The Birth of a Nation (1915), dir. D.W. Griffith

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The Birth of a Nation is the worst film ever made.

Maybe this is controversial. The cover to the BFI’s recent Blu-ray release, mimicking original promotional materials, brazenly declares the “8th wonder of the world”, alongside the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. In a contemporary review in Variety, Mark Vance described “a great epoch in picture making”. D.W. Griffith held enormous power in early cinema, producing 1-2 films per week, accumulating 400 one-reelers for Biograph. Before the studio system, cinema was driven by independents. In the footsteps of Edison and Porter, Griffith’s name is inescapable, his light bulb logo appearing on every intertitle. Adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansmen (1905), a version had been in development in Kinemacolour, but Griffith’s film represented a paradigm shift, helping to establish the United States as a major production centre, developed under the Aitkens on a $40,000 budget and 6 weeks of rehearsal. The Birth of a Nation distinguished itself from nickelodeons as a 12-reel film screened in theatres and opera houses, its screening in Los Angeles’ Clune’s Auditorium on February 8th held under heavy police guard. The film became a perennial success: in his essay Do Movies Have Rights?, published in Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America, Louis Menand notes the film reached an audience of 100 million people between 1915 and 1926 (2006:200).

But The Birth of a Nation’s release was tumultuous, just as The Clansmen’s play sparked riots in Atlanta and was banned in Philadelphia and Boston. As Dorian Lynskey documents, censors acknowledged the film’s racist content, situated in a debate alongside the “moral panic over the depiction of crime and vice” in cinema. As Brian Willan notes in his essay ‘Cinematographic Calamity’ or ‘Soul-Stirring Appeal to Every Briton’: Birth of a Nation in England and South Africa, 1915–1931 in Journal of Southern African Studies 39(3), Birth was released across Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America, but suppressed in France and South Africa (2013:624). As Menand writes, censorship was at the behest of authorities, banned in Minneapolis, Ohio, Newark, St. Paul, Chicago, Pittsburgh and St. Louis but largely “overturned in court” (2006:184).

Although multiple individuals opposed, opposition was hardly unified; Griffith’s response to a critical editorial in the New York Globe emphasised the intelligence of “theater-goers” over the “organized attacks of letter writers, publicity seekers, and fanatics”. The NAACP, founded in 1909, had a membership of 5000 and a white-dominated leadership; but, as Stephen Weinberger writes in his essay The Birth of a Nation and the Making of the NAACP in Journal of American Studies 45(1), the film “helped transform the association in ways no one could have imagined”, shifting to national issues as the film “moved from major population centers to smaller ones” (2011:92). As Weinberger highlights, opposition continued into the Civil Rights Movement, disrupting 50th anniversary screenings (2011:77).

Released upon the 50th anniversary of the American Civil War, The Birth of a Nation followed a wave of one-reelers that, as David Shepard comments in The Making of the Birth of a Nation (1993), focused upon the suffering of war. As America’s most recent national war, the Civil War was a part of national mythmaking. The son of a confederate officer, Griffith touched upon his own history. Before the historical epics and blockbusters of later decades, The Birth of a Nation embraces extravagance, telling a long and complex period of history over several years. Although focusing upon the lives of the Camerons and Stonemans, excursions are long: purple-tinted sequences follow Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers; as officials leave, he places his hands on his head, and prays, moving forward to his assassination at Ford’s Theatre during a production of Our American Cousin. Griffith positions the assassination through Elsie and Phil Stoneman, watching towards the stage through binoculars; Booth appears with his gun with the stillness of a photograph, as though a portrait from the time.

Griffith offers dedication to detail, drawing upon lithographs and photographs. Griffith aggressively references intertitles with footnotes, detailing key dates. Griffith acknowledges each set as “historical facsimile”, drawing the Wilmer McLean home from Campaigning with Grant (1897) and the executive office and theatre from Lincoln, a History (1890). Griffith excerpts from President Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People (1902), a college companion of Dixon’s often cited as declaring the film as “writing history with lightning”, though Lynskey highlights Wilson denying approving an “unfortunate production”. Joseph Carl Breil’s score utilises music familiar to the Civil War. As Gordon Thomas writes, Griffith wanted historical films to “operate as agents of enlightenment or of cultivation”, whilst remaining entertainment.

In his exploration of the Piedmont-based Camerons, Griffith appeals to nostalgia for a life that, per the intertitles, “runs in a quaintly way that is to be no more”, elder sister Margaret “trained in the manners of the old school”, creating a green tinted image of Victorian extravagance in home and costume. As Thomas writes, Griffith taps into the Southern myth of the Lost Cause, imagining a “pastoral paradise eradicated by the war”. A kindly master pets numerous cats and dogs; Griffith tries to endear with suitors and romance, creating scale in his interfamily romance. Looking at Elsie’s life in Washington, Griffith moves inside the House of Representatives, creating political intrigue prefiguring decades of political thrillers as Austin Stoneman pushes abolition. Griffith injects comedy: Austin is constantly in need of adjusting his wig.

The Birth of a Nation might be best known for its representation of the KKK, but its racist images penetrate more deeply. Griffith traces slavery’s history: in the opening, we observe a young boy surrounded by leering traders, Griffith’s intertitle stating the “bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” We move into the courthouse of abolitionists; the slave peers out, desperate, helpless. On the cotton fields, we focus upon white men as Ben admires an image of Elsie, black men back of the frame, barely seen, never acknowledging the human trauma, suffering and dehumanisation explored in films like 12 Years a Slave (2013). The products of their labour become Southern ermine, worn without acknowledging their source. In their 2-hour interval for dinner, slaves are celebrating, dancing and clapping in unending joy.

Griffith’s Reconstruction is rooted in deep racism: offered enfranchisement, a freedman votes twice, peering to the audience as white officials are oblivious, when voter ID laws continue to disenfranchise black voters; intertitles state “the ignorant” are misusing the “charity of a generous North”. In the South Carolina legislature, Griffith pushes the ludicrous: black officials rest their feet without shoes, swig from the bottle, eat fried chicken; the speaker rules all members must wear shoes, an image Kevin Brownlow notes in his essay We Can Never Censor the Past is drawn from a political cartoon; motions suggest intermarriage and white salutes. As Thomas notes, Birth follows the ideology of “the Dunning school”, following the concept of “negro incapacity” of blacks as “childlike beings”. In one of the most ubiquitous images, Flora Cameron is pursued by the animalism of Gus, played in blackface, jumping to her death from a cliff at threat of marriage. Gus becomes another black victim lynched by the KKK, rallying a mob. In The Clansmen, Dixon Jr. is more explicit, depicting a mother and daughter who commit suicide after being raped by a gang of blacks. In drunken fervour, Silas Lynch speaks of revolution, building a Black Empire on the streets, coercing Elsie into marriage. Black characters become caricatures, “black trash” in accented intertitles. Griffith defended his representation of “faithful Negroes who stayed with their former masters and were ready to give up their lives to protect their white friends”, alluding to characters like blackface servant Mammy.

In the intertitles to the 1921 reissue, Griffith rebuffs calls for censorship, arguing for the “liberty” granted to “the Bible and the works of Shakespeare”. Intolerance (1916) is but an affirmation: as William M. Drew writes in the Masters of Cinema booklet, Griffith was dramatizing “consequences of attempts by powerful forces to control human thought and behavior”, emphasising his right to hold his beliefs. In The Birth of a Nation, the KKK is normalised, traced prior to their dissolution as a terrorist organisation in 1871 and their actions during the Civil Rights Movement and today. The confederate flag persists in the banal, used to wipe a woman’s face. White women become complicit in their persistence, stitching together KKK costumes. Griffith sets their arrival to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (1870): purple-tinted silhouettes march across the hills; on horseback, we feel their speed as they carry the cross, intercut against Lynch’s intimations of intermarriage. The Birth of the Nation isn’t state-produced in the same way as Triumph of the Will (1936) or October (1928), but it is propaganda, understanding the power of images in crafting political narrative. Just as the aesthetics of propaganda have become lauded for contributions to cinematic language, so too have those innovated by Griffith.

White supremacy cannot be divorced from The Birth of a Nation. In an intertitle, the KKK describe themselves as an “unconquered race” of “old Scotland’s hills”; another intertitle states their “Aryan birthright”; a flag declares how the confederacy is just, for “VICTORY OR DEATH”. Vance’s review seems to make Griffith’s intended audience clear, appraising how his “picture would please all white classes.” The Birth of a Nation only strengthens a toxic ideology, even within miscegenation laws that refused to allow white women to play against black actors on film or on stage, anti-immigration rhetoric and a climate supporting eugenics as a viable solution within philosophical and scientific though.

With The Clansmen and his Reconstruction Trilogy (1902-07), Dixon Jr. intended to “teach the north” about “the awful suffering of the white man”, anointed by “Almighty God” to reign “supreme”. Lynskey highlights a quote included in an NAACP pamphlet where Dixon Jr. describes his intention to “create a feeling of abhorrence in white people” and “prevent the mixing of white and Negro blood”, seeking “all Negroes removed from the United States.” In scenes present in the premiere under the title The Clansmen, excised from the finished cut, Menand describes scenes of “white women being abducted by black rapists”, a declaration that Lincoln “did not believe in racial equality” and a closing scene described as “Lincoln’s solution”, depicting the deportation of blacks to Africa (2006:185).

Although Brownlow notes “dispute about whether the film led to the revival of the Ku Klu[x] Klan or whether that was a result of the Great War”, Lynskey comments that the resurrected Klan based its logo “on a still from the movie”, describing its first public appearance at the Atlanta premiere, publicists using KKK emblazoned hats and aprons to promote the film; the KKK utilised the film for recruitment. Though the Klan initially had a few thousand members, the organisation grew to 100,000 by 1921 and 2-5 million by 1925, though dropping off by the end of the decade. As Joshua Rothman describes, the Klan became “superficially innocuous” with a sense of “patriotic respectability” and fraternity, appealing to middle classes with “festivities, pageants, and social gatherings”, alongside “baseball teams and beautiful-baby contests”, “charity drives”, “Christmas parties for orphans” and “wedding ceremonies, christenings and funerals”.

America was founded on manifest destiny. Though the passage of time from The Birth of a Nation might call for a sense of historical detachment, white supremacy remains potent, with the white supremacy rally at Charlottesville occurring without police intervention, creating a gathering place for neo-Nazis and the KKK. As Angela Nagle explores in her book Kill All Normies (2017), online culture of sites like 4Chan encourage a transgressive, nihilistic culture embedded within the alt-right and anti-Semitism. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in his article The First White President, Trump is a white supremacist with no “black facsimile”, supporting a “white coalition” beyond the white working class, as the country refuses to accept its “bloody heirloom” of racism that remains “at the heart of this country’s political life.”

Although Dixon Jr.’s writing contained intimations of racial war, The Birth of a Nation is profoundly anti-war. Though early scenes show the happiness of marching off to war, with the pageantry of cheers and drums (later contrasted by the KKK’s same march upon horseback), Griffith is depicting a march towards death. We follow Ben into the battlefields, receiving a letter from his big sister two and a half years after he departed. Through the perspective of a family, Griffith allows us to view the war’s effects over time. We follow the Cameron brothers, Wade and Duke, and Tod Stoneman, joining the regiment, entering battles like the Battle of Bull Run. Griffith depicts the sense of sheer panic at the arrival of guerrilla raids and black regiments, white residents running inside for shelter. G.W. “Billy” Bitzer pans the film’s solitary camera across the battlefield, surveying destruction and smoke, witnessing its scale from overhead. Griffith holds the camera upon bodies of dead soldiers, refusing to look away; as Thomas parallels, reminiscent of Matthew Brady’s photographs of the battle of Petersburg. As Brownlow notes, production began a month before the outbreak of World War I, on 4th July 1914, with Griffith believing its “pacifist message […] might even stop the war”, the intertitle preceding the 1921 release announcing its intent to convey the “ravages” and “abhorrence” of war. Willan notes opposition from British censors to some sequences of war.

Moving into a hospital, Griffith allows us to witness war’s effects. As Richard Brody writes, Griffith offers “humanly profound moments” in “universal circumstances”, praising his “breathtaking shot” of a “huddling mother and children” and the “harrowing and exalted grandeur” of a “classical moment of tragedy.” The conclusion, much like Intolerance’s ending upon a spiritual plane, follows romance towards a double honeymoon, taking a train carriage to sunset by the beach; couples dream of a “golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more.” As characters merge, a Messianic image of Jesus appears avowing peace, a scene Vance speculates will “in the church neighborhoods and where the staunchest of the peace advocates live it will go with a hurrah.”

The Birth of a Nation has persisted in part for its legacy upon the cinematic medium. But silent cinema has a vast canon of innovators beyond Griffith, acting equally and far more deeply into radicalism, each effort growing what cinema can do. The Birth of a Nation uses an impressive array of effects, reconfiguring the temporality of editing by intercutting between scenes. Griffith’s use of the circular frame allows for a kinetic cinema, displaying different or multiple parts of the frame to be revealed at a certain time, focusing in upon the romantic meeting by the pond in “Love Valley”, parts of the battlefield or moving out from the gallery during Lincoln’s assassination. In certain scenes, the colour tinting pierces the eye alongside Griffith’s use of silhouettes, depicting the power of bonfire celebrations. Through textual documents, Griffith relays narrative through letters and newspaper headlines, immersing the viewer within a multifaceted world. Griffith’s commitment to staging is shown through gesture and small movements; dancing is given a sense of motion, moving in the dancehall with the array of people.

But we should reckon with The Birth of a Nation’s legacy. The Birth of a Nation persisted with Dixon Jr.’s lost The Fall of a Nation (1916) released the following year; by 1930, it had been issued in sound, a prologue featuring Griffith and Lincoln. Menand points to the Aitkens’ efforts to produce a remake, trying to lure a “broken and broke” Griffith and Dixon in the 1930s and another in 1954, unable to secure financing (2006:200). Brody speculates why there was “no movie documentary in which former slaves bore witness to their experience” a la Shoah (1985), or “a full and classic drama about the agonies of slaves in the prewar South, and the full measure of horrific exactions by the Klan and the decades of Jim Crow.” But Hollywood’s at counter responses largely floundered, with Lynskey highlighting a screenplay that never materialised as a finished film between the NAACP and Universal, Lincoln’s Dream; The Birth of a Race (1918), set back by white financiers, devolved from a 3 hour epic response to a film about World War I, with only directors like Oscar Michaeux filling the void. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016) sought to reclaim the title for African-American empowerment and struggle, only to be set back by emerging testimony of sexual assault.

Before watching The Birth of a Nation, my least favourite film had been Catwoman (2004), itself about an empowered black female. Of course, Catwoman has an impact upon our own world, representative of the heroes we celebrate and allow budgets for. But Catwoman’s innumerable flaws of plot, character and style have no immediate bearing compared to the persistence of ideologies of white supremacy and the subhumanization of racial minorities. Aesthetic form cannot be detached from content; the two together form a message. The Birth of a Nation is irredeemable, unable to be celebrated. The Birth of a Nation doesn’t deserve exhilaration: it deserves great sadness.

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Around China with a Movie Camera (2015)


 

Last year, I appreciated the Old Rep as a venue for live performance with Faust (1926), presented with an immersive live score, animating the carnival and capturing the elemental forces of nature. This year is no short of live performances, adding an added dimension to film that demands physical presence, bringing new life to almost century old material. Ruth Chan’s score, complete with orchestra, combines Chinese and western influences to reflect the BFI’s compilation of an archive of decades of home movies, newsreels and ethnographic film, often filmed from western perspectives.

Around China with a Movie Camera seems at home with the city symphonies of the late 1920s. The film is not as interested in the progression of time as in the progression of space, moving between Beijing and Shanghai, using cities themselves as a point of departure to examine shared culture and location. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) experimented radically with editing, technique and form, placing the everyday life of the streets upon the screen without relying on traditional narrative, compressing Odessa, Moscow, Khariv and Kiev into one shared location. Where Around China with a Movie Camera lacks is its limitations: as a compilation, it has no authorial voice. It feels like a series of short sketches, comprised of extracts; the BFI’s website even offers a wider archive. Other recent BFI projects like The Stuart Hall Project (2013) feel similarly limited by form: manipulating an existing archive without offering coherent structure or anything much new to existing material.

But preserving early film carries importance, adding visual record to the stillness of photographs and the prose of monographs. Film deteriorates, left in archives or badly stored, unwatched or forgotten. As a physical medium, film is limited by the amount of stock available. The camera excludes: positioning and light affects how the image itself is perceived. We follow missionaries, tourists and honeymooners, capturing ethnographic images of a culture they do not live within, with their own decisions on what is valuable to shoot, rarely following a Chinese perspective. Early films like The Epic of Everest (1924) provide a valuable record of not only Mallory’s expedition to the Antarctic but Tibetan rituals, faces long since forgotten: but the camera conceals an imperial gaze.

Preserving an archive is ultimately a question about ourselves: how will we as people be remembered? Beyond the scarcity of physical records, modern technology allows for a seemingly infinite archive, amassed of photographs, videos, messages and emails that seem to exist for an eternity, impossible to organise in any reasonable way: but the instability remains. Files deteriorate; websites rebrand; the cloud is a fallacy, concealing the physicality of server farms. Around China with a Movie Camera is limited by time: the earliest film contained within the archive is thought to predate 1900. But dating relies upon conjecture and other available records. Were photography to emerge as a medium before the 1840s, and film before the 1880s, what other images could have been captured? What other images have been lost to eternity, or degraded beyond recognition? Inks, oils and pencils provide another insight into the past, but stylises the artistic image.

Film becomes filtered through the presence of time: we witness the days before the Shanghai massacre, but its relevance becomes heightened through the massacre its subjects and cameraman never knew of at the time. Subjects stare at the camera, in awe at an invention never before witnessed. Everyday life and farming techniques become captured upon film: irrelevant at the time, yet afforded new meaning in the century that has passed since. Its subjects, without knowledge of their lives or personalities, become blank slates, anonymous bodies to project upon who they might have been, containing entire lifetimes within seconds of film.

Around China with a Movie Camera captures some truly beautiful visions: tinted images and stencils light up the screen, attempts at colour that never feel realistic yet a truly wonderful spectacle. Although Around China with a Movie Camera never achieves aesthetic transcendence, its value as a document of the past cannot be underestimated.

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.

Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998), dir. John Maybury

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The BBC built a minor industry from TV movie biopics, illuminating controversial and celebrated great lives, touching upon queer figures in films like Christopher and His Kind (2011). But TV movie don’t necessarily lose ingenuity, even within limitations. Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach honed their craft on TV movies, through anthology series like The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Play for Today (1970-84), confronting social issues through humanised characters. International directors like Ingmar Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, finding their careers in decline, turned to television for funding. Even when TV movies fall into ethereality, years after broadcast, they can remain important documents of time and place, transcending limitations.

Love is the Devil was developed under relative freedom from producer George Faber, with funding from the Arts Council and Japanese and French financiers. As Maybury relates in a Q&A at the BFI, when the original cast, Malcolm McDowell and Tim Roth, backed out, he took a year to develop the script and find a story. Maybury wasn’t just approaching it as an obligatory biopic, but telling a queer perspective, having worked with queer icons like Sinead O’Connor and Boy George in music videos and studied under Derek Jarman, one of the most notable voices in underground British cinema.

Maybury met Francis Bacon a few times before he died, but never more than briefly. As an art student, Maybury looked up to him, but Love is the Devil never glorifies its subject: it does the exact opposite, making both artist and art seem repulsive and toxic. Anyone hoping to leave the film with an appreciation for his life and work won’t find it. Bacon (Derek Jacobi) is both manipulative and self-righteous. As George Dyer (Daniel Craig) stumbles into his studio through a skylight, Bacon immediately asks Dyer to bed, without much room for an alternative answer. Without ever agreeing their relationship isn’t monogamous, Bacon leaves Dyer in the pouring rain late at night, banging on the door and screaming, as Bacon receives oral from a man he met at the local casino. He isolates himself from Dyer, framing his studio as his own space, not letting him come in with his keys.

Bacon brushes off Dyer’s suicide attempts as childish and immature, never grasping the reality, immature in himself; self-righteous to both his own and all others’ art, openly utilising Dyer as muse to fit his canvas, never appreciating the real person. In the Colony Room in Soho, he dismisses an enamoured fellow artist as a bad artist on instinct, purely from the tie he wears. Watching Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) at a local arthouse cinema with Isabel Rawsthorne (Anne Lambton), bodies and pushchairs trampled on the Odessa steps, he refuses to shut up as he intellectualises our own mortality through the death of the photographed subjects. Isabel wants to relax; he refuses the very thought. He adapts Dyer into a role he was never in, displaying covert homosexuality as he takes him to a tailor’s, trying on a suit, ties and shirts. Through his femininity, in his vain mirror routine, putting on eyelashes, powdering his face and parting his hair, he forces Dyer into feminine terms of address, using “her” pronouns and calling him his “girlfriend”. Bacon conceals an internal loneliness: he stands on the Tube, unable to think; in his studio, he can’t process Dyer’s suicide and loss.

Dyer was but one chapter of Bacon’s life; the film’s source text, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (1993), contained little about him. As Maybury reflects in the Q&A, Maybury’s friends interviewed for the film (many appearing as extras) had little to say, barely remembering him, leaving Craig little to go on. Instead, Maybury used poetic licence to extrapolate their relationship. Craig’s role as Dyer might seem unusual. As Bond, Craig is a ladies man; he emerges from the ocean in Casino Royale (2006), showing off his chest. Even as Jewish rebel Tuvia Bielski in Nazi-occupied Belarus in Defiance (2008), Craig cannot escape his action-oriented roles. Dyer’s entrance jumping through Bacon’s skylight might as easily be James Bond leaping across Italian rooftops in the opening to Quantum of Solace (2008).

Though lacking Bond’s musculature, Dyer still has a scruff, working class masculinity incompatible with Bacon. There’s no emotional connection; directly before his suicide in Paris, he confesses to Bacon he loves him, but Bacon refuses to reciprocate without a dismissive joke. They wander through art galleries and the British Museum, looking at other people’s paintings, but their bond never goes farther. Bacon forces Dyer into the art world he was never part of, torn from his own circle of friends, unable to transcend class differences, though still living in a grubby bathtub next to the kitchen sink. He travels across the world, attending exhibitions and openings in Paris and New York City, away from the place he calls home.

Dyer becomes Francis Bacon: in a drunken stupor, in a bar filled with sailors and Nazi costumes, he offers to spend money on other men, reutilising Bacon’s own philosophy on the image of dead people in photographs to the dismissal of others, adopting Bacon’s lack of monogamy. Dyer’s descent doesn’t feel so far apart from Franz Bieberkopf in Fox and His Friends (1975), trapped within a toxic queer relationship he stumbled into, unable to escape class. Dyer lies asleep in the casino at night, woken by a woman hoovering the floor the following morning; unable to sleep next to Bacon. Bacon pushes him into his final overdose: bottles of pills and swigs of alcohol. Maybury, living through the AIDS epidemic, drew upon his own experience. As he relates in the Q&A, he transposed his experience from the 1980s of his own boyfriend, Trojan, dying of an overdose in his London flat whilst he was away in Los Angeles shooting a music video, onto Bacon’s life, using it as a lynchpin to invest the film with currency. All around him, Maybury’s friends were dying.

Dyer’s tragedy is familiar, falling into a trope of “Bury Your Gays”. Love is the Devil is never life affirming or endearing. Biopics like I, Olga Hepnarova (2016) walk a delicate line between veracity to historical events and sensitively handling issues of mental health and sexuality. But which stories are told is a choice, for as much as authenticity wants to be held.

Love is the Devil carries visceral and intense sexuality. We see Bacon and Dyer engaged in BDSM; the camera clinically holds on the pair stripping down and taking their clothes off. In animalistic close-ups, sexuality becomes repulsive. As Maybury relates, he wanted to show the “non-beautiful side of homosexual activity”. Model Henrietta Moraes (Annabel Brooks) becomes an object for the camera. Laid bare and naked, we sense vulnerability; the photographer becomes a creep, asking her to accentuate her vagina and butt, zooming inside her, seemingly justified because Bacon lacks attraction to women.

The Colony Room becomes a meeting place for a generation of artists and painters; Maybury used local London art students as extras, whilst lacing Colony regulars with alcohol. Maybury creates a sense of the grotesque, staring through glasses and ashtrays as out-of-focuses lenses, with the same experimentalism Vertov afforded to the patrons of a Moscow bar in Man with a Movie Camera (1929). With Vertov, it felt revolutionary and a neat trick; here, it feels cheap and amateurish, attempting to apply the same techniques to narrative cinema. We stare down the faces of men and women eating live lobster, as Dyer struggles to understand the need for different sets of cutlery, though it were the scathing, bourgeois class critique of an earlier generation. Ancillary female characters in the Colony are never given their due; Muriel Belcher (Tilda Swinton) never has the presence to Swinton’s many other roles, from maternal roles in films like Thumbsucker (2005) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) to the rock and roll vampire lover of Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). Swinton can fit into basically any role and make bad movies great, yet struggles to even be recognisable. International locations like New York City never feel authentic, showing the limitations of the TV movie. Dyer stands upon the roof of a hotel about to jump, as worried hotel clerk try to intervene. But the constraints of the hotel feel false, a studio set: Dyer stands in front of the American flag as identifying symbol, cars passing underneath. Actors fail to provide American accents with even a hint of realism.

Setting a film within the queer subculture of 1960s London should underline the film with political undertones. By the late 90s, queerness was still taboo: a marketing technique used by advertisers, yet Section 28 was still in effect, without an equal age of consent, a community reeling from the still very real effects of AIDS. Series like Queer as Folk (1999-2000) proved liberating and confrontational to a generation of queer (and straight) youth. Half a decade earlier, directors like Gus Van Sant and Gregg Araki opened the floodgates within American cinema through the movement dubbed New Queer Cinema. But Love is the Devil struggles to feel as revolutionary as New Queer Cinema’s strongest moments. Victim (1961), reportedly the first film to ever explicitly use the word “homosexual” on film, created a perfect sense of the isolated and underground community in 1960s London, and dangers of blackmail and law enforcement. Bacon’s flat is raided for drugs by police, Bacon displaying openness and brashness, but we never sense any ulterior motive. In the sauna, we sense an encoded queer space for sexual meeting, yet the film never makes this stated.

Perhaps the film’s most interesting aspect is it’s aesthetic. The Marlborough Gallery, on behalf of Bacon’s estate, issued injunctions against the film, disavowing the screenplay and refusing access to Bacon’s studio or use of his artwork. Maybury found this liberating: production designer Adam MacDonald made the most of limited resources, allowing them to “abandon rules of narrative cinema” in favour of the abstract, using what Maybury describes in the Q&A as “celluloid as paint”. Maybury allowed the film to have theatricality, evoking Bacon’s tableaus and triptychs, relying upon the stationary image; as he comments, “the real director of the film is Francis Bacon”.

Naked bodies bathe in blood, leaping through a swimming pool; Bacon, in his studio, turns the canvas into himself, forming internal duality between orange and blue paint. Dyer drunkenly pisses into a painting of a toilet, dripping down in yellow stains, thinking it to be real. The closest we see of Bacon’s own art is through workbooks and boxes of photographs and newspaper clippings Dyer stumbles into; Dyer’s face on his desk stares into him, a source of inspiration. Although we never learn why Bacon is considered a talented painter, we’re given a sense. Limitations of time and space transcend, moving between the interview in the TV studio and the television playing at home, words still playing over in his head. The camera looks down upon Maybury in his bedroom, trapped.

The film’s cinematography pays close attention to symbolism: Bacon sharpens his knife, looking at Dyer in the reflection behind him, as though about to stab him as a serial killer victim. He sits in the photo booth, solemn, framed by lines around him. Bacon conjures a car crash from his own words, a family laying outwards upon tarmac, blood and shards of glass around them as he admires the beauty, positioning Dyer within. Dyer’s internal struggle becomes surreal: he walks down an infinite staircase; falls into the blackness of the void, an ever-decreasing circle, until becoming nothing. The bathroom is inverted as though a stage, red pillars and black interior.

In editing, the film has the late-90s edginess of films like Trainspotting (1996), yet without the same aesthetic effect, a superfluous and out-dated trope. Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto delivers the most transcendent element in its score, embodying the film’s mixed emotions of romance, desire and internal reflections. Although more melodramatic scenes focus too heavily on the piercing screams of the synthesiser, at its best, Sakamoto reaches the beauty of his score to The Revenant (2015).

Love is the Devil has many impressive elements, but Maybury, for all his technical brilliance, struggles to create a compelling portrait of an artist, nor a beautiful queer love story or tragedy. Actors like Jacobi and Swinton are capable of far more with their less repulsive characters. Love is the Devil is of interest, but ultimately disappointing.

My 2016 in Film

It seems almost customary at this point to slate 2016. But I feel like so many people are taking the message of newspaper headlines, memes and viral videos wholesale, without pausing to reflect on how it was for them.

Yes, 2016 seemed to have tragedy after tragedy. The deaths of not only cultural icons like David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Carrie Fisher, and film directors like Arthur Hiller, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Guy Hamilton, but also people who changed the world: Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and Vera Rubin. Politically, the world became divided by Brexit and Trumpism, against the backdrop of the assassination of Jo Cox, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and further ISIS attacks in Europe to shake the world, with Aleppo under siege.

But the world will always have to face new dangers. As time moves on, more icons of the 1960s and 70s will pass on. We have seen the rise of right wing populism before, just in different forms. Yet in my personal life, 2016 has been a pretty good year.

I came to terms with my asexuality. I decided to become vegetarian (and, possibly, on the verge of being vegan). I made more friends than I’ve ever had before, whilst finally settling into a degree I actually like. I helped launch a film society, and watched more films than I’ve ever done so before. I travelled more, from Dublin to Barcelona to Béziers, and my new favourite place in the UK, Brighton. For once, I’m actually feeling pretty comfortable with life.

In terms of culture, 2016 has been a brilliant year: in music, Blackstar and You Want it Darker closed out the decades long careers of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen in a beautiful way. Lemonade and Blond revolutionised not only style, but also how music is distributed. Over in comic books, Paper Girls and Kill or Be Killed told engaging new stories which I love to my very core. As much as one might proclaim the death of cinema, 2016 saw so many strong films, like The Neon DemonI, Daniel Blake and Paterson (although some like Moonlight still await a UK release), that it becomes difficult to keep up. Meanwhile, labels like Criterion and Indicator launched in the UK, bringing more and more films out as the best they’ve ever looked.

Whilst other end of year summaries seek to examine 2016 as a whole, I can’t do so in good conscience. I can strongly advise that you stop everything you’re doing right now and watch Weiner, Baden Baden and Your Name. But I’ve simply not watched enough, still waiting to see releases like Silence and Manchester by the Sea in the coming weeks and days, that my list will never tell the whole story.

Because my film consumption isn’t linear, not based on what new releases are out in the cinema or on Netflix, but shifting between decades, directors and genres. Some I write reviews of – but for some, it might take days for my thoughts to settle in my mind, or I don’t have enough of something unique to say about it to sustain a whole review. So, over the next week or so, I’ll be highlighting some of the best films I watched in 2016 that I might have overlooked before.

The 1920s

The Epic of Everest (1924), dir. J.B.L. Noel

Everest has captured our imaginations more recently with Everest (2015), about the tragic 1996 expedition, but The Epic of Everest should go down as the definitive film about the mountain. Beautifully restored by the BFI in 2013, it charts the 1924 expedition by Mallory and Irvine, who died during the expedition. Although the film conforms to the ethnographic impulses of other films of the period like Nanook of the North (1922), creating a portrait of another culture through the perspective of the other, the film’s illustration of the customs of the Tibetan people are not its main draw.

Instead, the film becomes its most haunting in its presentation of the mountain itself. As Mallory and Irvine go missing, we painfully wait until, if ever, their bodies are found. We become aware of the etherealness of life against an unchanging landscape, in a beautiful red-tinted time-lapse of the mountain. As the best of silent cinema does, the image transcends itself, becoming almost otherworldly. The Epic of Everest has been overlooked for a long time, but it is a fascinating cultural document, preserving a period in history which deserves to be seen.

The 1940s

A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

It seems easy to dismiss WWII era cinema as pure propaganda. Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel (1941) seems almost alternative universe fantasy, as we see three Nazi officers crossing over the ocean to Newfoundland, hiding amongst the Canadian people and attempting to cross over the American border. It seems equally easy to dismiss WWII cinema as the purview of daytime TV, playing to older audiences who just about have a memory of the war. But Powell and Pressburger were masters of their day, and A Matter of Life and Death is no different.

The end of the Second World War acts as only a backdrop to wider events, as we see a pilot (played by David Niven) split between the afterlife and his miraculous survival, washing up on the English coast. Invoking spiritual and supernatural themes might seem less in vogue nowadays, outside of explicitly Christian cinema by the Kendrick brothers or PureFlix, but stories of afterlives and angels pop up everywhere from Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) to lauded classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But A Matter of Life and Death is more than these things: it’s a love story.

But A Matter of Life and Death deserves technical praise too. Shot largely in three-strip Technicolor, its use of colour is beautiful (and deserves the best quality version available, with an abundance of public domain copies out there), in spite of it clearly being an early and not fully developed use of it. Depicting the afterlife in monochrome might seem like a money saving process (If…. (1968) did similar), yet it lends it an ethereal quality, outside of the more grandiose depictions of Heaven, framed within the scientific universe as another planet far away. The film’s final act might feel like a courtroom drama, but it remains intensely watchable, and in light of Brexit, the discussions around national identity feel highly relevant.

The 1960s

Easy Rider (1969), dir. Dennis Hopper

Contemporary critical responses to Easy Rider seem split between regarding it as a cultural landmark, launching the New American Cinema and turning Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda into iconic names, and by dismissing it as an overextended bore where nothing happens. Born to Be Wild has dug itself into popular culture, used in every single kid’s film trying to be edgy.

Easy Rider is an acid trip of a film where nothing much happens, but that is the beauty of it. We join these three characters on the open road, where their lives are destined to be unpredictable. Like with Jim Morrison’s HWY: An American Pastoral (1969), the American landscape takes on an almost spiritual quality as our protagonists move through it. In the film’s most mesmerising scene, we join our protagonists in their acid trip, edited in what today would probably just be a music video. Alongside its soundtrack, combining music by Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds and Steppenwolf, the film becomes an easy film to just slip through.

 

Elephant (1989), dir. Alan Clarke

Elephant is deliberately minimalist, stripping away dialogue and context to provide a brutal depiction of the Troubles in Belfast during the late 1980s.

It remains chilling viewing, yet I somewhat prefer Gus Van Sant’s approach. Clarke asks the audience to come to their own conclusions based on the stimulus on the screen, to spark a conversation about the “elephant in the room”. He kind of did: the film received heavy backlash upon its broadcast, especially from viewers in Belfast. (The extract from Open Air on the Blu-ray, interviewing Alan Clarke and Danny Boyle after the broadcast, is essential viewing for this background.) Whereas Van Sant’s approach was to speculate multiple reasons as to why the school shooting was carried out, leaving the audience to determine which factor they deem the most important or influential; both are thought pieces that leave ambiguity. The main difference is that Van Sant gave every character a background: both the killer and the victim. Here, everyone is a blank slate. The shooters pass for everyday people in casual dress.

But it’s clear the use of Steadicam influenced Van Sant, although here it reinforces the POV of the killers, building up to the suspense of who they may kill next. In Van Sant’s film, it built up suspense from the POV of the victim, leading up to what they may discover in the next classroom. Van Sant limited himself to a school and teenagers killing fellow students and teachers. The IRA don’t discriminate. Anyone, in any corner of Belfast, is not safe.

What is perhaps most impressive is the use of sound: despite the sparse dialogue, there’s an uneasy atmosphere from dogs barking to cars revving. Yet despite a sea of cars, there are no human voices to break the silence and raise the issue. The issue is as it appears on screen.

Elephant is worth watching, but it is a conversation starter, rather than the final word on the Troubles.