Saturday 29 July 2023

The art of criticism and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN - Tom Ryan enthusiastically reviews a new book by Christian Keathley and Robert B. Ray

Before I came across the brilliant 112-page monograph (cover above) written by Christian Keathley and Robert B. Ray for the BFI Classics series (1), I thought I knew Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men pretty well. I first saw it at a preview at Melbourne’s Capitol cinema in 1976. And I still remember commenting to a friend on the stairs outside after the screening that, while I’d loved watching it, it didn’t seem to be doing much more than providing an efficiently made retelling of the Watergate story already available in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book of the same name. Boy, was I wrong.


After a second viewing, I reviewed it a little more thoughtfully for Cinema Papers later in the same year (2), pairing it with Fassbinder’s Mother Kuster’s Trip to Heaven on the grounds that both films took “as their ostensible subject the function of the press in contemporary Western society”. I argued that, rather than being the simple retelling I’d initially identified or an uncomplicated celebration of the importance of investigative journalism, as most reviews had been proposing, it was actually taking a probing look at the potential cost of that kind of work on those who do it. 


Woodward and Bernstein’s achievements were one thing; what was required to accomplish them were another. The reporters, I wrote, are presented as “detached from the human implications of their investigation and, indeed, seem incapable of relating to each other, or to anyone, on other than a professional level”. Ends and means.


Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward

It’s a view I still hold and one that Pakula, in his own way endorsed when I was lucky enough to interview him during his visit to Australia to promote Sophie’s Choice in the early 1980s (3). “It was a heroic story because what Woodward and Bernstein did, what they accomplished, turned out to be heroic,” he said. “The reality, though, was that these were not good guys against bad guys. The film is about how journalism functions. They were good journalists who were responsible about what they did in terms of trying to get their facts right because, if they didn’t, they’d be in trouble. But they were not knights in shining white armour who were out to do good. They were journalists obsessed with a certain job, obsessed with achieving success in a certain job. And therefore I tried not to glorify them.”

A fascinating aside (for me, at least). The release last year of Maria Schrader’s excellent She Said draws attention, by way of a comparison, to a hitherto overlooked aspect of All the President’s Men. That it’s very much about the way that men often behave in work situations. 


Alan J Pakula, Robert Redford

Like Pakula’s film, Schrader’s is based on an actual case, that of the investigation by two New York Times journalists, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, into the crimes of Harvey Weinstein. Like All the President’s Men, it’s based on a book by the two journalists and follows their attempts to get people to speak to them about the case. 


Viewed alongside All the President’s MenShe Said draws attention to the striking differences between how men might go about their assignment and how women might tackle theirs. The contrast couldn’t be clearer. Pakula’s men collaborate, and compete, with each other as professionals, doing what they have to do to get the job done without worrying too much about the moral implications of how they’re going about their task and the consequences for those who respond to their questions. Schrader’s women are just as skilled in how they do their jobs, but they mull over them, concerned about the women they talk to and the risks they’re taking, occasionally fumbling the ball in what they do and regretting it, even sometimes (in a very funny scene) worrying about the clothes they’re wearing. And whereas Pakula’s men are loners, only really at home when they’re at work, Schrader’s women have personal lives and are constantly torn between the obligations that they entail and their professional responsibilities .


Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, All the President's Men

This is all by way of introduction to Keathley and Ray’s monograph about the film, which was published earlier this year through Bloomsbury Press in the UK. Keathley is a Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College in the US and the author of several books, among them Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (2005); Ray is a Professor of English at the University of Florida and the author of A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930 – 1980 (1985), one of the finest books ever written about American cinema, as well as several others.


Not only do the pair make a great writing team – their prose is fluid, clear and concise – but they’ve produced the best analysis of the workings of a single film that I’ve come across since I encountered George M. Wilson’s study of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) in Sight and Sound during the 1970s (3). 


Theirs is an exemplary analysis of the workings of Pakula’s film, a truly insightful study of the way it has been put together and of the sense that its formal details make. I don’t think that it invalidates the kind of thematic analysis that I’d originally pursued, and that had fuelled my use of the film for teaching purposes over the years, but it expands on it in ways that my approach hadn’t considered.


With the help of British literary critic Christopher Ricks, they begin by identifying what critics, investigative journalists and detectives have in common. Ricks’ comment that “criticism is the art of noticing things that the rest of us may well not have noticed for themselves” and that “it must neither state nor neglect the obvious” points to their modus operandi. Keathley and Ray take what we all can see – All the President’s Men progressing frame-by-frame on screen – and systematically make us aware of what we might not have noticed.


Original Film Poster

Their underlying thesis is that Pakula’s film has been meticulously constructed to solve a problem: how to tell a detective story in which everybody knows the ending before it begins. With a final screenplay which he drafted with Robert Redford and the contributions of the officially credited writer, William Goldman, as well as the work of cinematographer Gordon Willis and editor Robert L. Wolfe, Pakula came up with a spectacular solution, one which rewrites the established rules of how conventional narrative film should be put together. 


I should insert here that, while Keathley and Ray make no such grand claims for Pakula’s strategy (which was apparently conceived in collaboration with Redford), that conclusion is invited by their commentary. The plan was to try to make viewers watch the investigation unfolding without any sense of the way the pieces might fit together. That is, they might readily identify where it all began and how it all finished up, but everything in-between was to become obscure, uncertain, uncomfortable. Watching the film was to be hard work, albeit the kind of hard work that is simultaneously pleasurable. In Keathley and Ray’s words, “ATPM’s filmmakers choose to keep viewers off-balance, unsettled, confused – exactly the feelings Woodward and Bernstein had experienced.”

In their reading of it, All the President’s Men achieves this in a number of ways. “(R)elevant story information that would create a clearer continuity is regularly withheld from us,” they write, “and what we have instead is (by continuity standards) confusing and even contradictory.” As a result, the film “is marked by gaps, fissures, inconsistencies”, which the book details at length. 

Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, She Said

And conventional continuities are undermined in other ways too, both spatially and temporally. Throughout the film, sequences are shot and cut together in such a way as to disorient viewers, to deny them any comfortable grasp of where the characters are in relation to each other. Drawing on Wilson, they explore the ways in which the film’s “visual organisation presents not just the script’s dramatic action, but also the film’s primary thematic concern – here, the complications of perception in a world whose previously clear moral landscape has turned disturbingly opaque”.


There’s much else about the film that this pocket-size volume provides: frame-by-frame studies of individual scenes; informed reflections on the casting and the performances of both the leads and the supporting actors; insights into the film’s organising strategies around paired oppositions; close scrutiny of Willis’s use of the split diopter lens in the film’s closing sequence; and more.


Drawing creatively on the work of a range of other thinkers about storytelling, both on the page and on screen – Roland Barthes, Pascal Bonitzer, Stanley Cavell, Douglas Pye, Victor Perkins, Ludwig Wittgenstein – Keathley and Ray also provide colour frames from the film to support their analysis.


Don’t be misled by its size. Theirs is an important book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.



(1)       Christian Keathley & Robert B. Ray, All the President’s Men, BFI Film Classics series, Bloomsbury, UK, 2023 

(2)       Cinema Papers, September-October, 1976, pp. 171 - 172

(3)       The full interview will be included in Alan J. Pakula: Interviews, a forthcoming book I’ve edited, to be published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2024.

(4)       George Wilson, “You Only Live Once: The Doubled Feature”, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1977, pp. 221 – 226; subsequently altered and expanded substantially for inclusion in his book, Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View, The John Hopkins University Press, 1986, pp. 16 - 38


All the President’s Men is currently streaming through Binge; She Said is available through Binge and Netflix. Keathley and Ray’s book can be found on the shelves of the better Australian bookshops (I bought it at The Avenue in Albert Park), on-line, or perhaps at your local library.

Thursday 27 July 2023

The Current Cinema and Streaming on Apple TV, Amazon Prime and others - Rod Bishop recommends RETURN TO SEOUL (Davy Chou, France, South Korea, Cambodia, Belgium, Germany, 2022)

Carlo Battisti in Umberto D; Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives; Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields; Jay Davidson in The Crying Game; Bjork in Dancer in the Dark; Barkhad Abi in Captain Phillips; Sasha Lane in American Honey; Yalitza Aparicio in Roma; Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild

All non-actors acclaimed for their first screen performance. Ji-Min Park in Return to Seoul stands with the best of them.

In fact, a large number of the characters in this film are played by first-time actors, but you’d never guess. In the lead role, playing an adopted Korean brought up in France, but returning to Seoul in her late twenties to search for her biological parents, Ji-Min Park is so authoritative and commanding you’d never guess it was the first time in front of cameras for this established visual artist.

Her character Frédérique (“Freddie”) Benoit can’t speak a word of Korean and in the first couple of scenes, she relies upon the French-speaking Seoul residents Tena (Guka Han) and Dongwan (Son Seung-Beom) to guide her towards Seoul’s leading adoption agency.

Ji-Min Park, Return to Seoul

There she finds a lot of red-tape restrictions and at one-point asks why the agency spends more time protecting the biological parents than it does helping the adoptees.

When she does make contact with her father and his new family, the culture-shock is overwhelming and the headstrong Freddie is sent into a spiral of clashing emotions.

Writer-director Davy Chou, a French-Cambodian, has described his film as “two different sides of a broken history”, and Return to Seoul follows Freddie through many challenging changes in her personality. There are several time-jumps and, at one point, she grapples with her new career selling missiles (“for peace, not war”) while confronting the often clinging and controlling expectations of her French and Korean families.

Ji-Min Park is outstanding in the role. A lot of her changing emotional states are conveyed by looks, glances, stares and grimaces: visual non-verbal communication that is unique to the cinema. When done right, as it is here, the film develops an explosive power.

Ji-Min Park, Davy Chou

There are interviews with Ji-Min Park and Davy Chou on You Tube that are almost as entertaining as the film. Chou recounts how just prior to the shoot in Korea, Park asked for a meeting to discuss her character Frédérique. She had taken notes for almost every scene she was to be in, citing sexism and the male gaze among her concerns. 

I told him if we can’t work together, hand in hand, I can’t be in the movie because I can’t do something I’m politically ashamed of. It’s impossible…I was fighting for the creation of my character”.

She took to the screenplay’s second section, telling Chou that Frédérique’s sexiness, blond wig, short stockings and short dresses were a cliched depiction of young Asian women and represented “the hypersexualized, objectified woman that you have in your fantasy”.

Elsewhere Park has said: “There are no more roots. The violence that a child can feel, when the culture, the language, everything is different. I think it’s like a trauma…it’s also something that I can understand, when you feel that you belong to a society, but you don’t look like, for example, French society. All my experiences as an Asian woman living in France, that’s helped. It’s sad to say that all the violence that I can feel everyday helped me to play that role”.

Selected for Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2022, Return to Seoul failed to win any awards. 

Must have been a hell of a year on the Croisette.


Return to Seoul is screening in Sydney exclusively at the Golden Age Cinema in Surry Hills. Next screenings on Sunday 30 July and Tuesday 1 August.  CLICK HERE to book or check session times.

Wednesday 26 July 2023

The Current Cinema - TALK TO ME (Danny & Michael Philippou, Australia, 2023) gets some attention

Mia (Sophie Wilde), Talk to Me

I used to say that the Australian cinema lacked an instinct for the popular. By which I meant
  that the bread and butter of so many nation’s cinemas - crime and other genre stories, adaptations of popular novels, the use of pop short stories of the kind that used to appear in journals like the Saturday Evening Post or in pulp fiction – rarely attracted our film-makers. (Godard once stole a Donald Westlake novel and Truffaut adapted David Goodis and William Irish among others, just saying.)

That no longer applies. We do have crime stories and Indigenous film-maker Ivan Sen, especially with his Jay Swan movies and TV series and now his superb Limbo, has made genre film-making his own. Now, a lot of entry-level film-makers gravitate towards horror, one of the staples of film industries passim. That’s not something I’ve tried to keep up with, not something that the film festivals keep up with and now that the AFI’s annual screenings of anything that pays the entry fee seem to belong to the past, it’s doubtful if many people at all keep up with this mostly near-subterranean activity. 


"violent self-destructive tendencies when delved into by kids"

People do know, if you want to go back a bit, Wolf Creek (2005) and they do know The Babadook (2014). But for instance, who knows about or saw Wyrmwood (
Kiah Roache-Turner, 2014) or its sequel Wyrmwood Apocalypse (Kiah Roache-Turner, 2021). Just the people who stock JB Hi-Fi’s shelves for the most part. Tribeca last month screened You'll Never Find Me (Indianna Bell & Josiah Allen). I guess there are some like Bloodshot Heart (Parish Maltifano) screened in the Fantastic Film Festival, but its website is currently giving no info. The recent Sydney Film Festival screened  Late Night with the Devil (Colin Cairnes & Cameron Cairnes) a co-production between Australia and the United Arab Emirates, in Richard Kuipers  Freak me Out section. There are heaps more and you see my limited acquaintance with them. I assume somebody is keeping a record somewhere, even if it’s just for tax purposes. 


Which in a haphazard way brings me to Talk to Me a film whose genre origins remain almost totally unknown to me though I could hazard a guess and say that the twins who made it, Danny and Michael Philippou have seen The Exorcist and The Shining more than once. No such claim is made in the Press Kit just a sentence from the Directors’ Statement: “We’re very inspired by smart psychological horror films in recent years that reflect current society but with a classic lens. These movies are not just entertaining but evolve the form by respecting the audience’s intelligence.”

Shake hands with the Devil

Such respect might be why this film amongst all the other unknowns got part-funded and screened by the Adelaide Film Festival. The main funding seems to have been provided by Causeway Films a company devoted more generally to putting quality on the screen and the backer of Jennifer Kent, Rodd Rathjen and Goran Stolevski among others. Talk to Me is also getting rather a lot of media attention and a much wider release than is usual. My goodness even as I write its being discussed on ABC Radio National Breakfast and is the ONLY film reviewed (3.5 stars awarded by Jake Wilson) in today’s hard copy version of the Sydney Morning Herald. Then again there seems to be only one other film opening this week the Finnish WW2 drama Sisu.


Danny and Michael Philippou, the Press Kit says, “are best known as online global sensations RackaRacka with more than 1.5 billion  views on YouTube . Named one of Variety’s 2016 FameChangers and ranked 5th on the Australian Financial Review’s Cultural Power List, the brothers are the creators of action comic horror online content, which has racked up more than 1.5 billion views and over 6.6 million subscribers on YouTube alone. Their numerous awards include Best Integrational Channel Streamy Award; Best Overall at the Online Video Awards; and AACTA Award for Best Web Show.” Well, there you are. I’m sure our mainstream film critics, whose average age is much closer to 70 than the age of the Philippou twins, likely knew nothing about any of that. So it’s a bit of a marketing triumph that the film is getting any attention at all. I suspect its pedigree with the AFF and Causeway has helped.


So is that going to get Talk to Me over the line and get the people now queuing for Barbie and Oppenheimer curious? Hard to say. The film-makers had the idea “about a teenage girl who gets hooked on possession by spirits which cause nightmares and violent self-destructive tendencies when delved into by kids too young to handle it as a new high.”It’s “about young people dealing with addiction and mental illness, the way that what begins as an escape from suppressed pain, can actually become a terrifying eruption of that pain.” (Anti-drug message?)


Is it frightening? Is it filled with dread about possible shocking physical violence? Not really…in fact its rated MA15+ and gore fans  may even find it a bit genteel, which may be why the film festival and the critics are happy enough to engage with it. It’s certainly nothing like I Spit on Your Grave or Last House on the Left. They were deeply shocking.

Thursday 20 July 2023

In Sydney and Online to Australia - Queer Screen Film Festival - 23-27 August - Program and Ticketing Announcements

Queer Screen Film Fest is coming in hot this winter with almost 40 of the best and freshest queer films, straight from major international festivals, landing in time for our 10th anniversary. Tickets are on sale now at for Wednesday 23 August to Sunday 27 August in Sydney, and for a special on-demand program, available nationally for an extra week, until Sunday 3 September.

This summer’s 30th Mardi Gras Film Festival, in the midst of Sydney WorldPride, was always going to be a hard act to follow but Queer Screen has locked in the highest quality program our mini-fest has seen in its short yet sweet 10-year history.

Queer Screen Film Fest showcases nine top notch narrative features, three deserving documentary features, four remarkable retrospective encores, two entertaining episodics and 19 spectacular shorts from eleven different countries around the world.

“Queer Screen is celebrating not only its 30th year of existence, but also the 10th edition of our mini festival,” says Lisa Rose, Festival Director. “It’s an incredibly exciting year and I’m thrilled to be bringing such an outstanding selection of films to Sydney to continue the celebrations.”

“Ten years ago when the first Queer Screen Film Fest began we only screened seven films and the whole thing was run by volunteers. This world-class program is a very fitting tribute to how much we have grown and to how LGBTIQ+ stories have found their place, front and centre, on the international stage.”

Blue Jean

The Festival includes a world premiere, over 20 Australian premieres and four Sydney premieres and opens with BLUE JEAN, one of the best lesbian films in years. Set in Thatcher-era England when the Section 28 legislation forbidding the promotion of homosexuality in schools cast a dark shadow, PE teacher Jean leads a double life. When a student spots her at a lesbian bar, it all begins to crumble. With anti-LGBTIQ+ legislation surfacing around the world again, the film is more timely than ever. BLUE JEAN premiered at the Venice Film Festival and won four British Independent Film Awards.

The closing night crowd is in for a real treat with farcical, tongue-in-cheek mockumentary THEATER CAMP. After its founder falls into a coma, the eccentric staff and students of a scrappy summer theatre camp band together to stage a show-stopping original musical in a bid to keep things afloat. Just-released in the USA, THEATER CAMP premiered at Sundance earlier this year.

Narrative Features:

DRIFTER follows Moritz, who finds himself alone and adrift in Berlin, searching for somewhere to fit in. Desperate for human connection in the city’s hardcore sex and drug-fuelled party scene, he is captivated by assorted friends and acquaintances whose lives intertwine. DRIFTER premiered at the Berlinale Film Festival.

Hot on the heels or in fact studded boots of the FIFA 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and fresh from its premiere at Tribeca comes MARINETTE, a moving, intimate exploration of the life of soccer legend Marinette Pichon. A stunning narrative feature, the film spans the three decades from her turbulent childhood to her selection for the French national team. An incredible, inspiring and very personal tale of one woman’s courage to pursue her dreams.

Based on the acclaimed novel by Philippe Besson, LIE WITH ME is a sensitive and moving drama that explores the bittersweet intensity of first love and making peace with the past.

MEDUSA DELUXE premiered at Locarno International Film Festival and takes us behind the scenes of a hairstyling competition, where tensions are high and the ’dos are even higher. This very unique, hirsute whodunnit is not to be missed!


A mysterious fire, a withdrawn child, an overprotective mother, a teacher keeping secrets, and three truths to be uncovered are some of the pieces of the puzzle in acclaimed filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s MONSTER, a deeply human, twisty drama which won both the Queer Palm and best screenplay at Cannes.

A Korean trans woman returns to her rural roots after her estranged father’s passing to lead a mourning ritual that will reinvigorate her passion for dance, in PEAFOWL, a story of fierce authenticity and defiance which took the Busan International Film Festival by storm.


Acclaimed documentarian Jeffrey Schwarz explores the impact the AIDS epidemic had on Hollywood, and Los Angeles more broadly, in COMMITMENT TO LIFE, an inspiring documentary.

EQUAL THE CONTEST explores the barriers that still exist for women and gender-diverse people to participate in sport. Non-binary filmmaker Mitch Nivalis follows the highs and lows of regional women’s Australian rules football team Mount Alexander Falcons, the members of which are a wildly diverse group of people who came together to challenge notions of who has the right to play. The film will be followed by a panel discussion.

It's Only Life After All

Grammy award winning acoustic folk-rock band the Indigo Girls gifted queer fans with songs to live by in the 1980s and 90s and cemented their place in the hearts and minds of many. This long overdue documentary, reveals intimate details of the friendship, musicianship and dedication to activism behind the trailblazing duo’s decades-long career. The film premiered at Sundance and also screened at South by Southwest to much acclaim.

Shorts and Special Events:

No festival is complete without our beloved shorts programs and this year we have hybrid screenings (in cinema and streaming on demand) of our popular Gay Shorts, Sapphic Shorts and Trans & Gender Diverse Shorts packages.

Two hilarious, homegrown comedy series TRIPLE OH! and FANNY SCAT INVESTIGATES get their big-screen debut in a special double bill. Director Poppy Stockell, whose John Farnham documentary smashed local box office records, will be in attendance to introduce TRIPLE OH!, which was one of the titles Queer Screen presented to the global marketplace in Cannes recently. Cast and crew from FANNY SCAT INVESTIGATES will also be walking the pink carpet into the cinema for their world premiere.

We’re marking Wear It Purple Day with a special free youth screening of EGGHEAD & TWINKIE and will be presenting the sixth edition of Queer Screen Pitch Off, where six filmmakers will spruik their film proposal to a panel of expert assessors, competing for a chance to win $10,000 to produce their short film.

Online and Encore Screenings:

The online component of QSFF includes DRIFTER, EQUAL THE CONTEST, COMMITMENT TO LIFE and the shorts packages as well as four exclusive reprises of past festival favourites - ANCHOR & HOPE, NINA’S HEAVENLY DELIGHTS, CENTER OF MY WORLD and THE STRONG ONES.


QSFF screens at Events George Street, Sydney from Wednesday 23 August to Sunday 27 August. The online program is available on demand, nationally, from 23 August to 3 September. The best of the Fest travels to Mount Vic Flicks in the Blue Mountains on 15-17 September.

Tickets for all films are on sale now including festival passes. Visit download our app, or call (02) 9280 1533 to book. Become a Queer Screen member for discounted tickets and priority entry.

Wednesday 19 July 2023

Coming Soon on Criterion Blu-ray - Marshall Deutelbaum alerts to the release of THE UNKNOWN (Todd Browning, USA, 1927)

One of the October Criterion releases will be Todd Browning’s The Unknown

It’s a great movie! It was thought for many years to be a lost film. All that time a print of it was at the Cinematheque Française in cans labelled “inconnu” (“unknown”). People thought it was an unidentified movie. 

Only when someone opened a can to look at the film was it discovered that it was actually the Lon Chaney film. Criterion have probably used the Eastman House print for the transfer. 

I haven’t seen the movie in more than 40 years and will be thrilled to see it again. Lon Chaney plays Alonzo the armless circus knife thrower who throws knives with his feet. Joan Crawford plays a woman who loves him because he can’t touch her. She hates to be touched. 

It’s wonderful.


Editor's Note: The Unknown will be released in a three film package (cover below) along with two other Browning titles Freaks  (1932) and The Mystic (1925).

Good luck trying to to import Criterion to Australia but there are ways.

Tuesday 18 July 2023

The Current Cinema - Michael Campi draws attention to screenings of another Chinese indie - A LIGHT NEVER GOES OUT (Anastasia Tsang, Hong Kong, 2022)

A Light Never Goes Out Poster

This poignant Hong Kong drama is another recent Hong Kong indie feature that pleases through its subtlety and fascination with the past, something that never becomes sentimental nostalgia, but more of a realistic lament for the rapid decline of an industry of uniquely talented and experienced artisans, creating those world famous colourful neon displays which have illuminated the length and breadth of many Hong Kong locations. They had a practical purpose in terms of advertising but also provided lighting for busy areas of a bustling city. During this century, decisions to replace these sometimes unofficial structures with smaller, more economical LED lights have been met with regret. Today there are non-profit organisations collecting signs that have been subject to removal orders although there are ways to overcome these decrees but they are expensive. There's a move to smaller, safer, more economical LED illumination. 

Sylvia Chang

Winner of the 5th First Feature Film Initiative project organised by Create HK, a film promotion scheme of the Hong Kong government, A LIGHT NEVER GOES OUT received its world premiere at last year's Tokyo International Film Festival followed by the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan and was included in Rotterdam IFF earlier this year. With over a hundred appearances in front of the camera and more than a dozen as director, Sylvia Chang won the Golden Horse Award for Best Actress for A LIGHT NEVER GOES OUT in which she portrays a recently widowed mother, whose late husband (Simon Yam) manufactured colourful neon lighting from his small artisan workshop. 

In an unofficial cycle of new Hong Kong films in Cantonese, this is another reminder of such small manufacturing enterprises which have been disappearing in Hong Kong. The widow discovers that her late husband's workshop is still operating although her daughter believed it had been closed long ago. Moreover there's a new apprentice installed and sleeping in the workplace, puzzled by the disappearance of his master while small orders keep arriving and larger debts like back rent are significant. Unknown to the mother, the daughter plans to migrate to Australia with her partner of the last three years. She believes her mother needs psychological help when there is any discussion of the family enterprise still functioning. The lack of communication between mother and daughter is significant. It's no surprise that a close platonic bond develops between the mother and apprentice, both of whom become intent on recreating a particular sign hinted at by mysterious designs found in the workshop.  

Simon Yam

This is the feature debut of Anastasia Tsang, a graduate of the Sorbonne, who co-wrote the fine script. Like Sylvia Chang, Simon Yam as the late husband is another veteran of Chinese cinema.  There's a understated, loving understanding between their characters which is well developed. Their performances are subtle with a genuine fondness appearing in their union. It's surprising  these two popular actors have rarely appeared together before. Well-judged flashbacks of the couple feature potentially fresh stars playing husband and wife many years earlier. The attractive score is by Wong Ngai Lun and Janet Yung while the frequently nocturnal scenes are delicately photographed by Leung Ming-kai who has worked with many filmmakers including Anocha Suwichakornpong, Amos Why, Jun Li and indeed an earlier film directed by Sylvia Chang. 

Beside the final credit roll are pictures of significant neon sign craftsmen with short bios indicating many of them developed these often huge structures during fifty or more years of creativity, perhaps from school leaving age. 

Below are the imminent screening details for Australia. 

Adelaide -  28 July 2pm @ Mercury Cinema

Melbourne - 5 August 2:30pm @ Cinema Nova 

Brisbane - 12 August 3pm @ The Elizabeth Five Stars Cinema

Gold Coast - 18 August time tbc

Sydney - 21 - 23 August 5pm @ Roseville Cinema 


Editor's Note: Michael Campi is a longtime Melbourne-based cinephile with a particular interest in Asian cinema. In a recent previous post he drew attention to another Chinese indie having one-off  or exclusive screenings around Australia. Click here to read his notes on THE NARROW ROAD (Lam Sum, 1922)

Thursday 13 July 2023

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema 1960-2020 the Sixties part 6 (15), France: Creator of Forms (ii) Tati - Bruce Hodsdon's series continues


6(15)  France :  Creator of Forms  (ii) Tati

Jacques Tati (1907-82) performed pantomime parodies of sports stars in the French music hall in the 30s. Some were made into short films. After the war the only short that he had also directed was expanded into his first feature Jour de fete (1947), filmed on location. Tati plays the village postman who makes a short lived attempt to introduce modern American efficiency systems, as viewed in a mobile cinema at the village fair. 

This introduces what became Tati’s on-going satire of the ‘coldness’ of modern technology and architecture. More significantly he developed his own method of staging and filming gags. In addition to mastering the essential art of comic timing, rather than using slapstick staging and editing methods in driving the gags home, Tati uses framing and the placement of objects in the foreground to subdue the gags and let them develop leaving the spectator to intuit and even ‘invent’ an understated joke.  

He took four years to develop this form of comedy before filming Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot/ Mr Hulot’s Holiday (1953). The introduction of the warm understated character of M. Hulot, and the often uniquely inventive subtleties of the sight gags, lifted Hulot/Tati, the comic outsider and disruptor of everyday life, to international success. What drove Tati was his dissatisfaction with the traditional idea of the comic star. As Dave Kehr explains, “Hulot is not a comedian, in the sense of being the source and focus of the humour; he is, rather, an attitude, a signpost, a perspective that reveals the humour in the world around him.”

At first viewing, Les Vacances might seem to be simply a loosely assembled series of individual comic incidents strung together, rather than a tightly constructed comedy like those of say Keaton and Harold Lloyd, or more broadly a Hollywood style film with a typical narrative development. Les Vacances, Kristin Thompson suggests, is “as tightly constructed and rigorous as the best work of Dreyer, Bresson, Ozu, or Eisenstein” (Wide Angle, 23)*. She describes how Tati developed a carefully arranged variety of images in settings with meanings that are not causally connected: shots of empty beaches, streets and seascapes inserted between humorous action. These are not placed as continuity shots in a typical narrative referred to above but are an integral part of what Thompson refers to as forming a dominant  structure in which a series of cues/seeming discontinuities are placed as an indication that the film is moving outside the norms of comedy film construction in the way social themes are evoked.  A source of humour can be one boring (traditional) action or unpopulated image (examples nominated above) can be defamiliarised by being followed with a bizarre one (109).

Thompson further elaborates that “one of the most distinctive aspects of Les Vacances is that the concept of a pared down, banal environment is a convention usually associated with modern dramatic and tragic themes.” She notes that the art film “has adapted the device of the sterile environment and banal routine to create symbolic commentary on modern life. Tati is a flip side to Antonioni in his trilogy […] Instead of asking us to interpret the banality, Tati makes it funny” (ibid ).

Tati spent much of ten years (three intensively) in the planning and execution of Playtime (1967). He sold the rights to all his previous films to raise the funds to build a huge glass and steel structure to epitomise his vision of modern Paris, given the nickname “Tativille,” which can be seen as misplaced ambition or one of the great achievements of set design.  His stated ambition was “to make a film without the character of Hulot, with nothing but the people whom I see, whom I observe, whom I pass in the street, and to prove to them, that in spite of everything, every week or month something happens to them and that the comic effect belongs to everyone“ (quoted by Roy  Armes 151). So in the finished film Hulot is reduced to the level of the rest of the people and the effects come not from comic contrivance of a sequence of farcical incidents but from “observation of life reproduced with as great a fidelity as possible.” Under the director’s control stylisation is replaced with realistic effect. Tati himself was realistic about his film: “either it comes off [on the big screen] or it doesn’t.” Bellos  writes that “Playtime is not fundamentally or essentially a satire of high-rise architecture […] Tativille was the future of the city-a future that has now arrived” (248-250).

What is already to some extent apparent in Les Vacances, in Playtime Tati is opening a window on the world by clearing a space free of plot-line tyranny, forced identification with star actors (there are no conventionally placed central characters in Playtime ) and manipulation of emotions through rhetorical tricks of mise en scene and montage, as Kehr notes, leaving the audience to invent their own movie from the material offered. In this sense his next film after Les Vacances, Mon Oncle (1958) is only transitional.

Tati had a liking for Dutch documentarist Bert Haanstra’s film Zoo (1962) in which a hidden camera inside the animal cage provides the means for a montage of faces constructed to form a gallery of unconscious and untutored comic acts (Bellos 236). The stylistic reliance on observation and lack of intervention is greatly elaborated upon in Playtime, described by Kristin Thompson as “a comedy on the edge of perception” governed by its (parametric) form as a guiding principle in which “artistic motivation becomes systematic and foregrounded across the entire film” also in films by Bresson, Godard, Mizoguchi and Jancso. This means that the film is perceptually not fully graspable on a single viewing, not as a result of opaque plot and story, but because “the stylistic devices are allowed independence from narrative functioning and motivation,” and even allowed precedence over plot. Deflecting attention outwards from a simple cause and effect chain, Thompson points out “has ideological implications […] - the shift from the literal to the metaphorical” in Tati’s representation of the uniformity of modern urban life.”

The subject of a typical shot in Playtime is everything that appears on the screen - often dozens of individually active human figures in long shot - as Rosenbaum notes, requires continual scanning by the viewer something the parametric form encourages. Tati uses restricted technology in systematic ways in a dense mise-en-scene involving both disorienting cuts combined with long takes in his strong preference away from exaggeration towards comic understatement. “Tati’s use of gadgetry and innovation is remarkable for its ambiguity, especially in Playtime, but also to some degree in his earlier films, he exploits the new almost equally for its comic potential and for its aesthetic pleasure” (Bellos 253).

Tati’s use of the wide screen is designed to challenge the audience’s comfortable viewing habits. The camera does not lead the eye to where the action is since it is no longer a single narrative event but is to be found in a multiplicity of details and movements whose significance is not always obvious straight away. “Tati believed that it was the wide-film format that gave him this liberty” (ibid 260).  As noted elsewhere, Robert Altman took his mise en scene in a similar direction in films like Nashville and A Wedding.

After premiere openings on 70mm with stereophonic sound, Playtime subsequently circulated on 35mm widescreen and monaural sound prints. It was cut several times by Tati, (who had encumbered himself with an impossibly heavy debt load), from 185 mins to 103mins. I have found it available on a dvd 119 min version. 

Tati had no control over the shortened 35mm version being shown and had to give up showings of the complete 70mm versions when the rights to all his films were auctioned off (Rosenbaum 168).  Rosenbaum, who spent time working for Tati, writes that he instinctively said to him in an interview that  “Playtime is nobody.”  It became clear that “the birth of Tati the director had been ransomed by the death of Tati the performer.” This became “an existential crisis of the first order“. 

Tati devised Hulot only for Les Vacances but the public refused to let him be abandoned and, Rosenbaum says, Tati “became sick and tired of him.” In a sense then the radical ‘excesses’ of Playtime were a direct response to the popularity of Les Vacancies combined with Tati’s feeling, referred to by David Bellos, that Mon Oncle (above) was not the kind of film he wanted to make (229).    

* Noel Burch identified Playtime as the first truly ‘open’ film by which he meant the formal parameters of the film are no longer subservient to the narrative but take on an equal or greater importance in determining the structure of the whole film. This contrasts with the ‘closed’ film in which the style is determined solely by how it serves the narrative (the ‘zero point’ of style to be found in classical narrative). Thompson finds the early marks of the open film was already in Les Vacances in what Burch identifies as the “beginning of modern cinema around 1950 along with Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore and Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.”  See also Part 4, parametric form in ‘Forms of Narration’.



Kristin Thompson  Breaking the Glass Armor 1988  

Kristin Thompson - “Parameters of the Open Film Les vacances de M. Hulot  Wide Angle v2/1 1977                                                                 

David Bedos  Jacques Tati, pb ed. 2001.                                                                              

Jonathan Rosenbaum  “The Death of Hulot’  essay in Placing Movies 1995                                       

Dave Kehr  “Playtime”  in The International Dictionary of Films Vol 1 Films  ed. C. Lyon 1984         

Roy Armes “Jacques Tati: The Open Window of Comedy” in The Ambiguous Image 1976               

Noel Burch Theory of Film Practice 1973


Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links


Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series


Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more


Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

6(12) France - Part Four - Godard:Visionary and Rebel

6 (13) France Part 5 Godard with Gorin, Miéville : Searching for an activist voice

6(14) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Bresson