December 2011 and New Year Plans

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This is just a short message for the readers of this blog. I’ve had quite a busy week thus far, but will be returning tomorrow with a Review of Gary Oldman’s version of George Smiley, in the classy museum piece remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I’ll also be introducing a surreal weekend column courtesy of resident Sawf Lundun Knowledge Guru ‘Allotment Slim’, so feel free to give a little bit of feedback on this little venture.

Over the course of December I will be radically overhauling the site, most likely turning the present Apercu into a film-focused blog, with hopefully a few innovative new features, a more user-friendly approach, some alternative content and the same focus on diverse areas of cinema. I’ll be looking to create a regular pattern to the blog week, more on which will follow shortly.

The non-film based material on the site will be moved onto an alternate Apercus blog site, which will in effect work as a more free-form location for my occasional writings. Thank you to everyone who has recently got on board and signed up for e-mail updates or just taken a cursory glance of my content. You can also find links to my reviews on www.imdb.com, as well as info and updates at the Large Association of Movie Blogs largeassmovieblogs.blogspot.com . Finally, I would just like to draw your attention to three other websites. First of all there is the excellent and highly innovative little movie blog at themovieblog8.wordpress.com, which is shaping up to be a really interesting little site and has housed some of my writing in the past. Secondly there is the Icelandic-based film blog www.filmophilia.com, which is an excellent movie news site and will hopefully feature some odds and ends from myself in the near future. Last but not least, there is www.canadiancinephile.com which contains great reviews that aren’t afraid to trade in strong opinions. All three of these sites are well worth a look and a little of your support.

Once again thanks to all of you for making this a really good blog-month for me. Hope you like some of the changes to come and stick around for the long haul.

Regards,

R.B.C.

Comment:- What Answer Are We Expecting When We Ask Why?

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Yesterday I posted up a relatively objective article looking at the death of the Welsh national team manager Gary Speed. On average my blog has pulled in approximately 30-35 hits a day for the past month, mainly from a core group of fellow film blog writers keeping up to date with what is being said about film on-line. The Speed article however managed to gather up over 200 hits and counting. I’d normally be rejoicing that my writing had managed to get out to such a wide audience, but having a closer look at the statistical information about how the article was accessed I feel a little less euphoric.

The number one reason why most people were being drawn to the page yesterday was through a Google search – no surprise there. More distressingly people appeared to be most frequently searching the terms ‘gary speed gay’ (147 people, thus far). I’ve therefore a pretty good idea that those 147 people, clearly looking for a juicy piece of gossip strictly on the QT, were probably disappointed to come across some rather bland prose outlining the neglect of mental health issues in football finished off with a spot of pseudo-existential philosophising on the impossibility of really knowing anyone. In fact I’d go as far as to hazard a guess that few of those in search of a bit of prurient titillation hung about beyond the opening paragraph – and in some ways maybe that is gratifying. I wouldn’t like to suggest that there is something outright objectionable about people scouring the internet for a bit of salacious gossip, after all that is what us human beings do all too well. I’m just staggered that in light of Gary Speed’s tragic demise so many people resort to the default setting of wondering whether the suicide is the result of some forthcoming public ‘outing’.

Whilst talking about Speed amongst friends yesterday, a couple of rather heated discussions spilled forth. One person found the whole cavalcade of media and commentary generated by Speed’s death to be frankly disturbing. The question that they asked was as a direct result of what I had written yesterday and what the news media has likewise been covering, namely why are people so shocked about the suicide of a football player. To contextualise this question, the example of Amy Winehouse was given. A few months ago Amy Winehouse appears to overdose on booze and pills and yet few people were as shocked by her death as they are by Gary Speed’s. What was being suggested here was that people had made a tacit assumption about Speed’s suicide based on what they know of his professional life (even in the case of players and managers, they have only really spoken of the professional figure, the man they worked alongside), in the same way that people made tacit assumptions about Winehouse based on what they knew of her professional life and what parts of her private life had been made public. In the case of Speed there is a glaring absence of private life information for we the chattering multitudes to get our teeth into. In this vacuum of information, people are clearly searching around for answers anywhere they can find them, almost willing rumour to become fact, hearsay to become evidence.

Such behaviour reflects badly upon the mental health of large swathes of humanity. The media circus prompts us to trample upon the privacy of individuals who have chosen to do nothing more than a publicly visible job. When it comes to popstars, actors, sportspeople, we feel as if we are entitled to answers, as if we are not just a fan, but somehow a friend and family member. Nowadays, with such events as a suicide we are insinuated into the media coverage, with its insistent need to understand, to know, to explain how other people feel. An awful BBC interview with Robbie Savage when the news broke about Speed’s suicide, saw presenter Clive Myrie trying to cajole a clearly upset Savage into giving insights into something he patently knows very little about, namely the mental state of Gary Speed. What is the purpose of such endless probing? What more would any fellow football player be able to bring to the discussion other than a few choice anecdotes and a restatement of how shocking the death was and how ‘great’ and professional a guy Speed was? The only person who knows why this death occurred is dead. The only other people who may be able to shed a pale ray of light on the matter are understandably grieving the loss of a loved one. Meanwhile, we the gossiping masses, offer up our condolences whilst trawling around the echo-box internet looking for some anecdotal evidence that Speed might be gay.

As fans we may well have a depth of affection for Speed which made his death genuinely shocking, but, as I wrote yesterday, we did not know the man. Not even the likes of Robbie Savage knew the man. Savage at least played with the man, drank with the man, chatted with the man, but he still didn’t know the man. Hence all of this talk about how implausible his suicide seems, how out of character it appears to be, is really rather futile. In fact all of these why’s just promote this furtive game of Chinese whispers that rumbles on in the vacuum of genuine knowledge (I think here about Fran Lebowitz comments on modern news and journalism in Public Speaking, news is facts, what we have now isn’t news it’s opinion).

Suicide confronts everybody it touches with a sickening sense of mortality and it is in ourselves that we rummage around for the answers as to why, rarely appreciating that in such occurrences there are never going to be any answers, or certainly none that are straight-forward enough to be carried in the attention deficient modern media. A crudely simplistic notion of ‘gay’ outing is a suitably reductive answer, allowing the overly curious general public to go ‘ach, that’s why alright’. It nullifies any attempt at considering the greater problems that lead someone to choose death over public recognition of their sexuality. It also assumes that the invasive nature of a ‘public outing’ is something thoroughly acceptable and right – but then this has been a historical problem attached to certain moral views for a long time. If any such information does come forward in the next few days, I guarantee it will change absolutely nothing with regard to why Gary Speed felt the need to kill himself, so thus it serves merely as a palliative to us terribly wounded voyeurs out there.

Crucially, such a reductive answer to ‘why’, also restores a sense of order to the world, as at least we have an answer, we have something we can point to as a reason, we have an explanation. This makes all of us ‘feel better’, but once again does nothing to change the situation, or to take into account those who are genuinely grieving for the loss of a person who was important within their lives. Ultimately, it is a far scarier proposition to peer into the utter blackness of a galaxy-sized hole and realise that there is nothing in there that we can know, understand, or comprehend. After all, isn’t it the unknown where all of our worst nightmares reside?

Gary Speed:- Assumptions of Knowledge

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It would appear that in the early hours of Sunday morning the current Welsh national football team manager, Gary Speed, chose to hang himself in his Cheshire home. Suicide is certainly not an uncommon occurrence amongst high-profile public figures, or celebrities. In fact in some areas of our popular culture a perverse glamour has attached itself to such displays of self-negation, particularly in the ‘live fast, die young’ arena of rock music and the potentially dangerous self-analytical processes of a certain type of literary creation. What is quite striking about Speed’s apparent suicide is the fact that it comes from a sportsman, and in particular a football player/manager.

Now it is not that sportspeople are incapable of committing suicide, but rather that the number of active sports stars who do commit suicide is considerably lower than any of the other pop cultural public careers. Amongst the sports with the highest number of suicides is the performance sport of Wrestling, which has far more of an affinity with the more turbulent acting profession than with fellow combat sports such as boxing and the various martial arts. Football, as in soccer, has had comparatively few incidences of suicide among the major team sports. In recent years the only notable examples would be the former Nigerian international Uche Okafor and the German international goalkeeper Robert Enke. The former death was found to have taken place in suspicious circumstances and has since been reclassified as a murder, whilst the latter was thought to be connected with Enke’s long history of depression. When thinking of British football players who have taken their own life, you would have to go back as far as 1998 to the tragic death of Justin Fashanu, who had been harassed for many years for having come out in 1990 as an openly gay footballer (something that still seems to be firmly taboo).

There have certainly been as volatile and seemingly self-destructive individuals in the world of football, as you would find in many other areas of popular culture. Yet the likes of George Best and Jimmy Baxter chose the slow-poison of alcoholism, whilst Paul Gascoigne and Diego Maradona have stubbornly clung onto life despite their very best efforts and their seemingly blackest moments. Many footballers, as with other sportspeople, do seem to experience an appreciable difficulty adjusting to life away from football, once their playing careers have drawn to a close. All the players mentioned in this paragraph, thus far, experienced some form of depression when they were no longer able to do what had come so naturally to them for so many years. The three British players all turned to the self-anesthitising powers of the demon drink, whilst Maradona went through numerous drug and food problems, before finding some kind of sanity as a coach and a television figure back in Argentina. This highlights one of the key issues in sport, namely what does a sportsperson do once their career is over, usually somewhere around their 35th birthday, if not sooner.

Part of the reason why so many sports reward their professionals well nowadays is due to this problem of career brevity. Yet money does not solve the problem of purpose. Where possible, sportspeople tend to reintegrate themselves back into the game in some kind of coaching, or promotional capacity, particularly with team sports, such as football. Outside of this, due to the growth in professional sport incomes, many former sportspeople move into the business sphere with increasing ease, if not success, upon retirement. The competitive instincts that have been sharpened for many years on the pitch, court or field, tend to be prized by industry leaders, with some suggestions also being made as to their generally positive psychological benefits. Problems seem to arise amongst sportspeople when this competitive instinct is aligned with a compulsive, or addictive, personality that leads to the development of certain dependencies in a bid to sustain dwindling powers and stave off the rapidly approaching obsolescence of an post-sport life.

Returning to the specific issue of British footballers, it is abundantly clear that there has been for a long time an aversion to any real analysis of the psychology of players. Until very recently there was the assumption that players were being paid to do something that they enjoyed, so what could possibly be wrong with them. The dominant stereotype of the British game, with a particular focus on English football, is that its players have traditionally adopted a ‘no-nonsense’ approach. This ‘no-nonsense’ approach has then been extended to the coaching side of the game, as well as to the commentators and supporters attitudes toward the game. In this environment that, until the arrival of the likes of Arsene Wenger, made English football seem like the last bastion of that famous ‘British’ policy of the ‘stiff upper lip’, it is unlikely that issues of mental health are going to be discussed in a measured, open and constructive manner. Far from it in fact, with the tendency being for footballers to either engage in the tried and tested addictive remedies of years gone by, or simply suppress whatever issues may be plaguing their minds.

As a result of this complex nexus of institutionally sustained ignorance, a general lack of understanding, or willingness to understand and a traditional mistrust of the therapeutic approaches for treating psychological problems, the British public’s perception of a footballer’s situation tends to be more than a little skewered. This disparity between what the public think of a player and what the player is actually experiencing is further complicated by the overly self-aware modern media culture we all now operate within. When narrative arcs can be sculpted from players psychologies to demonstrate a human failing that has been superficially acknowledged and brushed aside with the ease of a sugar-pill treatment, all for the benefit of extra publicity and the insatiable lust for column inches, then it only helps to trivialise otherwise intensely serious medical conditions.

The death of Gary Speed seems to have left a number of people within football, and a number of people who follow football, feeling somewhat numb and confused. Unlike many modern footballers Speed seemed to be a grounded, level-headed and particularly unassuming man. During a twenty year playing career, pretty much entirely played at the highest level, Speed won domestic honours, represented his country and was a consistent and highly professional performer for every team that he appeared in. Having prepared himself in advance for a transition into the coaching side of the game, his recent successes managing the Welsh national side, after a disappointing spell in charge of Sheffield United, seemed to suggest he had a bright future in the management side of the game. Unusually amongst the clique-ridden world of modern English football, Speed was a universally liked man, who had a particularly positive effect on the training ground, where he led by example, exhibiting extreme dedication to fitness and avoiding many of the temptations that crowd around football players later in their careers. Even people who had worked alongside Speed for years, the likes of Ryan Giggs, Alan Shearer, Howard Wilkinson and Craig Bellamy, could offer little insight into what might have prompted Speed to take his own life.

What Speed’s death has confronted both the general British public and the football establishment with is a painful, but simple, truth. We may think that we know someone, in particular as partners or close friends we might even assume that we have an understanding of the way they work or the way they operate, but in fact as individual’s we are all pretty much inscrutable islands upon which the most enigmatic and esoteric of thoughts and impulses run amok. Perhaps the only times that we are ever truly revealed is in our moments of action, which very often are all too fleeting and final. If Gary Speed had been suffering from a long-suppressed depressive condition, then that reflects poorly, to some degree, upon our incapacity to treat psychological illness with the seriousness and concern that it warrants. Whilst if it has been some much more sudden situation that has compelled Speed to take such drastic action, then, unless it is something akin to the hounding which rode Justin Fashanu to his grave, we can only wonder what drives another to take their own life. What may linger most in the memory of Speed’s passing is not necessarily the gifted and committed professional football player and coach that he was, but rather the certain and numbing knowledge his death confirms, that all our assumptions about the lives of others come nowhere near their elusive inner reality.

Film Review:- Laura (1944)

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Dir:- Otto Preminger

Starr:- Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Ann Treadwell, Dorothy Adams

Otto Preminger was one of Hollywood’s great cinematic stylists. During a white-hot period of creativity in the 1950’s he directed some of the most visually sophisticated and thematically varied films of his lengthy career. Starting with Where the Sidewalk Ends (which saw him reunite with Laura stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney) and going right through to Exodus (the all-star 1960 adaptation of Leon Uris’s novel on the origins of the Israeli state) he had a unparallelled run of fourteen critically acclaimed and commercially successful releases, developing a strong working relationship with the great British actor David Niven, along the way. As a director Preminger was thematically difficult to pin down, skipping genres frequently without any obvious diminution in his abilities. The most striking characteristic of almost every film Preminger undertook was the smooth, clean shots with which they all were scrupulously composed, which lends the movies a quality that hasn’t dated at all, even if fashion and mannerisms might have. Perhaps the most impressive films of this period were three adaptations. The first was his all-black version of Bizet’s opera Carmen, adapted from a musical by Oscar Hammerstein entitled Carmen Jones. This was followed by his immense work with Frank Sinatra on the Nelson Algren adaptation The Man with the Golden Arm (on the highly controversial subject of heroin addiction). Finally, there was the Technicolor tragedy of his 1958 adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s youthful novella Bonjour Tristesse, which saw his finest work with David Niven.

A decade prior to these great films Preminger crafted three exceptionally strong film noir masterpieces, all of which featured either Dana Andrews or Gene Tierney, or, as in the case of Laura, both. Of the three films Laura is generally considered the strongest work, then Fallen Angel, and finally Whirlpool. Laura was a genuine labour of love for Preminger, who had to fight tooth and nail with legendary studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck (of 20th Century Fox) to even be allowed to direct the film. This feud between Zanuck and Preminger dated back to their work together on the big-budget 1938 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. As a result of this on-going spat Zanuck interfered regularly in the Laura shoot, showing an initial disdain for the casting of homosexual theatre actor Clifton Webb and rejecting Preminger’s original cut of the movie (only to be persuaded of its merits by critic Walter Winchell). Remarkably, despite all of these background problems Laura became the defining feature of Preminger’s career, earning him his first Oscar nomination and doing the kind of box-office that guaranteed a lengthy contract within the old studio system.

What was continually remarkable about Preminger’s work was the way in which he made unusual casting decisions that almost always paid off. Preminger came from a theatrical background and throughout his film career he would frequently return to his first love, the stage. As a result of this, he frequently had access to actors that were off the major film studio radars at the time. He also had an eye for conflicting styles of acting, frequently placing flamboyant performers alongside more restrained and minimalist actors. In Laura he cast Dana Andrews, one of Hollywood’s hard, terse men, alongside the overt camp of stage actor Clifton Webb and the youthful flamboyance of Vincent Price. All these men were left revolving around the magnetic and understated charms of Gene Tierney’s aloof turn in the title role. It is partly this curious mixture of acting styles that continues to make Laura such a fascinating picture.

Webb, as the clearly not entirely sane columnist Waldo Lydecker, uses wit and a caustic form of urbane charm to float above the hoi-polloi. It is Laura’s flagrant disregard for status, etiquette and civility that first impresses Lydecker, having had his luncheon gate-crashed by the deliberately ditzy young copywriter. The early scenes between Lydecker and Dana Andrews’ private eye Mark McPherson are some of the most unusual in all of noir cinema, as the straight-talking and hyper-masculine McPherson is teased and toyed with by the naked and bathing Lydecker. Similarly, the young Vincent Price as the social climber Shelby Carpenter, has a strange, and strained, relationship with the much older Judith Anderson (the Australian actress who was so memorable as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca) as the society dame Ann Treadwell.

Of the main cast of characters Lydecker is very much a Svengali figure. Having engineered Laura’s career trajectory, he also tries to insinuate himself into McPherson’s investigation at every possible opportunity. Arrogantly sure of his capacities to charm, manipulate and ultimately outwit any rival, his one weakness is his obsessive desire for control over the life of Laura. As the narrator of the movie Lydecker shows all of the verbal facility of a writer, but his word selection and his tone are increasingly overwrought and eventually crazed. Despite emitting a contemptuous air of superiority and control in almost all of his early scenes, Lydecker’s cool detachment gradually unravels as McPherson refuses to reveal his well-guarded hand.

Throughout the movie McPherson roves through various wealthy interior locales, populated by all manner of decadent objet d’art, cryptically quizzing the three main suspects (Lydecker, Carpenter and Treadwell) involved in the death of Laura. McPherson can be viewed as an early blueprint for Peter Falk’s highly successful TV detective Columbo, as so often his investigations seem to be leading nowhere. In fact McPherson frequently seems to be conducting the investigation for his own amusement, as if it gives him an excuse to lounge around the luxurious livingrooms and bedrooms of the ‘better half’ of society. Whatever remarks McPherson does make seem vague almost to the point of abstraction, suggesting that he is, himself, withholding something from proceedings.

The most memorable scene in the film involves an exquisite pulled-in/pulled-out shot of McPherson drifting off to sleep in the dead woman’s apartment. The shot pulls in tight on a spirit bottle with McPherson asleep on a chair in the background. So that when the shot swiftly pulls back from the bottle, in seemingly one continuous motion, the revelation of the central part of the movie is so startling, that at first even McPherson considers it a dream. Preminger actually manages to beguile the audience by resolutely playing upon this theme of ‘enigma’. Until the conclusion of the film, the extent of Lydecker’s jealous feelings toward Laura are never fully explicated. Their relationship appears nothing more than a dependency, first of a young woman looking for career advancement through the money and influence of a sugar-daddy, then of the sugar-daddy who is unable to relinquish the reins of the phenomenon he has helped set up in the world. Carpenter’s motives and machinations are permanently obscured by his unwillingness to disassociate himself from his relationship with Treadwell. Despite professing to love and care for Laura, Carpenter always falls back upon his ambiguous commitments to Treadwell, as if he were ensnared in some kind of trap. Most enigmatic of all is the relationship that develops between the private investigator and the victim whose murder he believes he is investigating. What could seem like a poorly written mess of a murder plot, under Preminger’s direction, and with the cast he has assembled, becomes a languorously paced, but incredibly tense examination of high-class individuals involved in the lowest of low-class intrigues.

Whereas the general tendency of the times was to shoot most film noir’s in a shadowy nighttime realm, where bad things were most likely to happen, here Preminger makes the very conscious decision to shoot the majority of Laura in brightly lit and opulently furnished interior spaces. It is almost as if the ostentatiousness of these character’s domestic spaces (Lydecker writing on a typewriter from the comfort of a marble bathtub, for example) is deliberately designed to further obscure the possibility of closely scrutinising their lives and actions. As with Preminger’s very best work the magic is in this obsessive detailing of surfaces and appearances, that ultimately prove more substantial than any subtle psychological characterisation ever could. In this regard it could be suggested that Preminger has clearly exerted considerable influence upon the directorial career of Steve Soderbergh, a modern-day filmmaker with similar predilections for the meticulous creation of seemingly superficial artifice, that is deceptively moored to weightier thematic concerns.

Laura, in its exquisitely contrived execution, is the most unnoirish of noir-thrillers, that seems to revel in breaking many of the stylistic norms of the form. The ingenious ending that unfurls in a haze of half-realised suspicions, crazed revelations and elaborate contrivances, is one of the most head scratching climaxes in early Hollywood cinema, which only adds to the mystique and the allure of the film. This power to seduce is further heightened by the robust and lush musical score, created by David Raksin, that applies a powerful emotional glaze to even the most chilling of exchanges among these distant and obscure individuals. At the movie’s close, time literally has stopped for at least one individual, whilst the suggestion is that in time all things will eventually be revealed.

Film Review:- Speak (2004)

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Dir:- Jessica Sharzer

Starr:- Kristen Stewart, Michael Angarano, Hallee Hirsh, Steve Zahn, Elizabeth Perkins, D.B. Sweeney

Kristen Stewart really excels at creating portraits of damaged and introverted teens. Away from the hysteria of the Twilight saga she has managed to put together an interesting and varied CV that takes in stints as a tomboyish girl in The Safety of Objects, Jodie Foster’s wilful young daughter in Panic Room, a vulnerable young musician in Into the Wild and a girl who has all manner of problems relating to her family situation in the delightful comedy Adventureland. In this remarkable Showtime adaptation of Laurie Halse Anderson’s 1999 young adult novel about a freshman high school girl’s struggles with depression in the aftermath of a horrendous rape, Stewart, despite being only 14 at the time of filming, inhabits the lead role with a heartbreaking blend of confused melancholia, inarticulate rage and bruised stoicism. It is the kind of performance that points to a child star having the capacity to move seamlessly into more adult roles when the time comes, reminiscent of the aforementioned Foster’s early turns in Taxi Driver and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.

Halse’s novel was a New York Times bestseller at the turn of the new century and received strong critical praise for its powerful portrayal of the psychological suffering a rape victim has to endure, long after the physical effects of the assault have passed into memory. Sharzer on her debut, and to date only, feature goes to great lengths to remain true to the spirit of the novel, whilst fleshing out elements of the central character Melinda Sordino’s school existence to make the adaptation a more intensely visual experience. By and large Sharzer work is very successful, showing a real flair for poetic imagery, from the opening scene of Joyce Sordino (where has Elizabeth Perkins been hiding since Big) stumbling upon Melinda in her bedroom with a twisted and ghoulish array of stitchmarks painted around her mouth, to a marvellous sequence in a hospital ward that utilises shadows and half-glimpsed figures to elaborate Melinda’s intense feelings of alienation. Unlike many post-Clueless high school movies Sharzer resists painting the teenage landscape in a ‘wacky’ array of day-glo MTV hues, whilst simultaneously imbuing the film with an off-beat, hyperreal visual quality that feels similar to the deliberately dated feel Noah Baumbach applies to The Squid and the Whale.

Melinda’s ordeal is shown in snippets of flashback, that appear to work as if they were the resurfacing of suppressed memories. During the protracted and intensely claustrophobic rape sequence Melinda is awoken by her mother, who unwittingly assumes Melinda is merely having a nightmare. The relationship between mother and daughter appears to be a slightly awkward one, with Melinda seemingly unable to communicate her depressed state to Joyce. Her father Jack (D.B. Sweeney) has his own problems, yet he and Melinda seem to have a more immediate and direct bond, that on a number of occasions in the movie seems close to enabling that much-needed moment of communication to occur. Intriguingly, as would seem to often be the case, the parents don’t actually become actively concerned about their daughter’s behaviour until her grades begin to fall away in school. At the moment when their future ambitions for their daughter are put on the line, her parents become more involved in her day-to-day life, but by this point Melinda’s angst and pain have become so deep-rooted that only direct intervention seems likely to prompt a moment of catharsis.

Melinda’s reaction to the rape is at the core of the movie. In the immediate aftermath of the assault Melinda stumbles back into the party and calls the police, only to say nothing to the emergency call operator. As a result of this inability to verbalise Melinda becomes lost in the confusion of frantic teenage bodies trying to elude the police, who have responded to her call and are now breaking up the party. Amongst the group of friends she went to the party with, her closest buddy Rachel (a nicely snippy turn from Hallee Hirsh) ensures that everybody knows who has wrecked the party. Melinda walks home in a shoeless daze (a journey that is beautifully rendered in some glacial flashback sequences) to an empty house and says nothing more about it to anyone. In fact on starting high school in the fall, she finds herself ostracised from her friends and detested by the rest of her peers, with the exception of Heather (Allison Siko) who pals up with her mainly out of a lack of other available friend options. Amidst this atmosphere of cold and rather savage teenage disdain Melinda turns inwards, where she is constantly reminded of her pain, thus prompting her decision to remove herself from all non-essential conversation. This refusal to speak goes almost unnoticed by all but the bullish and bigoted social sciences teacher Mr. Neck (a suitably arrogant and conceited Robert John Burke).

Sharzer manages to transfer many of the novel’s astute observations about teachers into the film. The inevitably free-spirited turn from Steve Zahn as the art teacher Mr. Freeman (all in the name), is made to be everything that inspiring Hollywood mentor roles post-Dead Poet’s Society just shouldn’t be. Mr. Freeman is introduced into the film in a painfully embarrassing (and very funny) scene whereby he tries to enthuse the students into saying something, without having much to say himself. Throughout the film we see Zahn’s figure much more absorbed in his own trials and tribulations, just like most of the other figures in Melinda’s life, but at least he is able to offer her a partial outlet, a kind of refuge. The art classes he teaches become Melinda’s main mode of reconnecting with her damaged self and the project she constructs in a secret hidey-hole of a janitor’s closet, based on the one word ‘tree’, help her to develop a means of expressing the dread and anxiety that have virtually incapacitated her.

The slow, painful process of rebirth (which finds a wonderful metaphor in the planting of seeds, with all of their painful suggestiveness) is somewhat hindered by the daily presence of Melinda’s assailant within the school itself. The gangling frame of Andy Evans (Eric Lively) is used as an implicit physical threat throughout the movie, creating two particularly uncomfortable sequences in which he momentarily traps Melinda and imposes himself either physically or verbally upon her. The arrogance of this young man seems to know no limits and Lively’s performance has just the right mixture of cowardliness and exploitative aggression to make an unthinking  audience aware of just how horrid an act rape really is. For Melinda the rape effectively consumes her life, yet for Andy it barely even registers as an event, particularly as he appears to have gotten away with it. The film really does pose the question as to how many such rapes go unreported, or unacknowledged. Andy’s hubris in dating Melinda’s former best friend Rachel, is ultimately the final provocation. Yet even the film’s big emotional reveal sequence, is expertly handled by Sharzer, with Melinda once again unable to verbalise her ordeal.

A small mention must be made of the sterling work by Michael Angarano (from Dear Wendy) in the role of Melinda’s outspoken classmate Dave Petrakis. It is his combative stance with the absurdly ignorant pronouncements upon immigration made by Mr. Neck, that first indicate to Melinda the need for her to find a voice. Petrakis serves as not only an entertaining character, but perhaps a coherent example of what is most frequently lacking within ‘civilised’ societies, namely the courage to stand up for one’s convictions, regardless of the oppressive tactics of the opposition. Where so many of the adults in the film seem defeated and impotent, it is Petrakis who gently offers up one way out of the morass Melinda has been dumped in. Although he might have helped her find her feet, in the end it is Melinda who walks back toward her life, fighting. Just as the harassed English teacher known as ‘Hairwoman’ (Leslie Lyles) on Valentines day rediscovers her poise, purpose and self-confidence. These quietly effective juxtapositions confirm Sharzer as a directorial talent worthy of further opportunities in the near future, as well as adding further emotional depth to an impressive feature.

Film Review:- Salt of the Earth (1954)

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Dir:- Herbert J. Biberman

Starr:- Rosaura Revueltas, Will Geer, David Wolfe, Juan Chacón, Mervin Williams, Henrietta Williams

Salt of the Earth  has a good claim to being one of the most controversial and notorious American movies of all time. Normally a film with such an infamous public reputation would be expected to have transgressed societal proprieties with regard to the use of sex and violence. However, that is not the case with this New Mexico set movie about a miners strike. Salt of the Earth was the film that suffered most at the hands of the McCarthyist witch hunts that were doing the rounds in early fifties America. Without wishing to condone the political attitudes of the time, it is to a degree understandable why this was the case as the film is one of the most impressive pieces of agit-prop drama imaginable.

The film was based on the real-life events surrounding the 1951 strike at the Empire Zinc Company mines in Grant County, New Mexico. A group of Mexican miners become fed up with the inequality of treatment that they receive from their employers at Delaware Zinc Inc. Ramon Quintero is one of the most prominent union agitators and he comes to the conclusion that a strike must be organised to force the company to take issues of safety, pay and living conditions seriously. Ramon’s wife Esperanza is the narrator of the movie and at the start she is locked into a domestic world of cleaning, cooking and looking after the children – with a third child on the way. Esperanza has literally no power within her home, or the wider community, so that the concerns she has for practical matters such as sanitation, hot water and small domestic comforts like the radio, are almost completely ignored by the activities of the male Union activists. Generally the women within the mining community are treated to the same condescending contempt that the ‘Anglo’ managers and foremen display toward the Mexican miners (the women’s husbands). This situation is gradually changed when the women within the community, lead by Teresa Vidal (a bullish Henrietta Williams) decide to replace their husband’s on the picket lines, thus circumventing the tyrannical Taft-Hartley laws. Now men like Ramon have to confront the difficulties of domestic life and the frustrating feelings of emasculation that come along with their women taking the lead in union matters.

What makes Salt of the Earth a fascinating and powerful leftist agit-prop work is this dual focus at the heart of the film. Not only is it running against the dominant American politics of the time, rife with suspicions of anything vaguely socialist, but it is also engaging with issues of women’s rights and female equality, that literally had not been documented in film before. The reshaping of the domestic sphere of the mining community, with its demonstration of discriminatory practices being confronted and overcome, acts as a microcosmic exposition of the larger political issues at stake within America, regarding workers’ rights and union organisation against corporate exploitation. This is a narrative trick that British filmmaker Ken Loach has utilised with varying degrees of success in films like Bread and Roses and My Name is Joe. Take the small-scale personal politics of a family or community and through closely examining the struggles to fend off oppression in these spheres, it allows the more abstract political concerns of larger movements to be felt and understood, without necessarily appearing forced or inauthentic.

The star of the film is the bewitching Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who was one of only five professional actors featured. Aside from being the principal narrative voice of the film, Revueltas as Esperanza Quintero is also the human point of contact and empathy for the audience. Ultimately it is her strength of character and courage that brings the community together under a greater sense of social equality and solidarity. Whereas Ramon and the other men of the community allow themselves to be cowed by authority, becoming increasingly easy prey for the divisive tactics of management and strike-breakers, Esperanza and the other women of the community present a more compelling and stubbornly resistant organised front. In a particularly powerful sequence at the centre of the movie, Esperanza and some of the other ringleaders of the women’s picket are fingered by a ‘scab’. The police decide to arrest these women assuming that by doing this they will rob the protest of its organising force. But the women are better prepared than their husbands, brothers and fathers. The moment that the police round-up these ringleaders, more women appear in the picket line, who have been held back in reserve. Likewise, once placed in the jail cells, the women will not shut up making the men of the police department’s life hellish. Such well orchestrated protests are almost Gandhian in their simple effectiveness.

The Salt of the Earth has been a grievously mistreated film, aside from the difficulties that blacklisted filmmakers Biberman, Paul Jarrico (the producer) and Michael Wilson (the screenwriter) suffered getting the movie made, there was also the near blanket ban to contend with, which was applied to the movie across most American cinemas on its theatrical release. For the best part of a decade after its release it was banned from distribution in the States, which might explain part of the reason why the movie looks incredibly dated nowadays, considering how few prints must have been kept in circulation. Both Biberman and Jarrico barely worked in Hollywood again, whilst lead actress Revueltas was deported back to Mexico during the shooting of the film. Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Wilson was able to get work on movies such as The Bridge over the River Kwai (for which he won a second Oscar, assigned to him posthumously in 1978), Lawrence of Arabia and Planet of the Apes, but had to suffer the ignominy of having his name removed from these films for fear that it would sway industry insiders from promoting or voting for these movies. The politics of these times are quite rightly viewed as a particular low-point in the much-heralded democratic freedoms of the American way of life.

One of the key cinematic techniques that the film deploys to wonderfully expressive effect, is that of the montage. Seemingly directly inspired by cinematic luminaries such as Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein, Biberman meshes together various different elements of the daily routine of the mining community, that helps to meaningfully illustrate the hardships of a miner’s life, its impact on his family and the mechanisation of working conditions within the mines. There is a disturbing montage sequence that conflates Esperanza’s giving birth to her third child, with the beating that Ramon receives at the hands of the police officers. Within this powerful sequence we have the sufferings of men and women aligned, which also acts as the point at which Esperanza and Ramon begin to move toward each others separate spheres, with Esperanza entering into the politics of the picket and Ramon coming to terms with the labours of his wife’s domestic life. Biberman shows a particular preference for framing his actors in stylised close-ups, with the camera either tilted upward (in the first part of the film almost always when focusing on a male actor), or high-angled, looking down upon them (most frequently when the women are talking to men, or the Mexicans are talking to their Anglo bosses). The camera only enters into medium shots when there is a sense of parity amongst the people framed. Also the work which Esperanza, and later Ramon, engages in around the home, is frequently framed in the kind of extreme low-angled shot that Riefensthal utilised in her Nazi propaganda movies to emphasise the power and strength of Hitler and other members of the Nazi party. Such a shot seems to highlight visually what Esperanza says toward the end of the film, that through their work the people must feel they are moving up in the world. Thus Esperanza’s domestic chores are the foundation for the successful picket movement, as through work and labour these people find inner strength (something which Sol Kaplan’s gratingly overzealous score seems to likewise be reinforcing).

Perhaps the most significant achievement of this film is the way in which it manages to freight in to its dialogue so much of the language of the labour movement in the US (it was after all funded by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, who were seen as a subversive Communist-led Union organisation) without diminishing the authenticity of the community it depicts. There is clearly some influence from the post-war Italian neorealism of De Sica, Visconti and Rossellini in the way in which Biberman manages to extract committed dramatic performances from a majority non-professional group of actors. Unlike other agit-prop films, particularly those of British filmmaker Peter Watkins, there is a neatly balanced line between the political message portrayed and the authentic humanity of the performers, that helps to make Salt of the Earth both a thought-provoking and visceral cinematic experience. Like all good films of this ilk it patiently demonstrates the injustices of its scenario, whilst carefully winning an audience over to its cause. In this way it makes perfect sense that an American political mainstream so palpably unwilling to engage with issues of corporate and industrial exploitation, particular at the height of a Cold War that allowed for so many awkward scapegoats to be manufactured, should do everything in its power to prevent this movie from being seen. Ironically in 1992 that most central of American cultural-political institutions, The Library of Congress, inducted the movie into the National Film Registry for the preservation of culturally significant works of American cinema, thus providing the blacklisted with the last laugh.

Film Review:- Main Street (2010)

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Dir:- John Doyle

Starr:- Colin Firth, Ellen Burstyn, Patricia Clarkson, Orlando Bloom, Amber Tamblyn, Andrew McCarthy

There is clearly a trend toward a rather heavy-handed engagement with the economic crisis amongst the denizens of Tinsel Town. Main Street slots somewhere between the likes of Cedar Rapids and Larry Crowne, except without even the saving grace of a few light-hearted chuckles. The film was the brainchild of the late Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist Horton Foote, which only serves as yet another example of the massive divide between the disciplines of film writing and theatre writing. Despite being one of the slightest movies imaginable Main Street is laden down with some of the most portentous and tiresome dialogue ever consigned to celluloid. The script is so dire that for at least an hour of the running time a curious tension is present, as it seems improbable that any film would be so mundanely straight-forward and lifeless.

Absolutely no fault for this farrago of a film should be apportioned amongst the cast. Afterall, it is the wonderfully understated performances of Clarkson, Burstyn, Firth, Bloom (yes, even Orlando is working hard here) and Tamblyn that actually make this movie at all watchable. It would take performers of the calibre of Burstyn to make any sense of the character development and dialogue that Foote has bestowed upon this production. Clarkson, Firth and Bloom bring a quiet focus to their shoddily constructed roles, that for large parts of the film manages to paper over the heavily italicised and underscored pronouncements their characters find themselves making. Firth, who struggles at times to maintain his nondescript Southern American accent, is the actor saddled with the vaguest of the characters. In a scene close to the end of the film Firth admirably tries to make a town council speech about waste management seem as important as it should, even though he is given so little to work with. First time director Doyle apparently comes from a background in musical choreography, which would go some of the way to explaining the complete absence of a directorial ear on what is actually being said during the film. Doyle will certainly take the blame for the largely uninspiring visual work on the film, not even buoyed by the Empire Falls style snapshots of decaying small-town America. However, without wishing to seem unkind – as Foote died shortly before filming wrapped – the esteemed dramatist must be held most culpable for this mess.

Apparently Foote was inspired to write the script after a visit to Durham, North Carolina, where he saw first hand the dilapidated, ghost town quality of the central business and commercial district. Such civic concern is perhaps admirable in this corporate day and age in which so much industry and prosperity is focused on the large urban and suburban sprawls of cities like New York, Atlanta and Chicago. There is also a chord to be struck with recent protest movements across developed countries, where much has been made of what career options are left open to people in large geographic areas of Europe and North America. Furthermore, American cinema has a strong tradition of movies that focus on the ideals of small-town living and the charm of tightly knit communities, running from It’s a Wonderful Life through to Doc Hollywood. Yet the sheer aimlessness of Foote’s script does nothing to enliven any debate about what is destroying smaller municipal areas like Durham, let alone entertainingly raise awareness of some issues surrounding the decline of the very idea of a ‘main street’.

The plot follows three main narrative strands with varying degrees of detail and satisfaction. First of all there is Harris Parker (Orlando Bloom), a young police officer who lives with his mother and is studying law at a community college supposedly to improve his career prospects, but also as a means of demonstrating he is a ‘winner’ to his ambitious, sometime girlfriend Mary Saunders (Amber Tamblyn). Mary works for a law firm in Raleigh and is conducting a tentative affair with her boss Howard (Andrew McCarthy, in a near pointless role), although she is unaware he is a married man. Both Harris and Mary are trapped in Durham, due to either family commitments or the difficulties of finding work, but both are also dreaming of ways to escape. A second plot strand revolves around Georgiana (Ellen Burstyn), who is a grand old dame living in a cavernous old manor house, running increasingly low on funds. Georgiana has lived in the house all her life and has a strong emotional bond with the property, something Burstyn manages to convey expertly in her highly strung moments at the start of the film. She doesn’t want to have to sell the property, but is about to do just that when Gus Leroy (Colin Firth) arrives on the scene looking to rent some warehouse space in the city. Leroy appears to be a slick, charming, snake oil salesman, who is looking to convince Durham to allow his company ESC (the level of ambiguity we’re dealing with here, Escape, get it) to process hazardous waste in the city. Disconcerted by her precarious financial situation Georgiana agrees to Leroy’s deal, but then gets her spinster niece Willa (Patricia Clarkson) involved in the proceedings, with both women becoming increasingly mistrustful of Leroy’s motives. A final plot point deals with Leroy’s interactions with the Mayor’s (Isiah Whitlock Jnr., in another variation on his bureaucrat schtick) office and the local council, in an attempt to try to interest the community in the job-creation and regeneration possibilities that would come from accepting ESC as a central business within the city.

Suffice it to say that by the end of the film each of these narrative elements has been brought together in an almost entirely arbitrary and deeply disappointing manner, reminiscent of the recent movie Café and its insistence upon the relative contingency of human interaction as a reason for not bothering to explore character in any recognisable manner. What Foote is getting at with the departure of Mary’s character for Atlanta, only for an accident to force an unconvincing love-inspired volte-face, is anyones guess. Perhaps, this is his none-too-subtle demonstration of how career-motivated migration hits places like Durham hardest. Or maybe it is just a means of setting up the film’s twee denouement, for want of something more substantial. Nothing is really made clear, despite the dialogue’s continued insistence on explicating almost everything (for example, Isiah Whitlock Jnr’s Mayor kindly pointing out to Firth’s Leroy that Durham is a conservative town). There is an interesting story to be told in there somewhere, one that has been done before during different times of financial strife, in films like Breaking Away and Hud. Oddly, the traditionally demonised corporate raider, that features large in most Hollywood films of this ilk, seems to be treated with a degree more equanimity and circumspection. If Main Street wasn’t quite so irritatingly signposted it could have been a thought-provoking and subtle take on how smaller American communities might adapt and thrive in the new century, or gradually fall apart.

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