The British New Wave

Note: I am planning a book on British cinema entitled 25 Essential British Films. A critical analysis of each film ranging from 2,500 to 3,000 words adding up to about 200 pages. The 25 selected films are my own personal choices; it mainly focuses on the 1960s. As an Irish man born in 1989 such a book on British cinema which focuses specifically on the 60s may seem unusual, it’s just how it worked out. There is an ending footnote of omissions ranging up to 75 films. Originally the book was to include 100 Great British Films. However, I wanted to give the films more depth. To attempt a book with the breath of film references of Raymond Durgnat’s A Mirror for England would need to have more theoretical angle. This book is aimed to be accessible for lovers of film, my writing is not I feel academic or (I hope) complicated. Overall I believe that a lot of film theory is not definitive to understanding film as Kent Jones has pointed out ‘theory can be so disconnected from practice.’ I hope it gives something to readers new to film criticism and British cinema. I aim to give these 25 selected films a service, if the book is in anyway useful it’s because the films are great.

The sources that I found have stated that there were only ten British New Wave films made between their specified period of 1959 to 1963, it was before they say James Bond brought along yet another new British Cinema. The origins of the British New Wave overlap with the theatre movement called Angry Young Men featuring the work of playwrights such as John Osborne and Edward Bond about the working and middle classes’ battles against the establishment. It started with Room at the Top (Clayton, 1959) which it seems received more attention in the US than any other New Wave film. It features Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) a working class man in his twenties working his way up the corporate ladder in a town in Yorkshire, Northern England. A drinking game could be devised any time Joe Lampton’s name is mentioned which to my memory is a lot. Room at the Top conveys stiff-upper lip corporate life which is counterbalanced with the awkwardness and bad timing of romantic relationships.

Jimmy Porter (Richard Burton) the protagonist of Look Back in Anger (Richardson, 1959) exploded on the British film scene, he is loud, crude and very opinionated. Porter is a university graduate who runs a sweets market stall in Derby. Porter lives with his wife Alison (Mary Ure) and his friend and co-worker Cliff (Gary Raymond). Jimmy and Cliff enjoy a two man comedic role play which to they perform to Alison and by a chance on theatre stage during in unannounced visit to the play audition of Alison’s friend Helena (Claire Bloom). Tony Richardson films Derby within London, giving an air to the exterior scenes; extending settings and characters (Edith Evan’s Ma Tanner is unseen in John Osborne’s original play). The close-ups of Burton’s face in a grave with Ma are mesmerising, he was born to play Porter. His performance isup there with his portrayal of George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols, 1966) as his very best. Burton’s physique is short and stark. His raging personality packs a punch with almost everyone he meets. Jimmy shows kindness towards an Indian immigrant who is mistreated on the grounds of racism. As the days go by Jimmy for all his education sinks into a serve depression as his continued disconnection with society looms ever clearer. He and Alison shield this anger and hatred with their childish role plays.

 

Tony Richardson as a director develops more and more after each of his four contributions to the ten film canon of the British New Wave. Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) in The Entertainer (Richardson, 1960) is from a different generation and mindset than Jimmy Porter. As Raymond Durgnat (1976) points out Archie’s primetime of the Edwardian Era (1901-1914) has long passed as the film opens in 1939. It was filmed on location in Morecambe, Lancashire, Archie’s small flat filled with his family from his second wife Phoebe (Brenda de Banzie) son Frank (Alan Bates). His father Billy is played by Roger Livesey, only year older than Olivier and no stranger to playing older characters in Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and Losey’s The Intimate Stranger (1956).

Archie’s conniving ways brought to my mind Jimmy McGill alias Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) from Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008-2013) and Better Call Saul (Gilligan and Gould, 2015-) The Entertainer’s finale brings a desperate and an ultimately lonely mindset to his breaking point. Durgnat (1966) argues ‘In a sense, Archie is Britannia, the English soul, the last tatter of Tom Jones, the Edwardian music hall’s last gasp, declining England reduced to seedy, shady shifts, holding on like a battered bulldog to the masochistic loyalty inferable from his preference for prison over emigration.’

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz, 1960) stars Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton, a factory worker looking for fun and games at the end of the 1950s. It’s a role Oliver Reed would have dominated. Seaton’s smarmy persona is given weight with Finney’s use of facial gestures and timing. The setting is Nottingham; where many live for the weekends in pubs and nightclubs to bare their dead-end factory jobs. Arthur fears a future similar to his parents. He lives it up while he can despite the consequences.

A Taste of Honey (Richardson, 1961) features wide-eyed newcomer Rita Tushingham and the brilliantly enigmatic Murray Melvin. Durgnat (1966) notes Richardson’s use of the Manchester landscape to symbolise social decay underestimates the impact of the cinema’s ordinary techniques. Tushingham and Melvin give the film its warmth, the Dardennes would have been proud to make this film. In the film’s most moving scene Melvin approaches Tushingham in an industrial underpass. Their faces and gestures are filled with life as they almost fly out of the underpass into the daylight.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Richardson, 1962) is maybe the best film of the British New Wave, it’s Britain’s answer to The 400 Blows. Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) is a petty thief who is sent to juvenile prison. Upon finding out that Colin can run, the governor (Michael Redgrave) enlists him as a long distance runner to win the national runners cup. The film ultimately becomes a fable of freeing oneself within a confined environment. Courtenay’s humane performance was a new type of screen presence in British cinema; his facial gestures speak volumes about hardship and disappointment.

A Kind of Loving (Schlesinger, 1962) is a morality tale about a draftsman Vic (Alan Bates) who casually dates Ingrid (June Ritchie); they must marry under convenient circumstances. Bates’ character doesn’t know what he wants. He drifts through the Blackburn setting feeling little but disappointment for it and his situation.

The L-Shaped Room (Forbes, 1962) features Jane a Frenchwoman in London who is pregnant with no desire to be with the father. She befriends her housemates Toby (Tom Bell) and Johnny (Brock Peters). The film is a balancing act of intrigue between Jane’s various housemates and how precious they are to her in different ways. It’s the British New Wave’s only non-British protagonist, the director Bryan Forbes doesn’t focus too much on this. We’re all human in the end. As always the protagonists are stuck in the moment, it often gives them periods of anxiety which Roman Polanski could have seen and been inspired before filming Repulsion (Polanski, 1965).

This Sporting Life (Anderson, 1963) stars Richard Harris as coalminer turned rugby star Frank Machin, it’s like Britain’s fore-calling to Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980). His obsessive relationship with Mrs. Hammond (Rachel Roberts) is heartbreaking. He lives with her as her lodger with her children in Wakefield, Yorkshire. Frank’s highs on the rugby field are ultimately not enough. It’s an interesting study of celebrity power. The final shot of Frank on the rugby field creates a bleak wilderness of utter isolation.

Billy Liar (Schlesinger, 1963) is a unique concept for the new Wave. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw (2014) called it ‘depressing’ and ‘defeatist’. Tom Courtenay’s performance invites us to observe a strange individual’s plight into bizarre fantasy sequences. Its ending is bittersweet as well as perfect. His decision to live in his fantasy means the alternative is a missed opportunity even if the alternative feels like a fantasy in itself which won’t be long lasting.

The British New Wave ended in 1963, a new British cinema was emerging with James Bond, Tom Jones (Richardson, 1963) The Servant (Losey, 1963) and The System (Winner, 1964) etc. British cinema defied expectation once again the late 60s with the incredibly inventive imaginations of Peter Watkins, Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell.

 

Oliver Reed

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Oliver Reed played Lord Melton in Sword of Sherwood Forest (Fisher, 1960) it’s the first film that I remember seeing. It shot at Ardmore Studios, Bray, Ireland, the opening shot is of Powercourt waterfall, how appropriate for me an Irish lover of film. Aged only 21 at the time of the filming Reed’s stark presence and stern voice stood out by a mile. Despite is hard drinking lifestyle Reed managed to contribute 120 credits for film and television between 1955 and 2000. He died while on a break from filming Gladiator (Scott, 2000) in 1999 aged 61. He was buried in Churchtown, Co. Cork, Ireland; where he spent the last years of his life. Fittingly his grave is opposite his favourite pub O’Brien’s. His tombstone reads: Robert Oliver Reed 1938-1999. He made the air move.

Reed as Bill Sykes in Oliver! (Reed, 1968) directed by his uncle Carol Reed is best known role, for the younger generation it’s the role of Proximo in Gladiator. For me though Reed’s best work was with his friend director Ken Russell with whom he made eight films. Starting with The Debussy Film (Russell, 1965) and later Women in Love (Russell, 1969), a beautiful telling of D.H. Lawrence’s novel, filling with poetic interludes and brash intensity from Reed and Glenda Jackson. Reed’s role as Father Grandieur in The Devils (Russell, 1971) is easily in my view the greatest performance by an actor on film, such intensity even with Reed just standing in the shot.

The 60s were a great period for Reed starting with small roles in seven films listed from 1960. Reed worked with director Michael Winner six times. Their first collaboration The System (Winner, 1964) was a star maker for Reed. Just like The Damned (Losey, 1963) Reed was a hell of an entrance in the respective opening sequences. In The System he plays Stephen ‘Tinker’ Taylor a summer photographer at the beach resort of Brixham, Devon, England. The fascinating concept is of summer workers who work hard in the summer to survive the winter, as the title song by The Searchers, announces ‘you’re all alone’. Losey’s The Damned gives a similar feel to English life, set another seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset. But The System really gives an overall impression of life in a seaside town; the street corners, the people. Winner and Reed’s later collaboration I’ll Never Forget What’s‘isname (Winner, 1967) familiarises us with its London locations. Reed is given yet another stunning opening sequence; his character Andrew Quint is seen walking through central London carrying an axe once he reaches his corporate advertising office he destroys his desk! Reed went to make comedy/adventure films like The Jokers (Winner, 1967), Hannibal Brooks (Winner, 1969) The Assassination Bureau (Dearden, 1969) and The Three Musketeers films (Lester, 1973, 1974, 1989). He played romantic leads in Take a Girl Like You (Miller, 1969) and Castaway (Roeg, 1986).

 

Words on Screen by Michel Chion review

Words on Screen by Michel Chion (edited and translated by Claudia Gorbman)

Published by Columbia University Press (March, 2017)

Review by Peter Larkin

Note: I would like to thank Columbia University Press for sending me a copy of Words on Screen to review.

“I do not read so many fictions. But rather books on the theory of cinema. My favorite author is Michel Chion: as soon as one of his books is translated, I buy it. He does not write from an abstract point of view like most critics, who speak more of aesthetics than of the act of seeing a film. Chion is interested in all the ways of perceiving a film. He wrote a book about the history of the early years of sound in cinema. He takes tiny subjects and he really talks about it from the perspective of someone watching a movie and the effect it does. That’s what I like about him: it’s very smart and it’s never abstract.” Jim O’Rourke on Michel Chion (interview with Les Inrocks, 29th November 2001)

I think that Jim O’Rourke’s statement about Michel Chion sums him up perfectly as a critic and theoretician of cinema, ‘it’s very smart and it’s never abstract’. Mr. Chion began writing and teaching about film sound in 1978, a subject of which little attention was being paid at the time. From 1981-1988 he wrote for Cahiers du Cinema, during that time he wrote his first book on cinema, The Voice in Cinema (1982), an exploration on screenwriting Writing a Scenario (1985, revised and updated 2007) and a monograph on Jacques Tati (1987). Cahiers continued to publish some of his books after he left the magazine including monographs on Lynch (1992) Kubrick (2005) and Tarkovski (2008). Mr. Chion has written for Cahiers left wing rival Positif since 1996. His most famous book is Audio Vision (1990) about the relationship between image and sound. Mr. Chion’s latest book is Words on Screen (2017) expertly edited and translated by his friend and fellow film scholar Claudia Gorbman from the French original text L’Ècrit au Cinema (2013). Gorbman describes Chion as ‘a poet in theoretician’s clothes’. Mr. Chion’s writing invites the reader to access areas of cinema such as image, sound, speech and text which I for one knew very little about before reading.

Where to begin with Words on Screen? Chion illustrates many uses of text on screen through ten chapters featuring use of opening credits in many creative forms such as a hand on the screen writing out the credits in the Astaire-Rogers musical Carefree (Sandrich, 1938)  and Barbarella’s (Vadim, 1968)  use of jumbling text around Jane Fonda’s body. Also the act of hearing a foreign language and reading subtitles, the visuals of letters, books and signs on screen. Chion examines the psychological effects of these visuals for the films and their audiences. As often Chion invites you to take the journey of the book with him with his clear and concise prose. The best moments in the book are Chion’s fascination with newspapers (Eyes Wide Shut) signs (The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett, 1946)) computers (The Thing, Stand by Me) and how Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942) is written on screen in the credits as “Casablanca” a word to be spoken over and over again throughout the film rather than simply read.

Chion got a research grant to write the book from The Internationales Kolleg fur Kultur-technikforschung und Medienphilosophie (IKKM) in Weimar, Germany. Chion states that he watched over 900 films in preparation and uses 256 stills to illustrate examples of text in cinema. Chion insists that the cinema continues to re-invent itself in modern times and sees a positive side to 3-D for Avatar (Cameron, 2009) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, 2010). The book is useful for film scholars looking to learn about this unique subject, Chion’s devoted readers will continue to feel the warm invitation of his writing.

The Draughtsman’s Contract (Greenaway, 1982)

Peter Greenaway is as art-house as a British director can get with his use of mise-en-scene, set designs, stories about troubled artists etc. I have been avoiding his recent films. Many say that his strongest period was in the 80s. From the 1990s I enjoyed Eight and Half Women (1999) but I struggled with Prospero’s Books (1991) and The Pillow Book (1996) which I could only manage a few minutes of, I will no doubt return to those ones in the future. I re-watched his second feature The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) last night, it is set in Jacobean England in 1694. The film begins with aristocrat Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) commissioning draughtsman Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) to produce thirteen drawings of her estate on her behalf of her husband for £8 per drawing. The contract also states that Mrs. Herbert will fulfil Mr. Neville’s sexual requests. Mrs. Herbert’s daughter Mrs. Talmann (Anne-Louise Lambert) is married to a German (Hugh Fraser) who is somewhat irate with the presence of Mr. Neville.

Greenaway has referred to the film as a semi-autographical story about him challenging himself to produce drawings of a similar English estate. Born in Wales in 1942, Greenaway was raised in London and was educated at an arts school where he intended to be a painter. To this day he is heavily influenced by Dutch painting so much so that he left England for Amsterdam in about 1984. Neville’s drawing is Greenaway’s.

I felt more challenged to keep up with Greenaway’s dialogue which is witty and often dry to superb effect. An example being when Mr. Neville subtly berates Talmann for his support of William of Orange’s victory over Ireland (my home country) in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. It was a Protestant victory. Talmann goes as far as to adopt his nephew after his sister converts to Catholicism and move him from Germany to England. Talmann also has numerous reservations about England.

There’s a man painted as a statue hired possibly by Talmann who parades the grounds, he is a haunting presence, at one in close-up I thought it was Greenaway himself, what a thought! Michael Nyman’s score is based on some of Henry Purcell’s, some of the grounds for the drawings where given specific, like the now famous and extremely uplifting ‘Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds’. Nyman was a regular collaborator of Greenaway’s until 1991 when they had a falling out.

The film becomes a cunning murder mystery. Greenaway often frames ambiguous conversations in wide shot for we are to decide who to believe in the matter. I would guess that the film is shot entirely on location in Kent where Greenaway has great creative use with camera pans and lighting in the darker scenes. Mr. Neville’s treatment of Mrs. Hebert during the sex scenes are revolting bordering on rape. Mr. Neville’s purpose in the film seems to be to simply exist; delve in luxury, transcribe it to paper and pontificate on English life and counterpunch with Talmann’s often hilarious ramblings. The film’s finale echoes The Devils (Russell, 1971) with society’s clash with an unwanted outsider to their norms. Raymond Durgnat wasn’t too impressed with the film he briefly wrote about it on two occasions for the Monthly Film Bulletin.

“But it’s tainted by the same disease: a crudeness of polarity which the mainstream dramas continually nuance. Dramatic structure is dialectic. Greenaway must fill in with a nonsense plot and lots of pseudo-aristo insolence and wit.  (Durgnat: 1984)

I don’t agree that the plot is nonsense it simply lays ground for an outsider to be trampled about by an establishment which he cannot defeat in spite of his high intelligence and wit or lack thereof.

Durgnat continued in 1985 ‘Alas, its negative aspects—finicky formalism, dramatic grossness, political stereotyping, and boring agitprop—are the hallmarks of most BFI productions.’

I agree about Greenaway’s use of dramatic grossness (which lives on from first frame to last) as for the political stereotyping it is definitely part of the film’s charm and humour. Perhaps many think that Greenaway sits at home writing his dialogue whilst constantly sniggering to himself, it could well be true for his 80s features. Elvis Mitchell commented in 1997 that Greenaway makes films that alienate audiences. Greenaway himself has defended such remarks by saying ‘it’s wholly arrogant to assume you can film to please everyone, the best thing you can do is to make the film you want and hope like-minded people will like it.’ Greenaway insists he is a stickler for tight dramatic structure in his scripts. His film’s certainly have a uniqueness to them. And by the way, Peter Greenaway was inspired to be a film critic after reading Raymond Durgnat’s pieces in Films and Filming! Greenaway wrote some criticism which he decided was unreadable.

 

The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett, 1946)

James M. Cain’s 1934 crime novel The Postman Always Rings Twice has had numerous adaptations including Visconti’s Obsessione (1943) (recently adapted for the stage starring Jude Law) Tay Garnett’s 1946 version starring John Garfield and Lana Turner and Bob Rafelson’s 1981 version starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange with a script by the often intriguing David Mamet. I watched the 1946 version last night. John Garfield’s Frank Chambers falls to earth in this story a drifter in Southern California of whose past we know nothing. He is immediately offered a job at a rural diner by Nick (Cecil Kellaway) whereupon Frank meets Nick’s young wife Cora (Lana Turner). We immediately feel the sexual tension between Frank and Cora which only presence off-screen between Garfield and Turner. As Michel Chion noted in the recent English translation (by Claudia Gorbman) of his latest book Words on Screen Frank’s burning of the ‘man wanted’ in the outdoor fire is quite a literal signifier of his and Cora’s sexual charge.

The film is primarily set at the diner (a set on an MGM back lot) such claustrophobia makes understandable that it be suited for the stage. Within this space as often in noirs highly irrational decisions but not before the decent decision is reversed and practically stamped on as the aftermath shows us, just like another Cain novel adapted for the screen by Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity. Without irrationality these films would arguably have no place to go. Later a court case ensues led by Keats for the defence (Hume Cronyn) and Sackett (Leon Ames, who often played lawmen in films such as Meet Me in St. Louis and Angel Face). For our protagonists reality and their love for one each other are passing ships in the night.

Westerns

I saw Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name trilogy years ago, it was Alex Cox who got me interested to revisit them. He introduced Italian westerns on Moviedrome and wrote a book on the subject called 10,000 Ways to Die which written in 1978, but was not published until 2009 by which time Cox has revised some of his theoretical framework. My friend Matt loves westerns, he wrote his Bachelor’s thesis on The Man with No Name trilogy. It was he who really made me re-evaluate westerns. There’s that great sub-genre of the western, revisionist. Which I think means that it takes the conventions of a western and laces it with deep and dark themes with some charismatic humour thrown in. Italian westerns are a great example of this and so is Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo. From John Ford I’ve only seen The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; they weren’t charismatic enough for me. You notice that the last three films I mentioned star John Wayne who appeared in a whopping 88 westerns according to Letterboxd.

I’ll start with Clint Eastwood, Eastwood’s characters in westerns are often lone wolfs; the preacher in Pale Rider, Josey Wales, The man with no name. Then comes The Beguiled, Eastwood plays a wounded soldier during the civil war in 1800s; he is taken in by a group of women at a boarding school. He seduces each of them with tragic results. It is filled with desire, a sense of baroque and an editing style which brings to mind Nic Roeg. The boarding school is a hell on earth, Eastwood’s anguish is overplayed but that’s the point, his character cannot believe where the film takes us.

Eastwood’s Italian westerns with Leone; A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and The Ugly are often regarded as the best westerns ever made. A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yjimbo which is turn was remade as Django in 1966. For a Few Dollars More has a great robbery sequence and features Klaus Kinski as a villain. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the best of Leone’s westerns, mainly because of the depth of its script and Eli Wallach’s comic contribution. Ennio Morricone’s music blasts through the eardrum giving the films even more inventive texture.

Sergio Corbucci is often compared with Leone as a master of Italian westerns. Corbucci made Django in 1966 followed by The Big Silence, a western in the snow filled with lyrical poetry by Morricone’s music and featuring strong performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant (who has no dialogue) Klaus Kinski and Voletta McGee. The film’s ending shocked many; an alternative ending was shown in some countries. Another film which was considered shocking was Django Kill… (If You Live, Shoot!) with its violence and unusual editing style. The women in these films think for themselves, it’s one of the reasons why they are considered revisionist westerns, think of Johnny Guitar or The Homesman.

Neo westerns spring to mind four in particular; the first is Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, it was seen to be Peckinpah’s most personal film. It’s about a bar room pianist (Warren Oates) who is in fact the best gunman in the west. He goes to Mexico to dig up the corpse of his friend Alfredo Garcia to receive a reward from a local gangster whose daughter had been impregnated by Garcia. Alex Cox sees the film as a metaphor for Peckinpah as a burnt out director slaving for Hollywood, Peckinpah said that Garcia was the only the film there the final edit was exactly as he intended. I struggled with the film’s narrative but was fascinated by Oates’ lack of interest in the money, the question of his actions just sit there.

Lone Star (Sayles, 1996) like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is about the class conflict between Mexicans and Americans. Lone Star goes further though to consider the African community in a Texas small town, both films contain buried secrets. As ever John Sayles’ motto ‘put lives on screen that have not been seen before’ doesn’t disappoint. It’s the individual scenes between his characters that make Sayles’ films so moving. Just now Sayles is in development for Django Lives! starring Franco Nero from the 1966 original. This time Django is a creative consultant/extra on the set of Birth of a Nation in 1915! We’ll have to wait and see…

A History of Violence is not commonly referred to a western but I think it is. It’s about a small town diner owner living a peaceful family life in Millbrook, Indiana who it turns out was previously a ruthless hit man for the mob in Philadelphia. He’s the gunslinger forced out of retirement, the oldest western story in the book but it has as open an ending as Lone Star and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, these films are filled with intrigue and texture over the smallest of details. One which I think is present in all three films, that of the protagonist reflecting whilst looking down at a river, their lives like ours are passing by faster than we care to mention.   

 

At look back at Alfie (Gilbert, 1966)

alfieI have always been fascinated how director Lewis Gilbert and writer Bill Naughton develop London Casanova Alfie Elkins‘(Michael Caine) relationships with women into segments. Like Naughton’s The Family Way (Boulting, 1966) where time is taken to criticise the protagonist’s sex life, criticisms of Alfie are fleeting up until a point, when the women leave him. Gilbert uses many locations around London, Sonny Rollins jazzy score and the slow motion effect give the film the fleeting blink of the eye moments of happiness for Alfie. Siddie (Millicent Martin, known for her role as Gertrude Moon in Frasier) is looking for time away from her husband; a Chelsea FC supporter with a keen interest in gardening, Alfie fills her void of boredom. Another woman Gilda (Julia Foster) is looking for a future with Alfie, they have a child together, Alfie’s self-centredness and unsurprising lack of commitment breaks their relationship. The pregnancy of his friend’s wife Lily (Vivien Merchant) is devastating; Jane Asher’s Annie is looking for a lover in Alfie after an unknown sad past about a lover named Tony. Shelley Winter’s Ruby is all flash, her rejection of Alfie has him pondering on Waterloo Bridge, ‘what it’s all about?’ in an ending so open, anything is possible, but knowing Alfie it’ll be more of the same.

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Alfie’s breaking of the fourth wall wasn’t a common technique in 1966 (viewers of my generation found the technique used in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to be groundbreaking at the time, at least I thought so.) Rollins’ theme tune with its optimistic sax invites the protagonist to take chances; cheat and live life to what he believes to be the full. One wonders what kind of trouble Alfie was in before the film starts; it surely wasn’t all fun and games. I have not seen the 2004 remake with Jude Law, but I do believe that an Alfie-type can exist today in 2017, such a narcissistic personality with never die out it seems.  The interiors from Alfie’s cramped flat, the local pub, the garage where Alfie works at the beginning all suggest a working class which Alfie would rather not focus on as he sits in his chair suggesting that Gilda should rob the till of the cafe where she works just the people make money. Caine said in later interviews that Alfie’s fast talking speech rhythm with his big hand gestures were done so that the other characters would pay attention to a working class cockney. In Get Carter (Hodges, 1971) it’s the opposite as Caine’s gangster speaks slower because he knows he can be heard. It seems Ruby is only woman Alfie considers a future with; ironically she dumps him for a younger man just because he is younger. Alfie’s real loss is his son Malcolm who he had by Gilda, Alfie speaks poignantly about the child and the montage of Malcolm and Alfie in the park are Alfie at his most fulfilled, it’s his lost moment. The agony of what might been with the women is briefly pondered by Alfie as he reflects on being cheated on just he had done so many times. All he can do is walk away and ponder his lack of peace of mind.

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60 Seconds from a De Palma Film

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Brian De Palma is famous and rightly so for his set piece sequences, from the bucket of blood sequence in Carrie (De Palma, 1976) to the Grand Central Station chase in Carlito’s Way (De Palma, 1993) to the rope through the vault sequence in Mission: Impossible (De Palma, 1996). I would argue that whilst his scripts are often Hitchcockian, his film style is unique to him. I don’t recall Hitchcock using slow motion often if at all apart maybe in the shower scene from Psycho. The sequence I have chosen is the elevator scene from Dressed to Kill (De Palma, 1980). In his book Mise en Scene and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art Adrian Martin (2014) focuses on how De Palma pumps up Pino Donaggio’s score on the first part of the scene in which Angie Dickinson is brutally murdered. I have chosen 60 seconds in which Nancy Allen discovers Dickinson dying and slowly but surely she notices the murderer through a mirror. De Palma (2015) has stated that the set up and details of these sequences ‘go on forever’. De Palma takes 6 minutes to tell the sequence. These crucial 60 seconds I speak of are spellbinding on repeated views and definitely sum up De Palma’s style.

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The sequence is done in slow motion in roughly 40 shots. Michel Chion has written that a film’s sound cannot studied without its image and film’s image cannot be studied without its sound. I believe it is a certain ambient sound like a helicopter on the soundtrack at the climax of the 60 seconds; this is what still stuns me after so many viewings. This sound bridged with De Palma’s rhythmic and artful images deliver a film style that pulls absolutely no punches. To begin with the first shot Allen sees Dickinson as she lies bleeding in the lift, Donaggio’s strings rise to the occasion of her shock. Dickinson starts to reach out her arm but before she can De Palma cuts to Allen in distress as the camera zooms in a manner that might have impressed Rainer Werner Fassbinder. De Palma is interested in the quick flash of detail as Allen’s forehead disappears from the frame to focus on her hands clenched to her face. I cannot but help be reminded of the way Nic Roeg films the eyes of the witches in his Roald Dahl adaptation from 1990 from the way De Palma sets up a reaction of a slow zoom into Dickinson’s blood pouring eyes. Donaggio’s score builds as the murderess in reaction gestures her hand forward moving the razor blade up, the audience holds its breath. Allen’s hands shake in reaction, Dickinson’s raised hand towards her murderer (who of course Allen cannot see) is almost biblical. Donaggio’s score and De Palma’s cuts align with the closing of the elevator door before Allen stops it, De Palma crucial cuts as Allen’s hand of goodwill gestures out to hold the door. De Palma then settles on Dickinson’s bracelet and the blade each reflecting light in turn. This is when De Palma really uses slow motion to full effect as the film almost stops for Allen to gesture her eyes and faces up towards the elevator mirror above, this is when De Palma’s stunning use of ambient sound kicks in and the sequence begins to unwind with rhythmic precision. Allen’s stunning facial numbness in the moment holds the scene in all of its crystal glory as one of greatest moments in cinema history.

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Xavier Dolan: Beyond His Years

Dedicated to Matt Wager

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Xavier Dolan was born eight months before me in 1989, his talent knows no bounds. A child actor by profession from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, he turned to writing and directing in 2009 with his astonishing debut I Killed My Mother (Dolan, 2009) This was followed by Heartbeats (Dolan, 2010), Laurence Anyways (Dolan, 2012), Tom at the Farm (Dolan, 2013) and Mommy (Dolan, 2014). This year It’s Only the End of the World (Dolan, 2016) won the Grand Prix at Cannes. His next film The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (Dolan, 2018) will be his first both in English and set outside of Quebec; it will be shot mostly in New York and is said to be released in 2018.

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What struck me about Mommy (which shared the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes with Goodbye to Language (Godard, 2014) was Dolan’s profound interest in the mother and son arguing and how far the actors take it with incredible intensity. Of course the same can be said of I Killed My Mother which now brings to mind arguments in the films of Fassbinder, Almodovar and Cassavetes. I Killed My Mother stars the nervy and insecure Hubert played Dolan himself, a teenager at odds with his mother (Anne Dorval). Dolan mostly films interior scenes; a family home, a local school, a teacher’s home, a hamburger bar, the crammed apartment of Hubert’s friend, Hubert’s father home, a video store and a boarding school. Dolan’s exterior scenes have a visual and/or emotional charge, think of Hubert’s mother and her friend discussing Hubert’s homosexuality or Hubert alone in a Quebec street surrounded only by street lights.

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I went to a packed screening of It’s Only the End of the World in Dublin, with his prizes at Cannes Dolan seems to be taking the film world by storm. The film concerns a family of five, a mother Martine (Nathalie Baye) her sons Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) and Antoine (Vincent Cassel), her daughter Suzanne (Lèa Seydoux) and Antoine’s wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard). Louis has AIDS; the film is a 90 minute struggle to reveal this to his family in a story of rage and turmoil. Cassel’s tall psyche and brash face embody the emotionally violent Antoine, a kind of older version of Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from Mommy. Spending five minutes with either Antoine or Steve in reality would be nearly impossible yet they are incredibly captivating to watch on screen. The arguments in It’s Only the End of the World have Dolan’s melodramatic stamp, most of the audience I saw it with responded to it as a black comedy of manners. The film is based on a semi-autobiographical 1990 play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, Dolan’s second adaptation after Tom at the Farm. The Quebec neighbourhood in the film is bright and green, a glimmer of hope if it can exist in a world of such bleak characters. There is a stunning close-up of Cotillard early on in the film which I read in the moment to be a glaze of infatuation for Louis. Dolan’s hear for the music of his generation is clear (Blink 182) and surprising (Moby) and is a reminder of the rarity of a working director who is under 30.

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Heartbeats concerns a love triangle between Nicolas (Niels Schneider), Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Xavier Dolan) set in a Montreal of twenty-somethings’ (Generation Y) obsessive ramblings about their love lives or lack of them. I found this film to be a similar viewing experience to My Golden Days (Desplechin, 2015), both films contain performances and individual moments that I admire but the film overall lacks something more needed at the core, an engaging narrative. With Dolan this comes with more expectation as I have not seen any other of Arnaud Desplechin’s films. As my friend Matt informed me; other Dolan films such as I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways and Mommy take something on, something of substance or more accurately something of essence. The three central performances in Heartbeats are strong, Schneider for his pretentiousness, Chokri for her desperation and Dolan for his obsession which finally reaches a breaking point. Dolan’s choice of music such as Dalida’s ‘Bang, Bang’ as the film’s theme song, House of Pain’s catchy ‘Jump Around’ and Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Cello suite No. 1 Prelude in C and G Major respectively give the film some emotion weight at times. Dolan’s use of camera placement and slow-motion technique absorb in some fine moments such as Nicolas’ birthday party sequence, Francis going to the store to buy marshmallows and eating one slowly as he fantasises about Nicolas and a walk in rain between Marie and Francis. Writing about this now I’m remembering the use of slow motion in Every Man for Himself (Godard, 1980) and In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000). With Heartbeats Dolan draws a canvas, sets his stylistic tendency without a strong enough narrative motor, which sometimes relies on narcissistic discussion between strangers when more focus is needed for his protagonists.

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Laurence Anyways features incredible performances from Melvil Poupaud as Laurence Alia, a Montreal a high school English teacher who is a transsexual and Suzanne Clement as Fred, his girlfriend who sticks by him, they love each other deeply. Dolan experiments more with slow motion techniques, he is deeply fascinated by profiles from front and back. Quebec as always in Dolan’s films is filled with colour from its characters, costumes (designed by Dolan himself) and set design. Dolan’s soundtrack sets the tone with some songs familiar, some all the better for being discovered in the context of his and his music supervisors’ selections. Strong scenes feature Dolan’s trademark, arguments; from a confrontation between Fred and an elderly waitress with no respect and Poupaud and Clement’s dynamic scenes together. It features strange sequences of water flowing through a ceiling on Fred and another of clothes falling from the sky as Laurence and Fred roam free through the mystical Isle of Black. The film simply floats.

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Tom at the Farm has the feel of L’argent (Bresson, 1983), of a character being taken in by a farm woman with hardly any questions asked initially. It also has a strange echo of a one man version of The Big Chill (Kasdan, 1983), a man visiting a remote house for the funeral of a loved one. The film is based on a 2011 play by Michel-Marc Bouchard who co-wrote the screenplay with Dolan. Tom (Dolan) has come to pay his respects to the family of his deceased boyfriend Guillaume. Guillaume’s psychotic brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) is on par with Steve in Mommy and Antoine in It’s Only the End of the World. Guillaume’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy) is oblivious to Guillaume’s homosexuality and Francis’ sadistic nature. Tom becomes Francis’ victim for his sick and violent games which including beatings and bursting Tom’s tires leaving him trapped in a remote Quebec farm outback. Tom and Guillaume’s colleague Sarah (Evelyne Brochu) is believed by Agathe to have been Guillaume’s lover; Sarah’s appearance in the film’s narrative is a breath of fresh air. The film’s feeling of isolation is superbly photographed in stark colours of the Quebec night but I felt there was something missing at the film’s centre. Tom’s vague characterisation is intriguing however.

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It’s nearly two years ago since I discovered Dolan’s films with Mommy which I consider to be his masterpiece. Diane (Anne Dorval) one of Dolan’s most regular collaborators is a single mother taking care of her fifteen year old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) who has ADHD and psychotic tendencies. Enter Kyla, an outsider to their relationship, who is a nervous stuttering teacher on sabbatical played by the brilliant Suzanne Clement (completely different each time she works with Dolan from I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways to Mommy). The Quebec neighbourhood is as bright as ever with autumn leaves and sunshine coming through the street of such family tragedy like in All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, 1955) and Far from Heaven (Haynes, 2002). The character Steve plays his deceased father’s  mix-tape which includes White Flag by Dido, Blue (Da Ba Dee) by Eiffel 65 and Wonderwall by Oasis. White Flag sets the tone of the family life in the Quebec suburb for Kyla with her emotionally absent husband Patrick (Alexandre Goyette) and their daughter (Isabelle Nèlisse). Blue (Da Ba Dee) sets boundaries between Steve and Kyla, Pilon has an incredibly natural ability to embody his character through stark body language and shocking intensity. What can be said for Wonderwall, perhaps the most overused pop song of the 1990s? It is given new and eternal life in this film in an astonishing sequence of Steve breaking the fourth wall (changing the screen’s aspect ratio from 1:1 to 1.85:1) it has to seen to believed and a lesser film would have made this into a gimmick but this film’s heart and intensity earns such a bold and breathtaking move. Dorval’s Diane loves her son, her facial gestures are perfect, almost devilish at times. Clement’s Kyla’s hand gestures speak volumes of nerves and repression which she lets out unexpectedly in one scene. Maybe Pilon is the Jean-Pierre Leaud of now! The film climaxes with the heavenly sound of Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die, the visual settling is white, a white of endless entrapment which is about to be set free.

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Dolan’s films are noted highly for their performances and their stylistic tendencies of montage and slow motion. His camera tracks sometimes feel like they are a character’s POV or a POV of a vehicle in which they are traveling in but sometimes the camera is just tracking the characters like road scenes in Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm. Dolan sometimes likes to build up a scene slowly by showing us two characters at a table when they are in fact three and the third person vibrates the scene with inappropriate comments, we can call this trait Dolanesque. His sound turns down when you do not expect it, like when Blue (Da Ba Dee) fades out and back in for dramatic effect at a crucial moment in Mommy. Then again all moments in Dolan’s cinema are in a sense crucial, its Quebec setting of brightness and possibly hopefulness intrigues the viewer. Diane’s fantasy of Steve’s future in Mommy is like an advert, a montage between the style of the Six Feet Under (Ball, 2001-2005) finale and Boyhood (Linklater, 2014). It is like all of the fantasy sequences in Dolan’s films, soon the Quebecoise melodramatic vision of reality sets in.

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