Micro Event Cinema

The Royle Family is a Manchester set television series set almost entirely within a family’s sitting room and kitchen. The drama comes to them, if you were to reject it as narratively lacking, it has to be said the characters keep you company. Considering micro events in cinema one thinks of many old Hollywood films for example William Wyler’s The Heiress Carrie, The Children’s Hour and The Collector. Also films that are seen as typically French like those of Jacques Doillon which focus on love triangles, The Crying Woman ,Too Much (Little) Love, Amoureuse and  Love Battles. Of course Tsai Ming-Liang took this idea of micro event even further with his films such as Vive L’amour, The River, The Hole, Goodbye Dragon Inn and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.

In the case of The Royle Family, shot on 16mm and made to look like a Shane Meadows film or Ray and Liz, Ricky Tomlinson’s Jim is initially made out to be a grostesque Mr. England, he’s overweight, hasn’t worked since Thatcher robbed him of his job in the 80s, he’s never been on a plane, it seems no one in the show has, except for Irish neighbour Mary (Dolores Kehoe) a direct loving reference to co-creator and actor Caroline Aherne’s mother. The show aired between 1998 and 2000, Aherne left the show in 2001, returning for five one-off Christmas Specials between 2006 and 2012. The visual look and detail of the first series is probably the most refined, camera placements in the kitchen doorway, close-ups for longer periods. Part of the show’s humour which is very much based on banal comments, even bad jokes, very English, very Manchunian. The main element of the comedy/drama is situations discussed through the watching of television, reaction shots are key. Often reaction shots are conventional filler for Hollywood films, here the reaction shot is a constant punch-line, there’s no joke as such it’s just about getting that sense of annoyance from a counterpart character.

William Wyler is often discussed as not having a signature visual style, Kent Jones being a contemporary champion of Wyler has argued for a re-evaluation and also dismissal of the opinions about a strictly check-listed group of auteurs (Hitchcock and Ford etc.) with distinct visuals as being the only ones worthy of such a high level of appreciation. The filmmaker James Grey has said ‘people who don’t think Wyler was a great filmmaker really don’t know what it means to make a movie.’ Looking at the films, The Heiress, The Children’s Hour and Carrie they concern issues of class, public outrage, alienation, lack of new beginnings. The stories include inheritance (The Heiress)  a well-off man leaves his wife and moves in with a younger working class woman and suffers poverty (Carrie) anda child who claims her head teachers are lesbians (partly a lie) one teacher does unrequitedly love the other without her knowledge (The Children’s Hour). Andre Bazin is perhaps the best known champion of Wyler, in 1948 he wrote a long essay focusing particularly on The Little Foxes and The Best Years of Our Lives, he talks of the Wyler secret, to make cinematic something which is based on a play. He uses the example of deep focus in The Little Foxes focusing on Bette Davis’ face with Herbert Marshall dying on the stairs in the background.

Another Bette Davis film Beyond the Forest was Davis’ last for Warner Bros. dismissed by her and the director King Vidor at the time. If we are to look at Micro-plot, we find in Beyond the Forest an environment of empty dreams far more intriguing than Vidor’s later Ruby Gentry. It’s the environment of the former that gives it its strong point. Davis’ husband is doctor, like his patients short on money. Davis wants the high life in Chicago and falls in love with another man, a millionaire (David Brian). We know nothing of her husband’s (Joseph Cotten) life away from his work. Davis is contrasted with her maid (Dona Drake), little care for responsibility with a carefree attitude; although the maid does claim responsibility with Davis in ill health towards the end. As empty as the Wisconsin town that the film is set in is and the lack of interactions Davis has compared to Jennifer Jones in Ruby Gentry make the former a more layered film for the way it lays out more ambiguously character motives, though Ruby Gentry has its intrigues too. Visually the use of strong mid shots and close-ups of Davis along the empty street with the moving camera and interesting angles convey a sense of the ghost town, the ghost town of the dream factory of Hollywood. We know from Davis’ trip to Chicago that the film is telling us that cities are shit, heightened up the lack of perspective of the environment and Max Steiner’s music. As Raymond Durgnat argued in Film Comment in 1973 and again in 1988 for a book he co-authored with Scott Simmon, King Vidor, American; “It was not merely a low budget that dictated the sparse presentation of Chicago – where Rosa flees in mid film to her temporarily distracted millionaire – by the song of that title and as a series of constricted spaces (a rear auto seat, a hotel room, dark porches, very brief and confined exteriors). This cramped minimalism evokes quick, restricted meetings, suffocated feelings, Rosa’s narrow toehold in the cliff face of her dream world. The film’s free space is in the town she disdains.”

With a filmmaker like Tsai Ming-Liang the sense of space shown in Beyond the Forest’s beginning of the empty street is part of his aesthetic. East Asian Cinema from Ozu to Hou to Diaz is very comfortable with the idea of the frame being empty for long periods with actors walking in and out of it over several minutes. There is no Max Steiner score to emphasise the situations or feelings, just you and the film with Lee Keng-shang at the helm of visual experiences with little dialogue which question narrative norms. Sound emphasising upon flowing water, street noise, a feeling a place, such sounds are not presence in Beyond the Forest as Hollywood generally only used essential sounds like rain and gunshots until the 1960s. Both Beyond the Forest and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone convey environment and atmosphere with stillness, the latter with a higher degree of contemplation.

If we look at two examples of micro worlds in cinema, take The Fountainhead shot at Warner  Bros. studios, offices are used for two different characters in the opening sequence, then later a third office (clearly an inspiration for Paul Newman’s office in The Hudsucker Proxy) it is clear that each office is the same set, the background is a sort of unconscious of corporate greed, clearly fake. It is an afterthought of an outside world which goes on beyond the prisms of its characters, when we see a wide shot of Raymond Massey’s office near the end of the film is shown, the contained self assertion and self worth is deafening visually. Nearly all of the characters are in turn self made financially (Raymond Massey’s tycoon) artistically (Gary Cooper’s architect) psychologically (Patricia Neal’s columnist) intellectually (Robert Douglas’ critic) and in turn self destructive. Light is used to emphasise the darkness of corruption in The Fountainhead whereas in Beyond the Forest Joseph Cotten is overexposed by light and shadow when he delivers a baby, ever the passive character (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Duel in the Sun, The Third Man) Cotten is shown in body and soul as too considerate to be anyway ambitious which suits viewers well as an identification point. Perhaps the light throws Cotten in the shadows by default, as his characters in the films mentioned never get what they want.

King Vidor emphasises betrayal with rain and dirt on a newspaper in The Fountainhead. There is a sense that for the viewer that the sets can’t go unnoticed so it adds to strange feeling of theatre, the thoughts of socio-political issues are given by Robert Douglas’ critic in the film, typical Hollywood doing the work for you. The set up of oppositions in its characters is stark; Cooper as egoist, Neal as neurotic, Massey as powerful and Douglas as narcissist, happiness won’t last, it can’t. It’s simple story on the surface of Gary Cooper’s refusal to conform to the conventional expectations of architecture, think of it as an auteur fighting with the studios. It must be noted that Vidor’s films, Beyond the Forest, The Fountainhead and Ruby Gentry were all written by women screenwriters in the case of Ruby Gentry it was a co-written with a man. A question audiences might often wonder is about the psychology of gender on screen and its representation as most films are written by men, Beyond the Forest and Ruby Gentry were sourced from novels written by men. Leonore Coffee (Beyond the Forest) also wrote Vidor’s Lightning Strikes Twice with Ruth Roman and Sudden Fear with Joan Crawford. With Davis, Jones and Crawford in the women’s picture as they were known, the actors were as definitive in a character study as anything with Isabelle Huppert. A physical presence and mastery of psychosis on screen in the micro events like putting on lipstick (Beyond the Forest) or putting glass in a young woman’s coat pocket (The Piano Teacher), these moments stay fixed in the viewer’s mind.

The second example is Marnie, famously praised by Robin Wood as the best Hitchcock film. Hitchcock is making more of a world within a world approach than Vidor; the large ship, the storm, with camera moves around the office, not to mention the fade colour schemes. Such an artistic statement like Cooper’s architecture in The Fountainhead demands to be taken on its own terms regardless of expectations like Marnie. The idea of the setting as fake is a world away from Tsai Ming-Liang’s usual settings nevertheless each artist asks of the viewer to take on varying degrees of solitude. Vidor’s actors have gaunt, haunted faces (Davis, Cooper, Massey), quite the opposite in fitting with the tone of Tsai’s films his lead actor Lee has a face of sorrow and loneliness of life passing by beyond his fingertips perhaps at times Cotten can express this too. Hitchcock and Vidor want contemplation to be like a vortex of emotion through music and camera placements, whereas Tsai feels that the moment micro or not speaks for itself.



© Peter Larkin

Notes on Alan Clarke

Alan Clarke in the 1970s

Alan Clarke is a director primarily associated with BBC TV films from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Born in Merseyside, England in 1935, he died of lung cancer in 1990 aged only 54. He has three feature films to his name Scum (1979, a remake of his TV play of the same namemade for the BBC in 1977 but banned due its portrayal of prison guards and scenes of violence). The least known of these features is Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire. Michael Pattinson for the BFI website’s ‘Where to Begin with’ series recommends viewers new to Clarke to start with Rita, Sue and Bob Too, which Pattinson describes as “raw and real, with everything all fleshed out into an effortlessly vivid, lived-in milieu: chalk swastikas, anti-Thatcher graffiti, and nosy neighbours.” Clarke is best known for hard hitting dramas based primarily on men (Scum, Made in Britain, The Firm, Elephant). The latter 1989’s Elephant was Clarke’s final film; itfeatures only one line of dialogue and focuses on killings during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, based on police reports. His best I would argue focus on women too (Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Road, Christine). Clarke like Eric Rohmer, Philippe Garrel and Chantal Akerman is fascinated by characters walking for long periods. Clarke takes this further with his wonderfully obsessive use of the tracking shot from 1979’s Scum onwards.

The use of music is also notable in Clarke, Gene Vincent’s ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ is played throughout Road and manages to elevate the tracking shots with even more energy, Road is based on a 1986 play by Jim Cartwright, it features young people and their parents in 1980s Thatcherite Britain where unemployment is high, set on the streets of Lancashire though shot in Durham, also in the North of England. Characters speak long monologues whilst walking, this sense of movement and space may be logical if the camera is tracking a character, it also creates a feeling of intimacy with the environment as opposed to the characters whose behaviour we often disapprove of. The houses in Road are derelict, a perfect setting of an almost Apocalyptic state of affairs, empty dreams, few prospects. It is deeply cinematic with the movement on the streets and thoroughly theatrical once they enter the houses. Perhaps Clarke and his team gaining permission from Durham County Council for the use of filming wasn’t difficult. It creates an incredibly bleak environment which remains in memory of those who’ve seen it.  Characters conclude with a fever pitch chorus “Somehow, Somehow, Somehow, I might escape”

Rita, Sue and Bob Too is based on a 1982 play by Andrea Dunbar and is set on her council estate of Buttershaw, Bradford, West Yorkshire; Clarke’s 1987 film creates the bleak environment of Tharacterite Britain once again. Bob of the title enters a relationship with two teenage babysitters aged 16, controversial then and now, Buttershaw weren’t happy with the film being made and the Royal Court Theatre in London blocked a 2017 production which was appealed and then went ahead as it was seen as censorship. The girls (Rita played Siobhan Finneran aged 20 and Sue played by Michelle Holmes aged 19) give stunningly natural performances. Bob (George Costigan aged 39), his wife Michelle (Lesley Sharp was aged 26) are a divorce waiting to happen, their performances capture that awkwardness of a marriage on the rocks, their house is a typical example of yuppie 80s Britain, like the rich characters in Mike Leigh’s High Hopes. Clarke’s tracking camera notes the space of the house and as well as Sue’s cramped apartment. Sharp’s character could well have been another babysitter Bob snatched. Elements of Dunbar’s debut 1980 play The Arbor which focuses on a real relationship she had with a local man of Pakistani descent are used. Clarke gives some focus on the home lives of Sue (alcoholic father, cramped living space with her siblings) and Rita’s equally rundown estate with her biker brother and his gang. Bob is said to be a well off handy man living in a fancy house on the posh side of Bradford. The film has a mixture of dark comedy, grim realism (living conditions, domestic abuse). Things take a turn when Bob chooses Rita over Sue, Sue then embarks on a relationship with Aslam (Kulvinder Ghir), Aslam is friendly at first but turns to jealous rage when he rightly thinks Sue is still seeing Bob. In Dunbar’s play Bob remarks “There’s no hope for kids today and it’s all Maggie Thatcher’s fault. She’ll bring total destruction. Just you wait and see.” Clarke chooses to leave this crucial line out and let the environment speak for itself, a filmic touch. The ending much to Dunbar’s distress was changed, in the play Rita and Bob have a baby they name Sue, Rita and Sue remain friends. In the film Bob runs a bath, Clarke’s camera tracks to his bedroom where he finds Rita and Sue on his bed with Union Jack covers. Whilst in most other films this would be seen as a complete sell out of the characters and totally against Clarke’s principle of bleakness. The question must be asked “now what?” The girls could just as easily leave Bob later than day or next week. All of the characters know that the relationship can’t last and the argument can thus be made that Clarke is leaving the audience to do the work on what’s next because given the environment the film gives it cannot simply be that Bob wins, no one does. The bitter irony of the chosen songs House of Fun and Gang Bang where movement of the body creates a disillusionment of things being carefree when they anything but.        

The Salt of Tears

If we look in particular at Philippe Garrel’s last seven films from Regular Lovers to his latest The Salt of Tears, we find a cinema of youth on the streets of Paris, Rohmer made films about youth too in his 60s and 70s but in different less bleak way. Garrel now 72 always shoots on 35mm and nearly always in black and white. A friend told me he felt Garrel’s latest films all blurred together in a way which he couldn’t tell them apart. There are plot elements of Kitchen Sink Realism in The Salt of Tears, blends of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and A Kind of Loving, very slight blends. The film concerns a joinery student, Luc (Logann Antuofermo) based in Paris and three relationships he has with women. The first he strands at a hotel after reacquainting with an old school flame who later becomes pregnant, news which Luc is angry about as he has little money and three years of university to complete. Part of this is Luc’s feeling to meet the high standard of his father (Andre Wilms, Kaurismaki regular). The father looks to be pushing 80, it’s difficult not to think his days are numbered as the young Luc in turn starts his journey and a third relationship.

Garrel’s narratives were experimental at the beginning in the 60s and 70s, his storytelling today is still minimalist we feel the intimate filmically with his characters but know little about them. This is despite voiceover displaying the odd feeling of a character on occasion. Perhaps we feel we know other Garrel characters more and at least feel the films’ surface in his earlier La Naissance de l’amour and Le vent de la nuit. Perhaps this has to do with the lived experience of the characters, more at stake in more ways than one, responsibility for children or lack thereof (Paul in La Naissance de l’amour), mourning a dead wife years later with frequent memories of a role in May 68 (Serge in Le vent de la nuit). As Tony McKibbin argues (which would suit Luc in this instance ) “When he [Garrel] films from a position outside of the character – as he does with Paul in Le vent de la nuit, as he does with the young director central character in Sauvage innocence – it is because the characters themselves are more given to egotism than selfness. Their relationship with themselves is less about making sense of their feelings, than negotiating their status in the world.” Molly Haskell describes the feel of the film to be French New Wave and the character of Luc to be mysterious to the point of possible serial killer! Like previous Garrel films such as his masterpiece L’enfant secret the avatar of the encounter (as Adrian Martin would describe it) occurs. Jean-Louis Aubert’s piano is known to us from the last few Garrel films, perhaps at times it illustrates the feeling of our first steps in the real world or the big city, a sense of loving innocence and reflection too despite the nature of Luc which we will learn about. The editor Francois Gèdigier and cinematographer Renato Berta are also previous collaborators. Guillaume Sciama’s soundtrack and Thierry Delor’s mix give us a natural feel of these relatively quiet Paris streets.  The film has a lighter tone than The Birth of Love as aforementioned the stakes are lower at least from the off.

With Cinema Verite style camera work of the first meeting of Luc and Djemila (Oulaya Amamra) we sense an intimacy especially when she tells him of her career mistake from the past. An almost defensive apology as she worries about his opinion. We learn his opinion doesn’t mean very much and such defensiveness doesn’t come from him until much later. He may well argue his father’s high standards have left him emotionally detached, but seeing the father in his old age, the audience gets a different picture from the physical evidence. This making Luc a selfish young man who doesn’t want to grow up. His old school fame Genevieve (Louise Chevillotte) takes him back to his boyhood, we assume he is about 25 at least, with no commitment or responsibility before or after she announces her pregnancy. Similar to a Kitchen Sink film we are expecting of one the characters to become pregnant when it does happen as it has in many films, the art of filmmaking lies in what comes next, which is not melodrama in this case, but sombre realisation of the situation this perhaps where A Kind of Loving comes to mind.

Luc meets the final woman Betsy (Souhelia Yacoub), they go to a club with some black friends, they collide with racists as they are leaving, racism in Garrel’s films is rare if ever evident from my memory. It certainly feels a scene out more out of La Haine. Garrel has worked with esteemed co-writers of many years Jean-Claude Carriere (who also worked with Bunuel) and Arlette Langmann (who also worked with Pialat). Their work with these other directors, Maurice Pialat’s in particular but also Luis Bunuel’s were of an episodic nature in form and structure perhaps this is why they chose the racism scene, not to comment on it as a film as Pialat wouldn’t have done, as often filmmakers have other things on their minds rather than social messages. Overall Garrel wants to observe the consequences of roads not taken by Luc, which naivety plays a big part in. There is naturalism as the father tells Luc a tragedy in a café, no close-ups, one cut, a reserve angle at the end of the scene, whatever emotion it’s too late.


© Peter Larkin

Style and Sensibility in Ford, Altman and Scorsese.

The Searchers (Ford, 1956)

Joseph McBride argues John Ford’s humour is one of his strongest and most characteristic attributes. Being both a “poet” and a “comedian” is essential to Ford’s tragicomic (and very Irish) view of the world and to the anarchic, subversive streak that coexists with his lifelong reverence for tradition.” We can of course argue it is Ford’s screenwriters who share a sensibility with him to display humanity through humour sometimes in unexpected places. Gags about needing a drink in the courthouse in James Warner Bellah and Will Goldbeck’s Sergeant Rutledge, Henry Fonda breaking his chair in Frank S. Nugent’s Fort Apache, a character’s infectious laughter in The Searchers, Ward Bond’s profanity in Wagon Master.  The seemingly over the top Arthur Shields performance in Drums Along the Mohawk actually has a ring of truth to it in parts of Ireland to this day, I speak as an Irishman. “Beware of the heathen in thy own breast, cast it away”, Shields’ reverend tells a soldier before he comically throws a alcoholic beverage off a roof crashing it to the ground as they prepare for a battle. I hadn’t seen much Ford in the last two years; partly this was due to unfortunate criticism by Irish people of stereotypes in The Quiet Man and in turn poor portrayals of Native Americans in the westerns with right wing John Wayne at the helm. Two close friends of mine disregard Ford and the western, another friend sees the beauty of his picture making which I was amazed to finally discover. The writings of Kent Jones, Dan Sallitt, Andre Bazin, Raymond Durgnat and Tony McKibbin certainly helped.

Perhaps it even sounds clichéd to say John Ford made the best westerns as Peter Bogdonavich and many others have stated, but when we look at Ford’s composition and his interest in the shot over the edit like Jean Renoir we find jewels of cinematic gold. If we take the table scene at the beginning of The Searchers perhaps putting all of the characters in the frame is the most practical choice, but it a choice which gives us a display of humanity in the moment as characters walk in and out of the frame. If we compare this with another table scene from the Oscar winning recipient of Best Editing Bohemian Rhapsody we find sixty edits across a ninety second scene. Rhythm is crucial to editing. With George Stevens the director of the 1953 western Shane (much beloved by fathers and grandfathers to this day as a favourite film) we find a lack of rhythm throughout the film. This is due to jerky cuts, some that don’t quite match and too many reaction shots. The Searchers is often hailed as Ford’s masterpiece and according to Letterboxd is the most popular film Ford and in turn Wayne made. Of the course the doorway sequences at the beginning and end of the film are striking visuals. The camera pans out of a doorway, a window on the world, landscape fully realised, of course the western must give that sense of space, a real location. Compare this to when we first see Wayne in Stagecoach the landscape blurred as he gets his zoomed close-up, king in this moment. Ford rhythmically builds to the close-up with cut away from the horse and carriage opposite to riders on the move in a different location to emphasise the tension and immediacy of Wayne’s entrance, a much needed addition to the defence of the stagecoach.

If we look at another zoom close-up of Wayne in The Searchers we find moral deviance through the dark shadow on his face, he believes he is righteous in his ultimately racist views of society which alienate himself evermore. Loneliness and the gun go hand in hand. A final example of a zoom close-up this time of Warren Beatty in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the director Robert Altman was of course famous for zoom shots. Leonard Cohen’s music plays soulfully on the soundtrack as Beatty gives an anxious look of concern for the well being of his prostitutes. We may argue that such a zoom in this moment is too much as the conflict is too small but it isn’t to McCabe who regrets most of his decisions after undertaking them.

Martin Scorsese loves Ford but of course never made a western. In his first feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door, he has a scene of Harvey Keitel and Zina Bethune discussing The Searchers. It is filmed in a way Ford would never consider, it is closer to Altman, Scorsese films the three minute scene in one shot panned across to the actors as they respond to one another. After Keitel’s repeated attempts to get Bethune to remember the film, she finally does, a detail Jeffrey Hunter’s character marrying a Native American woman by mistake, typical of a man to focus on Wayne and masochism and a woman to refer to the marriage theme, a tighter bond towards ones actual future when looking at films for some frame of reference; life, maybe marriage, family. We may question Vera Miles’ close-ups of accepting Jeffrey Hunter’s man’s gotta do what a man’s do attitude, she doesn’t seem that upset when she gets a brief private moment. Ford focuses on the gaunt faces of women in the film that bring to mind a variation on Kathleen Bryon in Black Narcissus.  

Of course we’ve seen a variety of the ways in which characters can have a conversation including Vive sa Vie where Jean-Luc Godard shoots a man and woman facing away from us at a café counter conversing through measured counter reaction shots for when they speak, very innovative for 1962. I often consider Taxi Driver as early signifer in my life for what a director actually does. The camera pan in the hallway with De Niro on the phone, De Niro’s performance, how his uses his body throughout, very simple hand gestures like when he motions towards Cybill Shepherd’s workload on her office desk, a hand of reason she is maybe led to believe in the moment. Also how Scorsese films this scene; cut and pan slightly away or towards the characters, a real sense of intimacy. Shepherd’s stern, guarded and yet intrigued reaction shots, short lived. New York City goes by a café window in a later scene, literally miles from the west, the old west of Ford, a sense of space in these Taxi sequences is less of a motive, the blocking of actors is determined on reactions, Scorsese gets the best out of them filmically through the camera moves.

Of course we can mainly interpret space in the frame by wide and mid shots, a sense of the surroundings adding to the visual atmosphere in what Andre Bazin described as choreographed movement in the scene (mise-en-scene) instead of editing for reaction shots. But of course Scorsese, Altman and Ford have shown that the camera with movement and the image sometimes with stark colours can choreograph tableaux to stunning effect through style and other times through emotional needs of character or story. Ford’s movement with the doorways in The Searchers feels stylised almost ghost-like at the door closes in the film’s final image. Taxi Driver’s theme of loneliness and rescue of a young girl has lead to many comparing it to The Searchers. The stillness of the west in the 1800s compared with 1970s bustling New York City of course has varied differences, notably the speed in the image in the final scene of Taxi Driver as Shepherd in the mirror and in the background as the taxi moves. Where the faded landscape in Stagecoach for Wayne’s entrance signified a king, the blurred New York cityscape and street lights give us dread with the bombardment of visual advertising and life bustling far from the tranquil images of the old west. The example of Altman’s tableau tell us the most about character, Altman being the least story driven in terms of narrative, Beatty displaying a humanity missing from De Niro and Wayne. The gun of course leaves these men as lonely as ever, outcasts, Wayne’s Ethan, the lone rider, De Niro’s Travis the traumatised Vietnam vet and Beatty’s McCabe the businessman left to die in the snow.

We know that Ethan and Travis are racist and right wing perhaps McCabe has a grace note in comparison in terms of audience identification. The door closes on Ethan as opposed to another character shutting him out, Ethan himself chooses to ‘ride way’ as the song goes. Travis gets stark close-ups of his face and eyes through his taxi mirror when first sees Iris (Jodie Foster) and when he last sees Betsy (Shepherd), anxiety fuels his mind. Due to his mental health Travis has little control over his violence, whereas Ethan ends with a choice, McCabe has no choice but to survive. Scorsese’s style is appropriately the most vibrant and unsettling in terms of camera movement which is fitting for Travis’ state. Ford and Altman use a static camera often to illustrate space, Hal Hartley is excellent at this too, his lack of establishing shots and rare filmic images give us a dimension of New York landscape, Long Island and city. We must also consider the age differences of the directors mentioned; Renoir (born 1894), Ford (born 1895), Stevens (born 1904), Altman (born 1925), Godard (born 1930), Scorsese (born 1942) and Harley (born 1959) Ford’s politics being sometimes as right wing as Altman’s are left, Altman is it said felt about Scorsese’s age in spirit in the 70s, through personality and filmic style. They have all achieved wonders for cinema.  

© Peter Larkin October 2020

La vie de Jèsus

If we are to look at a still from Bruno Dumont’s La vie de Jèsus of a group of five friends sitting on steps, we may expect a film like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing or Clockers, or perhaps Jacques Doillon’s petits frères. Dumont’s film is something else, a stark view of a small town village in Northern France. We meet a young man who has epileptic fits, we empathise, as the film goes on we discover his friends care for him in his state and that they envy him having a girlfriend. They have another friend who tragically dies of AIDS in hospital. We also discover that they are racist along with most of the town. As if things can’t get worse the five young men molest a teenage girl in a very public corridor.

The small sleepy town is filled with immoral attitudes towards its inhabitants including an Arabic family whose language the young men mock. The town is rarely populated as the men motorbike around the streets in a manner that recalls the wonderful English film The Leather Boys. The filming of faces are high on Dumont’s agenda but then why shouldn’t they be as they elicit so much emotion particularity for a film like this and his next one L’humanitè. The films are not about long discussions in which characters defend their awful behaviour, typical of Dumont they commit violent acts on camera and we are shaken. The human face of the lead actor David Douche is empathetic at first, then our perception changes. There are not literary devices like voiceover; Douche a non-professional actor displays all his ambiguity through these looks. The final shot of him draped in a field, the pale sunny sky, a shot of fingers, hands, tears of regret. Do we believe that Douche’s character Freddy a hateful racist psychotic could also potentially have killed a friend regardless of their skin colour for seeing his girlfriend?  The violent thoughts and acts in this instance are solely racially motivated within the characters towards an ideology of a postcolonial white France similar to some English ideologies. But we know the violence isn’t just racial based on the sexual assault of the young girl who is French and white. Also the one-upmanship and jealousy between the men and Freddy having a girlfriend could lead to future violence among their own gang. Violence is used as an act of territory with tragic consequences. The older generation and Freddy’s environment are doing no favours to squash his hateful ignorance of different ethnic cultures. The molestation of the girl prompts accusations of paedophilia from the girl’s father. The young men shrug it off as ‘no big deal’ calling the girl ugly and so forth. Dumont places us the position of taking in this outrageous behaviour, the characters are not judged by Dumont we simply watch the evil deeds unfold in front of our eyes.

There is no room for a Twitter storm to judge characters’ behaviour based on a hierarchy that filmmakers and their characters need to be moral. Arguments like if a filmmaker like John Ford makes Rio Grande we must boycott him and also John Wayne for hateful ignorant comments he made in a 1970s Playboy interview. Granted they were right to remove Wayne’s name on an airport which had arguably made him symbol that would deserve undeniable respect. However John Wayne as a film star was a great presence on screen, John Ford was even better as a director of ‘pictures’ he referred to himself as a ‘picture maker’. Kent Jones (2013) argued “Maybe it’s time to stop searching for moral perfection in artists.” The moral backbone of the town in La vie de Jesus is the wordless groundskeeper who hides the Arab young man Kader (Kader Chaatouf) during a bike chase. Kader and Freddy’s girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel) go to these grounds to feel safe and ultimately equal, Kader looks to the sky as if foreseeing his own death. Tony McKibbin (2011) argues “In La vie de Jesus how conscious is Freddy of his behaviour when he falls off his bike at the end of the film: is it an accident or a need to harm himself in recognition of the harm he has done to others?” McKibbin continues another point “Dumont doesn’t actually know what he’s getting at in any categorical sense. Thus when people would ask what the ending of L’humanite meant he was in no better a position to answer the question than a critic. Indeed he would have to return to his own work as if a critic to make sense of the variables at work.” It is interesting to think that Dumont isn’t really interested in motivation for violence, it is left to us to discuss.

© Peter Larkin September 2020

Hal Hartley: The New York Prince of Deadpan

Aged 29 whilst filming his first feature The Unbelievable Truth, Hal Hartley was already putting a firm stamp on his filmic style with its echoes of Godard, Bresson, Rudolph and Wenders. Hartley makes the most of Jim Coleman’s score with its guitar and drum beat emphasising hardships and ambiguities without being manipulative. In 2020 we know the name of Hartley’s alter ego Ned Rifle, who authors a fictional book The End of the World which Adrienne Shelley’s character Audrey is reading at the beginning ofthe film and clutches like a bible. The deadpan cynical one-liners “Dad, history is coming to an end” the father’s response “the world is not coming to an end when people are making so much money”. The mother is younger, tired, no doubt hoping Audrey goes to college which perhaps she didn’t manage because of motherhood. Jennifer O’Meara (2012) describes the spiraling voice-overs at the kitchen table; “Hartley maintains an ambiguity about whether certain words are actually spoken by characters, or simply imagined by Audrey since, despite their prominent speech, her parents are kept outside the frame.” The contrast between Audrey’s despair and her boyfriend’s arrogant optimism can’t help but bring laughter. Shelley’s (the third Arquette sister) gaunt white face, brings to mind not so much the angelic in Bresson or Kitchen Sink Realism but an ironic sadness of Generation X and the information at their disposal is enough to set us into a terminal sorrow akin to the information which can now be obtained from the internet especially Social Media.

Trust, Hartley’s best known film opens with a close-up of Adrienne Shelley, this time it seems there are fewer options in front of her, her father drops dead of a heart attack after she storms out following an argument over her pregnancy. The sister’s (Edie Falco) reaction upon entering the kitchen is perhaps unrealistic but it sets the deadpan tone we’re expecting from Hartley. Hub Moore’s electric guitar strums loudly to emphasise the bitter irony of how life slips through ones fingers. We are introduced to Matthew (Hartley regular Martin Donovan) who works in a computer factory. In several brisk movements which could be described as musical ala Peter Greenaway, Matthew tosses a cardboard box and a half made computer on the floor before putting the head of his supervisor in a vice, the violins in this moment recall Michael Nyman, he storms out and walks along by industrial power lines, the self is shattered but the world and money carry on. Shelley’s boyfriend (Gary Sauer) in Trust is the same actor as The Unbelievable Truth, in the former Shelley breaks up with Sauer and latter Sauer breaks up with Shelley, each break up takes place in the opening minutes. In Trust Sauer has a self righteous rant about himself and his football career. Shelley walks away when there is nothing left to do. We are led to believe in The Unbelievable Truth that Shelley always felt disconnected from Sauer, whilst reverse could be said in Trust. Sauer’s characters are ambitious to the point of ears which are actually deaf to experience in the real world in all its virtues. Characters in both films talk over one another without listening to the point of absurdity. Service men; mechanics, bin men, teenagers; rants about nuclear disaster, the ozone layer, dialogue which is sharp, biting, in a world of its own.

But as Tony McKibbin (2012) argues “this is not dialogue but film dialogue, not people but characters, and characters caught in situations we have seen many times before, with dialogue that is hardly fresh, but where Hartley can at least make it self-reflexive.” Following Martin Donovan’s entrance in the computer factory in Trust, Hartley’s next film Surviving Desire finds Donovan in the classroom teaching literature to irritated students, unusual compared to mainstream Hollywood fare that such rage bubbles from the film within moments of starting as Donovan has a book thrown at him. Of course unlike the Dardennes Hartley is not interested in naturalism but a heightened state of emotions which constantly tries to outdo its self, think of the careless mother in Trust and her reaction when her baby is stolen by a woman whose child died years ago. Or Simon Grim in Henry Fool when a couple take revenge on him for spying on them having sex by having him kiss the woman’s ass to which Simon violently vomits on, all within the first seven minutes of the film. Add to this sequence of events the robbery at the beginning of Simple Men, you are drawn in immediately.

McKibbin (2012) argues “Hartley has the same attitude as Godard often does to ellipsis of character, but does not possess Godard’s concentration on the image, on the image as beautiful in and of itself. Hence the love stories in The Unbelievable Truth and Trust have a knocked off quality that isn’t augmented by the concentration of the image’s beauty.” If we agree that The Unbelievable Truth and Trust are not strikingly visual perhaps we can find starker examples of visual flair in The Book of Life and The Girl from Monday with Godardian blurry surreal imagery and Fay Grim with its oddly tilted camera placements. If we take his first film The Unbelievable Truth we have to leave the visuals behind and focus on elements of capitalism, the effects of war through the spoken word and the characters’ behavioural patterns around the central story of mechanic Josh (Robert John Burke) and deaths of his ex-girlfriend in a car accident and her father who later died during a fight with Josh for which Josh just served prison time for. Audrey’s father Vic (Christopher Cooke) is obsessed with money after initially protecting his daughter he decides she should become a model, also he initially rejects Josh seeing Audrey which changes towards the end of the film, Hartley isn’t interested in the reasoning more the erratic switches, the casual discussions of what happened with Josh years ago and how money keeps people comfortable or empty “I don’t need the money” Josh says whereas Vic says “Nothing’s wrong with me I want my money”. The sinister Josh is left in the past like Hartley’s protagonist in Amateur.

In Trust we see grotesque behaviour of men in Matthew’s father Jim (John MacKay) and an off-license shop owner (Tom Thon), a sadistic pleasure in making people feel weak. Also notable is the film’s bleak look, Lindenhurst, New York state, Hartley’s hometown in what looks like the late autumn, a small town where not much happens except for the fact it is the setting of a Hal Hartley film. Perhaps there is a slight Bressonian feel to the scenes of Matthew cleaning the bathroom;the film is not so visual outside of its bleak lighting. Kent Jones (1996) argues in Film Comment “One of the beauties of Hartley’s cinema, even the overly precious and tricked-up Amateur, is the way that he counterpoints the various physiognomies of his actors, usually from the waist up (a prudish approach that reflects his Catholic upbringing as eloquently as the surplus of crosses that hang from the necks of his actresses), through repetitive cross-cutting and stillness.” Hartley is interested as Jones noted in the actor’s physicality often filming characters in a two-shot. Notable too are the age differences between the couples in The Unbelievable Truth and Trust Shelley’s characters are 17, Burke and Donovan’s characters are late 20s/early 30s, nothing sexual is made of the relationships, we can disapprove of such relationships without it tarnishing our experience of the films.

Space in Hartley’s films often feels dense, the films are intimate portraits in settings made to feel small (their own little world), Lindenhurst is a small town of course but even New York City is filmed in Amateur to feel intimate, how Isabelle Huppert keeps her movements local with the café and adult video store. Hartley has discussed his lack of establishing shots in his films; he wants the actors in the space to dictate it more so than the image in itself. A perfect example of how Hartley uses experimental theatre out of a space are the scenes with Rebecca Nelson in Surviving Desire no establishing shots of course as we see her on a street corner coaxing Donovan’s character “marry me”, a drunk Matt Malloy (a Hartley regular) accepts Nelson’s offer later on, what happens next, the blocking with Malloy entering the frame as a two-shot, looking on beyond the camera like a stage performer, the drunkenness from him the hysteria from Nelson transport us into a marriage play ala Edward Albee within seconds taking us into something else, it is a testament to their power as performers. Ken Russell perfected this technique with Salome’s Last Dance, an incredible Greek tragedy filmed in a London brothel as a play; it takes us to the other side, delirium, joy of transfixion at its finest.

Hartley’s Godardian films The Book of Life and The Girl from Monday are striking perhaps not for their images themselves but how there are presented through editing, slow motion, non-linear shot structure, blurry surreal imagery. Capitalism has been a favourite theme of Hartley’s, how characters like Vic in The Unbelievable Truth obsess over it, how Matthew’s computer company in Trust purposely make products with faulty issues, the mysterious organisations in Amateur and The Girl from Monday not to mention the TV station led by Helen Mirren in No Such Thing, Hartley’s least interesting film, made by the numbers, with some establishing shots included but also with a thoughtful performance from Sarah Polley and a fairytale recovery from a plane crash. Hartley also thrives on mythic characters like most of Martin Donovan’s, Henry Fool, The Girl from Monday and Elina Lowensohn’s mysterious characters.

McKibbin (2012) argues that Amateur is Hartley’s best film because it works on its own terms. There are very strong central performances from Martin Donovan as an amnesiac gangster, Isabelle Huppert as a nymphomaniac ex-nun and aspiring writer of pornography and Elina Lowensohn as a porn star. Especially Donovan’s whose character we are told is a very dangerous man involved in prostitution and drugs with Löwensohn at a young age. Hartley has never been interested in flashbacks, so the Thomas we hear about is never seen as he has lost his memory, he is quiet, gentle even empathetic in his current state. This is a paradox Hartley no doubt relishes in. We could say it has some sort of redemption with him saying “whatever I’ve done I’m sorry”. The flipside of this is Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) in Henry Fool; he admits to having sex with an underage girl which landed him in prison for seven years, when he speaks of it, we cannot say he regrets it. This in itself is a shocking tattoo for a film to have let alone for a lead character. Near the film’s conclusion, a 14 year old neighbour asks Henry of his crime and says she will do him a ‘favour’ if he kills her stepfather who beats her mother and we find out has sexually abused his stepdaughter. The scene where she asks him this favour has him telling her to leave, perhaps we think this could be redemption for his wrongdoing of the past. Any director in Hollywood would emphasise this point strongly. In the next scene the stepfather is killed by Henry in self-defence. The police question the girl and we are led to believe Henry committed the murder in for exchange for the favour. The ambiguity does not stop there, what do his relatives believe? They end up helping escape him to Stockholm but in the final moments Henry legs it away from the runway when he is about to board a plane.

Morality goes out the window; Hartley is interested in the peculiarities of people right or wrong, erratic personalities and situations that only fiction could offer. Perhaps Henry Fool stands alone as a Hartley film in how its deals with its narrative which is minimal in comparison to Simple Men and Amateur, the house feels as bound as it did in Trust. With its lack of visual imagery the actors use body language and gesture which says a lot if you were to mute the sound to focus more intensely on them. Perhaps the most striking visual image in the film is of Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) crouched with his ear and hand to the ground in anticipation for Henry’s arrival as if Simon called for him spiritually. The placement of camera towards Simon’s head and the reserve shot of the road tilted up as Henry emerges is a strong way of introducing a character. These characters spawned two sequels; Fay Grim and Ned Rifle, building on Henry as a myth dreamt up by Simon. Hartley’s cinema tells us the character and its creator rule. Mark Cousins (2020) made an interesting argument of Catholicism being visual and Protestantism being literal. Hartley raised a Catholic turns this on its head for it is the words that speak of the wrongdoings of Josh, Thomas and Henry recalling the past, whereas in the present we have interesting characters played by great actors who give us the visual through their presence. Let us not forget the appearances of hands in Hartley’s work reminiscent of Bresson no more crucially as Simon clutches the ground that we mentioned. Is this transcendent visual evoking Bresson? Perhaps not, Hartley wants the whole body of things on his own terms. Then again things are sometimes left unsaid think of Huppert’s face in the final moment of Amateur that’s as visual as cinema (the so called empathy machine) gets.

© Peter Larkin September 2020

Dan Sallitt

Dan Sallitt at the Valadivia International Film Festival, Chile, 2019

“I may end up with a small place in the critical world, and I hope I may have a footnote in film history, somewhere – I do want that. But I don’t need more than I already have to try to achieve that. I feel like I have a sense of what I want film history to be. And if the world starts going in different directions—which it does, all the time—I don’t think I’ll necessarily want to learn from that.” (Dan Sallitt, Mubi Notebook, May 2020)

Filmmaker and critic Dan Sallitt was born in Wilkes-Barres, Pennsylvania, USA in 1955. He graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Mathematics in 1976, he thereafter moved to Los Angeles to gain an MFA in Screenwriting at UCLA in 1979. He was the first-string film critic for The LA Reader from 1983-1985, it was after this that he made his first film Polly Perverse Strikes Again! Sallitt is a noted cinephile in New York where has been based since 1992. His cinephilia began in the winter of 1972 when he stumbled upon a screening of Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not at a Harvard film society in Boston. Hawks remains Sallitt’s favourite filmmaker but he admits his films are not so much Hawksian as they are inspired by Eric Rohmer and Maurice Pialat. Sallitt’s film criticism has appeared in various publications such as Senses of Cinema, Mubi Notebook and Masters of Cinema, he also writes a personal blog, https://sallitt.blogspot.com/. His criticism is articulate and passionate, in the comment section on his own article on Jacques Doillon’s Amoureuse for Mubi Notebook (2010) he argues “All that dialogue in Doillon’s film is crucial: it bears all the film’s feeling. With Rohmer, the effect is more indirect. What the characters say in a Rohmer film isn’t really the film: the film doesn’t emerge until the idea-world that the characters construct is juxtaposed with the too too solid reality of Rohmer’s spaces, of the soundtrack, of the documentary he’s always making about the world around his people.” Sallitt knew he would struggle to finance his films, in 1987 he started working for software companies with the goal of self-financing his work which he continues to do today. To date in 2020 Sallitt has made five features and one short. Polly Perverse Strikes Again! was to be followed by a 1989 film The Odalisque which fell apart after one day.

Honeymoon, 1998

It wasn’t until 1998 that Sallitt could release his second feature Honeymoon which received glowing appreciations from Kent Jones and Bill Krohn. Honeymoon is like a Rohmerian version of Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together choosing Rohmer’s love for conversation over Pialat’s emotional violence. The Pialat element lies in the repetition of this young couple’s honeymoon in Pennsylvania. Michael (Dylan McCormick) can be oblivious to his wife Mimi’s (Edith Meek) insecurities. Like Polly Perverse Sallitt is focusing on people in their 30s, in Honeymoon it is about finding intimacy and in Polly Perverse it shows how relationships can strain over time. We know that Michael and Mimi haven’t had sex before marriage (Mimi’s idea to stick to old tradition, however unintentionally). Sallitt’s intimate story, characters and camera placements give us a sense of his care for the filmic, taking the time to get to know someone sexually, emotionally perhaps spiritually. Elements of the film would later be seen in Maren Ade’s Everyone Else, there is nothing but the world and them. Perhaps the sex scenes are the most detailed in capturing the existence of two people then in any of Sallitt’s films. They are repetitive, intimate and all the more engaging for we must read these feelings in the actor’s body language as well as their speech. Kent Jones stated “Not many movies are willing or able to hack their way through the tangled, complicated emotional territory of Dan Sallitt’s Honeymoon. This funny, harrowing, lucid movie is so mature about sex and human relations that it puts to shame the bulk of what passes for ‘adult’ entertainment in American cinema. In its deceptively simple way, Honeymoon pulls off something quite difficult—namely, the illumination of the divide between expectations and reality in the lives of ordinary people.”

Polly Perverse Strikes Again! 1986

It’s difficult to think of Polly Perverse Strikes Again! and not think of the undeniable influence Alan Rudolph’s Remember My Name (a favourite of Sallitt’s) has on it. Perhaps it also has elements of BBC’s Play for Today which featured the stunning TV plays of Dennis Potter. It rests on three characters; a neurotic woman Theresa (Dawn Wildsmith), her ex-boyfriend Nick (S.A. Griffin) and his partner Arliss (Strawn Bovee), ten years after their relationship Theresa wants Nick back. Theresa is a free sexual being, Arliss is more reserved and rational. Whereas Nick is irritated, bored, he gives his fancy camera away to a young boy, a kind gesture but also careless, he is perhaps the most pessimistic of Sallitt’s men. Where Ruldolph’s film focuses on building up Geraldine Chaplin, her job at the supermarket and her obsession with ex-husband Anthony Perkins, Sallitt plays it all through the dialogue as he continues to do in the spirit of Eric Rohmer. The camera set-ups are minimalist, sometimes theatrical, the film is supposedly a fever dream that Nick never wakes up from. Sallitt (Kinoscope) states “I think dialogue functions for me a lot like the way it does for Rohmer: as a form of realism. The people in my films talk constantly, not because I have plenty to say to the audience, but because people talk a lot in life.”

All the Ships at Sea, 2004

All the Ships at Sea is about two sisters; a theology professor Evelyn (Strawn Bovee) and Virginia (Edith Meeks) who has recently left a religious cult. Within the story (which Ingmar Bergman could have dreamt) Sallitt garners beautiful compositions, whereas a conventional director would be concerned with straightforward (sometimes empty) shot reverse shot, Sallitt is keen to make every choice count. Whether it’s the light bursting through a back room of a church or a New York kitchen or the darkness and light of a family holiday home in Pennsylvania, captured uniquely through video. Meeks’ physic wouldn’t be out of place in a western like Johnny Guitar, her hardness and solid believes, so sure yet so vulnerable. Bovee is particularly touching, an endearing element of the Sallitt stock company. Evelyn’s doubts which ultimately film centres on are so true to life. Her philosophical stance on life has alienated her from deeper connections with people based on what she tells us. Whereas Virginia is so lost, yet determined in her own way, you’d wager she is constantly ignored by those inside and outside the cult. Both need emotional strength to deal with each other and themselves, it’s not easy when you are set on such philosophical and religious frameworks. You could argue that each view that the women hold is extreme like politics, though the questions remain open ended. Value systems in life can be what set film critics apart too, subjectivity and loneliness of which Sallitt has talked about (interview with Craig D. Lindsay, 2013) in relation to cinephilia and online discussions. Bovee’s Evelyn has an air of Katharine Ross and her therapist character in Donnie Darko, very refined LA speech rhythm and manner, knowledgeable and incredibly good at heart in spite of everything. And like Sallitt’s latest feature Fourteen Sallitt focuses on two women but more specifically one. Sallitt (Kinoscope) said of his leads “Edith is infinitely complex, involute: everything she says and does suggests multiple inner feelings. And Strawn’s gift is her piercing clarity: when she looks at something, her line of sight is like an arrow.”

The Unspeakable Act, 2012

The Unspeakable Act like Sallitt’s latest film, a short called Caterina focuses on an individual who is in nearly every scene, Caterina (Agustina Munoz) is a very giving person who is struggling with her new life, having moved from Spain to the US. Sallitt played Munoz’s estranged father in Hermia and Helena. The very special and talented Tallie Medel stars in The Unspeakable Act, Jackie is a seventeen year old in love with her eighteen year old brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron).  The film has a unique standing in Sallitt’s oeuvre as having the home as a character, it feels explored and lived in by the end of the film. Whereas the holiday homes or apartments in the other films feel less permanent in the sense of a past, present and future. As mentioned Sallitt’s careful and thorough composition style is part of his signature. In a 2012 interview with Mubi Notebook Sallitt mentions that the first interior scene which takes place in the kitchen is inspired by the final shot of Joseph Losey’s stunning film Time Without Pity. There is concise framing and also concise feeling through Jackie’s voice-over, through her therapy sessions. They are like diary entries, apt and poignant especially when the sound and image collide to have Jackie reflect as the camera shows us the house and its memories. Often in Sallitt’s films memory is reflected through conversation, here the images tell us of a once upon a time. Of course mainstream Hollywood here would often choose flashbacks but there is something to said about sincerity in the image, the image that stops to reflect like Tsai ming-liang or Bela Tarr. If we look at how Louis Malle made another film about incest, Murmur of the Heart, there is no voice-over, the idea of incest and its act sits there through the gestures and quiet moments, the psychological elements are left open. Whereas Sallitt wants to keep us closer toward ideas of memory and ultimate existence. Tallie Medel gives a powerful performance, her calm gestures and natural speech rhythm have a hint of precision, a performance in itself which highlight Jackie’s insecurities. Sallitt’s camera captures this by holding on with his shots, not distorting the visual rhythm with unmotivated cuts, everything in this quiet and beautiful film is motivated.

Fourteen, 2019

Fourteen has garnered much attention since its premiere at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival. It concerns the friendship of two friends since childhood over a ten year period; Mara (Tallie Medel), an aspiring writer and teaching assistant and Jo (Norma Kuhling), a social worker. The film is told mainly through Mara’s eyes as Jo loses her job due to depression and drug addiction. Sallitt has noted inspiration from Pialat in making the film, its scenes of raw intensity and time passing recall We Won’t Grow Old Together, A Mouth Agape and Graduate First. Whilst men in Sallitt’s films are often arguably less articulate, perhaps passive in some ways (Michael and to a certain extent Nick), of course the extreme reverse is true in the case of a filmmaker like Sam Peckinpah and many others where the women are less articulate. The times have changed from the days of Howard Hawks’ women needing to equal their men, equality is embedded in Sallitt’s women and their deep reflection on existence (sometimes in a single look from an actor or a camera placement). Time is precious as Sallitt pans across to a doorway as Mara and Jo talk early in the film, setting us up for an intimate portrait of time passing and reflection and they walk back into the frame. Of course another notable example is a two minute static shot outside of a train station, audiences perhaps would expect such a shot at the beginning or end of a film (Michael Haneke’s Cachè), Sallitt trusts his instincts like Tsai ming-liang to capture essence out of the smallest everyday detail. Perhaps depression can feel sometimes like waited time as it passes by, here Sallitt wants to frame in between the lines of living, are Mara’s thoughts as deep and reflective in the moment the camera captures her walking out of the station? Absolutely. Sallitt could have used voice-over here but he wants that sense of still time which can’t be literalised, it must be shown. Of course Sallitt’s films are dialogue driven usually in the spirit of Rohmer, Pialat, Rudolph, Hal Hartley, Hong Sang-soo, Mike Leigh and Woody Allen. The performances, camera placements and imagery are equally memorable for their tranquil and intimate qualities. It is clear watching Sallitt’s films that his camera placements are often pre-planned to the letter to the point where the filmmaker and cinephile merge as one.

Caterina, 2019

© Peter Larkin July 2020

Notes on Affliction


Affliction rests on the physicality of its star Nick Nolte who has ever been better, Wade Whitehouse lives in a rough mobile bungalow, he is a local cop, his small New Hampshire town is so quiet, he takes work as a crossing guard and does general odd jobs for Gordon LaRiviere (Holmes Osborne). Like Mitchell in The Sweet Hereafter Wade he is haunted by someone (his father) and uses his work to distract him. He needs to obsess, create drama around his fellow townspeople in order to occupy his mind. Willem Dafoe, his brother Rolfe, tells us in voice-over of their abusive father Glen (James Coburn). Paul Schrader adapted and directed the film from Russell Banks’ novel, he makes great use of Dafoe’s melancholy voice-over, Rolfe is a man hiding in the shadows, a ghost like all the Whitehouse family. Nolte’s role could very well have been played by Jean Gabin or Humphrey Bogart in a 1950s melodrama. Wade’s sensitivity with his daughter, like an audition to be a father always on his toes in the early scenes. His erratic body movement; hands to chest in disappointment as his daughter doesn’t want to live with him. His hand gestures of frustration ‘don’t say a word’ he tells his ex-wife after he pushes her new husband away from his daughter. It’s a manner and body language he has inherited from his father Glen.

The grizzly worn faces of Coburn, Nolte and Dafoe are perfect casting. Wade’s tooth ache, raging against the world, it is literally him versus the world, a murder case which isn’t a murder as we’ve seen it is an accident; a custody battle which no one wants. When he brings a speeding ticket to the home of a businessman whose relative was involved in the accident, Wade assumes violence from the man, what he gets is the click of the man’s fingers. A very blasè way of separating the wealthy city folk who can destroy a man’s career with one phone call, raising his finger with so called morality authority, whilst the working class Wade who lives in a mobile home, sleeps on his couch, looks on slightly stunned. Rarely has Nolte played a cop character who looked intimated by anyone. Schrader’s use mise-en-scene; intense mid-shots, slow zooms, anguish brought on by trauma rising to the surface of the embedded snowy landscape.

Notes on The Sweet Hereafter


The Sweet Hereafter was directed by Atom Egoyan, based on the novel by Russell Banks  which is in itself is a dramatization of a school bus crash in 1989 in Alton, Texas where tragically children’s lives were lost. Ian Holm took his only leading role aged 65 as Mitchell Stephens a city lawyer looking to prosecute the bus company and the local council for negligence in a small Canadian town in British Columbia. One feels Mitchell is perhaps chancing his arm to create a big lawsuit combined with several parents of the children both dead and alive who are reluctant to do so. One of the survivors is Nicole (Sarah Polley) who is an aspiring singer-songwriter who has been sexually abused by her father before the accident.

Egoyan captures the small snowy town, the people’s insecurities, pain and sadness. We find out the film is about fathers and daughters; Nicole and her father and also Mitchell and his daughter who is a long-suffering drug addict. It seems Mitchell is pushing for a lawsuit to keep his mind occupied amidst thoughts of his daughter’s reckless behaviour. “We’ve all lost our children” he tells one of the parents, in this moment it’s if Mitchell only half believes it. Egoyan’s mise-en-scene; the lighting in these scenes; a car wash, outside a mechanics, an airplane, extreme close-ups of Mitchell’s anguish. On Nicole’s scene in the barn with her father as Tony McKibbin (2012) argues ‘Some might find the scene between the father and daughter in The Sweet Hereafter so subtle they could almost miss it, but it lies in Egoyan’s refusal to film it with moral assumption attached. As we get a brief moment of the father and daughter lying in a barn surrounded by candles, this is presented without the formal terror of strong images and a threatening soundtrack to emphasise the child abuse. It is a moment of quiet moral unease over noisy representational terror.’

Nicole’s motive to lie at the hearing for the compensation is clear; to get back at her father, but the brief sex scene between them and her folklore voiceover make it more ambiguous. Mitchell unaware of the relationship reflects on his own daughter’s lying. Egoyan’s beautiful poetic touch to have passages from Robert Browning’s The Pied Paper of Hamelin is majestic in each instance. As Nicole reflects “As you see her, two years later, I wonder if you realize something. I wonder if you understand that all of us – Dolores, me, the children who survived, the children who didn’t – that we’re all citizens of a different town now. A place with its own special rules and its own special laws. A town of people living in the sweet hereafter.” The film gives us impressions of lives lived in the town, we are left through the screen time that we have with the devastated parents to imagine what their lives are actually like; glimpses, close-ups, they tell another story, one before the sweet hereafter.

Dirk Bogarde

Dirk Bogarde, Providence

Dirk Bogarde was born in 1921 in West Hampstead, West London. He fought in World War II, his career spanned from 1939 until 1990; from 1966 to 1986 he lived in France with his manager and life partner Anthony Forwood. Bogarde started a second career as a writer in the 1970s; he penned no less than seven autobiographies, six novels and a collection of journalism for The Daily Telegraph. He died of a heart attack in 1999 at his home in Chelsea, West London aged 78. It has been argued or rather stated that Dirk Bogarde’s career is split into three parts; delinquent troublemaker characters (The Blue Lamp, Hunted, The Sleeping Tiger, Cast a Dark Shadow) matinee idol (Penny Princess, Doctor in the House, The Spanish Gardener, Ill Met by Moonlight, The Doctor’s Dilemma) and finally serious European film actor (Libel, Victim, The Servant, The Mind Benders, King and Country, Darling, Accident, Our Mother’s House, Visconti’s The Damned, Death in Venice, The Night Porter, Providence, Despair, Daddy Nostalgie). It is one of the most fascinating careers in film history. His matinee idol characters seem to be the least troubled, Bogarde shows incredible sensitivity in his portrayal of Jose in The Spanish Gardener, a close-up of his face on a train awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit tells us without words Bogarde’s effortless interpretation of human decency. It is not often something Bogarde is asked of a role; it comes in bursts; the finale of The Mind Benders, Victim, Hunted, Doctor in the House). By the time of Victim Bogarde had more freedom in the types of roles he wanted to play, Victim and The Servant perhaps the most important of all. Bogarde said ‘I simply love the camera and it loves me. But the amount of concentration you have to use to feed the camera is so enormous that you’re absolutely ragged at the end of a day after doing something simple – like a look.’

Bogarde’s thin and lean posture gives him a commanding screen presence like that say of Jeremy Irons. If we think how rare it is that Bogarde is a father or family man from the films listed and how when he is a father it is a disaster; neglect (Our Mother’s House), a dangerous scientific experiment which endangers his family (The Mind Benders). As a father figure there is more disaster in Hunted (criminal on the run) and The Spanish Gardener (causes fierce jealousy from the child’s father). When Bogarde’s character who is a code breaker for the British Government in Sebastian hears from Susannah York that he is a father he becomes fixated on a baby rattler as a form of a coded sound, he summons his colleagues to the house and sits on the floor to work intensely paying little attention to the baby. On his choice not to be a family man in reality, Bogarde stated in 1981 at the age of 60 ‘my plan after the war has been my own personal survival’. Dean Kavanagh (2020) says of Bogarde’s personal survival; ‘This really struck a chord with me. You can see it in how he lived his life and how he performed or rather, how he could turn a performance of even the most flat characters into a humane presence with a dignified or even personsal essence. I think Donald Pleasance and Peter Cushing were two other such actors who wielded that power.’

Bogarde’s characters are rarely honourable. It is not a question of liking his characters who often test the limits of him between playing a Nazi (The Night Porter) a psychopath (Cast a Dark Shadow) numerous other villains and some army sergeants. Bogarde plays a Bond type villain in Modesty Blaise a character regardless of depth has that signature cerebral energy that he brings. A lot of detail into Bogarde’s characters’ working lives (Sebastian, The Mind Benders) suggest the seriousness of a Peter Cushing in Dracula or James Stewart in Call Northside 777 and Anatomy of a Murder. Raymond Durgnat described Sebastian as James Bond on Carnaby Street. Perhaps Bogarde’s best mimicked role of ‘Bond’ was in Hot Enough for June which used the set of M’s office and had Bogarde in an awkward espionage situation initially without his knowledge. Films such as June and Sebastian rely on straight almost emotionless procedure for the characters which Bogarde is so good at, Cary Grant could have played them in a Hitchcock or Donen film perhaps with the depth left open to question. Bogarde said ‘There’s something wrong with actors, we’ve always been a suspect breed. Socially, I find myself more admissible now in England because I’ve written books.’

Bogarde’s acting style changed over time, melodramatic films of the 1950s demanded a level of emotion perhaps laughed off the screen by the same audience who dismissed Douglas Sirk films. Bogarde’s slim physicality is often specifically used in films like Ill Met by Moonlight, The Spanish Gardener and Sebastian, three completely different characters all with a love for life in their own way, which cannot be said of many of Bogarde’s characters. Of course, menace is often a trait of a Bogarde character (Cast a Dark Shadow, Libel, The Mind Benders, The Servant etc). Bogarde’s cinematographers beautifully display this trait, no voice over is needed, Bogarde’s sharp almost hypnotic look do the work. Death in Venice perhaps his most famous role, requires him to base his performance on gestures of sorrow; the theme of memory for his characters runs through from this film to The Night Porter and Daddy Nostalgie. These poignant gestures are what Bogarde often said of in an interview ‘if the camera can’t see you thinking there’s no point’. The extent to which gestures are central to the film as a whole make Death in Venice stand alone for Bogarde.

Bogarde’s only Hollywood film was a disaster, 1960’s Song Without End, a biopic of Franz Liszt which Bogarde detested. Bogarde later stated ‘If you write about Hollywood, you can only write farce. It’s so way over the top, you can’t believe it. It’s Sunset Boulevard, it really is. And it’s cut-throat at the same time.’ His only French language film was to be his last 1990’s Daddy Nostalgie titled These Foolish Things in the UK, Bogarde’s character Tony Russell, a dying man, reflects on his life. The irony of a character being happy he stayed in France and didn’t return to England to retire alone is poignant as tragically the reverse happened to Bogarde in reality, as he returned to Chelsea in the late 1980s (where he was previously an art student from 1937-1938). He survived his partner Anthony Forwood by eleven years.

As many an unlikable character that Bogarde played he sometimes played a role representing moral authority; King and Country, The Fixer, he was aware of these up and coming co-stars Tom Courtenay and Alan Bates as the next generation of British acting. The Ralph Thomas films brought us dapper and comedic Dirk, the script often based on comedy of manners; a medical student, an undercover spy. Bogarde played off the necessity of work, bringing him towards sometimes almost screwball situations. His films with Losey however were the characters’ psyche in the English landscape. Losey talks about the new kind of British film he was making from Eva onwards, to take Accident as an example Pinter and Losey use Bogarde as a Jeremy Irons type ‘a poet of frustrated sexuality’ (Gene Siskel). Ambiguity lies in wondering about Stephen’s motives, Bogarde’s favourite of his characters, an Oxford don having an affair with his student’s girlfriend. Pinter’s dialogue and typical pauses is a glove fit for the elusive Bogarde. Physicality is not often asked of Bogarde but even thinking of a shadowy presence at the top of stairs in The Servant as James Fox and Wendy Craig think the worst of the situation with Sarah Miles. Bogarde’s menacing presence is enough to make him intimidating. Bogarde stated ‘The kind of acting I used to do no longer exists because your prime consideration is the budget, running time, the cost – and whether they’ll understand it in Milwaukee’

Of course, as The Servant revolves around a small cast it’s a domestic type of menace which Bogarde’s character of Barrett intensifies but it is his true self. We know or rather we guess that he hides this Jekyll and Hyde madness from the general public, therefore Barrett is an actor playing the part of the butler, the butler who wants the power simply to call the shots on a weaker man, Tony (James Fox) the alcoholic. Of course, Losey’s use of Bogarde’s silhouette at the top of the stairs signify a man of mystery, a man whose dominance has been waiting to have light shed on it, then again, we know nothing of Barrett’s past. One half expects Bogarde’s silhouetted hand across his mouth is because of shock, he is in fact smoking a cigarette. The mystery is unclear, does he really hate the upper class, or does he want to be them? Bogarde’s sexual appetite for Sarah Miles is stand alone for a Bogarde character even with later roles for Fassbinder, Visconti and Cavani. Sexual deviousness drips off the screen to the point where arguments of Losey’s realism of class conflict go into satirical territory; Barrett and Tony playing games around the house, catch the ball and an intense hide and seek like something out of experimental theatre. Bogarde as a villain, a much more interesting villain than in the later Modesty Blaise.

In The Sleeping Tiger Losey’s first film with Bogarde he plays Frank a posh boy criminal in comparison to the working class Eastender Johnny in The Blue Lamp. Frank as his psychiatrist Clive (Alexander Knox) describes him is ‘army family, good school’ type, Frank steals and fights out of boredom. Frank’s sly glance at dinner with Clive and his wife Glenda (Alexis Smith) as he wipes his mouth with his napkin is one of malevolence and contempt before resting his hands together like an entertainer ready for his next trick of mischief. The way he blows out cigarette smoke reminds us of Barrett’s sexual side in The Servant, these sociopaths have much in common. Frank moves his body forward to intimidate and belittle Glenda, such physicality is rarely seen from a Bogarde character, be it sexuality being largely censored in 1954 and Bogarde moving on from such characters by the 60s. The confines of the country house isolate Frank, Glenda, Clive and their maid Sally (Patricia McCarron). Losey and his cinematographer Harry Waxman intentionally or not emphasise the whiteness of the characters’ faces through the black and white, Frank the demon and Sally the innocent. Camera angles include an upward tilt of Sally fearful of Frank whilst literally playing the role of dutiful maid to hide the fear, when her fear is broken she shakes, Bogarde is that terrifying. Either Sally has been safe up until now in her mask of a maid role or men have treated her this way before. Alexis Smith as Glenda is a very sophisticated opposite to Bogarde who of course dreams of someone smarter than him even if he won’t admit it. Textbook psychology is an explanation for Frank’s behaviour in typically melodramatic fashion. But these textbook explanations have some truth in them too when we see the complication of Frank’s guilt. His uncontrollable tears another seldom occurrence for a Bogarde character however cerebral or not, completely exposed. For Barrett in The Servant it’s an act to cry and for Longman in The Mind Benders well he’s brainwashed but he’s got something to lose, Frank in The Sleeping Tiger has already lost it.

Bogarde (1986) has stated of his autobiographies ‘you have to read between the lines’ the same can be read of his film roles especially one as personal as Victim made in 1961 about a gay barrister Melville Farr (Bogarde) with a young boyfriend Jack who is being blackmailed as it was not legal to be a homosexual until 1967. Farr’s wife Laura (Sylvia Syms) questions her husband about Jack. The director Basil Dearden who often makes films with a social conscience (Sapphire, The Mind Benders) begins the sequence with the camera across the hall as Farr enters only to pan again towards Laura in his study as she asks about Jack who is now dead. It becomes almost an interrogation and oddly Farr’s body actually blocks the light from Laura’s face as he closes the door, the faceless Laura knows where this is going, she is the tormenting voice in Farr’s head ‘why?’. We can tell by Farr and Laura’s body language that they are not too close intimately. The light from a lamp shines on their faces, Farr as secretive but compassionate, Laura ever loving, digging for the truth. The camera gets in line with Syms’ body language in a swift movement, the drama just got real, more questions, a theatrical staging which heightens Bogarde’s performance as it must as the door he has been hiding behind is being knocked on. There is a slight passivity to Laura, a theatrical background from Syms perhaps that gives her character the honestly to admit shock and despair for her husband and their relationship but from a time (early 60s) where such conversations were so taboo. We can see her quick change between anger, anxiety and desperation in one line reading. For Bogarde of course it is his most personal role and the closest the public got to his homosexuality. He fires back at Syms in anger, the lighting is softer, giving him a redemptive quality, the eyebrows raise in frustration, his body titled as Syms’ is too at certain moments, he raises his head forward into an emotional rage, moves it back to feel calm, his body still disproportioned amidst all the strain. Syms knows all the answers before Bogarde answers them; she is perhaps too quick with dialogue often not pausing at crucial moments. Bogarde on the other hand for what the character demands of him has reactions which build the pressure cooker of a man in torment for his life and career. As Farr says to Laura ‘…until you’ve ripped it out of me’.

Consider the five- and half-minute sequence in Losey’s Accident where Bogarde and Delphine Seyrig have a conversation through voiceover as they meet at her apartment in London, then go out for a meal, then return to have sex together. Losey and Pinter have written and filmed it like a dream, the dialogue is deliberately exhibition and makes us wonder as they the actors are so good could we fill in the blanks ourselves through the beauty and grace of their gestures alone, perhaps, but this is beside the point. Through other elements like John Dankworth’s profound harp strings which recall déjà in a surrealistic tone (which Lynch and Fellini would have been proud of) make the sequence masterful. Another sequence from another 1967 Bogarde film Our Mother’s House in which Bogarde plays a completely different character to Accident’s Oxford don Stephen. Bogarde plays Charlie Hook; a South London crook who is the absent father to seven children whose mother has just passed away due to ill health. It’s a testament to Bogarde’s versatility as he shows authority to his children in the finale, a different kind of intimidation we are not used to seeing from his characters; based on anger, carelessness and seniority, not at all intelligence. Bogarde’s criminals are often after money but never with such responsibility as well. When Charlie gets a comeuppance, he can’t believe it, perhaps what he says in the finale is true but the children who live in a fantasy world refuse to have their mother’s name tarnished. Bogarde’s characters often live in the real world and pay the price for it. Perhaps no more poignantly than at the finale of May We Borrow Your Husband an 80s TV film, one of Bogarde’s last. Bogarde offers himself to Charlotte Attenborough, the age difference notwithstanding, he loves her and knows that her husband does not, he accepts her decision and mournfully looks out over the South of France, Bogarde’s home of over twenty years. The reality being life goes on despite difficulty and hardship. With reality and responsibility comes Daddy Nostalgie, a beautiful ending to a fascinating and vibrant career. Bogarde was very direct about his career; ‘I never got paid very much in salaries and books don’t make very much.’ It never bothered him he was in acting for passion not money.


© Peter Larkin