Bit late uploading this but FilmJuice have my review of Waris Hussein’s thoroughly excellent and recently re-released British drama Melody (also known as S.W.A.L.K.)
Set in 1970s East London, Melody begins by introducing the resolutely introverted and middle-class Danny to a working-class community that his shit-munching parents are hoping to gentrify. Initially alienated from his class-mates, Danny soon manages to establish a friendship with a local lad whose home life is so horrifying that you never actually see it on screen. Made in the great tradition of British post-War social realism, Melody explores not only the dynamics of gentrification and middle-class ‘concern’ for the lower orders but also the ways in which proximity and cooperation can work to establish solidarity between people from ostensibly very different backgrounds. Filled with these lovely scenes in which the camera runs and runs as kids go about their normal daily lives, the film soon transitions into an utterly charming and genuinely moving love story between Danny and a little girl called Melody:
Despite being set in a recognisably socialist universe in which social class shapes both your identity and your hopes for the future, Melody is a deeply romantic film that wants to believe in the absolute power of love to remake the world. At first, these two thematic strands appear to be in conflict as nobody but Danny (and later Melody) believe that they should be in love or want to get married. However, as the film reaches its conclusion, opinions begin to shift as kids rally to the couple’s cause and set about creating a world of their own. In a move that recalls the ending to both Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Melody ends with the protagonists running away from a world that they can’t escape… because sometimes all you need for happiness is a bit of breathing room. As Ornshaw says, “Don’t forget to change at Clapham Junction!”
Interestingly, the weakest element of this film is probably the soundtrack that inspired its makings. Dominated by profoundly not-famous tunes by the BeeGees, it feels way too folky and blandly up-beat for a film with the urban setting and realistic tone of a film like Melody. This being said, Melody is a thoroughly excellent film from an era when the British film industry was still interested in making films that spoke directly to the experiences of British people.
This week sees the home release of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, his first film since 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive (which I adored). Unlike most of Jarmusch’s recent films, Paterson comes without the sugar-frosting of genre tropes. No vampires, no spies, no cowboys, and no assassins. Just a dude who writes poetry and drives a city bus. My FilmJuice review can be found over here.
There are many paths into an evocative film like Paterson but the one that caught my attention was the relationship between the poet who exists in an oppressively repetitive world where he is just happy to be a normal guy and the wife who spends her days trying to perform the identity of an artist only to have her true calling almost creep up on her. It would have been easy for Jarmusch to unpack this tension in moral terms and so take a swipe at the culture of public performance created by social media but the view he adopts is actually far more nuanced in that it supports the poet who keeps beauty locked up inside his own head as well as the people who feel the need to ‘fake it till they make it’ creatively.
Like many of Jarmusch’s more memorable films, Paterson is episodic, urban and filled with a wry melancholy over the isolation and strangeness of normal lives but Paterson uses those themes to explore the creative process as it plays out in the lives of normal people.
Paterson is a beautifully conceived, beautifully shot, and beautifully acted film that serves as a reminder of how sensitive and humane Jarmusch can be when he isn’t forcing the round peg of his vision into the square holes of popular culture. It is also an interesting piece of cinematic business as while the age of austerity is forever turning the screws and forcing works of art further and further outside of the cultural mainstream, Jim Jarmusch managed to convince Amazon.com to help distribute a $5 Million film about a bus driver who writes poetry.
My first review of the year is of a film that is as intriguing as it is flawed and problematic. First released in 1992, Regis Wargnier’s Indochine can only be described as a piece of post-colonial Oscar-bait.
The “post-colonial” bit refers to the fact that Wargnier’s film followed the example set by David Lean’s A Passage to India and used France’s colonial history as an excuse to make a beautiful and nostalgic film about an exotic foreign land. Wargnier’s producers knew full well that nostalgic prestige productions tend to do disproportionately well at the Oscars and so Indochine was always a cynical exercise in bringing home the gold. Hence the term “post-colonial Oscarbait”.
However, while the idea of white people from former colonial powers making films about former colonies is always going to be problematic, I think that Indochine deserve some credit for not only siding with the oppressed but also presenting colonialism as a system that was both monstrous and politically unsustainable. My FilmJuice piece about the film can be found here:
Indochine is a beautifully made and well-performed film that handles a difficult subject in both a progressive and sympathetic manner. However, while the film’s production values and ambitions may scream quality, there is no escaping the fact that this was a film about colonialism made by white people for the consumption of other white people. The writers and director do try their best to get beyond this limitation but the decision to use the Vietnamese characters thematically rather than narratively means that the film retains a cool, detached, and ultimately frustrating viewpoint that denies its subjects agency when it should be seeking to understand their actions.
Re-reading my review, it strikes me that Indochine exemplifies many of the problems presented by cultural appropriation. Though many of the film’s narrative problems do stem from a decision to focus on the white characters rather than the Vietnamese characters, having a bunch of French people tell a story about Vietnamese people struggling to defeat French colonialism would arguably have been just as bad.
FilmJuice have my review of Francois Truffaut’s thoroughly excellent Day for Night, also known as Nuit Americaine in reference to the practice of recreating night on-screen by shifting the white balance and deliberately under-exposing the shot.
Despite not having seen this film in about twenty years, Day for Night was absolutely central to my discovery of art house film. I first discovered a love of film while my parents were getting divorced as my mother would take me to the video store and allow me to rent as many films as I wanted, regardless of their age-appropriateness. I took my love of film to the next level as a teenager when my GCSE English teacher started showing us films in an effort to make us think critically about texts. I rather enjoyed the process and so started going out of my way to rent unusual films and one of the films I stumbled upon quite early on was Day for Night, a film whose true brilliance I really only understand now that I’m able to spot all the jokes and references…
Day for Night is a film about film-making or rather the process of film production and how films are assembled by a combination of authorial vision, individual incompetence, collective brilliance and blind fucking luck:
Throughout the film, characters frequently ask themselves why they have chosen to work in the film industry and whether cinema can ever be more than a job and a way of making money. Though never addressed directly either in the plot or dialogue, Day for Night must be viewed as an answer to both of those questions as the film can be read as a picture of what Marxists refer to as non-alienated labour, which is to say work that offers spiritual and psychological succour as well as financial remuneration. Imagine a job that does more than just fill the pockets of wealthier people. Imagine a job that defines you as an individual and provides you both with a sense of purpose and a tangible connection to the people that surround you. Imagine a job that you look forward to doing because it tells you who you are, where you came from, and where you are headed tomorrow. Imagine a job that makes both yourself and the world a better place and you will understand how François Truffaut felt about being a filmmaker.
The film is full of lovely moments and great performances but the really famous bit is a montage sequence when everything on a seemingly disastrous and doomed production suddenly slots into place and — as Truffaut famously put it — cinema reigns:
FilmJuice have my review of Gerard Oury’s La Grande Vadrouille. Which, despite being one of the most insanely popular French films of all time, remains largely unappreciated by English-speaking audiences.
Set during World War II, the film involves a pair of bumbling Frenchmen being sucked into the resistance movement and deciding to help three allied Airmen escape into unoccupied France. As I explain in my review, this image of ordinary French people as ‘citoyens resistants’ was part of a concerted effort to re-write history by replacing the truth about French collaboration with a myth that restored pride to the French military, honour to the French political class, and self-respect to ordinary French citizens:
Though challenged in the wake of the May ‘68 riots through films such as Marcel Ophuls’ epic documentary The Sorrow and The Pity, the myth remains very much a part of contemporary French identity. The memories of occupation still hurt, the taint of collaboration is still present, and even though the generation of Frenchmen who fought the Second World War is now dying off, the need of the French people to protect themselves from the darker recesses of their shared history is still very much alive. It is kept alive by comforting and wonderful films like La Grande Vadrouille.
The question of French collaboration and the policies of the Vichy regime has been one of my favourite historical riffs since I first saw The Sorrow and The Pity. One of the strange things about having spent my entire Childhood in a French school is that I grew up with a very clear myth of Frenchness that stretched from the caves right up to the figure of the citizen resistance fighter. The Sorrow and the Pity really helped me to see beyond that propaganda and considerably darkened my vision of humanity.
This being said, it occurs to me that something really needs to be done about the British equivalent of the ‘Citoyen Resistant’ myth as British politics is shifting further and further to the right and this move to the right is being at least partially fuelled by this myth of Britain as a plucky little nation that managed to survive on its own outside of Europe. Indeed, one of the things I really like about the British TV series Peaky Blinders is that it portrays 1920s Britain as an ethnically diverse and deeply multicultural place where the Establishment either murdered its opponents or plied them with money in an effort to bring them into line. At a time when people like Winston Churchill are being lionised by fascist revanchistes, Peaky Blinders dares to present him as nothing more than an Edwardian supervillain.
Over the past few weeks I have been working my way through the entirety of Andrei Tarkovsky’s back catalogue. While some of those films were new to me and others were old favourites, each new encounter gave me the opportunity to write at length about the work of a film-maker I had long adored but been reluctant to engage with in a critical fashion. I sometimes find it quite difficult to engage with work I genuinely love as I am always a bit worried that my attempt to ‘read’ a film will tie me to that reading in future and cause me to forget all of those little moments and gestures that do not fit within the confines of a single read. In this respect, my voyage through Tarkovsky has been nothing short of transformative as I have come to realise that great works like Stalker and Nostalgia cannot help but inspire fresh readings every time you watch them.
This voyage concludes with my review of The Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film. The film tells the story of Alexander, a famous theatre director who retired to rural Sweden in order to pursue a critical vocation. The film follows Alexander and his family as they try to make sense of what would appear to be a nuclear catastrophe happening right on their doorstep. While I did not enjoy The Sacrifice as much as I enjoyed either Stalker or Nostalgia, I was intrigued by the suggestion that Tarkovsky may have been on the verge of adopting an entirely new (and arguably more conventional) aesthetic:
One of the interesting things about The Sacrifice is that it seems to begin where most Tarkovsky films end. Indeed, films like Stalker, Solaris, and Nostalgia all devote the majority of their running times to the construction of these vast symbolic systems only for these systems to collapse and leave the film’s protagonist trapped alone in a world that has been stripped of all spiritual meaning. The Sacrifice begins at the point at which most Tarkovsky films end in that Alexander begins the film having realised that culture, religion, and philosophy are all a meaningless waste of time. In effect, the film’s night of nuclear terror can be seen as an attempt to expand one of those great Tarkovskyian concluding shots and explore the full psychological impact of finding yourself trapped in a world that is overflowing with evocative images but devoid of any and all spiritual truth.
Watching all of Tarkovsky’s films also put me in mind of an old In Our Time podcast about Christopher Marlowe. The discussion ranges back and forth across the usual Marlowe talking points before coming to rest on the question of how he compares to Shakespeare and whether our impression of Marlowe is inflated by the fact that he died both prematurely and at the peak of his powers. One of the academics argues that Marlowe was a lesser writer than Shakespeare because he never tried his hands at comedy but I must admit that to preferring Marlowe precisely because he never turned out anything as horrifyingly smug and unfunny as Much Ado About Nothing.
Tarkovsky is as close as art house film gets to a Shakespeare but he died like a Marlowe on the verge of becoming something different. The Sacrifice introduced a three act structure, characters, and substantial dialogue but without really adding very much to the ideas and aesthetics that Tarkovsky had already developed over the course of his six earlier films. Tarkovsky died prematurely at the age of 54 but The Sacrifice did leave me wondering whether he might — like Kit Marlowe — have died well for the purposes of posterity.
I conclude my canter through the generally excellent Almodovar Collection box set with a look at his 1995 film Flower of my Secret, the FilmJuice review of which can be found over here.
Before I move onto my usual commenting around the review, I’d like to take a couple of minutes to dwell on the Almodovar Collection itself. When proper critics review collections, they usually take the time to address not just the works the collection contains but also the collection as a cultural artefact in and of itself. I feel that the history of home media releasing means that we appear to have by-passed this stage completely and now appear to be teetering on the brink of an age where directors’ entire back catalogues are simply available as part of a subscription model.
The Almodovar Collection is an interesting box set as it has appeared recently enough that we can avoid leaping to the conclusion that the contents of the collection is the product of rights issues. Too many directorial box sets are presented as being critically neutral, making it rather difficult to get a read off the company’s choice of films and so work backwards towards a particular critical viewpoint with which it might be possible to engage critically. Indeed, one of the things I really enjoyed about working my way through the Almodovar Collection was the sense of a critical intelligence at work in the wings. The collection begins with Almodovar’s ensemble melodramas, drifts towards his unsuccessful attempts to break with those narrative structures and concludes with one of his strongest films, a work that manages to be as emotionally complex and morally serious as the director’s earlier works whilst also demonstrating all the ways in which his direction had improved and shifted with the passage of time. The Almodovar Collection could have showcased Almodovar as a queer film maker with a love of camp and provocation but instead it chose to show him as a great maker of women’s films in the great art house tradition that began with Douglas Sirk, passed to Rainer Werner Fassbender and currently exerts a pressure on the works of Francois Ozon:
“While it is often observed that Almodóvar writes very well for women, the desire to market him as a queer filmmaker who produces joyfully camp and transgressive comedies serves to obscure the roots of his talent. If we consider the history of art house film, we can trace a straight line from François Ozon to Douglas Sirk via the work of both Pedro Almodóvar and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. That line is evident not only from the later directors’ fondness for musical numbers and transgressive silliness but also for their willingness to psychologically complex and morally serious films around the figure of the strong-but-vulnerable woman. This filmmaking tradition is as old as the Hollywood hills but it pivots around Sirk as Sirk was a director who, despite making films for women and about women, would often use his female protagonists and commercially-successful story forms to critique American society with particular attention to the injustices surrounding both gender and sexuality. Flower of my Secret finds Almodóvar at his most powerful and insightful; it is a brilliant film in the grand tradition of Sirkian melodrama as well as the much-lamented and under-appreciated genre known as Women’s Films.”
Watching The Almodovar Collection made me yearn for a box set of Women’s Films. The weird thing about Woman’s Film is that while the genre is now seldom spoken of, most of its great works are still in circulation and relatively easy to get hold of. It’s just that rather than having a proper Woman’s Film box set with specialist commentaries and video essays explaining the importance of the genre and how it fit into the Hollywood system from the silent era all the way to the 1960s. You can buy a Douglas Sirk box set, you can buy the films of D.W. Griffith, George Cukor, Josef von Sternberg and Max Ophuls.You can find women’s films in film noir box sets. You can even buy Joan Crawford and Bettie Davis box sets. But there are no commercially-available box sets exploring the Woman’s Film genre and I think that’s a terrible shame.
Anyway, The Flower of My Secret is one of the better films in the Almodovar collection as it plays entirely to Almodovar’s strengths and contains some scenes of dazzling emotional complexity and genuine psychological anguish. The scene in which Leo diminishes and retreats from Madrid in order to become a little old lady who spends her days weaving and gossiping is endlessly wonderful and even a little close to home. Ahem.