The Watermelon Woman (1997)

Throughout lockdown and beyond, you may have noticed the daily #HydeParkPick service that the staff of the Hyde Park Picture House have organised. Our favourite cinema screen may be dark for now, but films still go on, only for now they’re being watched and talked about online.

This activity has been greatly enriched through the partnerships the cinema has with people and organisations who, under different circumstances, would have contributed events, panels and discussions to the various programme strands at the cinema.

Between 17th and 24th August, the LGBT+ staff community at the University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University and Leeds Arts University are promoting a ‘Digital Pride’ programme. This is a series of online events and resources that they have put together to mark Pride 2020, a celebration in the city which, which like pretty much everything else this year, has had to be redesigned for a safe and socially distanced world.

We wrote about three films that we’d have liked to have screened this month. One of them, The Watermelon Woman, is a particular favourite of another of our valued collaborators, So Mayer, who has written this excellent article about this important and groundbreaking film.

So Mayer writes about The Watermelon Woman

So Mayer: film scholar, author and researcher

In the 1996 film The Watermelon Woman, filmmaker and film buff Cheryl (played by filmmaker Cheryl Dunye) sets out to learn more about a beguiling Hollywood-era performer credited as ‘The Watermelon Woman.’

‘Is the Watermelon Woman her first name? Her last name?’ Cheryl asks her video camera. With almost nothing to go on bar reductive racist credits, Cheryl finds a way to recover Fae Richards’ story – using every means necessary. She consults the main library in Philadelphia, where she’s turned away by a snooty clerk – so she turns to a grassroots archive, CLIT (Center for Lesbian Information and Technology), where she has to deal with both chaos and an over-protective volunteer. She watches Richards’ Hollywood films that are available on VHS, and finds out her other cinematic career, in ‘race’ films, from film historians and viewers. She asks her mom and aunt, who remember Richards as a sultry singer. And finally, she meets Richards’ longterm lover, who shares stories and ephemera that challenge Cheryl’s perceptions of Richards’ career – and of film history.

Fae Richards, 1930s film actress, with director Martha Page

Unlike the Watermelon Woman, The Watermelon Woman is out there, especially since the restoration in 2017 for its 20th anniversary. It’s been written about brilliantly by scholars such as Kara Keeling, in her books The Witch’s Flight and Queer Times, Black Futures, paying respect to its visionary significance for Black queer feminist cinema. One of the reasons that the film remains so thrilling is that, like Richards’ long career across different kinds of performance, The Watermelon Woman brings together, spins off from and continues to inspire multiple modes of Black queer feminist cultural production. Whether you’re looking for your next viewing or reading after watching the film, or want new ways to approach its multi-layered excellence… inspired by Cheryl’s search, here’s a few routes to try:

Continue reading

The Best Of 2020 So Far

2020 was always going to be a strange year for the Hyde Park Picture House, we were somewhat prepared for the doors to be closed whilst the renovation work got underway but none of us could have predicted how things have turned out.

As we enter the second half of the year we normally take a look back over the last 6 months and pick out our highlights of the year so far. Fortunately there were quite a few good releases before lockdown begin and there have been a number of great films released straight to streaming since. It’s also been great that online discussions, watch parties and interviews have been able to continue.

Here are my 10 highlights of films I did see (mostly on the big screen)

  • Uncut Gems (Netflix)
  • JoJo Rabbit (Rent/Buy)
  • Amanda (Rent/Buy)
  • Waves
  • A Hidden Life (Rent/Buy)
  • The Lighthouse (Rent/Buy)
  • Parasite (Rent/Buy)
  • Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (Mubi)
  • Bacurau (Mubi)
  • Never Rarely Sometimes (Rent/Buy)

I’d also like to recommend Lynn Shelton’s final film Sword Of Trust. I don’t think it got a proper release in the UK but it turned up on Sky Movies/NowTV earlier this year.  I’ve always loved Shelton’s films and this is no different, hear death was a tragic loss because it feels like she had so much more to offer. There is a celebration of her on YouTube which I haven’t had chance to watch yet and Birds Eye View interviewed her a few weeks before her death.

There are other films that I’ve heard good things about but still haven’t had chance to watch:

  • Little Joe (Rent/Buy & Bfi subs)
  • The Assistant (Rent/Buy)
  • Color Out Of Space (Rent/Buy)
  • Queen & Slim (Rent/Buy)
  • Woman Make Film (Bfi subs)
  • Da 5 Bloods (Netflix)

Don’t forget about the Hyde Park Picks on Facebook and Twitter for more recommendations of great things to watch at home.

L’eclisse, Italy 1962

The #HydeParkPick for today is L’eclisse (1962) by Michelangelo Antonioni which is available to watch on MUBI for the next 20 days.

Fresh off the end of an affair with an older man Vittoria meets the vital and exciting Piero. The two start to explore their passion for one another while wandering the deserted suburbs of Rome but their affair soon reveals itself to be doomed.

This pick was selected by Leeds Cineforum who invited Fabio Vighi, Professor of Italian and Critical Theory at Cardiff University, to write about themes in Antonioni’s work for  us.

Leeds Cineforum are also keeping active during lock down in part by compiling this rich list of sites where films can be streamed for free. We’re always looking for new contributors so if you find anything interesting on that list or elsewhere and would like to flex your writing muscles please get in touch.

L’eclisse
by  Fabio Vighi, Professor of Italian and Critical Theory at Cardiff University

The dominant theme throughout Antonioni’s filmography is what we could call, borrowing from French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s 1960s motto, “the non existence of the sexual relationship”. This theme is especially apparent in L’eclisse, where the couple’s failure works as the film’s leitmotif from start (Vittoria leaves Riccardo) to end (Vittoria and Piero break up), effectively bringing the main character back to her initial position. Particularly in his Italian films, Antonioni explores fraught relationships by focusing on middle-class alienation against the background of the country’s rapid modernization. But the originality of his cinema has less to do with sociology than with aesthetics. More specifically, it lies in the way narrative content is over-determined by precise formal choices, which result in a stylized framing of the characters’ positioning within their space. Let us consider the long, almost experimental opening sequence of L’eclisse (1962), set in Riccardo’s flat. The sequence details both Vittoria’s inability to come to terms with her state of emotional drainage and Riccardo’s morose ineptitude at responding to it. Antonioni’s minimalist long takes convey a sense of impasse and claustrophobia, while dialogue is sparse and cryptic. This is clearly a cinema that works by subtraction: while the viewer is denied assistance in retrieving narrative information, the camera slowly pans over various objects scattered around the room, as if more interested in framing them than narrating the lovers’ separation. This aspect of Antonioni’s cinema epitomises his typically modernist penchant for sabotaging narrative progression through the erosion of conventional representations of space and time. That is to say, tension is created not so much through action and reaction, as in classical cinema, but by the opposite process of abstraction, fragmentation and de-dramatization, which ultimately reveals the director’s fascination with seemingly meaningless formal patterns.  Continue reading

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Britain 1943

BBC 2 Sunday April 26th at 12 noon.

This is a film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; arguably the most imaginative British filmmakers to work in our mainstream industry. The 1940s was the great decade for the duo with a string of master-works that were both popular and ground breaking. The pair had their own production company, ‘The Archers’, with the famous logo of an arrow striking a target.

The ‘Colonel Blimp’ of the title was well known in war-time Britain; a character in a cartoon series by David Lowe which satirized the traditionalist British military. Powell and Pressburger transformed the character though they cleverly retained aspects of the series as with the Turkish bath sequence that opens the film.

At this point the ‘Blimp’ character, Clive Candy [Roger Livesey) has come out out retirement to manage the newly organised Home Guard. He retains traditional military attitudes which come into conflict with the modern and ruthless attitudes of a young brash regular army lieutenant. The action leads into a flashback which traces Clive career and personal life from the Boer War period.

This, the main part of the film, is partly a war story, partly a romantic drama, but also a moving portrait of ageing, devotion and friendship. The friendship is with a member of the German military, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). The devotion involves a series of women, Edith, Barbara and Angela, all played by Deborah Kerr.

The cast are superb. Roger Livesey also played the lead in the later and equally fine I Know Where I’m Going (1945). Deborah Kerr was the lead in several films by Powell and Pressburger, notably Black Narcissus (1945). And Anton Walbrook played the far less sympathetic ‘’Svengali’ producer Boris Lemontov in The Red Shoes (1948).

Walbrook – Livesey – Kerr.

Whilst Clive Candy’s career and personal-life are full of interest there is also a strong thematic current. This is the critical examination of the mores of war when Clive commenced his career at the turn of the century and those now required by the current European war against the ruthless Nazi regime. The film manages to marry this critical perspective with an emotional interest in Candy and his friends and his loves.

The film runs 183 minutes, but I never found this a long film to watch. As is the case with really talented film-makers, Powell and Pressburger had a fine eye for skilled craft people. The Technicolor cinematography by Georges Perinal is excellent. The Production Design by Alfred Junge together with the Costumes by Joseph Bato are very fine. And there is clear crisp editing by John Seabourne with well-scored musical track Allan Gray.

The film has undergone two restorations over the years. Contemporary 35mm prints enjoy a high standard of colour and definition. This film is screening on BBC HD which should do sufficient justice to the original. And be thankful. Winston Churchill disliked the film but his efforts to stop the production were in vain. Whilst the British public liked the film which came fourth in the 1943 box office.

 

 

Cheer up with Ealing Comdedies

Three of the finest contributions to British cinema have been Powell and Pressburger, British Documentary and the output of this famous studio from 1945 until 1955. If you want an excellent overview then the book to read is Charles Barr’s study, [a Movie Book, 1980 and 1993, Leeds Central Library have a copy when they reopen]. This is of a comparable quality to many of the best titles produced at Ealing.

As Stephen pointed out BBC 2 is screening one of the comedy classics every day this week. Three of them are, to mine mind, among the great classics of our own film industry.

The Man In The White Suit

BBC2 Tuesday 3.25 p.m.

1951, black and white, 85 minutes.

This is a superb film which is effectively a science fiction drama. It was directed by one of the finest film-makers in Britain in this period, Alexander Mackendrick. The director also worked on the script with two experienced writers John Dighton and Roger Macdougal.

Alec Guinness, in a decade that saw a string and variety of fine performances, plays inventor Sydney Stratton, with a new miraculous cloth. There are a fine cast of supporting players including Joan Greenwood, she of the memorable husky voice, as the romantic interest; as a key mill owner; Cecil Parker, the embodiment of pomposity; and a delightful cameo by Ernest Thesiger, as a wily capitalist

The invention has both positive and negative aspects, and this fuels the drama. The research laboratory sequences are marvelous and this film is replete with not only visual but also aural humour. The finale, with the joining of forces of both capital and labour, is a subtle critique of the entire British establishment.

Whisky Galore!

BBC2 Thursday, 3.35 p.m.

1949, black and white, 92 minutes.

Another masterwork from Alexander Mackendrick and on this occasion working on the script with Angus Macphail and the author of the source novel, Compton Mackenzie. This film enjoys another performance by Joan Greenwood, accompanied by a fine supporting cast including Gordon Jackson, James Robertson Justice and, as the film’s fall guy, Basil Radford.

The population of the small island of Toddy relish their malt whiskey but wartime brings restrictions. Then a miracle; a transport ship, laden with export whisky, is driven ashore, The rest of the film depicts the ploys of the islanders to rescue and enjoy the precious liquid whilst the authorities, representing far away Whitehall, attempt to recover the salvage.

This is a different type of comedy from The Man in the White Suit. At times whimsical and at time almost farcical, this is delightful portrait of a small, intimate community. The film manages to combine some sort of moral with a celebration of Scottish island culture. Presumably there will be many member of the Scottish National Party enjoying this outing.

The Lavender Hill Mob

BBC2 Friday 3.30 p.m.

1951, black and white, 81 minutes.

This is a fine heist movie; written by one of the key writers in the Ealing of this period, T. E. B. Clarke. The film was directed was Charles Crichton; his later A Fish Called Wanda (1988) is on BBC 1 next Sunday evening.

Once again Alec Guinness stars, this time as the ‘mastermind’ of the robbery of a van of gold bulletin. He is supported by Stanley Holloway and as fellow criminals Sid James and Alfie Bass. John Gregson makes an early appearance as the representative of law and order.

The film is told in a flashback and the opening sequence features a cameo by Audrey Hepburn, stopping off in Britain on her way to Hollywood. The plotting is ingenious, in particular the method used to dispose of the stolen merchandise. And the final chase sequence has some inspired moments.

These three titles are all representative of a particular period and a particular interpretation of this ‘sceptred isle’. But they all subtly undermine this representation.

Films on iPlayer

This year was always going to be a strange one for us but none of us expected it to be like this. I hope that you are all staying safe and finding plenty of things to keep you occupied. One good thing that I’ve seen is an amazing sense of community from so many people and there’s no shortage of film recommendations and opportunities for group watch alongs at home.

Hopefully you are already aware of the Hyde Park Picks, daily recommendations from the Hyde Park Picture House team along with some great extras. Our old friends at MiniCine have started a Self Isolation Season on Instagram, picking out two films each day. I’m trying to share as many of these recommendations as I can over on Twitter (and less so on Facebook) so do follow us there if you are not doing so already.

I was going to pick out some films coming up on Freeview TV this week but there are so many to go through and Mark Kermode already does a good job of this on his Radio 5 show/podcast. Instead I thought it would be worth pointing out that many of the films shown on the BBC are also available to watch on iPlayer. Here are my recommendations from what is currently available:

It’s also worth noting that from Monday BBC2 will be screening a classic film every afternoon around 3pm, usually preceded by an episode of the Talking Pictures documentary. This week it’s (mostly) Ealing comedies:

  • School For Scoundrals
  • The Man In The White Suit
  • The Titfield Thunderbolt
  • Whisky Galore
  • The Lavender Hill Mob

Enjoy, stay safe and do let us know if you spot anything else we should be watching.

 

 

Cineaste treats on Freeview

BBC 4 Thursday 26th March at 10 p.m. and Saturday March 28th at 4.10 p.m.

We still miss the Hyde Park screening programme but there are at least two well made film classics on terrestrial television over the next few days. On Thursday we can watch a fine biopic of England’s greatest leader, Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell was written and directed by Ken Hughes. This is his best outing as director though an early ‘B’ movie, Joe Macbeth (1955) was an interesting variation of Shakespeare’s character; and The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) was a convincing portrait with Peter Finch playing against type as Wilde. The merit of Cromwell is that this is a sympathetic treatment of a historical figure often vilified by conservation and reactionaries. Whilst he should be criticised for the suppression of the Leveller movement and the brutal invasion of Ireland, he led possibly the greatest transition in English history.

The stand-out aspect of the production is Richard Harris as the lead character. Harris almost seems born to play this powerful and committed military and political leader. From his early parliamentary opposition, through his reorganization of the People’s Army and to the setting up of a Republic, he dominates the screen and the other characters.

Alex Guinness provides a graceful performance as the ill-fated king, Charles 1st. There are some excellent battle scenes and a number of skilled British actors in supporting roles. This is definitely a better version that them later 2008 Cromwell.

Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is excellent. The costume design won an Academy Award for Vittorio Nino Novarese. John Stoll’s production design is also very well done. The film was shot in 35mm Panavision and Technicolor; fortunate film buffs could also see it in 70mm.

And if you like period dramas then there is also an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s great novel, Jane Eyre on BBC2 on Saturday. This is the 1944 version with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Any day on which you can watch Welles is a good day.

What to do on Saturday night

BBC2 (HD) Saturday March 21st at 9 pm and 10:40 pm.

Stay Home, walk the dog, watch …

My condolences to fellow cineastes, but the closure of the Hyde Park Picture House has only come forward by a week or so. And the development work will continue. So there is a future after the crisis.

Fortunately terrestrial television is still screening a few quality films and on HD channels; two of these you may have seen at the Hyde Park. Both are well worth revisiting. The two films are fairly different but both privilege performances by two of the finest actresses in English language cinema. Both were circulated to cinemas on 2K DCPs so on TV HD the loss of quality is less than with 35mm film. They were though both shot on wide screen formats so they will be reduced.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

UK, 2017.

In fact this title offers two great Hollywood leading ladies; with Annette Bening playing the earlier star Gloria Grahame as she finds solace in later life and illness in one of Britain’s most distinctive cities. Gloria Grahame was a fine and attractive actress in the late 1940s and 1950s with a persona that fitted well in film noir; think In a Lonely Place (1950) and The Big Heat (1953). This story takes place between 1979 and 1981 when Grahame, acting in Britain, starts a relationship with a minor actor Peter Turner (James Bell). Later he takes her back to his home in Liverpool. The film apparently closely follows Turners own memoir of the same title.

The story is well acted by the leads and develops real emotion. And the film makes good use of Liverpool locations and a studio recreated California. A fine drama that only enjoyed a limited release.

You can read a fuller review;

Personal Shopper

France, Germany, Czech Republic, Belgium, 2016.

This film was written and directed by the French film-maker Oliver Assayas. He had Kristen Stewart in his mind as leading actor. He had already worked with her on Clouds of Sils Maria (2014); a film in which Stewart performed alongside Juliet Binoche. This was another fine film with both actors turning in excellent and convincing performances.

The ‘Personal Shopper’ of the title is Maureen (Stewart) who buys clothes and jewellery for a super-model Kyra. There are some intriguing sequences where Maureen selects commodities for her employer, not seen until late in the film. This is a situation in which a young American woman, with a strong sense of style, provides services for a wealthy and pampered celebrity. This aspect harks back to Clouds of Sils Maria.

However, the meat of the story is a dead relative and their house, apparently haunted. This is Lewis, Maureen’s recently deceased twin brother, with whom she shared both a heart condition and an interest in spiritualism. It is the exploration of this ‘other world’ that occupies most of the movie. There is though crime/thriller plotting late in the movie.

What the film does effectively is to conjure up the ‘other’ world, full of ambiguities for both the protagonist and for the viewer. Stewart is excellent; her performance here and in Clouds of Sils Maria made me go back and check out one of the ‘Twilight’ series. I was also impressed by her skills in the 2014 Still Alice.

The Guardian offered the release five stars, calling it

“uncategorisable yet undeniably terrifying”

I did not find the film at all terrifying though it does generate a disturbing air at times. But it is fascinating and fits more or less into the ‘haunted house’ / ‘ghost story’ genre. The languages – English, French, Swedish and German – have English subtitles where needed.

Review: Little Joe

Final screening today (Mon 9th March) 6pm at Leeds University Union.

Little Joe

Jessica Hausner’s chilling psychological thriller is visually masterful however lacks a storyline worthy of it. The dizzying camera shots combined with the ominous and unnerving score creates an element of paranoia from the outset. The colours which are at points quite Wes Anderson esque can beautifully slip into the shadowy under belly of Blade Runner (1982).

The film centres on Alice who is a single mum and a dedicated breeder at a corporation which genetically engineers plants. She is working on developing a new breed that will control human emotions. Against company policy, she takes one home as a gift for her teenage son and names it after him but soon, though, she starts to fear it. Films and literature throughout history have dealt with the raw unspoilt beauty of flowers and the untold secrets they might hold. Little Joe carries on this tradition. Although the immortal words “Life will find a way” did pop into my head a few times, the film manages to offer up enough which feels different. The theme of mental health, maybe not fully realised, raises some interesting ideas on the subject and the stigma surrounding it. It is also about relationships, which feels more fleshed out but still perhaps not fully explored.Jessica Hausner’s eastern European routes and filmmaking style are at odds with the English setting, leaving the viewer with the impression of a tourist eye view of Britain.

The acting which was sometimes deliciously creepy and understated, sometimes fell into mockery and felt quite wooden. The saving grace in regards to the acting was Ben Whishaw who was the stand out performance.


Sam Judd

Review: Parasite

Screening until Thursday 5th March.

Bong Joon Ho’s chilling satirical masterpiece addresses the age old theme of social class. Much like Bong Joon Ho’s previous work, Snowpiecer (2013), the question of why some people are seen as “lower” and some people are seen as “higher” class is asked. The film also explores what we have to sacrifice to change social classes under a capitalist system.

The narrative follows the Kims, a poor family who con their way into becoming the servants of a rich family, the Parks. Their easy life gets complicated when their deception is threatened with exposure. What follows is a fascinating spectacle which is sometimes operatic in nature and a sad reflection of modern life. Although it is all set in South Korea, the story works so well because it is universal and could have been set practically anywhere. It could be argued that there are no villains in the film, just people; however, it is anything but a soap opera. It is a commentary on the human condition. Nothing is black and white, just shades of grey.

Parasite offers a way of seeing the world which feels unlike anything most Western audiences have seen before. However, there are still some films which it does bear some stylistic similarities to. Hitchcock comes to mind with films such as Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963).

There is also a twist in the tail which does feel slightly Hitchcockian. I could also see traces of films with a more biblical and spiritual quality to them such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999).

The acting was convincing throughout with stand out performances from Kang-ho Song and Sun-kyun Lee which puts the audience on edge. The spider-like way Bong Joon Ho directed his cast to move added to the sense of uneasiness.

The writing is spot on with some razor sharp wit which, combined with the direction, made for some side-splitting moments. However as a contrast to the more humorous points in the film, there are moments of real sadness and pain. The contrasts beautifully represent life, because what is life if not a series of contrasts?


Sam Judd