Some July Movies

A separate  blog for four movies watched already in July. The reason for this sudden increase in movie-watching is the near disappearance of any interesting new material on television on British television during the summer months (combined of course with a ‘good spell’ Depression wise). Although my movie reviews would normally form part of the Monthly Miscellany these were getting out of hand!  

First The Changeling (2008) directed by Clint Eastwood. This film has a lot going for it: its themes are irreproachable, the production values very good, the direction highly competent. It is based on the ‘true story’ of Christine Collins, a single mother in the Los Angeles of 1928, working as a supervisor in a telephone exchange, whose nine year old son goes missing. Five moths later the LAPD find a boy in Illinois who claims to be her son; she insists he is not – he is shorter and circumcised. When she continues to insist that they search for her son, they harass her and eventually have her incarcerated in an asylum. There she finds other women who are patently sane who have been committed by the police for bringing complaints against them or defending themselves from physical or sexual abuse by cops. By the efforts of a Presbyterian minister she is released and at the same time the gruesome discovery is made of a serial killer who has killed some 20 young boys. As a result of her campaigning the incarcerated women are released, the police chief forced to step down and  the powers of the police to commit women to the asylum curbed. As I say it is intensely worthwhile, impeccably on the ‘right’ side. The scenes in the asylum are shocking, particularly the behaviour of the psychiatrist and the use of compulsory ECT on any woman who steps out of line. I always find such scenes hard to watch – of course these asylum scenes were by no means as disturbing or appalling as those in the wonderful Frances (1982) in which Jessica Lange is so utterly brilliant as Frances Farmer – the only film I can think of which I am genuinely afraid of watching again because it so upset and chilled me. The fact that psychiatry was used as a method of political control, especially against women, in the US when it was precisely this which, justifiably, is one of the great crimes laid at the Stalinist regimes door, is of course one of those horrific historical ironies. My personal reaction to ECT scenes is connected to my own experience, though of course these were wholly voluntary, intended to be therapeutic and certainly not carried out while I was conscious!; even so I find them hard to watch. So given all this – that it was well-made, politically uplifting and correct, why didn’t I like it more? Why did I not fully engage with it? I think there was always a sort of awareness there, which I feel with some films, that ‘this is an Oscar film’ (and it did get 3 nominations). There was a lack of edginess, a lack of anything really exciting visually, a lack of that something special. I even felt that Angelina Jolie’s performance was something of an Oscar performance – almost too restrained, too deliberate. I have no doubt that I am probably being unfair – in a film which tells a story such as this there is no need for any moral complexity, and I am perfectly happy for films to be campaigning (even when they are doing so historically – the need to understand and tell the stories of the past is an imperative one). I just felt the film ought to have had an emotional impact which, for me, it lacked. But this is a good, perhaps very good film, certainly well worth watching – it just isn’t great.  

Next came Notes on a Scandal (2006) directed by Richard Eyre  with a screenplay by Patrick Marber from Zoe Heller’s novel, starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett supported by an array of top-class British thespians headed by Bill Nighy. The only thing this has in common with The Changeling is that both were nominated for stacks of awards. Well that and the fact that – laudably – they are both films for grown-ups. But where The Changeling is controlled, composed, closed, on one level, not open to any discussion of meaning, Notes on a Scandal is open, slightly melodramatic, multi-layered, open to all sorts of discussions and dissensions about its meanings and values. It is quite beautifully acted especially by Dench (taking a rare largely unsympathetic role) and Blanchett, and well-directed by Eyre – although I always feel he is stronger when the material is more distanced (I must rewatch his The Ploughman’s Lunch which made a big impression on me in the 80’s). The narrative relates the encounter of Judi Dench, playing Barbara Covett a lonely, cynical and tough teacher in a North London comprehensive with Cate Blanchett as Sheba Hart who takes up a position as Art Teacher in the same school. Sheba Hart comes from a wealthy family,  is married to, the much older, Bill Nighy and has two children – one a son with Down’s Syndrome. Covett is strongly attracted to Hart who in turn seems to value the older woman as a confidante. The relationship changes direction however when Covett discovers that Hart is having an affair with one of her pupils – a 15 year old boy, Steven Connolly. Covett agrees not to report the affair thinking she now has Hart in her power. But when Hart chooses to go and see her son in a school play rather than to go with Covett and help her deal with the death of her cat, Covett manipulates another teacher into finding out about the affair and reporting it. Hart is sacked and arrested, her marriage falls apart and she comes to stay with Covett; but there she eventually discovers the diaries in which Covett writes about everything and a climactic confrontation ensues. In the accompanying documentaries Zoe Heller said that one reason why she wrote the novel was that she was suspicious of what she called the ‘Oprah-fication’ of women’s friendships – the notion that women are naturally supportive of each other. The novel was apparently criticised at the time for its caustic view of the relationship between Covett and Hart. Heller also said that in the novel, which is written as the first-person diary narrative of Covett, the reader is only intended to realise that she is an unreliable narrator and far from benevolent some way into the book. While the film makes some use of voice-over to convey this, I think that we are somewhat suspicious of Dench from quite early on. But there are clearly ideological problems here; the book is to some extent a deliberate assault on certain positions according to what Heller says (in an admittedly short snippet). But there is another problem here. The scandal is ,of course, the affair between Hart and Connolly, but in terms of the film this is a matter of very much secondary interest to the relationship between Covett and Hart. Again in the accompanying material Blanchett talks about how she sees Hart as a desperately lonely woman – that the film is the story of two lonely woman and of the corrosive effects of loneliness – and that is Hart’s motivation for the affair. I am not wholly sure that the film conveys this successfully, and it certainly fails to deal with the physicality of the matter. The first sexual encounter takes place at night beside a railway line but we actually see very little and I do not think it is prurient to be critical of this. My problem is that I find it hard to believe that a 15 year old boy is going to offer much in terms of comfort, companionship, intellectual stimulation or other cures for loneliness – what he provides is surely physicality, passion, excitement and the chance for dominance. Very little of any of the latter is brought out. Nor does the film tackle in any real sense the morality of the situation – Bill Nighy makes a reference to the fact that society would see a 30 year old man and a 15 year old girl in a different way – which I think is quite true – but in fact Covett is remorselessly hounded by the press and eventually imprisoned. The actual effects – or lack of them – on Connolly remain completely unexamined. Personally I find it almost impossible to imagine any ill-effects whatever and am sure there would have been plenty of voices around to assert this (in fact I know this because there have been similar real -life cases and opinion has been very divided – this is not so in a gender reversed situation which is perfectly right and proper in my view). But whatever the case the scandal is relegated to a back-page. The other big question is the nature of Covett’s ‘attraction’ to Hart and the degree to which physical and sexual elements play any part. Here again, though far more justifiably, the film is ambiguous. There are shots from Covett’s point of view which convey lasciviousness – of her watching Hart stretching to hang something from the ceiling for instance, the voice-over rhapsodises about her skin, there is a moment when she asks Hart to stroke her (this felt forced to me but maybe was intended as such), and another towards the end when she reaches towards Covett’s leg while the latter is sleeping but finally contents herself with pulling a blanket over it. But in the end I think we are meant to conclude that physical and sexual attraction, while far from absent, are not central to Covett – it is companionship she desperately seeks. I have spent so much time discussing the film’s problems and ambiguities which might suggest that I in fact preferred the much less problematic and ambiguous The Changeling; this is not so. It is precisely in the problems and ambiguities that the richness of Notes on a Scandal is to be found – unlike The Changeling which in some ways is the ‘better’ film, certainly in terms of production values – this is a film which would certainly bear repeated viewing and consideration.  

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. This was the first in a ‘second stream’ of rentals from Lovefilm. While the first stream is comprised of individual movies which I have not seen before, mostly of very recent vintage, this second strema comprises classic cinema, overwhelmingly linked to certain great directors, and the majority of which I have seen, and loved, previously. When watching such films I experience an emotional response of a kind I only find elsewhere in literature and music. This is always linked to the visual and cinematic mastery of the directors concerned; to what I see as the essence of cinema, its’  foundation as kinetic visual art. There is, for me, some qualitative difference, extremely hard to define but definitely present, between such cinema and the lesser kind which forms the great majority. This is not to say that lesser films cannot be full of interest and fascination in terms of their narrative, sociological, psychological, political  content. But to move me at a deep emotional level they almost always need this extra visual something which I find almost impossible to describe in words. 


The Marriage of Maria Braun certainly did not disappoint in these terms on my re-watching of it; Fassbinder is a master of the use of colour – especially primary ones – and the shot compositions, the close-ups and the editing are also of the highest order; in terms of the latter he will use on occasion a sort of fade-out/fade-in system which calls attention to both the passing of time and the theatrical nature of the film. Fassbinder’s aspirations are always dramatic and visual rather than realist. In brief the film follows the story of Maria Braun, brilliantly played by one of Fassbinder’s favourite muses (and muse is the mot juste) Hanna Schygulla, who marries a soldier in the latter days of WW2; the ceremony, in the midst of a bombing raid, is shown during the opening credits. We then jump to an immediate post-War period with Maria scavenging for food and firewood while searching for her missing husband. The film follows her story first as a night-club hostess who takes an American lover ; her husband Hermann returns and much more by accident than design Maria kills her lover, but Hermann takes the blame and is sent to prison. Maria then builds herself a highly successful career in the business of a French entrepreneur, Karl Oswald who also becomes her lover. Oswald is dying and he makes an agreement with Hermann that the latter will absent himself when he comes out of prison on the basis that Oswald will leave his business and wealth to Hermann and Maria. When, in the closing scene of the film, Maria, following Oswald’s death, discovers this arrangement she commits suicide by blowing up the house she has built for herself and Hermann.  It is a commonplace to remark that in some ways Maria’s history is that of post-War Germany itself – the Marshall plan, reconstruction etc.. There are two very different Adenauer radio broadcasts in the course of the film, and the climax takes place with a commentary on the World Cup Final of 1954 (which Germany won – a highly ironic triumphant counter-point to the film’s tragic end). The film cannot, however, be reduced to any simple symbolism. Scene after scene and character after character have a rich and vibrant life of their own. But at their centre is always the dynamic strength and resilience of Maria herself. The film is in every way a masterpiece.  

Unfortunately the same can certainly not be said of Rachel Getting Married (2008) directed by Johnathan Demme from a screenplay by Jenny Lumet. This told the story of Kym (played by Anne Hathaway) a young woman who comes out of a long stay in rehab to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel. Naturally various dramatic confrontations between Kym and Rachel, both of them with their father and Kym with her mother (mother and father are now divorced and living with new partners) ensue. We see Kym attending AA type meetings, and having a brief affair with the best man who she first meets at the AA meeting. The whole story takes place while the wedding itself is being planned and then taking place ; this wedding – and the whole movie – are a celebration of Demme’s liberal (I hope I am using the word in the correct American context here!) values. The bridegroom is black and therefore the guests are a wholly multi-racial mix – never the slightest indication of any racism or prejudice is given; he is also a musician and various friends of his are endlessly practising – there is an almost continuous sound-track of a range of many types of music (only anything with a whiff of the commercial being excluded). The marriage is in part of a faux-Hindu type. In the accompanying interviews Demme explained that his major technical innovation was that the musicians played live during shooting rather than being dubbed on later. There was a great deal of use of hand-held cameras which apparently were permanently shooting at events such as the wedding itself so that actors had to stay permanently in character. A requirement for the casting director was that all the actors should be NY based; many of them, particularly the wedding guests etc., were old friends of Demme’s. Demme said that he wanted the wedding to reflect his own experience of America and the life of his friends. Now in a sense this liberalism, this joyous and non-judgemental cultural mix is indeed worth promoting. I do not doubt that it is true of certain circles in America; and for non-American audiences it provides a useful corrective to the highly problematic picture of race relations which cinema usually gives. Nonetheless I am a little sceptical; there are certainly circles (I have moved in them) in which the same would be true in the UK – that does not mean that they form any sort of majority picture. Still no doubt positive pictures of multi-racial harmony are in general a good thing. But this does not mask the fact that large parts of this film seemed wholly self-indulgent. The post-ceremony celebrations – basically shots of people dancing – seemed almost interminable; the hand-held camera  meant the shots lacked any compositional grace or style and the editing was similarly haphazard. The film never looked good (of which, in fairness, I was particularly aware watching immediately after the Fassbinder). Even the approach to the casting seems indulgent, if not nepotistic (Demme used his son among others) : there is nothing wrong with that in itself – Fassbinder had what was known as his Family with whom he worked again and again; Mike Leigh – a more apt comparison – tends to work with the same people repeatedly – but it just seems to add to this impression of self-indulgence which I had formed before even hearing of the casting policy. Of course all the foregoing would probably not matter if I were more convinced by the treatment of the central story-line and by Kym’s character. Much of her trauma arose from the fact that when she was 16 she was left in charge of her younger brother Ethan; she was high on Percocet (a kind of powerful painkiller apparently) and drove into a lake where he drowned. This intensified her substance abuse leading eventually to her incarceration (she was somehow under some legal orders though this was not clearly explained) in various rehab units. Now quite apart from confirming once again (every time I see a movie or read about them my opinion is reinforced) my own low opinion of the whole 12 step malarkey, the film seemed to have no appreciation of just what an impossible ordeal this wedding and its components – rehearsal dinner, lots of strangers, social chit-chat, family reunion – would have been for someone with Mental Health issues; at my very best I would find such concentrated social interaction impossible and bound to bring on a depressive episode. The various confrontations all seemed to me rather conventional and forced. This is despite the fact that Hathaway gave as good a performance as was possible. But in the end the movie seemed unwilling to confront the fact that for some people social interaction and social events – no matter how impeccably liberal, tolerant and inclusive they may be – are difficult if not impossible. Not everyone can dance their troubles away. Perhaps this was the implication of the end where Kym leaves – she would certainly be much better off without her family. But the overall impression the movie left was of rather messy, sometimes tedious, self-indulgence.

3 thoughts on “Some July Movies

  1. ellenandjim

    Dear Nick,

    As brilliant as you so often so kindly tell me my blogs are. I particularly appreciated this statement:

    “When watching such films I experience an emotional response of a kind I only find elsewhere in literature and music. This is always linked to the visual and cinematic mastery of the directors concerned; to what I see as the essence of cinema, its’ foundation as kinetic visual art. There is, for me, some qualitative difference, extremely hard to define but definitely present, between such cinema and the lesser kind which forms the great majority. This is not to say that lesser films cannot be full of interest and fascination in terms of their narrative, sociological, psychological, political content. But to move me at a deep emotional level they almost always need this extra visual something which I find almost impossible to describe in words.”

    I sometimes think it’s so hard to discuss the meaning and social function and effects of films for the same reason it’s hard to discuss these things in music. One (I — and others do) end up discussing such tiny things and so many in an effort to explain the experience; it’s not verbalizable (?).

    To go backwards: I saw _Rachel Getting Married_ and you have added to my inadequate objections. I don’t believe for a moment that such harmony could occur anywhere, especially at a wedding with average middle class people. Not one person made one adverse remark. It’s all fantasy, fairy tale. I did see the made-up quality of the heroine’s trauma, but you are right beyond that: with such a state of mind, who could get through a wedding? The film-makers have not begun to imagine nor deeply sympathize with someone with troubles with anxiety, depression and do not themselves admit to the realities of social experience. I imagine they disconnect the lines fromn their psyche to their soma in order to be successful.
    Skins like rhinoceroses Trollope would say.

    Similarly, _Notes from a Scandal_ was inadequate. As you say, it was much better and more was plumbed and more intelligently. I was particularly bothered by how Judi Dench was presented as somehow preying on people; she is starting up with someone else. We get the feeling she should be put away. If the director was irritated by the fantasies of female community, she has gone too far in the opposite direction. And you beautifully (as James would say) point out the unreality of Blanchett’s comment on why the young woman and 15 year old have sex. Blanchett does not want to admit to carnal lust — which Cheri at least does not find any rationales for and yet there is much companionship over 6 years between people who are adults at different levels.

    I wish I had seen _The Changeling_; I was so put off by the trailer I didn’t go. I thought it would be wholly exploitative. I have had the experience of finding myself tied down and a procedure imposed on me, while I heard someone ask me “do you work,” meaning am I so inadequate and irrational I can’t hold a job.

    I wish I could get Jim to watch great films with me again the way you and Chris do. He seems to be so off them.

    I enjoyed reading the blog and will read the other tomorrow as well as write to you then,

  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen. As usual you go to the heart of matters. In respect of verbalisation (I just checked – it is exactly the right word) I agree completely. With music I am even more inarticulate as I have no comprehension whatever of musical theory – melody, rythyms, keys and so forth (‘the minor fall and major lift’) – and find that even when I try to read about it I remain baffled. With film I have some small knowledge about editing, composition, colour, tracking shots etc. but only of a very basic kind. But I still can’t explain the connection to my emotions. With literature I think it is somewhat easier to try and analyse why some particular passage or character has the power to move – although I am always chary of taking this too far in case the spell is broken.

    You are more honest than me about the harmony portrayed in Rachel Getting Married – but I am sure you are right. The film is wish-fulfilment – although in fairness the wishes are good ones, and that must be counted in its favour when there are so many unpleasant wish-fulfilments around.

    On Notes from a Scandal Dench certainly is portrayed as preying on people as the ending – which I found somewhat absurd – suggested.

    I don’t think The Changeling is exploitative – there are certainly some unpleasant – indeed harrowing – scenes but these are inevitable given the subject matter. It may be that I was rather unfair on the film in retrospect ; there just seemed to me to be something a bit self-satisfied about it, but this may be a quite personal reaction.

  3. Pingback: October Movies « Moving Toyshop

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