Monday 31 August 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (14) - Black Jack (1950) Reviewed by Max Berghouse

Blackjack. Dir: Julien Duvivier, (& Jose Antonio Nieves Conde), Script; Julien Duvivier, With George Sanders/ Mike Alexander, Herbert Marshall/ Doctor James Curtis, Patricia Roc/ Ingrid Dekker, Agnes Moorehead/Emily Birk, Marcel Dalio/ Captain Nikarescu,, 90 minutes, France/Spain, 1950
I have long wanted to watch a full and good copy of this film but had been thwarted for about 20 years. Even for a late middle-aged viewer (myself) an actioner – swashbuckling film was not going to go astray. Although I had seen the film more or less intact, but the prior copies were very poor – so I thought. Now having assured myself that I had a very good copy, it's clear that much of the film is quite poorly recorded. This contrasts sharply with the director's usual (admittedly studio based) high standards of production. I'm very pleased to have seen the film but I doubt that my review will give it significantly higher ratings than have existed previously and largely continuously. This is an able, only just, substantially commercial film, with quite severe technical limitations, which nonetheless ought to be seen by aficionados of this director as a matter of completion. But it is nowhere near any of his best works and contrasts poorly with the film that preceded Au Royaume des Cieux, (1949)) it and that which followed it Sous le Ciel de Paris (1951)).

As an aside, but possibly important to some, the long-standing Cahiers du Cinema criticism of Duvivier as not being an auteur, seems to me, entirely unjustified. His films are redolent of a bleak and pessimistic view of the world. In this film, basically everyone is crooked, even if not overtly criminal.

A group of actors, all pass their prime, at least in terms of repute, star in this film: George Sanders (Mike Alexander), Herbert Marshall (Dr James Curtis), Patricia Roc (Ingrid Decker) and Agnes Moorehead (Emily Birk). The usually excellent Marcel Dalio (Captain Nikarescu) seems to have substantially forgotten the English he used so well during his stay in America in World War II. None is more than serviceable. Mr Sanders shows a louche indifference to his acting which tended to characterise in my view most of his roles throughout the 1950s and beyond. As everyone knows that indifference culminated in his suicide. The very reliable Mr Marshall who is obviously English (and definitely "of our class dear") is an American doctor and I spent far too much of his time on screen trying to work out which of his legs was the wooden one. He displayed quite remarkable balance and I was unable to work out which it was although I believe it is his left. So much for my interaction with his performance! Patricia Roc, a quite beautiful woman, was nonetheless far too old to play the role of ingenue and Agnes Moorehead was quite severely hampered by post sync dubbing which made her voice very sharp, high and brittle.

Other reviewers have drawn parallels between this storyline and To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, USA, 1944). To me it seems more like a latter-day Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) in which there is on offer a prize for him or her who can get it, of escape from poor broken Europe to the high life of America (or something like it). The prize in this case is a large shipment of illicit drugs from Asia which if received by the procurer of it, Mike Alexander, will give him back as he sees it, the three years he spent in war service for America. Apart from being a drug runner (ameliorated by the fact that this is his first and proposed only shipment of heavy drugs), his normal trade is smuggling between Spain and presumably North Africa, a variety of much less toxic materials: silks, and whatever. He falls for Ingrid Decker, apparently a Swede, although for the life of me why a citizen of that country would be forced to be a refugee without passport or money, rather escapes me. Possibly the reason is on the cutting room floor.

No one is as he or she appears. Dr Curtis is in fact a member of the US narcotics administration, tracking the drugs. Emily Birk, apparently a socialite, is in fact a smuggling competitor of Mike, intent on grabbing the loot from him. Nikarescu seems to have his hands full in pretty much every illicit scheme going. His ancient freighter holds a cargo of refugees, whom he sells out and ultimately drowns and for reasons not fully identified, is also after the drugs. The apparent toyboy of Emily Birk, very much the vaseline stud of the period, is in fact an investigating police inspector!

The above would seem to indicate a fairly light handed contempt for the film, but within its limits, I quite enjoyed it. It is what it is and it is of its day. The director hated it. The main production was in Majorca where production dragged on for an interminable seven months. All film stock had to be sent to the mainland for processing so that the director had very late access to his rushes. Unusually for this period of French "professional production", there is a very significant use of location footage. It is very well handled and given that much of the dialogue is post sync (and often very muffled), one suspects that the director did not have access to sufficiently good and relevant equipment. However this has to be contrasted with the fact that some scenes don't mesh very well with their predecessor or successor scenes, so the director was clearly not fully in charge of his material.

Attention should be given to some quite excellent scenes produced on an oceangoing Windjammer (this is the boat upon which our carried the drugs). It looks like the genuine Spanish Navy cadet training ship! On the deck there is a folkloric dancing scene of appropriately dressed peasant dances. That must have pleased the Fascist regime of Gen Franco.

The film is listed as in "English" and this is consistent with the native language of most of the main actors. I would have guessed but have no assurance that there were other prints made in other European languages for consumption in those countries.

The climax of the film is a sea chase on fast motor launches between Mike and Ingrid, trying to get to international waters, being pursued by the police. If examined closely it is not technically very efficient but I was quite enthralled by the fact that the director was prepared to use cameras at sea, even though there is also some evidence of matte work. Naturally there has to be a cruel ending in this director's work, so Mike is shot in escaping and may well have died, just as safety is reached. Ingrid is left to look "all pale and wan".

Examining the film and particularly its script, it is hard to see that the director had high aspirations and he certainly has not achieved high results. But if one accepts this as his sole aspiration, the film is eminently worth watching. I enjoyed it.

Sunday 30 August 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (13) - Reports from enthusiasts

David Young writes: Thanks for including me in Geoff's Julien Duvivier quest. I am not as familiar with his work as some of the other respondees (I should be; we share the same birthdate, although he was 53 when I was born...).

I really like Pepe le Moko (1937) and parts of Tales of Manhattan (1942), the Edward G Robinson and the Charles Laughton sequences particularly. I think I may have seen Poil de carotte (1932) at the WEA film group years ago but I don't remember anything about it.

The one I would really like to see is David Golder (1931). It was from the novel by Irene Nemirovsky,who apparently co-scripted it with Duvivier). Nemirovsky, sadly, lost her life in 1942 in a concentration camp following her arrest by French authorities and it wasn't until 60 years later that her uncompleted masterpiece Suite Francais was discovered by her daughter and subsequently published in 2006.

Richard Keys writes in response to a request for his favourites
Poil de Carotte (Red Head) (1932)is great, almost unbearably  sad.
Pepe Le Moko (1937) wonderful, Gabin perfect in the role.
Tales of Manhattan (1942) a mixed bag, the Edward G Robinson story good, the Paul Robeson one racist idiocy. No wonder Paul wanted that and the odious Sanders of  the River (1935) withdrawn!

Ken Wallin writes: On the Duvivier front, would you believe that I caught up with one on my wish list last week? It was the silent Poil de Carrotte (1925).  I had a copy and hadn't realized it. It confirms Duvivier's engagement with all the devices of French silents, for example when the father realises how 'Carrot Top' has been exploited and abused we see M. Lepic in the farmyard surrounded by five images of the boy slaving away. Nonetheless I prefer the sound version, (although I have only seen it at WEA (twice) some years back), because the performances are more affecting. Harry Baur was a great actor and I think the story is more tightly handled. The silent has a subplot involving the older brother and a 'bad' woman that I don't recall in the sound version.

The Duvivier Dossier (12) - David Hare writes on Duvivier's silent films

Serious cinephile David Hare writes: This is the first of a proposed two part essay on Duvivier which arose out of a topic post on the Film Alert blog. It is largely in response to some provocative posts  from Sydney/Melbourne film guru Bruce Hodsdon. If I survive the rhinovirus currently eating my brain I will post part 2.
PART 1 (of 2) - SILENCE
If I were a visitor from Planet Cinephilia and I was asked to explain the relative invisibility of this director on any contemporary canon or critical list this is what I might have thought.
The history of 20s silent French cinema is one littered with the bodies of wannabes, poseurs and dilettantes whose interest in film was next to zero, from whom one has to fight to extract the gold. At best as a movement it exhibits some premium values of 20s avant-gardism, including continuing tendencies from surrealism, and especially the new Russian formalists and technicians the latter of which would happily persist into French feature making during the 30s. A few notable directors come out of it – Epstein, L’Herbier, Maurice Tourneur and Gance in particular and all of these would continue careers in different directions into the sound era and commercial cinema.
For the rest we have three important major directors. One is a young Jean Gremillon whose silent beginnings are demonstrably and uniquely spectacular and immediately on display in two complete masterpieces, Maldone (1928) and the brilliant Gardiens de Phare (1929) (The Lighthouse Keepers). Gremillon’s earlier silent work includes two moyen-metrage/55 minute length pictures designed for audio sonorization with external sources including piano rolls, but the prints no longer exist. The piano rolls for one do and have been performed in recent years. Maurice Tourneur’s silent career is almost a blank to me in research terms, but a young Marcel Carne arrives on the scene in 1929 with one superb, evocatively poetic film, Noges; Eldorado du Dimanche -an homage to the Ginguette, or the riverside bistrot so beloved of early 20th Century Parisians on their one weekly day off.
And then there is Renoir and the young Julien Duvivier who, like Renoir had a silent beginning that is to me at least bumpy, stilted and often less than consistently good, with both directors frankly not yet finding their technical and stylistic feet.

Of Duviv’s extant silent films I have only seen three (and I believe there are not many more extant). Chronologically the first is his silent adaptation of the then newly published Poil de Carotte (Carrot Top)(1925) a semi autobiographical Kleenex clencher which he later remade with great critical and commercial success as a talkie in 1933. This talkie version will be included in the forthcoming Eclipse set and it’s a flawless demonstration of Duviv’s ease and visual fluidity with adapted literary material, a skill once mastered he carried with him throughout his career. The silent version seems uncharitably cast, the first of its problems to put it plainly, and it fails to really move beyond quite static and frontal “proscenium” mise en scene, nor does it harvest the narrative to cinematic needs, nor does it apparently engage visually with its subject. It’s an unmoving film in all senses and It feels very much to me like a project for which the director was not yet ready in 1925. I take a similar view of Maman Colibri from 1929, another relatively dull and static screenplay bound film visually and dramatically. Prior to this Duviv tried out a short essay in crypto avant garde/gag mystery film style with Le Mystere de la Tour Eiffel in 1927. The best one can say is it’s of a piece with a dozen other similar short silents which seem to be predicated on taking more portable cameras out of studios and into well recognized plein air locations for audience thrills. It’s minor if quite enjoyable.
Au Bonheur des Dames, Julien Duvivier, 1930
But the same year just as sound is making inroads (via RCA’s Photophone system initially) he directs a silent adaptation of Zola of the opening of a new department store, Au Bonheur des Dames (Ladies Joy), the name of a fictional new department store opening in Paris which threatens the livelihood of a small family business across the street, which was made in the wake of the recent real life opening of the Galeries Lafayatte Department Store in Paris. Never mind old sourpuss Zola, this is the film in which I believe Duvivier lights up and takes off as a major, distinctive director.
Among many stylistic talismans It features centrally and more than once a characteristic transition shot device Duviv seems to have invented which has the lead, apparently walking left to right medium shot in profile (on a treadmill in all likelihood) against a transparency matte of the passing street and location footage which he cuts and lap dissolves during the real time shot of the walking actor to express physical and emotional transition. And as was to become a characteristic, Duivivier  stayed close to the zeitgeist and the pulse of the day in his movies. This version of a travelling matte shot was a device he would come back to in critical dramatic moments in several 30s pictures including La Tete d’un Homme (1933), La Bandera (1935) and Pepe le Moko (1937). By 1937 he seems to abandon it, perhaps considering it by now too technically crude, but its formal power is nevertheless striking. Au Bonheur des Dames is blessed with the cast from Paradise ca. 1929 including Harry Baur (the first of many films they made together) ,the wonderful Dita Parlo who had not yet made L’Atalante (1934), and the emblematic (to me anyway) waif-winsome par excellence Nadia Siborskaya, wife/muse of the self-styled émigré Dimitri Kirsanoff and star of his best two films, Menilmontant (1926) and Rapt (1934).

The pacing, direction of performance, and decoupage, staging, camera movement and lighting, in fact the whole mise en scene of this silent feature is the first and prime demonstration of his now full mastery of the medium, as though he had just stepped into movies fully armed with a personal technique and expressive form. And it’s my proposition that in this giddy realm Duvivier remains without a single dive in quality for the next ten years.

The Duvivier Dossier (11) - Au Royaume des Cieux (1949) reviewed by Max Berghouse

Au royaume des cieux/ English titles include The Sinners, Kingdom of Heaven,  Dir: Julien Duvivier, Sc: Julien Duvivier, Dialogue: Henri Jeanson, With: Serge Reggiani/Pierre, Suzanne Cloutier/Maria Lambert, Suzy Prim/Mademoiselle Chamblas, Christiane Lenier/ Dédée, Nadine Basile/Gaby, Monique Mélinand/ Mademoiselle Guérande, Jean Davy/Antonin. L’aumonier, Liliane Maigné/Margot 108 minutes, France, 1949.

Fundamentally this exquisite film concerns brutality in a French girls' reformatory in the immediate post-World War II period. In the grim weather of an incipient flood somewhere in rural France, an elderly police car battles rain and rising floodwaters (very effectively shot!) to take the young and innocent Maria Lambert (Suzanne Cloutier) innocent of anything that warrants being incarcerated, while at the same time the headmistress, a kindly soul, dies from heart attack while conversing with the "director", a senior civil servant in Paris. The telephone is picked up by Miss Chamblas (Suzy Prim), her deputy, and by simple chance she becomes administrator. By contrast, she is rigid, hostile, authoritarian and her behaviour reveals, ( at least to me) very strong homoerotic, or stronger, relationships to the inmates: about 50 girls all guilty of more or less serious breaches of moral or criminal law – the majority clearly prostitutes, working in this field, without much or any free choice.

The casting is uniformly good although it must be acknowledged that "the girls", probably all intended to be in their late teens are in fact mature actresses in their 20s. But it is very hard to imagine genuinely young actresses being able to act as convincingly as these actresses in fact do. Ultimately, collectively, except for Maria they are a band of very likeable "goodtime girls". Maria does, as she is intended to do, stand out. She reveals that she has a boyfriend Pierre (Serge Reggiani) an electrician and subsequent to a generalised cacophony that men are faithless, the girls become convinced of his fidelity to her, especially as they learn that he is coming from the city to rescue her. Reggiani is very convincing as an everyday "Joe" whose sole notable positive feature is his devotion to Maria.

With so much information about plotlines currently available, I don't wish to spend too much time in details rather to point out a number of production decisions which move the plot along very forcefully. Firstly, and as previously mentioned, the quality of acting in which a variety of very similar "roles", basically multiples of "bad girls" are subtly and intriguingly differentiated. Secondly the integration of genuine exterior footage (the rising river) with its clearly delineated negative import and studio sets. In particular, the village church to which the girls as a choir, attend by boat on Christmas Day (thus providing the opportunity for Maria and Pierre to escape) which as a set is flooded, is exceptionally dextrous

Thirdly the sexual frisson is handled and faced quite directly but without any attempt at prurient interest. In particular the clearly disturbed Miss Chamblas makes very uncomfortable viewing. No film is ever better than when it moves us into uncomfortable emotional situations! Fourthly while we can believe in the redemptive power of love, as perceived by the other girls in relation to Maria and which we acknowledge will fortify them in the years ahead, we as viewers are nonetheless struck in the very last scene with Pierre and Marie struggling in the rain and the swamp of the flooded river banks, with a very doubtful future ahead. Again the pessimism and realism of the director is absolutely convincing.

I have previously
pointed  to a possible political subtext in this director's work. It is true that in the immediate post-war period, left leaning and particular Marxist views were pretty much the norm. That is essentially, that the "personal is political". It may be going too far to suggest that innocent Maria being brutalised by a corrupt administrator, is symbolic for France and the Nazis. However, the audience at the time would have had a quite clear reference point in the treatment by the Germans of the French during the Occupation, which was similarly (notwithstanding any platitudinous wording) solely for the benefit of the Germans. In this context I note a quite superbly executed scene in which the new headmistress tries to tempt the girls from the hunger strike with a nourishing soup in a huge pot. The French would have had clear memories of food shortages and the despair that encouraged. We who view the film now are separated from these sort of immediate parallels of experience, but the film exists independently of them.

Amongst the minor characters Jean Davy as the priest Father Antonin reflects what most people thought of the Catholic Church during the period, well-intentioned but weak. Rarely seen on film, Davy was a very distinguished stage actor.
Finally the vicious headmistress is taken out of action by an attack by a very large guard dog, "Goliath". Such is the pessimism of the director that he quite frequently relies upon non-humans to correct transgressions. She is replaced by a much more sympathetic assistant headmistress Miss Guérande (a very attractive if somewhat bland Monique Méliland) who promises to reintroduce all the more liberal policies of the old headmistress who suffered the fatal heart attack: and more or less forgetting what has so recently gone on. Again very similar to the behaviour of France after the war.

I really tried to engage with this film without drawing political/historical parallels because it stands on its own as a very powerful emotional work which is not overly melodramatic. The political parallels amplify the depth and quality of the film.

When one considers Duvivier's work in Hollywood, only a few short years prior, his work now in France on his return is so much more mature and rounded and consistent with a philosophy of life, which although pessimistic, is exceptionally well thought out and conveyed.

Saturday 29 August 2015

AFTRS - Comments on the quality curve

In an earlier post which you can find here , comment was made about what the school is up to these days and especially about the fall in the numbers of feature film directors being produced by the institution

There has been a bit of comment. I'm not always putting any names to these. More later....

A veteran producer: Gosh.

A former employee: The change to larger numbers of directing students coincided with the move to Moore Park.  The deviation from that model of delivery resulted in no director having made a feature. This also means that the creative teams that assembled for these projects from the relationships formed at film school are largely moot. That same change in direction also saw the dismissal of the craft areas as non creative technicians contributing only to servicing the directors vision with little or no value add. Neil has quite a task ahead of him.”

Scholar, cinephile, economist and film industry observer, Bruce Hodsdon comments: Geoff, the figures that you quote in illustration of the declining productive output of feature films by new graduate directors of the FTRS does seem to contain something of a conundrum. Given the increasingly limited opportunities for Oz features in the face of failing audience interest, as reflected by the bo returns, the maintenance of new grads: feature films ratio would seemingly have to be at the expense of older grads. Yet one of the criticisms over the years has been the apparent failure to address the lack of on-going opportunities for directors with one or two features under their belts, a criticism I think we have both made in the past. In other words addressing one problem ensures the continuation of the other. There is also the question of how many recent grads (not just directors), of the last 10 years or so have found productive work in tv drama, for example. On the face of it, however, it would seem that this would be unlikely to redress the balance.

I dont think this should be considered as a zero sum game. AFTRS was established with certain goals, most notably providing a sound conduit for the highly talented into the film industry.The expectation surely was that the cutting edge and most prestigious part of the industry, the production of internationally acclaimed and successful feature films, would be significantly and continuously bolstered by AFTRS work. If AFTRS isn't doing it then it has no reason to exist. There is plenty more training available which doesn't cost the taxpayer large annual subventions. The odious Abbott Government's most recent Commission of Audit recommended that the place be sold off to a state government, presumably NSW,and incorporated within the state education system. If AFTRS isn't producing elite practitioners then its in trouble and you could see it disappear within say half a decade when sooner or later parsimony, flint-hearted officialdom and the lack of success could combine for its demise.

Friday 28 August 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (10) - A Facebook follow-up to Bruce Hodsdon's thoughts

For those of you who are interested may I direct you to a most informative exchange between Bruce Hodsdon and fellow cinephile and scholar David Hare which is on my Facebook page at 

It further delves into the concepts advanced by scholar Dudley Andrew in his book at left.

Thursday 27 August 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (9) - Bruce Hodsdon reflects on Duvivier's status and Dudley Andrew's texts

I invited Bruce Hodsdon to contribute to this dossier assembling exercise and he responded in a most thoughtful way thus: Having come seriously to cinema surfing on the New Wave (especially taking in Truffaut's political assault on Cinema de Papa translated in the short lived Cahiers du Cinema in English) I consigned Duvivier to journeyman status on the slimmest of first hand evidence. David Thomson's later dismissal in his bio dictionary ("a man who managed to always look spruce but seldom original or interesting...displaying a cyclical complacency in remaking several of his own films" ) did not encourage reappraisal. One of course wonders how many of D's films DT has actually seen - he singles out about a dozen - none for anything that can be construed as positive comment beyond commercial success.  D is taken to task by Thomson for his failure "to celebrate beautiful women"  - "an uneasy " Vivien Leigh in Anne Karenina and subsequently Darrieux , Arnoul and Presle.

Now I've received the note below which draws upon some of the keys texts on classical French Cinema.

Julien Duvivier

Key films: David Golder (31); Poil de carotte (32); La Tete d'un homme (33)*; Maria Chapdelaine (34); La Bandera (35)*+; Pepe le Moko (36)*+; La Belle equipe (36)*+; Le Fin du jour (37)*; Un Carnet de bal(37)*; Panique (46); Voici le temps des assassins/Deadlier Than the Male (56)*+
*also co-script.   + with Jean Gabin.

It is surprising to find Sam Rohdie making the case for Duvivier as a superb craftsman, finding more thematic consistency than has been generally acknowledged, including thematic accord between Duvivier's and Rossellini's films.

Rohdie was interested in writing that produces paradoxes, no better illustrated than in his monograph on Antonioni, the most provocatively interesting I have read on the films of that director. One looks forward to Rohdie's last work, Film Modernism, to be published next month (September 2015), to which the Duvivier essay seems related. It does, however, fall short in the placement of Duvivier's eclecticism, most notably failing to acknowledge Dudley Andrew's analysis of the nature of Duvivier's central role in poetic realism that stands ambiguously apart from his other work. This is developed more fully in Andrew's book Mists of Regret written ten years after his summing up, excerpted below from The International Dictionary of Cinema (1984), that might best be summed up in Andrew's phrase quoted below, describing Duvivier as a skilled and committed “yeoman of the industry”.

“No one speaks of Duvivier without apologising. So many of his 60 odd films are embarrassing to watch that it is hard to believe that he was ever in charge of his career in the way we like to imagine that Renoir and Clair were in charge of theirs. There is justice in this response. Duvivier had neither the luxury nor the contacts to direct his career...Duvivier began and remained a yeoman of the industry.”

Duvivier made over a score of silent films, commercially successful, but mostly otherwise undistinguished melodramas.

“His reputation jumped as a reliable, efficient director when he made a string of small but successful films such as David Golder and Poil de carotte in the early years of sound. Evidently his flair for the melodramatic and his ability to control powerful actors put him far ahead of the average French director trying to cope with the problems of sound. But in this era, as always, Duvivier discriminated little among the subjects he filmed”.

But in the mid thirties Duvivier hit his stride with La Bandera (France, 1935):
“Its success was the first of a set of astounding films including La Belle equipe, Pepe-le-Moko, Un Carnet de bal and Le Fin du jour...Like Michael Curtiz and Casablanca, Duvivier's style and the actors who played out the roles in his dramas spoke for a whole generation...vaguely hopeful of the popular front, but expecting the end of the day. Duvivier’s's contribution to these films lies in more than the direction of actors. Every film contains at least one scene of remarkable expressiveness...Duvivier's sureness of pace brought him a Hollywood contract even before the Nazi invasion forced him to leave France.

“Without the strong personality of Renoir or Clair, and with far more experience in genre pictures, Duvivier fitted in well with American methods. (Yet) he deplored the lack of personal control or even personal contribution. But he acquitted himself well until the Liberation.

“Hoping to return to the glory years of poetic realism, his first postwar project in France, Panique, replicated the essence of the style: sparse sets, atmosphere dominating a reduced but significant murder drama...The film failed and Duvivier began what would become a lifelong search for the missing formula... Only Camillo with Fernandel put him in the spotlight.

“Believing far more in experience, planning, and hard work than in spontaneity and genius, he never relaxed. Every film taught him something and, by rights, he should have ended a better director than ever. But he will be remembered for those five years in the late 1930s when his every choice of script and direction was in tune with the romantically pessimistic sensibility of the country.”

“Duvivier is often accused of being eclectic, if highly competent craftsman who bought little personal commitment to his work. He typically found his subject matter in popular fiction, and his cinematic style could vary enormously, depending on his material.”( Alan Williams).

Although on the right of the film industry politically, it is debatable how much this is reflected in Duvivier's films especially La Belle Equipe with its focus on working class unemployment made around the time of the Popular Front. Apart from Jean Renoir's Popular Front films, on the left the films of committed socialist Jean Gremillon, for example, are considered to show no more signs of political orientation than Duvivier's, with which Gremillon's films share a poetic realist sensibility.

Duvivier saw the work as imposing the style on the director and not the other way round. His only concern was to bring out the spirit and character of each subject and compose an appropriate atmosphere.

Gabin and Annabella, La Bandera
Despite his pragmatic choice of subjects and eclectic approach to style, a recurring thematic interest has been discerned in his oeuvre: the often tragic plight of isolated individuals, something Duvivier  shared with his contemporary, Jacques Feyder, but placed more directly by Duvivier in social context. There were defining roles for Jean Gabin whom Duvivier directed ten times. In two of Duvivier's best films, Pepe-le-Moko and Le Fin de jour, the central character is in exile.

 Duvivier was a consummate craftsman who “showed an astonishing precision: even before placing his actors he could tell you where he wanted the camera, the dimensions of the support and the type of lens ...he had it all in his head.” (cinematographer Michael Kelber is quoted by Colin Crisp).

Although in outlook Duvivier's professionalism and pragmatism seemed in accord with the Hollywood studio system, he found the strict division of labour meant he had much less overall control than he enjoyed as a director in the French system.

Dudley Andrew discusses Duvivier's career at greater length in his near definitive Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film (1995).
See also: Republic of Images, A History of French Filmmaking by Alan Williams (1992) and The Classic French Cinema,1930-60 by Colin Crisp (1997).

Tuesday 25 August 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (8) Richard Brennan's favourites and wanna sees

My Top Five 

Poil de Carotte (1932)
Pepe le Moko (1937)
Panique (1946)
Tales of Manhattan (1942)
The Devil and the 10 Commandments (1962)

I would most like to see

La Belle Equipe (1936)
Voici le Temps des  Assassins (1956)
La Fin du Jour (1939)
Flesh and Fantasy (1943)

David Golder (1931)

Monday 24 August 2015

AFTRS and the quality curve

In the ten years between 1993 and 2002, the Australian Film, Television & Radio School produced 29 graduates who have directed 55 feature films.

In the ten years between 2003 and 2012, the School produced 3 graduates who have directed 5 feature films.

So what’s gone wrong? My current interest in AFTRS started some little time ago when there were mutterings that there was some sort of skulduggery going on in relation to the appointment of the next CEO. Such things always pique the curiosity, especially when it comes to institutions that are spending your hard-earned taxes. This was taking place against a background of the re-introduction of a three year degree course at the institution and the hiring of Ben Gibson  the former head of the London Film School, to come out here and run the Degree Program. The proof that it was happening is here. My goodness, a job for a wrangler there. But I digress.

Some six months earlier an announcement  about the Degree Program was posted. It noted “The new BA will be the most in-depth and creatively comprehensive screen degree in the world. Designed to prepare Australia’s next generation of creative practitioners to be the leaders in their respective fields, the degree will provide a deeply engaging learning experience that will develop critical thinking and creative engagement.

“It will prepare graduates to be nimble operators in a platform agnostic world. It fuses deep scholarly engagement with the art of storytelling. Two core subjects, ‘Story & Writing’ and ‘The History of Film’ run for three years as well as elective specialist subjects. Throughout the three-year program exciting opportunities for collaboration with other students are fundamental to the course. 
OK, some licence and hyperbole can always be tolerated and whomever came up with the phrase "nimble operators in a platform agnostic world" earned their pay that day.

The announcement naturally made no mention of the abandonment of the Bachelor and Masters Degree Programs which had existed at AFTRS from 1984 to 2009 and that this was in fact a re-instatement of an academic qualification attained by the most prestigious school alumni, those feature film directors and award-winning technicians whose names are referred to over and over again when the school’s achievements are being broadcast. The CEOs of the institution covered by the period for which statistics and records have been examined through to the present were John O’Hara (1989-1995), Rod Bishop (1996-2003), Malcolm Long (2003-2007) and Sandra Levy.(2007-2015

Never mind that. Since then, there has been the appointment of a new CEO to follow Sandra Levy, (CEO from 2007-2015), The announcement  of Neil Peplow’s appointment took a seeming eternity and he has yet to take up his duties at least in situ. Peplow had formerly worked at AFTRS for three years from 2010-2014 before heading back to London to a position as number two at The Met Film School based at London’s Ealing Studios. His AFTRS appointment is his first gig as a CEO. 

The reason for the delay in announcing his appointment was subject of much gossip and speculation as to who and why but more recently as the gossip leaks out the delay has been sheeted home to the chaotic Cabinet appointment processes in the Prime Minister’s private office. The story now being put about is that George Brandis, the Arts Minister, apparently did not seek to intervene in the appointment notwithstanding much scuttlebutt to that effect going round during the weeks and eventually months it took before the appointment was announced.  

Brandis’s private office did not help this process by putting out ludicrously self-contradictory statements to any enquirers to the effect that the AFTRS Act allowed the Board to make the appointment but that Senator Brandis as Arts Minister would ‘approve it’.  The spinelessness of those who might have been able to clarify quite simply these matters as they unfolded was duly noted.

The appointment of Peplow followed in the wake of the somewhat surprise and near instant exit from the building of Ben Gibson  some 9 months into the job. “After nearly 13 years devoted to educating and developing talented filmmakers, first at the helm of the London Film School and more recently here at AFTRS, Ben has decided to pursue his passion for the industry through other avenues.” So went the announcement way back in May. For a period of time AFTRS was planning to survive without either a CEO or its head of Degree Programs. Worse things can happen I suppose.

The AFTRS story continued with a recent piece in The Hollywood Reporter, similar to a piece in the Hollywood Reporter last year, both of which nominated AFTRS as one of the top Film Schools in the world. But the mutterings about what was happening at AFTRS occasioned by the hiring and exiting of  the head of the Degree Program before even the completion of a year of the new program, Sandra Levy’s departure and the delay in the new CEO’s appointment have caused some consternation about what’s happening at the venerable institution. In the absence of any expressed vision from the school itself, the consternation has begun to focus especially on what AFTRS has actually been doing over the last decade when it abandoned its Degree Program, and whether it has allowed standards to slip, lost sight of its primary objectives, failed to produce any film-makers of note and degenerated in its teaching into a soft TAFE-like institution offering courses of high cost to the taxpayer who funds the institution but low value to the industry and the society into which the scores of certificate holders head.

Some measuring sticks AFTRS began life as an elite institution intended to find and develop the most talented would-be film-makers. Much has always been made of that extraordinary group of young people who were in the first so-called Interim class designed to get the thing up and moving including Phillip Noyce, Gillian Armstrong, Chris Noonan, Graham Shirley and James Ricketson. Whoever conducted the search for would be students did an amazing job. Later years saw a panoply of talent find its way to the school and benefit from the national largesse involved in training of the highest order. There was much envy at the resources, physical and financial, devoted to AFTRS from film schools in the outlying states which had to battle on with much more limited resources. But such is the way for elite training institutions.
Among the initiatives for which AFTRS could devote resources was that for the dedicated training of indigenous film-makers, initially held in 1991, 1993 and 1994. Over the next seven years AFTRS trained a whole generation of Indigenous filmmakers including Rachel Perkins, Warwick Thornton, Ivan Sen, Catriona McKenzie, Adrian Wills, Beck Cole, Steve McGregor and Darlene Johnson – all of whom were selected for the immersive, conservatory-type training courses in merit-based competition along with other applicants.

What was achieved? Well, this may smack of a bias towards elitism, but what was being aimed at was the production of film-makers who would make the highest quality films. They would win international as well as local prizes. They would be invited to the world’s great film competitions, in Europe most especially, where each year perhaps fifty films are identified by the international program selectors and endorsed by the international critical and distribution communities as the best on offer for this moment of time. This is an expensive process and one fraught with risk at many steps. A poor or sub-standard faculty, unsympathetic administrators, reductions in government funding and lots of other external factors can seriously and continuously blight an institution’s general level of achievement.

People are now taking a serious look at just what AFTRS did in the distant past and what it’s up to now as a new CEO arrives to take charge at a time when the school, from the start of 2015,apparently headed in a new direction. 

So here is a list to assist this contemplation (you have to love lists) gathered from all the available information including the admittedly (by AFTRS Alumni section) not up to date school website

Feature film directors graduating from AFTRS between 1993 to 2002

Peter Duncan  Children of the Revolution, 1996; A Little Bit of Soul, 1998; Passion, 1999; Unfinished Sky, 2007
Daniel Krige  West, 2007; Inhuman Resources, 2012
Andrew Lancaster  Accidents Happen, 2009;
Rowan Woods  The Boys, 1998; Little Fish 2005, Winged Creatures, 2009

Robert Connolly  The Bank, 2001; Three Dollars, 2005; Balibo, 2009, The Turning, 2014, Paper Planes, 2015
Sam Lang  The Well, 1997; Monkey’s Mask, 2000; L’Idole, 2002
Craig Monahan, The Interview, 1998; Peaches, 2003, Healing, 2014
Daniel Nettheim, Angst, 2000; The Hunter, 2011

Tony McNamara  The Rage in Placid Lake, 2003; Ashby, 2015
Anna Reeves  Oyster Farmer, 2004
Warwick Thornton  Samson and Delilah, 2009

Rachel Perkins  Radiance, 1999; One Night The Moon, 2001; Bran Nue Dae, 2009,
Michael James Rowland  Lucky Miles, 2007
Mark Forstmann  Monkey Puzzles, 2007
Martin Murphy  Lost Things, 2004

Adam Blaiklock  Caught Inside, 2011
Ivan Sen  Beneath Clouds, 2002; Dreamland, 2009; Toomelah, 2011, Mystery Road, 2014

Louise Alston  All My Friends are leaving Brisbane, 2007; Jucy, 2001
Serhat Caradee  Cedar Boys, 2008
Kim Farrant  Strangerland, 2015
Cate Shortland  Somersault, 2004; Lore, 2012

Sean Byrne  The Loved Ones, 2009; The Devil’s Candy, 2015
Tony Krawitz  Dead Europe, 2012
Claire McCarthy  Cross Life, 2007; The Waiting City, 2009
Catriona McKenzie, Satellite Boy, 2012
Steve Pasvolsky  Deck Dogz, 2004

Peter Carstairs  September, 2009
Beck Cole  Here I Am, 2011

Rupert Glasson - Coffin Rock, 2009; What Lola Wants, 2015

And here is another list from 2003 to 2012 (again gathered from all the available information including the admittedly not up to date AFTRS website.)

Alister Grierson  Kokoda, 2006; Sanctum, 2010

Dean Francis  Road Kill, 2009; Drown, 2015
Granaz Moussaui  My Tehran For Sale, 2010


I think you might be getting the picture of what concerns some of those who look to AFTRS for the continuing production of high quality talented individuals who will go on to participate in the cutting edge area of film production.

Now as these thoughts have been shopped around and discussed there have been some comments made. One of them suggests that another way to measure success is to look at the time taken between graduation and making a feature film.

Here’s a list of AFTRS graduates from 1993 - 2012 who directed a feature within five years of graduation:

Peter Duncan – 3 years
Alister Grierson - 3 years
Rowan Woods – 5 years
Sam Lang – 3 years
Craig Monahan – 4 years
Rachel Perkins – 3 years
Ivan Sen – 5 years
Cate Shortland – 5 years
Steve Pasvolsky – 3 years
Dean Francis – 4 years
Granaz Moussaui – 5 years

In total, 21 graduates directed a film within 10 years of graduation in the 1993 – 2003 period, compared with 3 graduates in the 2003-2012 period. No AFTRS graduate between 2006 and 2012 has made a feature 

Another factor should not be ignored. In the 2003 – 2012 period, low-budget/no-budget digital feature production became a reality. However, there is no evidence of any AFTRS graduate taking this up as an alternative funding pathway.

So, hopefully without labouring the point, let me summarise this: In the ten years between 1993 and 2002, the School produced 29 graduates who have directed 55 feature films.

In the ten years between 2003 and 2012, the School produced 3 graduates who have directed 5 feature films.

Since 2012, the school has not kept proper records, a matter it says it is rectifying, so any data that might affect these notes is not publicly available.

What is to be done.
The questions for Neil Peplow are interesting. A major change in the school’s activity was instituted at the start of 2015. Given the turmoil behind appointing a Head of Degree Programs and then seeing off that person in less than a year, it’s hard to see any change in the mindset of what’s currently being done. A new group of graduates will be through the school by the end of 2017 which might afford the opportunity to take stock and see just what has been achieved. None however will have directed a feature film and given past experience even among the best and brightest this could be five to ten years away.

Should anything be done before then? Should there be a root and branch look at things, preferably not something carried out by management consultants but one driven by the film industry? Maybe advice should also be sought from those associated with AFTRS teaching and administration in the days and decades from whence feature film directors who have made great and enduring films emerged.