Cast: Mari Törõcsik, György Cserhalmi, József Madaras
Miklós Jancsó’s richly inventive 1974 adaptation of the Greek myth sends an oblique political message.
Electra, My Love mesmerises from the very beginning: the beat of the music, the dance of the actors, and the sweep of the camera in extended takes all combine to draw you into the film’s rhythm. So too do the portentous words of Electra, sole voice of justice in the village, where a tyrant king has taken over after the death of her father, Agamemnon. Electra is convinced that her brother, Orestes, will return from exile and help her to liberate the people.
It’s hard not to see the film, made in 1974, as a comment on Hungary’s situation at the time, and a message of encouragement to the director’s fellow citizens. While Hungarians were living under a restrictive Communist regime, Electra, My Love used native folk music and dances as a backdrop to speeches about the need to speak the truth at all costs, and engage in a continuous struggle against oppression: to be reborn every day, like the phoenix.
As the film was made with public funding and under Communist scrutiny, any message of resistance had to be oblique. In his excellent liner notes to this new DVD release by Second Run, Peter Hames explains that Miklós Jancsó’s films are considered ‘difficult’ precisely because the audience is left uncertain as to whether they’ve understood them. The director believed that such ambiguity was important, as it made the viewer engage actively with his films, trying to figure them out, whereas traditional storylines encouraged passivity and escapism.
Just because a film is difficult to understand, of course, doesn’t mean that it’s difficult to watch. Electra, My Love treats the viewer to a rich and thoroughly enjoyable spectacle, not wasting a second of its 71-minute runtime. It includes a peacock, dogs, traditional costumes, whip and swordplay, nude dancers, impossibly large adobe huts, a giant ball and even a helicopter, all filmed in rich colour photography.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that this entire highly choreographed film contains just 12 shots. In a 28-minute interview included as extra material on the DVD, Jancsó’s cinematographer János Kende shares insights about the process of filming such long takes. He talks about Jancsó’s preference for improvisation, how camera technology allowed him to progress from 5-minute to 12-minute shots, and the challenges faced by actors in Electra, My Love, who needed to deliver poetic lines while Jancsó yelled stage directions through a megaphone.
Kende also shares fascinating anecdotes about the production process: how Jancsó was inspired to introduce the giant ‘football’, which features neither in the original myth of Electra, nor the play by László Gyurkó on which Electra, My Love was based. He also confides that they neglected to install a lightning conductor on the prairie where they filmed, and lightning did indeed strike, destroying part of the set, luckily while no one was there and after 90 of the filming was complete.
Dziga Vertov’s silent Soviet classic remains a visionary masterpiece.
Made in 1929, Man with a Movie Camera was unlike any film made before (or since). It was directed by the cinematic visionary Dziga Vertov – a pseudonym that seems to translate as ‘whirling spinning-top’ and sounds more Soviet than David Kaufman. As he declares at the beginning of the film, Vertov’s aim was to find a new art form, a truly cinematic cinema free from the influence of the theatre and literature. And with Man with a Movie Camera he was wholly successful – creating an essay on the language of cinema written with the movie camera itself. Arguably one of the greatest films ever made, it is wildly entertaining, technically breathtaking and intellectually and theoretically fascinating. And yet this brave new direction was to lead to a dead end.
Lenin had declared cinema to be the most important of the arts and thus nationalised film production in 1917. He saw its great potential to educate and inspire Russia’s mass of illiterate workers. Dziga Vertov cut his teeth making agitprop movies on the famous propaganda trains that spread news of the revolution around the enormous Russian hinterland. Like many Soviet directors he rejected the language of bourgeois cinema and sought to create something new – a cinema fit for their great new society. Vertov thus passed a ‘death sentence’ on contemporary cinema, and with typical communist zeal, set about writing his manifesto – Kinoks: A Revolution. Writing in the style of a revolutionary poet he claims: ‘The innards, the guts of strong sensations are tumbling out of cinema’s belly, ripped open on the reef of revolution.’
Vertov and his collaborators, including his brother Mikhail Kaufman and his wife Elizaveta Svilova, shot news reels and documentary footage often shown on a train called ‘The October Revolution’. With his two documentary series Kino-Glaz (Kino-Eye) (1924) and Kino-Pravda (Kino-Truth) (1925) Vertov set out ‘to see and show reality in the name of the proletarian revolution’. The films show positive depictions of communal farming, village fetes and other slices of revolutionary and/or communal life. They were shot without a film studio, actors, sets or even a script, in candid camera style, filming participants unawares.
Vertov would continue to use these techniques in Man with a Movie Camera. Like Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), the film depicts a day in the life of a city – although actually shot over three years in four cities (Kharkiv, Kiev, Moscow and Odessa). All of life is contained in these 68 minutes – sleeping and waking, commuting, working, relaxing, drinking and more. We see two weddings, one divorce and a funeral. We see a baby as it is born and a dead body surrounded by flowers. There is the dramatic – fire engines and ambulances rushing – and the mundane – packing cigarettes, shining shoes and dying eyebrows. All of this is shown without the context of a story.
Man with a Movie Camera is as much about the process of making the film and watching the film as it is about the daily life depicted. The film crew are characters too. It is their everyday work we are seeing. We see the car coming to pick up the cameraman to start his day. We see shots directly into the camera lens, we see the cameraman carrying his tripod. This is more than a simple Brechtian distancing device or a post-modern gimmick – it is showing the reality. After the low-angle shot of the miners dragging the carts over the camera, the film cuts to the cameraman lying on the floor under the carts, employed in his own labour – the making of a film. There is no attempt to disguise the fact that what we are watching is something created. The film opens with a movie theatre and an audience arriving. We are even shown a film of a film being projected.
For Vertov it is a cinema free from exploitation – nobody is being fooled. He saw himself as a ‘positive illusionist’: there are camera tricks aplenty but Vertov is never trying to trick the audience. We see how the camera works – window blinds closed then opened to let in light; a vase of flowers is blurred and then focused. And yet Vertov does all this playfully and for entertainment. Double exposures show the cameraman in a beer glass, an edit shows a foot on the railway line as a train approaches. Fellow Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein called the film a ‘compendium of formalist jackstraws and unmotivated camera mischief’. Without Eisenstein’s didactic montage Vertov’s message is more subtle. He is showing reality on both sides of the camera, and he is making audiences think rather than telling them what to think. He is teaching his audience to read a film. And with no or minimal intertitles, he is creating an international language to match the Esperanto the Soviet leaders were learning – a cinematic language that could become a tool of international labour solidarity.
The film celebrates the process of rapid industrialisation that the USSR was going through at the time. And cinema, the exciting new art form, is perfectly suited to show this. Cogs and gears of industry are edited to match the movements of the camera apparatus. Cinema is the art of the mechanical age.
However, the times were conspiring against Vertov. The late 1920s were perhaps the greatest turning point in cinema history. With the coming of sound the newest art form began to develop new modes of production. The freedom of movement that the silent pioneers were allowed disappeared as cumbersome sound equipment restricted camera movements. The camera that Vertov’s cameraman seems to take anywhere and everywhere was stuck inside a sound studio. And the language of the theatre (script, sets, dialogue, acting) began to reassert itself.
Similarly the USSR was approaching its own turning point after a difficult first decade of civil war, the death of Lenin and compromise in order to feed the country. The next phase saw the internal struggle that would determine where the great social experiment would go next, and who would control it.
Both Vertov and Eisenstein were to find themselves out in the cold (though, unlike some, not literally) as Stalin consolidated power and the new doctrine of ‘socialist realism’ came to the fore. The regime famous for its doctored photographs – as disgraced former leaders were air-brushed from history – had no interest in depictions of reality. Art would be used to obscure the truth and create myths. Great heroes (often proletarian heroes) doing great deeds were needed. Dyed eyebrows and shiny shoes were surplus to requirements. And although Vertov’s influence was eventually to be felt – in the direct cinema, cinéma vérité and other such trends in the West in the 50s and 60s – his career in the USSR was over.
Vertov’s films were criticised for artiness, intellectualism and lack of popular appeal, and yet he had always imagined Man with a Movie Camera as mass entertainment. And it is an entertaining movie, fast-paced, funny, visually accomplished and full of fascinating details. The new Alloy Orchestra soundtrack adds to these delights. The drum kit and repetitive riffs enhance the pace. The metallic percussion punctuate the mechanical themes. We even get synced voices of crowds and synced bell chimes. Man with a Movie Camera now looks and sounds amazing – it is what cinema could have become had it been allowed to break free of the chains of literature.
This review was first published in July 2015 for the BFI’s theatrical release of a remastered print of the original film.
Kijû Yoshida’s 1960s masterwork on free love and radical politics finally comes to Blu-ray/DVD.
A monumental work of late 60s Japanese cinema, Kijû (also known as Yoshishige) Yoshida’s Eros + Massacre has been rather difficult to view for several years, decades even, its reputation largely kept alive after serving as the title for David Desser’s pioneering book on Japanese New Wave Cinema published in the 1980s. Now, the film finally arrives on DVD and Blu-ray via Arrow as part of their Kijû Yoshida Love + Anarchism’ limited edition box-set, in both its original theatrical cut (the version under review here) and Yoshida’s rarely seen director’s cut, with around 50 minutes of restored footage previously removed for legal reasons.
Even in its shorter form, Eros + Massacre is a deeply challenging and sprawling work that unfurls with gusto over the best part of three hours. The film is split between two connected narratives, one a biography-of-sorts centred on famed Taishô-era polygamous anarchist Sakae Ôsugi (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), and the other a contemporary storyline concerning two university students, Eiko and Wada, as they research Ôsugi’s philosophies on radicalism and free love. Things start to get interesting as the time periods appear to converge, with characters from the 1910s/20s strand – including Ôsugi and the three women that he simultaneously romances (including Yoshida’s wife, actress Mariko Okada) – being fleetingly transposed without explanation to late 60s Tokyo, as if them being discussed by the students had the ability to literally bring past into present. Eiko even gets the opportunity to interview one of the women at one point.
The relationship between historical fact and present speculation as well as the relationship between Ôsugi and his women begin to blur, and confusion is further fuelled (in the theatrical version at least) by the sheer volume of scenes excised at the behest of politician Ichiko Kamichika, who had been romantically linked to Ôsugi and was the inspiration for one of the film’s characters (although her name was changed). In the director’s cut, the balance between past and present segments is heavily skewed towards the former, with the 60s scenes acting more as a framing device rather than a storyline of equal weight. In the theatrical cut, there is a greater sense of equilibrium but on the flipside this also creates a split in dramatic focus.
But the one constant between the two versions is that Yoshida insists that you do your homework, making the film less accessible to those not familiar with the historical context or its reference to contemporary Japanese counterculture. Something that can be enjoyed by all, however, is the film’s ravishing and often indulgent style, with Yoshida making full use of his scoped monochrome framing by regularly trapping his actors in the corners and edges of shots, slicing up their bodies or eye lines in interesting ways, or isolating them within doorways or window openings. Symbolism is also rife, leading to sublime imagery such as an extreme wide shot of the 1920s characters traversing along a seemingly abandoned modern Tokyo motorway, the use of reflections – in mirrors, water etc. – to instigate transitions between the two time periods, and the 60s students re-enacting the deaths of famous martyrs – most notably Jesus on the cross.
Like many films from the Japanese New Wave, Eros + Massacre requires a certain degree of awareness of the socio-political concerns of the time for full comprehension, but the rewards are massive for those willing to put in the work; not to mention that it’s exquisitely presented and, in spite of its difficulties, perhaps still stands as Japan’s quintessential arthouse film. Yoshida would continue his intersecting of the themes of political and romantic radicalism in his loosely related follow-up works Heroic Purgatory (1971) and Coup d’état (1973), which also feature in Arrow’s box-set.
Based on the novel:To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia
Cast: Gian Maria Volonté, Mario Scaccia, Irene Papas
Original title:A ciascuno il suo
Arguably one of his most mordant films, We Still Kill the Old Way (1967) marked a deliberate turn for Elio Petri from the dazzling, super-stylised pop-art adventure he had just embarked upon in The 10th Victim (1965). Written by Petri and Ugo Pirro (a collaboration that lasted until 1973), this austere murder mystery is set in a small village in Mafia-ruled Sicily, a location that allowed Petri to fully realise his aspiration for greater political involvement.
Based on the novel To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia, the story is apt for this purpose: a young, naïve professor (Gian Maria Volonté) gets himself tangled in a web of lies and deceit as he attempts to reveal the truth behind some dubious death threats and the subsequent killing of two men during a hunt. While the police mistakenly believes it to be a crime of passion, Laurana suspects a political conspiracy, but his judgment is obscured by his seething desire for his friend’s widow, played by a wonderfully aloof Irene Papas.
As the plot thickens Laurana’s passion leads to his doom, and Luis Bacalov’s score, based on a distinctive 60s calypso-style rhythm mixed with melancholic piano chords and threatening drums, perfectly matches the increasingly darker, more enigmatic mood. With vivid cinematography, We Still Kill the Old Way is compelling and acrid in equal measure, if not as driven and fierce as some of Petri’s later triumphs such as the Oscar-winning Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion. But although here as in his other films narrative stringency is not his forte, Petri excels once more at creating an infectious atmosphere that draws you right in, is impossible to resist and hard to shake off even long after you step out of his unsettling, expressive world.
Kôji Wakamatsu’s provocative road movie Running in Madness, Dying in Love starts as it means to go on, as the volatile political climate of late 1960s Japan is juxtaposed with an abstraction of the nation’s youthful frustration. The film begins with a black and white montage of a protest rally at Shinjuku, where demonstrators are violently clashing with the police due to the renewal of the Anpo Treaty (Japan’s security and cooperation agreement with the United States). Footage of the actual rally, shot by Wakamatsu as the demonstration occurred near the office of his production company, is intercut with staged re-enactments that place Sahei (Ken Yoshizawa) at the centre of the action, superimposing his individual struggle against a backdrop of generational disenchantment. Sahei escapes from the authorities, at which point Wakamatsu cuts to colour, as the activist flees through the streets of Tokyo, away from the incriminating neon lights of downtown, hoping to take refuge at the home of his brother (Rokko Toura). However, the siblings could not be more ideologically different, as Sahei’s brother is a police officer. Their conflicting views lead to a fierce argument, and Sahei is physically assaulted until his brother’s wife Yuri (Yoko Muto) puts an end to the beating by shooting her husband with his gun. Fearing arrest, Sahei and Yuri make the death look like a suicide, then leave the city by train, travelling across a snow-covered landscape that Wakamatsu uses to explore the manner in which personal and political identities can become intertwined with surrounding environment.
A discussion concerning the nature of their crime and varying levels of victimisation in Japanese society takes place against the grey skies of a sleepy fishing community, one of several places that initially promise escape, only to represent exile. ‘I must atone for my crime,’ insists Yuri. Sahei takes her to the edge of a cliff and challenges her to act on such suicidal thoughts by jumping, but Yuri backs away and bursts into tears, ultimately afraid of the abyss. Instead, they move further north, starting a passionate affair as a distraction from guilt. ‘We were not at home, we didn’t do anything,’ Sahei repeatedly tells Yuri, rewriting the recent past through denial as Wakamatsu cuts to images of his brother’s corpse, lying in the suicide position. Sahei tries to convert Yuri from a subservient domestic lifestyle to a more freewheeling existence, although he still requires exclusivity, and she struggles with depression. They seek freedom in the wilderness, but incur the wrath of locals who consider the couple to be impure. Sexual desire is linked with political impulse as Sahei’s involvement in the leftist movement is explained through voice-over during bouts of lovemaking: some years ago, Sahei was a romantic admirer of Yuri, but when she chose to marry his brother, he turned to social rebellion. Sahei and his brother are positioned at opposing ends of the political spectrum, with each equally committed to their cause, while Yuri occupies the middle ground, swaying in her stance and plagued with self-doubt.
Wakamatsu combines the erotica of pink cinema with the narrative tropes of the lovers on the run genre, as Sahei and Yuri move around the Tohoku region to avoid being apprehended for murder. Sahei keeps checking the newspaper, expecting to see a report of his brother’s death, but such an article is nowhere to be found, prompting reconsideration about what may have actually happened back in Tokyo. Later, the film raises more questions not only about the reliability of memory, but the level of reality on which these events are occurring. Sahei and Yuri eventually have nowhere to go apart from home, arriving in the village of the former’s childhood, where his parents still reside. Based on Sahei’s account of their earlier love triangle, the violent and disheartening dénouement of his affair with Yuki is a case of history repeating itself, suggesting that moments, or movements, of rebellion are usually followed by conformity, and that efforts made to change the status quo by those on the social-political margins will always be futile. Running in Madness, Dying in Love is a strangely hypnotic vision of disillusionment, which forms a loose trilogy with Shinjuku Mad (1970) and Sex Jack (1970).
At the London Film Festival last year, actor Colin Firth launched a new site, Brightwide, which bills itself as a ‘YouTube for Social and Political Cinema’ and whose stated mission is to ‘watch, think, link, act’. On the Brightwide website, writer and poet Fatima Bhutto quotes Milan Kundera: ‘The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ The internet, perhaps the greatest public archive ever created, must surely count as one of the most powerful weapons in the fight for social justice and seems a natural home for activist cinema.
Although it started as a US military-backed scientific research project, the internet became a hotbed of counter-cultural activity almost as soon as it went public. As a child in the 80s, I remember my older brother’s Magic Modem which could connect us to a whole hyperlinked world of anarchic bulletin boards and cracked software. Years later, Indymedia, launched in 1999 to report on the Seattle WTO protests, became not just one of the first major wiki-style projects on the internet, but was among the first major online news sources, framing the internet as a space of possibility for marginal and oppositional voices against the dominance of corporate interests in older forms of media.
If networks for distributing news and photographs of political actions had existed since, at the very least, the underground press boom of the 60s and 70s, the internet provided the possibility for something more - film and video of and about all manner of political events and issues available to stream online or download in an instant. The sense of immediate live presence afforded by globally networked digital technologies became a major catalyst in the spread of the anti-corporate globalisation protests of the late 90s and early 21st century, and continues to play a part today in, for instance, the backlash following the death of Ian Tomlinson at the hands of riot police during last year’s G20 protests in the City of London.
In America, Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films assumed signal importance in the run-up to the presidential election of 2008 with speedily produced documentaries about the inconsistencies in John McCain’s policies and biases in Fox News reporting, which became top-rated videos on YouTube and made a lasting impression on voters. Elsewhere, Michael Moore’s website provides a steady stream of supplements and footnotes to his theatrically released documentaries along with shorter films showcasing alternative viewpoints on major news stories and events.
While critics have condemned the spread of web-based activism as ‘cyberbalkanisation’, and the tortured history of Google in China has proved that the net is far from immune to censorship and government control, technology journalist Evgeny Morozov has argued that it is at least as useful to repressive states as it is to their dissidents. Issues arise when, as in the denouement to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s MICMACs, tactics of resistance remain parasitical on corporately owned portals such as YouTube, and behind the cosily presumed consensualism of iPod liberals there is always the danger of serious issues being reduced to the level of the latest Facebook fad.
In this light, Brightwide may provide a welcome alternative. Less a politicised YouTube than a new outlet for the exhibition of high-quality political documentaries, it features work by high-profile directors like Michael Winterbottom. With each film linked (both figuratively and literally) to ‘real world’ campaigns, Brightwide clearly has ambitions to make an impact beyond the list of Twitter trending topics, even if it lacks some of the anarchic freewheeling spirit that first made the net attractive to marginal voices.
To find out more, go to the Brightwide website, where among other films you can watch In Prison My Whole Life, an investigation into the case of Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of a policeman in Philadelphia.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews