Here they are, in order of seeing, the best, to my eyes, of this year’s new releases; the films I enjoyed most and would happily see again.
Loveless : Andrey Zvyagintsev Western : Valeska Grisebach BlacKkKlansman : Spike Lee Cold War : Pawel Pawlikowski The Rider : Chloe Zhao
The Miseducation of Cameron Post : Desiree Akhavan Lucky : John Carroll Lynch Nae Pasaran : Felipe Bustos Sierra Skate Kitchen : Crystal Moselle Shoplifters : Hirokazu Koreeda Disobedience : Sebastian Lelio Roma : Alfonso Cuaron The Old Man and The Gun : David Lowery
Okay, I know the last mentioned is a little on the lightweight side, especially when compared to a heavy-duty [but brilliant] film like Loveless, or Cold War, or Cuaron’s Roma, but it does have an absolutely sparkling performance by Sissy Spacek, who – excuse the cliché – lights up the screen whenever she appears. And hey, I’m of the age when I can happily take sustenance from watching someone of, shall we say, advancing years running the screen and living a mostly happy and fulfilling life – even if that life does comprise robbing banks. I felt the same about the Harry Dean Stanton character in Lucky, just as I did about the real-life Rolls Royce workers who refused to handle airplane engine parts that were destined to be used by the Chilean government against their own people. Watch those deeply principled yet otherwise ordinary, now elderly men finally getting their due recognition in the final scenes of Nae Pasaran and hold the tears back if you can. More movies for old geezers, that’s what I say!
And the most disappointing film of the year? For me, without a doubt, Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s The Wild Pear Tree. After watching his marvellous Once Upon a Time in Anatolia for the third time just a few days before, I was hoping for something more striking and cinematic than his previous effort, the dull, overly-Chekovian and aptly titled Winter Sleep, which won the Palme D’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Sadly, no such luck. Until – far too late – the last twenty minutes or so, Ceylan’s latest film revolves around three hours of argument and aimless conversation, relieved only by his trademark shots of empty and beautiful Turkish countryside.
If one of The Photography Gallery’s ambitions when setting up it’s current pair of shows (until 14th October, 2018) was to establish the widest possible contrast between two artists’ practice, they could hardly have chosen better than to focus on Tish Murtha [whom I wrote about in my previous blog post] and Alex Prager. Murtha is firmly in the school of documentary realism, black and white, working class, political, small scale in image, universal in reach and meaning. Prager, in contrast, is high colour, glossy, large scale, concerned with politics of gender and deeply indebted to film imagery and technique – not any kind of film, but that exemplified by Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk – technicoloured melodramas that simultaneously present a heightened version of real life at the very same time as they foreground the means they use (colour, lighting, mise-en-scene) to point up its falseness, its fakery. Gendered Hollywood fairy tales. [Like all fairy tales?]
Shots like the one above were made on a sound stage using up to 150 extras.
Images such as the one below, which could almost be a production still from The Birds, make explicit not just Pragers’ obsession with Hitchcock, but her obsession with his obsession – young blonde women under threat, held under the camera’s gaze.
The section in The Photographers’ Gallery regular booklet series, Loose Associations, which deals with Prager’s work, includes extracts from feminist film critic and academic Laura Mulvey’s key 1975 article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which dissects the ways in which classic Hollywood film positions women at the ultimately passive receiving end of the all-powerful male gaze. And that’s a three-way: male behind the camera; male within the narrative; male in the audience. Hitchcock – for Prager, whose concerns, one suspects, are similar to Mulvey’s – is, of course, the perfect subject, the perfect example, perfect for them both, in that he is transparent as to both ends and means. After several viewings, it seems to me, it’s difficult not to see Vertigo, for instance, as an object lesson in just how male dominance of the female in terms of image, action and emotional response can be achieved.
It’s no surprise that Prager moved from photography – the kind of large scale, pre-planned and well-resourced still photography that is well displayed on two floors at TPG – to film itself. Short films with large crews and real stars. For Touch of Evil, commissioned by the New York Times, she managed to nab a host of A-listers including Jessica Chastain, George Clooney, Kirsten Dunst and Rooney Mara. The ‘star’ of Face in the Crowd, one of the films showing at TPG, is Elizabeth Banks, playing an attractive blonde woman (what else) forever, seemingly, trapped behind a wall of glass, while around her – the film is shown on three screens, central, left & right – various crowds are shown on the beach, at a ball game, crowds from which individuals are intermittently seen in close up, expressing their doubts and fears to camera.
Is it possible to look at Prager’s work and see only the surface, enjoy the size, the visceral pleasure, the high-gloss slickness of it, and not be concerned with what rides beneath? That, after all, would be the mainstream Hollywood way. But here we’re not submerged in the dark. We’re in a gallery and this is art. As well as responding on an immediate love, we’re expected to think. And we do.
I watched John Crowley’s film version of Colm Toibin’s novel, Brooklyn, again the other night, after reading an interview with Toibin in The Guardian Review. I was particularly interested in his remarks concerning the screenplay, written by Nick Hornby, and the ways in which the film’s ending differs from the original.
Unable to find suitable work at home, Eilis [Ey-lish] has emigrated from her home in south-east Ireland to Brooklyn, where a priest has found her both employment and somewhere to live. Once settled, she falls into a relationship with Tony, a young man of Italian descent, and, though uncertain of her feelings, when she is called back to Ireland due to the death of her sister, she agrees to marry him, hastily and secretly, before she leaves. Once home, she resumes her old life with a new maturity and greater self-confidence; a good job presents itself, along with a dependable man of a higher station, whom she likes and who would marry her. She has not told anyone – not the man, not her mother – that she is already married. It’s as if she herself has forgotten: has chosen to forget. Her husband’s letters are shut away, unopened, in a drawer. But gossip and rumour seek her out and Eilis has to decide what to do, which course to take. In this, her dilemma is not unlike that of Isabel Archer at the end of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady [both author and novel much beloved of Toibin] though Tony the plumber is, thankfully, neither as mendacious nor manipulating as Gilbert Osmond.
In both novel and film, she returns to America: there seems to be no viable alternative. But in the novel, her feelings about this are ambivalent at best; the film recasts this in the far more positive light of an inescapably happy ending. Eilis, unburdened by doubt, stands in bright light on the opposite side of the street from the building supplies store from which Tony and one of his brothers emerge, talking; it takes a few moments for the brother, and then Tony, to realise Eilis is there. Almost unable to believe his eyes, Tony, bedazzled, hastens into Eilis’ arms and the final clinch of an unambiguously happy ending.
What does Colm Toibin think of this?
“I’m interested in what Nick [Hornby] did with the structure of it,” says Toibin, “which is so brilliant; how much he left out, how he moved the drama on. But I tear up for the very last section, that I didn’t write.” He doesn’t mind that it changed the novel? “It’s gorgeous. And what were they meant to do, have an ending with her sitting on the train feeling smug: look what I’ve just done to everybody?”
This recognition that different forms of media have different requirements is something that writers perhaps find easier to accommodate than readers, whose reaction, more often than not, is less generous, less understanding; they are more likely to want the film, radio or television version to be as close to the original as possible and expect the author to feel the same.
Over the past years I’ve adapted the work of a number of authors: Arnold Bennett and Ruth Rendell for TV; Graham Greene, Paul Scott, Qiu Xiaolong and A. S. Byatt for radio. The majority of those, sadly, are no longer in a position to complain, and those that are, to the best of my knowledge, have refrained. When Antonia Byatt’s Frederica Quartet was being broadcast, and she was asked about it on Woman’s Hour, she was careful to make clear – before making comments which were, thankfully, positive – that’s John Harvey’s Frederica Quartet, not mine.
With other writers’ work, my process has always been to strip the story down it basic elements, then begin to build it up from there, with the demands – strengths and weaknesses – of the particular medium in mind. Where adapting my own work is concerned – two books for television, two books and three short stories for radio – I think I have been more successful with the latter. When I was writing the screenplays based on the first two Resnick novels, Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, I was guilty of forgetting my own rules at times and sticking too close to the originals; favouring a speech, a scene, an exchange of dialogue, because I liked it rather than because it contributed towards an effective piece of film. Which is why, whenever the Resnick books have been optioned by this or that television company since – as has fairly frequently been the case – and I’ve been asked if I would be interested in writing one or more of the scripts, I’ve always said thanks, but no thanks – someone else, experienced and coming to it with a fresh eye, will likely do it better.
These are the films I enjoyed most this year (some of them first released in 2016) listed in the order I saw them rather than in any hierarchy; with the exception of ‘On Body & Soul’, which was streamed on Mubi and deserves to be shown far more widely, they were all seen in one cinema or another. If I were forced to choose a top three or four – Go on! Make me! – they would be ‘Graduation’, ‘In Between’, ‘On Body and Soul’ and ‘Manchester By The Sea’.
I could make a list of almost equal measure of those movies that, to my eyes, were over-hyped, over-rated or just plain bad. Top of that list would be Pablo Lorrain’s ‘Jackie’, a wooden study in hagiography almost equalled by the same director’s pompously ‘arty’ ‘Neruda’ – quite a feat to have two lousy efforts released in the same year. Despite some considerable critical acclaim, Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ was as unpleasant and exploitative as I should have anticipated – can we just see that rape scene from a different angle one more time, please? Both ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Blade Runner 2049’ were as empty as they were over-long and overwrought and I’m sorry but, in the face of much positivity, I almost totally failed to ‘get’ ‘Toni Erdmann’.
Some nights, Resnick thought, you knew sleep wasn’t destined to come; or that, if it did, it would be haunted by dreams pitched just this side of nightmare, broken by the startled cry of the telephone heralding some new disaster, awful and mundane. So there he was, at close to two a. m., ferrying through the sparsely filled refrigerator for the makings of a snack, during cold milk – yes,milk – into a glass, opening the back door so that Pepper could join Dizzy in a little night-time prowling, hunting down whatever was slower or slower-witted than themselves. Miles and Bud were upstairs on his bed, missing, perhaps, his bulk and warmth while relishing the extra space.
Carrying his sandwich through into the front room, he pulled an album from the shelf and slipped the record from its tattered sleeve. The Thelonious Monk Trio on Prestige. Through the smeared glass of the front bay, he could see the outlines of houses left and right along the curve of street, roofs bulked against a city sky that was never truly dark. Faint, the hum of occasional cars, one block away on the Woodborough Road. Monk’s fingers, flat, percussive, treading their way through ‘Bemesha Swing’ like an overgrown child lurching along the pavement, crack by crack. It was no surprise when the phone finally rang, nor that the voice at the other end was his sergeant’s, weary and resigned.
That deep into the early hours it was no more than a five minute drive to the old Lace Market, the corner of Stoney Street and King’s Place and the Victorian conversion that for years had housed Jimmy Nolan’s jazz club and bar. Acrid and pungent, the scent of burning struck Resnick as he climbed out of the car. Smoke eddied on the air. Fire officers, purposeful yet unhurried, damped down smouldering wreckage; making safe. Resnick knew they would already have isolated, as far as possible, the area where the fire began. The building itself was little more than a blackened shell.
Four cats still rather than just the one; vinyl albums instead of CDs, back before vinyl was the trendy thing: Resnick in 1999. A while ago.
‘Slow Burn’, the short story of which this is the beginning, actually began life a year earlier, as a 60 minute radio script written for BBC 4 producer, David Hunter, which was originally broadcast in 1998 and has been repeated on several occasions, most recently this week on Radio 4 Extra. You can still catch it on the BBC Radio iPlayer, where it’s available, from today, for another 27 days.
David Hunter was the producer who marshalled my dramatisations of two Resnick novels onto the airwaves, Wasted Years in 1995 and Cutting Edge in 1996, each in several parts. Slow Burn followed these in 1998 and my original radio script became a short story, which was first published a year later in the collection, Now’s the Time, by my own small press, Slow Dancer, that collection being reprinted, in an enlarged edition, by William Heinemann in 2002 and in 2013 the Arrow paperback below.
There has only been one representation of Resnick on screen [so far – hope springs eternal et cetera] that by Tom Wilkinson in two television adaptations – Lonely Hearts & Rough Treatment, produced by Colin Rogers for Deco Films and TV and the BBC, and shown in 1992 and 1993 respectively. Tom reprised the role in the first of the radio versions mentioned above [Wasted Years in ’95], after which Hollywood beckoned and Resnick was personified first by Tom Georgson in Cutting Edge, then Philip Jackson in Slow Burn, and, finally, Keith Barron, in two other dramatised short stories, Cheryl (2001) and Bird of Paradise (2002).
Keith Barron, who sadly died just yesterday, November 15th, was the reader of two abridged versions of the novels Cold Light and Living Proof, released by Reed Audio in 1995, and Philip Jackson the reader in the excellent ten-part version of Wasted Years, adroitly abridged and directed by Gordon House for BBC Radio 4 and since repeated on a number of occasions.
Most recently, Resnick was brought to the stage by David Fleeshman in the Nottingham Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness, directed by Jack McNamara. That’s David, outside the Playhouse, immediately below, and, with Simone Saunders as Catherine Njoroge, in a scene from the play.
And here’s Tom Wilkinson in Resnick guise, first in a BBC publicity shot and below on the jacket of the French edition of Lonely Hearts, Coeurs Solitaires.
Blood on the Moon : Robert Wise (1948) To Have & Have Not : Howard Hawks (1944) Manchester by the Sea : Kenneth Lonergan (2016) Red Road : Andrea Arnold (2006) Parisienne (Peur de Rien): Danielle Arbid (2016) Cinema Paradiso : Giuseppe Tornatore (1988) Jackie : Pablo Larrain (2016) Toni Erdmann : Maren Ade (2016) Thumbsucker : Mike Mills (2005) Portrait : Sergei Loznitsa (2002) Twentieth Century Woman : Mike Mills (2016) Old Joy : Kelly Reichardt (2006)
Is there something, I wonder, that happens as you get older which leaves you feeling more and more difficult to please; that means you are more likely to appreciate things from the past, possibly but not necessarily encountered before, over what is new? It seems, if 2016 is to be trusted, to be increasingly so.
No doubt, the two most original and exciting films I’ve seen this year were made in the 1920s: Eisenstein’s Strike from 1925 and Murnau’s Sunrise from 1927. The Eisenstein, which I hadn’t seen before, was showing as part of a season of his work at the small and independent Close Up Film Centre in Shoreditch; the Murnau I had seen several times but never as gloriously as at this screening, with magnificent live organ accompaniment, at the Regent Street Cinema.
That I saw these and other classics in the repertoire was due in no small part to my daughter Molly’s growing interest in film and film history – hence a terrific noir double bill of Tourneur’s Out of the Past and Wilder’s Double Indemnity; Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story, and, more up to date, Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue and Three Colours Red.
Against those, little holds up. American Honey had a terrific performance by Sasha Lane and Andrea Arnold is a really interesting director, but it’s about 30 minutes too long; Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake had most people falling over themselves in its praise, but, while its heart is 100% in the right place, its function as parable drains it – until the final third – of any real tension or complexity – this despite a compelling performance from Hayley Squires; Arrival simply didn’t, as far as I was concerned, and there’s a whopping cheat, surely, two-thirds of the way into the plot? Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson were charming, both celebrating innocence in quite different ways, but I have to say I found the deliberately repetitive and low-key movement of Jarmusch’s narrative, following Adam Driver’s bus driver through his fairly boring daily routine, pretty, well, boring, and, as for the poems he writes en route (the work, apparently, of Ron Padgett), all I can say is don’t give up the day job too soon. The new Dardenne Brothers film, The Unknown Girl, is ponderous and pretty unbelievable; the latest Woody Allen, Café Society, a strong contender for the worst of his career – until the next one comes along, that is.
Two films stood out most strongly for me, both, in differing ways and different contexts, taking as their subject girls and women suffering from and struggling to overcome male domination, violence and abuse. Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Mustang centres around a family of five girls growing up amidst the claustrophobia and abuse of a rural Turkish family; Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents takes place immediately after WW2, in and around a Catholic convent in Warsaw in which some of the nuns are pregnant as a result of rape by Russian soldiers. Sympathetically directed and convincingly acted, both films are moving, deeply disturbing, and, against the odds, ultimately uplifting.
I’ll also confess to liking David O. Russell’s Joy a whole lot more than perhaps I should, but any movie that can have me so desperately wanting someone to succeed in selling her self-designed mop on the shopping channel must have something going for it. Probably Jennifer Lawrence.
Otherwise, the films that have held my attention most strongly have all been documentaries: Marcie Begleiter’s Eva Hesse – probably the best film about an artist I’ve seen – Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink – Robert Frank; Sara Fishko’s The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, and Gianfranco Rosi’s excellent Fire at Sea, contrasting the traditional lives of the families living on the Italian island of Lampedusa with the hopes and desperation of refugees fleeing there from Africa – two different, barely compatible worlds.
CREMATORIUM. FADE DOWN ORGAN MUSIC AS RESNICK WALKS AWAY FROM THE CHAPEL INTO THE GARDEN, CATHERINE, PATCH OVER ONE EYE, COMING TO JOIN HIM.
CATHERINE: God, Charlie! I hate funerals. Hate them more and more.
RESNICK: You’ll come to mine, all the same?
CATHERINE: You, Charlie? You’ll be here forever.
RESNICK: I doubt that.
THEY WALK ON.
I don’t know about forever, but the old boy does keeping popping up, this week especially.
First there was the realisation [they never let you know in advance!] that my three-part dramatisation for radio of the third Resnick novel, Cutting Edge, was being repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra.
Originally broadcast on Radio 4 in 1996, Cutting Edge features Tom Georgeson as Resnick. Tom Wilkinson had played him on radio the preceding year, in my adaptation of Wasted Years, which, like Cutting Edge and, in fact, all of the radio Resnicks, was produced and directed by David Hunter. In doing so, Wilkinson, of course, was reprising the role he’d earlier played on television, in the versions of the first two novels in the series, Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, both produced by Colin Rogers for Deco Films & Television and the BBC.
Come the time to record Cutting Edge, he was otherwise engaged, so Georgeson, who had appeared on the other side of the law as a burglar in Rough Treatment, stepped into the Inspector’s shoes, bringing the residue of a Scouse lilt with him as he did so.
Resnick’s most recent incarnation, in the stage version of Darkness, Darkness directed by Jack McNamara for Nottingham Playhouse and New Perspectives, saw him being tellingly brought to life by David Fleeshman.
Now, Claudia Ferlisi of New Perspectives has assembled an absorbing “storify”, in which the history of the production is traced through a selection of photographs, video, blog extracts, tweets and so on. You can – and should – look at it here …
Delving further back, Colin Rogers alerted me to a review on the Letterboxd site of the 1992 television adaptation of Lonely Hearts, starring, as has been said, Tom Wilkinson, and directed by Bruce MacDonald. Quite why the review, by Mark C., has appeared now, when no official DVD of the programme is available, I’m not sure. A DVD was advertised as forthcoming on Amazon.com some time ago, but since then there has been no news as to when – indeed, if – it might actually become available. What’s holding things up, I have no idea. Nor do I know which copy Mark is reviewing … but what he has to say, is, I thought, really interesting. Here’s a sample …
It helps of course that the author himself, John Harvey, adapted the novels for TV. But crucially the director of Lonely Hearts, Bruce MacDonald, understands the material beautifully and gives us something unique that still stands out as a distinctive piece of drama some twenty-four years later. Crucially MacDonald’s style, combined with his knowledge and understanding of Harvey occasionally somewhat fragmentary writing style, works in close harmony to deliver an deeply atmospheric piece. Like the jazz beloved of our central character, Harvey’s writing often strays from the narrative through line to provide quirky and unusual flourishes or glimpses of other themes. This is best exemplified in the way that we see the team at Nottingham CID (which includes a youngish David Neilsen before he headed to the cobbles of Coronation Street, looking rather different with short hair and a military moustache, and actor/writer William Ivory as a scene-stealing leery, neanderthal cop who despite his blunt methods gets the job done in a way we cannot help but admire) involve themselves in other secondary cases or how we catch references to their home lives. All of these instances help lend a sense of multi-dimensionality and authenticity to the proceedings.
It was nothing more than happenstance that I saw documentary films about two renowned American photographers on successive days: Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink – Robert Frank in its run at the ICA and Sara Fishko’s Jazz Loft Project – According to W. Eugene Smith which was showing at Barbican as part of the London jazz Festival.
Frank is probably still best known for his photo book, The Americans, which resulted from a Guggenheim-funded road trip he made around the United States in 1955/56. Initially published in France, it didn’t come out in America until 1959, when Grove Press published it with an introduction by Jack Kerouac.
That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he travelled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film. For this he will definitely be hailed as a great artist in his field.
Well, he was. But not straight off. The reviewer in Popular Photography characterised the work thus: meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons and general sloppiness. Elsewhere he was taken to task for the picture of American and Americans the book presented: this is not the real America and whoever thinks so must hate America, this is not the way we live. Kerouac, not surprisingly, disagreed.
As American a picture – the faces don’t editorialise or criticise or say anything but “This is the way we are in real life and if you don’t like it I don’t know anything about it ’cause I’m living my own life my way and may God bless us all, mebbe” … “if we deserve it” …
There’s a clear relationship in the photographs, I think, to some of the images that Dorothea Lange and others shot during the Depression, except that they were more studied – more consciously ‘artistic’, I suppose, and, as we now know, some of them were less spontaneous than they were made to appear – whereas, as Israel’s film makes clear, Frank was more likely to seize the moment, shoot on the fly. Look at them now, and aside from thinking, yes, how great they are, it’s hard to reach back and see what the negative fuss was about – that’s how used we’ve become, through street photography and the rest, to the kind of photography of which Robert Frank was one of the pioneers.
It’s not clear from what Frank has to say in the film if it was the negative reaction to The Americans that caused him to move away from photography into film making, or if he thought, okay, that’s it, that’s my statement, that’s my work, now I need to get on to something new. [He had previously taken two series of photographs in the UK, not published until the 1970s, one in the City of London and the other – quite superb, these – in a mining village in South Wales.]
The first film in which he was involved, which also involved Kerouac, was Pull My Daisy, a movie about the Beats that he co-directed with Alfred Leslie. He has carried on with film and video ever since – he’s now 92 and not showing much sign of lying down – most famously Cocksucker Blues, a documentary about the Rolling Stones on tour, of which Mick Jagger said: It’s a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we’ll never be allowed into the country again.
Much of Israel’s film was shot in and around the converted fisherman’s shack on the coast of Mabou, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, to which Frank moved with his second wife, the sculptor, June Leaf, in the early 70s. The reclusive life seems to suit him, though he does also spend some time in a loft on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, and although he has gone back to photography alongside film and video, it’s a long way from The Americans. These images are manipulated, collaged, yoked together, written on, the negatives scratched and scumbled, highly personalised. As if he’s saying that was then – those people – and this is now, my life, mine and June’s, me.
For more details of Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, including screenings, check out …
It’s showing at the ICA, just off Trafalgar Square, for the rest of this week
I’ll turn my attentions to W. Eugene Smith and the Jazz Loft Project in a few days’ time.