Never Look Away / Werk ohne Autor, Germany, Italy, USA, Czech republic 2019.

Young Kurt with Elizabeth and ‘degenerate art’

This new title had two screenings at the Picture House. I managed the second which had a small but respectable audience.  They all stayed to the end, which was 188 minutes later. In fact the film did not seem three hours to me as the characters and the stories were absorbing.

I write ‘stories’ as there are two narrative strands in the film and I thought one weakness was that they never seemed to completely mesh. The English language title refers to the personal and family drama strand. This starts in 1937 as we see the young Kurt [Cai Cohrs) with his Aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) as they follow a guided tour of the Nazi exhibition of ‘degenerate art’. Kurt already has ambitions to be  a painter. But the emphasis is on the personal. Elizabeth admonishes the young Kurt to

‘never look away’ because ‘everything that is true holds beauty in it’.

But she is soon lost and becomes a victim of the Nazi policies of sterilization and extermination of people deemed physically and mentally ‘unfit’.

After the war Kurt and his family find themselves in the zone liberated by the Soviet armies and then the German Democratic Republic. Kurt goes to art school where the official style is ‘Socialist realism’. He meets and falls in love with another student Elizabeth, ‘Ellie’ (Paula Beer). Her father Carl (Sebastian Koch) is a gynecologist and the audience [but not Kurt or Ellie] know that he has a suspect past from the era of the Third Reich. As this starts to catch up with him he leaves for the West. Now married Kurt and Ellie follow just before the erection of the infamous ‘Wall’.

This latter part of the film is closer to the German title, which translates as ‘Without an Author’. This refers to the film using some of the life story of an actual German artist, Gerhard Richter, whose paintings figure in the film. Kurt enrolls at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, at the time a centre of avant-garde art. Here we see another thinly veiled character from real life, the artist  Joseph Beuys. Now Kurt finds an artistic voice  and critical acclaim.

Adult Kurt with a Socialist Realist portrait and an experimental canvas

Less focused is family life, but Kurt and Ellie have children and happiness. The fate of her father Carl is not revealed but there is a hint that nemesis is closing in.

The cast work well, Tom Schilling and Paula Beer are reasonably good.  Sebastian Koch is excellent with a real sense of malevolence. The stand-out performance is Saskia Rosendahl, though she is only seen in the early part of the film.

The production is extremely well done. The design, cinematography and sound all work well to produce a convincing creation of the places and times. And there are both subtle and less subtle references in the style that draw the characters and their experiences together. The music does this at times, but other sequences have a rather obvious accompaniment, sometimes with a Wagnerian tone. I suspect the film-makers were not confident that all the key moments of development totally worked.

This contributes to the sense of a division in the film. And the personal drama, especially the romantic, is rather conventional in presentation. Whereas the artistic is less so. But I think both maintain the interest of the viewer.

The film  is written and directed  by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck who was responsible for the very fine The Lives of Others  / Das Leben der Anderen (2006). This film lacks the complexity of the earlier title. The treatment of both the German Democratic Republic and of the later Art Academy rely on rather simple motifs.   I think the director’s craft suffered from a trip to the mainstream and a completely forgettable The Tourist (2010). However, this production is vastly superior to that and, in a year where the new releases  of real quality are sparse, stands out. It is in  colour, full widescreen and has English sub-titles;  definitely a movie to be seen in a cinema.

Performance (UK 1970)

Saturday July 27th 5.30 p.m.

This is both a cult movie and a seminal British film. Chas, (James Fox) is an East End gang member who collects protection money. When his methods result in a killing he goes on the run and hides out in Notting Hill Gate basement, where, upstairs there is a ménage à trois. Chas becomes involved in the hedonistic activities at the house and, in particular with an ex-rock musician Turner (Mick Jagger).

The film became infamous for its melee of explicit violence, sex and drug-taking. The 1970s also became infamous for the clash between adventurous film-making and conservative values, embodied in another British film The Devils (1971) and the campaign against it by an organisation called ‘The Festival of Light’.

This film was produced by Warner Brothers, who also were involved in the equally controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971). The studio executives did not know how to manage the film and enforced cuts in the finished property. The British Board of Film Censorship [as it then was] made more cuts. On release it received an ‘X certificate’ whilst in the USA it received an ‘R’ rating. It received similar certificates in other territories and often additional cuts. The USA release suffered the further indignity of having some cockney dialogue being dubbed [re-voiced]; a fate also experienced by the radically different Kes (1969).

Two people received director credits. Donald Cammell, a bona fide maverick, who wrote the screenplay and was also associate producer. He was born in Edinburgh in the ‘Outlook Tower’ later home for a ‘Camera Obscura’; how apt. Cammell started out as a painter, took up script-writing and then Performance. This is his most famous and successful film; later works have a similar combination of the exotic and the erotic, but not the acclaim.

His fellow director was Nicolas Roeg. He was born in London; and also appropriately nearly opposite the old Marylebone Film Studio, used at one point by Hammer Films. He started out as a cinematographer and indeed shot this film. He went onto direct several successful and highly praised films, including Don’t Look Now (1973), screened in a digital version here last week. He had an unconventional style of film photography. One critic, Steve Rose, remarked that his films

“shatter reality into a thousand pieces” .

His film work, as in this title, is always memorable.

The film runs 105 minutes in colour and black and white, and in the European widescreen ratio. This screening presents the restoration by the BFI from 2004 in 35mm.

The background to the film and its handling by the industry and censors will be illuminated in the Q&A that follows with Sanford Lieberson, the producer on the film. His other work includes a number of documentaries including the very fine ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime (1975). He will be accompanied by Jay Glennie who has produced a book; ‘Performance: 50th Anniversary Book’.

Half a year’s viewing

‘An Elephant Sitting Still’

The following are the films that I most enjoyed and was most impressed by in the first six months of the year.

An Elephant Sitting Still / Da xiang xi di er zuo (China, 2018)

This is a four hour epic in ‘miserabilism’ but a powerful representation of life on the lowest rungs of society. It was the first and only feature directed by Bo Hu.

Ash Is Purest White / Jiang hu er nü (China, France, Japan 2018)

Another fine movie from director Zhangke Jia; he follows his muse Tao Zhao across regions and periods in the manner of the preceding Mountains May Depart / Shan he gu ren (China, France, Japan 2015, not seen in Leeds].

Happy as Lazzaro / Lazzaro felice (Italy, Switzerland, France. Germany 2018)

A ‘holy fool’ is found first in the countryside then in the run-down urban setting. Mixing myth and contemporary exploitation in a fascinating parable.

Rosie (Eire 2018)

This is a powerful drama taken from real life. The screening was also an event in which participants in the film talked about the work.

‘Rosie’

3 Faces / Se rokh (Iran 2018)

Film-maker Jafar Panahi produces another exploration of Iranian culture in typical quirky fashion.

And one archive film,

Rosa Luxemburg (West Germany, Czechoslovakia 1986)

Part of the programme of films directed by Margarethe von Trotta. Whilst the political representation is limited Barbara Sukowa is excellent as the revolutionary heroine.

Sunset / Napszállta (Hungary. France, 2018)

Sunday July 14th at 2.30 p.m.

This is the new film from director László Nemes. His previous film was Son of Saul / Saul fia (Hungary, 2015). This new film also enjoys the fine production work of many of the same team from the earlier film: music László Melis, cinematography Mátyás Erdély, Film Editing Matthieu Taponier and production design by László Rajk. And once again the film is screening at the Picture House in its original format of 35mm.

Son of Saul was a very subjective style narrative and the new film takes a similar approach. But is seems that there are even more ambiguities in the plotting this time. The film opens in Budapest in 1913 when a young woman comes to the city and encounters mysterious and threatening situations. The pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian empire offers a rich palette for such a story; witness the earlier Sunshine (1999) directed by István Szabó.

The film runs for 142 minutes in colour, widescreen with Hungarian and German dialogue with English subtitles. It promises to be less downbeat than the earlier film but likely will need close attention as the story unfolds. The effort should be repaid by the visual pleasure in the screening. The 35mm cinematography relies on random  silver halide grains in the stock that reflect the light and give excellent contrast. Digital copies of 35mm film transfer this to uniform pixels and only rarely reproduce the particular characteristics of film stock. So, the illustrative still at the top of this post does not really give a sense of what we should enjoy viewing.

Sans Soleil/Sunless, France 1983

Friday July 5th at 6.15 p.m.

This film was written, directed and edited by Chris Marker, who also provided the music. If you have not seen a Chris Marker film before it might help to write that two of his friends and cinematic collaborators were Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda. Associated with the nouvelle vague they were actually part of a distinct group of film-maker known as the ‘left-bank group’. Their films were more experimental, more political and more distinctive than the  famous ‘new wave’ films. Marker himself is known for works described as ‘essay films’ and this title is a good example of that approach. Not exactly documentary but addressing the actual world.  Wikipedia defines [informal] written essays as characterised by:

“the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humour, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme,”

Much of this will be found in the Marker film. As well as his personal involvement in so much of the production of the film Marker also appears in slightly fictionalised versions of himself.

The film’s written component is a series of letters both partly read with comments by a female character. The letters are from a cameraman visiting a variety of places: Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco. The last includes locations used in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly regarded Vertigo (1958), a film that has pre-occupied Marker for years. I actually did the same homage to the film with a French guide and Marker fan.

The original French version of Sans Soleil opens with the following quotation by Jean Racine

“L’éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps.”

(The distance between the countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of the times.)

The English version of the film opens with lines by T. S. Eliot:

“Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place”…

The screening today is of the English Language version. Marker shot the film on a 16mm camera in colour and standard European widescreen. There are film footage and stills in colour and black and white academy and some special effects. The film-makers quoted are given in the end credits as is the English language narrator, Alexandra Stewart. Marker recorded the soundtrack in asynchronous manner, thus the sound does not always match the imagery. So this is ‘montage’ in the full sense of the word. The film has been copied onto 35mm so we will enjoy a ‘reel’ film.

Sans Soleil is preceded by a short five minute film, also on 35mm and an introduction. The short film is Black by Anouk De Clercq (2015, Belgium). The double bill is the opening event in a weekend of screenings organised by the Pavilion, ‘Artists’ Moving Image Network Screening Weekend’. There are a series of screenings by artists working on film and moving images, including digital and 16mm projections. There are more events at the Hyde Park Picture House but also at a venue in New Briggate, number 42, sited between the entrances to the Grand Theatre and the Assembly Rooms [pre-booking is advised].

The artists include those based in Yorkshire and from farther afield; Alain Resnais has a title screening. This is an ambitious project which promises to be varied, fascinating and rewarding.

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Postscript: I apologise; like Rick I was misinformed. Last night we enjoyed the original French language version of Sans Soleil with the letters and comments read by Florence Delay.

Black turned out to be a cinematic meditation on Marker’s use of black leader early in his film. And this 35mm print is a unique artefact, so we were fortunate to see it.

A Season in France/Une Saison en France (France, 2017)

Friday 28th June at 6.15 p.m. and Wednesday 3rd July at 6.15 p.m.

This is the new film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, a filmmaker from Chad who has lived and partially worked in France since 1982. His new film deals with the important issue of refugees and migrants and dramatizes the experience of an African widower and his children who  are forced to flee to France from Central African Republic.

Several of Haroun’s earlier films have screened at the Picture house. There was Bye Bye Africa (1999), an unconventional docu-drama in which a slightly fictionalized Haroun visits and films his native country of Chad. It is an ironic and occasionally bitter record of Neo-colonialism in Africa. His next film Abouna (France, Chad 2002) follows two young boys who seek their father across Chad, including in the desert regions. A powerful drama which was beautifully filmed by Abraham Haile Biru, it won the prize for cinematography at The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou or FESPACO). This Festival is a major forum for African film.

Daratt  (which translates as ‘Dry Season’, was funded by France, Belgium, Chad and Austria in 2006). The film follows a young boy who has suffered in the Civil War [2005 to 2010] but who finds a new life in a bakery. A Screaming Man  / Un homme qui crie  (France, Belgium, Chad 2010)was once again set in the period of the Civil War as a father and son struggle to cope with the adversities of their situation.  Grigris (Chad, France, Belgium 2013) only received a single screening at the London Film Festival but no British-wide distribution.

Haroun’s film dramatize the ill effects of Colonialism and Neo-colonialism in Africa, especially that region once termed ‘Francophone’. His stories also frequently revolve around fathers and sons, making for powerful and emotional dramas. And he has a fine sense of visual presentation and has worked with really talented craft teams. Now his new film is receiving the release [though limited] his work deserves. But the two screenings at the Picture House are likely to be rare opportunities to see the movie in its proper theatrical setting.

If you want a preview:

Red Joan, Britain 2018

Sun 2nd June 3.00 p.m., Wed 5th June 11.00am [BYOBaby] and 1.20pm

This is the story of a fictional character, Joan Stanley, who in the 1940s passed secret information to the Soviet Union. However, it and the novel from which it is adapted, are based on the life of a actual historical character, Melita Norwood. Norwood was exposed publicly in 1999 when information from an ex-Soviet agent and now-defector revealed her past activities.

The film version presents the story in a fairly conventional-style narrative [warning – plot spoilers]. The film opens with the arrest of Joan (Judi Dench) by Special Branch in 1999. Then we view a series of interrogations which are intercut with flashbacks by Joan to the 1930s and 1940s. The interrogations fill out the action in 1999 where information has led to the exposure of a senior Foreign Office official as well as Joan. The flashbacks presents Joan’s personal life and then her spy activities. At Cambridge ‘Young Joan’ (Sophie Cookson) meets glamorous European émigré Sonya Galich (Teresa Srbova) and cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes). Both are communist activists.

Continue reading

Two Fine Art Movies

Screening daily from Friday May 17th till Thursday May 23rd.

This Friday the new film directed by Claire Denis, High Life (2018), opens at the Picture House. Claire Denis is undoubtedly one of the really talented and interesting film-makers working in contemporary cinema. In this title she has presented her first film in an English language form; thankfully she has done a better job than a number of her fellow European film-makers. This is a science fiction story that opens on an odd box-like space ship heading far away towards a black hole. Inside we find Monte (Robert Pattinson) whose only companion is a very young child. A series of flashbacks fill in the events prior to this; Monte’s companions have fallen foul of the internal conflicts among the crew. We learn how the baby came to be on the space ship and the unusual social rules that produced the situation. Stylistically the film recalls the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, especially his films Solaris (1971) and Stalker (1979). The plot at times appears to be lifted from the pages of J. G. Ballard and is both violent and a little disturbing: the BBFC have given it an 18 Certificate. The cast, which includes Juliet Binoche, is good. The production, including special effects, is well done. And once more Denis shows her ability to explore social and personal contradictions. The June issue of Sight & Sound has an interview with Claire Denis.

Screening on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday afternoon this coming week

An equally fine film-maker, Zhangke Jia, has directed Ash Is Purest White / Jiang hu er nü (2018). The film covers several decades in the life of Qiao (Tao Zhao). Much of the film is set in Shanxi province in the north of China but at one point Qiao travels south to the Three Gorges in Hubei province [seen in earlier Jia films]. Qiao is involved with a “jianghu” gangster (Fan Liao). The effects of this relationship and the mob violence affect her life but throughout she remains cool and self-possessed. Tao Zhao is impressive as Qiao. She acts a muse for Zhangke Jia, having appeared in his earlier films including the very fine Mountains May Depart / Shan he gu ren (2015). This film has the same epic quality and it happily screens in Leeds, a city that missed out on the earlier title. The production values in all departments are excellent and both the action and the settings fully engage. The language in this title is Mandarin with English sub-titles.

The movie comments on recent and contemporary China; I thought one point referred back to the coup by capitalist-roaders following the death of Mao Zedong. Tony Rayns has an article in the May issue of Sight & Sound which includes comments by the director and explains some of the distinctive Chinese aspects, including the title rendered in English as ‘Sons and Daughters of the Jiangsu, a word appropriated by the underworld and originally referring to “the parallel world in which martial arts fictions is set.”

Out of Blue, (Britain / USA 2018)

Wed 24th April at11.00 a.m. [BYOBaby], 8.30 p.m. and Thu 25th April at 5.30 p.m.

This movie has received mixed reviews. But Mark Kermode, whose visits to the Picture House have been very popular, was really positive. The drama presented in this title is rather unconventional. The narrative mixes objective scenes [the audience assume we are watching a record of realistic events] and subjective scenes [a character’s internal memories and musings] and it is likely to take time for viewers to be able to clearly distinguish them. The plot also mixes actions by characters with philosophical musings by them.

The latter aspect is exemplified by the opening sequence which commences with the night sky and an astronomer speculating on the cosmos. This would appear to be a homage to the British film masterpiece, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (1946). It also sets up a treatment of the characters and their experiences which suggest issues of existential consideration.

On the surface this is a story of a murder investigation shot in a noir manner, with a world of chaos, a ‘seeker’ hero, flashbacks, triangles of relationships and nights and chiaroscuro. The setting is New Orleans and the production makes good use of the varied character of this city, which at times has an exotic tinge. It is though a symbolic city and despite location filming it is not the city seen in contemporary news. Visually the film is treat. The colours are evocative and suggestive, not just the ‘blue’ of the title but a range of tones which match the different facets of the city. The cinematography, in colour and a ratio of 2.35:1, by Conrad Hall is excellent and the title is well served in all production departments.

The other compelling aspect of the film is the performance of Patricia Clarkson as detective Houlihan, the investigator. This is a tour de force. I actually pay little attention to the Academy Awards but this performance deserves a Best Actor trophy. It is also a still rare pleasure to see an older actress with a lead role in a thriller.

This is the latest movie by Carol Morley. Her Dreams of a Life (2011) stood out amongst recent British documentaries. Mark Kermode commented that she was ‘born a film-maker’. I actually think that quality film-makers develop by commitment and hard work, attention to detail and a serious study of cinematic form. Carol Morley seems to have done all of this. And, uncommon among the ‘new auteurs’, she has mastered both the direction of film and script-writing for film.

The film is adapted from a novel by Martin Amis, ‘Night Train’ (1997) though, apparently, changing the tone and the plot. Amis’ novel aimed to be a parody, this is a fairly bleak film noir. It was mainly funded by the BBC and the BFI. This may be part of the reason that it stands out in productions by British directors working on US-based stories. Frequently such films are a disappointment and less satisfying than earlier British-based stories by the same film-maker. Here Carol Morley succeeds with a really effective treatment which also develops some of the themes found in her earlier works.

Definitely a film to see. Mark Kermode suggests it repays seeing more than once; I fully agree. If you do enjoy it there is an article, ‘Under Investigation’, privileging the female protagonist in the April edition of Sight & Sound, and followed by an interview with Carol Morley.

Agnès Varda (1928–2019)

One of the most distinguished and most sympathetic of European film-makers died last week. She enjoyed a film-making career of fifty years and made 54 films including documentary shorts and feature length films. At the revered age of ninety Varda was the doyen of a cinema that harked back to the influential and transforming new waves of the 1960s. Varda was part of what was called ‘the left bank group’ which also concluded Alain Resnais. He edited her first film, La Pointe Courte (1955), screened in a Varda season at the Picture House in 2018. Another colleague was the film essayist Chris Marker. Varda also made film essays and the pair shared a strong affection for cats.

Regulars at the Picture House have had a number of opportunities over the last year to enjoy some of her other films. Cleo from 5 to 7 / Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) was screened in the Leeds International Film Festival. This film that established Varda’s reputation bought a distinctive content and style to European cinema and remains a film that takes on new aspects when revisited.

The Picture House also screened One Sings, the Other Doesn’t / L’une chante l’autre pas (1977) which dramatises the struggle by French women to win legal access to abortion in that decade. The film demonstrates how Varda’s politics were not just confined to the cinema screen but involved her active participation.

The Beaches of Agnès / Les plages d’Agnès (2008) found Varda in playful mood as she revisited her earlier work and the themes and motifs that really interested her. These included the beaches of the title, cats, mirrors and art works; in the latter area she demonstrated a renaissance style grasp of visual art.

Her most recent film to be screened was Faces Places / Visages villages (2017) in which, with a fellow eccentric artist J. R., she explored rural France through a distinctive form of photography. This also returned her to her first artistic forays in the 1950s when, as a young photographer, she recorded key theatre moments of the decade. The relationships in the film showed Varda’s empathy for ordinary people, something found throughout her long career.

Her final film debuted at the recent Berlinale, Varda by Agnès / Varda par Agnès (2019). The film presents excerpts from a series of illustrated talks that Varda gave about her career. Her talks are intelligent, precise, fascinating and full of charm and occasional irony. The film offers a worthy testament to her impressive career. We can look forward to enjoying this last offering later this year.