The War You Don’t See: an incisive and passionate John Pilger documentary

Alan Lowery and John Pilger, “The War You Don’t See” (2010)

Last night (Sunday, 10 April 2011), I caught this documentary presented by veteran Australian journalist John Pilger on the way the news media has presented war to Western audiences on television and in print for much of the 20th century and in the first decade of the 21st. There’s a particular focus on the UK and US news media’s responsibility in reporting war events and the conduct of war accurately and without bias, particularly if the war is a heavily one-sided war which the US, the UK and their allies have instigated against much weaker countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Through interviews with various journalists from the US mainstream news media outlets and the BBC, Pilger shows how far too frequently the news media in these countries have reported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in ways that prejudice Western audiences against the Iraqi and Afghan civilians and minimise or make invisibile the suffering these people undergo. The reporting also serves to hide and advance the agendas of the governments and the interests of the individuals, corpoations and other institutions that politicians rely on for election campaign money and support.

According to some of the promotion for this doco, the emphasis was on the practice of embedding in which journalists travel with the military on assignments and report incidents from the military point of view. The opportunity this gives the military to shape the reporter’s view to the extent that it can decide what the reporter can see or not see, and report in a way that favours the military and its understanding and interpretation of an incident, is pretty obvious. My impression though was that the documentary didn’t spend very much time examining this practice, both from a historical point of view (as in tracing the history of embedment from the First World War or the American Civil War or when it first started) and from a current viewpoint of someone who actually did go on a mission with soldiers, reported on what the soldiers did or were supposed to do, and then had the report vetted by the soldiers or their senior officers before giving it to the news editor.

The documentary did rather better looking at the collusion between the US armed forces and the Hollywood film industry in making war movies since the 1940’s that emphasise American heroism, self-sacrifice, suffering and soldier camaraderie while ignoring the equivalent, often much greater, among the enemy gooks and ragheads; even here though, while the documentary did good work trashing movies like “The Hurt Locker”, it just didn’t go far enough to examine how so close the collusion is that Hollywood film-makers now routinely consult US armed forces personnel in making war movies and tailor scripts to suit the Pentagon’s tastes. Hollywood also must submit all war movies for pre-screening by top Pentagon officials who can order late changes to the movie even at the expense of historical accuracy before the movies can go into cinemas: if this practice were widely known among the public, there would be a huge outcry but Pilger makes no mention of it.

Likewise Pilger’s examination of the heavy bombing of Fallujah in 2004 doesn’t include a brief look at the almost tragicomic series of events, beginning with US troops’ take-over of a school and their refusal to negotiate with the parents of the schoolchildren, escalating through the lynching of four Blackwater mercenaries who might have been set up by their employer to the US army’s decision to attack twice, first in August and then in November in 2004. How these events were covered in Western media, particularly the lynching incident which generated fury among the US public, isn’t mentioned. The aftermath of the bombings which include recent reports of an astonishing rise in birth defects in children born in Fallujah after 2004, together with doctors’ warnings to all female residents never to have children, and how these were reported by the BBC and other news outlets is also ignored.

I’m not sure how the Israeli commando attacks on the Gaza flotilla in 2010 merit mention in a documentary like this; the whole drama itself deserves a separate documentary treatment. There was much about the BBC’s reporting of the Gaza flotilla’s adventures that Pilger could have raked the organisation over – the BBC only started taking an interest in the flotilla when it was intercepted by Israeli forces – but the documentary’s focus was mainly on the film released by the Israeli Defense Forces showing the activists on the Mavi Marmara purportedly attacking the commandos before they reached the ferry. The murders of nine Mavi Marmara passengers (one of whom was a US citizen whose death was ignored by US mainstream news media), done execution-style, were mentioned briefly. No mention though of the Israelis’ treatment of all the surviving flotilla passengers, once they were on dry land, which included people being beaten (a Greek man got a broken leg) and being forced to parade before baying crowds: that was very much off everyone’s radar here.

The documentary is very good and Pilger’s interviews of various talking heads are incisive but the film’s organisation, especially in its latter half, should have been tightened and restricted more to investigating the reporting of the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how news journalists and their employers are under considerable pressure from both governments and armed forces to report war events in a particular way that favours continued prosecution of war. At nearly 100 minutes in length, the documentary seems very long (it’s quite dry and heavy on interviews) and the Mavi Marmara incident really should have been cut out as its particular focus on the IDF propaganda clip is irrelevant to the overall subject.

I’m disappointed that Pilger neglected to examine the possible effects of news reporting that favours a pro-war agenda on people and societies. I imagine the effects of such biased reporting can be very far-reaching: among other things, the sufferings of both Iraqi and Afghan civilians on one side, and of the soldiers and their families, are minimised and ignored to the extent that both governments and the public end up trivialising them, especially if some Iraqis and Afghans escape their hell and try to claim asylum overseas; and the reporting itself may encourage governments and the military to believe in their own invincibility and to spread war and destruction into neighbouring countries as is currently happening in Pakistan from Afghanistan under US President Obama’s watch. War becomes a self-perpetuating activity that individuals, the armed forces, corporations and governments come to rely on to justify the money and resources spent.

Not “Frenzied” enough: a re-run of familiar ideas for Hitchcock but no more

Alfred Hitchcock, “Frenzy” (1972)

Coming at the tail-end of the UK film director’s illustrious career, “Frenzy” is a straightforward murder thriller set in London in the early 1970s. On second thoughts, maybe it was straightforward only for Hitchcock, not his audience: the film carries familiar Hitchcock devices such as the idea of an innocent man being accused of crime or some other deed and being pursued or arrested by authorities while the real perpetrator is at large still, and the killer possibly has a strange relationship with his mother. Scenes of straight-out sadism and sexual violence with references to serial killer psychology are balanced by comedy, farce and graveyard humour. For all that though, “Frenzy” feels like just a walk in the park for Hitchcock for this viewer, partly because of its scaled-down focus on ordinary working people in London, and partly because while it repeats several of Hitchcock’s favourite motifs it doesn’t do much new with them. Neither does it demonstrate or suggest anything that might indicate a new creative direction for the film-making legend.

Former pilot Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) finds himself at the centre of a police hunt after his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and new squeeze Babs (Anna Massey) are found dead on separate occasions, both of them having been killed by a serial rapist / killer nicknamed the Necktie Murderer who has been terrorising the women of London for some time. Blaney seeks help from a friend, a vegetable seller called Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), who gives him shelter but betrays him to the police. Despite Blaney’s protestations of innocence, the police promptly press charges and hustle him quickly through a court and Blaney ends up in jail. In the meantime a good-natured police inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) realises that Blaney may be innocent after he comes across evidence linking Rusk to Babs’s murder. He is later informed that Blaney has escaped from prison and realises the man may be heading to Rusk’s apartment to avenge the deaths of his ex-wife and girlfriend.

As audiences learn the identity of the Necktie Murderer within the film’s first half-hour, “Frenzy” turns its focus onto aspects of Blaney’s character, background and behaviour and various coincidences that suggest to others that he’s the most likely person to be the murderer. Blaney’s been down on his luck lately, having been sacked from work and is in need of money; he’s impulsive, hot-tempered, self-centred and is capable of violent acts. He nurses grudges and doesn’t ingratiate himself with others. Rusk on the other hand is charming, cheerful and friendly, devoted to his mum, and well-liked by everyone who knows him. Spot the killer yet? The subtext is that old cliche that we can’t judge books by their covers and that Blaney and Rusk can be seen as each other’s twin as it were. As the two pals who are as different from each other as night is from day, Finch and Foster are very credible though one has the impression that the bad boy with a heart of gold and the good boy with a hidden and horrifying secret were not difficult stereotypes for them to play.

Oxford as a main character comes late in the movie and his appeal comes mainly from his intelligence and conciliatory nature, and his droll relationship with his wife (Vivien Merchant) who is learning high-class French cuisine and insists on feeding hubby her often inedible and tasteless results. The dinner-table moments provide ample opportunities for macabre slapstick humour as Oxford and the missus discuss aspects of the murder case – in one scene Oxford describes how the Necktie Murderer broke a victim’s fingers while his wife snaps breadsticks, as if in imitation – though after a couple of scenes like this, the humour becomes stale and something else that’s funny is needed. The most hilarious section in “Frenzy” involves Rusk, having dumped a victim in a potato truck, trying to salvage his necktie pin and having to hide among the sacks when the truck starts travelling to a depot; with the victim’s whole body stiff from rigor mortis, he gets kicked in the face constantly by her foot.

The film is peppered with various witty remarks, visual jokes and other utterances and scenes that have double or opposite meanings in the movie’s context: initially amusing, they can become a tired cliche in themselves as the movie progresses. One of the funniest jokes is the appearance of Vladimir Tretchikoff’s famous painting “The Chinese Girl” hanging in Rusk’s apartment: the painting in itself is merely kitsch but appearing in a serial killer’s abode, well, the girl’s green skin can only mean one thing … the guy likes his girls dead!

The support cast hold their side up well and if anything are more important as a group than the three lead actors, as they flesh out lead character Blaney’s background and character and make plausible the possibility of his being the serial killer so their acting and their character details, however minor, are crucial. Brenda’s secretary (Jean Marsh) not only looks like a narrow-minded, holier-than-thou puritan, she is one in the way she speaks to Oxford about Rusk pestering her boss. The fact that Brenda, despite being divorced and employing a spinster stereotype as her assistant, runs a dating agency that might attract sleazy types is a droll detail but is important nevertheless: it brings the serial killer to her.

As expected, the camerawork is impeccable and a significant actor in its own right, panning away from Rusk as he takes Babs to his apartment and floating down the stairs (staircases are major fixtures in Hitchcock films) and out into the streets like a lonely waif while he does what he has to do. Much later as Blaney goes up the stairs seeking revenge, the camera tracks him closely and eagerly, following his hand as it slides up the support rail, emphasising the two men as polar yet complementary opposites. The whole film looks colourful in the way that Hitchcock’s films for Hollywood in the 1950s were vividly coloured. Even the musical soundtrack for “Frenzy” sounds 1950s with its smooth orchestral backing and quite melodramatic tunes and is perhaps the most dated aspect of the film.

Food is a major motif in “Frenzy” but it’s a pity Hitchcock doesn’t connect it very closely to consumption, sex and death. The rapist “consumes” his victims and tosses them out like so much trash: this could have been connected to Rusk’s work as a vegetable seller in some way. Images of abandoned vegetables and fruit that look rotten outside but are still fresh inside could have been used to reinforce the film’s message about how superficial knowledge of a person and circumstantial evidence can be used and manipulated into condemning innocent people who may be alienated from society in some way. Food could also have been used to illustrate and explore Rusk’s relationship with his mother, and give audiences some insight into how he became a violent misogynist.

Not a bad film for a director in the twilight of his career but for some viewers it’ll be hard to shake off the impression that in “Frenzy”, Hitchcock is simply re-running his favourite ideas and not milking them for new insights into people’s motivations and behaviour.

The Draughtman’s Contract: perhaps too multi-layered but enjoyable all the same

Peter Greenaway, “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982)
 
British director Peter Greenaway’s first full-length feature film is a lovely feast for the eyes and ears, and the rest of the brain for that matter as it works on several levels: as an English country-house murder mystery, a subversion of social and political conventions and issues of the period in which it is set (the year 1694), a send-up of historical drama and an examination of what we see and assume is real versus the actual reality of what we fail to see. Brisk and business-like in pace with fixed-camera shots in which actors walk or run about often, the film makes maximum advantage of its garden and country settings to emphasise concerns of fertility and inheritance that underlie the intrigues leading up to and beyond the “murder” of the supposed head of the family. The plot is heavily dependent on dialogue which may require viewers to see the film at least two or three times to appreciate the double meanings of what various characters say to one another and to see layers of meaning in many shots and scenes.
 
A draughtsman, Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins) is commissioned by a wealthy lady, Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman), to create 12 drawings of her house and gardens from different angles in 12 days. After persistent entreaty from Mrs Herbert, Mr Neville finally deigns to do so on terms he dictates – terms which include Mrs Herbert granting him sexual favours in secret while her husband is away on business, and the family taking its meals in the open air – and these terms are included in his contract. His work schedule is precise – he does sketches for all 12 drawings on the first day, then on each succeeding day elaborates on them further – and though he has given exacting instructions on what is to be included and to be left out for each scene on which each drawing is based, and he draws and details exactly what he sees, he discovers over time that the scenes change subtly: in one scene, a shirt in a tree changes position; in another, a statue changes position; in yet a third, various underclothes are strewn about. While not drawing, Mr Neville has his way with a reluctant Mrs Herbert regularly and becomes involved in the life of her household, in particular becoming chummy with Mrs Herbert’s daughter Mrs Talman (Anne-Louise Lambert) and arousing the jealousy and ire of her husband Mr Talman (Hugh Fraser). As the days pass the original contract is declared void. Mrs Talman suggests to Mr Neville that her father may have been murdered and offers the artist a contract of her own, and not long after their conversation the father Mr Herbert is found dead in a moat near an equestrian statue on the family property.
 
Mr Neville is a talented and successful but arrogant artist, sharp and crisp when he speaks, and his arrogance becomes his downfall as he appropriates Mr Herbert’s role as head of the household, only to be manipulated by Mrs Talman to service her sexual needs and being later disposed of by her jealous husband and his friends. Mrs Herbert initially appears fearful and downtrodden, and viewers might feel a bit sorry for her for allowing herself to be abused, but her victim status helps to lure Mr Neville into a scheme that ensures the Herberts’ property and wealth stay with Mrs Herbert and Mrs Talman’s descendants. Mr Neville believes his drawings reflect exactly what he sees and is mystified when Mr Talman sees evidence of sexual impropriety with his wife in the various works or when others examine them for clues to Mr Herbert’s murder and who may have killed him. The artist’s business-like approach to his work and everything he does – even his trysts with Mrs Herbert are conducted as cold-blooded business transactions (which they are so just who is the prostitute here?) – blinds him to hints within the drawings and the landscapes they depict of emotions and enmities that will bring him down.
 
The scheming that goes on in the Herbert household comments on the social relations of the period: Mr Neville, the son of a tenant farmer, tries to undermine the social hierarchy of his time in his own way, only for the aristocrats to put him in his place (an incommunicado one) and conveniently blame him for the murder of Mr Herbert; and the Herberts’ manipulations of Mr Neville imply that theirs is a corrupt class intent on using people for its own self-serving and materialist ends while preserving the appearance of innocence and propriety, symbolised by the white clothes and wigs of the Herberts and their household.
 
The actors are great to watch: their acting appears natural (apart from some scenes where actors may strike poses) in contrast to the hugely exaggerated costumes, wigs and make-up they often wear, and they are good-looking almost to the point of blandness: Lambert has a delicate, ethereal beauty that belies her character’s calculating nature and Higgins looks so po-faced that the barest emotion might crack his forehead. The diction is precise with a cut-glass edge: a necessary requirement as the dialogue includes complete sentences laden with puns, double meanings and references to classical Greek mythology which themselves have double meanings in the context of the film. Visual puns abound: naked male statues change positions, the equestrian statue sometimes loses its rider and the landscapes and buildings often look too perfectly picturesque and manicured. I suspect the English in the pre-industrial 1690’s were not greatly concerned with being punctual, neat and exact in their work. The water in the moat, still and lime-green, betrays no broken lines that might suggest something has fallen into it. Even the weather is unusually balmy and sunny.
 
Mention should be made of Michael Nyman’s musical score which is based on repeated motifs (what might be called riffs in some genres of rock and other popular music) by the 17th century English composer Henry Purcell; performed by various musicians who included Alexander Balanescu (later to form the experimental chamber music group The Balanescu Quartet in 1987), the music can be very intrusive, appearing when least expected and not complementing anything happening at the time, and has an odd shrill reedy sound sometimes but its artificial and theatrical style suits the film.
 
The camerawork includes lovely idyllic country and garden scenes that could be tableaux with hidden secrets, layered with meanings that change over the course of the film; unfortunately the camera doesn’t linger long over such scenes but its abruptness is in keeping with the cracking pace that Mr Neville sets for himself at work and for everyone around him. The way in which scenes are filmed not only draws viewers’ attention to the lush vegetation, it also distances the characters from viewers and underlines their connections with their environment, emphasising again the Herberts’ attachment – nay, obsession – to their lands and the wealth represented in them.
 
Funny how even in such a painterly film as “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, money manages to rear its ugly head: this is appropriate as in 1694 England was well on the way to becoming the centre of an empire that had its origins in trade and the quest for wealth. The whiff of enterprise and commerce exists throughout the film, in the way Mr Neville whips everyone into action as soon as the ink on his contract dries, laying down the law as to how the Herberts and their retinue must comply with his requirements, and how he attempts to usurp the “natural” order in the ladies’ household. People appear oh-so-refined and cultured but the things they really value are money and property (which itself generates more money). With so many contrasts, contradictions and the many pairings of opposites, this film is dripping – maybe too much so – with meaning but it’s an enjoyable intellectual romp all the same. What we see is what we necessarily don’t get (or grasp) and the murder – if indeed, a murder did occur – is never solved.
 
(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “Orlando” by Sally Potter and “The Shooting Party” by Alan Bridges from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)

The Shooting Party: stodgy, genteel film detailing decay of British nobility

Alan Bridges, “The Shooting Party” (1985)

Mainly notable for being the last movie to feature James Mason before his death in 1984, this film about a group of British aristocrats gathering at a country mansion is a study in microcosm of the downfall of the British upper class and its values, and how their culture might have decayed over time. The film is set in the autumn of 1913, the last year before the outbreak of the Great War (World War 1) that engulfed much of Europe and destroyed monarchies in Germany and Russia.

A rich landowner, Sir Randolph Nettleby (Mason), invites several friends and their wives to his home to shoot grouse over a weekend. Other pastimes the host family and its guests enjoy include horse-riding, dancing, discussions, playing card games, going for walks through scenic country which includes a large pond for ducks and a fancy dress party. For much of the film, the audience is treated to investigations of the various foibles of Nettleby’s wealthy guests and his servants in a manner similar to Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” which also featured members of the British upper class gathering at an aristocrat’s home. Nettleby’s guests include Lord Gilbert Hartlip and his wife (Edward Fox and Cheryl Campbell) who more or less conduct an open marriage, as long as their liaisons remain secret: Lady Hartlip carries on an affair with a businessman (Aharon Ipale) who pays her gambling losses. Hartlip is jealous of another guest, barrister Lionel Stephens (Rupert Frazer), for his shooting skills; Stephens himself is besotted with yet another guest, Lady Olivia Lilburn (Judi Bowker) who is married to Lord Lilburn (Robert Hardy).

The film’s focus is mainly on Nettleby and his party of guests but covers, superficially at least, the life of the local rural working-men hired to drive the grouse towards the aristocrats, in particular Tom Harker (Gordon Jackson) who is also a poacher. Harker declares his support for the British politician David Lloyd George, a liberal-minded leader who initiated reforms that led to the development of the welfare state in the UK; he also happens to be friendly with Nettleby who sees him as having the simple country life he dreams of for himself. An outsider, Cornelius Cardew (John Gielgud), intrudes into the life of these men which revolves around the pub, waving slogans and pamphlets advocating animal rights and decrying blood sports and hunting. The upper and lower classes usually keep to themselves – a scene in which they have a break after a shooting session illustrates the social separation well: the aristocrats retire to a marquee for tea and champagne while Nettleby’s tenants gather around a table in the open air for beer – until a tragic hunting accident brings everybody together.

As the characters represent types, they bear most of the film’s investigation into the values and behaviour of the British aristocracy and so the movie appears plotless and lacking in direction, shifting from one set of characters and their interactions to another set. The pace is steady with the focus on people’s dialogue and there’s very little action until near the end. The symbolism can be over-obvious and clumsy – it doesn’t seem likely that a group of upper class men smoking cigars after dinner would be talking about the descent of Western civilisation and of their class at a time when British power was at its peak and controlled half the planet – and limits character development, no matter how well individual actors play their roles. Nettleby as portrayed by Mason is a warm if world-weary gentleman, dignified and gracious, troubled about the legacy he and his kind might be leaving to his country. Nettleby presides over his world as a benevolent but firm patriarch; his meeting with Cardew who disrupts a shooting session appears self-deprecatory and humorous but is actually a subtle put-down that asserts the aristocracy’s right of control over the birds and other animals that dwell on his properties. Cardew either takes the hint or allows himself to be led into a conversation about his pamphlets and the men soon part on good terms.

Nettleby represents a generation of leaders who made the British Empire what it was in 1913 but is concerned that the next generation of aristocrats, represented by the Hartlips, is self-indulgent and hedonistic now that the nobility has given up its role of ruling the country. The Hartlips represent the impotence of the new generation of upper class people: Lord Hartlip is obsessed about his shooting skills and his wife is addicted to gambling; her dependence on her lover for money in exchange for sex demonstrates the aristocracy’s dependence on self-made wealthy men to survive. (Lady Hartlip’s addiction might hint at the emptiness of her life as an aristocrat’s wife, forbidden by convention to do any meaningful work.) The implication is the Hartlips and their generation will sell themselves into a bondage they don’t understand to maintain their reputations. The secret liaison between Stephens and Lady Lilburn shows both the contrast and complementarity between the new world of commerce, brash and competitive, as represented by Stephens, and a more socially conscientious, well-meaning layer of the upper class, represented by Lady Lilburn. The lady rebuffs the barrister in spite of her attraction to him. Lady Lilburn’s husband appears typical of many upper class people in lacking the imagination, creativity and enterprise his class needs to survive in the new world to come.

The Hartlips’ obsession to keep up appearances and past (but fading) reputations and Stephens’s own competitve behaviour to please Lady Lilburn collide in a shooting incident in which Lord Hartlip, goaded by his wife, breaks an unspoken gentleman’s code by firing his rifle after the shooting session is declared finished. He ends up wounding Harker. Harker’s death represents the fate of soldiers from across the British Empire who were to die in the killing fields of Verdun and elsewhere during the War. Mason as Nettleby, watching over Harker, delivers a moving performance as he prays with the dying man  and sees this icon of simple country life slip away. Surely at this moment Nettleby realises the real incompetence and powerlessness of his class; he has had control over Harker’s life as the poacher’s landlord but cannot control the manner and moment of Harker’s death. Hartlip, standing by, is paralysed by the consequences of his senseless action and can only offer financial compensation – putting himself into his cuckold’s pockets.

The film overall is stodgy due to the burdensome symbolism, the earnest tone, the slow pace and apparent lack of purpose but there are some fine acting performances from Mason, Bowker, Fox, Jackson and Gielgud in very restricted roles. A small subplot in which Nettleby’s grandson is always looking for his lost pet duck with the help of a maid provides amusement and lightens the movie’s serious tone but even this diversion has its dark side as there’s the possibility that the duck might get shot. The movie is worth watching twice at least: the first time to see the entire story and the second time to absorb important details about the various characters, minor as well as major ones, and what these details tell us about the British aristocracy and its customs in the early 20th century. “The Shooting Party” is very genteel and oblique in its approach, and this isn’t likely to appeal to a wide audience who perhaps need to learn the film’s lesson about upper class arrogance and incompetence.

(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “Orlando” by Sally Potter and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” by Peter Greenaway from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)

Orlando: lavish and lovely lightweight film with nothing to say

Sally Potter, “Orlando” (1992)

Based on British writer Virginia Woolfe’s novel “Orlando: a Biography”, this film by Sally Potter is a flimsy work that fails to say anything meaningful about the status of men and women in English and British society over a number of centuries, though I presume that must have been Potter’s intention. The events in the title character’s life take place over a period spanning nearly 400 years, beginning with the twilight days of Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp), in whose employ Orlando (Tilda Swinton) is a courtier. His youthful alabaster beauty attracts the aged queen’s attention and he briefly becomes her lover. On her deathbed, she endows him and his heirs with considerable wealth – money, a large property with a castle – on the condition that he remain ever young in appearance and spirit. Orlando makes the promise and moreover keeps it: but this promise is to be both his pride and agony.

The film is cut into discrete chapters which structure and simplify Orlando’s presumably complicated life along the themes of death, love, poetry, politics, society, sex and birth (in that order) for the audience’s understanding but which have the effect of distancing and alienating viewers from the character’s experiences and his (later her) responses to them. You’d assume Orlando matures over time and becomes wise and understanding of human foibles but the character remains the same empty person throughout the film; if anything, incidents such as being jilted in love, seeing someone shot dead, undergoing a spontaneous sex change and losing her inheritance (and the adjustments Orlando must have had to make as a result) seem to distance Orlando from humanity rather than encourage her to appreciate the joys, tragedies and niggly irritations that come with being ageless and immortal.

It’s understandable that an early brief affair with a Russian princess, Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), and harassment from his fiancée make a very young Orlando disillusioned with women and their behaviour. This negative attitude stays with Orlando for the rest of his time as a male, to the extent that he gives his life over to poetry – until his own writing efforts are debunked – and then to politics which enables him to travel to Constantinople as British ambassador to the Ottomans and indulge in the sensual life-style of the Turkish aristocracy. After becoming female himself, Orlando doesn’t appear to reflect on how he has treated women in the past, both as individuals and as a group, even as a group of poets invited to a salon she hosts criticises women and the British courts seize her lands on the legal basis that women don’t have the right to own and manage property. A brief affair with an American idealist and adventurer Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) parallels the affair with Sasha – both lovers are wedded to loyalty to their country or ideals – yet Orlando makes no comparisons between these and with any other liaisons s/he’s had over the years.

Viewers are entitled to know how Orlando copes after being divested of her wealth and lands. Having led a life of luxury and entitlement over two centuries, enjoying travel and literature, how does Orlando survive without servants and having to earn her own living? The film doesn’t say: it simply flips from 1850, when Orlando is informed that she has lost her property, to some time in the 1940’s when she is running across a bomb-scarred landscape. At this point in “Orlando”, Potter could have examined the social and economic status of single women over that period, how it compared to the status of single men then, and what society thought of single women having to work at a time when a woman’s overall social / economic status and reputation were defined by her marital status. It’s likely Orlando had to be governess to children of a wealthy family or a music teacher to survive but viewers unfamiliar with novels like Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” or other literature written during the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) about upper and middle class women can only guess at how Orlando makes her way into the 20th century. There’s also nothing in “Orlando” about how the status of women varied in Britain over 400 years: women who lived in the 1500s – 1600s might have enjoyed a higher social and cultural status than their daughters in succeeding centuries. Nor is there any reference to efforts made by men and women in the late 19th / early 20th centuries to educate girls and women, and to get equal political and economic rights for both sexes. Yet it’s obvious by the end that Orlando has benefitted in some way from the advances made by other people on women’s behalf: she looks well-fed and happy with her lot and so does her child. Why so much of her life after 1850 and losing her wealth is omitted from the film is not just a puzzle, it’s an outrage. The implication that Potter isn’t interested in covering people’s lives if they aren’t wealthy or upper class comes to mind.

Looking more like a showcase of various historical dioramas of English / British culture and how sophisticated and multi-layered it must have been through the ages, with flamboyant costumes, lavish furnishings and the re-enactment of customs appropriate to each historical period, all of which was carefully researched, the film is a gorgeous visual treat. Some scenes are interesting if pretentious static tableaux in themselves and could be comments on the process and narrative function of making films.

The acting is very secondary to the plot and the historical settings with Swinton playing her part very minimally and her acting restricted to wide eyes, quizzical looks at the viewer and quips and asides that aren’t witty, cutting or illuminating: when Orlando comments on a performance of Shakespeare’s “Othello”, the remark is merely that it’s “a terrific play”. Though Swinton may be a good actor, she seems to have been cast for her particular colouring, red hair and alabaster skin, rather than for her talent and experience. Playing Orlando as a male, she is convincing in conveying male mannerisms – there’s a good scene where her actions are mirrored by a male actor and the likeness between the two in their behaviour is very striking – though perhaps, at the risk of parody, Swinton could have exaggerated her actions more in some scenes to be more masculine; likewise, in playing Orlando the woman, she could also have exaggerated some of her feminine behaviour, maybe even indulged in some “feminine wiles” (pleading, making big eyes) in her scenes with Shelmerdine.

Lovely to look at but under its golden sheen, “Orlando” is an empty vessel. I sense that it goes as far as it can in a narrow orbit and that’s it. Because if it did, it might be “controversial” and lots of people would be upset at some real gender politics, especially if and when expressed for comic effect. As a comedy, “Orlando” could have been a perfect vehicle to express uncomfortable opinions, make some observations about society that cut to the bone and question issues we take for granted with grace, wit and style.

(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “The Shooting Party” by Alan Bridges and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” by Peter Greenaway from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)

Monsters (dir. Gareth Edwards): likely to be a minor cult classic but lacking in refinement

 

Gareth Edwards, “Monsters”, Vertigo Films (2010)
 
Some time in the not too distant future, a NASA space probe has gone and collected some alien life-forms from one of those recently discovered giant exoplanets orbiting various stars hundreds of light years away. On its way back the probe crash-lands in northern Mexico and the life-forms, surviving the blast and the hit of oxygen and other unfamiliar gases, escape and proliferate. Six years after that terrible event, an entire area of several million square kilometres along the border with the United States has been declared an Infected Zone: that is, it’s infected with giant squid and octopus aliens with long skinny insect legs to walk on land and huge tentacles to throw tow-trucks and fighter jets around for ballgame practice. Cities in the Zone are left abandoned, buildings and highways are left in ruins and only the very poor who cannot escape scrape whatever existence they can from the land. Just how much fun these cephalopods get up to is demonstrated early on when we see on night vision a US army convoy, complete with a soldier singing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, run into one such creature: there’s an explosion, a tank is damaged, a man starts screaming for help and attempts to drag a woman off the road away from the enraged beast. Soldiers rescue the woman but leave the man behind to suffer a horrible death.
 
The bulk of the film is a road movie about two mismatched people, Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha Windon (Whitney Able), thrown together by Kaulder’s unseen magazine employer. Kaulder has come down to Mexico on an assignment to do a story on the aliens and their effect on the local people when he gets a call to escort the boss’s daughter back to the US. He finds her and initially their train journey goes smoothly – until the train driver is told to stop and turn back. Kaulder and Samantha leave the train and hitch-hike down to the coast where they try to catch the morning ferry. Unfortunately they lose their passports and the ferry leaves; the only remaining option is for them to go through the Infected Zone with an armed guard escort to the border.
 
The two are determined not to speak to each other, Kaulder angry at having to “baby-sit” the boss’s daughter, but they bond together enough that, down at the coast when he discovers she’s not interested in him and is engaged to someone else who she seems uninterested in, he ends up getting drunk and in bed with a prostitute who later steals the passports. The prostitute is able to take the documents and Kaulder’s cash because when Sam sees her with Kaulder, Sam runs away as if stood up and Kaulder runs after her, leaving the valuables behind. The way in which Sam and Kaulder become friends, start to trust each other and then fall in love through their travels in the Zone and beyond stretches credibility but Able and McNairy’s minimal acting at least puts meat and bones on two otherwise very vague and sketchy character types. Perhaps it is indeed possible that two initially incompatible human beings who are actually starved for proper affection can, through unique shared experiences that involve extreme and intense emotion and behaviour on their part, be more than travelling acquaintances?
 
As they travel through the Zone, Sam and Kaulder learn something of the aliens’ life-cycle (luckily for them, this doesn’t include humans as larval incubators – Sigourney Weaver can breathe easily now) and see the creatures close up twice: the first time, it’s as though they’re on a safari trip, watching wild animals go about their business; the second time, it’s in a more conventionally sci-fi horror setting with the exception that a screaming US fighter jet on patrol has upset the creatures and caused them to go on a rampage. As a result the two travellers lose their armed escorts and must continue on their own. The movie’s sub-text, which began with the monsters as a metaphor for illegal Mexican and Central American migrants entering the US through the porous US-Mexican border, becomes richer: the alien creatures, through their conversion of the semi-desert region of northern Mexico into lush tropical rainforest (complete with an abandoned Aztec or Mayan pyramid – how that got in there, I’d like to know), represent a regeneration of life and it’s quite possible that through their close contact with the aliens and nature, Sam and Kaulder become awakened to the humanity in themselves.
 
Sam and Kaulder’s ascent of the Mayan pyramid (representing a failed empire) to rest and view the distant Wall along the US-Mexican border is a remarkable highlight of the movie, not least because of the multi-layered symbolism within the beautiful and atmospheric if slightly unreal scene: among other things, the Wall is a replication of the Great Wall of China, itself a monumental failed attempt to stop barbarian invasions of Chinese empires, and implying that the United States has become a self-made giant ghetto. The symbolism becomes even greater once Sam and Kaulder reach the border and cross over: they leave abundant green nature and walk into a deserted barren landscape where all houses have been hit by air strikes and one survivor they see is severely traumatised. Now the Wall is a veil to stop foreigners from seeing what America has become and how far from the invincible military superpower empire the nation has actually fallen. The conversation the two have about seeing America from the outside while resting on the ruined pyramid’s summit takes on an extra bitter resonance.
 
We see the aliens only a few times in the film and it’s not until near the film’s end in the petrol station scene that we see them in their rather ordinary giant squid entirety. Sam and Kaulder watch in fascinated awe as two giant aliens, crackling with electrical energy, glide toward each other on their stilts and entwine tentacles. The subliminal message being sent to the two humans is obvious: Sam and Kaulder should stay together rather than return to their empty lives in the world’s biggest hermetically sealed ghetto state. The humans get the message all right (the creatures’ pheromones blowing into their faces help too) and start to kiss. In the meantime a US army convoy, complete with a soldier singing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, is barrelling along the road to collect the two travellers.
 
The film could have been a lot better in its character development – Kaulder is a cynical, unlikeable guy and one wonders what the more capable Sam sees in him, at least until we discover he has a son from an old fling – with better dialogue that doesn’t have to be witty or smart-arse spitfire repartee but at least makes the two lead characters more three-dimensional and maybe more conflicted about what they’re going back to and what they’re giving up at journey’s end. As it turns out, journey’s end is The End for one of the pair. Apart from the two leads and the threadbare plot, the film unfolds rather like a beautiful nature documentary with even the aliens appearing like local wildlife – albeit giant local wildlife toying with ruined fighter jets – and parts of their life-cycle and behaviour on display for open-minded people. The idea of a sci-fi horror film about an alien invasion combining nature documentary, the road movie genre with two people developing a moving relationship and some political commentary is original and inspired, and if the director had had more experience in making movies and didn’t have to do nearly everything himself on a small budget, he could have pulled the whole thing off more successfully and the film might have become a masterpiece. I can see “Monsters” becoming a minor cult classic: it has most of the elements for a great movie and the main thing holding these back is a lack of refinement and development.

Made in Dagenham: perky comedy-drama that’s a little shallow but enjoyable nevertheless

Nigel Cole, “Made in Dagenham”, BBC Films / UK Film Council (2010)
 
Much in the vein of other British comedy-dramas that revolve around social and economic problems faced by working class people and how they deal with them – think of “Brassed Off” and “The Full Monty” which dealt with coal mine closures and mass unemployment – this film is a brisk fictional dramatisation of the fight by a group of women machinists for equal pay and recognition of their skills against their employer Ford Motors in Dagenham in 1968. The story of their struggle centres around Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) who we first meet as a shy young worker, married to another Ford Motors employee at the same plant and raising two school-age children in their apartment on an estate close to the plant. Rita and her co-workers sit at machines furiously stitching together car-seat covers in hot, stifling conditions in a basement whose ceiling leaks badly whenever there is a storm. Rita seems an unprepossessing candidate for a firebrand leader for social and political change when early on she confronts her son’s teacher for caning the child for no reason and the fellow harangues her for her social and economic background, implying that this makes her a “bad” parent. Upset and close to tears, Rita flees the classroom, bumping into another woman (Rosamund Pike). Not a good start, it seems.
 
Encouraged and supported by the plant’s shop steward Albert (Bob Hoskins in an undemanding role) and co-worker Connie (Geraldine James), Rita finds the confidence and inner steel to speak up before the Ford Motors management and her union representatives to demand equal pay for work of equal skill as the male Ford workers are getting. The women machinists throw their full weight behind Rita and go on indefinite strike. Their action is noticed by the media, one thing starts to lead to another, and Rita and the other women are plunged into a round of union meetings, more demonstrations and an invitation to speak to women machinists at another Ford Motors plant who also go on strike. In the meantime, Rita’s husband (Daniel Mays) valiantly tries to manage the household. Ford Motors retaliates by shutting down its Dagenham plant, throwing the men out of work and into conflict with the women, and threatening to shut down its entire UK operations altogether if the women continue with their campaign.
 
The film does try – not successfully – to show that the women’s fight isn’t all smooth sailing. Rita comes perilously close to losing her husband and home, Connie’s involvement indirectly leads to her husband’s suicide and a young worker, Sandra (Jaime Winstone), is tempted by the Ford Motors management to model for a series of advertisements. The movie’s energy and upbeat mood steam-roll across the short episodes of tension, conflict and tragedy which is unfortunate as these periods are necessary to give audiences pause for thought and quiet away from the “on-on-on!” pace of the film and to round out the characters as three-dimensional human beings with lives away from the shop floor. Where the film does succeed is in detailing the general extent of sexual discrimination against women as a group: we become aware that in 1968 the discrimination was widespread across class divisions (the male workers at the Dagenham plant do not support the women strikers and the management tries to exploit this apathy) and many women themselves, represented by the lady Rita brushes past early on at her son’s school, internalised this discrimination as their lot in life: the stranger turns out to be a university graduate who allows her Ford Motors senior manager husband to intimidate her and treat her like a slave. In spite of her intelligence and poise, the woman, hamstrung by her class, can only offer Rita minimal support in the form of a bright red frock to wear to her meeting with starchy UK politician Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson). Watching this film, you could learn nearly as much about men’s attitudes and treatment of women and the women’s meek acceptance of such treatment in the 1960’s as from watching several episodes of “Mad Men”; there’s the added benefit of seeing how corporations used these attitudes as weapons to divide and beat working-class people and sap their collective strength, and that not even Castle was immune from being patronised by people supposedly working with and for her.
 
I wish I could say that Hawkins portrays Rita as a woman who, in the process of becoming a leader, discovers a new self and goes through significant personal change but with the way the film charges ahead once Rita challenges the union reps, her character quickly gets locked into an onwards-and-upwards rut. There’s little opportunity from then on for Hawkins as Rita to express self-doubt, anxiety and feelings of losing control over aspects of her life, and to plead with her husband and others to support the women’s cause. Without some character development, Rita becomes a bit of a stock character and her husband is reduced to wallpaper support, and an opportunity to see them both grow and develop as human beings is lost. Hoskins’s mentoring character is also reduced to cheerleader status as a result. The drama around Connie and her husband, traumatised by his war experiences, is sketchy and viewers have to guess at why he commits suicide. The actors around Hawkins provide great support and with the exception of Richardson’s slapstick scenes don’t compete for attention. Perhaps as a result, in the few scenes where both Hawkins and Richardson are absent, the film tends to stall a little, the dynamism falters and viewers will feel like yelling “Bring Rita BACK!”
 
Details like fashion, hair-styles and the music of the period add colour and zip to the film and account for some of that perky, energetic mood that must have swept the film crew and the script-writers along with the actors. For all its shortcomings, this is an enjoyable film with a positive message for all those who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves, like Rita, thrust into positions they feel unsuited for.

Control: apt title for Joy Division / Ian Curtis biopic where control is not much in evidence

Control
It’s apt that this biopic about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis should be called Control because, apart from the reference to the famous Joy Division song “She’s Lost Control”, control was the one thing Curtis had very little of over many aspects of his short life: his career and the way it was heading, his relationships, his health and, perhaps most of all, his inner being and security. Directed by long-time Joy Division devotee Anton Corbijn, Control (Momentum / The Weinstein Company 2007) is a beautifully shot film with a black-and-white print and a strictly linear plot structure, that by turns transforms Curtis’s life into a curious mix of 1950s social realist drama, industrial Romanticist tragedy and Impressionist, even existentialist study that brings to the fore in shades of grey Curtis’s anxieties and the pressures weighing on him, and which calls into question where and how people of a sensitive, artistic nature can find their place in modern industrial society. Lead actor Sam Riley portrays the singer with all his contradictions and torments, even his style of performance, to great effect.

Based on the memoir Touch from a Distance by Curtis’s widow Deborah (who was also co-producer), the film relegates the other Joy Division members to minor status, almost to the extent where they aren’t much more than necessary accessories to the plot, and manager Rob Gretton appears as the required comic relief, which perhaps does disservice to him as he died several years ago. Anyone not familiar with Joy Division’s history and output will get at best a hazy idea of what the musicians achieved together and of the band’s significance in the history of British rock and pop music. That means of course that we learn nothing about how Joy Division wrote their songs and developed their particular and distinctive brand of post-punk music, and how and why it resonated with so many people in the UK and elsewhere. Some incidents, such as Factory Records boss Tony Wilson signing the band’s contract with his own blood (supposedly) and the gig riot where Gretton eagerly flies into the audience to punch a heckler, appear for laughs or for sensationalism. However in a biopic such as this, I appreciate there is a need for moments of levity. For all that, the character of Deborah Curtis herself is reduced to the long-suffering, stay-at-home wife / mother forced by circumstances and Curtis himself to remain on the fringes of his career and life, and this, apart from not giving actor Samantha Morton much to do in the role of Deborah, speaks volumes about cultural attitudes towards married women like Deborah at the time, their place in their husbands’ lives and how such notions fed into the myth of the rock star lifestyle. The cruel irony (in the film anyway – we don’t see the band together much in the studio or on tour) is that not only does Curtis himself fall under the spell of this myth, it cuts him off from the one person who could have understood and helped him with his problems, and leads him into situations where he is vulnerable and out of his depth. In the course of the film, interesting questions arise about how artists and musicians view themselves and their work vis-a-vis how their audiences see them and their work – in scenes where Joy Division are performing live and Curtis starts having epileptic seizures, some people in the audience start jeering him on, thinking he is acting for their benefit – and about the contrasts between Deborah and his extramarital lover Annik Honore and what the two women represent for him. Within the film’s narrow narrative framework, these questions can never be fully addressed.

Before seeing Control, I didn’t think I knew Joy Division’s music all that well, not having heard all the band’s studio albums and only ever having owned a compilation set Substance that came out 20 years ago, so I was surprised by the music that does appear in the film’s soundtrack: it turns out that the set I did have is representative of the band’s output and I recognised most of the Joy Division songs in the soundtrack. Excerpts of 1970s songs by David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Kraftwerk, The Buzzcocks and The Sex Pistols also can be heard along with incidental music from New Order. The British performance poet John Cooper Clarke appears as himself declaiming some of his poetry early on in the film.

I like the film but I don’t think it has much appeal beyond an audience already familiar with Joy Division’s music and history. The fact that I saw it on TV on a non-commercial channel at a late hour as I had missed the cinematic release two years ago says as much. Corbijn wisely avoids romanticising Curtis’s life and death by presenting his seizures as depressing and painful rather than as trance-like, vivid and perhaps revelatory, and by portraying the singer’s last hours as rather banal, but for audiences reared on Hollywood-style plots that insist on wringing or manipulating anything offering false hope out of even the most desperate situation, this won’t do. The hero has to grit his teeth and get himself out of trouble by his own devices somehow, overcome all those years of mental, social and cultural conditioning (yeah, fat chance), and not be passive – as the cliché goes: Just Do It! The linear structure doesn’t permit much exploration of any issues and questions that arise as the film progresses. When the film ends, it ends on a tragi-Romantic note, yet if the other members of Joy Division had been treated as more than moving wallpaper, we could have had an ending of hope and rebirth that would have cheered the masses: the guys all went on to form New Order and as far as I’m aware they all still have careers in music.

Some people may see in Control an example of how depression and suicide can devastate families and friends, and how if only people could recognise an individual’s symptoms and behaviours as potentially leading to suicide, they might be able to get help sooner for the person and avoid tragedy. But I’m not sure that had Curtis’s family and friends been able to recognise Curtis’s behaviour as suicidal, they might have been able to get help for him in time as the film does have scenes of Curtis in denial about his problems and preferring to please people rather than upset them or their plans.

Incidentally the screenplay for Control was written by Matt Greenhalgh who also wrote the screenplay for Nowhere Boy which I saw very recently, so it’s no wonder that I see too many similarities between the two films: a main male character based on a real person is torn between two women of contrasting characters and sets of values.

Nowhere Boy

nowhere-boy-poster-0
You don’t need to know much about The Beatles or John Lennon in particular to watch Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy (Ecosse Films / Icon), a fictionalised account about a period in Lennon’s teenage life that was supposedly significant to his development as a musician and person; in fact if you do, you might be annoyed at how the whole episode has been packaged. Life is never so tidy as it is presented in the movies. The period covers the time Lennon became reacquainted with his mother Julia after a decade of abandonment, during which his Aunt Mimi and her husband have brought him up, and runs up to and includes Julia’s death and funeral. During this time Julia teaches Lennon how to play banjo, involves him with her family life that includes two small daughters (one of whom whose memoirs form the basis for this film – this is the older child, Julia) she had with her de facto husband, and generally introduces Lennon to a different and more carefree way of experiencing life than the boy has known so far from his strait-laced aunt. Lennon ends up transforming from a rebellious teenager with no idea of what to do with himself or why he is angry at everyone and everything to a more purposeful young man who discovers in music an outlet for his artistic talents and his various frustrations.

Aaron Johnson, who plays Lennon, does a sterling job in what is basically a coming-of-age / kitchen-sink drama. He portrays nearly the full range of Lennon’s complex and troubled personality: he is at once sensitive, full of bravado and cheek, boorish, aware of the class differences between himself and his aunt on the one hand and on the other the people he prefers to mix with, and capable of unbelievable cruelty to people who love and support him. Kristin Scott Thomas (Mimi) and Anne-Marie Duff (Julia) are capable actors who, perhaps inevitably in this kind of movie drama, have to fall into the sisterly equivalent of the good cop / bad cop routine: the prim and proper class-conscious Mimi, always looking severely dark and school-marmish, attempts vainly to rein in Lennon from the consequences of what she considers his misdeeds while red-haired free spirit Julia in her bright colours collaborates with her son in actions both know will probably get up Mimi’s nose. You can smell the confrontation between the two women and what they are made to represent in this movie coming from a mile away and when it arrives it’s pretty ugly with Julia’s secrets spilled out in front of her son, already drunk and distraught after trying to get his mother to admit what happened to his father and where he went years ago. After this, the movie’s not too clear on how Lennon makes his peace with his aunt and mother, and there’s a suggestion that he never has the opportunity to renegotiate his relationship with Julia due to her premature death.

Of course while we wait for the showdown to arrive, there is the significant sub-plot of Lennon’s developing interest in music which leads him to form The Quarrymen, which in itself brings him in contact with Paul McCartney (played by Thomas Sangster, who looks almost right for the part) after the latter sees The Quarrymen perform at a fair. The precocious youngster teaches Lennon correct guitar-playing techniques and chords, brings along George Harrison to join the band, and even becomes a brother figure to Lennon when they discover they have a shared experience of the loss or absence of a mother (McCartney informs Lennon that his own mother is dead). This bond is strengthened after Julia’s death and the moment when the two teenagers acknowledge the connection is brief but very moving.

And what about the music, you ask? Well, yes, The Beatles are the proverbial elephant in the room as evidenced by background noises of screaming girls and the opening chord to ‘Hard Day’s Night’ which opens the movie, but the band’s name is never actually mentioned in the movie. Some of Lennon’s music is used in the film and there is also an excerpt of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s ‘I Put A Spell On You’, but the soundtrack is scored in the main by the UK group Goldfrapp.

The movie makes no pretense at being a documentary, or even being all that factual: everything that happens appears compressed into a two-year period when more likely it was spread out over several years. The impression is given that Aunt Mimi and Julia don’t get on well because of Julia’s past behaviour in her marriage to Lennon’s father, and I imagine that a lot of Beatles and Lennon fans will be aghast at the idea of turning Lennon’s childhood and adolescence into a soap opera. Perhaps the two women actually had less influence on Lennon’s life than the film’s premise supposes and other adults most certainly had a role in forming his personality and musical development but when facts and making movie family dramas with emotionally manipulative material clash, I guess it’s generally too bad for the facts.