History History History (2017)

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Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival, running from April 4-9th 2017, is one of the most wildly creative film festivals: Kino Trains in the middle of New Street; live music; short films; Holoramas; discussion panels; documentaries; silent films.

Having barely scratched the surface of last year’s festival, I volunteered. After a long day handing out flyers and a frantic writing session at Starbucks, I arrived at The Old Rep, one of Birmingham’s best stage venues: its impossible slope of seats assaults the eye. I entered the performance without expectations, nor any interest in football either.

In History History History, Pearson relates the story of the failed Hungarian student revolution of October 23rd 1956 that resulted in military intervention and her grandparents leaving for Canada: tied up within the fate of a film, starring her grandfather, repressed by Soviet censorship to filled seats the following year. History History History has already been performed across the globe, with upcoming dates in Edinburgh and Australia.

Pearson’s premise should be simple. But history is never simple, comprised of many narratives. All films owe something to our own lives, relating something about the world around it: our lives and histories. As a seemingly innocuous football comedy starring Ferenc Puskás, the film may never be canonized as a masterpiece. Pearson highlights the difficulty of availability: occasionally played in Canadian cultural centers; a VHS tape she grew up with, symbolically fetishized with meaning whilst unable to decipher intent; downloaded off the internet; unavailable within Hungary itself. Its very existence is politicized.

Pearson’s focus on preserving film and searching for meaning seems at antithetical to Communist reality: objective truth, a singular dictator, shared communes. Yet Soviet reality is slippery, constructed within film and propaganda – eliminating people from existence, in present and past, constructing national sentiment. Vertov’s mechanical kino-eye created constructed reality through editing; Eisenstein’s masterworks recreated the 1905 and 1917 revolutions as cinematic epics. But the documentary medium itself relies upon artificiality in creating an image of reality.

Pearson constructs her “live documentary” through various sources: projecting sequences, narrated over; a small, framed screen, playing the film in the background of the performance; drawings, illuminated through magnifying glass on a classroom-esque projector; archival photographs of family and revolution; a placard held by Pearson, adding a third dimension to the image whilst making faces within more visible. Pearson researched her own history, travelling to the Corvin Cinema and conducting interviews with screenwriter Tibor Méray, her mom and grandma, narrating the film in absence of translation. Pearson injects the piece with mock subtitles, like a game of Mad Libs or an episode of RiffTrax, attempting to understand a language that isn’t her own yet means so much; the Downfall (2005) meme on a personal level.

Film acts as a document, with a trace of a past that has come before. Pearson allows us to situate ourselves, within the theatre, in the embodied space of the present moment, and contemplate the time before: our legacies and ancestors that intersect together. But those narratives are constructed: the stories we tell ourselves, or our told by our parents; the things we’re allowed to remember, or allow ourselves to remember. The camera will never capture everything, for all its power and presence.

History History History is so strong it deserves to be enshrined as a film of its own; it does not deserve to be ethereal, but that is part of its beauty.

Nighthawks (1978), dir. Ron Peck

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The influence of social realism upon Nighthawks is obvious. In an early scene, Geography teacher Jim (Ken Robertson) bumps into coworker Judy (Rachel Nicholas James), about to screen a print of a Ken Loach film for her class that Jim wants to catch, screening Cathy Come Home (1966), unable to acquire a copy of Kes (1969). Nighthawks relies largely on non-professional actors, advertising for roles in newspaper classifieds; Robertson is the only professional actor. Masters of British cinema Lindsay Anderson and Michael Powell looked over drafts of the script, but their influence simply isn’t present. Ron Peck isn’t Ken Loach. Under the right director, non-professional actors’ naturalism can excel beyond the confines of stage and screen. But the cast, bored and under-directed, never provide interesting performances, unable to improvise in a way that isn’t amateurish. Peck attempts a style evoking documentary, but achieves neither documentary nor narrative cinema, struggling with shot composition and pacing, holding for too long through scenes which reveal no narrative information. Nighthawks is empty, revealing a film which could be condensed down by at least half an hour.

Peck never gives reasons to like Jim. Interesting aspects are barely explored: an uncreative day off with his camera, struggling to find a composition that satisfies, looking through the viewfinder at London’s recently erected high rises; at home, he views each slide through his projector. Though open to some of the other teachers, Jim is closeted to family. His character remains just as closeted. We know his sexual history as related to Judy: he pursued unsatisfying sexual relationships with women, gradually seeing more and more men. He meets men at clubs at night, going on dates but never holding anything down, finding it easy for people to walk out on him; turning up at a lover’s house to find him gone, without even a number. But we know little else.

Judy, as a source of connection, is perhaps the more interesting character, drinking a pint and eating a packet of crisps at the pub after work, afforded a lack of pretence of sexual tension that never entirely works out. Judy draws a contrast to Jim: she has a daughter and husband, trying to understand the queer community from a distance without being part of it, never able to entirely understand. She wants him to become more open to the outside world, pressuring him to attend the school dance.

The sections in school provide the film’s most interesting parts. As a Geography teacher teaching a class of mixed race kids, Jim is pretty bad at his job, struggling to control his pupils or teach them well. Jim struggles to keep boundaries between his two lives separate, turning up late after oversleeping, waking up in bed with a guy he met the previous night. Jim is never reprimanded; a substitute doesn’t take his place. Before Section 28 closed off any discussion of homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” in school, Nighthawks is at its most interesting as Jim speaks honestly and openly about his sexuality. The camera pans over his pupils, genuinely curious and interested, throwing questions, defences and insults, with a variety of viewpoints: is he a transvestite, does he carry a handbag, does he wear women’s clothes? What does he do in bed besides sleep; does he go clubbing? Some kids are defensive, asking what’s the big deal; others profess to be gay bashers, yet are never seen acting upon their words. Maybe some of them are queer themselves: a girl wears a rainbow scarf; one of the homophobic boys wears a handkerchief.

Jim’s coming out is a manifestation of internal desire, making the process somewhat easy. Jim responds matter of fact: asking about their own relationships with women; denying he feels any attraction to the boys in the room. But this scene never feels entirely realistic, suffering no consequences. Though the principal offers a warning, he doesn’t expel him. But his concerns reveal an internalised culture of homophobia: Jim defends filling a gap in the curriculum, but the principal feels it should be contained to sex ed – a subject that still struggles to cover anything beyond cisgender, heterosexual bodies in any meaningful way.

At night, Jim has access to a world beyond. He drunkenly drives through London, Judy in the other seat, refusing her affections after the school disco as he refuses her affections, suggesting she get a taxi. At a café, Nighthawks draws its closest parallel to Edward Hopper’s painting: sitting, torn up, voicing his deepest, darkest feelings and insecurities as the world goes by. In the car, we sense Jim’s exhaustion as he and Judy debate the freedom and insecurity of non-monogamy. In his eyes, we sense he wants deeper connection: he doesn’t want this life, lacking opportunities to meet a long term, monogamous partner, struggling to reconcile his feelings.

The scenes in the discotheque provide community: in the opening, Jim is launched into another world, taking tokens from the usher. The repetitive synth beat is a relic, lacking licensing rights nor the transcendent disco lyrics of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. Derek Jarman scouted locations, appearing in a cameo, but the club remains limited to an unconvincing set. The discotheque may be the film’s most queer element, but also it’s most uninteresting in a plot never allowing conflict that isn’t about being queer. Only a few years earlier, Fassbinder achieved far stronger along similar lines in Fox and His Friends (1975), exploring conflict along lines of capitalism, class and addiction. The discotheque is unrelentingly male and sexual, without space for other genders or trans people: men stand in lines in phallic desire, waiting for the next to approach without anything to talk about. In overlong close-ups, we see Jim’s male gaze: hit by red and blue lights, his desire stares out at other patrons.

Jim goes through a long series of men, lacking personalities, romantic or sexual attachment, as empty as Jim. Jim lists off names of men to Judy, unable to keep track of the most recent: Jim, Mike, Neal, Peter, John. Queer relationships intersect, lives as unstable as his own. Jim agrees on dates, covertly dropping men off the next morning, an everyday, morning routine – let’s do Thursday, let’s go to the pictures, let’s have a meal – but never displays any care for their lives or interests. Depicting queer life might be radical for 1978: Peck depicts sexuality that is never pornographic, but elicits the viewer’s gaze, something never seen on screen before, lingering on men making out, naked butts and flaccid dicks as men get dressed, but without any purpose nor erotic potential. Jim’s partners are merely people to politely take to bed.

Jim’s partners have some interesting elements: Neal seeks a job, reading over classifieds for something better than what he has. One man sought London as a place of queer opportunity as a metropolitan city, but never wants to become a prostitute. He meets men who came from Bolton and Leeds, from their own walks of life; an American banker and an Australian, only in the country for 18 months. One man he meets folds his bed away after sleeping together, hidden behind a mantelpiece with a curtain, chairs and a table carefully placed in front.

Nighthawks is an interesting remnant of post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS, especially within LGBTQIA+ cinema: the haircuts are awful; the bellbottoms and tattered blue jeans are gross; a man even wears a Logan’s Run (1976) t-shirt. Though it stands as a time capsule, it struggles to hold interest nor offer much value.