That Ealing touch

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At Screen St Ives we recently showed the 1942 classic WENT THE DAY WELL?, to a packed and extremely enthusiastic audience. It is a testament to Ealing, the relatively small, independent studio that produced this film, that their output is still delighting audiences some 70 years later.

Perhaps part of what still captivates us in a film like this are the unexpected eccentricities; Peter Bradshaw memorably describes WENT THE DAY WELL? as:-

a wartime conspiracy thriller, a black-comic nightmare and a surrealist masterpiece in which stoutly English-seeming army types reveal themselves to be Nazis, like the reflected figures turning their backs on us in René Magritte’s mirror.

WENT THE DAY WELL certainly doesn’t sit naturally with what I have always thought of as the typical Ealing film. A fascinating series of articles in the latest Sight and Sound (November 2012) – which tie up with a season at the BFI Southbank, ‘Ealing: Light and Dark” – highlight the surprising range of output from the studio. In his article ‘The Dark Side of Ealing’ Mark Duguid writes:-

So complete is Ealing’s association with comedy that you could be forgiven for assuming that the studio produced nothing else. In fact, of Ealing’s 95 feature releases under [Michael] Balcon, only 30 are strictly comedies and less than a third of those make up what is now canonised as ‘Ealing comedy’.

Mind you, many of the familiar Ealing classic comedies have a surprisingly cynical and even subversive tone, such as THE LADYKILLERS (“the twisted last hurrah of Ealing comedy”) and KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (“no other Ealing film – perhaps no British film up to that time – even approaches its elegant amorality…[it is] Ealing’s most cynical film and Hamer’s masterpiece”). However, the articles are a reminder of the full range of films produced by Ealing and just how daring some of them were; films such as IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (“Ealing’s most convincingly downbeat evocation of the immediate post-war era, and at least a match for the Boulting’s near-simultaneous Brighton Rock”) and THE FOREMAN WENT TO FRANCE (“an interrogation of both the dangers and the virtues of ‘muddling through’ and a surprisingly caustic critique of class deference and untrustworthy authority”).

The single sentence in the Sight and Sound articles which really jumped out at me, though, was this:-

Ealing could never be a giant, so its films would make a virtue of their scale; they would be well-made and human-sized and they would seek to please a domestic audience first rather than vainly aim to conquer an American one.

It seems to me that the reason we are still watching, discussing, and being inspired by Ealing films is at least in part due to the fact that the studio tried to remain true to what it believed in, and because it tried to reflect and explore the ‘domestic’. While it may have sought ‘to please a domestic audience’ it could also be daring in its choices and quite happy to take audience in unexpected directions.

A lesson for contemporary cinema?

Reminded of Laugharne

The Boathouse Laugharne

The Boathouse, Laugharne

Last year my wife and I had a very enjoyable holiday in the Welsh town most famous for its association with the great poet Dylan Thomas: Laugharne. I was reminded of this when I came across two items related to Thomas.

Firstly, I was reminded by this short article that Stan Tracey’s quartet are playing Stan’s latest Thomas inspired piece – A Child’s Christmas Jazz Suite – at the Dylan Thomas Festival in Swansea tomorrow. I’ve already written about the suite elsewhere on this blog; it’s great to hear that it will now feature in a festival dedicated to Dylan Thomas.

Secondly, I came across a more direct link to Laugharne in the form of this nice piece by Chris Moss, an interesting personal portrait of the town. It’s well worth a read in full.

It includes the following:-

Anyone with a passing interest in poetry knows about Dylan Thomas’s association with Laugharne, the township he called a ‘legendary lazy little black magical bedlam by the sea’. They know about his writing shed with its view over the ‘heron priested’ shores of the Taf Estuary. And about his drinking, his dark moods, his death in America.

 

He’s buried at the main church here beneath a simple white cross. His ghost lingers and his admirers come to smell the musty living room in the Boathouse, where he lived, and to look for characters from his masterpiece, Under Milk Wood.

 

But as literary birthplaces go, Laugharne is no Stratford-on-Avon, Haworth or Chawton. It remains an enigma. This small, steep-sided, village-sized town has retained the curious character — and, perhaps, some of the characters — that beguiled the Swansea-born bard six decades ago.

 

A path follows the foot of the red sandstone cliffs to two steep staircases leading up to a narrow road. Here is Dylan Thomas’s writing shed — once a garage built to house Laugharne’s first car (a green Wolseley)… A few steps along is the Boathouse — the third and final property the Thomas’ occupied in Laugharne. It has some of the loveliest views of the estuary and beyond and is the most photographed spot in Laugharne.

 

Out on the terrace, away from the memorabilia and the booming voice of Dylan reading his verse, spare a thought for Caitlin. She left Laugharne for Italy in 1957, describing it as a ‘permanently festering wound’. This might not fit neatly with the fantasy version of Dylan and Wales, but it remains the truth; the words came through drink and darkness and despair, and Laugharne and the Boathouse are part of that reality.

Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989)

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By chance, I found that someone had uploaded this gem to YouTube, in its entirety.

If you’ve never seen Alan Clarke’s ELEPHANT before, I would strongly recommend you watch it now, in one sitting, with no preconceptions. It’s 40 minutes long.

It’s not exactly a pleasant watch, but here it goes…

I don’t remember whether I first saw this on TV or video. I do remember my reaction: numbness. I couldn’t quite believe what I’d experienced, or find the means with which to properly process it.

It changed the way I thought about narrative.

A 40 minute film without any conventional sense of narrative, almost no dialogue, no contextualisation, no explanation. Yet I found it the most compelling, painfully vivid, and polititcally devastating portrayal of The Troubles that I had ever seen.

In terms of film, it also taught me that time and space, of themselves, are two of the most powerful components of cinema which are sadly often reduced to insignificance.

ELEPHANT demonstrates how the absence of conventional elements can be so effective. As the BFI’s screen online say:-

The lack of narrative removes any scope for justification of the killings on religious, political or any other grounds and the matter-of-factness of Clarke’s approach debases the often-heroic portrayal – by all sides – of the individuals involved in sectarian murder.

 

Moreover, Clarke’s use of a Steadicam to follow the killers before and during the murders casts the viewer as at best a willing voyeur, at worst an accomplice. After each killing, the camera dwells on the bodies slumped on floors or draped over desks for longer than is comfortable, forcing the viewer to confront the brutality of their deaths.

Here’s Slarek in Cine Outsider:-

To those coming completely fresh to Alan Clarke’s Elephant, [the opening scene] must seem an intriguing set-up to a story in which reasons for what just happened will later become clear.

 

But then scene two kicks off… By now most viewers would be starting to wonder. Again the approach is coldly observational, emphasised by a completely lack of dialogue or music. Are the two killings related? Is a more complex story unfolding?

 

Scene three brings more of the same…By now few will be under the impression that they are watching a standard drama. By the fifth or sixth killing the tone of the entire film is set and the audience divisions set in, splitting those who are prepared to go where Clarke is taking them from those who are not. There is no plot, almost no dialogue, and no musical score, just a series of eighteen sectarian assassinations, one after the other with no on-screen reasons given, no conclusions attempted and no characters shaped in any traditional sense or even identified by name. This is minimalist film-making at its most starkly pure and is bound to alienate a sizeable, dare I say more traditionalist portion of any potential audience. But stay the course and you will experience a film whose single-minded sense of purpose, bold rejection of traditional storytelling techniques and astonishing technical confidence mark it as one of of the most important films ever to be screened on British television, and for my money the very finest work of a consistently excellent director.

Slarek also provides some background on the genesis of the film:-

The project was originally the brainchild of producer Danny Boyle, later a director of some note himself. Having landed a producer’s job at BBC Northern Ireland, he became aware that many of the shootings taking place in the province were going unreported on the mainland, presumably because they involved ordinary citizens rather than politicians or others the English press deemed newsworthy. He was also a huge fan of Alan Clarke, and having written to him and been invited onto the set of Clarke’s previous ‘walking movie’ Christine (1987), he hired him with this very project in mind, and the two worked together to develop the film to its present form. The decision to shoot, so to speak, on the streets of Belfast was a brave one given that local people were living the reality of sectarian violence on a daily basis, but this not only adds to the documentary-like authenticity, it also provides some arresting locations – strangely empty streets, red brick industrial and municipal buildings and vast but deserted factories, all depressingly vacant symbols of Thatcherite industrial policies. The enigmatic title was inspired by Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty, who described the troubles in the province as akin to having an elephant in your living room – it is so enormous that no-one can ignore it, it gets in the way of everything you try to do, and yet no-one talks about it, and after a while you just learn to live with it.

It seems appropriate that the last word goes to Iain Stott and his suitably minimalist One-Line Review [no longer available]:-

Alan Clarke presents us with a series of sectarian killings in Northern Ireland – stripped of politics, rhetoric, history, context, and team colours – leaving us with their very essence – casually brutal murder, in this devastating, plotless masterpiece, in which death is accompanied only by the sound of life whirring gently by in the form of cars passing, dogs barking, lifts traversing, and footsteps echoing.

About Elly

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My 2012 Cambridge Film Festival experience began on a real high this September when I saw ABOUT ELLY. I recently saw this Iranian film a second time and it made an even bigger impression.

Director Asghar Farhadi is better known for his more recent film A SEPARATION, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film this year. Indeed, it was the success of that film which lead to the release of this earlier 2009 offering.

Many commentators, while acknowledging that ABOUT ELLY is very good, feel A SEPARATION is the better film. I’m not so sure. I think they are both equally superb.

As with A SEPARATION, the structure of ABOUT ELLY is cleverly, but unobtrusively, crafted. The story begins with a dizzying swirl of characters but slowly you piece together who is who and how they relate to each other – a process of orientation that effectively draws you into the narrative. Your immersion in the lives of these characters means that as the story takes unexpected turns (the mention of Antonioni by many commentators is appropriate) the unfolding drama is rendered all the more powerful, the multilayered themes all the more affecting.

The film is brilliantly shot – the key dramatic scene is breathtaking; the performances are uniformally excellent. In short, if you missed it during the very limited cinema release, try and get hold of it on DVD (which looks like it will be released in January 2013).

Incidentally, this is another example of cinema providing a very different view of modern day Iran than that which we normally see via the news outlets, the importance of which I’ve written about elsewhere (here and here)

Here’s what others say about the film:-

Rich Cline in Shadows On The Wall:-

Bursting with energy, this ensemble drama from Iran is raucous, chaotic and packed with strong emotion as the story twists its way to a startling final act. And it feels so real that you can’t help but identify with the characters and situations.

 

This is a bracingly complex collection of people in extraordinary circumstances, and the film makes us consider our own moral values in ways that are refreshing and provocative. And strikingly resonant.

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:-

It is a really absorbing picture, powerfully acted, disturbing and suspenseful. Like A Separation it challenges the sexual politics of contemporary Iran and further shows how different Farhadi is from the older generation of Iranian masters such as Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf. The points of reference for About Elly are probably more European: Polanski’s Knife in the Water, Antonioni’s L’Avventura; and Farhadi also has Michael Haneke’s beady eye for the dynamics and symptoms of group guilt.

 

About Elly confirms Farhadi’s shrewd judgment of pace, dramatic technique and formal control of an ensemble cast. Anyone who admired A Separation will want to see it (one cast member of that film, Peyman Moadi, appears here) but it stands on its own as a fascinating psychological drama.

Derek Malcom in The London Evening Standard:-

Once again, Farhadi has told an ordinary story in an extraordinary way.

Philip French in The Guardian:-

Superbly acted, morally challenging, packed with legitimate suspense, this is film-making of a high order.

Hannah Clarkson in Take One:-

A woman leans her head out of a car window, whooping and screaming with exhilaration, the wind pushing the scarf covering her hair further back from her brow. The driver turns to look at her, smiling, as his other passengers do the same. The friends from Tehran and their young families are on their way to a seaside weekend of dancing, joking and laughter in what promises to be a vibrant, joyful film…

 

As one white lie leads to another, one untruth leads to a greater deception, a web of lies weaves a bristling divide with an ease that is deeply unsettling… Blame shifts constantly with the breeze as the innocent become suspect and an undercurrent of distrust even amongst the closest of friends sweeps values once though steadfast up onto the shore. …Wavering thoughts and fear score deep in Farhadi’s meditation on friendship, complicity and the very nature of truth itself.

Hannah McGill in The List:-

Much admired at its Berlin premiere back in 2009, this elegant, edgy and touching Iranian drama has finally been granted a UK cinema release… About Elly is another rigorous, deeply felt drama of duty, desire and social status; and like A Separation, it lends itself generously to layered interpretations.

 

Farhadi constructs a taut story, as precariously balanced on luck and lies as that of a French farce, and then lets it spring holes before our eyes. The acting is fierce in every sense – and, to note an admittedly shallower selling point, Golshifteh Farahani surely has one of the most beautiful faces on which a camera has ever focused.

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin – Live

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The first time I heard a Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin track was in one of Sid Smith’s (always enjoyable) podcasts. I was working on something, casually listening to Sid’s selection in the background. At first the Ronin track made little impression, it seemed rather repetitive and harmonically bland. Gradually, though, it began to tug at my attention: what seemed like a simple repetitive rhythm revealed itself as a rather intriguing, addictive cross-current of rhythms, evolving almost imperceptibly into new intricate yet fascinating patterns, always building tension, working towards an ever more gripping finale. I was hooked.

I’ve been hooked ever since.

Last year, at Kings Place in London, I was able to hear the band live for the first time (and to thank Sid personally for introducing me to this music). It was a magical evening. This was music full of delectable contradictions: incredibly precise, yet feeling open and free; repetitive but always taking on new, exciting shapes; simple and extraordinarily complex; intellectual yet earthy and grounded.

Some of the magic of that live sound has thankfully been captured in this new live album.

As thejazzbreakfast say:-

The Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch has been leading his band Ronin for over a decade. A quintet since 2006, the band has made three studio albums for ECM and now comes this double live album. In all that time there has been just one change of personnel. Original electric bassist Bjorn Mayer was replaced by Thomy Jordi last year, and he joined Bartsch on piano and Fender Rhodes, Sha on bass clarinets and alto saxophone, Kaspar Rast on drums and Andi Pupato on percussion.

 

For anyone who has been to a Ronin concert, this goes a long way to recreating the euphoric enjoyment that it instills; for those who have never witnessed the band live, it will give you as good a taste as you could expect to get without actually being there.

 

It’s extraordinary that music that has to be this disciplined for its effect – tightly interwoven rhythms, exactingly timed exchanges – can also sound so spontaneous and, in a strange way, loose.

Jeff Dayton-Johnson, in allaboutjazz explains why this music is so engrossing:-

Bärtsch … deploys all kinds of more or less conventional syncopational strategies, but he also uses interlocking rhythms to challenge our very certitude about where the ground is upon which we should stand. Nowhere is this more clear, perhaps, than in the opening moments of “Modul 17,” where a chiming, two-note figure that sounds like a xylophone is quickly surrounded by longer rhythmic figures. As with interlocking African percussion music, at some point the figures of different length realign; it’s a mathematical process that sounds anything but abstract in practice.

 

As you listen, the music offers you several choices of a rhythmic ground (do I choose the 2/4, 3/4, 6/8 or other rhythm as the “true” meter of the composition?), in relation to which the other meters stand as potential alternatives or as baroque embellishments. You’re not committed to your choice of meter—you can “switch” midstream and it feels a little like jumping from one to another of the rings of Saturn. The effect is liberating.

The last word in this short piece must, of course, go to Sid Smith, writing in BBC Music:-

Ronin’s music has a propulsive volatility that’s forever galloping forward as their polyrhythmic jigsaw comes together. Individually, these motifs are quite simple, but combined they produce powerful results that engender a near-constant state of expectation.

 

This frequently hair-raising and dazzling summary is a celebration of their considerable achievements to date.

A few observations on Ozu’s ‘Late Spring’…

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The more I watch the exquisitely crafted, understated, finely balanced films of Yasujiro Ozu, the more enchanted I become.

Mark Cousins recently hosted a live messaging session on Twitter as Film 4 screened Ozu’s 1949 classic LATE SPRING. I unfortunately missed it, but managed to capture the chain of tweets here.

Reading all the comments inevitably led me to watching the film again. I have to say that when I first saw it, some years ago, this film did not have the immediate impact of say TOKYO STORY, but my admiration of it grows with each viewing, and it is now one of my favourite Ozu.

Gary Tooze, in DVDBeaver, thinks so too:-

One of the most powerful of Yasujiro Ozu’s family portraits, Late Spring tells the story of a widowed father who feels compelled to marry off his only, beloved daughter. Loyal Ozu players Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara command this poignant tale of love and loss in postwar Japan, which remains as potent today as ever—almost by itself justifying Ozu’s inclusion in the pantheon of cinema’s greatest directors.

 

For me “Late Spring” eclipses “Tokyo Story” as my favorite Ozu film. His continued style of the 180 degree cuts when there is conversation is so elegant, restrained and respectful. The emotion his films bring underplay the directors constant future theme of bridging of familial conflict, communication and unselfish love. One of the greatest films I have ever seen.

Roger Ebert is also a fan:-

“Late Spring” is one of the best two or three films Ozu ever made, with “Early Summer” deserving comparison. Both films use his distinctive later visual style, which includes precise compositions for a camera that almost never moves, a point of view often representing the eye-level of a person sitting on a tatami mat, and punctuation through cutaways to unrelated exteriors. He almost always used only one lens, a 50mm, which he said was the closest to the human eye.

 

Here he wordlessly uses time and space to establish the routine and serenity of the household arrangements between father and daughter, in a sequence showing them coming and going, upstairs and down, through the rooms and central corridors of their house. They know their way around each other. Late in the film, threatened by the marriage, Noriko keeps picking things up and putting them on a table, compulsively acting out her domestic happiness.

Ebert also notes:-

So much happens out of sight in the film, implied but not shown.

Ozu is often happy to leave events offstage, or simply implied via narrative ellipses. As Mark Cousins tweets about one key event:-

revelation of marriage – one of those great Ozu jumps across a story chasm.

Andy Moore, on the Howard Assembly Room website, looks at how Ozu treats another important scene:-

In one of the films most heartbreaking scenes, Noriko and her father Shukichi attend a Noh play. Noriko glances forlornly across the room at Ms Misa, the woman her father has claimed he will soon be marrying, jealous and devastated at the thought of the forthcoming loss of the most important person in her life. Through a series of straightforward cuts between the two women and Shukichi, Ozu manages to communicate the immense depth of Noriko’s dedication and love for her father, her profound sadness at the thought of leaving him and the exceptional closeness of father and daughter. The scene is a testament to both the extraordinary skill of actress Setsuko Hara and Ozu’s ability to say so much with so little.

 

Unhurried and masterfully controlled, this is a film of quiet, contemplative beauty and measured but devastating emotional impact. Late Spring truly deserves its reputation as one of the cinema’s most powerful and affecting dramas, a timeless meditation on love, loss and the strength of familial bonds.

This film has been linked to a more recent release by a filmmaker who is a big fan of Ozu. As Mark Cousins tweets:-

Claire Denis told me the apple scene at end influenced ending of Beau Travail

Which prompted @PhilB to say:-

Its worth mentioning Claire Denis “35 Shots of Rum” a retelling of #LateSpring

What a great double-bill that would make! I think I’ll need to find my copy of both these Denis films.

I’ll leave the last word to Mark Cousins, who started this off:-

I’m sticking to my choice of Late Spring as the greatest film ever. Timeless; pure, perfect cinema.

A quick look at Monsoon Wedding…

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It was a pleasure to see Monsoon Wedding (2001) again on the big screen, courtesy of this month’s Screen St Ives presentation, particularly when the audience reaction was so warm and enthusiastic (average audience rating a very strong 4.3 out of 5).

In preparation for my brief introduction to the film I checked out the relevant contemporary Sight and Sound article (‘Henna and cellphones’ by Geoffrey Macnab, p.18, January 2002). It begins:-

The idea which eventually led Mira Nair to make Monsoon Wedding came to her when she was stuck in a traffic jam in Bombay, late for an appointment… As she sat in her car, getting more and more frustrated at the delay, she noticed a procession of around 2000 women, all in white, marching across the road towards the ocean. “They were guffawing madly and they were carrying placards that said ‘World Laughter Day’. It was like something out of Fellini”, the 44-year-old director recalls.

This intriguing image, with its curiously contrasting elements, seems appropriate for a film which is full of enticing juxtapositions. There is the storyline which looks at the tensions and creative sparks between modernity and traditions; there is the style which is indebted to both Bollywood and Hollywood; cinematography which is naturalistic, but at times carefully composed (incidentally, cinematographer Declan Quinn was DP on the fabulous Leaving Las Vegas); and an overall tone of joyous exuberance which does not overwhelm or undermine those more sober and intense moments dealing with difficult and sometimes shocking subjects.

In an online interview the director talks about her approach:-

I wanted to make a portrait of modern contemporary India…a picture of Indian life today, the negotiations between old and new, in language, music, fashion.

Chuck Bowen in his Slant Magazine piece says:-

Nair, a Punjabi who went to college in America in her late teens, is frequently occupied with the clash between the young and old of her country, as the young gravitate toward a less Indian, more global (read: American), more permissive, perhaps less sentimental, more self-indulgent society of unquestioned gratification; while the old cling to values more closely rooted in traditions of religion, extended family, and perhaps unquestioned sacrifice with a dash of regret and envy.

 

The best moments in Nair’s pictures have a wonderfully contradictory push-pull quality; they’re erotic, foolish, forbidden, and mysterious.

Philip French also looks at this in his Observer piece:-

The family [in the film] belongs to the Indian diaspora, its children scattered to the four corners of the earth – Europe, Australia, the Gulf, the United States – and they are torn between their traditional culture and the Western world in which they thrive.
…Underlying the film are serious themes of dislocation, deracination and hanging on to old ways that continue to give meaning in a blank consumer society.

It seems to me that Nair’s skill is in bringing all these elements together in a coherent and convincing manner, with characters who you care about.

Sandy Chaitram on the BBC website:-

[Nair] successfully creates the opportunity for tense drama, which does not stifle the overall feelgood nature of the film, or impede the finale’s … confirmation of family love.

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:-

Nair directs with unflagging energy, style and pizzazz, periodically whisking her crew out into the teeming streets for external locations and using the real-life Delhi crowds as a seamlessly integrated real backdrop for her family drama. This movie is a real tonic.

Rich Cline in Shadows on the Wall:

One of the most effective and joyous examinations of family ever put on screen, this film is a delight from start to finish, even when it dips into serious issues.
[It] captures the energy, colours and culture of these people remarkably, with powerfully honest performances all around.

 

This is breathtakingly good filmmaking – thoroughly entertaining, deeply moving, warmly funny and profoundly evocative. It’s simply so wonderful that I won’t say a word against it.