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Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 26/7/2012)
It's often thought that British cinema went into abeyance between the end of Ealing's golden age and the eruption of the social realist new wave in the early 1960s. Despite the passing of producer Alexander Korda (who had often seemed the last man standing in the British film industry over the previous two decades), the Rank Organisation continued to churn out popular pictures from its base at Pinewood Studios. Moreover, notable features were also made by institutions like The Archers (aka Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), as well as such dependables as Carol Reed, Anthony Asquith and the comedy teams of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat and the Boulting Brothers.
Yet, the late 1950s also saw Basil Dearden and his partner Michael Relph sense the shifting trends in literature, art and the theatre and start focusing on the lower classes in a series of `problem pictures' that dealt with such taboo topics as postwar malaise, racial tension, premarital sex, homosexuality, juvenile delinquency and the rising crime rate. Unfortunately, their efforts were often accused of being patronising, while casts used to delivering dialogue in received pronunciation were upbraided for their failure to capture regional dialects and their exaggeration of proletarian mannerisms.
But the reissue of J. Lee Thompson's Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) reveals how authentic these working-class snapshots could be. Indeed, it's easy to see a connection between this `Brief Encounter of the council flats' and the soap operas that now dominate British television drama. Yet, despite capturing what was everyday reality for millions of ordinary people, Thompson struggled to find an audience. Thus, even though Yvonne Mitchell won the Best Actress prize at the Berlin Film Festival for her exceptional performance, this study of domestic stress and emotional inarticulacy slipped through the cracks instead of becoming the screen landmark it should now be seen to be.
Middle-aged couple Yvonne Mitchell and Anthony Quayle live with teenage son Andrew Ray in a flat on a London council estate. Space and privacy are at a premium, but the home would be considerably cosier if it wasn't in a permanent state of chaos. Mitchell means well and tries to keep on top of things. But the piles of unironed clothing, the burnt toast and shrivelled eggs at breakfast and the blaring of the radio as she shuffles around in her dressing gown have so driven Quayle to the point of distraction that he has become involved with Sylvia Syms, a younger secretary at the timber yard where he works.
Syms wants Quayle to divorce Mitchell so they can start a new life together. But his plan to break the news over a drink in the pub are disrupted by the arrival of their friends Carole Lesley and Max Butterfield and he has to coax Syms into being patient after she threatens to end the affair and find a new job. Yet, on arriving home, Quayle finds that Mitchell has tidied the flat and cooked a special meal and he is forced to provoke a row over the ironing she hasn't managed to finish. Mitchell is astonished to discover his unhappiness, as she thought they rubbed along together so well. Therefore, Quayle is left with no option but to confess his infidelity and his desire to secure a divorce.
The confrontation is interrupted by Ray and his girlfriend Roberta Woolley and Mitchell is hurt that Quayle is able to put on a brave face of normalcy with such ease. But she is determined to fight for her marriage and invites Syms to the flat the following evening in the hope they can sort things out. She tidies up again and pawns her engagement ring so she can get her hair done and create a better impression. But her new style is ruined by the rain and she tears her best dress while getting ready. Moreover, she gets tipsy when Lesley suggests she has a couple of whiskies for Dutch courage and Ray returns home to find her distraught beside a collapsed table and turns on Quayle and Syms for reducing his mother to such a state.
Resisting Ray's attempts to put her to bed, Mitchell storms back into the living room to denounce Syms for stealing another woman's husband and, in her distress, lets slip that she had lost a baby when she was younger. Thus, when Mitchell throws them both out, Quayle finds that he cannot leave her to her own devices and returns to the flat to help Ray with a school speech. Relieved that the crisis appears to be over and touched by her spouse's essential decency, Mitchell goes into the kitchen to make a pot of tea.
Having originally been broadcast as part of ITV's Television Playhouse series in 1956, this was a rare property to make the transfer to the big screen. Stepping into roles created by Joan Miller, Edward Champman and Andrée Melly, Mitchell, Quayle and Sims respectively bring slovenly affability, despairing guilt and misplaced faith to roles that could so easily have become caricatures. Moreover, Thompson adroitly uses Gilbert Taylor's camerawork and Robert Jones's interiors to reinforce Willis's contention that nobody is really to blame here. Mitchell's bad housekeeping is rooted in her grief and sense of neglect, while Quayle and Syms simply fall in love and see each other as the best option for happiness in a reality that bears little resemblance to the brave new world of mod cons and comfort advertised in the glossy magazines.
Adultery was nothing new in British cinema. But it had scarcely been examined in a working-class context and hardly ever from the perspective of the `wronged woman'. What's more, in considering the isolation and tedium endured by so many housewives, Willis (who remains best known as the creator of the long-running TV series Dixon of Dock Green) anticipates several themes that would become the staple of feminist film-making in the 1960s Yet, despite winning the Golden Globe for Best English-Language Foreign Film, this never acquired the cachet of the kitchen sink sagas centring on angry young men that were soon to transform British cinema. This says more about the tastes and preoccupations of contemporary producers, critics and moviegoers than it does about quality of the film itself. Let's hope that its deft depiction of changing social mores is finally recognised and Woman in a Dressing Gown is accorded the respect it has long deserved.
Another unhappy wife dominates the action in Michelangelo Antonioni's The Red Desert (1964), which is being reissued to mark the Italian maestro's centenary and which tellingly demonstrates in comparison with Thompson's traditionally linear narrative the impact of the various new waves upon European cinema. Coming off the back of the acclaimed `alienation trilogy' of L'Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L'Eclisse (1962), Antonioni's first colour feature divided the critics. But, once again, its dramatic intensity and artistic ambition became clearer over time and this remains one of the great works of film modernism.
On the outskirts of the Italian city of Ravenna, Monica Vitti and her young son Valerio Bartoleschi wander towards the petrochemical plant managed by her husband, Carlo Chionetti. Striking workers are picketing the perimeter and Vitti, seemingly disorientated by the noise and the dehumanising architecture of the facility, impulsively purchases a sandwich from one of the protesters before hurrying inside.
Chionetti is having a meeting with headhunter Richard Harris, who is seeking skilled labourers for a project in Patagonia. Having introduced Vitti, Chionetti confides that she has been suffering from post-traumatic stress since crashing her car (in what might possibly have been a suicide bid) and, that evening, her problems manifest themselves in her distress over a dream in which she feels herself sinking in quicksand. Vitti's sense of isolation is reinforced by Chionetti's inability to appreciate her plight and she inevitably gravitates towards Harris when he takes an interest in the shop she is considering opening.
Indeed, such is his reassuring charm that Vitti agrees to accompany Harris on a recruitment trip to Ferrara. En route, she tells him about a woman she met in hospital (who may or may not exist) who had been advised to find somebody or something to love in order to conquer her feelings of inadequacy and emptiness. But, any solace Vitti might have taken from discussing her sense of powerlessness is dissipated during a visit to the radar unit at Medicina, where the cold structure and its remoteness remind her of her own situation.
The following weekend, Vitti briefly manages to lose herself with friends Aldo Grotti, Xenia Valderi and Rita Renoir during a stay at a riverside hut at Porto Corsini. But she is discomfited by a ship docking nearby and flees when she learns that it has been quarantined because of an infectious disease among the crew. Harris again tries to be supportive, but reveals his own insecurity by claiming that Vitti's everyday ennui is nothing compared to his existential crisis.
Returning home, Vitti is temporarily roused from her self-obsession by Bartoleschi suddenly becoming paralysed from the waist down. With Chionetti away on business, Vitti tries to comfort her son with the story of a young girl who overcomes adversity to become accustomed to her desert island surroundings and enjoy the magic of rocks that seem to come alive especially for her. But Bartoleschi confesses that he was faking the condition and Vitti is bemused why he would put her through so much anguish and plunges into a new depression.
Once again, Harris provides a shoulder to cry on and Vitti sleeps with him. But she awakes to feelings of guilt and wanders along the quayside in the depths of despair. However, an encounter with a sailor who cannot understand a word she says seems to help her realise that everyone lives in isolation and that the only way to cope is to adapt. Thus, when she and Bartoleschi see toxic yellow smoke belching out of a chimney stack, she is able to inform him that the birds avoid the site because they have learned to recognise what is bad for them.
Back in 1964, opinion was not only divided over the quality of The Red Desert, but also over its meaning. Many critics were content to see it as a furtherance of Antonioni's preoccupation with the alienating nature of modern society, with some even suggesting that he no longer had anything original to say about the human condition. Most applauded his use of colour to emphasise the ugliness of industrial architecture and the shallowness of contemporary culture, while Marxists and Greens respectively averred that he was denouncing capitalism and the reckless destruction of the environment.
But, rather than presenting Vitti (who gives a devastating display of brittle vulnerability) as a victim of soulless technology, Antonioni claimed that her problems lay in her failure to acclimatise to a changing world. Thus, he insisted that the oil refinery, power plant and radar installation possessed a beauty that matched Ravenna's Byzantine past and that his bold colour symbolism was intended to highlight the exciting modernity of progress.
There's no denying the brilliance of Antonioni's colour scheme, which was exploited for the same psychological purposes as the hostile Sicilian landscape in L'Avventura. His transformation of objects and vistas to conform to his emblematic design was also laudable, as was his astute shift from deep-focus photography to the utilisation of zoom lenses that flattened and distorted the image in the manner of abstract art. Even the isolated island idyll is rendered in terms of a tawdry TV advertisement, complete with pseudo-Freudian overtones linking Vitti's neuroses with the onset of puberty (which invited comparisons with Alfred Hitchcock's approach in Marnie, which was released the same year).
But it's difficult to reconcile such a stance with Antonioni's allusions to Dante's Divine Comedy. Not only does Harris recall Ulysses in the epic poem, but Ravenna was also the model for the earthly paradise at the summit of Purgatory. It could be argued that Antonioni was positing Chiassi's industrial landscape as a new Eden, but the more obvious implication was that it represented a foretaste of Hell.
An inability to comprehend changing circumstances also underpins the satire in Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, Tony Hawks's follow-up to Round Ireland With a Fridge (2010), which he headlines in addition to producing the screenplay and the score and co-directing with Mikolaj Jaroszewiecz. Once again based on a bestseller that was inspired by a reckless bet, the action frequently meanders as widely and languidly as its protagonist, who once again struggles to play himself with any degree of naturalness. But, as with his circumvention of the Emerald Isle, Hawks makes for genial company and the lesson in humility that he learns after several weeks of self-absorbed Western European smugness is poignantly revealed in a coda that does him enormous credit.
Having just watched England thrash Moldova in a 1998 game at Wembley, Tony Hawks makes a wager with friend Stephen Frost that he can beat each member of the team at tennis. Agreeing that the loser has to sing the Moldovan national anthem naked in the street, Hawks contacts his agent to try and secure an advance on a book deal and asks tennis partners Angus Deayton, Laura Solon and Morwenna Banks if they have any contacts that might help him.
Luckily, Banks knows a member of The Counterfeit Beatles, a Moldovan combo that just happens to be in Liverpool for a convention and one of its members arranges for Hawks to stay with doctors Viorel Cornescu and Silvia Luca at their home in the capital city, Chisinau. While his hosts can barely speak English, their teenage children Igor Babiac and Ana Chirita are reasonably fluent and they help Hawks rendezvous with translator Anatole Durbala and PR executive Ina Surdu, who has been hired to help him negotiate with the various club chairmen.
Things get off to a sticky start, however, when FC Zimbru refuse to allow Hawks inside the training ground it had taken hours in a taxi to find. Moreover, Durbala is singularly unimpressed by Hawks's supposedly friendly jibes about his homeland, which has found the transition to free market democracy incredibly difficult after decades of Ottoman, Romanian and Russian repression. He is also put out when Hawks uses a message translated by Chirita to approach the players directly after watching them play a league game in a stadium that is almost empty in spite of free admission. But, when Hawks tries to strike out on his own and take a bus to go sightseeing in Orhei Ul Vecchi, he nearly gets crushed by the packed-in passengers and finds himself deposited in the middle of nowhere when the driver insists he gets off at his requested stop.
His luck changes when Zimbru coach-cum-president Sandu Grecu accepts a meeting and agrees to let him play one of his stars. Hawks wins the game easily and gets phone numbers for a couple more players, who prove equally useless. Feeling optimistic when four more members of the Wembley team consent to matches in the next couple of weeks, Hawks ignores the protests of Durbala and Surdu and decides to venture into the near-lawless region of Transnistria to meet with bigwig Igor Caras.
Despite a nasty moment at the border, Hawks and Durbala are taken to Caras's compound, where Hawks responds to an attempt to coerce him into doing a shady business deal by recording an abusive camcorder message that Caras cannot understand. Fleeing back to Chisinau feeling foolish for not having heeded Durbala's warning, Hawks wins his next four games. But a second encounter with Caras (who has had the tape translated) at a football conference in the capital seems to have kyboshed the enterprise.
During a day out to the wilds of Orhei Ul Vecchi, Durbala reprimands Hawks about his dismissive attitude to Moldovan culture and society and he feels as chastened as he did when Cornescu took him around the badly equipped hospital where he works. Convinced he has let everyone down (especially Chirita, who has never wavered in supporting him), Hawks prepares to fly home. But Babiac discovers that Moldova has a forthcoming international with Northern Ireland and Hawks soon finds himself back on track after a trip to Belfast .However, one player continues to elude him and Hawks has to travel to Jerusalem to meet him. But things hardly go according to plan.
Very much story led, this is a pleasingly old-fashioned piece of family entertainment. The performances are a touch stiff (particularly those in London), while Hawks's leisurely scenario and Christopher White's circumspect editing enervate the dramatic momentum. Nevertheless, working in tandem with Mikolaj Jaroszewiecz (who doubles as cinematographer), Hawks raises the occasional smile and pauses periodically to assess the painfully slow progress that Moldova made to life after Communism. He also sportingly makes no effort to excuse his thoughtlessness in mocking everyday life and the fact that the profits from the film are destined for the centre Hawks founded in Chisinau for the free treatment of children with cerebral palsy testifies to what a noble fellow he is.
The sporting focus switches to boxing in Dan Turner's The Man Inside, another British picture that proves highly conventional, in spite of its dogged bid to relocate the tropes associated with the Mockney crime sub-genre to a Tyneside standing in for Anytown UK. Making his third feature, after Experiment (2005) and Stormhouse (2010), Turner merits commendation for keeping the project alive during a tortuous pre-production period. But, while the occasional sequence crackles with street authenticity, too many others teeter on the cusp of soap operatics. Consequently, this feels like something of a backward step after the confidence exhibited in the atmospherically chilling Stormhouse.
Now in his early twenties, Ashley `Bashy' Thomas is still haunted by memories of the day father David Harewood murdered an Asian shopkeeper and forced him (played as a boy by Kavern Batchelor) to watch the man die. Indeed, even though he has had nothing to do with Harewood since he was sentenced to life imprisonment, Thomas fears that he shares some of his flashpoint traits and tries to use boxing to channel his aggression.
His good intentions are sorely tested, however, when sister Zara Oram confides that she is pregnant and, as they look down from their waterfront high-rise at their 15 year-old brother Lennox Malachi Kambala heading out for the evening with her new boyfriend Samuel Folay, they are appalled to see Folay get into a passing car and be stabbed by Theo Barklem Biggs, who is furious at being dumped by Oram and has turned to local thug Selom Awadzi to help him wreak his revenge.
With Folay on a life-support machine in hospital, Thomas reassures best buddy Jason Maza that the incident doesn't change their friendship (even though Maza insists that Biggs - who happens to be his younger brother - would never resort to violence). But, as they hang out together at Scot Peter Mullan's gym, Thomas's attention is drawn by the arrival of Michelle Ryan, who fancied him when they were at school, and Ray Panthaki, a former prison confederate of Harewood's who has been ordered to keep an eye on his kids. Thomas tells Panthaki he wants nothing to do with his father. But Kambala falls under his influence when Oram takes pills to bring about a miscarriage after Biggs threatens to kill Folay unless she gets rid of their baby.
Taunted by local troublemaker Carl Barat, Thomas beats him up outside the gym and Mullan (who used to coach Harewood when he was a contender and has always tried to help Thomas and his siblings) clears up the mess, while Ryan attends to a cut above his eye. She reveals that she had run away at 15 to join a band and had been too ashamed of her drug addiction to seek Mullan's forgiveness. She hopes Thomas will be part of her second chance, but he is distracted by the fallout from Oram's drastic action, as he argues with their fervently religious mother, Jenny Jules, and then has to stop Kambala from doing anything foolish with the gun that Harewood has procured for him in return for a prison visit.
Disregarding his promise and egged on by Awadzi, Kambala goes in search of Biggs again and Thomas is livid that he spent an evening helping Ryan with her cold turkey when his brother had been trying to contact him after being fatally stabbed. Fighting off mental images of himself succumbing to his dark side, but aware that he is fighting a losing battle, Thomas swallows his pride and pays Harewood a visit. He offers to get him a weapon and makes him vow to return and describe every last detail of killing Biggs. But, even though he is delivered bound and hooded to a remote spot, Thomas regains his composure and the film ends with Kambala's funeral and Thomas's first bout before a baying boxing crowd.
Keen to show that there are good and bad guys on either side of Britain's black-white divide, Turner works hard to keep this abrasive drama credible. He is ably abetted by Richard Swingle's gritty photography and Mickaela Trodden's evocative interiors (most notably the gymnasium and Ryan's spartan bedroom). Yet, while Peter Mullan is typically assured as the hard man trying to keep kids from feuding communities out of trouble, the remainder of the cast are less persuasive. Harewood and Jules are particularly guilty of overacting, while Thomas, Ryan and Maza are too constricted by the caricaturistics of their roles. Thus, the only really interesting performance comes from Theo Barklem Biggs, whose cowardly criminality contrasts starkly with the genial gormlessness he displays as an inept ne'er-do-well opposite Phil Davis in Jules Bishop's amusing debut, Borrowed Time.
Continuing the sporting connection, Tate Modern presents on 30 July the UK premiere of Wilhelm Prager's 1925 documentary Die Neue Grossmacht/The New Great Power, which recalls the first Workers' Olympiad held in Frankfurt under the auspices of the Socialist Workers' Sport Internationale between 24-28 July 1925.
The purpose of the games was to counter the nationalism and commercialism that had become a fixture of the Olympics since their revival in Athens in 1896. The organisers wished to reclaim sport from the aristocrats and industrialists who had assumed control of its administration and return it to the political and communal groups who had been promoting team games and individual disciplines as a means of encouraging global co-operation and human solidarity.
Three years in the planning, the SASI games of 1925 boasted more than 100,000 active participants, compared to the 2954 men and 135 women who had competed at the VIII Olympiad in Paris the previous year. Men, women and children were all represented in equal numbers, with mass exercise demonstrations ensuring it set concurrence records that have yet to be broken.
A world record was established at Frankfurt for the Women's 100m relay. But Prager and his assistant Leni Riefenstahl (who had also collaborated on Ways to Strength and Beauty, 1925) were as interested in the ideals of the movement and the sense of camaraderie and mutual benefit it sought to promote as they were in athletic endeavour. The combination of modernism and realism in the visuals is married to the message of empowerment and engagement that SASI wished to convey.
Thus, it might have been interesting to show this alongside Riefenstahls epic account of the 1936 Berlin Games in Olympia (1938), which was released a year after the last SASI summer event was held in Antwerp (after the second had taken place in Vienna in 1931). Nevertheless, this is still a notable adjunct (albeit an unofficial one) to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad and it's a shame that it has not been made more widely available.
Finally, this week, avant-garde cuisine comes under scrutinty in Gereon Wetzel's El Bulli: Cooking in Progress. Less a documentary than an act of worship, this is a valedictory paean to a fabled restaurant that overlooked Catalonia's Cala Montjoi until July 2011 when owner Ferran Adrià closed it down to contemplate its inevitable resurrection.
The 35-course taster meals earned El Bulli (which only ever opened in a limited season) three Michelin stars. But the real hard work was done by unsung chefs Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas in a Barcelona kitchen-cum-laboratory, where they experimented with tastes and textures under the watchful lens of Josef Mayerhofer's discreetly adoring camera. The masterclass in molecular gastronomy is rather like watching somebody play with a culinary chemistry set. But the fascination dissipates once the scene shifts back to the coast and Adrià subjects the new dishes to his final before instructing his minions how they should be prepared, served and consumed.
The scene opens in October 2008 with key equipment being packed away in the El Bulli kitchen for transfer to El Taller, where Castro, Casañas and Xatruch (who have been with Adrià for 14, 13 and 11 years respectively) begin experimenting with sweet potato, yuzu, oil cocktails and champignons, as well as vacuumizers and liquid nitrogen. They conduct taste tests and photograph everything they do for the restaurant's meticulous records. At the local Barcelona market, they infuriate the stall-holders by buying produce in tiny amounts, such as six grapes, and submit their findings to Adrià, who offers terse critiques of the flavours and combinations (and their emotional, as well as gastronomic impact), despite seeming to be permanently on the phone.
Although somewhat saturnine, Adrià is prone to sudden outbursts, such as when he chides his senior acolytes for failing to back up the information on a corrupted hard drive. Yet, he also seems to trust Castro and his team implicitly and they clearly know the value of a hard-won compliment after many long hours of deconstructivist research.
By June 2009, the staff have returned to El Bulli and sommelier Ferran Centelles, sous-chef Eugeni di Diego, pastry cook César Bermúdez, newcomer Antonio Romero and waitress Katie Button are among those to introduce themselves during a getting to know session that also includes a guided tour of the premises and reminders that nobody dines without a reservation and that timing is everything with so many dishes to get through during the average three-hour dining experience.
Systems for cooking, cleaning and serving are soon established. But Wetzel is scarcely interested in the dynamics of the business. Thus, he devotes several minutes to close-ups of Adrià sitting in a corner and sampling the dishes that Castro brings him. Notes are scribbled with a pencil, as he registers his disappointment with the mushroom broth and his delight at the freshness of ice vinaigrette with tangerines, which will be introduced to the existing menu at his discretion during the upcoming season.
Opening day has been set for 16 June and, following a succinct pep talk, everyone gets busy. The scene is one of precision chaos, with Adrià keeping tabs on orders and occasionally changing the arrangement of items on a plate or offering congratulations when an oil cocktail accidentally served with carbonated water turns out to be a success. As service ends, however, manager Pol Perelló points out that some customers found the cocktails too cold. But the majority of the staff are too exhilarated and/or exhausted to care.
The lessons are not lost on Adrià and Castro, however, and they give a class to the new recruits explaining why dishes like vanishing ravioli and peppermint ice lake are kept to the end of the menu to ensure it is always full of surprises. Consequently, Adrià agonises over the order in which they are served, as well as the manner in which they are presented on the menu and in any corporate literature. Thus, he pays as much attention to a shoot with photographer Francesc Guillamet as he does to another tasting session with Castro. Once again, concise notes are made about each dish, as Adrià eats hurriedly, silently and seemingly without enjoyment - although the odd half-flicker of appreciation or disenchantment registers on his brow and he ends with a beaming smile, as he confides in his trusted lieutenants that they can probably survive for another year.
Closing with Guillamet images that are tantamount to edible pornography, this is a compelling, if cold study of the science of haute cuisine. While DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus concentrated on the personality of their subjects in Kings of Pastry (2009), Wetzel seems inspired by the Adrià ethos in eschewing a narrative feast and giving viewers glimpses that equate to the tantalising items on the El Bulli menu. Without linking commentary or captions, however, this approach can alienate, especially as Castro, Casañas and Xatruch make no effort to explain the culinary and chemical techniques they are employing (or how they work and the benefits they bring) as they beaver away at El Teller.
But it's Wetzel's refusal (or is it his failure or inability owing to circumstances beyond his control) to present any insights into Adrià the man that proves most frustrating. He also avoids raising such issues as how El Bulli manages to thrive when it is only open for six months each year and limits itself to 50 diners per night. Moreover, he omits any non-adoring voices and offers no theoretical justification for what he takes as a given is Adrià's magician-like genius. Those left unslavering at the prospect of tea shrimp with caviar anemones or pumpkin meringue sandwiches with almond and summer truffle might, however, beg to differ.