Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Out of the Past

Thoughts on a film: How Green Was My Valley (1940)

Beginning with the title: How Green Was My Valley. No question mark is necessary; this is a statement as opposed to a enquiry. In any case, we'll never know how green the valley actually was, since the black and white photography denies us such privilege. However, in the heart and mind of this central character, looking back, as the characters in Ford's films often do, the memory of this place and the picture that is captured, photograph-like, in the memory and imagination, is powerful enough to make the significance of the phrasing an important device in communicating what the film is essentially about.  Not just important to the character's own attempts to recall something that no longer exists, in any actual, physical reality, but to the viewing audience and their attempts to find interest and identification in this most personal of personal tales.

This is a title that establishes, up-front and before the film has even begun, a connection between the 'author' - as in, the character bringing these people to life - and the audience. On paper, this is a title that reads like a grandfather handing down old tales to a child; or perhaps even words of wisdom between a father and his son; something similar to the relationship between the young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall) and his own father, Mr. Gwillym Morgan (Donald Crisp), as seen in the film itself. A kind of, "How green was my valley? Well son, let me tell you..." sort of thing.

How Green Was My Valley [John Ford, 1941]:

The specific on-screen phrasing of this title seems to emphasise the notion of the personal through the possessive; where the sense of an autobiographical story (or a fictionalised-autobiographical story, as would eventually be revealed) is suggested by the nuances of how the title reads, or indeed, could be spoken. A perfect example of this statement as opposed to enquiry approach can be found in the film's opening monologue, which introduces not only the theme of personal reflection - as the character looks back to a story that is recreated for our benefit - but the usual Fordian interest in the power of memory to transform moments of the mundane, or the everyday, into images of unforgettable spectacle.


"I am leaving behind me fifty years of memory. Memory? Who shall say what is real and what is not?  Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are a glory in my ears? No. And I will stand to say no and no again, for they remain a living truth within my mind. There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it, if you can remember. So I can close my eyes on my valley as it is today, and it is gone, and I see it as it was when I was a boy. Green it was, and possessed of the plenty of the Earth. In all Wales, there was none so beautiful. Everything I ever learned as a small boy came from my father and I never found anything he ever told me to be wrong or worthless. The simple lessons he taught me are as sharp and clear in my mind as if I had heard them only yesterday. In those days, the black slag, the waste of the coal pits, had only begun to cover the sides of our hill. Not yet enough to mar the countryside, nor blacken the beauty of our village, for the colliery had only begun to poke its skinny black fingers through the green."


The images that Ford uses to accompany this narration - which reads like poetry on the page but is near-transcendent when spoken in the film by an unseen Irving Pichel - capture what might have been the reality for these people; but a reality, like everything in the film, defined by the memories of an old man looking back to the days of his youth. The fact that this dialogue, spoken in an attempt to bring dead objects back to life, is narrated by a man perhaps close to death himself, gives these bold, near-defiant images of ordinary people turned into icons of human endurance by the incredible way in which Ford frames them, an even greater emotional weight. Just as the images, in turn, make the dialogue resonate on a far deeper and emotional level by foregrounding it through the associations and juxtapositions of image and text.

The relationship here, between the opening text and the opening images, suggest a greater depth by deliberately playing on the audience's own recollections of what 'home', as something that we return to, subconsciously, throughout our adult lives, actually means. We can grasp, immediately, the significance of this place, exaggerated in the mind as well as on the screen, by the way in which Ford, and his cinematographer Arthur C. Miller, present it to us. These rich, painterly compositions that recall impressionist landscapes of charcoal on paper nonetheless have a touch of the documentary about them. There is a direct, iconographic truth to these images that goes beyond the edges of the frame or the limitations of the Hollywood soundstage; they capture something incredibly real, emotionally at least, that plays into the thoughts and feelings of a viewing audience who can see the enormous power of this place and its people, not as any real location or a work of actuality, but as a universal symbol for something that will one day disappear, or be replaced, but can exist long in the hearts and minds of those who once embraced it.

The notion of a dying world, or a world that no longer exists in any actual, tangible form, is suggested in this opening montage by two shots of elderly ladies. One in full-face close-up, showing the great lines of age and wisdom marked upon her skin; the other, bent-backed and shrivelled, standing frail and small in the shadow of a doorway. These women, like the world of the film, have struggled and endured, but have reached the end of something. Eventually, they too will one day cease to exist, but will live on in the thoughts and feelings of those who once loved and cared for them. As figures in the frame they are as-important as the landscapes that Ford takes great care in presenting as something beyond words. They are assimilated into the frame, as part of this rich, imaginary kingdom, to the point where one could not exist without the other.

How Green Was My Valley [John Ford, 1941]:

Such images suggest the notions of time and the passing-down of traditions, customs, social norms and stories between the generations. These shots of frail old women immediately suggest, on a subconscious level, the potential future manifestations of the once young and beautiful sisters-in-law Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) and Bronwyn (Anna Lee). Two characters inevitably worn down by toil and heartache; still waiting in the front doorway for their men, denied them, either through death or circumstance. This old woman might even be the same woman who once stood, aghast, back-to-the-door, with the same stunned rigidity of Ford's film-camera, when the mine exploded; never moving; still looking out onto the chaos and confusion as if trying to make sense of it all.

How Green Was My Valley [John Ford, 1941]: 

However we choose to see these figures - either as icons or actual fictional characters - it is clear that Ford is introducing these old-faces in an attempt to reinforce the personification of the valley itself. As Pichel, channelling the voice of a now aged Huw Morgan, discusses the desecration of the land's natural beauty by the industrial progression of time, Ford cuts to these two figures in order to contrast the physiognomy of the human face with the physiognomy of the landscape. An audience may not necessarily appreciate the true overwhelming power that the memory of this valley has to the central character, or how significant its destruction is to his own personal identity, but an aged face, marked and transformed by the ravages of time, is immediately relatable. As we watch our own parents, friends, partners and eventually ourselves grow old, we recognise this brutality of age and deterioration, and recognise how each single moment of a life is fleeting.

The presentation of this world is central to what makes the film so remarkable, with Ford going to great lengths to document the social rituals and practices that define this world, its people, and the story taking place.

How Green Was My Valley [John Ford, 1941]:

Without question, How Green Was My Valley remains one of the supreme films, and one that I wish I could dedicate another thousand words to, having barely scratched the surface of what makes the film so remarkable, so moving, so endlessly relevant, in the half-finished thoughts above. It's of course a film about communities; about people, their relationships, their lives and loves. A film full of life, with its various joys and sorrows, and one that manages to celebrate life; or more specifically, the humble, everyday lives that contributed to these communities - to our histories! - though are rarely documented or immortalised in works of stone, paint or ink.

Whether or not Ford was using the Wales of this story as a surrogate for his beloved Ireland is probably debatable, but what the filmmaker achieves here is something more beautiful, more nuanced and more authentic in its emotion than even his own later and more specifically Irish work, The Quiet Man (1952). While that film works to present the minutiae of the Irish experience, or a reflection of it, in such broad detail that it often slips into pure caricature, the presentation of the characters and place of How Green Was My Valley has a more sensitive yearning to it. A solemnity that evokes the feeling of what it is to be connected to a place (even in memory), but unable to go back. It's a humanist film that takes Ford away from the macho westerns and cavalry films, for which many associate him with, and places him within the same tradition and lineage of Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Terence Davies, Naomi Kawase, Laila Pakalniņa, Pedro Costa and Hong Sang-soo (among others).

While much of its reputation today rests on the trivial fact that How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane (1941) to that year's Academy Award, I have to admit, I find Ford's film every bit the equal to Kane, if not actually greater. It's a film that ranks alongside Ford's other great masterpieces, such as the similarly humanist and strikingly poetic The Informer (1937), Young Mr Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Long Voyage Home (also 1940), My Darling Clementine (1946), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), The Horse Soldiers (1959) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and remains, for me at least, among the very greatest works of twentieth century cinema.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Let Me In

A note on a film: Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

I have to admit, I didn't love this film. While the potential was there to take the story in a different direction, pushing the film further into the realms of the supernatural, or even the psychological, too much of the narrative falls back on trying to 'one-up' the effects-driven haunted house set-pieces that made the first film such a success.

Never quite delivering on the promise of its intriguing sub-title (where rather that emphasise or explore "the other side" as a central component of the plot, the filmmakers instead relegate it to a generic, last-minute depiction of the afterlife, necessitated to bring the story to a close), the film is simply too mired in unconvincing scenes of domestic melodrama and ridiculous special effects. For a supposed horror film, Poltergeist II does very little to generate tension, suspense or actual fear, with any semblance of the unsettling provided only by the towering performance of Julian Beck as the film's antagonist, the Reverend Kane, and a short sequence involving a more conventional movie-monster, this time provided by the surrealist artist H. R. Giger.

However, there are some elements to the film that are nonetheless quite remarkable, given the particular circumstances, and are possibly worthy of a closer inspection here.

Firstly, what I liked most about Poltergeist II was the way the development of the character Kane (as well as his personal back-story) both deepens and subverts an element from the original film that could be seen, by today's standards, as a little basic; even derivative. In the original Poltergeist (1982), the reason for the initial haunting is suggested as being the result of the family's house having been built atop the site of an ancient burial-ground; the phantoms and apparitions that take vengeance against the family are effectively the displaced spirits of the dead.

In Poltergeist II however, the spirits are revealed to be the ghosts of a religious sect condemned to death by their wandering leader: the aforementioned Reverend Kane. Eager for his clan to show their devotion, and convinced that the world is about to end, Kane has his band of followers entombed alongside him in an underground cavern; consigning each of them - men, women and children - to a slow and painful death.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side [Brian Gibson, 1986]: 

By itself, this element of the plot is both harrowing and unsettling. It's an example of a horror film evoking something that is terrifying because it's relatable; because it presents an instance of avoidable tragedy and human genocide that is all too real. The hopelessness of the followers' situation, the claustrophobia inherent in the subterranean setting, and the way the director Brian Gibson emphasises the pain and anguish on the faces of children (as their parents forever cling to the sermons of the evermore maddening Kane), are redolent of this more plausible, more human image of terror.

However, this element of the plot gives the film an added depth that is absent from its otherwise superior predecessor. As a character, Kane could be seen as a stand-in for almost any modern leader; a self-aggrandising individual willing to take his followers into oblivion in order to prove a point. There's an element of this that speaks to the dark heart of American history; the reality of people looking to men with no answers to provide them with a direction in times of great difficulty; as well as how these acts of self-sacrifice and religious hysteria gave fuel to the rhetoric of racism (one supporting character remarks that the Native Americans were initially blamed and persecuted for the disappearance of Kane and his followers).

Kane's presence could also offer an anti-theist commentary on religion in general, as the character enters the film like an anachronism; a skeletal preacher dressed in the garb of a pilgrim; softly singling 'God is in His Holy Temple' as he stalks his way up to the family's front door. Combined with the subtle inference of paedophilic intent - as Kane immediately focuses-in on the family's "little angle"; their youngest daughter, Carol-Anne - the spectre of religious fundamentalism, death cults and the devastating reality of abuse within the church, all feed back into our subconscious interpretation of the character and his attempts to infiltrate the family unit.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side [Brian Gibson, 1986]:

While this particular reading will always work to underline our own fears, concerns and suspicions (as triggered by the reality of daily news-coverage and what many of us learned as "stranger danger" at school), I still prefer to think of Kane as more of a general commentary on 'the banality of evil', as opposed to anything more specific. Rather than simply portray a conventional 'bogeyman' figure, or a monster in the lineage of Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees, the Reverend Kane is a more complex and multi-dimensional character; a supernatural entity that nonetheless feels like an embodiment of a very real trait; one that compels individuals in positions of power to act out of arrogance and self-belief (instincts that often result in the suffering of innocent people).

It's worth pausing here to once again compliment the performance of Julian Beck as the Reverend Kane. Beck was a multi-talented artist (a writer, painter, theatre director and performer) whose rare forays into the cinema also included an appearance in Pier Paolo Pasolini's extraordinary film of Oedipus Rex (1967) and a late appearance in Francis Ford Coppola's underrated The Cotton Club (1984). At the time of Poltergeist II Beck was sadly in the final months of a battle against cancer, and his incredibly frail, old-before his time appearance lends a powerful credibility to his characterisation here.

Oedipus Rex [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967]:

As a respected avant-garde performer working in the mainstream, Beck doesn't seem to have approached the role as something that was beneath him. Instead, he invests the character with a keen intelligence and elevates it to the level of something powerful; Kane is horrifying but oddly sympathetic.

One of the strongest sequences in the film, both in terms of the narrative construction and in its basic filmmaking approach, is the scene in which Kane first arrives at the house of the main protagonists. Initially engaging in polite (but oddly portentous) small-talk, the scene quickly escalates into something more threatening; as Kane's efforts to influence the family seem charged with a supernatural force. As a moment of great cinema, the scene stands out as the defining moment of the entire film, and remains - in its own right - a masterclass in screenwriting, direction and performance.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side [Brian Gibson, 1986]:

Part of me can't help suspecting that this particular scene may have had an influence on the later films of David Lynch; in particular Lost Highway (1997) - in which the protagonist Fred Madison encounters the sinister Mystery Man at a party in the Hollywood hills - or the filmmaker's as yet final feature, Inland Empire (2006) - in which a strange, initially beguiling, but soon threatening older woman arrives at the home of the film's main character.

Lost Highway [David Lynch, 1997]:

Inland Empire [David Lynch, 2006]:

In each of these films, the sense of anxiety and discomfort comes from the threat of the home invasion; the very real fear that many of us have about letting a seemingly benign stranger into our homes, only then to be confronted by the dangerous reality of their true intentions. Again, the scene works because it's relatable. We understand this situation and the fear that the family might face because it's something that could actually happen.

Scenes such as the ones mentioned above are thought-provoking and compelling, but they stand out as rare occurrences in a film that too often becomes preoccupied with empty visual excesses and scenes that feel derivative of the previous film. Sequences of inanimate objects brought to life and attacking the family are ridiculous because they're so divorced from anything that could ever really occur. While the fear of a stranger turning up on your doorstep and taking a worrying interest in your youngest child is so close to some semblance of reality that it triggers something of our natural anxieties, a chainsaw floating through the air and attacking a station wagon, by contrast, seems rather silly.

Had Poltergeist II emphasised more moments like the ones discussed above - or chosen instead to explore the "the other side" of its title as some kind of metaphysical labyrinth (a precursor to 'the black lodge' of the long-running Twin Peaks perhaps - to once again evoke Lynch) - then it may have proven to be a film worthy of Beck's incredible performance and the more interesting themes that exist only within these faint fragments of interpretation.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

The Outrage of Idiocy

An Open Letter to the 'Professionally Offended'

Another year, another predictable controversy blowing across the Croisette. Manufactured and self-perpetuating, the hollow show goes on; as if the participants in this play of second-hand indignation are merely following yesterday's script.

For the last few days I've struggled to put into words my reaction to the media coverage of the Cannes Film festival, and more specifically, the early response to The House That Jack Built (2018); the latest work from the ever-contentious 'provocateur', Lars von Trier. Since the film's premier just a few short days ago, the expected backlash (if not bloodbath) of public outrage, moral panic and shameless virtue signalling, has swirled around the tabloids and associated social media like a tempest; successfully ensuring that anything else connected with the festival this year has been lost within its wake.

For a moment you could be forgiven for assuming that we'd gone back in time; or that perhaps we we're all caught in some kind of infinite loop; like Groundhog Day (1993), or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006). Less than a decade ago, von Trier's previous horror film, Antichrist (2009), premiered in competition at the same festival. There the general reaction from the public and press now seems like a dress rehearsal for the festival of 2018.

It was Albert Einstein who said: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results." And yet still, the play goes on...

You see, the problem is this: I don't believe that the level of outrage here is genuine. And I don't believe that these critics are passionate about cinema. I don't believe that the cinema speaks to them - or through them - whole-heartedly; as the sky speaks to the earth. I don't believe their indignation or frustration with von Trier's film stems from the fact that its very existence detracts from/or diminishes the potential conversations that the culture might be having about films and filmmakers more deserving of our respect.

You see, each of these individuals had a choice: talk about this "terrible", "abhorrent", "disgusting film" (in so much detail that they're literally transcribing - in ecstatic verse! - every grisly crime and grim atrocity perpetuated by its central character; and in doing so, turning the film into a genuine cause célèbre) or instead, choose to ignore it. Let its negativity, or its potential to offend, sink quickly beneath the waves of cultural discourse, and instead promote those other, 'worthier' films; the ones you feel should be demanding our attention.

Make the positive films - the "good" ones, the necessary ones - the real point of conversation. Tell us what we should be seeing, and why; not elevating what we're supposed to condemn.

The Passion of Saint Tibulus (Father Ted, Series 1, Episode 3) [Declan Lowney, 1995]:

The axioms are of course true: all publicity is good publicity; and there's no such thing as bad press. All of these critics, these journalists, these cultural commentators, were so eager to demonstrate their moral standing - their virtue and righteousness - that they succeeded in promoting The House That Jack Built to such a level that it has now eclipsed almost everything else at Cannes. Congrats!

The House That Jack Built is without question the defining film of this year's festival, and it was the outrage of people like Jessica Kiang, Ramin Setoodeh, Caspar Salmon, and the braying bandwagon-jumpers that follow such people across the wastelands of social media, that made it possible. It's because of them - with their sensationalist "hot takes", predictable handwringing and good old-fashioned finger-wagging conservatism (disguised as leftwing political correctness, no less) - that the competing films of Jafar Panahi, Jia Zhangke, Spike Lee, Jean-Luc Godard and Alice Rohrwacher (to name a few) have very quickly disappeared from the cultural conversation.

These writers could've used their platform to make the legacy of Cannes 2018 one of celebration; to emphasise the attempts by organisers to push inclusivity and diversity as the main agenda; or the tentative efforts to celebrate female filmmakers and industry professionals as an antidote to Harvey Weinstein's reign of abuse. Instead, these self-appointed arbiters of cultural decency were too busy relishing the violence and brutality of von Trier's film; feigning disgust and disapproval, while simultaneously pouring over every gory detail, and profiting from it, shamelessly.

While these critics accuse von Trier of arrogance, or of creating a toxic product, or of wallowing in human misery and - by extension - rubbing the noses of his collective audiences in that misery, they themselves were more than happy to do the same. Rather than lift their own art to a higher cultural level - creating content that enlightens and embraces the diversity of their readers' attitudes and opinions - they instead chose to promote negativity and disagreement; forcing their readers to experience the horrorshow of violent imagery contained in the film by putting it lovingly, and excitedly, into words. They themselves - Kiang, Salmon, and their assorted tabloid peers - succeeded in creating product every bit as violent, unpleasant and sensationalistic as von Trier's film is purported to be.

The lesson here is simple. You don't have to have an opinion on everything you see. To borrow a metaphor from von Trier's film: each of us is building a house of our own conception. Some writers refer to this house as 'the canon'; the pantheon of creative works that we find relevant and inspiring; or those that define us and our perceptions of humanity. If your agenda is to reject works that could be considered harmful or reductive, then actually reject them. Build a house of celebration; not destruction. Or simply: take what's good for you and leave the rest for someone else.