has been recycled in the UK in more recent times, I seem to recall, in commemorating anniversaries in the two World Wars.

 

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The Parnell Monument in Dublin to an earlier Irish nationalist leader had only recently been opened at the time of the 1916 Rising.

 

Several contributors analysed perceived connections between the ostentatious commemorations of 1966 in both Ireland and Northern Ireland with the rise of republican violence in the province from 1968. Terence O’Neill, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was said to have commented that large numbers of nationalists on the streets brandishing Irish tricolours provided unfortunate inspiration for both the nationalist and unionist communities. Margaret O’Callaghan dubbed this period “a pre-Troubles Troubles.” One particular outdoor event of Easter 1966, the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin by an IRA group, can be readily seen now as highly shocking and inflammatory.

No surprise, perhaps, that the present Irish government was nervous at first at how the centenary of the Rising might be marked. The initial publicity imagined a programme which emphasised aims which were inclusive and scholarly, so as not to undermine the political progress of the recent past. However, it was felt that the radical national origins of the Rising could not be ignored and the exhumation and state funeral of 1916 veteran Thomas Kent took place with an oration by Taioseach Enda Kenny which recalled Padraig Pearse’s oration for O’Donovan Rossa.  Jones also highlighted the reconciliatory initiative of a commemoration wall at Glasnevin cemetery which names the dead people of the Rising from all sides.

 

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Kilmainham Jail, where the leaders of the Rising were imprisoned and executed, was closed as a prison in 1924 and in later years became a museum and art gallery.

 

A tangential reference to one of the better-known films set during the 1916 period, Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. It was a film I liked much more the second time when I saw it as a lively thriller with some basis in fact rather than an authentic historical biography. I have often wondered if, instead of Liam Neeson, its producers ever considered casting as Collins a younger actor who bears a striking physical similarity to him, who was born and grew up in Northern Ireland, who would in 1995 have also been a reasonably bankable choice, and who would certainly have the acting range to convey fully the complexity and charisma of Collins: Kenneth Branagh. Until I find out the answer to that question, I can acknowledge that their choice of Alan Rickman as Eamon de Valera was definitely a good one.

 

  

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Another Hollywood conundrum?

 

An earlier post about the late John Wayne compared him to Arnold Schwarzeneggar in his success in building a long, high-profile, lucrative career on a modest film acting ability.

However, on further reflection, a better modern comparison might be with Nicholas Cage. Not only did Cage win a Best Actor Oscar at the reasonably early age of 32, he has also appeared in leading roles for many of the most significant directors of the past 40 years, like Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Alan Parker, Norman Jewison and Brian De Palma.

You might argue about the respective merits of those individuals, and Cage did not always appear in their most (artistically or financially) successful works, but it’s still a respectable CV. What might we deduce?

Cage’s start in films is probably connected to his being the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, already highly successful as the director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, and in his early days he did appear in several of his uncle’s films.

His screen persona is less defined than either John Wayne or Arnold Schwarzeneggar, although I would certainly hesitate to describe him as versatile in the way you could apply that adjective to Dustin Hoffman, Marlon Brando, Spencer Tracy or James Stewart. Possibly Cage has worked hard at being a good industry insider, a good team-player, not too demanding or too much of a prima donna, trying to ensure that his performances helped films earn a decent return for their producers? In other words, a good professional. All successful organisations, businesses and industries, creative or otherwise, need them.

 

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Olivier and Branagh

 

When I saw Kenneth Branagh play Laurence Olivier in the film My Week With Marilyn, it reminded me of the many times in the past when Branagh has been compared to Olivier. First, by his star-making performance of Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984 at the age of 23. Then the film of Henry V which he both directed and starred in. By this time he had made his bold move into theatre management with his Renaissance company, performing in or directing several classic and modern plays.  The next film he directed was Dead Again with its evocation of Rebecca, in which Olivier had starred for Alfred Hitchcock.  Later came his film of Hamlet in which he starred. Eventually, inevitably, came the knighthood. Over many years, frequently, circulated the rumours that, following further in Olivier’s footsteps, he might become the artistic director of the National Theatre.

Some writers, like Joe Queenan, have pointed out that Branagh has less acting talent than his success suggests, but in a busy successful career there are always a few false steps. My own  choices for Branagh’s most wince-making were his association, adding spurious gravitas, with the BBC’s over-publicised fantasy/science melange Walking With Dinosaurs  when he had already served as narrator in serious documentaries such as Anne Frank Remembered, and with the BBC’s unnecessary Wallander , when the corporation had already bought and were screening a perfectly decent Swedish version.

Otherwise, I would suggest that TV and film producers have been luring classical British actors to highly-publicised and/or unedifying projects since the 1930s, and, taking this into account, Branagh’s acting CV is almost certainly no worse than many distinguished predecessors like Olivier.

In addition, some of the films which he has directed suggest that one area where he has a greater professional skill than, say, Olivier is in directing, and not merely acting in, a lightweight special effects-driven potboiler like Thor. (I can’t imagine why artistically he would choose to do it, but he clearly seems to have the necessary professional ability!)  Furthermore,  directing a World War One-set version of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is certainly something that no previous British theatre knight ever felt inclined to attempt.

One reason I have always had a high regard for Branagh, in addition to his varied and substantial career, is that he has always appeared personally very affable and even self-effacing. I remember a TV interview with Barry Norman at the time of the film of Henry V when he brushed aside media attention with a comment like “There are other actors”. In other words:  you needn’t give unusual attention to what I’m doing.

Olivier lived during an era of much greater hierarchy, his life divided  by two world wars and great changes in social class and the British Empire, where a man’s age and experience greatly affected his own behaviour and people’s perceptions of him. It was often reported that he was prone to jealousy and hated anyone whom he saw as a rival. But then Olivier was one of the first people in his profession to experience the opportunities and success and status which he enjoyed, and the rulebook for socially approved behaviour had not been written.

It may well be true that Branagh’s long-term reputation will rest on his versatility and his project management skills rather than on individual performances, so I’m pleased that he has returned for a while to an area where his talents are of particular value, leading a theatre company in a year-long season of varied plays . His production for the Kenneth Branagh Company of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s complicated play of jealousy, suffering, loss and reconciliation, was highly suitable for this time of the year, and it was good to get the chance to see it through the currently popular practice of live video screening from theatre to cinema.

 

 

 

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The march of the women

 

Shoulder to Shoulder, the great 1974 BBC drama series about the Suffragette movement which is happily available at present on You Tube, has recently been getting some new attention as the antecedent of the film Suffragette.

While Suffragette covers the topic mostly through fictional characters, Shoulder to Shoulder centred  heavily on the members of the Pankhurst family who set up and ran the Women’s Social and Political Union, and on Annie Kenney, the one working-class woman who became a senior figure in the organisation.

Although, in keeping with much TV drama of the period, it employed several  writers and directors, the basic artistic shape of Shoulder to Shoulder was attributed to the trio of actress Georgia Brown, film-maker Midge Mackenzie and producer Verity Lambert.

Many of the plot ideas of Suffragette feature coincidentally in one particular episode of Shoulder to Shoulder, the fifth, entitled “Outrage”. Both feature Emily Wilding Davison and her fatal protest at the Derby horse race in 1913, the authorities’ force-feeding of suffragette prisoners and the extension of the campaign into the working-class east end of London.

Suffragette follows a long tradition of films set in Britain around World War One, such as  A Room With a View,  The Shooting PartyChariots of Fire,  A Month in the Country The Wings of the Dove and Howards End.  An outdoor scene like Derby Day with wide vistas and large crowds in authentic dress is a familiar element of a period drama. The scenes  of violent struggles between the suffragettes and police and of their force feeding in prison are reminiscent of smaller-scale and lower-budget scenes in Shoulder to Shoulder.

Mostly, however, director Sarah Gavron creates a distinctive picture of the London of the period, with use of fast moving camera, close-ups and subdued lighting. Her ending also takes us by surprise. As the suffragettes leave for the funeral of Emily Wilding Davison, fiction fades into the real-life footage of the elaborate cortege and the packed streets.  Just as we grasp that this event, with the Pankhursts this time only as spectators, might have been one of the real turning points in the whole suffrage struggle, Gavron adds the Brechtian educational touch of a list of the dates when women in various countries around the world gained the vote.

Shoulder to Shoulder was notable for its championing of the stirring “The March of the Women”, composed by suffragette Ethel Smyth, as its theme music. “Outrage” was an episode where other music was inserted pointedly.  A solo rendition of the hymn “Thy Way Not Mine O Lord” accompanies the actions and funeral of Emily Wilding Davison, who says that she is guided by God in her political action, rather like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire. “A Policeman’s Lot” and “Land of Hope and Glory”, incongruous in different ways, suggest both how the suffragette protesters were disturbing many aspects of British conservative society as well as how their actions were becoming as familiar as music-hall songs or patriotic celebrations.

In many places it is Gavron’s restrained use of music which helps prevent the narrative lapsing into sentimentality or melodrama. For example, her single use of “The March of the Women” is a brief acappella snippet in the middle of the narrative.

Abi Morgan’s script for Suffragette presents a cursory snapshot of Emily Wilding Davison as a committed militant who has undergone many prison sentences but, in Shoulder to Shoulder, Hugh Whitemore scrutinises her more closely. She is quiet, solitary, intense, something of a mystic even. A fellow prisoner  describes her as “a real tough nut” with “a look in her eye”. We see her enduring cold water hoses and  force-feeding by nasal tube.  “I feel the influence (of God) very strongly. I never act without it, ” she says. Her contact with Mary Richardson in Shoulder to Shoulder is similar to that with Maud Watts in Suffragette, but, in the former, the actual moment of her death is conveyed only by her imagining the horse’s neighs and hoofbeats and then Richardson’s shocked report afterwards. “She seemed out of place, as if she wasn’t really there ( but) her hand was so steady (and) she seemed to be smiling.”

Whitemore and director Moira Armstrong parallel the real-life death under the hooves of a royal racehorse of the middle-class Davison with the death under a brewery cart of a fictional working-class east ender, Maisie Dunn, who has shown a nascent interest in politics. The news of her death is relayed to Sylvia Pankhurst by her husband. The scene between the two is designed to highlight Pankhurst’s fierce interest in the lives of working-class women, but some of its power now comes from the fact that the husband is played with vivid individuality by the then unknown Bob Hoskins.

On the subject of male actors, the one real weakness of Suffragette for me was the character of the Irish police inspector, played by Brendan Gleeson. It is too easy for the viewer to imagine the pre-production meeting where one or more executives worried that the film needed a male protagonist to make it sellable and Gleeson’s authority figure, experienced in dealing with trouble-makers  in Ireland, seems naggingly similar to the Sam Neill character in TV’s Peaky Blinders. The poor decision is emphasised by the fact that actor and director clearly couldn’t make up their minds whether the character is supposed to be ruthless or sympathetic, and thus confuses the tone of the film whenever he appears.

 

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