Brief Encounter – Station Screening (Jan 2013)

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Kind of appropriate to be showing Brief Encounter in a cafe restaurant which at one time was part of a railway station. 

Brief Encounter is the fourth and final collaboration between Noel Coward and director David Lean having previously worked together on the war films In Which We Serve (1942) and This Happy Breed (1945) as well as the comedy Blithe Spirit (1945). An adaptation of a one-act play by Coward called ‘Still Life,’ the film takes place in and around a railway station as two people consider having an affair. While Brief Encounter is thematically similar to Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz) the latter is the kind of Hollywood escapism Alec (Trevor Howard) and Laura (Celia Johnson) would go and see on the Thursday afternoons they spend together. Laura is certain such grand passion couldn’t happen to somebody who shops in Boots the chemists. Alec and Laura are blindsided by their emotions as their casual acquaintance develops into something much deeper. It is all too easy now to make fun now of the perfectly clipped accents in Brief Encounter and its old-fashioned sense of decency, but the film has lost none of its power.

Sound is important in Brief Encounter. The haunting musical score is Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 and it counterpoints Alec and Laura’s restraint in public with the emotional turmoil they feel. The noises heard at the station; the trains arriving and departing, the announcements, the whistles, all recurring in the background are a reminder of the possibilities of escape. David Lean often uses odd camera angles and films the lovers in shadow, a technique more common in thrillers than in romances yet it adds to the feeling they are somehow transgressing. Bear in mind Coward was a closeted homosexual so forbidden love, clandestine meetings, and being very careful not to attract attention would almost certainly have been part of his romantic life.

There is an argument Brief Encounter represents a genteel and timid form of British cinema though this seems largely reductive. It is rare to find a British film from this period which is so emotionally open or poetic. It also has a complex narrative structure which begins at the end and then shows us through Laura’s memories and her accompanying voice-over events filtered through her own sensibilities before we again see the beginning/end with the added pathos of knowing what we are seeing this time around. Lean would later turn towards large-scale epic productions like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr Zhivago (1965) but this small intimate movie about lives thrown out of kilter by romantic longing is his most extraordinary work.

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The Angel’s Share – Station Screening (Oct 2012)

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‘malt whisky epitomises the inherent dichotomy of the Scottish psyche – at once passionate and rational, romantic and ironic, mystical and sceptical, heroic and craven, full of laughter and despair.’

                                                   Charles Maclean Malt Whisky (1998) 

Scottish cinema can generally be divided into two categories – gritty urban dramas (Trainspotting, Neds) or charming escapism (Local Hero). Ken Loach’s The Angel’s Sharemanages to cover both territories with this tale of a young tearaway who finds redemption through a developing interest in Malt whisky. Robbie (Paul Brannigan) is a bright lad but never far away from trouble. Unable to extricate himself from a long-time feud with a local gang and hated by his pregnant girlfriend’s family he is running out of chances until kindly community services leader Harry (John Henshaw) takes him under his wing and introduces him to the pleasures of malt whisky.

Loach and Glaswegian writer Paul Laverty have collaborated on fourteen other films several of which have been set in Scotland including Carla’s Song (1994), My Name is Joe(98), and Ae Fond Kiss (2004). Always sympathetic to the plight of the underprivileged their work together particularly when dealing with Scots working class life has a great deal of humour present. The Angel’s Share is one of Loach’s warmest films, avoiding his tendency for didacticism but still managing to pass social commentary while being extremely entertaining. 

The Night Porter (1974, Liliana Cavini)

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“I have a reason for working at night…”

Regarded by some as being merely an artier version of that most dubious of sub-genres, the Nazi sexploitation flick, The Night Porter still makes people uneasy. Yet it was made at a time when filmmakers were beginning to reflect on events leading up to the rise of the Nazi’s to power and it has more in common with The Damned (1969), Luchino Visconti’s operatic study of a prosperous German family falling apart as the Nazi’s begin their rise to political power than trash like Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (Don Edmonds, 1975). Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling both worked together on the Visconti film and with Bogarde also appearing in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s lovely ruin Despair (1978) The Night Porter forms part of an unofficial trilogy about the Third Reich. While The Damned and Despair are set before the war The Night Porter takes place in 1957 in a grim sunless Vienna where the past clearly still has a hold on people. 

Former SS officer Max (Bogarde) works as the night porter in a hotel. Though he keeps a low profile lest his activities during the war are discovered Max likes it that way. Max wants solitude, to live like a “church mouse” as says at one point. Like Rick in Casablanca(Michael Curtiz, 1942) Max is cynical, isolationist, but also a fixer for the inhabitants of his establishment. Max has subtly recreated his role in the camps as a man who can be relied on for discretion and getting things done. Max pimps a younger member of staff to an ageing opera singer, helps a former colleague who was a professional dancer before the war to perform ballet in private, and generally has the run of the place. Then his perfectly ordered existence is shattered when Lucia (Rampling) walks in. Now married to a successful composer she seems to have moved on with her life but Lucia recognises Max immediately. Though initially fearful, she begins to reminisce about her time in the camps where Max went from being her abuser to her self-appointed protector and her memories seem to excite her. 

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So is it Stockholm Syndrome recurring or genuine romantic feeling? Max and Lucia need each other but don’t seem to understand why. Cavani knows people can behave in ways that are destructive and can long for oblivion. During a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute conducted by Lucia’s husband where Cavani cuts between the past and the present. Max is sitting a few rows behind her and both seem to be thinking in tandem. Lucia no longer wishes to leave Vienna but instead submits to Max though now she is older she is his equal, as capable of inflicting pain as taking it. Lucia’s presence their puts them both in danger from a group of ex-Nazi’s led by Hans (Gabrielle Ferzetti) who believes guilt is an aberration of the psyche and conducts mock trials so any evidence or witnesses of their past can be found and erased.

The Night Porter then sounds like a romance and to a certain extent it is, albeit a bleak and destructive one which works as a study in guilt and corruption. The main charges levelled against  The Night Porter are that it is exploitative. It kind of is but only in the way that any film which utilises history to tell a fictional story is exploiting human tragedy. The Night Porter is expressionistic in its use of lighting and has a lucid dream-like quality. Cavani is able to convey in cinematic terms ideas associated with German Romanticism; a movement which aimed for transcendence but ended up influencing the twisted idealism of National Socialism and its destructive attempts at purifying Europe. The Night Porter is about this ruin and Cavani offers a union which epitomises Goethe’s belief romanticism is a form of sickness.

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The casting is perfect. Since Victim (1961, Basil Deardon) Bogarde’s default setting was playing men who struggle within themselves and he is powerful and moving here humanising a man we should really be repelled by. Rampling too is a haunting presence, strikingly beautiful, but oddly asexual, she looks like a doll that has come to life and would rather become a toy again. Rampling’s famous dance scene for the concentration guards is more akin to a surreal parody of a 20’s Berlin cabaret performance than the provocative tease the film’s poster seems to promise.

There is a recurring theme in Cavani’s work of outsiders clashing with authority, of going their own way regardless of what harm they bring to themselves. Cavani’s early films focused on historical figures who defied the social conventions of their time in Francis of Assisi (1960) and Galileo (1968). I Cannibali (1970) turned the Greek tragedy ‘Antigone’ into a contemporary allegory about a police state. She has a better grasp of Patricia Highsmith’s amoral worldview than Anthony Minghella with her 2002 adaptation of Ripley’s Game. Her best films are ambiguous, haunting, and offer no easy answers. In The Night Porter even the Nazis, history’s ultimate freaks, cannot contemplate why Max and Lucia should want to be together.  

The Red Shoes – Station Screening Notes (May 2012)

“Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on.”

Loosely based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Red Shoes is a lavish drama about a ballerina (Moira Shearer) torn between two men. Impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) demands she makes the most of her talent and gives everything up for her art including the affections of composer Julian Craster (Marcus Goring). Early on Lermontov asks her “why do you want to dance?” and she replies “why do you want to live?” Eventually she must make a choice between what she loves and whom she loves.

The work of writer/director team Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell has proven influential over the years. You can see their hand in the work of Baz Luhrmann while the recent Black Swan (2010, Darren Aranofsky) owes much to The Red Shoes.Pressburger was a Hungarian émigré who moved to Berlin to work as a journalist before turning to screenwriting. After the Nazi’s rise to power Pressburger leftGermany for England finding work in the film industry with Alexander Korda’s studio. Michael Powell worked prolifically in the 30’s providing quickly made features to meet the British film industry’s quota for home grown films. However The Edge of the World (37), loosely inspired by the evacuation of St. Kilda showed a developing style and an interest in mysticism.

Korda put Powell and Pressburger together on the war film The Spy in Black (39) and they became friends. Forming their own production called The Archers and working with total autonomy within the Rank Organisation they began to make highly distinctive and idiosyncratic films often in Technicolor, a process which saturates the frame with bright colours and would later become synonymous with the musical. During the 1940’s they created a series of classics, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp(43), I Know Where I’m Going! (45), A Matter of Life and Death (46), and Black Narcissus (47).

Despite its success The Red Shoes went over budget bringing them into conflict with Rank who cut them loose. They returned to low-budget filmmaking for the underratedThe Small Back Room (49), about a troubled bomb disposal expert, and then back to Technicolor for the opera Tales of Hoffman (51) but neither made much impact at the box-office. Their films became increasingly compromised by studio interference and they separated in 1957. Powell effectively destroyed his career with the haunting serial killer film Peeping Tom (1960) which caused outrage in Britain on its release. In the 60’s British cinema tended towards realism and Powell and Pressburger’s movies with their love of the fantastical, high emotions, and bright gaudy colours fell out of fashion.

A critical reappraisal of their work began in the 70’s when Martin Scorsese began to champion Michael Powell and cited The Red Shoes as being his favourite film.

The Graduate – Station Screening (May 2012)

 

Anticipating the aimless troubled protagonists of the late 60’s and early 70’s in American films like Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger), Five Easy Pieces (1970, Bob Rafelson), and Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese), The Graduate is a darkly comic movie about a young man’s affair with an older woman. Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) has just graduated from college as an award-winning scholar and track star. Everybody wants to know what he plans to do next but Benjamin has no idea. His parents are pressurising him to go to Grad school but Benjamin would rather just take it easy for a while. Drinking her way through a bad marriage, whatever dreams Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) may have had are long gone. Cynical and embittered she may be but Mrs Robinson is still a very attractive woman and she seduces Benjamin despite his weak attempt at preserving his innocence. But their secret relationship becomes awkward when her pretty daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) returns from university

The clash between the younger generation and the establishment was playing out across Americawith anti-Vietnam protests, civil rights demonstrations, and an emerging counter culture which rejected many of the ideals their parents believed in. Director Mike Nichols and his screenwriters Buck Henry and Calder Willingham present this generational conflict in The Graduate. Though the story is told from Benjamin’s perspective he is as flawed as his elders. The older generation are presented as being decadent and burnt out, yet they do at least know what they believe in. Benjamin is drifting, terrified by the lightness freedom can bring.   

Nichols won a Best Director Oscar for his work on The Graduate. Having tasted success with his adaptation of the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Nichols work here is more formally daring often foregoing narrative for observing Benjamin as he wanders around looking lost or hangs out by the pool. Simon and Garfunkel’s music is an integral part of the film. Though only the track ‘Mrs Robinson’ was written specifically for The Graduate the songs taken from their album ‘The Sound of Silence’ lend a haunting atmosphere to the film. 

Leaving Your Other Self Behind – The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

The Double Life of Veroniquesaw Krysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996) moving away from the social concerns of films like A Short Film about Killing(1988), and focusing on the supernatural elements that often touched his work. There was always an otherness to Kieslowski’s films; the suggestion of something beyond our understanding. No End(1984) is the most obvious example, with a ghost watching over his ex-wife during a period of political unrest. Tellingly the living and the dead both seem as sad and lost as each other. The Double Life of Veroniqueis an enigmatic tale of two identical women, Weronika and Veronique, living uncannily similar lives.

Kieslowski claimed not to be interested in politics, but making films under an authoritarian and censorious regime meant there were always restrictions placed upon him. The Double Life of Veronique is Kieslowski’s first film made without fear of outside interference. At one point Weronika walks in a different direction from a political march in Krakow, oblivious to the protesters. Kieslowski seemed to be taking a similar journey, towards something broader and more universal.

Two physically identical women in two different cities; both are singers, both have weak hearts. There is a moment when they almost meet. Weronika (Irene Jacob) is astonished to see a woman who looks exactly like her amongst a group of French tourists. As her doppelganger boards a bus Weronika runs after her and Veronique (Jacob) inadvertently takes her photograph. Kieslowski and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak make the world seem far more beautiful than it normally isbathing it in a permanent golden haze. Photographs, reflections, twin dolls; doubles haunt the film. Often images are distorted by glass, to add to the feeling of otherness.

Weronika is full of life. First seen singing in a choir, she keeps singing long after her colleagues have stopped and sought shelter from the rain. She experiences a rapture bordering on the religious. Music also links the two women. Weronika dies during a concert when her heart gives out. Veronique is immediately struck by a feeling of grief. The next day she visits her singing teacher and tells him she is giving up. Veronique seems more tentative than Weronika, more hesitant and troubled, yet we only get to know her after she is affected by this inexplicable feeling of suddenly being alone.

Veronique is drawn towards Alexandre (Philippe Volter), a puppeteer who visits the school she teaches at to perform a marionette show. Alexandre begins to reappear in Veronique’s life as if by coincidence. Veronique retreats from Alexandre when he claims he wants to use her as inspiration for a novel, but they spend a night together in a hotel. Though The Double Life of Veroniquepresents the doppelganger as being like a lost sibling, there is a brief reminder that the idea of an exact double is often used as a source of terror. Alexandre looks through the photo-reels from Krakow and shows Veronique the picture of a woman he assumes to be her. Yet Veronique knows she took the photo, and she never owned clothes like the one the girl (Weronika) is wearing.

Alexandre creates a story for his marionette show about identical girls; one of whom burns her hand badly by touching a stove, but the other pulls away at the last moment as if influenced by the pain visited upon her double. Veronique backs away from Alexandre and leaves him to his puppets. Kieslowski too shies away from revealing any more as if like Veronique he feels the implications are too much to bear. Kieslowski announced his retirement shortly after the release of Three Colours: Red (1994), despite the film’s commercial and critical success. Like Veronique he returned home. Like Weronika his heart failed him.

Kieslowski commented on the difficulties of conveying “the realm of superstitions, fortune-telling, presentiments, intuition, dreams.” (1) For Kieslowski these make up the inner-life of a human being and no filmmaker since his death has been able to deal with these themes as effectively. German director Tom Twyker tried with the stylish but empty Blind Chance(1981) knock-off Lola Rennt(1998), and the ghastly euro-pudding Heaven(2002), based on an unfinished screenplay by Kieslowski and his regular collaborator Krysztof Piesiewicz. There is no other self out there, another Kieslowski, a doppelganger blessed with the same ability to ask metaphysical questions with a sublime grace.

1.       p 194 Kieslowski on Kieslowski.Faber & Faber 1995

The Italian Job – Station Screening Notes

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Never much cared for The Italian Job. Love the opening sequence but its matey banter and its Euro-phobic stance leave me cold. Anyway here’s my programme notes for this screening back in March 2012. 

The Italian Job misdirects the audience with an opening sequence which introduces us to a suave middle-aged man (Italian actor Rossano Brazzi) as he drives a Lamborghini through the Alps as Matt Monro sings the haunting ‘On Days Like These.’ This is not Brazzi’s movie though, nor is it the Lamborghini’s. The Italian Job belongs to a couple of British institutions – Michael Caine and the Mini Cooper. A moderate box office hit on its initial release in 1969, the film has gradually developed a strong following over the years thanks to regular television screenings and the critical reappraisal of star Michael Caine which began when he became a cult figure with the ‘New Lad’ culture of the mid-90’s and Mike Myers credited him with being one of the inspirations for Austin Powers.

A nuanced and charismatic actor Caine has had a more varied career than people realise but he is best known for his mischievous onscreen persona. Caine first found fame as an upper class army officer in Cy Endfield’s classic war film Zulu (1964). However he soon became known for playing cocky working-class types. As the cynical spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965, Sidney J. Furie) he trades barbs with his condescending superiors but gets the job done. As smooth-talking lothario Alfie (1966, Lewis Gilbert) he thinks he’s got all the answers and delivers lengthy monologues to the camera about the meaning of life

The Italian Job is a cheeky caper movie in which British ingenuity triumphs over continental style and sophistication. No wonder fans of the English national football team have adopted its catchy anthem ‘Getta Bloody Move On’ aka ‘The Self Preservation Society’ into their repertoire. Caine is in his element as the roguish Charlie Croker who walks free from prison and immediately starts work on a plan to steal gold bullion from a delivery in Turin using a football match as cover. Noel Coward makes a surprisingly effective heavy, his character representing the Old Guard of the Establishment, disgusted at having to tolerate a lower-class upstart like Charlie until of course he realises how much money he can make from him.

 Credit must also go to French driver Rèmy Julienne and his team who perform the film’s inventive driving stunts and would later work on every James Bond film from For Your Eyes Only (1981, John Glen) to 1995’s Goldeneye (Martin Campbell).