Ivan’s Childhood (1962) – Adolescent Dreamscapes

Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film began life as a respectful adaptation of an autobiographical story about a child’s experiences working as a military scout during World War II. The story had already been translated into over twenty languages as well as critically acclaimed both at home and abroad but the studio’s first choice to direct the film had somehow managed to bungle the project resulting in nothing but thousands of feet of wasted film and a sizeable number of debts. After firing the director, the studio reached out to his classmate and offered him the project on the understanding that we would need to deliver a completed film as quickly and as cheaply as possible on the grounds that another man had already burned through the reserves of patience and good will that were usually accorded to novice filmmakers.

As with a number of Tarkovsky’s films, the production of Ivan’s Childhood resonates with many of the same issues as the film itself. For example, just as Tarkovsky had been denied a professional adolescence by the mistakes of his classmate, the film’s protagonist finds himself plucked from childhood and forced into premature adulthood where the world offers no protection from the consequences of his actions. Equally spooky is the way that the protagonist of Ivan’s Childhood is forced to run across minefields for the sake of those who follow just as Tarkovsky was forced to fight for the idea that directors should pursue their own artistic visions rather than contenting themselves with adapting the visions of others.

Setting aside the somewhat uncanny details of the production process, Ivan’s Childhood remains an impressive piece of filmmaking. Beautifully acted, astonishing to look at, and thematically rich, the film explores the interlocking boundaries between childhood and adulthood, dreams and reality, as well as between conscious and unconscious thought.

 

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REVIEW — The Captive Heart (1946)

Earlier this week, I wondered what a fully mature and authentic British film industry might actually look like. For inspiration, I looked to the British cinema of the 1940s and found both good and evil.

One side of the dyad is represented by Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol, an immensely thought-provoking film about how children see the world and how that vision is subject to distortion by more-or-less well-intentioned adults.However, while the mature and authentic British film industry of the 1940s was capable of producing complex and challenging films like The Fallen Idol, it was also capable of producing films so wedded to the political establishment that hindsight reveals them to be almost indistinguishable from propaganda.

However, while it may be comforting to believe that a mature British film industry would happily churn out films of similar quality to The Fallen Idol, an authentic British film industry would almost certainly give voice to conservative and reactionary feelings that are just as much a part of the British cultural landscape as the desire to ask awkward questions and consider the perspectives of the powerless. While The Fallen Idol may embody everything I’d like to see from a mature British cinema, the opposite side of the dyad would be represented by  Basil Dearden’s The Captive Heart, an elegantly-structured and intelligently scripted film that just so happens to feel like the clarion call of a new British imperialism.

The film opens with footage of injured British soldiers marching through the French and German countrysides. These are the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force and they are destined to spend the rest of the War in a German POW camp. The film introduces us to a variety of different characters, provides them with back stories and then allows us to watch as the men come to terms with both their new situation and the demands placed upon them by their connections back home. As I say in my review, the effect is very reminiscent of the so-called Cosy Catastrophes that dominated British science-fiction in the aftermath of World War II:

Back in 1973, the British author and critic Brian Aldiss argued that British writers like John Wyndham had a nasty habit of depicting the end of the world as a cosy catastrophe in which survival demanded little in the way of hardship, sacrifice or philosophical re-orientation. The classic example of this style of science fiction story is Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids in that, after escaping a London full of man-eating plants, the protagonists settle into a Sussex mansion where tea is drunk, cake is made, and the class system endures. Though somewhat unfair to Wyndham, it is easy to see how the generation that survived World War II might have come to imagine the end of the world in terms of rose gardens turned into veg patches rather than rape, cannibalism and disease. To this day, popular British representations of World War II are far more likely to dwell on ration books and period kitchens than the experiences of men who spent their formative years dodging bullets and climbing over corpses.

The idea that ‘Englishness’ will endure the collapse of civilisation is absolutely central to The Captive Heart. Aside from the fact that all of the various sub-plots involve British people doing British things in a POW camp until they can get back to Britain and continue being British, the film’s primary plot-line involves a man falling in love with Englishness as he falls in love with an English woman:

(Michael) Redgrave’s Czech officer is something of an interstitial figure as his growing love for Mitchell’s widow is skilfully interwoven with a growing love for the English born of their many kindnesses. There’s even a montage of people playing cricket as a voice-over talks about fruit trees coming into bloom in the back garden. The reason The Captive Heart was released so soon after the end of World War II is that Ealing Studios began making it before the war had even ended. This means not only that the film was made without being touched by the realities of war but also that it was made with very little idea as to how England (or indeed Britain) might fit into a post-War Europe. Unsurprisingly, the film resonates with a distinctly imperial mind-set in that English values are shown to be not only eternal and immutable but also exportable to Eastern Europe where tales of English decency and sacrifice would doubtless fill the squares with people desperate to try their hand at cricket. Seen in this light, Michael Redgrave isn’t so much seduced into English as colonised by it.

If I am blurring the line between Englishness and Britishness then it is because the film makes exactly this mistake. Much like Laurence Olivier’s wartime Henry V, Englishness is parlayed into Britishness through the use of loyal Welsh and Scottish subalterns who hint at a broader conception of Britishness only to doff their caps to the English upper-classes.

The Captive Heart is a deeply conservative film and that conservatism is manifest in its abject failure to imagine a future that was not identical to the twenty-years between World War I and World War II. The Captive Heart cannot imagine a world in which Britain isn’t a global player or where Englishness is neither admired nor emulated. Nowadays, people often use the acronym “TINA” to refer to our failure to imagine a world other than that provided by neoliberalism but I think works like The Captive Heart and Day of the Triffids are examples of an older version of TINA whereby people simply could not imagine a world without cricket, empire and an all-encompassing class-system.

 

REVIEW — Stalag 17 (1953)

FilmJuice have my review of Billy Wilder’s misleading P.O.W. comedy Stalag 17. I say “misleading” as while the film was initially marketed as a tribute to America’s brave prisoners of war, the film’s depiction of life in a World War II prison camp is actually far from flattering.

Originally a hugely-successful Broadway play, Stalag 17 revolves around a group of American POWs who are trying to escape the camp. Using all of their initiative and sneakiness, the men dig tunnels, fashion civilian clothes and scout for weaknesses in German security only to wind up delivering their escapees into the waiting arms of German machine-gun fire. Shocked but reticent to engage in any form of concerted self-criticism, the group’s frustrations wind up being unleashed on William Holden’s Sefton, a cynical individualist who would rather profit from the group’s desires than aid in their fulfilment. What makes this film “misleading” is the fact that, rather than conforming to genre expectations and producing a film all about a bunch of POWs coming together to outwit the Germans, Wilder has produced a film that portrays American POWs as boorish, overbearing idiots. In fact, Sefton’s rugged individualist is quite obviously intended to be the film’s point-of-view character:

Stalag 17 is not exactly the easiest film to get into. In fact, the film is almost completely unwatchable for most of its opening hour. The problem is that the film ostensibly plays lip service to the idea of the Good War by presenting many of the POWs as happy-go-lucky scamps. Stalag 17 is often described as an iconic film as it was one of the first films about the Second World War to present the Germans as figures of fun rather than menace. Just as this vision of the Nazis as effeminate, strutting nincompoops would later inform British comedies like ‘Allo ‘Allo, the idea that prisoners of war could pull off elaborate schemes under the noses of their German captors would later inspire 168 episodes of the American sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. What makes the film very nearly unwatchable is the fact that virtually all of its jokes are embarrassingly unfunny: First we have the incessant torrent of anti-German comments that are really little more than crude xenophobic sniping dressed up as banter. Then we have about a dozen different jokes involving an over-weight man falling over and finally we have a scene in which hundreds of well-fed American POWs scream and gesture lewdly at a bunch of terrified female prisoners. This type of humour might well have passed muster amidst the jingoism and sexism of 1950s America but it actually makes the POWs come across as a bunch of boorish idiots… and therein lays the point.

My review places Stalag 17 in the broader context of Wilder’s career and his tendency to view American society in very cynical terms but it also occurs to me that films like Stalag 17 could very well mark the point at which war-time solidarity left the American cultural bloodstream, taking any and all faith in collective action with it. Sefton’s rugged individualism provides the film with its moral centre precisely because America was entering an age where it became the individual’s moral duty to look to their own advancement whilst questioning any and all conceptions of the public good that were not grounded in material largesse.

 

REVIEW – Jack Strong (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s historical espionage thriller Jack Strong, which is out in the UK on Monday. Set during the final decades of the Cold War, the film tells the story of a real-life Polish officer who came to realise that the Soviet Union would quite happily turn Poland into a radioactive wasteland if it meant protecting themselves from a Western invasion. Thus, rather than remaining loyal to his military command and working with the Soviets to defeat the West, he began sharing Polish and Soviet military secrets with the Americans in the hope of averting war. Aside from being a technically-accomplished thriller with bags of tension and some lovely set pieces, the film also goes out of its way to explore not only the historical context that informed the officer’s decision the spy for the Americans, it also spends quite a lot of time building up the characters in order to ensure that every act of betrayal has a personal edge:

The grit in the story also extends to the film’s treatment of Kuklinski’s home life as his teenaged son Bogdan comes to reject his family’s military heritage in order to embrace the kind of dissident political tendencies that would eventually result in the formation of the famous Solidarity movement. Bogdan is trapped between an intense love for his father and an intense hatred for the authoritarianism that his father’s job represents, this eventually leads him first to drink and then to drugs setting up some wonderful scenes in which Kuklinski is forced to confront his son about ideals that he secretly shares. In fact, one could easily read Bogdan as a manifestation of Kuklinski’s tortured conscience as well as the fear and self-disgust that grows within him as the film progresses.

Jack Strong reminded me of why I used to love spy films and why I no longer do. I have two main problems with the espionage genre:

Firstly, the number of spy films coming out of the English-speaking world seems to have increased exponentially since 9/11. Aside from successful franchises such as the Bond, Red and Mission Impossible films, we have ‘historical’ spy films such as Zero Dark Thirty, Fair Game and Argo as well as action-based spy films like Hanna, Haywire and Safe House.The popularity of espionage tropes is even blurring genre boundaries as TV procedurals such as Elementary and Sherlock seem to have gone out of their way to include espionage elements and that’s without mentioning the fact that superhero films and TV series make extensive use of espionage tropes in an effort to make their costumed antics seem more grounded and real. Espionage tropes are now so ubiquitous and over-exploited that their presence in a film or TV series often feels like an admission of intellectual bankruptcy.

Secondly, when espionage elements do turn up in contemporary films and TV series, they usually take the form of power fantasies.  ‘Power fantasy’ is often associated with texts in which a character is imbued with super-human powers giving them a degree of agency to which the audience could only ever aspire. A textbook example of this type of power fantasy is the scene in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in which the freshly-empowered Peter Parker beats and humiliates a high-school bully. However, while power fantasies are usually associated with agency-giving powers like flight or super-strength, they can also be associated with characters having the capacity to see the world in much simpler terms than people in the real world. Espionage thrillers often feature these types of knowledge fantasy in that they replace complex political issues with simple moral dichotomies in which it is relatively easy to know ‘right’ from ‘wrong’. In some cases, the knowledge fantasy even extends as far as having the evil-doers be instantly recognisable thanks to their physical characteristics and it is in this shared fantasy of recognition that the espionage and superhero genres meet.

What makes me uncomfortable about a lot of contemporary spy stories is the way that they apply these fantasies of knowledge to real-world political problems in an effort to make the film or TV series seem more ‘realistic’. The reason that real-world political problems prove intractable is that it is often almost completely impossible to determine which is the ‘right’ side of a particular issue. Taking real-world problems and reducing them down to simple moral dichotomies is not only supremely unrealistic, it is also intensely problematic as it means not only demonising the people who happen to be on the receiving end of popular fears, it also encourages the fear by suggesting that audiences are right to be terrified of particular groups. For example, one of the most egregiously right-wing TV series in recent memory is Homeland, a series that suggests Al Qaeda not only have the power to infiltrate the CIA but also to ‘turn’ American soldiers into double agents. Eager to continue feeding on popular fears, later series of Homeland appear to have switched from fantasising about an all-powerful Al Qaeda to fantasising about the supremely competent and ruthless Iranian intelligence services.

Jack Strong is just as much of a knowledge fantasy as any contemporary spy film as it not only assumes that the Soviet Union would have abandoned its satellite nations, it also glosses over the fact that America would almost certainly have proved equally reluctant to defend European cities with nuclear weapons if it meant endangering US cities. However, the fact that the film dealt with ‘historic’ issues rather than contemporary ones served to make its knowledge fantasies seem less grating and Pasikowski further attenuated the political elements of his story by stressing the human dimension not only of the character’s decision to become a traitor but also of his on-going attempts to remain hidden from people within his own government and military hierarchy. Jack Strong appealed to me because, unlike many spy films, it never forgets that complex political problems have their roots in complex political humans. Films that reduce real-world problems to simple moral dichotomies are nothing more than the latest generation of war-time propaganda.

 

REVIEW – Ender’s Game (2013)

endsgameVideovista has my review of Gavin Hood’s cinematic adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s sinister science fiction novel Ender’s Game.

Quite possibly the single most commercially successful science fiction novel of all time, Ender’s Game tells the story of a gifted child who is groomed, recruited and trained to become the military commander who will defend Earth against an imminent and unavoidable attack by a race of inscrutable ant-like aliens known as the Formics (the novel’s ambiguously homophobic term ‘buggers’ having been dropped from the film due to the negative press surrounding Card’s activities as an anti-LGBT spokesperson and activist). Having now watched the film and re-read the novel, I am struck by the fact that Ender’s Game sits rather uncomfortably between two different stools:

On the one hand, the story (originally published as a novella in Analog) is a throwback to the golden age of science fiction where genocidal space captains were not seen as particularly problematic characters. This aspect of the novel sits squarely in the foreground and is obvious from the fact that much of the novel’s enduring appeal lies in the fact that it is one enormous Geek power fantasy about a super-smart kid who beats the shit out of his bullies, gets all the cool friends and saves the day despite being misunderstood and persecuted.

On the other hand, the story is painfully aware of the literary turn of 1960s science fiction and so tries to reflect the fact that you can no longer get away with writing a novel about a genocidal space commander without acknowledging the fact that genocide is bad (Mm’kay?) and that characters need to be well-rounded individuals with internal conflicts to resolve. This aspect of the novel is evident not only in Ender’s undirected and largely uncritical angst but also in the way that the book tries to have its cake and eat it too by building towards a climactic battle only to then suggest that climactic battles aren’t necessarily a good idea.

The tension between these sets of literary values not only explains why the more recent Ender’s Shadow (a retelling of the book from the perspective of Ender’s psychopathic and entirely angst-free sidekick Bean) is a far superior novel, it also explains why Ender’s Game is such a deeply problematic work of fiction. Had Ender’s Game embraced its golden age roots and been about a heroic kiddy space captain then it would have been nothing more than your standard piece of reactionary escapist SF fluff and had Ender’s Game been about the morally problematic aspects of military service then it would have been a pretty good revisionist MilSF novel comparable to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. However, by trying to write within two politically incompatible literary traditions, Card effectively wound up creating a novel that emphasises all the worst aspects of traditional science fiction.

I don’t like the politics of Ender’s Game and I don’t like the politics of this film:

The problem is not that Ender’s Game is a power fantasy wrapped in a persecution complex and fired into the faces of unsuspecting children, the problem is that this film sends a message that the only rational and intelligent response to feelings of alienation, betrayal and confusion is to conform to the demands of the institutions that caused those negative feelings in the first place. Ender’s Game is not content with telling us that there is no alternative to a life of selfish brutality, it goes out of its way to present that life as sane, heroic and oh so very clever. Gavin Hood’s film is well made and elegant to look at, as beautiful as a $110 million advert for fascism could ever hope to be.

I’m not the first person to have this reaction:

  • Elaine Radford wrote an essay entitled “Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman” in which she points out a number of moral and biographical similarities between the two genocides.
  • John Kessel wrote an essay entitled “Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender’s Game, Intention and Morality” in which he points out the problematic nature of Card’s moral system.

But I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else point out that the book is not only fascistic but also incredibly derivative as it is essentially a re-skinning of Tom Godwin’s short story “The Cold Equations”. I outline the similarities between the two texts at some length in my review but the similarities are even more striking when you read the original “Ender’s Game” novelette, which was published in 1977 in the same magazine that originally published “The Cold Equations”.

PS Not long after uploading this, I came across a recent Cory Doctorow column from Locus magazine that essentially makes the exact same point about the artificiality of TINA and how Godwin creates a particular moral scenario and then expunges all blame and concepts of moral responsibility by willfully confusing the political laws governing the pilot’s society with the laws of nature. Given that it’s written by Cory Doctorow, the piece is significantly better written than mine and makes the connection I somehow missed with the concept of moral hazard:

The parameters of ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery so that the plague, the world, the fuel, the girl and the pilot are all poised to inevitably lead to her execution. The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.

It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder. An elaborate shell game that makes the poor pilot – and the company he serves – into victims every bit as much as the dead girl is a victim, forced by circumstance and girlish naïveté to stain their souls with murder.

Moral hazard is the economist’s term for a rule that encourages people to behave badly. For example, a rule that says that you’re not liable for your factory’s pollution if you don’t know about it encourages factory owners to totally ignore their effluent pipes – it turns willful ignorance into a profitable strategy.

He then goes on to talk about the moral horrors of a Robert Heinlein story and I am reminded, yet again of that author’s toxic influence on the history of science fiction.

REVIEW – Wings (1927)

WingsFilmJuice have my review of William A. Wellman’s Wings, the first ever film to win a Best Picture Academy Award.

Set during World War I, the film follows a pair of young men as they travel to France and earn reputations as fighter pilots. Initially antagonistic as a result of having fallen in love with the same aristocratic woman, the two men become friends until the madness of war consumes them both and one accidentally kills the other. As I explain in my review, I pretty much hated this film…

Wings is an absolutely terrible film: Despite having nearly two and a half hours in which to build characters and relationships, the writing fails to imbue the melodramatic plot with any real dramatic weight. For example, we are told that Jack and David hate each other before eventually becoming friends but nothing ever happens to either to stoke the fires of hatred or build a bridge of friendship. David never saves Jack, Jack never saves David and when Jack finally kills David it is done with absolutely zero pathos as the script fails to establish the idea that Jack might at one point have wanted to see David dead. The treatment of supporting characters is equally shoddy as a German-American airman is viciously bullied for comic effect while the women in the film are reduced to sex objects, plot devices, and guilt sponges in what the lead actress Clara Bow maintained was a misogynistic script even by the standards of 1920s Hollywood. Buttressed by inter-titles so ludicrously purple that they could have been lifted from a 1990s video game, the action scenes are surprisingly hit and miss given the vast resources thrown into producing them. Frequently little more than shots of military pilots flying in formation and pretending to crash, these scenes are a microcosm for the entire film as they are of little more than historical interest.

I think it says an awful lot about this film that its lead actress felt moved to complain about the sexism and the fact that her character was little more than a dollop of cream on top of the man-cake. However, the more I watched of this film, the more I came to realise its importance in determining which kinds of films were deserving of awards. As I explain in my review, this film was released in the same year as Metropolis and Sunrise and yet it feels almost childishly simplistic in comparison. Next time you wonder why it is that terrible films win Oscars while genuinely challenging and thought-provoking films are ignored, look no further than the crude sexism, jingoism and inflated budget of Wellman’s Wings.

Watching this film, I actually began to wonder whether one might argue that the American film industry owes as much to German emigres as its space programme – Without German scientists, there would be no Apollo; without German directors, there would be no Citizen Kane. Hmm.

Contrary to my editor’s suggestion, I gave this film an even-handed 3 out of 5 as I think the market for this Masters of Cinema release is most likely to be people with an interest in the history of American film and the unimaginative writing, poor visual story-telling and lazy bigotry of Wings actually reveal a surprising amount.

REVIEW – Winter of Discontent (2012)

Winter of DiscontentFilmJuice have my review of Ibrahim El Batout’s film about the Egyptian revolution Winter of Discontent.

Made in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak regime, Winter of Discontent follows a group of Egyptians as revolution changes their relationship with their government. Thus, one of the strands follows a TV presenter on a government network who is effectively forced out of her job for daring to ask awkward questions of politicians. Initially, this makes her incredibly fearful for her life but as events in Tahrir square unfold, we see her becoming increasingly bold and defiant before eventually switching sides and using Youtube to denounce the corrupt government. This story is beautifully juxtaposed with that of a secret policeman who moves from a position of absolute certainty in which he feels free to threaten and torture respectable citizens to a position where he owes his family’s safety to the forgiving nature of brutes with sticks.

Let me be clear, despite its shortcomings, I very much enjoyed Winter of Discontent and part of what made the film enjoyable was the fact that it was an incredibly middle-class film made by middle-class Egyptians about their experience of political upheaval. According to the filmmakers, this was a decidedly quiet revolution and that is something of a cinematic rarity:

Sergei Eisenstein’s immortal Battleship Potemkin begins with sailors eating maggoty food and ends with many of those exact same sailors cheering the revolution as their fellows decide to join them in open revolt against the Tsarist regime. Ken Loach’s magnificent ode to the Spanish Civil War Land and Freedom contains oodles of dead fascists and Spanish peasants finally getting a say in how to work their own fields but it ends with the granddaughter of a dead veteran giving a sad but defiant raised fist salute. These cinematic accounts of real-world revolutions may be brilliant, maudlin, triumphalist and manipulative but one thing they are not is quiet. By this measure alone, Ibrahim El Batout’s Winter of Discontent is something entirely unique: a quiet film about revolution.

Watching this film made me reflect on Western attitudes to revolution as I feel most people’s aversion to the idea of overthrowing their government stems from the fact that they are afraid of what might happen to them. This fear is perfectly captured in Marjane Sattrapi and Vincent’s Paronnaud’s Persepolis where a liberal middle-class family wind up being judged and mistreated by uneducated working class people who have been placed in positions of authority by the new regime. One of the fascinating things about Winter of Discontent is that it is entirely free from this sort of class-bound paranoia… the characters sense that something is wrong and face down brutal oppression in order to speak out but while one of the characters is a bit mistrustful of his uneducated upstairs neighbours, his feelings of solidarity quickly overwhelm any misgivings he might have had about the great unwashed. A more romantic and — dare I say it? — politically engaged director might have made a good deal more of that moment of solidarity but El Batout handles it with a quiet restraint that is actually quite refreshing.