Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Flickering Shadows

J.M. Burns. Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2002.

James Burns's book is a detailed examination of the encounter with cinema in what was known as Southern Rhodesia and, later, simply Rhodesia. Covering the period 1914-1980, Flickering Shadows is the first book-length account of the impact of film in an African country; his work also makes frequent reference to the use of film in other British colonies, and includes briefer comparisons with French and Belgian colonies.

Most work on African cinema tends to focus on the development of post-colonial African filmmaking, from the 1960s onwards. This book is a refreshing addition to the literature in that it concerns itself in large measure with an earlier period, and particularly with African audiences, who are often absent from works which deal with films that are seen more widely in the west than on their continent of origin. Burns deals with both propaganda and commercial filmmaking, and attempts to trace audience reactions to both.

Almost as soon as cinema arrived in Southern Rhodesia, around the time of the First World War, there were calls for control of filmed images, with colonial officials quickly establishing a censorship board (this was nothing new: censorship in India, for example, accompanied the growth of cinema as a popular form of entertainment, as Prem Chowdhry recounted in her 2000 book Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema). The zeal of the censors sometimes came into conflict with the demands of the white mine owners, who needed to assure a steady stream of cheap cinematic entertainment, which they viewed as a simple means to control the leisure hours of their African employees; some owners, and even a few colonial administrators, saw nothing wrong with a good film show, particularly in comparison with beer halls, which were both a source of domestic strife and possibly a theatre for political organisation.

By contrast, an emerging African middle-class sometimes repeated the call for the censorship or even outright banning of commercial (mostly Hollywood) films, including the hugely popular westerns, fearing that any misbehaviour linked to film screenings would threaten their own developing social status. However, unquestioning belief in African credulity with regard to film, was the particular province of the white population.

Film units throughout the British colonies in Africa developed a simple shooting style for educational films. The film unit directors felt that this style, which pared the action down to the barest minimum, and which eliminated all extraneous material, would be comprehensible to African audiences. The colonial filmmakers swallowed then-current theories about African cognition, with many semi-apocryphal stories about African credulity; Burns does a fine job of dismantling such stories, which often circulated for decades in various guises.

The colonial film unit directors were certain that Africans would believe and then follow what they saw onscreen (the corollary of the view that film could provoke disturbances was that film could also educate, along the desired colonial lines). As Burns shows, the short films that emerged from these theories were often counter-productive. Not only did African audiences not identify with what they saw in such films - they were obviously a white gloss on the African experience of life, and said far more about the coloniser than than colonised - but they often ridiculed the content, and then voted with their feet by simply staying away. Mobile film units in rural areas had to resort to the expedient of adding westerns or other commercial fare to the film programmes in order to ensure that the audience showed up.

While Burns provides a detailed account of the development of the colonial film units, and some of the individual films they made, the major weakness of his book is the lack of any sustained examination of the commercial films that were apparently so popular with audiences in Southern Rhodesia (and elsewhere in Africa: the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker wrote vividly about 1950s film-going in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) in her 1962 book Copper Town).

Westerns were, Burns tells us, the particular favourite of most audience members, but either through lack of documentary records or because his research took him in other directions, there is little sense of the specific films shown, or of more detailed audience preferences (did they show a preference for a particular kind of western? were gangster films also popular?). One of his chapters is a re-worked version of a journal article entitled "John Wayne on the Zambezi", but neither article nor book makes any mention of films actually starring Wayne. There is a suggestion that B westerns starring Jack Holt may have been favoured in the 1930s, but the specific film titles mentioned in the book (and they are few in number) tend not to be westerns at all; one film deemed liable to provoke upset was Abbot and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), for example.
In that, Burns, no doubt inadvertently, tends to reinforce the colonial-era view that African audiences were not especially interested in film narratives, and would watch more or less anything as long as it was exciting. While it's possible that audiences were not always discerning, it's difficult to draw conclusions one way or the other given the lack of evidence. There's also something of a contradiction in the book: at one point, Burns states that westerns simply escaped the censors' scissors, while later he implies that many films were so badly chopped that the plots were rendered meaningless. In this, his comments are similar to Charles Ambler's 2001 American Historical Review article on moviegoing in Northern Rhodesia. Ambler appears to over-reach the raw materials, at least as cited in the article, which state only that many films -- perhaps half at the high-water mark -- were censored, but not whether they were heavily cut.

Even with this caveat, however, Burns's book is tremendously valuable as a starting point for further research, and also as an examination of the use of film for propaganda purposes by a colonial regime. Film remained a critical - though not necessarily effective - tool under Ian Smith's illegal Rhodesian Front regime after 1965: the closer the regime came to collapse, the more violent the propaganda, with Burns arguing that Rhodesian Front propaganda ironically precipitated its own end.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Films of Len Lye

Free Radicals (1958)

As I've written previously, I was first drawn to the New Zealand-born experimental filmmaker Len Lye's work by Kristin Thompson's blog post earlier this year, with her subsequent update alerting me to a touring program that featured almost all of his films, from his first work, Tusalava (1929), to his final Particles in Space (1966).

Lye moved to London as a young man - he had planned to visit the Soviet Union, but stopped in England - and the first phase of his film work was completed there. Near the end of the Second World War, he moved to the US, and made five distinctly different films in that country, of which he became a naturalised citizen. Most of Lye's works are very brief, with the longest pieces around seven minutes in length; some are just a minute long. He worked in many other art forms, too, and was especially known for his kinetic sculptures.

Lye's first film, Tusalava, best illustrates his early interest in imagery from the South Pacific, with motifs based on Maori and Samoan iconography. It's a complex and sometimes humorous work that melds images from the natural world with sequences reminiscent of science fiction robots; many sections recall the pulsating intensity of small life-forms seen under a microscope.

Rainbow Dance (1936)

A few years later, Lye made his best-known film, A Colour Box, a vibrant direct-animation work (the images were painted directly onto strips of film, an extraordinarily painstaking process given the small scale of the endeavor). Like many of his 1930s films, A Colour Box was in fact a commercial, for the General Post Office in this case (it was specifically designed to promote new parcel-post rates). After the success of the film, Lye made a half dozen films - including the above Rainbow Dance - with an ostensible advertising purpose, for clients such as Shell Oil, the GPO and Imperial Airways.

The commercial messages are almost always subsidiary to Lye's experiments with colour, shapes and process, and are sometimes added at the conclusion as an apparent after-thought. Lye received much encouragement at this stage of his career from the great documentarian John Grierson as well as from Alberto Cavalcanti, an even more cosmopolitan filmmaker than Lye himself (born in Brazil, he had worked in France before coming to England); Grierson headed the GPO Film Unit, while Cavalcanti was a producer and technician.

Even where the starting point for some of the films is more conventional, such as in the post office advertising film N or NW, Lye quickly subverts the realist trappings, concocting a multi-layered film that plays with editing and voiceover while delivering an amusing message about the need to correctly address letters. That said, there's no doubting the period in which some of the films were made: Colour Flight drums up business for Imperial Airways' connections to the colonies, while Trade Tattoo celebrates the high water mark of Empire, with the slogan "The rhythm of trade is maintained by the mails" flashing across the screen over carefully transformed images of an industrious motherland.

After the Second World War and his move to the US, Lye's work takes a radically new turn. While his first postwar work, Color Cry, recalls the dazzling colours of his best-known British films, the images themselves are starker and less jaunty; his choice of music, too, is more downbeat, the Latin-influenced music of earlier films replaced by a plaintive blues song. His subsequent work is even more spare: colour disappears from films like Tal Farlow and the stunning Free Radicals, which feature intense sequences of lines and cross-hatches, and have a particular obsession with the vertical, foreshadowing Gerhard Richter's "Curtain" series of paintings. These later films are accompanied by insistently rhythmical musical works, including African drumming, and have a mesmerising power that is all the more intense for the films' brevity.

(As previously, I'm indebted to Roger Horrocks's work on Lye, and to Kristin Thompson for highlighting Lye's films and for prompting me to actually see the films).

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Talk To Me

2007, US, directed by Kasi Lemmons

Kasi Lemmons's film is the story of the Washington DC radio personality "Petey" Greene (played by Don Cheadle), who emerged from prison in the late 1960s and was given a shot on AM radio, developing one of the first phone-in/talk shows. As is the general rule with filmed biographies, the script takes substantial liberties with the actual historical record, often reducing Greene's complexities and contradictions in the process (and tending to portray his fraught relationships with women in excessively lighthearted terms). While Greene became a crucial voice for the African-American community in Washington, the film sometimes casts him as a jive-talking comic, and blunts his more hard-edged commentary.

Issues of black identity are at the heart of the film, with Greene representing the "authentic" voice of the streets, in opposition to the radio producer Dewey Hughes (the busy, and versatile, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is seen by some blacks as having "gone white" to get ahead in business (such debates about black experience are hardly the stuff of the past, as evidenced by some reviews of the film). Kasi Lemmons's first film, Eve's Bayou, was more nuanced - and wonderfully atmospheric - where Talk To Me ultimately reduces Greene to an entertainer rather than a radically new political voice. That said, Cheadle captures at least some of the man's swagger and bluster, and Greene's deep desire to remain true to himself rather than to some pre-programmed idea of success; Ejiofor is an excellent foil, and there's a real sense of conspiratorial glee between the two men.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Man with the Golden Gun

1974, UK, directed by Guy Hamilton
The Man with the Golden Gun, the second of the Bond films to star Roger Moore, is likely the nadir of the series in terms of sheer improbable silliness. That surely constitutes an achievement of some kind in a franchise that has rarely prized realism. While it's not necessarily a guide to film quality, this entry's box office performance was also notably dismal, and the series subsequently took a three-year break.

Christopher Lee plays the villain, Scaramanga, whose titular weapon provides him a lavish living, while he remains largely unknown to the intelligence services of the world. That proves no obstacle to Bond, who picks up the evil one's trail in no time at all, criss-crossing Asia while he's at it (the Thai locations are especially beautiful; there's no hint of the turmoil in Southeast Asia at the time, of course). The scriptwriters throw in various ideas from previous films, notably an especially wicked dwarf manservant (Hervé Villechaize), while Clifton James, from Live and Let Die, shows up again as a redneck sheriff (on an especially improbable Vietnam-era holiday), in the somewhat desperate hope of camouflaging the absurd central plot. After a capable debut, Roger Moore looks distinctly uncomfortable on this occasion, perhaps sensing that the inspiration was running dry; that he survived the three-year hiatus indicates that the producers felt, correctly, that the film's problems did not begin with its star.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Michael Clayton

2007, US, directed by Tony Gilroy

Given that Michael Clayton draws on the familiar tropes of corporate shenanigans films, as well as on 70s conspiracy paranoia (even casting Three Days of the Condor director Sydney Pollack in a pivotal role), the end result is surprisingly fresh, mostly by virtue of Tony Gilroy's carefully layered shooting style, which manages to make even conventional revelations surprising. There's a nice example of Gilroy's work early in the film, when a high-powered company lawyer, played by the remarkable English actress Tilda Swinton, prepares for an interview; the images and words, not quite perfectly aligned, play off each other in subtly amusing ways, giving a new spin to that now-common movie idea of having a character recite lines in front of a mirror.

Gilroy weaves in other references that repeatedly create new and unexpected outcomes: there's a sequence in a hotel bar that evokes lead actor George Clooney's wonderful bar scene with Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, with snow artfully falling in the background, but the scene unravels here as a metaphorical slap in the face. At the very beginning of the film, another sequence is reminiscent of Stephen Frears's The Queen (inadvertently, since Gilroy finished shooting his film long before the release of that picture). Michael Clayton and the titular monarch both have moments where they step out of the maelstroms that surround them, to reach out for something simpler and less jaded, but the scene in this film concludes violently, and ultimately gives the film its opening kick, nothing like the privately regal moment of grief in Frears's film.

Like most films about corporate malfeasance, Michael Clayton unspools in a wintry setting somehow appropriate to the bleak view of humanity unveiled by such behaviour (the most obvious exception is the sunny California of Erin Brockovich). The characters, too, are dragged down by the season. Clooney, in particular, looks utterly jaded by the demands of his job, fixing problems not of his making and, bit by bit, sacrificing something essential inside himself; if the resolution ultimately seems a little too poetic, it's hard not to want to cheer for him as he attempts to right things. In that, Michael Clayton resembles Patrick Kenzie from Gone Baby Gone: an essentially decent man soured by the environment of moral compromise in which he works, where his boss (Pollack) feels certain that a check and a contract can solve any difficulties. By contrast, the film has far less sympathy for Tilda Swinton's character (though the actress's work is stunning, and devoid of any trace of vanity): the conclusion implies that it's foolish for her to play in a man's world, and she - somewhat unfairly - takes the brunt of the film's moral opprobium.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Host

2006, South Korea, directed by Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho's The Host gives the monster movie an engaging new spin, deftly blending political commentary with thrills, and using his sympathetic characters in genre-defying ways. Like Bong's earlier Memories of Murder, the tone of the film spins on a dime, one moment malevolent, the next slapstick, but the mix is handled much more successfully here; perhaps it's easier to have fun with big monsters than with the depredations of a serial killer.

As in his previous film, there's an extended commentary on the US influence on South Korea: it's not a subtle point, with a particularly blunt take on the American attitude to Korean safety in the film's prologue. There's a more understated set of observations on recent Korean history, particularly in the shape of the protagonist's brother, whose youth was spent protesting against military government in the 1980s. The fina scenes see him reclaim that youth in a liberating fashion, as he and the other members of his family take on the monster that has ravaged Seoul, bypassing the authorities, who are still seen as less than reliable.

Bong is a tremendously assured director, orchestrating both his actors and his CGI effects with often dazzling skill; the initial attack by the monster is a particular highlight, with carefully planned tracking shots through the panicked crowds. He's also an adept visual humourist, with one especially amusing sequence that plays on fears of a SARS-like virus, while he draws performances of wit and surprising humanity from his cast.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


2006, Germany, directed by Hans-Christian Schmid

As with his 2000 feature Crazy, Hans-Christian Schmid displays here his ability to take potentially sensational or mawkish material and treat it with great sensitivity. Requiem focuses on a young Catholic woman who has dealt, apparently, with episodes of epilepsy and leaves her rural West German home for the university town of Tübingen in the mid-1970s. The opening of the film recalls Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, in which a devout woman in an isolated community turns to the church in an attempt to deal with forces beyond her control, though Schmid has none of von Trier's characteristic tendency to punish his lead character. He's also adept at creating a sense of the specific provincial background from which this woman emerges, a world that has little to do with the tumultuous political universe of German cities, where Christmas presents are movingly humble, and where a father's gift of a typewriter represents a silent investment of hope in a daughter.

When Michaela (Sandra Hüller) experiences problems at university, she turns to her religious upbringing for an explanation, understanding her difficulties in terms of her faith, and eventually concluding that she has been, in some manner, possessed. Schmid gives a wide berth to the trappings of the exorcism genre, instead casting his film as an examination of a troubled mind, which is unable to understand the realities of its own disintegration. While Schmid's view of the situation may not be that of his protagonist, he invests her character with tremendous dignity, trapped as she is in a situation not of her own making. He's also clear-eyed about the bitter fault-lines in Michaela's home, lines that fracture again as her illness worsens, and outside influences, in the shape of two priests, are brought to bear.

The film is shot with a hand-held camera that occasionally creates striking perspectives, as if we're watching a documentary, the camera roughly changing focus to move closer to Michaela at her desk. There's an extraordinary sequence when Michaela, suddenly moved by what finally seems a liberating spirit, dances, intoxicated, at a party, like the ordinary young woman she desperately aspires to be. The unfamiliar Sandra Hüller delivers a performance of great commitment as Michaela, vividly capturing her disintegration, never more so than in a unnerving sequence in her parents' kitchen. Burghard Klaußner, who also played the father in Crazy, complements her work with an understated turn as Michaela's staunchest protector.

Monday, November 12, 2007


2004, US, directed by Wolfgang Petersen

Even when they have links to wider events, Wolfgang Petersen's best films, like Das Boot and In the Line of Fire, play out on a smaller canvas, but here he's hamstrung by the requirements of a big-budget swordplay epic that allow little time to explore the intimate story at the heart of the original Greek myths. The vast battle sequences are too obviously in the thrall of other films - whether Saving Private Ryan for the beach invasion early in the film, or The Lord of the Rings as the scale expands - and while there are impressive bloody confrontations on occasion, too often the computer-generated nature of the carnage is apparent.

When Petersen is capable of reducing the focus, the film has a greater payoff: watching Hector (Eric Bana) prepare for a fateful battle has an undeniable charge, while Peter O'Toole steals the film with one pivotal scene, where the aged Priam appeals to Achilles's better judgment. Other British and Irish stars fare less well: neither Brian Cox nor Brendan Gleeson are well-served by script or direction (though Cox's hair extensions probably deserve some form of acting nod), appearing to have drifted in from a different film (Gleeson's accent is especially distracting). Sean Bean, though, and the Australian Bana give the film the gravitas it needs, and help to ensure that for all the historo-mythical infelicities, the movie remains solidly watchable.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


1979, UK/US, directed by Ridley Scott 

For all the portentous echoes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in the early going, Alien is essentially a sci-fi update of the "old dark house" genre (with James Whale's 1932 The Old Dark House perhaps still the best exemplar, both for title and atmosphere, though not for fans of blood and guts). The film's action is relentlessly simple: after a slow opening that establishes the relationships between a blue collar space crew, interspersed with plenty of impressive technical work, an alien is discovered, and the crew attempt to survive the creature's attacks. Inevitably, not everyone is destined to survive, further sharpening the narrative line, which initially cross-cuts between the various crew members as they search their vast vessel.

As is often the case with his films, Scott is more interested in atmosphere than in character development, creating sometimes dizzying effects with strobe lights and fog, but often reducing the players to ciphers. By contrast, James Cameron manages to make Ripley much more memorable - as well as more kickass - in the subsequent Aliens, while he takes the time to establish more nuanced relationships between a similarly blue collar group in The Abyss. Still, there's no denying the cumulative power of the stripped-down storyline, nor the eerie menace for a crew thousands of miles from home, while a number of the shock moments retain their well-earned visceral power almost thirty years on.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Gone Baby Gone

2007, US, directed by Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck may have grown up in a more genteel part of town, but on the evidence of his fine debut film, he gets Boston's less affluent corners. His film is steeped in the often unsubtle lines of class and race that divide the city, and that make it a striking patchwork of unrelated communities that nonetheless live cheek-by-jowl. Inward-looking neighbourhoods are at the heart of the action, in which Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) is hired to supplement a police investigation that has apparently been stymied by a lack of local cooperation. In order to make any headway, Kenzie has to stray off his own personal map of the city, and into bars and streets where he, too, is unwelcome. To some extent, the film does try to have it both ways, however, implying that the locals are somehow stunted in their stubborn resistance to outside interference, and then doing much to imply that their suspicions are well-founded.

The obvious cinematic reference points are Clint Eastwood's 2003 Mystic River, based, like this film, on a Dennis Lehane novel, and Martin Scorsese's The Departed. Gone Baby Gone emerges as the strongest of the three, lacking both the overly earnest tone of Eastwood's film, and the overwrought stylings of late-period Scorsese. In particular, it restores much of the gallows humour that Eastwood leached from Boston's streets, robbing his film of much authenticity in the process. It also benefits from a low-key cast, with Casey Affleck strong in the lead role: the slow aging of his very youthful face as the film progresses mirrors the central theme whereby good people are soured, perhaps irretrievably, by the moral compromises in which they find themselves participating. The older Affleck, for his part, adopts an unshowy visual style, focused on telling a compelling story rather on directorial tics; there's something almost old-fashioned about his consciously simple shot choices, a kind of contemporary invisible style.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

1931, US, directed by Roy del Ruth

This first version of The Maltese Falcon features the rat-a-tat narrative movement so familiar from of 1930s Warner Brothers features, with the story sometimes moving so fast that it's difficult to keep the various characters straight. It's certainly hard to keep up with the various women in Sam Spade's life; here, he's a dedicated pre-Hays Code womaniser, with a cheerfully wandering eye. Spade is played by Ricardo Cortez, an Austrian-born actor who was repackaged as a Spanish star by the studio. This was one of his biggest parts, and though he's adequate he's certainly no Bogart: there are lines that fall utterly flat from his mouth, and director Roy del Ruth wisely keeps the focus on the supporting cast as much as possible.

Given the rich source material, and snappy dialogue, there is room for several nice character turns, especially from Dudley Digges in the role later made famous by Sydney Greenstreet, while the extraordinarily busy Thelma Todd, for whom this was just one of nine feature films in 1931, also appears (it's the kind of film where you expect a younger Bogart to pop up amongst the supporting players, as a tough perhaps).
This version doesn't possess the same sense of pervasive moral compromise that characterizes the 1941 film (the compromises seem off the cuff rather than soul-curdling), but it's an efficient telling of the Hammett tale of cynical, double-dealing ambition.


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States