Report: Ireland on Sunday at the IFI presents ‘Opus K’

 

On Sunday, 20th November last, the IFI screened Basil Al-Rawi and Eamonn Gray’s new independent Irish feature Opus K in the intimate surroundings of Cinema 2 as part of the Ireland on Sunday series, a monthly showcase for new Irish films. This series is designed to provide Irish film-makers with an opportunity to screen their work in a unique atmosphere, with a view to gaining a general release. Opus K is the perfect example of what Ireland on Sunday is all about – the very definition of an independent film, this entirely self-financed work has been a labour of love for director Eamonn Gray and cinematographer Basil Al-Rawi, as well as their dedicated cast and crew, over the last two years.

The result of their efforts is a film that defies the constraints of a very modest budget with its rich, imaginative plotting and great visual panache. With its red-lit corridors and murky interiors, Opus K effectively conjures up a vision of a murky urban world, full of paranoia and dread. With definite thematic and visual nods to the paranoid American conspiracy thrillers of the ‘70s (e.g The Parallax View, Klute) coupled with an excellent soundtrack by Tommy Gray, the film expertly builds tension as the twisting plot unfolds towards an unexpectedly moving climax.

Put simply, Opus K does a hell of a lot with very little – Basil Al-Rawi and Eamonn Gray manage to squeeze maximum visual impact from their limited means to create a work which exhibits huge promise and genuine thematic ambition. After its enthusiastically received screening in the IFI, the two filmmakers were joined by the IFI’s Alicia McGivern for a Q&A session to talk about their cinematic influences, the difficulties of working on a tight budget and… er… how to order exotic moths online…..

Q. (Alicia McGivern) – So, thanks guys for showing your film Opus K here today – an extremely atmospheric, haunting mystery thriller. This is in fact its third screening so far, could you tell us a little about its journey here?

A. (Eamonn Gray – director) – Yes, the premiere was back in July at the Galway Film Fleadh where we were entered in the Wild Card section, which is devoted to independent film-makers trying to get their films out there…so Galway was a great platform for us to launch the film, Galway being such a prestigious festival. After that we were at Darklight, also a great experience as its another festival of grass-roots film-making in Ireland. Again, after Galway we were in the wilderness a little bit…we tried for a number of bigger festivals which was ambitious for a film of this scale…which didn’t work out but we said we’d give it a shot anyway. So when we were invited to screen our film here, we were over the moon to have such a great location to screen the film. So its been a long road to get here – the editing process has taken quite a while – but today finally feels like a point of completion.

Q. So you started shooting in April ‘09, picked up again in October ‘09 and ended up finishing in April ‘10….

A. (Eamonn) Yes, the original shoot was about a week and a half…which was quite ambitious for a 100 page script. But as you shoot, more scenes tend to go or get merged together…in terms of scheduling it was literally just me and Baz trying to co-ordinate everyone, you don’t realise how difficult it is until you try to get 20 people in one place at the one time, especially every day for two weeks.

Q. From what I’ve heard a huge element of the film as far as you’re concerned was the generosity of others and the co-operative effect of all of that…

A. (Eamonn) Absolutely, it all started with just me and Baz having a few beers on a Saturday night and just talking about what we were going to do after film school. We both thought that making films was something you did down the road, after you’ve paid your dues, but eventually we just thought “Why don’t we make a film ourselves?”. Technology has come so far now that its not beyond the limits of what you can do, its just a matter of getting the right people around you. So it was literally a case of cold-calling people, scanning credits and trying to track people down. Most people are very contactable these days, with the Internet, and fortunately there’s a great wealth of acting talent in Ireland today and we found some absolutely fantastic people who were willing to get stuck right in. They understood what was expected of them and that they would not be rewarded financially, but that we would support as best we could in terms of feeding them and making sure they didn’t have to work too long hours. The crew were also willing to get stuck in, everyone had a smile on their faces throughout and the whole thing was a fantastic experience.

Q. We should mention the moth at this point….[ one of the film’s most striking images is of a moth fluttering around a light-bulb.]

A. (Basil Al-Rawi – cinematographer) Yes, the moth arrived in the post…you can order moths online now. We just Googled moths and ordered one, when it arrived it had hatched in the box and was scratching around inside the parcel, so the postman must have been freaked out…..but directing the moth was another story!

(Eamonn) Yeah, as you can see, in terms of shooting, all the stuff that looks complicated on screen is actually quite easy to block out and film…but that one shot of the moth flying around the light-bulb; me and Baz took a whole day trying to get it right but couldn’t get the moth to co-operate! So we ended up getting a friend of ours who’s good with computers and animation to get some footage of a moth flying and just cut that out and rotoscope it onto the shot. It ended up taking him five minutes….after me and Baz took weeks planning the shot…

Q. So did the moth survive?

A. Eamonn : Well… you know, moths don’t live very long anyway!

Q. Baz, let’s talk about the cinematography of the film- it looks amazing, and you’ve been talking about Gordon Willis and his use of light and shadow in his ‘70’s films. You’ve referenced his The Parallax View and other paranoid thrillers of the ‘70’s as an influence. Could you talk to us a bit about that?

A. (Baz) Well, me and Eamonn both loved those films of the ‘70’s, particularly Pakula’s trilogy (Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men). I suppose Willis’ approach to cinematography was to avoid what he called “light sandwiches”, having two sources of light on either side of a character. We felt that our script suited an approach like this, with shadows and darkness helping to create a mood. We watched a lot of other films too, like Blade Runner, to see how people re-create these dark urban worlds, and how they used shadows to create a sinister mood. A lot of it is about doing more with less.

Q. There’s a lot of Edward Hopper there too, particularly in those greens in your film…

A. (Baz) Yes, we looked at a lot of Hopper just for the colour patterns, and how they re-created that feeling of the alienation of the urban world.

(Eamonn) We also got lucky quite often with things like green becoming a pre-dominant colour, it was just a colour that kept popping up in the different locations. A lot of the time you’re crossing your fingers in terms of how your locations will look, so we got lucky with those green colours…there was that sense of serendipity quite often, which is something which helps to spur you on.

Q. Did you change the ending during production?

A. (Eamonn) Yes, the ending has been in a constant state of flux since we started, and through the different stages of production. Again, it was another part of the learning process for us, it was our first feature and from our first script. It wasn’t an ideal way of doing it…but all the same we were learning all the time. Fortunately, we were able to get it in the can initially and so we were able to come back and re-cut….and really we learned that editing is another form of writing.

Q. What was the budget of the film?

A. (Eamonn) Well, we got a loan from the bank of about 10,000Euro, and camera and other costs came to between 6 and 7,000Euro…so overall about 16,000Euro.

Q. I have a quote from you in relation to your method of film-making where you say that you “share an innate discomfort with any notion of practical wisdom....

A. ( Baz ) Yes, the shooting process involved a lot of late nights and we were flying by the seat of our pants a lot of the time. There was a lot of location shooting and we would be going from location to checking on how our sets were being built…our set builder had a depth of practical wisdom that we didn’t have. Sometimes when things got difficult, against our better judgment we just went ahead with a willing blindness….you will always run into trouble on a shoot and sometimes your scheduling goes out the window. But we just had a lot of optimism and just got on with it thanks to all the co-operation from everyone.

Q. Can you just tell us about the soundtrack, that was your brother wasn’t it?

A. (Eamonn) Yeah, that was Tommy my brother…Tommy did a great job, he’s a graduate of the Jazz Academy out in Newtownpark Avenue in Blackrock. Obviously jazz comes first but they get a very solid grounding in classical composition also….so he was a fantastic addition. Tommy’s also a film buff so he’s been able to draw on his knowledge of film composers throughout film history in composing the soundtrack. The difference is huge…when you watch the film dry with no music and then watch it with the soundtrack, the soundtrack really adds so much to the atmosphere of the film.

Q. So will you be collaborating again?

A. (Eamonn) Yes, absolutely…we have our production company, Triptych films, and we have a number of projects in development….its really a case of which one rises to the top. It also depends, of course, on what we will be able to afford and seeing if we can get people on board. It is great to close the book on Opus K and to move on. It’s great to come to a conclusion with this, but one thing I’ll say is that if you’re planning on making a film independently, be prepared to feel very bad about yourselves. The financial debt is one thing, money can be paid back….but the moral debt you owe to everyone who helps you, that’s something you can never pay back!

Martin Cusack

 

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Cinema Review: Elles

DIR: Malgorzata Szumowska • WRI: Malgorzata Szumowska, Tine Byrckel • PRO: Marianne Slot • DOP: Michal Englert • ED: Jacek Drosio, Françoise Tourmen • DES: Pauline Bourdon • Cast: Juliette Binoche, Anaïs Demoustier, Joanna Kulig, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing

Since first emerging in the mid-’80s, working with legendary auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard and Andre Techine, Juliette Binoche has consistently been one of the most compelling screen presences of her generation. In her heyday in the early ‘90s she lit up Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont Neuf (1991) and even redeemed the overcooked Damage (1993),  before going on to mainstream Hollywood success in Oscar-bait like The English Patient and Chocolat. In one of her most acclaimed roles of that period, as an emotionally-shattered widow in Kryzstof Kieslowski’s Three Colurs: Blue (1993), her serene but subtly expressive face provided a mesmerising focal point which greatly magnified that film’s power.  Now, with Elles, another graduate of the justly-famed Lodz Film School, Malgorzata Szumowska, similarly benefits from Binoche’s unique talents. Here she plays Anne, a top writer for Elle in Paris,  working on a feature article about female students supplementing their income by moonlighting as prostitutes. As they recount their occasionally disturbing stories of erotic intrigue, Anne’s carefully constructed facade of middle-class Parisian respectability slowly begins to crack as she becomes aware of long dormant feelings about sex and family relationships. Chronologically complex, the film’s action is set primarily on the day of Anne’s frantic preparations for a dinner party for her husband and his boss, an event which eventually pushes Anne right to the edge.

Szumowska has a great eye for detail that reminds the viewer of the films of Lynne Ramsey, but its another Binoche film, Michael Haneke’s Hidden (2005), which is most similar to Elles. Both films share a pre-occupation with the  hypocrisies  of bourgeois  Parisian life, (and there is a smart visual nod to Haneke’s film with its extended final shot), but Szumowska has a greater handle on the subtleties and nuances of character, and together with Binoche they create a memorable study of a middle-aged woman coming to terms with the changing landscape of her life as she enters middle age. Her prim sensibilities suddenly jarred by the graphic accounts of the demure Charlotte (Anais Demoustier) and the wilder Alicja (Joanna Krulig, in an impressive performance), the teetotal Anne suddenly starts drinking and smoking with abandon.  As she hurries around her kitchen preparing the food for the fateful dinner party, a stubborn fridge door which refuses to close for her becomes an amusing symbol of her frustration at her atrophied and repressed domestic life, as she becomes increasingly alienated from her two sons and her emotionally-distant wet blanket of a husband. Szumowska pulls off a virtuoso, dreamlike sequence at the insufferably dull dinner party as her interviewee’s ‘clients’ take the place of her companions around the table, like leering ghosts at the feast, illustrating Juliette’s increasing sense of disconnection from her own existence. Elles effective use of music is especially noteworthy in this regard, with the director making clever use of the surging second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony to suggest the  turbulent passions brewing up inside Anne.

Elles is a visually stylish and inventive portrait of the ways in which self-doubt and sexual repression can threaten the flimsy security of even the most superficially happy and successful among us, but while the film doesn’t shy away completely from the darker side of prostitution, there is some grounds for accusing it of glossing over certain undeniable truths about the oldest profession. However, the story of Anne’s emotional journey is handled  with such style by all concerned that the result is never less than compelling. Szumowska’s direction reveals a hugely promising talent and a great eye for insightful detail,  but the absorbing Elles most definitely belongs to La Binoche.

Martin Cusack

Rated 18 (see IFCO website for details)
Elles is released on 20th April 2012


 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uY6UAn7fnag

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Cinema Review: The Vow

get a room

DIR: Michael Sucsy • WRI: Jason Katims, Abby Kohn • PRO: Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Jonathan Glickman, Paul Taublieb • DOP: Rogier Stoffers • ED: Melissa Kent, Nancy Richardson • DES: Kalina Ivanov • Cast: Rachel McAdams, Channing Tatum, Sam Neill, Jessica Lange

The interestingly-named Michael Sucsy’s new romantic drama The Vow is best encapsulated by not so much a single word as a single sound, and that sound is ‘eeuuchh..’. Released to coincide with Valentine’s Day and designed in every aspect to ensnare as many hormonally-charged teenage couples as possible, this is a Hallmark card of a movie, pre-packaged and sanitised to within an inch of its life. The Vow is loosely based on a true story, and concerns young artist Paige (Rachel McAdams), married to recording studio owner Leo (Channing Tatum), who survives a near-fatal car accident only to be left with no recollection of her husband or their marriage. Leo subsequently sets about re-staging the key events of their courtship as he tries to make Paige fall in love with him a second time.

Now I realise that as a mildly grizzled thirty-something male I am probably not the ideal audience for this type of froth, but it seems to me that the least that even the most easily-pleased of audiences should expect is a script that manages to rise above the level of something churned out over a wet weekend by a gaggle of lovestruck 12 year-old girls. There are lines of dialogue in The Vow so hideously clunky that you can practically feel your seat buckle beneath you. The performances are similarly insipid, Rachel McAdams (apparently the go-to actress for those dealing in this type of slush) sleepwalks through an unchallenging role, vainly trying to establish a connection with love interest Channing Tatum. To be fair to McAdams though, this is in large part due to the fact that Tatum, who seems to be some class of talking bicep, is impossible to take seriously in any kind of dramatic role. He’s even harder to buy here as a cool and charming music producer, being possessed of all the charisma of a filing cabinet. His primary task in The Vow seems to be to proudly exhibit his chiseled linebacker physique and predilection for chunky knitwear at every available opportunity, while failing utterly to convince as a love interest to McAdams’ free-spirited artist / sculptor. The idea that anyone would fall in love with this mug not once, but twice, is risible. In terms of the rest of the cast, Sam Neill and Jessica Lange have the good grace to look mildly embarrassed to be involved, with Lange in particular looking suspiciously as if she’s ingested a small wheelbarrow full of Xanax just to get through the experience.

While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a bit of romantic mush at this time of year, the least one should expect is a modicum of playfulness and wit. The Vow is devoid of these qualities, and plays out its awkward, sickly-sweet melodrama over a soulless, charmless 104 minutes. In fact, I’ve seen Health and Safety instructional videos that inspire more romantic ardour than this foul potpourri of cynical sentiment and putrid cliche. I repeat, eeuuuch….

Martin Cusack

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
The Vow is released on 10th February 2012

The Vow – Official Website

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Book Review: Censoring Hollywood: Sex and Violence in Film and on the Cutting Room Floor

 Censoring Hollywood: Sex and Violence in Film and on the Cutting Room Floor

 

Title: Censoring Hollywood: Sex and Violence in Film and on the Cutting Room Floor

Author: Aubrey Malone

‘I believe in censorship. After all, I made a fortune out of it.’ This quotation from Mae West, scourge of the Hays Office in the early 1930s, is one of a host included by Aubrey Malone in this hugely entertaining history of film censorship. It’s a quip which underscores the fundamental dichotomy in attempting to protect the public from the perceived evils of sex and violence. As West soon found out, the more controversy her films generated, the more spectacular the results at the box office. While the likes of Will Hays and the fiercely anti-Semitic Joe Breen became the self-appointed moral guardians of the nation, the savage cuts they inflicted on some of the more daring films of the day did  nothing to stem the public taste for salaciousness and violent sensation. Accordingly, Malone’s book is both a condemnation of the asinine and ham-fisted proscription of some of these films, as well as a celebration of the cunning exercised by directors like Cecil B. de Mille in circumventing the Production Code’s litany of regulations.

Censoring Hollywood is a daringly ambitious and panoramic overview of the history of film censorship – stretching from the early silent cinema of Hollywood, when ‘vamps’ like Theda Bara first attracted the ire of self-appointed moral guardians, through the steamy undercurrents of film noir and cinematic adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ plays, right up to the pivotal late ‘60s/early ‘70s liberalisation of Hollywood and modern cause célébres like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. The author is strong on the subject of notorious censor-baiting landmarks such as A Clockwork Orange, The Devils and Bonnie and Clyde – but lesser known works which challenged the established orthodoxy (such as The Miracle and The Pawnbroker) are also explored. Roberto Rosselini’s now half-forgotten The Miracle – scripted by none other than Federico Fellini – an allegorical tale of a peasant girl who believes she has been impregnated by St.Joseph, was instrumental in loosening the stranglehold of Catholic groups on what was permissible on screen. By the dawn of the ‘60s the old days of Breen and Hays were buried forever by the new classification system – when Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated film to win a Best Picture Oscar® in 1969 it was a defining moment, an emphatic signal of the mainstream’s absorption of what would once have been considered outré material. The subsequent incremental erosion of the power of film censors reached its logical extreme when Michael Winterbottom’s sexually graphic 9 Songs was passed in Ireland completely without cuts in 2004.

What sets this book apart from others on this subject are the arcane and sometimes hilarious details : such as the little known fact that E.T. was banned in, of all places, Sweden, for apparently showing a child being treated with criminal neglect by its parents, and Will Hays cutting a scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs because it hinted at a possible sexual relationship between the heroine and the titular dwarfs. (This is far from the most risible example of the censor’s ludicrously myopic reading of otherwise innocuous film material.) There is also plenty of interest here for any student of the history of Irish film censorship, with a detailed exploration of the furore caused by Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, when embattled censor Sheamus Smith was flooded with piously outraged entreaties from hundreds of Catholics who managed to be grossly offended by the film despite never having seen it.

The author’s deft turn-of-phrase and liberal use of pomposity-pricking humour lend a much-needed air of levity to this sometimes vexed subject. Entertaining personal reminiscences – such as memories of an abortive attempt to stage a viewing of the infamous Last Tango in Paris in Trinity College Dublin in 1972 – also help to keep the material in the realm of free-wheeling historical guide rather than drily academic treatise.

Witty, well-structured and rigorously researched, this is an indispensable examination of the century-long battle between meddling censor on one side, and the priceless creative freedom of the film artist on the other.

Martin Cusack

Paperback: 218 pages
Publisher: McFarland & Co Inc (27th May 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0786464658
ISBN-13: 978-0786464654
Product Dimensions: 22.4 x 15 x 1.4 cm

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Cinema Review: Dreams of a Life – Film of the Week

Dreams of a Life

DIR/WRI: Carol Morley • PRO: Cairo Cannon, James Mitchell • DOP: Mary Farbrother Lynda Hall • ED: Chris Wyatt • DES: Chris Richmond • CAST: Zawe Ashton, Neelam Bakshi, Lee Colley

In January 2006, the skeletal remains of 38-year old Joyce Carol Vincent were discovered in a grim bedsit in Wood Green, London. To the horror of the British public, it emerged that Joyce’s body lay decomposing in her flat for almost three years before she was discovered, with her TV still flickering eerily in the corner. Her discovery ignited a debate in Britain about the deterioration of community spirit and the disconnection of the modern world. The story also inspired director Carol Morley to embark on a project which combined straightforward documentary with dogged detective work, gathering together the fragments of Joyce’s life to create a complete portrait of this enigmatic, forgotten woman who met her death in such desolate circumstances.

Morley’s film avoids straightforward re-construction, instead opting for a more poetic hybrid approach which alternates between a conventional talking heads documentary and a poignant biopic in which Joyce is played by actress Zawe Ashton ( who you may recognise as Vod from C4’s Fresh Meat). Through interviews with the people whose lives Joyce touched in various ways, we slowly collect an impression of a vivacious but elusive personality, a charismatic beauty who seemed to lack the drive and ambition to go with her charismatic and refined manner. In fact, the film does not shy away from criticising some aspects of Joyce’s complex persona – her laziness, for example,  and her apparent inability to envisage a future for herself are remarked upon with trenchant insight by ex-boyfriends, co-workers and housemates. However, watching the way Joyce affected other people, whether negatively or positively, makes the horrible truth of her demise all the more mystifying. It is as if she simply faded out of existence or as one contributor puts it, “melted into the carpet”. Ultimately, the viewer is left with the impression that this enigmatic character was somehow doomed to a sad end – it is striking how little the majority of the contributor’s seem to truly know about her. As she advances into her 30s, we see Joyce’s vague hopes of stardom slowly fall away as grim reality starts to erode her sense of self-worth. The film’s most affecting scene shows Joyce indulging in a moment of fantasy, the frustrated performer singing into a hairbrush in her lonely bedsit before coming abruptly and painfully back to the reality of her isolation and sadness. It’s an incredibly poignant scene, sensitively staged by Morley and wonderfully played by Ashton.

Carol Morley’s film is a superb achievement – a fascinating character study as much as it is a genuinely haunting and moving story of disconnection and the complexity of human relationships. In these days of hyper-connectedness it’s difficult to imagine someone simply fading from view in this manner, and this film is a powerful reminder of the vital importance of maintaining real, human relationships. Dreams of a Life is hugely recommended – a film which will linger in your memory for a long time after you leave the cinema.

Martin Cusack

Dreams of a Life is released on 6th January 2012

Dreams of a Life – Official Website

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We Love… 2011 – We Need to Talk About Kevin

Illustration: Adeline Pericart

We laughed, we cried, we sneaked in our own popcorn. 2011 brought with it some memorable trips to the cinema to revel in the joy of film. And so the Film Ireland collection of filmbots look back in love and recall their favourite films of the last year in the latest installment of…

We Love… 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin

(Lynne Ramsay)

‘… a visually intense trip into a parental nightmare …’

Martin Cusack

Cinema has provided audiences with some memorable child-monsters over the years (from Linda Blair’s possessed Regan in The Exorcist to the straight-forwardly Satanic Damien in The Omen) but few have got under the skin quite as insidiously as the character alluded to in the title of Lynne Ramsay’s superb, long-awaited follow-up to 2002’s Morvern Callar. Played with brilliantly creepy relish at different ages by Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller, Kevin is the stuff of every parent’s nightmare. The personification of all of his mother’s fear, guilt and anxiety about motherhood, Kevin’s arrival signals the abrupt end of a once carefree life for Eva (Tilda Swinton) – and the film subsequently deals with the story of Kevin’s youthful progress towards a catastrophically violent incident at his high-school that has devastating, and fatal, repercussions for everyone around him. The film’s complex flashback structure is skilfully handled by Ramsey, deviating from the diary form of Lionel Shriver’s original novel to concentrate on Kevin’s warped, psycho-sexual duelling with his mother, played out in some remarkable and, sometimes, uncomfortable scenes.

Lynne Ramsay’s film is a visually intense trip into a parental nightmare. Extreme close-up shots reveal tiny details rich with psychological significance, such as a scene in which Eva absent-mindedly scraping red paint off the ends of her hair with her nails. With great visual imagination, Ramsay liberally applies splashes of symbolic red to the films canvas, intensifying the already heady brew of guilt, frustration and anger which bubbles under the surface of Eva’s superficially perfect, middle-class life. Tilda Swinton is as subtly fascinating as always as Eva, and the glowering Ezra Miller in particular deserves huge credit for a performance of sinister, tightly-coiled menace as the demonic Kevin. Well worth the wait of almost a decade since her last film, We Need to Talk About Kevin establishes Lynne Ramsay as one of modern cinema’s most creatively daring and visionary filmmakers.

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Book Review: Anthony Asquith (British Film Makers)

Anthony Asquith (British Film Makers)

Title: Anthony Asquith (British Film Makers)

Author: Tom Ryall

When Anthony Asquith began his career in the 1920s, he initially ran neck and neck with Alfred Hitchcock as one of the leading lights of British silent cinema. From a privileged background – his father, H.H Asquith, was Prime Minister during the years of World War I – he benefited hugely from the connections his family had made in the United States, enjoying an apprenticeship under none other than the great Charlie Chaplin. In his first handful of films, Asquith demonstrated a desire to absorb the influences of the European avant-garde and the experimental montage techniques of the Soviet School, early silent efforts such as Underground and Shooting Stars dealt with realistic themes in a visually striking and original fashion. Ironically, his later successes as a director of adaptations of stage plays by the likes of Shaw, Wilde and Rattigan led to him being labelled a conservative journeyman, content to play it safe with the un-cinematic business of filming established plays with middle-class themes. As Tom Ryall points out in this indispensable study of Asquith’s films, his career seemed to run in a sort of strange, reverse parallel with the development of film form itself.

While cinematic innovators sought to establish a dynamic filmic language to escape from the stifling influence of the stage-bound traditional play, Asquith seemed to retreat from his initial bold innovation into a conservative style very much dependent for his material on proven stage successes. Unlike his contemporary Hitchcock, Asquith has never been a fashionable figure, perhaps as a result of soiling his legacy with bloated late efforts such as the U.S-British co-productions The VIP’s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964), two films that could not be further from the spirit of the ‘60’s zeitgeist exemplified by continental directors like Godard and Truffaut. Part of Ryall’s mission in this book is to re-evaluate Asquith’s career, replacing the unfair emphasis on Asquith’s more conservative efforts with a perceptive look at how some of his lesser-known works reflected the Britain of the times as well as expressing a very British sense of national identity and character.

Tom Ryall’s study of Asquith and his career concentrates solely on his films, veering away from any biographical detail of the director’s often turbulent life. A closeted homosexual who struggled with alcoholism, Asquith’s placid demeanour masked an inner torment which Ryall acknowledges informed the themes of deception and identity crisis which were a strong element of some of his most illustrious efforts, including Pygmalion (1938), The Browning Version (1951) and most famously, The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). The real strength of Ryall’s book however, is how it draws parallels between contemporaneous events in Britain and how these coloured and influenced Asquith’s output. The book is particularly strong on the war years, when Asquith put his shoulder to the wheel for his country by making a succession of stirring, patriotic war films which encouraged a powerful sense of national pride. Films such as Freedom Radio (1941) and We Dive at Dawn (1944) extolled the virtues of freedom in a way which brilliantly reflected the stiff-upper lip stoicism of a very particular type of Britishness, these films are now of immense historical interest to anyone with an interest in the period. Ryall also re-evaluates some of Asquith’s less-trumpeted works – such as the noirish The Woman in Question (1950) and the sci-fi curiosity The Net (1953) – doing much to re-ignite interest in some of the director’s less stagey efforts.

Asquith’s distinguished career stretched from the early days of British silent cinema up to the experimental climate of the 1960s, and so this intensive look at his filmography also serves as a handy potted history of British film itself. This study is another exemplary entry in the British Film Makers series, and while readers looking for any biographical detail on this highly interesting figure will have to look elsewhere, Tom Ryall’s book is absolutely invaluable for any student of the British film industry in the first half of the 20th century.

Martin Cusack

Paperback: 204 pages
Publisher: Manchester University Press; New in paperback edition (28th Jun 2011)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0719064538
ISBN-13: 978-0719064531
Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 14 x 1.5 cm

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Book Review: Humphrey Jennings (British Film Makers)

Humphrey Jennings (British Film Makers)

Title: Humphrey Jennings (British Film Makers)
Author: Keith Beattie

Humphrey Jennings is Britain’s patron saint of the documentary form. A former Surrealist with a background in the visual arts, Jennings joined the likes of Robert O’ Flaherty and Dziga Vertov among the ranks of the great innovators of documentary by using subtle juxtapositions of sound, music and images to create powerful collages which explored, among other things, the nature of British national identity and the rapidly-changing face of modern society. A fearlessly inventive filmmaker, Jennings blended dramatic re-enactments of real events with ethnographic studies of the British population to gather together a body of work which forms the best extant documentary study of the nation during the extremely trying years of World War 2 and its aftermath.

Jennings’ legacy rests primarily on his extraordinary work of the war period, when his elegantly-styled propagandist films served to fill audiences with a sense of hope and national pride. Never a jingoistic sabre-rattler, his films avoided the subject of the enemy and instead mainly focused on Britains’ preparedness for war, as well as the quiet determination and defiance of the ordinary working man. His most widely-known film remains Fires Were Started (1943), a re-enactment of heroic efforts by auxiliary firemen to extinguish a raging London fire during the Blitz. Combining naturalistic acting by a mainly amateur cast, with a scrupulously realistic simulation of the actual warehouse fire, the film’s dramatic images of fire-fighters silhouetted against a chaotic backdrop of smoke and flames in the night sky provide the most memorable images of Jennings’ career, one of which adorns the cover of this superb study of his filmography by Keith Beattie.

Jennings’ died tragically young, at the age of 43, after a freak accident while filming in Greece in 1950, robbing British cinema of one its most poetic and innovative voices. However, his unique aesthetic was to exert a huge influence among successive generations of British filmmakers such as Mike Leigh, Lindsay Anderson and Terence Davies, who have all acknowledged their debt to Jennings and his work.

This book by Keith Beattie is part of a new series focusing on the work of several under-appreciated British filmmakers of the 20th century; a series which combines a rigorously academic approach with a strong focus on the development of each filmmaker’s craft over the course of their respective careers. Beattie’s book eschews surplus biographical detail to critically re-appraise each of Jennings’ films, addressing the myth that his only important works were those seminal films of the war period.

By looking at his pre-war attempts to forge a new, poetic documentary style while making shorts for the General Post Office service, to his post-war work which looked forward to the future of a Britain recovering from the deep wounds of the wartime experience, Beattie offers a complete overview of his filmography, refusing to give a lop-sided shape to his work with unnecessary over-emphasis on the WW2 films. Beattie perceptively draws our attention to Jennings’ use of ambiguity in his editing techniques and juxtapositions of sound and image, clearly demonstrating the way this most vital facet of his approach set him apart from the straightforward certainties advanced by the more prosaic, rigidly realist style of his contemporaries, such as John Grierson. This ambiguity provides the central thesis of Beattie’s extremely thorough study of Jennings’ work – his poetic impulse drove him to create a complete portrait of his beloved Britain as a country full of contradictions, but united through its diversity and common desire to preserve regional characteristics and national pride.

Beattie keeps the reader aware of the context of the times, in both historical and cinematic terms, alluding to works of contemporaneous filmmakers who tackled similar ground to Jennings. The contributions of key collaborators, such as editor Stewart McAllister and Alberto Cavalcanti, are explored in detail – though at all times we are kept aware of Jennings’ auteurist vision as he went about constructing his visionary films.

One of the more impressive aspects of this study is its forensic attention to detail, including a meticulous shot-for-shot guide to Jennings’ WW2 masterpiece, Listen to Britain. This level of scholarly research results in a study which is undoubtedly too in-depth for the casual reader. However, Beattie’s book is absolutely indispensable to any student of Jennings’ work – or indeed of the Britain of this period – and will surely provide the last word on this great innovator of British cinema, and his all too brief life and career.

Martin Cusack

Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Manchester University Press (19th April 2010)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0719078555
ISBN-13: 978-0719078552
Product Dimensions: 21.4 x 14.4 x 2.2 cm

 

 

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