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The Night Manager – Totally Addictive Television

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

The Night Manager, from John le Carré’s 1993 novel, is a British drama ideal for non-stop binge watching.

Produced by the BBC, and already screened on British television, the six-part miniseries debuted on AMC on April 19, 2016, and I was hooked from the first moments on. Tom Hiddleston, who was so good in Jim Jarmusch’s post-modern vampire thriller Only Lovers Left Alive, and Hugh Laurie, who made a fortune from umpteen seasons of House, combine with Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, who directed all six episodes, to create a rattling good yarn that keeps you enthralled from first frame to last.

Le Carré, who is now 84, is apparently even musing the idea of writing a sequel to his novel with the same characters, because he’s so pleased with the result as well, and the actors in the mini-series have made pact that if le Carré does, in fact, turn out another novel as a follow up, they’ll all line up to do it. The entire series is out on Region 2 DVD in the UK now, and after watching just one episode on AMC, I snapped up the DVD of the entire series immediately – commercial free, of course.

As Hiddleston told Debra Birnbaum of Variety, “It’s fascinating to hear that Le Carré himself is up for it and considering writing new material for characters he created 25 years ago.” As Birnbaum further reported, “Le Carré — now 84 and living and working in Cornwall, on the southwestern tip of England — was part of the creative process throughout, contributing extra scenes, answering spycraft questions, sitting through the table read and, yes, cringing at the changes to his book. But ultimately, he was satisfied.

‘It seems to me that this time ’round we may really have got it: Film doing its own job, opening up my novel in ways I didn’t think anyone had noticed. And what I like best of all is how Susanne Bier goes on chewing at the bone of the drama long after other directors would have given up.”

The series was filmed on location in four countries over the course of 75 days. Bier approached it like a very long feature, shooting scenes out of order. She gave the actors ample freedom to explore — beginning each day by allowing them to improvise in rehearsals to see how a scene might play out. Making sure she didn’t stray from the story, while still maintaining creative freedom, was ‘like having a number of chess games running at the same time,’ she notes.”

The plot is vintage le Carré, but brought up to date with a modern twist. During the midst of the Arab Spring of 2011, a mysterious and utterly unscrupulous arms dealer, Richard Roper (Laurie) –  repeatedly described as “the worst man in the world”  - who hides in plain sight as a supposedly legitimate businessman and philanthropist, tries to strike a deal with some militants for a massive shipment of weapons – enough to equip an entire army ten times over.

But his plans are derailed by former British soldier Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston), now the night manager at a Cairo hotel, who comes into possession of some incriminating documents, and leaks them to the British authorities. And that, of course, leads to absolute mayhem – and naturally all the governments involved are corrupt, intelligence agencies are underfunded, and no one can be trusted at all.

From there, I honestly have no idea what happens, and I’m just going to wait for the DVD to arrive, and then sit down and watch the entire series in one gulp, but I can tell you this much; it’s not Masterpiece Theater. This is sharp, smart filmmaking with a real bite, stylishly directed by Bier with real skill and feeling. Hiddleston and Laurie are both superb in their roles, and it’s clear that no expense was spared to bring the project to the screen. And although it’s television, one can’t help but imagine it on a theater screen – talk about impact.

So buy the DVD, or see it on AMC: The Night Manager is definitely worth a look!

Barbara Flueckiger on Restoring Color Films

Sunday, April 17th, 2016

Restoring color films – shot in a variety of processes – is painstaking, delicate, and essential work.

As Peter Monaghan writes in the absolutely essential online journal Moving Image Archive News, “Barbara Flueckiger has run a series of projects to figure out how best to determine the original colors of films, throughout cinema history. She is developing means to more accurately replicate the colors in digital restorations. It’s a huge technical challenge: to understand not just the chemical and physical properties of film colors, but their origin in complex cultural predilections for certain color palettes. Her work promises to provide new shading to film interpretation and film history.

A 2014 state-of-the-art restoration of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has been doing the rounds of art-house film venues, the result of work performed at L’Immagine Ritrovata, in Bologna, under the supervision of Anke Wilkening, of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, in Wiesbaden. It’s a model collaborative project, and among those who worked on it was Barbara Flueckiger, whose applied research promises to be particularly important to the future of film appreciation and study.

Efforts had been made regularly since 1984 to restore Robert Wiene’s classic German silent film from 1919, which portrays an insane hypnotist who provokes a somnambulist to commit murders. Restorers had faced a quandary; it’s one that restorers always confront: How could they replicate the colors of the original? That is far from a simple challenge.

Even when restoring black-and-white classics, technicians have to deal with color complications. Early films had visual qualities that depended not only on the lighting used during the filming, but also on what film technicians — directors, art directors, film processors – did to the original camera negatives: how they tinted and toned them, or in some cases colored them by hand.

During the course of film history, explains Barbara Flueckiger, a professor of film studies at the University of Zurich since 2007, hundreds of cinematic color processes have emerged, many with roots in nineteenth-century still photography. But figuring out what those original colors and visual qualities were is no easy task. Yet, no comprehensive guide has existed to connect each color’s technical inputs to its contemporary reception and aesthetic and narrative uses.

As Flueckiger says, ‘film color is an issue that few film viewers think about consciously even though the material of film and the nature of color information play a key role in how we perceive film.’” This is essential reading for all who want to understand the ephemeral nature of film, and why it needs constant, unceasing preservation. It’s work that must continue, or the entire visual history of the 20th century – much of it missing already due to archival neglect – will cease to exist entirely.

A fascinating article – absolutely worth reading by clicking here, or on the image above.

From Criterion Current: Agnès Varda Is Everywhere!

Friday, April 15th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster alerted me to this – a new film by the great Agnès Varda! See it here on Vimeo!

As the blog Criterion Current noted on October 9, 2015, “Agnès Varda keeps popping up in the most unexpected places. The indefatigable eighty-seven-year-old filmmaker stopped by our offices this week, along with her daughter, Rosalie, to say hello and fill us in on what she’s been up to. We’re happy to report that this legend of the French New Wave—and beyond—shows no signs of slowing down.

Varda was especially delighted to talk about a short film she had recently made for Women’s Tales, an online series produced by the Prada brand Miu Miu (other directors in the series include Lucrecia Martel, Ava DuVernay, Miranda July, and So Yong Kim). Varda’s magical contribution, Les 3 boutons (The 3 Buttons), which also showed at the Venice Film Festival in September, was shot in the village of Bonnieux, in southeastern France, as well as on rue Daguerre in Paris, where Varda has lived for half a century.

A wry commentary on girlhood and fashion with a fairy-tale feel, the film traces the whimsical adventures of a country girl who receives a mysterious package. Varda excitedly told us about this lush production: ‘Given the budget, I was free to make whatever I wanted.’ And she was especially tickled by the resources she was given for one particular shot, in which a button floats down a stream before disappearing beneath a sewer grate: ‘Can you imagine having a grip for an afternoon to shoot a button traveling in the water? I felt so blessed to have the money to do that, most of the time I don’t have money to do a third take!’

Varda also discussed her next project, and it’s an exciting one. She is teaming up on a film with the French artist JR (pictured at top), who is well-known for his gigantic photographs of people, which he installs in public spaces—on the exterior walls of buildings and on outdoor stairways, for instance. (They are not unlike the murals Varda documented in Los Angeles for her 1981 film Mur murs.) After being invited to JR’s studio, where she came face-to-face with a large photograph of herself that was taken in 1960, Varda knew immediately that she wanted to work with him. This past summer, the pair crowd-sourced funding for a film, now in preproduction, to be shot in Provence.

We also had to share one last thing with you that Varda shared with us. Fashion designer Agnès B. has been commissioning posters from artists for years for a journal she publishes, called Le point d’ironie. For its fifty-seventh issue, Varda designed the cover, using an image of a mailman in Bonnieux, who is featured in Les 3 boutons, beside an enormous photo of him by JR. It’s Varda’s big world—we just dance in it.”

Varda has managed to outlast all of her contemporaries in the world of French cinema since the 1950s, and as far as I’m concerned, is clearly the first and foremost founding member of The Nouvelle Vague, or French New Wave, whose more celebrated members include Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. During the heyday of The New Wave, many of Varda’s most beautiful films were shunted to the side, and didn’t really achieve the success they so clearly deserved – but now, through sheer tenacity and longevity, Varda is at last placing herself at the center of the movement she was instrumental in creating.

You can watch Varda’s magical film right now on Vimeo – click here, on the image above.

Robert Reed’s Hugo Nominated Novella “Truth” Is Now A Movie

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

Robert Reed’s Hugo Nominated Novella “Truth” Is Now A New Movie – And It’s Hot!

As the film’s official website notes, “on a cold February night, a young man is found unconscious at the wheel of a crashed vehicle in Montana not far from the Canadian border and a lump of weapons-grade Uranium is recovered from the trunk. He is immediately thrown into a high-security prison and tortured relentlessly for months. But apart from a few vicious-sounding curses in an unknown language, he utters nothing.

Then one day out of the blue, he gives his interrogators a list of numbers and letters, which turn out to be astronomical coordinates of upcoming Supernova explosions. The very next day the first of those celestial events occurs exactly as predicted, sending shock-waves through the security establishment. It’s obvious; the man in custody is no ordinary terrorist. He is a time-traveller from the future.

Fifteen years later, Ramiro still sits in the same secret prison two kilometers under the ground, but much has changed in the world above. Based on the information he has provided over the years, the US has waged a relentless war on terror in an attempt to neutralize the remaining ninety-eight ‘temporal jihadists’ Ramiro claims arrived with him. Several countries in the Middle-East have been invaded, Pakistan has been wiped off the map and India is next on the list. But the terrorists, led by their enigmatic leader Abraham, remain at large.

Such are the state of affairs the day CIA agent Carmen Reese arrives at the prison. Her immediate task is to investigate the mysterious death of her predecessor – a talented interrogator, who had successfully secured Ramiro’s cooperation for years. Was it suicide as the evidence suggests? Or was it murder? Carmen knows that the answers to these questions are linked to bigger, more important questions: Is Ramiro who he claims to be? And what is his real agenda?

As the world slips further into chaos and destruction and the threat of nuclear holocaust looms large, Carmen engages in an intense psychological battle with Ramiro, who seems to have a window into her inner world and is ready to exploit her emotional vulnerabilities to achieve his goal.”

The film, directed by Gaurav Seth, is already burning up the European film festival circuit, winning the Critics Choice Award (Prêmio da Crítica) at the Fantasporto Festival earlier this year, and opens in Canada on April 15th – in a just a few days. It seems like a promising bet for release in selected cities in the United States, with a national rollout a distinct possibility.

As one critic writes, “Seth keeps the film tight, tense, and claustrophobic, while his adaptation of Reed’s novella gets very big picture, while maintaining the intimate vibe. He effectively hides some twists in plain sight, ultimately building to a dramatic but logically consistent conclusion. Altogether, it is an excellent example of indie science fiction,” while Mario Trono of the CBC adds that the film is best described as “Zero Dark Thirty meets The X Files.” It’s a great example of a modestly made film that absolutely clicks on every level – and you can see the trailer by clicking here, or on the image above.

Good to see some small scale, intelligent sci-fi for a change!

The Chinese Cinema Explosion – 22 New Screens Every Day

Monday, April 11th, 2016

The theatrical film experience in China is absolutely exploding.

As the CBS News program 60 Minutes reports, “The movie business is booming across China. Shopping malls have popped up everywhere, and with them, theaters. Twenty-two new movie screens open every day, that’s right, every day. In the last five years, box office receipts have grown a staggering 350 per cent . . .

In February, the Chinese box office brought in over a billion dollars for the first time ever, beating the U.S. and Canada. China, with its 1.3 billion people, is expected to become the biggest movie market in the world as early as next year. Hollywood has taken notice, partnering with Chinese studios and making blockbusters as much for Chinese audiences as American ones. But the U.S. film industry is also facing competition from Chinese moguls and movie stars with big ambitions . . .

Chinese studios produce over 600 features a year, action movies, sci-fi, thrillers . . . [Said one seasoned observer of the Chinese film industry] ‘they are smart. They understand storytelling. They are super well-versed in what works in their own country. They are super well-versed in what works globally. I couldn’t be more excited. So I would say– you know, Hollywood, watch out.’”

This is a fascinating story – read the entire piece here, with videos.

Video Essay: What is Neorealism?

Saturday, April 2nd, 2016

Here is a brilliant video essay by the filmmaker / critic :: kogonada on two versions of one film.

When director Vittorio De Sica, above, was hired by David O. Selznick (the “O”, he admitted, stood for nothing, being entirely his own invention to make his name sound more prestigious – or so he imagined) to direct a film starring Selznick’s wife, Jennifer Jones, and the American actor Montgomery Clift, a clash of visions was almost inevitable, given Selznick’s well known penchant for interfering with a director’s work (as was the case with Alfred Hitchcock, who got around the problem by shooting precisely what he needed for a film, and no more, starting with his first film for Selznick, Rebecca [1940]), which reached manic levels as Selznick’s career as a producer deteriorated.

As :: kogonada writes in his introduction to this brilliant examination of the film Terminal Station aka Indiscretion of American Wife, “what rival visions would emerge if you pitted the director of The Bicycle Thieves against the producer of Gone with the Wind on the same movie material? History can tell us . . . every cut is a form of judgment, whether it takes place on the set or in the editing room. A cut reveals what matters and what doesn’t. It delineates the essential from the non-essential. To examine the cuts of a filmmaker is to uncover an approach to cinema.

The happenstance of Vittorio De Sica’s Terminal Station and David O. Selznick’s Indiscretion of an American Wife offers a rare opportunity to compare two cuts of the same film from a leading figure of neorealism and a leading figure of Hollywood. If neorealism exists, it is in contrast to the dominant approach to moviemaking, shaped and exemplified by Hollywood. In comparing Terminal Station to Indiscretion of an American Wife, we must ask, ‘what difference does a cut make?’”

For those not familiar with the saga of the making – and unmaking – of this film, Wikipedia offers this brief, sad summary: “Terminal Station (Italian: Stazione Termini) is a 1953 film by Italian director Vittorio De Sica. It tells the story of the love affair between an Italian man and an American woman. The film was entered into the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. The film is based on the story Stazione Termini by Cesare Zavattini. Truman Capote was credited with writing the entire screenplay, but later claimed to have written only two scenes.

The film was an international co-production between De Sica’s own company and the Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, who commissioned it as a vehicle for his wife, Jennifer Jones. The production of the film was troubled from the very beginning. Carson McCullers was originally chosen to write the screenplay, but Selznick fired her and replaced her with a series of writers, including Paul Gallico, Alberto Moravia and Capote. Disagreements ensued between De Sica and Selznick, and during production, Selznick would write 40- and 50-page letters to his director every day, although De Sica spoke no English. After agreeing to everything, De Sica has said, he simply did things his way.

Montgomery Clift sided with De Sica in his disputes with Selznick, claiming that Selznick wanted the movie to look like a slick little love story, while De Sica wanted to depict a ruined romance . . . The original release of the film ran 89 minutes, but it was later re-edited by Selznick down to 64 minutes and re-released as Indiscretion of an American Wife (and as Indiscretion in the UK). Clift declared that he hated the picture and denounced it as ‘a big fat failure.’ Critics of the day agreed, giving it universally bad reviews. The two versions have been released together on DVD by The Criterion Collection.”

Taking advantage of the existence of these two highly different and in a sense competing versions of the film, :: kogonada has created a side-by-side comparison of the two edits of the film, showing how Selznick simplified and “dumbed down” the American cut, while De Sica left more to the audience’s imagination, rather than spelling everything out as Selznick insisted. De Sica’s original version, though not his best work, is clearly a much more resonant film; Selznick’s edit, chopped down to a minimal 64 minutes, accomplishes nothing less than the destruction of De Sica’s film – but now we can see the original version, and the recut – and what a difference there is between them!

This is a fascinating experiment – and demonstrates why Hollywood films are so often deeply unsatisfying.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe

Friday, April 1st, 2016

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Éric Rohmer: A Biography, and it’s an absolutely brilliant book.

As the Columbia University Press website notes, “the director of twenty-five films, including My Night at Maud’s (1969), which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and the editor in chief of Cahiers du cinéma from 1957 to 1963, Éric Rohmer set the terms by which people watched, made, and thought about cinema for decades. Such brilliance does not develop in a vacuum, and Rohmer cultivated a fascinating network of friends, colleagues, and industry contacts that kept his outlook sharp and propelled his work forward. Despite his privacy, he cared deeply about politics, religion, culture, and fostering a public appreciation of the medium he loved.

This exhaustive biography uses personal archives and interviews to enrich our knowledge of Rohmer’s public achievements and lesser known interests and relations. The filmmaker kept in close communication with his contemporaries and competitors: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. He held a paradoxical fascination with royalist politics, the fate of the environment, Catholicism, classical music, and the French nightclub scene, and his films were regularly featured at New York and Los Angeles film festivals. Despite an austere approach to life, Rohmer had a voracious appetite for art, culture, and intellectual debate captured vividly in this definitive volume.”

To that, I can only add that this is the book on Rohmer’s life and work, superbly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal. Both of the volume’s authors are eminently qualified for the project: Antoine de Baecque is a professor of the history of cinema at the University of Nanterre, and has published biographies of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in addition to serving for a number of years as editor in chief of Cahiers du cinema, while Noël Herpe is a senior lecturer at the Université de Paris VIII, and has published works on René Clair and Sacha Guitry, as well as a book of interviews with Éric Rohmer about his text Le Celluloïd et le Marbre.

With many behind the scenes photographs, selections from correspondence, detailed financial accountings of production circumstances, and offering a sympathetic yet clear-eyed portrayal of Rohmer as alternatively imperious and yet by turns extraordinarily generous to neophyte filmmakers, Éric Rohmer: A Biography is a feast of a book. I have been returning repeatedly to the volume in the past few days, marveling at the detail and precision of the text, which in many ways mirrors the precise yet romantic tone of Rohmer’s films themselves. Now, if only all of Rohmer’s works would come out in a complete DVD box set, we’d have a much fuller sense of this extraordinary artist’s legacy.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography will be released in June 2016 – you should order an advance copy now.

Tina Hassannia – No DVDs of Many Films by Women Directors

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

Tina Hassannia has a superb article on the lack of DVDs of films directed by women in Movie Mezzanine.

As she notes, “one consistent request on Twitter from female film critics and cinephiles in particular is more female-directed films. Last month, film critic Sophie Mayer analyzed Criterion’s entire collection and found that only 21 of their titles were directed or co-directed by women (including films released under Criterion’s Eclipse banner). That’s 2.6% of the whole collection, which in Mayer’s estimation is a ‘pretty meagre number.’

As telling as that number might be about a potential gender bias, the statistic only scratches the surface of what is a much broader and more complicated picture when it comes to releasing female-directed films on home video. It’s worth pointing out other characteristics of Criterion’s collection in relation to that figure.

While Mayer notes a higher number of films are directed by women in mainstream film—a still-measly 7%—Criterion’s titles represent a diverse number of cinemas that do not fall necessarily in the mainstream category; it would likely be impossible to determine the percentage of women directors in every national cinema around the world since the birth of movies. That number is likely to be much lower than 7%.

The 2.6% number also doesn’t account for the decades when there were few working women directors around the world. While women directed movies in the early Hollywood era, the profession became mostly male territory by the 1930s, and for several subsequent decades, there were almost no female directors working at all in the studio system (with some notable exceptions, like Ida Lupino). Even by the 1960s, some of the world cinemas we cherish today were only starting to find their roots and hadn’t yet standardized the practice, or even implicitly decided to allow, encourage, or prohibit women to helm a picture.

There were also more notable films made by women in the 1930s-1960s in other types of cinema—like avant-garde, independent, and documentary films—than in Hollywood. This hasn’t changed that much in the last half-century, as the gender bias in Hollywood continues to be a systemic problem. Even so, think of your favorite female-directed films: no matter which genre or country they hail from, the largest percentage were likely made in the 1970s or later.

Despite the continuing gender bias, more women have been making movies of note in the last 30 to 40 years than in the decades preceding. This is an important factor to consider, as more than half of Criterion’s collection are films that were made in the 1930s-’70s. Much of their library derives from a period when there were generally fewer working female filmmakers.

Instead of relying on statistics to examine Criterion’s collection, then, it may be more helpful to think of women-directed titles that deserve a deluxe treatment. No matter what the numbers, statistics, or decades show, given their power, Criterion would go a long way in challenging the canon by releasing more titles made by women. But the reality is that releasing films from a smaller demographic is much more difficult than one might imagine.

Last week, I queried Twitter for female-directed titles that should get the Criterion treatment. Great responses poured in, among them the films of Dorothy Arzner and Maya Deren, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, Barbara Loden’s Wanda, and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning. Some of these films, however, are already available from other distributors, some with restorations and supplements that are on par with or close to the quality associated with Criterion.”

All I can do is second this heartily, but also note that in addition to the directors mentioned, I would love to see a complete box set of the films of Alice Guy – some of her films are out on a Gaumont two disc set – Lois Weber (pictured at the top of this post), Ida May Park, and especially Ida Lupino, who is mentioned in this article, but whose pioneering work deserves a complete box set of all her work in the 1950s, when she was the only female director working in Hollywood. In any event, this is a real issue, one that won’t go away, and one that needs to be rectified, not only by Criterion, but by all the archival DVD labels – and no EST downloads, either. DVDs – restored, remastered, pristine, living – are the only way to go here.

This is a sharp, impassioned article – you can read the entire essay by clicking here.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Suspiria (1976)

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Here’s an interesting new book on Dario Argento’s classic horror film, Suspiria.

Part of the relatively new series of short monographs on individual horror films, Devil’s Advocates, published by Auteur Press in the UK and distributed in the US by Columbia University Press, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas‘ take on Suspiria is at once original and deeply subversive, for as the notes for the volume argue, “as one of the most globally recognizable instances of 20th century Eurohorror, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976) is poetic, chaotic, and intriguing. The cult reputation of Argento’s baroque nightmare is reflected in the critical praise it continues to receive almost 40 years after its original release, and it appears regularly on lists of the greatest horror films ever.

For fans and critics alike, Suspiria is as mesmerizing as it is impenetrable: the impact of Argento’s notorious disinterest in matters of plot and characterization combines with Suspiria’s aggressive stylistic hyperactivity to render it a movie that needs to be experienced through the body as much as through emotion or the intellect. For its many fans, Suspiria is synonymous with European horror more broadly, and Argento himself is by far the most famous of all the Italian horror directors.

If there was any doubt of his status as one of the great horror auteurs, Argento’s international reputation was solidified well beyond the realms of cult fandom in the 1990s with retrospectives at both the American Museum of the Moving Image and the British Film Institute. This book considers the complex ways that Argento weaves together light, sound and cinema history to construct one of the most breathtaking horror movies of all time, a film as fascinating as it is ultimately unfathomable.”

This is a really sharp book, and an excellent series, which seems to take its inspiration from the long-beloved BFI series on individual film classics, but concentrating on one genre – the horror film – alone. Volumes in the series thus far include studies of the classic British horror film Dead of Night (1945 – and a particular favorite of mine), Nosferatu, The Curse of Frankenstein, John Carpenter’s version of The Thing and many others – there are so many potential candidates for examination that this series seems to be just beginning.

I’d love to see a volume on Terence Fisher’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula), or Roger Corman’s version of The Pit and The Pendulum, right off the top of my head, and the writers are all clearly enthusiastic about their work, so I’m sure we’ll see books on these key films shortly. Brief, compact, and authoritative, these are the volumes to beat on these classic genre films, and augur well for the continuation of the series, which seems to have really filled a niche. In any event, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ book on Suspiria is a good place to start – and then you can go on from there.

This is an intriguing group of short volumes – well worth exploring.

BFI Restores Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965)

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

Peter Watkins’ The War Game is a terrifying look at how our future could go horribly wrong.

On March 28th, 2016, the BFI will bring Peter Watkins’ controversial BBC productions Culloden (1964),  a brilliant reconstruction of the famous battle of 1746, and the Academy Award-winning The War Game (1965), which was banned from TV screens for twenty years, to Blu-ray for the first time. Both films have been newly remastered to High Definition and will be presented together in a Dual Format Edition (also contains a DVD). An array of special features includes a new interview by film editor Michael Bradsell, who worked with Peter Watkins at the BBC, audio commentaries for both films and short films about each one.

Hailed as a breakthrough when it was first broadcast in 1964, Culloden – which brilliantly reconstructs the famous battle of 1746 – stunned viewers by approaching its historical subject matter in the style of contemporary TV news coverage. Watkins’ The War Game, about a limited nuclear attack on Kent, blended fact and fiction to create a disturbing vision of the personal and public consequences of such an attack. Banned from TV screens for twenty years, it was through its cinema release in 1966 – and its Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967 – that it gained a loyal and vociferous following.

As Wikipedia effectively summarizes the narrative of The War Game, “filmed in black-and-white with a running time of just under 50 minutes, The War Game depicts the prelude to and the immediate weeks of the aftermath to a Soviet nuclear attack against Britain. A Chinese invasion of South Vietnam starts the war; tensions escalate when the United States authorizes tactical nuclear warfare against the Chinese. Although Soviet and East German forces threaten to invade West Berlin if the US does not withdraw that decision, the US does not acquiesce to communist demands and the invasion takes place; two US Army divisions attempt to fight their way into Berlin to counter this, but the Russian and East German forces overwhelm them in conventional battle.

In order to turn the tide, the US president authorizes the NATO commanders to use their tactical nuclear weapons, and they soon do so. An escalating nuclear war results, during which larger Russian strategic IRBMs are launched at Britain. The film remarks that many Soviet missiles were, at the time, believed to be liquid-fueled and stored above ground, making them vulnerable to attack, and hypothesizes that in any nuclear crisis, the USSR would be obliged to fire all of them as early as possible in order to avoid their destruction by counter-attack, hence the rapid progression from tactical to strategic nuclear exchange.

In the chaos just before the attack, towns and cities are evacuated and residents forced to move to the country. The Medway town of Rochester is struck by an off-target missile aimed at RAF Manston, a target which, along with the Maidstone barracks, is mentioned in scenes showing the immediate effects of the attack. The missile’s explosion causes instant flash blindness of those nearby, followed by a firestorm caused by the blast wave. Later, society collapses due to overwhelming radiation sickness and the depletion of food and medical supplies.

There is widespread psychological damage and consequently a rising occurrence of suicide. The country’s infrastructure is destroyed; the British Army burns corpses, while police shoot looters during food riots. The provisional government becomes increasingly disliked due to its rationing of resources and use of lethal force, and anti-authority uprisings begin.

Civil disturbance and obstruction of government officers become capital offenses; two men are shown being executed by firing squad for such acts. Several bewildered orphan children are briefly featured, questioning whether they have any future and desire to be ‘nothing.’ The film ends bleakly on the first Christmas Day after the nuclear war, held in a ruined church with a vicar who futilely attempts to provide hope to his traumatized congregation. The closing credits include an instrumental version of Silent Night.”

Indeed, as Roger Ebert noted in his review of The War Game, “Watkins achieves remarkable authenticity. Using a hand-held camera and grainy newsreel film, he shows firemen dying of gas poisoning as the flames explode. The heat generated in the center of a firestorm, we are told, reaches 800 degrees. It creates an updraft so powerful that trees, automobiles and human bodies are sucked into it by 150 M.P.H. winds. All oxygen is drained from the atmosphere. As the voice continues, we see firemen plucked from the ground and literally blown into the flames.”

While Culloden is an excellent “you are there” recounting of the famous battle of that name, it’s Watkins’ The War Game which is the indispensable item on this disc. Commissioned and produced by the BBC, The War Game was nevertheless turned down flat for screening on British television at the last minute, right before the scheduled screening date of October 7, 1965. The BBC, in making the decision, said that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Watkins, predictably, was furious.

With a television screening thus blocked, the film was then released in the United States on a theatrical double bill with, of all things, Luis Buñuel’s allegorical featurette Simon of the Desert (1965), which has a running time of 42 minutes – so that the two films, presented together, constituted the length of an average single feature film. The “one two” punch of the films stunned audiences at time, and as mentioned above, The War Game was so realistic that it actually won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967 (emphasis added) – all the more astonishing because it is entirely a fiction film, although the possibility of such a war happening was, at the time, very real indeed.

Using non actors and actual locations, The War Game is perhaps the most realistic film ever made about the potential effects of nuclear war, and as Roger Ebert commented at the end of his four star review of the film, “they should string up bedsheets between the trees and show The War Game in every public park. It should be shown on television, perhaps right after one of those half-witted war series in which none of the stars ever gets killed. And, somehow, it should be shown to the leaders of the world’s nuclear powers, the men who have their fingers on the doomsday button. If the button is ever pushed, the world’s nuclear arsenal contains the equivalent of 20,000,000 tons of TNT apiece for you, and for me, and for every blessed person on this earth.”

The War Game - another classic film brilliantly restored by the British Film Institute.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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