…minor observations on Le Havre and things Kaurismaki

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My short review of Le Havre published online in One Hundred Words magazine [no longer available]:-

To step into an Aki Kaurismaki film is to enter a unique, peculiar, intriguing and quite extraordinary universe. It’s one where dialogue is sparse, acting as muted and inexpressive as possible; where the colours have a distinctly retro feel; there is always a bar and a band; and ‘action’ sequences often take place off camera.

Le Havre – the story of a shoe-shiner who takes charge of a young refugee boy – has all these elements, and is possibly the warmest, most optimistic offering yet from this director.

This is a charming, humane, and elegantly simple film which has a heart-warming potency.

Lana Wilson in Senses of Cinema gets to the heart of Kaurismaki in her excellent essay about the director:-

The uncommon union he forges between social realism and visual stylization, and between dry comedy and warm-hearted humanism, is something Kaurismäki’s actors refer to as “Akiland”, and what American critics delicately describe as “an acquired taste”.

Wilson also pin-points a fascinating contradiction in Kaurismaki’s output. He is someone who clearly has a knowledge and deep love of film – when younger, he and his brother:-

were insatiable cinéphiles and watched five or six films every day at the Finnish Film Archive.

Yet there is a sense in Aki’s films of someone who wants to:-

ridicule … the seriousness and inscrutability of the art house tradition.

For instance, in his typically idiosyncratic films Crime and Punishment, and Hamlet Goes Business he seems to have:-

explicitly mocked the pretensions of highbrow literary adaptations.

Ironically, when The Man Without A Past was a great success

Kaurismäki’s membership in the art cinema Hall of Fame that he had once so mercilessly mocked was fully established.

In truth, his films are beautifully crafted “minimalist comedies” which betray a deep-seated humanism. They tend to:-

[show] the economic hardships and social obstacles facing working-class Finns with compassion and even seriousness, in a style indebted to the warm humanism of Frank Capra. And, while the world encountered by his characters was bleaker than ever, the cinematography grew even more luminous in response, taking his trademark saturated colours, velvety shadows and glowing lights to dazzling new heights.

Le Havre is just the latest instalment in Kaurismaki’s exploration of this humanism.

Geoff Dyer’s ‘Zona’

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My short review of the book published online in One Hundred Words Magazine [no longer available]:-

For anyone interested in Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic art-house film ‘Stalker’, Geoff Dyer’s fascinating book ‘Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room’ is a must read.

Dyer takes the reader through the film, scene by scene. It’s a rather meandering kind of journey, perhaps, with numerous interesting digressions en route – the author frequently discussing at some length any subject which the film brings to mind.

This strategy works to a degree, but is undermined by Dyer’s tendency to use an irritatingly flippant tone. Nevertheless, it’s still a book I would recommend to cinema lovers.

As I say, the one thing which doesn’t entirely work for me is Dyer’s ‘tendency to use an irritatingly flippant tone’. However, a number of other reviewers think otherwise. For instance, Killian Fox writing in The Guardian:-

What makes him a pleasure to read, particularly here in the inner sanctum of high cinema, is that he isn’t oppressed by the need to be reverential. On the contrary, he’ll crack as many bad jokes as he can about Stalker’s nagging wife, or the granting of innermost wishes, en route to the transcendent truth. As the Camus quote at the front of the book says: “The best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly.”

Vadim Rizov writing in avclub is also happy with the style of the book:-

[Dryer is] a serious viewer whose lightness of tone shouldn’t be mistaken for glibness.

Whatever my reservations, I would agree with Fox when he says:-

That said, I’m glad he undertook the journey. Even if you have zero desire to experience Tarkovsky’s film first-hand, it’s worth keeping company with Dyer for the tangents it sends him off on: an explanation of why the horror film Antichrist, which Lars von Trier dedicated to Tarkovsky, is “nonsense”; or the funny and poignant footnote about how Natascha McElhone in the remake of Solaris looked uncannily, at the time of its release, like Dyer’s wife.

But if you’ve never seen Stalker, I’d urge you to watch it for the final scene alone. I agree with Dyer that it brings us to “a realm of loveliness unmatched anywhere else in cinema”. It casts a miraculous light back across the rest of the film and makes the effort of scaling this great rock of cinematic art utterly worthwhile.

Mark Cousins’ “The Story of Film”

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This week’s TimeOut (12-18 April) gives an ecstatic review of the Mark Cousins’ monumental and quite wonderful film/TV series, The Story of Film, which is about to be released on DVD. Tom Huddleston writes:-

The indisputable cinematic high point of last year didn’t happen anywhere near a cinema – it took place on TV, quietly, late at night… [The Story of Film] isn’t just the finest series ever made on the topic of cinema, but perhaps the best British documentary series since ‘The World At War’, a truly eye-opening, informative, impassioned personal odyssey which is itself a fine work of art.

Every human being on earth with even a passing interest in how cinema came into being – and how it developed into the world’s most popular art form – needs to see this.

As Mark Kermode tweeted:-

@markcousinsfilm’s excellent Story of Film [is] out on DVD on April 23rd – a must for lovers of movie knowledge and strange poetry everywhere

I can’t wait for my copy to arrive!

In the meantime, here’s Mark Cousins being interviewed about The Story of Film by Dave Calhoun. As Cousins says:-

If I ask myself what was my motivation, yes it was to defend cinema in a certain way. But, …my main reason for making “The Story of Film” is because I find film beautiful I want to describe it. More than trying to redress an imbalance, it was the desire to describe something beautiful which is the history of the movies.’

In my humble opinion, he succeeded beyond any film lover’s wildest dreams.

Fellini’s La Strada

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This month’s very well attended Screen St Ives presentation was Fellini’s La Strada. The average audience rating for the film was a very reasonable 4 out of 5.

There was a particularly interesting post-film discussion reflecting a range of reactions to the movie. Some of the observations emerging from that discussion are reflected in the following online material.

There is a useful short biography of director Federico Fellini on the MUBI site. Of particular relevance to La Strada:-

…at the age of 12 he briefly ran away from home to join the circus.

The circus is a strong motif not only in La Strada but in a number of other Fellini films.

A major influence on Fellini was the Italian neorealist movement:-

The pivotal moment in Fellini’s early career came in the days following the Allied Forces’ 1945 liberation of Italy, when he and Fabrizi both began working with Roberto Rossellini, a young, largely unknown filmmaker with only a handful of directorial credits under his belt. Rossellini’s initial plan was to film a fictionalized account of the Germans’ shooting of a local priest. With Fellini on board as a screenwriter, however, the film eventually grew to become Roma, Città Aperta, a landmark of Italian neorealism and one of the most widely acclaimed pictures of its era.

La Strada marks a period when Fellini moves away from these neorealist routes to a very different style. As Chris Wiegand says in Frederico Fellini: The Complete Films:-

A trio of films directed in the mid-1950s saw Fellini transcend his neorealist origins. La Strada, Il Bidone and The Nights of Cabiria, often grouped together as the ‘films of redemption’, display the director’s move from neorialism to a kind of fantastical individualism. Heavily symbolic tales of innocence betrayed, they feature marginal characters searching in unusual places for spiritual salvation.

Bob Kalin’s blog post on La Strada begins with a similar observation:-

…it was Fellini’s La Strada, built upon a firm Neo-Realist foundation yet possessing something more—a fairy-tale-like narrative, resonant with archetypal characters whose lives illuminate the basic truths of the human condition—that revealed the full aesthetic richness of Neo-Realism just as it was being transformed by Fellini into something other than a faithful recording of mundane reality. It is this sometimes whimsical, sometimes hallucinatory visual and narrative quality in Fellini’s work that distinguished him from his fellow Neo-Realists and which, even more significantly, pointed the way to future styles and directions in world cinema.

He goes on to say:-

La Strada possesses a fable-like simplicity that conceals the film’s seemingly unplanned, episodic structure. As a filmmaker who came of age during the flowering of Italian Neo-Realism, Fellini has an unerring instinct in La Strada for creating an often harshly realistic portrayal of post-war Italian society. Certainly the film’s attention to lower class and socially marginalized characters reflects the politics of Neo-Realism and its goal of developing the cinema as a tool for representing and analyzing the experiences of average, ordinary people, an impulse that arises from Neo-Realism’s roots in Italian Marxism. Evidence of pervasive poverty and the scarring effects of war are brilliantly incorporated into the mise-en-scene of the film through Fellini’s art direction and costume design. His use of actual locations in La Strada, rather than the more easily controlled environment of the film studio, and his use of untrained actors in several minor roles, likewise followed basic Neo-Realist aesthetic principles that aimed at presenting a more authentically realistic image of the world.

But Fellini was always something more than a realist. Every Fellini film possesses a certain ineffable poetry, a sense of magic and wonder that can range from the hilarious to the frightening to the uncanny. He is what I would call, mixing literary and cinematic modes, a “magic neo-realist.” In Fellini’s films we … encounter a highly subjective view of the world, often grotesque and distorted, brimming with both irony and pathos and filtered through Fellini’s profoundly humanistic vision as an artist.

Jamie Russell in his BBCi review, talks about the performances in La Strada:-

Quinn [as Zampano] is stunning as the savage strongman – a drunken, whoring, violent thug – and manages to keep him from becoming a one-dimensional symbol of oppression by imbuing him with a twisted humanity all his own.

But it’s Masina’s film [who plays Gelsomina]. Her Chaplinesque clowning, wide-eyed wonder and desperate attempts to please are full of tragi-comic pathos.

Roger Ebert in his review:-

Seeing the film again after several years, I found myself struck first of all by new ideas about the Fool. The film intends us to take him as a free and cheerful spirit (the embodiment of Mind, Pauline Kael tells us, with Zampano as Body and Gelsomina as Soul).

But he has a mean, sarcastic streak I had not really registered before, and his taunting of the dim Zampano is sadistic. To some degree he is responsible for his own end.

Masina’s character is perfectly suited to her round clown’s face and wide, innocent eyes. Her performance is inspired by the silent clowns, and is probably a shade too conscious and knowing to be consistent with Gelsomina’s retardation. The character should never be aware of the effect she has, but we sometimes feel Gelsomina’s innocence is calculated.

It is Quinn’s performance that holds up best, because it is the simplest. Zampano is not much more intelligent than Gelsomina.

Life has made him a brute and an outcast, with one dumb trick (breaking a chain by expanding his chest muscles), and a memorized line of patter that was perhaps supplied to him by a circus owner years before. His tragedy is that he loves Gelsomina and does not know it, and that is the central tragedy for many of Fellini’s characters: They are always turning away from the warmth and safety of those who understand them, to seek restlessly in the barren world.

La Strada has received much critical acclaim. Here’s Russell again:-

La Strada has always had a special place in Fellini’s canon, not least because it was the film that won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and secured his reputation as one of Europe’s leading postwar directors.

Touching, funny, and completely enchanting, “La Strada” is a deceptively simple film – a haunting, lyrical masterpiece that will remain with you long after the credits have disappeared.

The film is certainly not without its detractors, though. This rather scathing, pithy review by David Kehr in the Chicago Reader rather amuses me:-

Early mush from the master, Federico Fellini. The story—about a circus strong man (Anthony Quinn) and the doe-eyed waif who loves him—is an allegory, so you can leave as soon as you figure it out. It won’t take very long.

Geoff Andrew writing in Time Out acknowledges a possible tendency for sentimentality but sees La Strada as an important film:-

For all its sentimentality, this overshadows virtually everything Fellini has made since La Dolce Vita. As ever for il maestro, life is both cyclic odyssey and circus, a teeming, tragicomic arena of pain, cruelty and solitude.

Despite the pessimism of much of the story, memorably embodied in the grey, desolate towns the pair visit, Fellini has already moved far from his roots in neo-realism; symbols, metaphors, and larger-than-life performances hold sway, and moments of bizarre if inconsequential charm abound.

To wrap things up, though, I rather like this comment from Ebert about Fellini:-

When Fellini died, the critic Stanley Kauffmann wrote an appreciation in The New Republic that ended with the words: “During his lifetime, many fine filmmakers blessed us with their art, but he was the only one who made us feel that each of his films, whatever its merits, was a present from a friend.”

Bal (Honey) – ‘poetic film-making’

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Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is much on my mind of late, or rather his brilliant film Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. The contemplative manner of Anatolia reminds me of another Turkish director, Semih Kaplanoglu, and his film Bal (Honey). I saw it last year at the Belfast Film Festival and was impressed with the effectiveness of its slowly paced, carefully composed, and beautifully photographed style. Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound (August 2011) explains that:-

Kaplanoglu’s film – which won last year’s Golden Bear in Berlin… – is the third part of the so-called ‘Yusuf’ trilogy, which traces the life of its protagonist backwards from adulthood to high school and now [in Bal] to childhood and the traumatic loss of his father.

Like Romney, I’ve not seen the other two films; unlike Romney, I think the film is a little gem. I’m quite a fan of Romney’s criticism, but find myself in more-or-less total disagreement with his review. He says that:-

It is not immediately obvious from a surface description why, for example, Michelangelo Frammartino’s recent Le Quattro Volte is a coherent and innovative piece of work [note: I certainly do agree about his description of the superb Volte] while another rural drama, Semih Kaplanoglu’s Honey (Bal), despite its slow pacing, detachment and ascetically sparse dialogue, feels not merely academic but also rather softcore.

The film’s delicacy and reserve often feel flat and bloodless.

My reaction to the film is entirely different, but I feel my strongest reaction against the review must be reserved for Romney’s final paragraph, which includes:-

Finally … Honey suffers from having a juvenile lead… The boy lacks the naturalness that makes for truly striking screen presence.

The film is so strongly routed in the boy’s point of view that it does stand or fall on his performance: I find it totally convincing and completely natural.

David Jenkins’ review in Time Out is closer to my sense of the film:-

Like countryman and fellow director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Semih Kaplanoglu possesses a keen eye for ravishing pictorial beauty, especially when it comes to locating a quiet majesty in the Turkish lansdscape that somehow evokes and distils a sense of unease. ‘Honey’ is his latest work, a precise and psychologically involving Oedipal drama.

He particularly notes something which struck me in particular when rewatching the film (on DVD):-

Filming in long, meticulously sculpted takes, Kaplanoglu is especially good at emphasising elements within the frame with inventive use of focus and the positioning of the camera.

Peter Bradshaw, reviewing in The Guardian, also eloquently articulates some of my own feelings about Bal:-

[A] contemplative and compassionate movie. It is a film whose unhurried pace must be allowed to grow on you, but once it has, there is something engrossing about the tragedy unfurling slowly and indirectly before our eyes. Some of the images Kaplanoglu finds are superb: a forest, a mountainside, a rippling, pulsing moon reflected in a pool of water. It is poetic film-making.

…minor observations on The Deep Blue Sea

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Revisiting a Terence Davies film is always a rewarding experience: each one is so rich and subtle, a reminder of what great cinema is all about.

I’ve just re-watched his latest, The Deep Blue Sea – out now on DVD/Blu-ray.

Things which particularly struck me…

  • Camera movement: so elegant and understated. In the scene where the two lovers part for the final time, the camera pans a few degrees around Hester and stops. When Freddie finally goes, it does so again. The movements seem exactly calibrated to underline her emotionally fragility. The timing of the pans exactly suit their purpose – any shorter or longer and the power would be diminished, would not have the same psychological or emotional potency.
  • Performances: thanks to skilled actors, Davies’ direction and some sensitive writing (adapting), the performances are mesmerising. Weisz and Hiddleston work so well together. Also greatly impressed (even more so than the first time) with Simon Russell Beale – whose character William is so crucial to the story – he gives a beautifully poised and finely judged performance: it is simply heartbreaking.
  • The set pieces are so effective. The opening sequence, set to the music of Samuel Barber, combines an economy of storytelling with a powerful emotional connection. In a very different scene – the underground shelter flashback – the perfection of lighting, the pacing of the slow track back of the camera, the gradual revelation of the underground inhabitants, the poignancy of the singing, and the final revelation of the two protagonists; these are an exquisite combination of elements.

I think it must be time to go back and check out those Davies masterpieces: Distant Voices, Still Lives; Long Day Closes, and House of Mirth.

Arena: Jonathan Miller

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is still available to watch on iPlayer.

Well done to the BBC for their excellent Arena documentary on Jonathan Miller, dedicating an hour and a half to this fascinating man: someone gifted in both the sciences and the arts.

There’s a good piece about him by A.S.H. Smyth in The Arts Desk:-

A director who is “passionate about biology”; a humorist who “hardly ever mocks”; an artist who speaks fluently about the origin of species; a non-musician who has directed some of the best-received opera productions of the modern era; a doctor with his own profile on IMDB. In short, a man who puts the “poly” into “polymath” – and like as not does it in Greek. Don’t you just hate Jonathan Miller?

No, of course not. As last night’s Arena portrait could simply not fail to convince you, all laud and honour be to Jonathan Miller: there ought to be one of him in every home
It is testament to Miller’s exceptional modesty and nonetheless unflighty approach that he is comfortable, just about, referring to himself as “an intellectual”.

Smyth concludes:-

This was good telly. But it was also largely about good telly, and that was slightly wistful. Several times in the course of his documentaries, I’m sorry (or, rather, delighted) to say, Miller did things – the human autopsy, the prompting of a Parkinson’s victim with a bunch of keys – that probably wouldn’t make the edit now in our just-add-subject-matter easily offended culture. And forget offence: where did all that footage of televised opera come from?

Ultimately, Oliver Sacks concludes that Miller’s boundless energies simply couldn’t be contained by one career. For his part, somewhat astoundingly, Miller has regrets about not sticking to the one that was good enough for his father. But what can you do. “People like Jonathan should live till they’re 200,” wishes Sacks. Damn right.

For myself, I’m now desperate to watch Miller’s version of Alice in Wonderland again, and to revisit the ground breaking Body in Question TV series (where I first came across him).