Film writing

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 2003.]

Let There Be Light (USA 1946) Directed by John Huston

A Page of Madness (Japan 1926) Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa

Completely Cuckoo (USA 1988) Directed by Charles Kiselyak

“This strand of the festival focuses on the way in which film has been used to address the treatment and perception of those with mental health problems. The films, some of which were prohibited or banned, demonstrate the role of the state and the psychiatric system in labelling and controlling madness.” – quote from the festival brochure

Bringing together TV documentaries, a “making-of”, a Japanese silent film and two documentaries banned in the USA, this strand seemed to ask apposite questions, but didn’t really have a definitive idea of quite where to go after that. The Politics of Madness banner is perhaps too broad a subject. More success might have been had if they had concentrated on the idea of the mental institution itself, for example – which makes more sense, given the selection of films in the strand. That’s not such a problem, if you give comprehensive and illuminating programme information, but more than a couple of the films were let down by occasionally sketchy, rushed notes.

John Huston’s Let There Be Light was banned shortly before its original release (military police confiscated the print at the Museum of Modern Art), but the film was screened at Cannes in 1981 after a campaign led by Huston and an intervention from the White House. Despite its impressive crew (DoP Stanley Cortez shot The Magnificent Ambersons, and would go on to shoot The Night of the Hunter), it’s a pretty blunt piece of work – more a curio than a lost masterpiece.

Charged with removing the stigma which surrounds “psychoneurotics” returning from war, Huston does a pretty workmanlike job of what the festival brochure calls “propaganda”. The tentative representation of these shell-shocked WWII veterans (the voiceover calls them ‘human salvage’) stands in sharp contrast with the authoritarian clinicians treating them, and the classroom atmosphere in which their group therapy takes place.

The on-camera cures (‘arise and walk!’), the music, the actorly voiceover (by Huston’s father), and the apparent racial harmony seems absurd to our eyes, but must at the time have threatened something. James Agee called it a “fine, terrible, valuable non-fiction film”, lamenting its withdrawal by the US Army, which cited the violation of patient confidentiality as its main concern – but was probably more worried that it made the dangerous connection between war service and trauma. Others have noted that Fred Zimmermann’s The Men (1950), starring Marlon Brando in his first major role, which treated a similar situation but in fictional form, and made it past the censors.

The group that Huston films turned out, according to their treating psychiatrists, to have recovered more quickly and completely than other groups – an issue that crops up in Charles Kiselyak’s Completely Cuckoo. Essentially a ‘making-of’ documentary about Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, this film, though instructive and amusing, is basically an extended DVD extra. Kiselyak is given amazing access (though weirdly not to Nicholson). Excellent on-set footage is intercut with interviews with stars, crew, producers and patients of the facility where the film was shot. Screenwriter Bo Goldman stands out as particularly humane and unassuming, and interviews with one or two of the former patients of the facility are a testament to Dr Brooks’ intention that the film-making process act as part of their rehabilitation.

The party scene in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest recalls another controversial film about a psychiatric institution – Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies – an obvious, but nonetheless powerful choice for this strand. Wiseman’s film documents the dehumanising Bridgwater Institution for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts. Though much less obtrusive than the stagey Huston film, with its lack of commentary and unswerving gaze, this is ultimately far more polemical and affecting. The show put on by the doctors and inmates ends with one of the chief doctors manically milking the applause like a vaudeville Nixon. The film’s depiction of mental institutions was so damning it became the subject of an injunction that lasted over a quarter of a century.

The only feature film in this strand was the rarely-seen Japanese silent film A Page of Madness, which was feared lost until the director allegedly found the negative in a rice barrel in his shed. The film starts with a whirlwind montage of torrents, rain, and musical instruments, and continues into forms and patterns that seem to ask how much patterning and design influence our behaviour. Grids, boxes, bars, shadows, Noh masks, distorted POV shots and hallucinations reinforce this impression.

The film follows a sailor into an asylum where his wife is being kept after attempting to drown their son, and feels like a very early attempt at self-representation – the similarity between the skewed perspectives and the cinematic version of what is sometimes called ‘art brut’ is striking. The only problem was the modern soundtrack, which exists in a number of versions as the original was lost, and felt overblown and out of place.

Lastly came the programme of short films, many of which included the voices of those affected by mental illness. Erik Bafving’s Swedish short about his father made a particularly strong opening to the programme. The ever-reliable and inventive Jonathan Hodgson was represented by Camouflage, a sensitive and perceptive insight into a child’s experience of a parent with mental illness. Stone of Folly, by Jesse Rosensweet, used grotesquely comic animation to depict a medieval hospital, staffed by an appalling anaesthetist.

All in all, an interesting experiment in trying to get a single-issue festival into a major arts venue, and it is to be hoped that, if the festival returns next year, the line-up and programming will get stronger, and the supporting materials and programme of debates sharper and more focused.

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 2001]

Perhaps the most succinctly insightful critical response to the work of Nicolas Roeg might be Michael Clark’s portrait of the British director in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Entitled “al-jebr”, this Arabic word means “the bringing together of broken parts”. There are certain keywords that recur in critical appraisals of Roeg’s work: fractured, shattered, collapsed, labyrinthine. This is no less true of his now thankfully re-released 1973 masterpiece, Don’t Look Now, which forms part of an early body of work, including 1970’s astonishing Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell), the deeply pessimisticWalkabout (also 1970), and the glacially prescient The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). These films inspire similar “what ifs” to the contemporaneous career of Francis Ford Coppola. After his under-appreciated 1980 film, Bad Timing, Roeg seemed unable to reach the intense complexity his earlier work had shown, and has since managed to succeed where even Coppola has failed, by earning the epithet “largely forgotten”.

Don’t Look Now begins with the tragic drowning of Christine, daughter of John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), and in a sequence famed for its elliptical yet instinctively communicative editing, introduces the key symbols and themes of the film. The motifs of water, of the colour red, of breaking glass, of criss-crossing (noted, in the left-right alternation of shot angles, by Manny Farber in his 1975 essay on Roeg), of spirals, of aural/visual disjunction, of deception/perception, of restoration (forgery/authenticity), are all introduced and established. An early, Hitchcockian, jumpcut from Laura’s scream of horror to the screech of a drill in Venice brings us forward in time, and establishes also Hitch’s presence as an influence. John and Laura have travelled to Venice, where John is working on the restoration of a Byzantine church (which, in a Gothic film, provides a pleasing counterpoint of styles). There they encounter two eccentric sisters, one of whom, apparently psychic, claims to be able to see their dead daughter standing between John and Laura, but also warns them that their lives are in danger while in Venice. John is sceptical, while Laura is willing to believe, and finds a degree of calm in the sisters’ words. The sisters even suggest that John himself possesses second sight, a possibility he denies to himself, in spite of otherwise inexplicable sensations. Read More

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written a long long time ago.]

Fucking Åmål, retitled Show Me Love for more sensitive markets such as the USA and the UK, is Swedish poet and novelist Lukas Moodysson’s debut feature, and already the biggest Swedish film of all time. The film follows Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg) who, even after 18 months in the provincial town of Åmål with her family, still has no friends, and Elin (Alexandra Dahlström) who is sick of the fact that by the time something is ‘in’ in ‘fucking’ Åmål, it is ‘out’ everywhere else, and is also keen to rid herself of her virginity. Read More

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 1999/2000.]

Showing in its original version rather than the longer “director’s” cut (widely held to be a more balanced and complex film), the tenth anniversary re-release of this 1989 winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes, and the Best Foreign Language Film at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes, offers an opportunity to reassess a film that was panned by critics on its release, but proved something of a hit with the public. Read More

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 2001]

Not overly sophisticated (thank God), indeed somewhat crude at points (excellent), and rather like a mixture between The Sure ThingBeavis and Butthead and Shadowlands (just kidding), Y tu mamá también is extremely good-natured, thoughtful and enjoyable – far more so than the witless trailer (which makes it out to be a teen gross-out comedy) suggests.

It follows two seventeen-year-old Mexico City friends – Tenoch (Diego Luna), a corrupt politician’s son, and middle-class Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal, of Amores Perros) – and Luisa (Maribel Verdu), the beautiful young Spanish woman they meet at a party. To impress her they invite her on a road trip they are planning to go on, to what they say is the best beach around, La Boca del Cielo, or Heaven’s Mouth – which they’ve invented. She declines, but when her husband (Tenoch’s writer cousin) calls her in tears to tell her of an infidelity, changes her mind, and calls the boys – who are forced to rustle up a car, and a plan. The ensuing road trip tests their friendship and their sexuality. Read More