Monday, 13 February 2012

Back to the Future? The Golem, Faust, The Seashell and the Clergyman

Recently, I have seen three truly great silent films in London: The Golem (1920) directed by Paul Wegener with Wegener himself playing the Golem screened as part of Jewish Book Week at King's Place and accompanied by a new musical score by Robin Harris who played the piano, with Laura Anstee on the cello. You can see a ten minute version here without the Harris score;
The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)
Germaine Dulac's extraordinary short film about a priest's erotic fantasies, perhaps the first surrealist film, made a year before Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou. I saw this at the Roundhouse as part of the Reverb Festival, accompanied by Imogen Heap's equally pioneering a cappella score which she performed with the Holst singers, conducted by the London Contemporary Orchestra's Hugh Brunt (you can see the film here but without the Heap score); and F.W. Murnau's Faust (1926),

with Emil Jannings as Mephistopheles, a visual feast of innovation which I saw at The Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra playing Aphrodite Raichopoulu's new score with improvisations by piano soloist Gabriela Montero. The visual and auditory surprises were myriad and the imaginative leaps made in these films and scores were far more astonishing than anything I've seen in recent cinema. Watch the trailer here.

I have also recently seen three contemporary films, all homages to the silent film era: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, Martin Scorsese's Hugo, and Dan Pritzker's Louis. The first two films are by now renowned, the latter a weird pseudo-porn pastiche in which Louis Armstrong's New Orlean's childhood is reimagined via various early cinematic styles. The film was shown at the Barbican with a live score written by Wynton Marsalis. If it hadn't been for the score I would have walked out. (See Slant's review by Andrew Schenker here.)
The chasm of quality of experience between the first three films and these last three is wide and deep. Sadly, while the films made in the 1920s were all about innovation, playing and stretching the medium to see what it could do, taking film to the limits of its capabilities and peering beyond, the three films made today contented themselves with relying exclusively on nostalgia and the backward glance--and so were fundamentally boring. (Thank god for the dog in The Artist who drew inspiration, of course, from Asta of The Thin Man movies but transformed his character into an original.)

T.S. Eliot said something to the effect of "mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal," meaning that all artists rely on the past for their material, but only those who truly make what they have taken their own achieve something transcendent. There was a great deal of borrowing in The Artist, Hugo, and Louis, but little theft. It was as if all three filmmakers were terrified of looking into the future, even fleetingly, to see where cinema may be headed. At a time when cineplexes are chronically empty, audiences far more content to stay at home and watch youtube and play video games, is nostalgia (and 3-D) really all the cinema has to offer us? I have noticed that the post-Oscar ads for The Artist claim that "It's not just a film, it's an "Experience." Vertigo, Sunset Boulevard, any Rudolph Valentino film, Citizen Kane, Singin' In The Rain and all the films The Artist borrows from are "experiences." The Artist is mostly retro camp.

Perhaps the remarkable popularity of silent cinema accompanied by newly commissioned live scores (all I've attended have been sold-out performances) points to what is missing from today's movies: the communal experience, the spontaneity and excitement of participating in innovation, the thrill of catching a glimpse of the future while mining the past.

In this vein, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin at the Pompidou Centre in Paris has been making a film-a-day inspired by lost silent films in a series of "ciné-séances" called Spiritismes. The public is invited to witness the making of a new film inspired by a long-lost movie. Summoning spirits of lost cinema in theatrical “séances,” Maddin and his actors inhabit their ghostly scenarios. The project finishes on March 12. You can watch live streaming of the films being made on the Pompidou Centre website here.

For information about silent film screenings in London, go to the wonderful website Silent London

The organization Birds Eye View, dedicated to supporting women filmmakers, commissioned several new scores for silent films made by women, including Imogen Heap's score for The Clergyman and the Seashell.

A beautiful tribute to silent film is included in David Denby's gentle slam of The Artist in his New Yorker piece "The Artists."

For more on silent screenings across Britain see this Guardian post.

In June, Bologna's Cineteca Cinema Rediscovered festival will feature newly restored films by Lois Weber, who is described by Cineaste's editors as "a trail-blazing silent director known for her films exploring topics that reflected a prescient concern with the status of women in a male-dominated society." For more on Lois Weber, see The National Women's History Musuem's excellent on-line exhibit "Women in Early Film."

In October, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival will present "The Dickens Bicentenary," a series of silent films based on books by Charles Dickens.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Iron Lady: Thatcher Devoid of Thatcherism

Guest Post By Leonard Quart

Biopics are rarely the best way of getting a handle on the social or political world. They are too focused on the career or character of their central figure. Everything else, including other people, is only superficially sketched, subsumed by the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the film’s protagonist. Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, one of the better recent works in the genre, is a perfect example of the biopic’s limits and strengths.

It opens with a frail old woman on the cusp of dementia, Baroness Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep), tottering around her monochromatic and shadowy but comfortable apartment, living with fractured memories of her triumphant past. She is sustained by these memories, including the ghost of her gin-drinking, golf-playing husband, Dennis (Jim Broadbent), who offers her reminiscences of good times and total devotion. When her concerned daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) visits, Thatcher responds without much affection or respect—as if Carol is merely a professional caregiver. Her feeling of rejection in these scenes is subtly projected, without a false note.

The scenes of an aged Thatcher are deeply affecting, but there is a bit too much of her relationship with Dennis, which though somewhat humorous feels sentimentalized. His ghost seems to have been inserted to soften her characteristic harshness, to grant her more humanity. But watching Streep’s elderly Thatcher—a shell of her formerly commanding and abrasive self—reminded me of Shelley’s Ozymandias:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Despite Thatcher’s callous economic and social policies and overbearing personality, one can’t help but feel compassion for a woman facing the decay of her mind and body. It’s something that ultimately confronts us all, both the rulers and the ruled—the inescapable tragedy of the life cycle. The film poignantly captures it.

Streep, embodying both the senile and the formidable Thatcher, is the film’s greatest asset. She encapsulates Thatcher’s distinctive voice, intonation, posture, and motions (and her matronly hairstyle is done with utter precision), but she goes beyond that, to Thatcher’s essence. That’s no small feat: it’s hard to capture the soul of a woman so severe and strident that she could declare, “Feelings do not interest me, thoughts and ideas are what matter the most. What we think is what we become.” Thatcher acted out of a sense of moral rectitude, without doubt, self-awareness, or a capacity for self-criticism.

Alexandra Roach plays the young Thatcher, who is a touch more vulnerable but no less ambitious than Streep’s character. She adores her father, a small-town, conservative grocer. Thatcher is spurred on by his words, “Never go with the crowd.” After attending Oxford, she wins a seat in parliament in 1959 at the age of thirty-three. By then she had already taken measure of the condescending upper class “old boys’” milieu that dominated the Conservative Party, preparing her leadership takeover in 1975 and eventual three terms as prime minister, from 1979 to 1990.

When the young Thatcher meets Dennis, she informs him that she will not be the traditional domestic wife but plans to leave a mark on the world. He responds that he loves her, because she isn’t going to be that woman—making the seemingly conventional Dennis an unusual man for that era. Indeed, Thatcher aggressively asserts her independence as a woman and has the capacity to dominate the men in her cabinet. But she has no link to other political women or any interest in feminism. The film gives no sign of female confidantes or of a strong connection to her mother; Thatcher goes as far as to say that she prefers the company of men to women.

But from the evidence of the film, Thatcher was emotionally insulated and really didn’t need many other people at all. Besides her husband and father, only Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell) plays a role in her private life. Neave was Thatcher’s campaign manager when she was elected Conservative Party leader, and was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. But an Irish terrorist group assassinated him before he could take office in 1979, moving Thatcher to genuinely grieve over his death.

Thatcher changed the nature of the Conservative Party by undermining its paternalistic and totally male elite, an upper-class aristocracy committed to preserving the welfare state and a consensual politics dedicated to the idea of “one nation.” Thatcher rejected compromise and began to dismantle the welfare state. Her politics appealed to a rising lower-middle class and the skilled working class. She promoted an entrepreneurial culture where the acquisition of wealth and the consumption of goods became the prime goals. She believed social good came not from unity but from conflict between interest groups, was utterly unconcerned with what happened to the poor, and treated the unions as her prime enemy.

But watching the film, one would never know that though she professed commitment to a meritocracy where class status would never be an obstacle, she opposed all redistributive programs. That she made Britain less equal by easing the capital gains tax and reducing the top rate. The Iron Lady offers nothing more than the most superficial exploration of Thatcher’s politics. We get Thatcher, but not much Thatcherism.

Massive chunks of her career in office are awkwardly evoked and compressed through a montage of high points (or low points, depending on one’s perspective). We see her taking an uncompromising and jingoistic stand on the Falklands War, a victorious military campaign that helped her win the 1983 election in a landslide. We also get a look at the miners’ strike of 1983 and, in grainy archival footage, the mid-1980s financial sector boom and the poll tax riots of 1990. Only one scene, where angry protesters slap on the window of Thatcher’s limo to tell her she’s “a monster,” gives us a sense how hated she was by a portion of the population. And the only moment of parliamentary opposition comes in a glimpse of a tirade by Labour leader Michael Foot in the House of Commons. (Of the effects of Thatcherism on the Labour Party, there’s not even a glimpse.) The Iron Lady may convey a clear sense of Thatcher’s character flaws, but it mostly passes over how divisive a politician she was.

Political films like Ken Loach’s 1995 Spanish Civil War drama Land and Freedom feature scenes of intellectually exhilarating ideological debate, but The Iron Lady desires a large audience and doesn’t pretend to be intellectually sophisticated. When we finally see a scene with Thatcher’s cabinet, close to the end of her time in office and as her popularity is waning, it exists only to show Thatcher cruelly dress down her ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer and ex-Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head), as if he was a failing, slow-witted pupil. There’s also no mention of the intellectual force behind Thatcherism, the anti-Keynesian Keith Joseph, who famously declared, “We are over-governed, over-spent, over-taxed, over-borrowed, and over-manned.”

In The Iron Lady, political and social institutions can’t withstand Thatcher’s steely will. It’s a distortion of history, and leaves us wanting to know why her final term in office turned into a disaster—a fact that can’t merely be explained by her behavior toward fellow cabinet members. Contrary to this film, the personal is never the whole political story.

Still, if The Iron Lady fails to give us a critical handle on the policies of this political and public woman, it brings to life, through Streep’s brilliance, Margaret Thatcher the person. She was over-certain and insensitive but also talented and intelligent. She permanently changed the parameters of political debate in Britain, but she was also human, unable to resist our common mortal fate.

Leonard Quart is a contributing editor at Cineaste and the coauthor of American Film and Society Since 1945