Tag Archives: Cambridge Film Festival

I, Elspeth Blake

No, that’s not my surname. You’ll have worked out real one by now. But I’m showing solidarity with the film I’ve just seen – I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s latest instalment in the Cathy Come Home mould. More humorous I think than that 1960s docudrama, but I hope that this feature film has the same social impact.

I noted that this film about the welfare system chooses to base its story in an inner city, round a manually skilled older man with a medical condition, and a single mum. People we can feel truly on side with without any controversy.

But they’re not the only examples of those hit by state support’s cruelties.

These issues are found in the country too, and with people you might not guess. I’ve been in rooms where we talk about ‘the poor’ as those out there, statistics in particular postcodes. But they were in the room too. I was one of them.

Katie in the film takes 2 years to get a real home – and nowhere near the place she’s from. If you’re not in the vulnerable group of old or young, ill or disabled or with children, support of any kind can be even harder to get.

What struck me is the coldness of the system, the attempt at breaking you or resocialising you. Not just you the claimant, but those behind the desk.

Those in officialdom have lost their humanity.

They need to regain it – their ability to think, to feel, to question. This film is a good start.

I’ve often said that those in various corporate roles don’t understand any other kind of work and are almost robotic in their adherence to rules and shocking in their stupidity.

Are they chosen for those qualities or do they come after the years of employment in government offices? They are removed from the public – call centres, automated phone messages, PO box addresses, the internet with preset answer boxes that won’t send until you put in what they want. Quite often these decision makers (‘adjudicator’ was thought too big a word by the DWP, though it remains in the tax office and ombudsman) are also unnamed, as are trustees of grants for those in need, such as Charis – who have no understanding of the grace of their name. As I pointed out.

I have my own story to tell, but I don’t yet feel ready to tell it here. Of course, I have another which I have told. I also began a TV series script on a comedic satire on the world of work. My Near Professor Sally Gababa is in a different situation to Ken Loach’s Daniel and Katie – an academic misfit of middle years without children or illness, or not one that’s understood – which makes her life such a struggle.

I still recall the name of the jobcentre staff I lampoon.

I do remember nice ones too, and I’m glad that I, Daniel Blake shows one. There are those that helped make the film.

Rather than feeling depressed, I felt energised: The people on the street in solidarity with Daniel when he sprays his appeal on the wall. The packed cinema. And whether those people me had ever suffered what Daniel had – and you can’t tell or guess demographics – they came. They saw. And they clapped. They’re on side.

We need a system that’s likewise, where appeals are not rigged (read PHSO – the true story for more on that), where citizenship doesn’t have to be earned in narrow ways, where we’re not valued for the taxable income we generate. Where we’re not to fit drop down menus and preset boxes. Where, as one staff said to me of my claim, we make free use of the form. Where staff too are not faceless and also support us instead of being a mindless, soulless bullying chain. Where we’re not graded on a point system, where we’re not intimidated and intruded into.

I like the idea of citizenship being about grace, not earning. It’s the theology I have and it’s also the society I believe in. Even those who support Citizens’ Income sometimes talk about deserving – ie fitting their patterns. But I want a world where ‘paying your way’ and rejecting charity are no longer signs of dignity and worthiness; where we don’t have to put our time into categories of work and leisure, living to do the former to deserve a little of the latter. Where we’re not justifying ourselves and our existence to another who won’t be challenged.

“I, Daniel, Elspeth, [your name]” is a statement of individuality, of personhood. As Daniel says, we are not a government given number or term for those who need to use the system; we are ourselves, and we are worthy.

And we look to those who really drain resources, and that’s not those at the benefit queue, but quite the other end of society. There’s far worse handouts and passive income (benefit claiming is not passive) than the dole.

Daniel Blake didn’t tell me anything much new. If you don’t know about the system, go and see it. If you’re in it, go. And if you judge those in it, go. And if you work in it, go.

But let there be a discussion that is wider than just the issues of the film and those I can touch on here. And let there be, as with Cathy Come Home, the sea change that is needed.

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Pasolini film review Cambridge Film Festival 2015

“Narrative art is dead…” states a speaker (whose name and role I couldn’t discern) in a sweeping, presumptive way. Instead, he’ll be offering a parable of the relation between artist and concept. This conceit (pun intended) seems to be at the heart of this biopic of writer and filmmaker Pasolini. The Cambridge Film Festival described the approach as “kaleidoscopic” – which I see as snob art house speak for fractured and incoherent. I’d never have realised this is meant to be a day in his life – the last, which the brochure spoils, should we not know how Pasolini exits.

But the brochure doesn’t warn that it includes distressing graphic portraits of sexuality. I knew Pasolini made The Gospel According to St Matthew, which I’ve seen; I was not aware he that was the director of notorious 120 Days in Sodom. It is the latter film we see snippets from, and whose tone this film recasts.

Like the director of this film, Pasolini’s work runs the gamut from portrayals of Christ you could show in church (Abel Ferrara’s brilliant Mary of 2005) to violent and disturbing (Ferrara made the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films). The violence in Pasolini is sexual, and offensive to both men and women. Without knowing Pasolini’s own sexuality, I had assumed a male heterosexual gaze, objectifying and fantasising over what women want from men, including lesbians who copulate (a stronger word of one syllable felt more tempting to write) for one night with men who otherwise do not do so with women, in a public orgy resembling a wrestling match. Men too are abused by each other.

Nothing suggests censure of the acts depicted – the coldness is shocking. Pasolini’s opening speech from behind glass, observing the abuse of nude female actresses he’s directing, is how the film felt: he is shut off from what he shows, so that we are also emotionally shut off. It meant I never found a way to engage. I hated his speech about censors being moralists. And what’s so bad about that, I wondered, since his idea of not being censored is to show women being raped at a dinner party?

From the film, I could not see why Pasolini could be worthy of being a prophetic provocateur. Despite his newspaper interview, he seems to have little to say: even his film within the film has no ending, as his characters actually say. They wait; he dies. But this is no parable, for parables have narrative and an obvious moral. Despite the subject of his 1964 film and the repeated cries of an autobiographical character in this one, Pasolini is not messianic, he’s mechanic, even when he does the act in the car by the beach that leads to his demise. I didn’t feel the pity and outrage I normally would over that brutality.

Willem Defoe has often played roles where he is both disturbing and cool – ever since I first saw him 20 years ago in Tom and Viv, about another writer (TS Eliot), and then his several collaborations with the more extreme of Lars Von Trier’s recent work. Dafoe too has made a film about Christ – starring as the titular role – in a story that bridges the aforesaid poles of Pasolini, in The Last Temptation... This was mine to see another Pasolini or Willem Dafoe film. It is a temptation I will not struggle to resist.

I have watched films about people I don’t know well, and it’s made me want to go and learn more: last year’s Violette [Leduc]; the CFF before brought me to Hannah Arendt. The latter covered ideas; the former covered decades. Both contemporary writers were, like Pasolini, controversial, misunderstood, even maligned and persecuted. I was enrapt by both these previous films, enough to go again, to tell others to do so, enough to seek out their work. But with Pasolini, I felt disturbed, cool, and an afternoon wasted.

Pasolini was premiered at festivals a year ago; London was its UK gala screening. It is on general release from Friday!

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Hannah and Diana

Two films in three days, both about real controversial but remarkable 20th century women whose actions in the media caused them strife.

But these women have little else in common. The greatest difference is my relationship with them. Hannah Arendt was known to me as a university seminar name, a face on my women philosophers display in a bookshop that I made when I ran that section. I’d forgotten that face so I do not know (I am going to peek shortly) if Barbara Sukowa who played Hannah in the film resembled the real Hannah. She was not yet real to me.

And there was the other great difference – I do not know Hannah’s story so I could take the film as it came. I noted, despite the German hand in both films, the English language biopic flavour, and it wasn’t a welcome observation. I felt Hannah Arendt tried too hard to taunt and attract an American audience with clichéd quips about the nation that annoy me as much as stiff upper lips and tea drinking. It is in German and English, which may encourage non subtitle watchers to get over that barrier.

Despite the labouredness of the brash ignorant Americans, I very much enjoyed this film. I liked it best for putting philosophy into a drama without making it clunky – an art to learn. It’s relevant to a paper I am preparing where I’ll reference Hannah’s thoughts about how evil can only be done with the cooperation, or at least non resistance of good people – a statement she made about her fellow Jews and the holocaust which caused an outrage.

The Diana film also had a quote along similar lines: that evil can only happen when good people stand by and do nothing. But the contexts are different and I could go into a discourse about whether evil is absolute or a perspective, and whether military intervention is ever justified. I’ll save most of that for elsewhere, but just to remark here that it’s possible for the perpetrators of evil to believe they are following the honour code of duty and have therefore done nothing wrong, as Hannah thought of Nazi leader Eichmann. His banality or not is not something I’ll discuss here. But personality (or its lack) does bring me back to what I’d like to say on both films.

Hannah’s personality is a strong one, though the critique of her being arrogant and unfeeling is fired at her in the film. Yet she is seen as sympathetic and charismatic and caring to her friends and devoted to her husband. But Naomi Watt’s Diana seems to lack that personality, and unlike Hannah, I know Diana well.

Well, what I mean of course, is that I know lots about her. I am one of the many who admired her but didn’t meet her and my opinions are coming from third hand information – something abhorrent to me as a historian. The books about Diana that you might think methodologically are most reliable are the most dubious – those written by former ‘special friends’. I think that if one is really close to a famous person, that you protect and respect their confidences. I am very likely to return one source to the charity shop from whence it came, for the shallow tabloid mentality at its worst, aggrandising the author whilst decrying other special friends. Whenever you read, “Source close to…. says”, you know that they’re not real friends – or won’t remain so.

So I wonder where this new Diana film gains its source, as her lover Hasnat Khan was a private man and this was a mostly secret affair, so how do we know what happened between them? My dubious book, by a special healer friend,  does corroborate most of the film’s story.

Unlike other reviewers, I won’t make personal remarks on an actor’s ability or looks or predict where their career will go because of a performance. But I will say that I don’t think Naomi Watts has captured Diana. I’m half annoyed at actor of another nationality depicting our English Rose. I excused the Aussie in Elizabeth, my favourite film, because Cate Blanchett was magnificent. But Naomi did not convey the presence that I suspect Diana must have had, which went beyond face touching and hand holding. The Mail – my least favourite newspaper – showed a contrasting picture of Naomi doing the Bashir Panorama interview and the real Diana. French and Saunder’s makeup department were more accurate than this in their many take offs. Diana’s trademark immaculately thick swept hair was part of the glamour that earned Diana her celebrity status. Although Naomi says her role was not mimicry but interpretation, her performance was not enough of either, and she hasn’t got the twinkling warmth or downcast eyes right.

I also did not warm to Hasnat Khan’s portrayal. I am aware that he is alive, and can be hurt by comments, and by a stranger who does not know the real person. But I will say that the arrogance of a high ranking surgeon who chain smokes but assumes his right as doctor to lecture patients on health, who constantly speaks of ‘my work’ like a scratched disk, who freaks about publicity though he encounters so little compared to Diana and her other lovers… I could break off to do a rant on experiences of allopathic doctors who assume that their intrusive, dangerous methods are the only right ones, and that when Hasnat asks for permission to do another operation, the “of course” of the next of kin is assumed, as so often is the case.

Perhaps the real Hasnat is (now) very different – I hope so. I do know he experimented on sheep and killed them, which ought to be treated as a crime. I did not feel, as Diana in the film says, that he performs with focus and love, or that there was something remarkable about him when we first see him. But as we often don’t hear the internal monologue of characters in film, sometimes it’s very hard to get that sense of an intense emotion and reaction. This wasn’t a physically charged love at first sight but something else that we only learn about too long after to fully convince us of their love. Naveen Andrews does not resemble Hasnat and implied to me that standard good looks is the only type of face that Diana would have fallen for. Perhaps Hasnat’s real qualities are somewhat different. I liked the little he is on record for saying, and his discretion could teach much to certain butlers and therapists.

We’re not allowed to know Dodi – is that for fear of upsetting his father, or is the film saying that this was a playboy ruse to amuse Diana and to taunt Hasnat for breaking up with her? It’s not set up as a story of 2 lovers, but of one love and mistaken attention given to the wrong man at the end of her life. My sympathies were with Diana for ending it with this Hasnat who put his family and his work first and seemed not to really understand who Diana was, who had an angry temper, and who I was happy to see her let go of.

I felt both films were respectful and sympathetic to their titular heroines and those close to them, and aimed at a wide audience. After assembling my own view, I found out that Diana has come under criticism. I’d like to highlight the paucity of the Independent review, whose opening slag-off uses inaccurate similes such as “as flat and wet as Norfolk” (it undulates and it’s less wet than the West of Britain). The Independent review gropes for other comparisons, supposedly witty, acerbic and comic, but gives little substance to the review nor engages with the film. His review was not the only one that’s true of.

I enjoyed Diana, which started off artily but became one of the British stable of crowd pleasing biopics. But then I didn’t like The King’s Speech or The Queen for just that reason.

As a story, Diana arcs and bookmarks well with the intrusive cameras of that Parisian hotel and sessions with a healer (not the book writing one) where Diana has transformed her recurring dream from falling into one of flying; yet I didn’t feel this Diana had made the metamorphosis that the real one seemed to. The final spoken words reflect a romantic poem already referenced in the film, implying a posthumous recognition of Hasnat and Diana’s love. And the final words, a title card, remind us of the best of Diana’s charity work achievements, whilst tying up Hasnat’s life simply and without judgement, implying his good work also continues (unless you’re a sheep).

The film was too focussed on Hasnat’s relationship and eerily quiet about others, and portrayed Paul Burrell in the same mould as his predecessor. It’s made me think of Diana again, but I’m come away with a sense of disappointment. But it did push her landmine victories, and that rightly is something to leave us with as an enduring memory.

And as for Hannah Arendt – I chose to watch this two more times, and enjoyed it more, whilst being less annoyed. This is profound, quality film making, a long lasting love story against public outrage with characters not made to look supposedly more glamorous in film. I have not had further thoughts or inclination towards Diana the movie.

Hannah Arendt screened at the Cambridge Film Festival and was released in the UK in October 2013. Diana was released  in the UK at the end of September.

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Drive Movie

Don’t drive in, drive out and away from this new movie, out in US, Australia and Britain within a week.

This was a film I saw by default, after thinking how unappealing the trailer looked. I was at Cambridge Film Festival yesterday and it fitted with my schedule. I was faced with two violent matinees – one that looked miserable and harrowing and perhaps even boring; and one that might be exciting. The cinema staff thought that Drive’s violence was of shorter duration. And so I thought it to be less of an ordeal and possibly more enjoyable – it did after all promise to have some kind of love story.

There is also anticipation around the new Ryan Gosling film, but I am curious to know why this got selected for a wide general release over another violent thriller also out in Britain this month – Kill List. Is it the Cannes win or the Tinseltown setting? Both have strong reviews, and yet Kill List has a tiny theatrical release. Who makes these decisions on the behalf of the public about what they will want to see? That is a rhetorical question. It actually is an extension of the nanny state – our culture and entertainment are being preordained along with so much else in society – and often money and puppeteers are behind both decisions.

Drive is about people outside of the system and one might think that to a definite non conformist, that might appeal. Little else did, although the first part of the film was reasonably interesting. I even wondered if the brutal action trailer did the film a disservice. But that was all to come.

I read several reviews after seeing the film to see if I have somehow missed something – or just in the attempt to understand why this film finds an audience.

It has nothing to say about the world; it wasn’t a well crafted portrayal; I didn’t care about anyone really in it; it was not even exciting. All that was stomach tensing was wondering when the next bit of unnecessary horror would be inflicted.

Little White Lies magazine gives this film several sections in its most current issue. It speaks of Drive as a fairytale – but I fail to see how a gritty drama set in modern LA can have any legendary qualities, and bloody, wheelspinning protagonist Driver was far from the magazine’s notion of being a chivalrous knight.

Little White Lies praises the film for its  ‘stunning’ violence, and qualifies comments on it by making clear that they are not ‘squeamish’. But who wants to be able to watch horrid ways of attacking people without flinching? Who is proud to not have looked away? The shift in such a boast is from showing toughness in children to proving liberalmindness in adults. It is impressive in neither.

There are two reasons that may justiffy being explicit with violence. One is to show us the reality of an actual  situation that is not commonly addressed or known – such as war or abuse. The other is when the plot demands that an act of horror be fully understood to make sense of what follows.  The film I turned down yesterday – As If I Am Not There, is about the sufferings of Bosnian women who are captured and abused by soldiers. I spent some time looking this film up, wondering if I had made the right viewing choice, and deliberating on the point of delivering such a harrowing film. 

In Drive, there is frequent violence in a make believe story which neither highlights real life plights or shows something essential for the plot. Those acts of brutality were all invented, something as a writer I would be ashamed to share publicly if I had imagined those things. Is this really our idea of cool, as so many reviews say? Shouldn’t this be worrying?

Delving into dark psyches and amoral situations occurs all too often in film. Do we need to explore it again? One might argue you can trace the trajectory of a man’s journey and that something vaguely good is done in the end. It’s a weak argument. To see Driver’s final act as a kind of sacrifice is far too noble a concept to apply to the butchery he does. I do not see Little White Lies‘ view that antihero Driver is seeking purity and grace – he is far from finding either: such concepts did not enter my mind. He is not, as the naff bouncy signature synth song says – a real hero or a human being. I’m not interested in heists, threats, stunts or hitmen. I was drawn by the portrayal of nascent love of Driver and neighbour Irene, but I was more repelled than she was when Driver turns a kiss into a headmash.

Note I haven’t talked about the cast or the overhyped director, who I passed up the opportunity to meet after the screening. I’d had quite enough of the film and had no wish to hear more about a dangerous loner and those who brought him to the screen.

It’s not sexy, it’s not intelligent, it’s not even particularly interesting or original. It doesn’t often make sense, with various flaws being pointed out by others. My favourite is that it never seems to concern Driver that distinctive, blood stained jacket  is not the bright thing to wear to remain undetected by police.

Indiewire blog’s review is much more like it, and several of the comments that follow, and Ron Gonsalves on efilmcritic is also kindred.

Drive is definitely a film about jumping on the bandwagon of buzz – and there is little in support of joining in the ride.

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