Category Archives: Uncategorized

La Pointe Courte (Agnès Varda, France, 1955)

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A young couple played Phillipe Noiret and Sylvia Monfort arrive from Paris to mend their relationship. He’s a native of the Pointe Courte, the place where fishermen live and work in Sète, in the South of France, where the film is set. He´s arrived first and has gone to the train station for the past five days in the hope that she´ll arrived so he can show her where he´s from.  She’s a Parisian and has come to break up with him after four years of marriage.

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La Pointe Courte is his home and he hopes that by getting to know it she´ll come to understand him better. And the film is as much about the place and its people as it is about the couple. We see they’re fishermen, at odds with the authorities about fishing in a lagoon, getting around the rules and paying the price for it when they get caught. We get to see a whole way of life, eating, working, mending, the men’s jousts and the women’s work too. Varda has an eye for the details of hanging up the washing, mending the socks.

The place is beautiful but harsh too, the work is hard, the room families live in are mean and cramped; a child dies, one sees a dead cat buffeted by the waves, near the end a child pleads with its parents to not drown all the cats and at least let one live. Varda has an eye for that which is beautiful, striking, notable. and if it´s not there for her to capture she makes it so through the ways she composes the images in the frame. One can see this film as a silent film and still enjoy it. Alain Resnais did the editing and he overlaps dialogue with images, poetic ones, that powerfully evoke place and a way of life.

The central couple are filmed as if in a Bergman film (though this is before Bergman made these types of shots famous in films like Persona), their faces forming ninety degree angles, his looking at her, she looking at the horizon, then vice-verca; everything overly ‘arty’ as they endlessly discuss their relationship, each other, the differences between how they love their love and how they love the other, insisting that it’s not the same thing.

Their love story is counterpoised with that of a young couple whose relationship is first forbidden by the girl’s father and finally permitted to be, partly because of his skill at jousting, by the girl’s cantankerous father. Phillippe Noiret is very young and in some shots almost handsome as the young native of the town who’s escaped this life he loves and moved to Paris. A film that is beautiful to see and beautiful to hear, with light regional songs edited to the gentle rhythms of a way of life. There’s a pragmatic kindness in evoking the every day and making it significant, in the making of  poetry out of poor people´s quotidian life. It´s a lovely film.

In Les plages d’Agnès (1988), Varda re-visits La pointe courte and has this to say about what inspired the film’s structure:

..and this on some visual influences:

 

In José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 141 – The Passionate Friends

We visit 1949’s romantic drama The Passionate Friends, a favourite of previous podcast guest Celia, who describes it as “what would have happened if they’d had the affair in Brief Encounter“. It offers a complex story of love and relationships, characters who want different things from their relationships and a love triangle that gradually shifts and changes over many years. Mary (Ann Todd) loves Steven (Trevor Howard), but refuses to marry him, wanting to belong only to herself, as she puts it; instead, she marries Howard (Claude Rains), a successful banker who gives her security, stability, social status and affection. Dramatic irony, shifting affections and a sensitivity to the subtleties of love and relationships create a fascinating and beautiful film.

There’s a lot to discuss, including and especially the unconventional Howard – in any other film he would be an obstacle to the romantic couple’s true love, but here, although he has villainous aspects, he is revealed to be as three dimensional a character and as deserving of respect and a happy ending as anybody else. It’s the part he plays in the film’s conclusion that makes Mike cry. We also talk about David Lean’s direction, his use of visual layering, considered staging and occasional flourishes of editing emphasising the characters’ emotional states and calmly and smartly conveying to the audience the right information at the right time.

It’s not held in the esteem that Brief Encounter, a film with obvious parallels in many ways, is, and that’s unfortunate, as it is deeply felt and quite beautiful. It appears to only be available on Blu-Ray in France (that’s where Mike’s copy had to come from, at any rate), but its loving restoration is worth seeking out.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

A Conversation with Ken Monteith

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A conversation with Ken Monteith, Executive director of Cocq-Sida (Coalition des Organismes Communautaires Québécois de Lutte contre le SIDA), on HIV-AIDS Activism, the Denver Principles, the Swiss Statement, how activism changed the ways science is done, the different eras of HIV treatment, and on how AIDS can be eradicated if the Global Fund is properly funded. Throughout the importance of the message, Undetectable= Untransmittable, is underlined and re-iterated. Ken also runs a superb blog in which personal and political issues, not always on HIV/AIDS, intersect. It can be accessed here: talktothehump.blogspot.com/

The conversation can be listened to on the player above. One of the most interesting parts of it is how Ken distinguishes different eras by the message one received alongside the diagnosis: Until ´96, one was told the diagnosis was a death sentence and the work of HIV/AIDS organisations was to push for research and treatment, and to accompany people to ensure a little dignity at the end of their lives.

From 96, you were told you´re going to live. You have a complicated medical regime to follow but you must do it. A lot of awful things happened at that time. Long-term side-effects of which lipodystrophy is but an example.  The reaction of the medical community at the time was not very sympathetic: ´’Yes, it´s tough.  But it’s working, you’re alive’.   Today there’s usually an alternative. And that’s amazing. In developing countries, however, resources are scarce.

The Third Era can be dated to 2008, with retrospective study of a lot of other studies in Switzerland, The Swiss Statement, which demonstrated that a person whose viral load is controlled does not transmit HIV.  Public Health Authorities squelched that message by saying we’re not ready to say that yet. And the circulation of the message of The Swiss Statement is a marker of how effective AIDS activism can be: The Prevention Access Campaign in New York came up with U=U. Undetectable=Untransmittable.  As long as we control our virus we’re not going to transmit it to anyone else. And that knowledge changes a life.

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Ken is 59, I´m 57. Everyone of our generation had their lives transformed by HJIV/AIDS, certainly in Montreal, where we both lived, either by becoming infected ourselves or by having so many of our loved ones suffer through that process of rejection, exclusion, lack of treatment and lack of care; the fear the virus engendered in those years. The image below is of myself with Ken last year in Paris, where I had the privilege of joining him in a commemoration of fallen loved ones which Ken has made a personal ritual whenever he´s in Paris.

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José Arroyo

Benjamin Britten/Peter Pears

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I endorse the following letter from Ben Baglio. Please circulate if it is something you also can get behind:

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It has recently been announced that the Britten-Pears Foundation, which comprises the estate of the composer Benjamin Britten and his lifelong partner, the singer Peter Pears, is going to merge with Snape Maltings, which comprises Snape Maltings Concert Hall, the Aldeburgh Festival, and the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. The new organisation is to be renamed The Benjamin Britten Foundation, thus excising Peter Pears’ name from the title.
Britten and Pears were a couple from 1939 to Britten’s death in 1976. They lived together for decades before homosexuality was partially decriminalised in 1967. Britten composed numerous song cycles for Pears, and all of his many operas were written with Peter Pears’ unique voice in mind; Pears originated the title role of Peter Grimes, Britten’s first international operatic success, Captain Vere in Billy Budd, and Aschenbach in Death in Venice, Britten’s most overtly gay opera. Britten and Pears founded the Aldeburgh Festival with Eric Crozier in 1948, they developed the Snape Maltings Concert Hall together in one of the first examples of repurposing former industrial buildings, toured the world as singer and accompanist, and set up home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk and played host to artists and musicians of international stature. Their final residence, The Red House, is today a museum open to the public and contains the Britten-Pears Library, their extensive archives, and the large collection of artwork Peter Pears acquired during his lifetime (1910-1986). At Britten’s death in 1976, Queen Elizabeth II, who had befriended the couple, wrote to Peter Pears to express her condolences, in much the same way she would have written to a prominent straight couple that had suffered a bereavement. Britten and Pears are buried side by side with matching headstones in the Aldeburgh churchyard.
Both Snape Maltings and the Britten-Pears Foundation have in latter years been very supportive of LGBTQ activities. The London Gay Men’s Chorus performed at the concert hall at Snape in 2017, and the BPF organised a full reading of the Wolfenden Report as part of its 50th anniversary commemoration of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, as well as mounting an exhibition on Britten and Pears’ life together.
It is perhaps in light of the support shown to the LGBTQ community that the decision to drop Pears’ name from the new organisation is most concerning. Renaming the new organisation ‘The Benjamin Britten Foundation’ seems to sidestep the issue of Britten’s homosexuality altogether. And while ‘straightwashing’  is not the intended purpose of the rebranding, in effect the new name consigns Peter Pears to the status of an associate of Britten and denies his central role not only in Britten’s life and works, but in the work they did side by side. It seems a regressive step, and certainly one that would have horrified Britten, who viewed Pears as his muse and companion.
The following quotes give some indication of the depth of feeling between the two men:
“….I do love you so terribly, & not only glorious you, but your singing….What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for?
….But, I love you, I love you, I love you _ _ _”
Britten to Pears. 17 November 1974
“….it is you who have given me everything, right from the beginning,….I am here as your mouthpiece and live through your music – And I can never be thankful enough to you and to Fate for all the heavenly joy we have had together for 35 years. My darling, I love you P.”
Pears to Britten. 21 November 1974
There is still time to challenge this decision and to encourage the merged organisation to find a name which continues to celebrate this unique and historic partnership. Could you perhaps either do a news feature on this and encourage readers to write to Roger Wright, Chief Executive, Snape Maltings and Sarah Bardwell, Chief Executive, Britten-Pears Foundation. (I can provide contact details and further background if you would like.)
Thank you.
Ben Baglio

José Arroyo in Conversation with Samuel Larson Guerra

 

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An interview with Samuel Larson Guerra, distinguished sound designer (a term he hates), author of one of the few books in Spanish on sound in the cinema, ´Pensar el sonido (Thinking Sound)´, award winning sound designer (Ariel award for Fibra Optica in 1998), editor (Diosa de Plata award for best editing for Dos Abrazos, 2007), composer (Ariel for best original music for Vera, 2008), and an award-winning teacher (CILECT teaching prize from the Asosiación Internacional de Escuelas de Cine y Televisión). Larson is a member of the Academia Mexicana de Artes y Ciencias Cinematogáficas (AMACC, the Mexican equivalent of the American Motion Picture Academy  of Arts and Sciences that hands out the Oscars) since 2008. He also composed the music that leads in and out of the podcast.

In terms of sound quality this is one of the worst interviews I´ve ever recorded: Ironic and embarrassing when its subject has devoted much of his life to thinking about sound. However, the conversation is so interesting that I decided to go ahead and put it out, particularly when Jose Homer Mora Costa kindly offered to clean up the sound. He was successful in eliminating the worst offences though it´s still not ideal. The conversation with Samuel Larson ranges from the beginnings of EICTV, film culture in Mexico; the influence of Michel Fano and Walter Murch, both of whom his studied with, on his work, his filmmaking in Mexico and Central America, the effects of changing technologies on sound capture, mixing and design, the changing importance of sound within Mexican film culture and institutions, and finally his own book.

 

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The conversation can be listened to here:

 

 

 

 

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José Arroyo in conversation with Julia Scrive-Loyer

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Julia Scrive-Loyer is a young filmmaker, publisher and critic from Bordeaux who graduated from the EICTV film school in Cuba and currently resides in the Dominican Republic. I´ve been wanting to talk to Julia ever since I saw her beautiful new magazine, Simulacro. Its first issues is entirely devoted to the recently deceased Stanley Donen and it´s a joy to behold. Those of you who can´t speak Spanish won´t be able to read it, though its visual beauty will be evident to all. You can see it here.

If you understand English, however, you will be able to follow this conversation, which ranges from an earlier zine she published called Les oranges bleues, to ways that a younger generation is struggling to articulate and express the intersection of individual and social concerns; to the tensions inherent in balancing originality and sincerity. We do talk about Donen´s work: how Charade (1963) has a perfect script, how Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) couldn´t be made today; the infinite number of delights Funny Face (1957) offers, and the generosity inherent in those who focus their energies on transparently conveying what utopia would feel like and inciting joy.

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Like with the very best conversations, one is surprised by the unexpected and memorable anecdote —  here relating to a workshop with Abbas Kiorastami — and one also learns: in talking about her love of cowboys and westerns, Julia tells me how a cowboy is constantly moving through landscape and how that movement is an emotional one. Nostalgia also comes from movement: if you don´t leave somewhere, even mentally, there´s no nostalgia and there´s no longing. A cowboy is movement in every way. A cowboy´s companions are the wind and the horse. I´ve been teaching for a long time, and Julia expresses this better and with more feeling than I´m able to muster. The podcast can be listed to here:

 

The first of a series of conversations with young artists and intellectuals from Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

José Arroyo

Juanjo Cid: The Making of a Queer Activist

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Juanjo Cid is an activist and filmmaker from the Dominican Republic. I first met him at the EICTV Film School in Cuba, the year there was a great gay carnival, a mini-pride parade in the courtyard of the school with rainbow flags, and drag, a bonfire and lots of music and dancing. The whole school joined in the celebrations. It was a joyful event which seemed amazing to me in Cuba, even if it did take place in the protected socio-cultural bubble that is the school.

Gay Pride in EICTV
Gay Pride in EICTV

I´ve been wanting to talk to Juanjo since I reconnected with him in the Dominican Republic last year. He´s at the centre of an intersection of art-making, night-clubbing and activism that is so interesting to me because it´s so archetypal of queer cultures world-wide. This is the first of a series of a series of excerpts of a very long conversation which took place in his home and which I will publish as different podcasts.

In this first one I wanted to know what constitutes gay activism in a poor country that, despite a recent burst of prosperity, is still ridden by poverty, inequality, corruption; one in which the Catholic Church still enjoys considerable power, and one in which an increasingly popular and very homophobic evangelical church is gaining in influence. Juanjo gives a thoughtful, articulate, and highly entertaining account of what drove him into queer activism ten years ago and why he continues to be involved today in organisations such as IURA (Individuales Unidos por Respeto y Armonía/ Individuals United for Respect and Harmony)

Juanjo´s account in this particular podcast should be of particular interest to those of you who are currently queer activists elsewhere or are working for NGO´s and International Agencies: ‘International Aid is amazing. Thank You!

The podcast can be listened to here:

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 140 – Fighting with My Family

A young girl from a tight-knit family in Norwich gets a shot at her dream, joining the WWE, the glamorous home of professional wrestling. Parental pride, sibling rivalry, and a lot of hard work ensues, as do great performances generating a lot of laughs. We’re not that keen on some of the clichés – very little happens that you wouldn’t expect, and some of the scenes take a long time to get there – but we like the male-female rivalry, the way Vince Vaughn and Nick Frost light up the screen, and of course, the fact that a big promotional corporate movie for Americans starts off in a tiny living room in Norwich.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

 

Guest starring in Fantasy/Animation on Coco

 

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The latest episode of the Fantasy/Animation podcast on Coco is also our first crossover instalment. Many thanks to Christopher Holliday and Alex Sergeant for including Michael Glass and myself. Coco´s great and this was great fun to do:

You can follow the link below:

https://www.fantasy-animation.org/podcasts/2019/3/11/episode-16-coco-lee-unkrich-2017

José Arroyo

Las Islas Marias (Emilio Fernández, Mexico, 1951)

A film that’s excessively melodramatic, choppy and incomplete, with strands of plot that get lost and don’t quite make sense; a film that’s nonetheless arresting to look at, engaging, and ultimately moving in spite of all the clichés. It´s an Emilio Fernández film, photographed by Gabriel Figueroa: melancholy and pure, mired in fatalism but with a path to redemption embedded in the very beauty of the shots, compositions and the people at the centre of it.

The plot is one cliché after another: A widow (Rosauro Revueltas) has struggled to bring up her three children properly and against all odds. But she´s not quite succeeded: Her daughter Alejandra (Esther Luquin) is running around wild with men she shouldn´t; Her eldest  son, Felipe (Pedro Infante), is drowning his sorrows with sad songs and alcohol. Luckily for her, the day before her house gets repossessed, she´s hosting a party for her other son, Ricardo (Jaime Fernández), the good one, perfect in every way, upstanding, honourable. But that night, Alejandra kills a man. Ricardo takes the blame but kills himself to preserve is honour as a military man, and thus Felipe then takes the blame so that his brother can die with his name untarnished.

As you can see in the clip above, the film is unabashedly melodramatic, throwing every cliché in the book at a story which needs all the help it can get: note the music, the angles, the cutting, all throbbing life and feeling at a plot point so cornball only a Dickens or this kind of treatment can bring to life. As  soon as the mother says, ´Our house is in trouble but thank God all my children are around me´´, the police knock on the door, and soon the house will be lost, one son will be dead, the other in prison, the daughter walking the streets and she herself reduced to working in a factory for subsistence living and soon to go blind. When misery descends there´s no escape.

 

If the story is a cliché, what the film wrings out of it isn´t. There are moments where sadness and pain are conveyed plainly in moments of spectacle that take us out of the plot and into pure feeling as here when Pedro Infante is introduced to us as Felipe, plaintively singing his sorrows through the lyric of ‘El cobarde/ The Coward’:

 

As the title of the film indicates, a major attraction is the setting, the penal colony of the Islas Marias. Once the pride of the government, beautiful, ostensibly ‘escape proof’, but infamous for its violence, disease and forced labour. The film depicts the beauty and the harshness of the island, the work, the incarceration in arresting, beautifully composed and balanced images (see a selection below).

 

 

 

Las Islas Marias is where the great Pedro Infante as Felipe goes to redeem himself. The film encases the characters in an ideology very dear to fascists regimes: characters speak of honour, duty, obligations, responsibility, who the head of the family is and what his —  it´s always a he — obligations are. The family runs through the film, prison is at the centre of it and it all ends in church. This is a film that structures all those tropes, so easily rendered reactionary, as prison bars throughout the film. But pierces them with something darker, sadder: a kind of pain that punctures all the certainties, howls through them and risks shattering them…but not quite.

At the heart of the film is this lovely exchange between Felipe and an older and wiser prisoner. There´s talk of a planned escape. Of how Felipe will be coerced into joining it through taunts of courage and manhood. But as the old man says, ´Where we have to escape is not from the Islas Marias but from ourselves. And that is so difficult. …Why does one get desperate? Because of lack of freedom? Liberty is like those herbs from the hills that cure everything and cure nothing. The best thing is not to want to leave where one is, not to want anything. Understand. If you want nothing, you can live in peace´.

To want nothing is a sadness the film understands. But the film doesn´t relegate Felipe to an eternal stare into the abyss. If he was a coward who cried for love at the beginning. he finds the courage to claim another love, pure and simple, like the life he´s willing to accept and has now earned. The film ends with him finding his mother, now a blind beggar, in a church. But he´s got a wife and a baby. The film has previously shown us the sister walking the streets but fails to bring her back into the family, indeed she´s blamed for all the harm she´s caused, if only by structurally absenting her from the final sacred reunion.

The ending is as trite and clichéd as the beginning. But plot is not what one leaves this film with. There is the beauty of the song, and then images darkened into a prison each character inhabits, literally and figuratively such as we can see above on the left, and then the dignity, openness, and beauty of the compositions , ennobled by being shot from below against open sky (such as we can see on the right). Can a film be simultaneously trite and sublime? If it can be Las islas Marias is.

 

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 139 – Alita: Battle Angel

A tweeny sci-fi based on a manga, Alita: Battle Angel tells the story of a young cyborg found on a scrapheap and given a new lease of life by a kindly doctor. She doesn’t remember who is she or where she came from, but takes to the dystopian world around her, finding excitement and energy in it, quickly realising an aptitude for combat and inclination to explore, and developing a relationship with a young man who seeks escape to a floating city that promises a better life. Oh, and she’s completely CGI in a live-action world.

Neither of us is too enthusiastic about the film, though José is far less interested in it than Mike, who finds things worth praising, particularly how Alita’s attitude to her body can be read in terms of transgender experiences. But the world-building is weak, relying on simple tropes, and Mike decries the sequel set up, convinced that the story it’s likely to tell could and should have been a part of this film. We vaguely agree that the action is enjoyable, José holding the reservation that he felt no connection to the characters, and Mike picks up on a tonal imbalance, suggesting that a film so clearly aimed at tweens should be less comfortable with swearing (something he also notes about Marvel, though to a lesser extent).

Mike is at pains to point out that despite acknowledging flaw after flaw, he had a good time. José has no time for such nuance, finding almost nothing in it he liked.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Christopher Holliday and Alex Sergeant

When muttering to myself, I keep referring to Chris Holliday and Alex Sergeant as the Fantasy/Animation boys. And I must stop doing that. They’ve become very considerable scholars currently doing some of the most exciting work in the field of fantasy and animation, the reason for my wanting to talk to them: Alex has a monograph on fantasy in hand; Chris’ book, The Computer Animated Film: Industry, Style and Genre came out in May from Edinburgh University Press; their joint collection, Fantasy/Animation: Connections between Media, Mediums and Genres is an AFI Reader recently published by Routledge and already nominated as one of the best edited collections of the year by BAFTSS (British Academy of Film Television and Screen Studies); and their superb Fantasy/ Animation website (www.fantasy-animation.org/about-2/) is already a treasure trove of articles and podcasts by a great mix of new and established scholars in the field. The podcast below covers all of the above and more.

José Arroyo

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Eavesdropping at the Movies: 138 – Captain Marvel

 

It’s taken ten years but Marvel has finally branched out into films about heroes who aren’t white guys. Following last year’s Black PantherCaptain Marvel introduces Marvel’s first female protagonist, Carol Danvers, a young woman caught up in conflicts between worlds and the mystery of who she is.

José is enraptured by the film’s visual beauty, Mike by its cat. Its mid-90s setting is mined for tons of laughs, as is Samuel L. Jackson’s lively, witty performance. Neither of us is too convinced by Brie Larson, sadly, who lacks the charisma to truly sell her role, but the cast and storytelling that surround her more than compensate. Quite apart from the very obvious gender dynamics at play, other intelligent, interesting themes are brilliantly interwoven into the plot, giving the film real substance and emotional punch. It’s occasionally a little too transparently right-on, some moments of sisterhood rather unsubtle and even cringeworthy, but other scenes intended to inspire female empowerment truly soar.

It’s an intelligent, spectacular film that we hugely enjoyed, and definitely recommend.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 137 – Cold Pursuit

Remaking his own film, Hans Petter Moland brings us a revenge thriller, starring – who else? – Liam Neeson as a model citizen turned remorseless killer on the trail of those responsible for his son’s murder. Sounds like typical Neeson fare, but Cold Pursuit leaps between dramatic and blackly comic tones with verve, and offers something much more interesting and original than you’re likely to expect.

We find lots to like in it, including its magnificent lighting and compositions, interesting and welcome inclusion of a group of Native American characters, as well as a commentary on their relationship to the very whitest America there is (the film being set in a Colorado ski town), and some surprisingly tender moments between adults and children, and people in love.

We highly recommend it, it’s a huge amount of fun!

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 136 – Die Welle

n response to José’s excursion into the world of Michael Curtiz a few months ago, Mike has picked four films of his own to discuss, the first being writer-director Dennis Gansel’s 2008 high school drama Die Welle (The Wave). Based on the true story of a 1967 social experiment, Die Welle follows one week in a high school in which, as an exercise intended to teach his pupils about the methods and dangers of fascism, a teacher creates a fascist movement, named The Wave, that rapidly spirals out of control.

Die Welle is first and foremost remarkable for convincingly depicting the seductive aspects of fascist movements, such as the shared symbols that engender group unity and, indeed, simply the positivity of being a member of a like-minded group. Mike compares it to Starship Troopers, claiming that it doesn’t just argue its case but actually makes it work on its audience – rather than seeing why The Wave is appealing to the kids, you feel it too. José discusses what sets it apart from your typical high school movie and how an even greater focus on the kids, rather than the teacher, might have strengthened it.

The classroom scenes allow the film to develop its arguments about fascism through ersatz Socratic dialogues, the teacher’s seminar-style classes allowing pupils to make competing points in quick succession, clashing with each other as they do so. But Mike points out that perhaps all is not what it seems: one student, for instance, goes unchallenged when she claims that high unemployment and social injustice are social conditions that favour dictatorship, but the world in which these children live bears few markers of such sociopolitical problems, yet they enthusiastically join and build their movement. Indeed, one motivation behind the experiment is the students’ belief that Germany, having already experienced a fascist dictatorship, is immune from another. Perhaps, the film suggests, we aren’t quite as clever and protected as we’d like to congratulate ourselves on being.

Aside from the film’s central thesis, there are minor details in its world that pique our interest, José noticing the students’ access to and expertise in the use of image editing and web design software; Mike picking up on the educated, liberated attitude to sex the characters display (it’s hard to imagine an American high school movie treating sex with similar freedom and confidence). We remark upon how believable the characters are (with perhaps one exception) in their interactions and responses to the nascent movement.

Neither of us can claim that it’s a perfect film – there’s little in it that is visually expressive, and its mechanisms are too openly displayed, with some characters too clearly intended to represent ideas and serve plot functions. But Die Welle is an enormously engaging, intelligent, and rather bold exploration of the mechanisms and appeal of fascism that enthusiastically uses cinematic affect to convey its message that we may all be more susceptible to its dangers than we think.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

The Rise of the Phoenixes

I´m currently enraptured by Chinese Television drama. The last being The Rise of the Phoenixes on Netflix. It has more kung fu and battle sequences than Yanxi Palace or Empresses of the Palace but the clothes and colour combinations are even more beautiful, the images better designed. It´s very melodramatic. People love but no will will let them be and the love is impossible to begin with due to family, class, obligations. Letters are carried back and forth, sometimes wrapped up in little wax balls and hidden in the immense nests that are part of the hairdos. Everyone is drop dead gorgeous, except some of the bad guys. Life is a violent chess game with people used as pawns, sometimes knowingly. No one is happy but all is beautiful. It´s all very romantic, very sexy even, but the characters barely touch throughout the whole show. .It´s blissful viewing.

José Arroyo

PS The show has a really interesting narrative device, where little capsule summaries are offered throughout when characters are reflecting on current dilemmas (as a way of reminding the audience how they got there all those episodes ago). Also, It’s a restful show. The viewer can just sink into it. And it´s made up of so many episodes that  for weeks on end you won´t need to worry about finding anything else when you´re too tired to see anything that actively requires thinking

José Arroyo and Carlo Anghel-Haltrich on Lost Book Found (Jem Cohen, 1996)

Discussing Jem Cohen´s ‘Lost Book Found’ with Carlo Anghel-Haltrich

There Will be Blog

An short amiable discussion about Jem Cohen’s poetic short documentary Lost Book Found. A rather rare avant-garde treasure (luckily it was picked up by the Museum of Modern Art), the film focuses on early 90s New York City as a space of perpetual transformation and renewal under the steady pressure of late capitalism. Atypically, the image of the city that is emphasized through its hypnotic extended montages is that of the obscure and the undesirable: lost trinkets, discarded notes, torn posters, written messages, advertising, and overproduced goods littering the streets and the discount shops. The film exudes an affinity for the cryptic, the unresolved, and the overlooked.

“Its beauty is quite ineffable. It’s the sort of visual experience that transforms everything seen by the viewer for several hours afterward. . . What it actually does is capture the subconscious of the city itself, the dream state of the whole…

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Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, Warners, 1934)

mandalay.jpgPart of a cycle of Orientalist films in which white people undergo exotic adventures in the Far East, with the female stars (Dietrich, Harlow, Stanwyck) playing characters with names like Shanghai Lily, China Doll, Megan, and Poppy Smith, women forced to live by their wits and their bodies; the film dramatising their progressive decline into sexual degradation as a forbidden frisson of delight for the evil men in the narrative and for the audiences in the cinema: Shanghai Express (Josef Von Sternberg, 1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1932), China Seas (Tay Garnett, 1935), Shanghai Gesture (Josef Von Sternberg, 1941).

Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, 1934) falls in the middle of this cycle. It’s a Kay Francis vehicle in which she starts off as  Tanya Bodoroff, a woman stuck in Rangoon who finds love with gunrunner Tony Evans (Ricardo Cortez). He’s going through financial difficulties and thinks nothing of selling her off to Nick (Warner Oland) where as the ‘hostess’ of his nightclub she becomes the notorious Spot White, who sells her favours for profit  and who’s main mission is to make men pay with much more than their wallet. She finally escapes this life and becomes Marjorie Lang, a woman intent on redeeming herself and the alcoholic Dr. Gregory Burton (Lyle Talbot) by bringing medical relief into the fever country where only one in a hundred returns alive. Tony returns to claim her just as she’s getting close to the Doctor, but he only wants her as the ‘Spot White’ who will make him money. He’s s quickly disposed of, in the exact fashion he’d tried to trick the authorities with earlier, falling overboard after poisoning, and thus freeing her to properly redeem herself. It’s a camp classic.

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The movie has a nonsense of a plot, all packed into 65 minutes and worth watching today mainly because of Michael Curtiz’ direction and Kay Francis’ star presence. The film has all the things I like about early Warners films: those lovely title sequences where stars are introduced as the characters they play (see above),, that quick pace of the narrative where worlds can be turned upside down in under 70 minutes, the wipes galloping through the action, here both vertical and horizontal, and the hardboiled dialogue.

 

In Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career (London: McFarland and Co., 2006), Lynn Kear and John Rossman write, ‘Just in time before the Production Code took effect, Warner Brothers released Mandalay. Yes, it’s another melodrama, but it gloried in its sordidness and is still great campy fun. Kay played a woman sold into white slavery by her bad-boy boyfriend, and virtually spat her lines – finally given the chance to play Poppy in Shangai Gesture, she unleashed an unforgettable performance as Spot White. It will always remain a popular Kay Francis film. One reviewer realized its appeal when it was released. ‘Make no mistake, you’ll like Kay Francis in her clothes, her rich, exotic lure, her drama, no matter how you quarrel with the over-wrought story. The camera presents some lovely pictures of Miss Francis’.

It certainly does. Some of the credit for that is, as I’ve previously demonstrated, due to Orry-Kelly. But much of the credit must go to Michael Curtiz. As you can see below, he affords her a great star entrance, with the camera clearly on a boat, dizzyingly dollying onto Kay wearing a louche wrap-around dress and framed by a parasol. It’s a visually exciting presentation of the star (see below).

 

 

The film also has a superb montage of Tanya’s transformation into Spot White, interestingly introduced by a few notes from a xylophone striking a generic oriental tune, with Kay encircled in the centre, wearing a different outfit each time, and shown in a different place with a different man, so we can chart how each step in her moral downfall is also a measure of her worldly success –an opportunity to delight the audience with her wickedness and her outfits (see below).

The influence of Shanghai Express, such a big hit for Dietrich and Von Sternberg just a few years earlier, is everywhere evident, particularly in the scene below: ‘So you’re Spot White’? ‘Yes, is it overwhelming you’?…

Mandalay also has one great song (see below), which in typical cheap Warners fashion, the film uses over and over again, but here intelligently, underlining character, situation and aspirations, and used first in relation to Tanya, then Spot White, and then Marjorie to mean slightly different things in each instance and for each character. It’s a lovely song, very well used, and affording Kay many opportunities to wear dazzling gowns:

‘I’ve so many dreams to be mended

When Tomorrow comes

So many cares to be ended

When tomorrow comes

I took the worst and made the best of it

Because I always hoped a new day would dawn

I struggled on.’

In Michael Curtiz: A Life, Alex K. Rode writes that, ‘after watching the pre-release cut in December, Jack Warner raved to Hal Wallis, ‘it’s a hell of a good women’s picture, in fact, it’s great!’

According to Rode, the film was considered so racy that, ‘Warners would be denied a reissue certificate for Mandalay in 1936, as Breen wrote to Jack Warner,’This picture also has the basic Code violation of presenting the heroine as an immoral woman’.

The film raises once again the perennial question regarding Curtiz´s films: Everything looks and moves great. But to what end? Yet the film is 85 years old and we´re still watching. It´s still offering us pleasures that we think of as cheap because they´re ‘merely´visual, decorative. It´s a film of pure form, including its characterisations: that´s partly why it works as camp, these places and people are ironised exaggerations of fantasy ideals. They´re ideologically loaded and make one ideologically aware. I wish I´d seen a transvestite ´do´Spot White in a nightclub in 1935, the jailhouse of fantasies, social and personal that would have been exposed!

Kennington Talkies presents at the Cinema Museum is currently screening a cycle of her fims.

José Arroyo

 

 

Alfie Watson-Brown and José Arroyo on Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999)

Alfie Watson-Brown and I discuss Lynne Ramsay´s Ratcatcher

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In this podcast, we discuss Lynne Ramsay’s gritty Glaswegian drama, set in the height of the Glasgow binmen strike in 1973. Following the life and struggles of a 12-year-old boy, James, Ratcatcher is at times oxymoronic, merging beautifully poetic images, grounded in Ramsay’s background in photography, with a score which is somehow both disconcerting and momentarily blissful, to underscore its largely depressing themes.

José and I work through the general intentions and messages of the film, making an attempt to digest this complexly artistic piece’s stylistic elements. We discuss a range of elements, from Ratcatcher’s lack of sentimentality over its themes of poverty and family, to the joy and entertainment which some sections of the film evoke, and inform the discussion with some relation to the rest of Ramsay’s career. A key piece of contemporary film from one of cinema’s most well-equipped directors, Ratcatcher’s value only increases with discussion.

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Kay Francis Wears Orry-Kelly in Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, Warners, 1934)

Kay Francis was one of the biggest stars of the early 30s, probably best remembered today for Lubitsch’s delicious Trouble in Paradise (1932).The clothes she wore in movies, and the way she wore them, were a central lure to female audiences of the day. In Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, 1934), she changes outfits for practically every scene, and in this post, I merely want to render hommage to her and to Orry-Kelly, who designed the clothes, by posting them in chronological order. Sometimes, you’ll see various aspects of the same outfit, again as the film shows them to us, in order to better understand how the clothes look in close-up and and long shot. I’m doing a separate post on the film itself where you’ll be able to see how at least some of the outfits photograph in motion.

José Arroyo