Alicia Malone has been one of my favourite film people since I was first introduced to her in an interview with her on Criterion Now. Malone’s passion for cinema easily comes across in her role as an interviewer, the segments she hosts for TCM, FilmStruck, and the videos she posts to her YouTube channel. The strength of Malone’s segments is her joy, contextual knowledge and her ability to use the stories of personal lives and production that entices the viewer to watch more great films more deeply.
The book’s title comes from a 1988 keynote by Texas Governor Ann Richards that Malone uses as her epigraph, and is perhaps revealing to the plight of women both in the film industry, politics, and every other area of life:
Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.
Backwards & in Heels has many familiar stories within it, profiling early female filmmakers such as Alice Guy-Blanché and Lois Weber, silent stars like Mary Pickford, the stars of screwball comedies and ‘women’s pictures’, like Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, mythologised sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe, New Hollywood icons like Jane Fonda, through to the present day with figures still working with Meryl Streep and Octavia Spencer, and more recent directors such as Ava DuVernay. Although far from comprehensive, without an interest in women within the global film industry (although some international talent is mentioned in passing), Malone provides a strong series of empowering biographies (some a couple of pages, some closer to ten) written in an accessible way that encourages the reader to both read and watch more.
Many of the stories Malone tells are less familiar, remembering actresses and directors that might be less acknowledged, like with Hedy Lamarr, Mae West, Dorothy Dandridge or Ida Lupino. We learn of women who achieved far more for humanity and the world at large – and more intelligent – than we ever give credit for. Many of these stories have an element of tragedy: the marginalisation of actors of colour Hattie MacDaniel and Anna May Wong, even in the face of critical acclaim and major directors; the erasure of Rita Hayworth’s ethnic identity; the difficulty of Tangerine actress Mya Taylor to find positive trans roles, instead limited to prostitutes. There’s stories of women who lack agency or control, or were manipulated by men, or failed to get the due credit to support their careers. Hearing about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds after their passing still makes me so emotional. Malone hits her stride when she approaches the current era of filmmaking, addressing not only directors and actors but activists, producers, screenwriters, editors, cinematographers and so on, interviewing people like Rachel Morrison and Nicole Perlman that might be overlooked because of male directors overshadowing their contributions, but should instead be remembered for shaping the films as they are.
Although Malone doesn’t address narrative content so much, we need to consider how representation functions. Representation isn’t just made from depicting strong and empowered women on screen outside of sexist and misogynistic tropes, images and stereotypes, but in shifting the culture and placing women within creative positions to have an impact on how these stories are told.
With the most recent edition, Malone ties in the events of late 2017 and 2018, tackling the events following Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s The New York Times investigation into Harvey Weinstein and what this means for the film industry as a whole. As Malone concludes, “the only consistency [in Hollywood] is the struggle for women against discrimination, bias, sexual harassment, damaging stereotypes, and constant objectification”, with sexual assault “woven into the very fabric of the industry almost since the beginning.”
Adapted from Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay, broadcast on CBS’ Studio One (1948-58) and directed by Franklin J Schaffner, 12 Angry Men has transcended its origins to become a cornerstone. Produced by renowned actor Henry Fonda for $350,000 through the independent Orion-Nova and distributed through United Artists, 12 Angry Men was emblematic of an emerging wave of low-budget independent film, as cinema reconfigured its relationship with television. Nominated for an Academy Award, 12 Angry Men barely had a chance to find an audience, with its New York premiere at Loew’s Flagship only having the first few rows filled, running only a week.
Courtroom dramas extend deeply, across cinema, television, documentary, tabloids and fiction. But 12 Angry Men is unique for its use of the confined space of the jury room, without interruption, an outgrowth of the live television limitations of the teleplay, requiring a balance of staging, blocking and performance. One of Sidney Lumet’s early teleplays (alongside Rose), Tragedy in a Temporary Town (1956), produced for the strand The Alcoa Hour (1955-57) makes this confinement clear, reducing an entire community to the artifice of a set. Neither was 12 Angry Men the first film to utilise limitations of space, from the one-frame narratives of early silent cinema, Hitchcock’s pioneering in Rope (1948) and Rear Window (1954), the confined houses of Saw (2004) and Carnage (2011), and the military-under-fire of Buried (2010). Whereas TV’s confinement is inherent, broadcast to a box in a living room, cinema offers expansion. But as Thane Rosenbaum notes, audiences expected “gunfights in the mountainous Wild West or leading men and women falling in love in exotic places”.
12 Angry Men is intensely visual: small details of law and action are not just narrated, but acted out; characters move around the room, examining details of the knife within evidence, diagrams and staging the movements of a witness across the room. With only a window to the outside world, the pounding summer storm heightens the intensity of the room, reflecting the room’s internal strife. But 12 Angry Men’s space isn’t just the courtroom, but setting: New York City. As Stephen E. Bowles writes in Sidney Lumet: A Guide to References and Resources, Lumet had been “a product of New York’s east side” (1979:4); through his filmmaking, he “helped establish New York City as a major production center long before it became fashionable” (1979:3). Just as the television industry behind CBS had been driven by New York, as Rosenbaum notes, the film was shot in New York, with most of its actors, largely from stage and television, emerging from the New York School of filmmaking that drew attention to “social consciousness” and “realism”.
Rose’s teleplay had been drawn from his own experience from a manslaughter case. Over the summer, I sat on a jury for a couple of weeks. 12 Angry Men quickly became a talking point, some recalling watching it in law class and the concept of “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The social space of the court returns each day with the regularity as school or work. An entire world exists within artificial barriers, concrete and wooden panels remnants of the 70s; the courtroom an odd hybrid of technology, testimony relayed through DVD-Rs and Skype. Phones turned off or left behind in the jury room, every fag break offering interlude. My confinement had been exacerbated through social anxiety: waiting to be assigned for a case whilst reading in excess, unable to bond with an assembly of strangers and a jigsaw puzzle. The outside world offers strange release: a return to nature, a bus back home, a connection to the social internet. The jury is built through the repetition of routine, with its set of customs and expectations, costumes and wigs. I sat, as my thoughts wandered.
12 Angry Men’s main protagonists initially refuse to engage with process, formulating an immediate conclusion, desiring a return to normality as quickly as possible, passing time with charades or tic-tac-toe. 12 Angry Men allows us to doubt certainty, questioning the fallibility of memory and testimony: the question of the last film you watched at what time; the woman across the street, who probably couldn’t see without glasses; the narrative constructed within the case. The suspect, an 18-year-old kid from the slums threatened with death, allows a degree of social consciousness, exploring not only justice but class and ghettoisation. In Tragedy in a Temporary Town, Lumet engaged with similar issues, exploring mob justice among the underprivileged, the rape of a teenage girl and a Puerto-Rican suspect. As Rosenbaum writes, both Lumet and Rose were “children of the Great Depression” who understood the feeling of “the other” whilst believing in the American Dream.
Perhaps the most ludicrous aspect of 12 Angry Men is its length. Lumet relays the film’s narrative in real time throughout the 90-minute narrative. But deliberation was never brief, nor were we seeking to get out of quickly, stretching on days. Each day might pass quickly, living by moving hands of the clock upon the wall, lunch breaks, teas and coffees and mid-afternoon’s close, but time freezes in the deliberation room, words spoken and repeated until the mouth can barely say another word. By day’s end, I sit back on the sofa, drained, unable to do much else, scenes and testimony playing through my mind at night. I still get flashbacks.
The centre of 12 Angry Men is a commitment to truth. The oath, even among non-believers, carries power: truth not only to man’s world and society, family and the law, but the spiritual world. But absolute truth is difficult, if impossible, to formulate: jotting down notes, recording key quotes and details, highlighting written evidence. Weighing evidence is hard: what justifications we conjecture, what should be emphasised, what should be thrown out, what doesn’t make sense? The verdict was some of the deepest tension I’ve ever experienced: anxiety in my stomach rising, sipping water in dread, looking down at my feet. I played a small role in altering the path of a life separate from my own. It’s an uneasy burden to hold.
The opening pan in the courtroom establishes the film’s jurors in equal standing, each with their own part; the suspect sits, unspeaking. But each man has distinguishing characteristics beyond names: hats and ties, the scrawl of their handwriting on each ballots. Each character has individual goals, like a baseball game in the evening, and occupations: a football coach, stockbroker, architect, labourers and advertising executives, from the youth of the dissenting juror 8 (Henry Fonda) to the age of juror 9 (Joseph Sweeney), reprising his role from the television production. Within the jury room, they establish freeform democracy, electing foreman and process. Ballots and hands offer anonymity, beyond the openness as each character mentions private lives. Through the film’s 2 weeks of rehearsals and 19-day shoot, Lumet allows performances to carry through the film’s moral questions, both in interactions and monologues. We root for characters from personalities: bluntness, charisma, ideas. As Drew Casper notes in his audio commentary, the lack of make-up allows realism to carry through. Both cinematographer Boris Kaufman, having refined his style in the avant-garde expressions of Jean Vigo and the documentary observations of John Grierson, and editor Carl Lerner allow rhythm in composition and pace, drawing attention to each character.
The jury is arbitrary: assembled through electoral register, defined by their decision to determine the future of the country as a cross-section of the populous. I expected to be alone amid a sea of adults, but the modern jury is representative beyond the largely white men of 12 Angry Men: young adults, the middle-aged, the retired, each bringing their own experiences from their work, their lives, values and beliefs, women refracting their own perspectives. I barely remember anyone’s names. The anonymity of Lumet’s jury rings true, each juror reduced to nameless archetype defined by face, voice and look. From the courtroom, I construct a film within my mind. The television becomes a frame-within-a-frame. My eye line darts, moving between judge, defence, prosecution and witness. As I leave the room, I keep my head down, still offering a brief look at the face of the accused as I pass. An entire life becomes perception and construct, grounded within what can be revealed over a few days.
Andrei Tarkovsky is a director like few others. Ivan’s Childhood (1962) is a film of stunning images, placed within the final days of World War II; Andrei Rublev (1966) is a testament to scale and ideas; Solaris (1972) delves into the depths of memory and consciousness. Tarkovsky was in constant negotiation with censors over what his films could represent. Stalker was troubled from the start: shot on experimental Kodak 5247 stock, the initial print manifested an unwatchable dark green tint, leaving unending debate about whether it was accidental or sabotage. Tarkovsky reconceived, altering the character of Stalker and elaborating the film into a longer two-part epic under cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky.
Although the basis is the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic (1972), Tarkovsky wasn’t interested in a literal adaptation. As Mark Le Fanu writes, Roadside Picnic is “hard-boiled” science fiction rife with “slang and violence”, but underneath its dystopian vision is “a humanistic belief […] in the sacredness of the family unit”. Tarkovsky saw science fiction as a set of ““comic book” trappings and vulgar commercialism”, but the Zone is a descent into mystery, embodying a shifting state of reality. Stalker opens with an aura of documentary and the literary, grounded within science fiction and our own world, using a quote from Nobel Prize winner Professor Wallace as an epigraph.
What was it? A meteorite that fell to Earth? Or a visitation from outer space?
From the opening, Tarkovsky confronts us with uncertainty: no troops returned from this “miracle of miracles”. As Geoff Dyer highlights in his illuminating deconstruction and memoir on his own relationship with the film, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (2012:5), this opening caption was added at the bequest of Mosfilm, situating the film within a small bourgeois country that wasn’t the USSR. The epigraph is never detrimental, nor should it be ignored, but essential to our perception. We learn Porcupine has come to the Zone as a Stalker before, never to return; skeletons are just another part of the landscape. But as Tarkovsky stresses in Sculpting in Time, “the Zone doesn’t symbolise anything”; the Zone is life itself (1986:200).
Filming around abandoned power plants and chemical factories around the River Jägala in Tallinn, Estonia, Tarkovsky scouted locations in Tajikistan, whilst considering Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine and Crimea as possible alternatives. Conditions were harsh, likely leading to the cancer and early death of many of the cast and crew, including Tarkovsky himself: mechanic Sergei Bessmertniy describes a dirty river of reddish flakes and foam where fish still lived, coming off of “waste of pulp and paper”.
Stalker’s opening might present a sense of normality, presented in monochrome that is what Dyer describes as “muddy sepia of sleep that is like a dream of death” (2012:131), filmed in colour and printed in black and white, aesthetically unappealing yet perfect to mood. Tarkovsky intersects monochrome and colour throughout his work: Andrei Rublev closes in colour within the present, icons surviving storms and passing centuries, whilst Solaris set meeting scenes in monochrome through a televised window; Mirror (1975) uses similar techniques. In the opening shot, Tarkovsky forms a recurring tableau at the bar, rarely moving the camera. We move through a bedroom door with a sense of unreality, motion seemingly impossible as a frame forms around; we slowly pan across a girl in bed and objects upon a table, following routines of getting dressed. Our spaces are shipyards, not anywhere else.
Industrial and natural landscapes are both abandoned and untouched. Telegraph poles are embedded within the Zone’s landscape, grass sprouting up. Power plants and stone houses lay in the distance, buried by mist. Van Eyck’s icon of St John the Baptist lies submerged in water, a marker of human presence and faith. Writer lays down in the overgrowth, moss around him, a conscious vessel beside the life of nature itself. A lone dog walks through water, both in dream and reality. In seemingly endless sand dunes, a bird moves past, eerily looped as Tarkovsky repeats the footage, the bird disappearing from existence. In the fields, a dust storm moves upwards. In one incredible shot, Tarkovsky pans across the edge of a ridge into the black abyss of the water, before emerging again upon the other side. In a pool of water, the encircled surface shimmers. Moving inside a tunnel, stalagmites and stalactites line the circular roof, the Writer a lone figure.
In the film’s cyclicality, Tarkovsky returns to the opening setting. A girl, Monkey, reads a book as though reading the film as fable and parable. Shot in colour, the landscape is made more haunting: she walks by in side profile, snow falling. The family walks by with the dog as we glimpse a power plant in the distance. This could be the same family living in Chernobyl in 1986: the power plant behind them, unsuspecting of its power, another everyday family that became victims.
Snow falls around Monkey
The power plant looms upon the horizon
John A. Riley reads Stalker’s landscapes through the lens of hauntology, extrapolating upon Jacques Derrida’s theory of communism after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Spectres of Marx (1993). In his essay Hauntology, Ruins, and the Failure of the Future in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (Journal of Film & Video 69(1)), Riley writes that hauntology is both “a way of conceptualizing our repressed past” and a way to understand “our obsession with failed futures” (2017:19). For Riley, the film’s industrial ruins are “a trace of the economic stagnation” under Brezhnev, acting as a “monument to failure” (2017:21). As Dyer points out, the hydroelectric power plant within the film by the Jägala River had been blown up by the retreating Red Army during World War II (2012:61).
Tarkovsky’s use of the frame allows for an interesting relationship with the viewer. Writer looks out as though speaking to us. He sits upon a cylinder, turning to us in Shakesperean soliloquy; Tarkovsky’s cinematic stage becomes theatrical. He speaks in monologues, embodying his literary identity and confessing his deepest, darkest feelings. Stalker’s wife recites verses of Apocalypse, looking directly at us; Monkey recites Fyodor Tyutchev. As Dyer writes, Tarkovsky contravenes Roland Barthes’ edict that “it is forbidden for an actor to look at the camera” in cinema (2012:33), but Tarkovsky’s demolishing of the fourth wall allows for intimacy questioning the constraints of cinema itself. As rain falls, Tarkovsky pans out into the darkness, engulfing our protagonists as he finds another frame to act as border, making use of industrial landscapes.
Writer speaks to us in Shakespearean soliloquy
Tarkovsky pans out, forming a border within the industrial landscape
Stalker never feels like political commentary; Tarkovsky achieves timelessness extending beyond everyday politics. But there are some suggestions. In the opening act, set against barbed wire, we feel a sense of power through armed guards. For Dyer, “Stalker is not a film about the Gulag, but the absent and unmentioned Gulag is constantly suggested” (2012:17). Le Fanu draws a direct line between Stalker and his films directed in European exile, Nostalgia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986), drawing upon Tarkovsky’s personal diaries: as Tarkovsky dreamt of imprisonment, he envisioned a “Cold War fantasy of breaking through barriers”.
Tarkovsky saw cinema as literary, drawing upon a prehistory of Renaissance art and Baroque music that acknowledges minds and innovators before him; Tarkovsky is one voice. As he describes in Sculpting in Time, even in structure he wanted to “observe [Aristotle’s] three unities of time, space and action”, each frame flowing into each other. (1986:193) Le Fanu argues Tarkovsky’s literary habits were “imperceptibly feeding ideas into one another”, reading The Idiot (1869) and The Death of Ivan Ilych (1986) and working on a stage adaptation of Hamlet (1977). The concept of Stalker might seem the beginning of a joke: three men walk into a bar. But Tarkovsky uses the archetypes of Writer and Professor, guided by Stalker, to craft an allegory delving within the realms of consciousness. Stalker’s characters act as philosophical interlocutors, conveying ideas as they move through a landscape. As Pedro Blas Gonzalez writes, Tarkovsky’s axioms of knowledge achieve “with cinema what Plato accomplished in philosophical discourse”.
Through Writer, Tarkovsky channels his own insecurities and feelings as a director, resonating with all aspiring artists and creatives out there. For all creative people, there is the question of legacy. Writer questions the purpose of writing itself and importance of reception, and whether his words will be remembered a hundred years from now. He detests writing as “torture” and “a painful, shameful occupation”, yet continues onwards with his craft, something I identify with strongly. As Tarkovsky comments in Sculpting in Time, “artists work at their professions not for the sake of telling someone about something, but as an assertion of their will to serve people”; but no artist can freely create, but is “created by his time and the people amongst whom he lives.” (1986:181) Both the Writer and Professor embody a certain spiritual dimension: the Writer conveys words of meaning; the Professor must seek truth within the world. Framing his characters in side profile, Tarkovsky encourages an exploration within the mind itself.
Tarkovsky bears comparison to a director like Terrence Malick: spirituality becomes indivisible from both the person and the work, permeating not only philosophical discussions of meaning but natural landscapes. Ivan’s Childhood ends with a child upon a beach, a heavenly calm beyond the chaos of war; Andrei Rublev examines the life of an icon painter; Solaris seeks God within the infinity of the cosmos and memory itself. Tarkovsky elaborates upon the theological hints within Roadside Picnic, using the Stalker as what Gonzalez describes as “a kind of Prometheus that disperses cosmic secrets to man”, but “cannot guarantee the moral and spiritual integrity of those who enter with him.” In the Room, the bomb becomes a test of faith to whether it is activated or not. The supernatural powers of Monkey are a display of the powers of miracle and belief, moving the cups in front of her with a clatter, reportedly inspired by Russian telekinetic psychic Ninel Sergeyevna Kulagina. In the BFI piece, Vladimir Sharun comments that Tarkovsky both believed in miracles and “the existence of flying saucers”, “all harmoniously combined with his faith in God.”
The bomb becomes a test of faith
Monkey performs the film’s equivalent of a miracle
Stalker asks us the meaning of music itself: not connected to reality and devoid of association, yet transcendent within itself. Stalker’s use of music is intermittent, as is dialogue. But Stalker is built through its music and soundscapes. As Tarkovsky writes in Sculpting in Time, music creates a “necessary distortion of the visual material in the audience’s perception” to “prompt the emotions of the audience in a particular direction”, acting not just as an “appendage” but as “an essential element of the realisation of the concept as a whole.” (1986:158) Having previously worked with Eduard Artemyev on Solaris and Mirror, Artemyev’s synthesised musique concrete score combines Oriental and Eastern influences, including an Azerbaijani tar and flute. Stalker confronts us with the intensity of the vibrations of a passing train, shaking the world around us; Stalker’s sounds are visceral to our very core.
David Lynch might seem enigmatic: his films are full of mysteries that only he knows the answers to, requiring elaborate fan theories to decode. An artist at heart, Lynch never sought to become a filmmaker. As visual mediums, art and film aren’t separate, but bounce off each other to reveal and create something new. Lynch follows the daily notion of the “art life”: he drinks coffee in the morning, without distractions, and paints. Even for those not interested in the art world, The Art Life remains engrossing. Other documentaries like Cutie and the Boxer (2013), depicting Ushio Shinohara’s and Noriko’s lifetime of sculptures and performance art, present us with the intricacies of being a creative and its routines and relationships.
Lynch’s enigma remains in place. Lynch splits himself into three identities: his family, friends, and his representation of his inner self within art. Lynch talks about his adolescence in Missoula and Boise, becoming just another normal guy; Missoula is no longer just the birthplace of Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks(1990-91, 2017). Lynch recalls efforts to convince his father Donald that being an artist is a viable career decision: Lynch was the rebel who hanged out with the bad kids, working late nights in the studio after class, remembering how his mother was disappointed in him. Remembering his early 20s, his recollections become more interesting: smoking marijuana as his friend drove down the freeway; leaving a Bob Dylan concert; living in Philadelphia, where he came across dead bodies shot out in a diner, and encountered crazy people in the street.
But The Art Life is frustrating: the film chooses its endpoint as the production of Eraserhead(1977), suggesting an end of a chapter with more stories to tell, reinforcing the notion that Lynch is more filmmaker than artist. But Lynch embodies different kinds of art, never slowing down; he carried on with life. Directors Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Rick Barnes illustrate Lynch’s recollections with his current, mixed media artwork, but without offering direct commentary. But Nguyen, Neergaard-Holm and Barnes also don’t hide the reality of Lynch’s life: he’s a father, playing with his young child; he takes a drag of his cigarette, frustrated at his own paintings and artwork. Lynch speaks reflections into his anachronistic microphone, just as he has done in his own reflective documentaries like Eraserhead Stories (2001).
Even shot on digital, The Art Life is never able to compare to the closeness and authenticity of the direct cinema movement of the 1960s and 70s, lacking neither enough insight nor a complete portrait to make it interesting enough, especially amid an existing canon of films interviewing the director. The film’s directors struggle to find a singular authorial voice, acting instead as a meditation that lacks the coherence one might expect to find.
Premiering in a new 4K restoration by Janus Films and Criterion and presented with a pre-recorded introduction by 91-year-old director D.A. Pennebaker, Pennebaker has been working tirelessly on presenting Monterey Pop in its best possible version. Held in the Monterey County Fairgrounds from June 16-18th 1967 to an audience of 50,000, producer Lou Adler sought a friendly, non-commercial environment where artists played for free and profits went to charity, no artists receiving top billing.
Thinking back to the late 1960s, it’s easy to romanticise: its inhabitants become caricatures, preaching about free love and peace, smoking dope, yelling groovy. 16mm creates a historical distance: it lacks the immediacy of digital, noise allowing a trace to the photochemical process but also displaces the film from the present moment. Rather than focusing upon artists alone, Pennebaker intercuts close-ups of the crowd, presenting a shared social space. Some subjects perform to the camera; others are caught unaware. People might seem eccentric: a man wears a top hat; clothes bathed in colour; a woman wears flowers in her hair; another man wears a pinstripe suit; a mother carries her baby in a homemade pouch; a monkey eats food standing on a man’s shoulder.
But the festival, in its ethos, doesn’t seem so far from Glastonbury or others today: watching the people within the frame, we see people who could be us. Behind the clothing lie people with similar values, aspirations, fears and desires. There might not be cellphones recording every performance live on Snapchat, but it isn’t so different technologically either: Jefferson Airplane use fragments of film in screen projection, prefiguring modern LCD screens and more elaborate set-ups. We pan by tents and stalls selling posters, art prints and zines; people stitch together colourful kites, an entire subculture long forgotten. Audiences embrace music, feeling individual relationships with the artists. Pennebaker portraits couples in love: cuddling, making out, laying next to each other, a generation that have grown up, broken up, aged or died, but aren’t so different from the young couples learning love and learning life at festivals today.
As Kevin D. Greene writes, baby boomers at the festival felt “resentment” against an “era of unparalleled affluence”, in a background of the Cold War, assassination of JFK, Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Pennebaker finds narratives, conducting interviews with the crowd: he interviews a police chief, concerned about numbers attending and the Hell’s Angels, in a decade defined by riots and clashes against police. A woman cleans up litter, as Pennebaker focuses upon the immensity of empty seats all around. Their generation had their own battles for individual autonomy, before our modern battles for identity politics. Some attendees might seem surprising: Pennebaker captures young kids, Hells Angels, African Americans and Asian Americans, beyond our preconceived notion of a white, young adult monolith.
In his 1969 essay Anatomy of a Love Festival, Robert Christgau wrote that the “love crowd is America’s affair with bohemia”: attendees weren’t just hippies or “lost kids”, but liberals, college instructors, and “everyone who smokes pot, and in California that happens to be a lot of everyone.” Christgau recalls taking a ride back with an elderly Jehovah’s Witness couple that asked if the concert attendees believed in God; Christgau didn’t have an answer.
Pennebaker focuses on the mundane: eating food, finding shelter from pouring rain, lighting cigarettes; Pennebaker closes the gap between present and past, as though history hasn’t changed. Attendees inevitably held onto their own mementos and memories for the rest of their lives, but Pennebaker captures a photographic memory of shared space, creating, as Matthew Eng writes, “moving scrapbooks”, offering a “multiplicity of perspectives” amounting to a “democratic document” that mirrors the festival itself.
Monterey Pop has one major difference from Pennebaker’s most intimate works, Dont Look Back (1967) and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), never offering the same unprecedented backstage insight that defines him. Monterey Pop lacks a negotiation between artistic persona and human being that captured Bowie looking into the mirror applying make-up, or Dylan interacting with fans and journalists. Pennebaker emerged from television, working with Time-Life and ABC on Primary (1960) and the innovation and portability of 16mm news cameras. Pennebaker worked alongside 6 cinematographers and documentarians, including Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles with 5 cameras and 4 track tape recorders, lacking synchronised sound, leaving them alone, supplied with rolls of film. Pennebaker’s most recent film, Unlocking the Cage (2016), still reveals a strong directorial voice, following an animal rights lawyer whilst making a coherent argument around a fascinating subject, without demarcating an obvious, un-contestable position.
Direct cinema might seem outmoded in an age of immediacy of daily vlogs and Instagram, but recent documentaries like Weiner (2016) follow similar principles, creating a developed portrait of a personality beyond the constantly shifting present. Our iconic images of the 60s seem authorless, a predestined record of time ingrained within national and global memory, but each image has an artist, director or photographer behind it: people like Abraham Zapruder, Eddie Adams and Steve Schapiro. Documentary cinema and photojournalism are processes, based upon what we choose (or are able) to capture. Direct cinema affords an interesting relationship to history: Medium Cool (1969) intersects along both the reality of the chaos outside the DNC and the film’s fictional narrative.
Monterey Pop exists in a place between concerts photographed today, with neither the extended duration of live TV broadcasts nor the condensed coverage of vlogs or newscast montages. Pennebaker allows a structure to emerge, condensing 3 days into an 80-minute piece, allowing intermissions as days close and mornings rise: people wake up in blankets, put on pants; an airplane sets down on tarmac. At points, the film seems amateurish: other cameramen appear in shot, perching their tripod upon the roof. From the opening, there’s a home movie quality: text appears on screen, not in type but handwritten marker pen scrawled across screen amid psychedelic flashes; after the credits, the reel dissolves into burns and scratches. It’s not so far from the casualness of Dylan holding up an endless stream of cuecards to Subterranean Homesick Blues in the opening to Dont Look Back. Concert films have many approaches: Sign o’ the Times (1987) may not be the most radical, but conveys clear choreography of Prince’s theatrical spectacle.
Monterey Pop may not be as narratively involving as most cinema, but it doesn’t need to be. The film feels like a compilation with a curated selection of tracks, letting artists guide the viewer along. Many artists seem familiar: Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, Jimi Hendrix. Some are remembered more vaguely: The Mamas & the Papas, Country Joe & the Fish, Ravi Shankar. But who remembers Canned Heat, Hugh Masekela or Eric Burdon? Instruments and genre might represent the biggest difference from today, before synth, sampling, punk or heavy metal.
The opening shots might seem overly sentimental: Pennebaker traces arriving crowds as Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) plays over, but Pennebaker quickly launches into performances. The Mamas & the Papas offer circularity, appearing early and performing again towards the close, dressed in Russian clothing defying comprehension. Others become overblown through the limitations of 16mm, drowned by light: Simon & Garfunkel are scarcely visible, covered in red lighting; Otis Redding is captured from behind, white flashes encompassing his face. Some are welcome surprises: Jefferson Airplane transcend the limitations of Jefferson Starship in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) through the enjoyable High Flying Bird; Eric Burdon covers Paint It, Black, though unable to rival the iconic Rolling Stones original. Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain never leaves the mind, portraying powerful intensity that can never be matched, concealing an internal struggle.
My Generation by The Who and Wild Thing by Jimi Hendrix become easy rivals to Jim Morrison’s on-stage anarchy: at the end of their performance, The Who smash their guitar into shards, never giving up, as security and stagehands walk in to chaos, genuinely confounded. Hendrix grinds into his amplifier, has sex with his guitar and sets it on fire, threatening to leave the entire stage and electrical equipment aflame with it, before throwing the lone remnant of the guitar into the audience. But Ravi Shankar offers some genuine calm: Pennebaker surveys his audience, sitting in prayer or content with the present moment, bored or waiting around, holding on Dhun for the duration of the performance as he plays his transcendent sitar, something never heard before. As Christgau wrote:
It isn’t likely that a third of those present had more than the most rudimentary understanding of what was going on. But Shankar played to his audience.
Monterey had some setbacks. As Rolling Stone reported the following year, a backlash emerged from an “ugly collection of voyeuristic “taxpayers””, arguing the festival “resulted in sale of pornographic literature, trafficking in narcotics, an invasion of “undesirables,” and “open fornication””, that may not have been entirely inaccurate. Its artists represent a generation soon lost: Hendrix, Redding and Joplin passed within only a few years of the festival, gone too soon – something uneasily familiar to Pennebaker with his short Lambert & Co. (1964), film becoming a document of the transient. Monterey and Pennebaker set a high bar for the music festival and concert film that may be difficult to ever top.
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. Lemonadeand 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 Demon, I, Daniel Blakeand 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 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 Everestshould 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.
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.
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.
American silent cinema isn’t my forte. I’ve seen a couple of Chaplin’s films, but only the hybrid Modern Times (1936) and the sound era The Great Dictator (1940). More than the physical and visual comedy, what appeals to me about the silent era are the extraordinary colour works of Lang, Murnau and Wiene, or the ideologically driven works of Vertov and Eisenstein, which remain as artistic masterpieces to this day. Many of the silent comedies are just like the fairground amusements of Coney Island – an amusement and distraction, holding little artistic value. It’s those sequences on Criterion’s YouTube page (and on its cover) which sold me on the film – but they make up very little of its running time.
Its appeal to the 1920s generation, like a cameo from Babe Ruth, mean very little to me, and probably don’t to the people of today either, besides hardcore baseball fanatics, or academics charting the history of celebrity cameos. I assumed Babe was a glamorous actress until a intertitle introduced him, the next shot depicting him signing for orphaned kids.
I came into this film under a misapprehension – the artwork to Criterion’s release seems to sell the film as a romantic comedy. But the film already establishes Speedy and Jane as an existing unit, with the concern being her Pop – who clearly doesn’t have many years left on him – a more adult concern than a youthful romance. Through the physical comedy of the role (given the lack of sound or spoken dialogue), Lloyd’s character demands a presence that never leaves the film – he abounds personality.
Yet Jane has very little to her – she’s a beautiful woman, in a wonderful outfit, concerned about Pops and shares the odd cute moment with Speedy. This is the extent of her character, as the sole representative of the dominant female character, besides the odd angry old lady who misinterprets Speedy as a sexual predator thanks to a crab in his pocket who pinches bottoms. What I love about Chaplin’s Tramp in Modern Times is the romantic aspect – approaching romance from a more idealised, yet still endearing, perspective of the 1930s, enshrining heteronormativity and the nuclear family.
Let it be said – Speedy is a jerk. He risks lost luggage, trips people up, creates fights between people on the subway for his own personal amusement, runs away from law enforcement, steals horses. He drives so hazardously that rarely do we feel sorry for how much of an accidental fool he is. He’s presented as the hero, yet he’s also a dick.
But the film doesn’t feel as throwaway as I expected – there’s still a general sense of continuity, with a recurring dog (played by King Tut) on Coney Island; when Speedy ruins his jacket with stripes from a wet paint fence, he unwittingly keeps his jacket as is for the remainder of the trip. Later, a policeman warns him he’d give him stripes on his front as well.
As Bruce Goldstein’s documentary on the Blu-ray explores, one of the most important aspects of the film is its production of in NYC, preserving the city in 1927 for future generations. Although large chunks of it were shot in LA or on soundstages, filming in the city itself does not happen often enough. It’s still used sparingly, in Dassin’s The Naked City (1948), or Sidney Lumet’s efforts to establish a greater production base there in the 1960s or 70s, or today, where even Spider-Man films, which almost rely upon the character and the visual aesthetic of the city, too often use substitute cities as opposed to the real location. Shooting in NYC is difficult with crowds and expensive with budgets.
It’s truly a time capsule: the conceit of the film is around the last operated horse drawn carriage; its archnemesis is a gang of roughnecked bully boys (giving me flashbacks to the enemies of Action Comics (1938) and Captain America Comics (1941) in the 1930s and 40s); elderly Civil War veterans join Speedy in their defence of pop’s carriage; inter-connected local communities in Greenwich Village, including a Chinese shopkeeper, advise each other that there might be rain, based on Speedy’s hearsay; fairground rides are far too dangerous to pass muster in the 21st century; old automobiles; going to a tailors to repair broken pants; how hilarious it is that Speedy, out of work, can apply for a job as a taxi driver without a resume, having never learned how to drive, and start the job on the same day – no training required. Today, he may even need a degree to get it. In Goldstein’s documentary, he contrasts the New York of 1927 and 2015. Safe to say, they look like two entirely different cities.
The villain of the film is a tycoon, who wants to create a conglomerate railway, and is stopped by ridiculous clauses (once every 24 hours, really, because I mean who cares about Sundays or sick days). The most heroic thing Speedy does in the film is force Pops out of the business deal, altering the $10,000 business deal to a ridiculous $70k figure. (Until of course he agrees upon a larger deal at the film’s conclusion.) Pops represents the generation of the Civil War (his horse-driven carriage is of historical and social interest, and demands preservation), the film’s premise is the survival of history in the face of modernity. It’s hilarious when we think that today, Pops would be the old, established business, trusted by the local community, bought out by Rupert Murdoch who wants to radically alter how it operates.
Although I won’t commend the cinematography of the entire film, there’s still a pretty great visual aesthetic – the most important aspect of a film entirely reliant (besides the score, which occasionally interjects with sound effects) on the visual.
Seeing Luna Park shot by night is enchanting. The footage of Speedy driving through the city in a madcap way feels exciting – and is entirely authentic. The huge crowds of people, caught in a violent city gang war between baseball players and local people, burning hot irons and baseball bats involved, is a sight to behold. There’s a spectacle to this film, although perhaps not as thrilling or iconic as Lloyd’s clocktower stunt in Safety Last! (1923) – but it never elevates far above that. There’s little romantic charm or endearment to make the film as fun as it could be.
Psycho (1960) presented us with the struggle between a mother and her adult son in a decrepit old house; Grey Gardens (1976) told the struggle between a mother and her adult daughter.
The Maysles’ companion piece to Grey Gardens, edited for its 30th anniversary, isn’t as well structured as the film it originates from. Some of the more clever narrative devices, from its introductory shots of the newspaper articles establishing the house through to looking through old portraits, and the closing letter from Edie, aren’t here.
Whilst the world of Grey Gardens was insular, creating the sense that the Beales never left the house, this film opens it up a little more. We see Edie walking to church, and walking past a car to the beach. But we also expand the world through the presence of more people: a woman visits the house, giving Edie a magazine, and we see a greater presence of Jerry and his quest for work in Canada. Within Grey Gardens, he was given far less of a voice, and ultimately became more of a handy man than anything else.
More than anything else, Beales shows more personality, focusing on the character of the Beales themselves rather than the character of the house. Edie comes across as incredibly likeable and intelligent, discussing issues from her hate of the Republicans and their “crooked president”, the films she likes, her Catholic faith, her experience with dating servicemen during World War II (many of whom died), plus the odd song here and there.
Partly, there’s a sense of ‘behind the scenes’ – we see an expanded sequence of Edie going to the beach; a small house fire which the Maysles intervene in helping stop, and a scene in which the Maysles ask her if she likes the title of the film – which I doubt would ever have made it even into early cuts of the original film. Scenes which before were glimpses are now given another perspective. A montage of Edie’s dresses almost feels a response to the fashion community’s embrace of her eccentric wardrobe by Todd Oldham and John Bartlett.
More than anything else, it’s a lesson in how essential the editing process is – and how much it can diverge depending upon what material is included. Whilst not essential viewing, The Beales of Grey Gardens is a must watch for fans of Grey Gardens who want a more sophisticated rendition of its outtakes.