Saturday, April 03, 2021

The queer gaze of Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) : Sant'Anna, la Vergine e il Bambino con l'agnellino / Sant'Anna Metterza / La Vierge, l'Enfant Jésus et sainte Anne / Sainte Anne en tierce / Sainte Anne trinitaire / Anna selbdritt / Pyhä Anna kolmantena / Anna själv tredje. 1499–1517 (unfinished). Oil on poplar wood. 168 x 130 cm. Leonardo painted and exhibited for the Church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence and took the painting or a copy with him to France. It remained a work-in-progress. Original owner after the painter's death: King Francis I of France. Le Musée de Louvre. High Renaissance (1494–1527). A controversial restoration took place in 2011 and looks very different. This is a photo of the painting before 2011: itself retouched, digitally altered with increased brightness and contrast for better viewing on screens. Originally C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition. Public Domain. Photo and data: Wikipedia.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) (contested): Salvator mundi. Reproduction of the painting after restoration by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, a research professor at New York University. 1500. Oil on walnut wood. 65.6 x 45.4 cm. Louvre Abu Dhabi. Public Domain. High Renaissance (1494–1527). Photo and data: Wikipedia.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) : Ritratto di Monna Lisa del Giocondo / La Joconde / Mona Lisa. 1502–1517 (unfinished). Oil on poplar wood. 77 x 53 cm. Subject: Lisa del Giocondo (Lisa Gherardini, 1479–1542). Painted in Florence. Original owner: King Francis I of France. Le Musée de Louvre. Photo: from cropped and relevelled C2RMF.jpg retouched. Originally C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition. Public Domain. High Renaissance (1494–1527). Photo and data: Wikipedia.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) (contested) : La scapigliata / La testa di fanciulla (detta La scapigliata) (unfinished). 1501–8. Oil, umber, and white lead pigment painting on poplar wood. 24.7 x 21 cm. Galleria nazionale di Parma. Public Domain. High Renaissance (1494–1527). Photo and data: Wikipedia.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519): A sketch of the head of Leda for two oil paintings on Leda and the Swan (both lost). 1503–10. Red chalk on red prepared paper. 20 x 15,7 cm. Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco, Milano. Public Domain. High Renaissance (1494–1527). Photo and data: Wikipedia.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) (contested) : San Giovanni Battista / Saint Jean-Baptiste / Saint John the Baptist. 1513–1516. Oil on walnut wood panel. 69 x 57 cm. Le Musée de Louvre. Photo digitally retouched: C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition. Public Domain. High Renaissance (1494–1527). Photo and data: Wikipedia.

Disputed: Bacco (su un precedente san Giovanni Battista) / Bacchus. "Generally considered to be a workshop copy of a Leonardo drawing. According to Kemp, it may have been begun by Leonardo as a figure of John the Baptist." 1510–1516, later repainted and altered. Oil on walnut panel transferred to canvas. 177 × 115 cm. Le Musée de Louvre. Public Domain. High Renaissance (1494–1527). "This painting was first described in the French royal inventory as Saint John the Baptist in the Desert, then at the end of the 17th century, possibly as the result of a restoration, as Bacchus in a Landscape. Like Leonardo's half-length portrait Saint John the Baptist, it is a syncretic work. The index finger pointing upward toward a divine sign and the deer are Christian symbols. The thyrsis, the crown of vine leaves or ivy, the bunch of grapes, and the panther skin are attributes of Bacchus." Photo and data: Wikipedia.

In art, there are looks and gazes in various directions and dimensions. In live performances, we watch and respond, and performers look at each other and us and act and react. We watch television and films, and sometimes the performer or moderator looks back, addressing the camera = us. In a painting, the subject can be imagined to return the look. In Rainer Maria Rilke's poem Archaic Torso of Apollo, dedicated to Rodin, a headless statue notices us and summons: "you must change your life".

John Berger's famous argument about the "male gaze" was about European nude oil painting since the Renaissance: "One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight." (Ways of Seeing, p. 47).

The "male gaze" discourse was adopted in film criticism by Laura Mulvey, and her essay has become newly topical in the Me Too movement, also in Finland in a book by Anu Silfverberg.

The issues are big. Are we identifying with a subject? Are we reducing the other to an object?

Most art is beyond identification and projection, in realms of metaphysics, philosophy, religion, history, social awareness, etc., or applying narrative strategies outside identification and projection.

Before the Renaissance, Western art was transcendental for a thousand years, and Byzantine art even longer. When the focus shifted back to the human individual, psychology was revived, along with issues of identification and projection.


John Berger's thesis is persuasive about Western art from the Renaissance to Modernism. But it is rewarding even about artists outside his argument such as Leonardo.

(Berger discusses nude oil paintings, and no nude oil painting by Leonardo exists. He painted only two, both featuring Leda and the Swan, now missing believed lost. In both, Leda, the Queen of Sparta, was portrayed as a mother with her infant children and their father, Zeus, disguised as the Swan.)

Berger's thesis helps us define why Leonardo is different. He is different because of the absence of the "male gaze".


The distinctive "Leonardian gaze" emerged around the year 1500 in paintings such as Sainte Anne trinitaire, Mona Lisa and Salvator mundi. The artist was then about 50 years old. After them, the look never left Leonardian paintings, not even ones whose authorship is contested and disputed. It is so characteristic that retroactively a void can be felt in Leonardo's previous paintings except The Last Supper.

Looks and gazes form a complex web. There is the artist's look at the model. The artist may emphasize surface likeness. Or the artist may focus on character and define it with insight like the painter Mikhailov does in Anna Karenina. There is the look of the subject. The look of love can be selfless like that of Madonna and child. Or the look can be one of desire, of a woman watching herself being looked at like in Berger's thesis. Or something else.

In one respect I agree with Dan Brown, the author of the best-selling mystery thriller The Da Vinci Code: that Mona Lisa seems to be Leonardo's self-portrait as well as the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (Lisa Gherardini). The looks and smiles appear to be hers as well as his.


In his essay "Eine Kindheitserinnerung des Leonardo da Vinci" (1910), Sigmund Freud took as the starting point a remark from Codex Atlanticus where Leonardo discusses birds, including the kite (nibbio): "Questo scriver si distintamente del nibio par che sia mio destino, perche nella mia prima ricordatione della mia infantia e mi parea che essendo io in culla, che un nibio venissi a me e mi aprissi la bocca colla sua coda e molte volte mi perecuotesse tal coda dentro alle labbra". ["It seems that it had been destined before that I should occupy myself so thoroughly with the kite, for it comes to my mind as a very early memory, when I was still in the cradle, a kite came down to me, he opened my mouth with his tail and struck me a few times with his tail against my lips."]

Unfortunately, Freud used a German translation where "nibbio" had been mistakenly translated as "vulture". His interpretation based on vulture mythology collapsed. An authoritative critique is Meyer Schapiro's "Leonardo and Freud : An Art-Historical Study" (Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 17, No. 2 (April 1956).

As usual in Freud's essays on culture, there is an embarrassing disregard of accuracy in some of the detail. But it is equally clear that the main argument survives and is in fact strengthened by criticism. It remains an unsettling fact that Leonardo's earliest memory of infancy is of a big bird moving its tail against his mouth.

Soon after Freud has published his essay, an eerie observation was made by Oskar Pfister about Sainte Anne trinitaire at the Louvre: a riddle image / image-devinette / Vexierbild of a vulture hidden in Madonna's dress, its tail touching the mouth of the Child. ("Kryptolalie, Kryptographie und unbewusstes Vexierbild bei Normalen", 1913). Once detected, it cannot be ignored.

I don't know what to think about this. In Italian and German the relevant bird-words (uccello, Schwanz, etc.) do carry a sexual double meaning. Leonardo was always fascinated by birds and flying, and when he saw caged birds for sale, he bought them to set them free. His only nude oil paintings were about Leda and the Swan.


Freud's Leonardo essay was his personal favourite, and in it he introduced pioneering ideas about narcissism and sublimation. Leonardo was not sexually active, and he was able to sublimate his energy into a drive to knowledge. Curiously, although he was a pioneer in anatomy, his drawings of female inner organs and sexual intercourse were way off the mark.

Leonardo loved beautiful young boys but evidently only as a joy to behold. According to Giorgio Vasari's pioneering biography (in Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori) Leonardo himself was a beautiful man, not only in appearance but also in manners, a lover of beauty and knowledge in all forms, also a man of exceptional physical strength who could break an iron lock with his bare hands.

Freud's hypothesis about Leonardo is that around the time of the painting of Mona Lisa and Anne Trinitaire he met a model whose look and smile evoked his mother and his dearest memories of infancy, and he re-lived his own psychological course of development that had begun with an overkill of mother love. Leonardo was the first-born child of his single mother Caterina di Meo Lippi. When his father's new wife Albiera Amadori failed to conceive, they adopted Leonardo who thus received a double blessing of motherly love.

In the Anne Trinitaire painting, Mary sits on Anne's lap in a mother-grandmother symbiosis. Because they seem to be of the same age, they also appear as Leonardo's tribute to his childhood paradise of two mothers.

Freud proposes that Leonardo came to identify with his mother and love beautiful boys the way his mother loved him. This hypothesis of a possible trajectory of homosexual development is today probably politically incorrect and may make anyone who dares mention it ostracized in circumstances of cancel culture. But ever since I read Freud's essay 25 years ago I have not been able to forget it when thinking about Leonardo. I cannot help remembering it even in thinking about Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alexander McQueen.

Freud has interesting speculations about Leonardo's obsessive focus in his notebooks on seemingly trivial details while ignoring great events. He is puzzled by Leonardo's proverbial slowness and tendency to leave everything unfinished, a conspicuous trait already registered by Vasari. Psychological reasons may lie in the background, but I find that Leonardo was also ahead of his time: an unfinished quality can be a strength, as has been generally acknowledged in art since the 19th century. The essay, the sketch, the work-in-progress has been getting increasingly valued. The revelation of the non finito was a Renaissance phenomenon, stunningly present also in the work of Michelangelo, such as the Rondanini Pietà.


Vasari registers the contemporary astonishment at the Mona Lisa smile. Freud offers a compendium of later reactions to the Gioconda mystery.

"What fascinates the spectator is the demoniacal charm of this smile. Hundreds of poets and writers have written about this woman, who now seems to smile upon us seductively and now to stare coldly and lifelessly into space, but nobody has solved the riddle of her smile, nobody has interpreted her thoughts. Everything, even the scenery is mysterious and dream-like, trembling as if in the sultriness of sensuality." (Richard Muther: Geschichte der Malerei, 1909)

Freud continues:

"The idea that two diverse elements were united in the smile of Monna Lisa has been felt by many critics. They therefore recognize in the play of features of the beautiful Florentine lady the most perfect representation of the contrasts dominating the love-life of the woman which is foreign to man, as that of reserve and seduction, and of most devoted tenderness and inconsiderateness in urgent and consuming sensuality. "

"Müntz expresses himself in this manner: 'One knows what indecipherable and fascinating enigma Monna Lisa Gioconda has been putting for nearly four centuries to the admirers who crowd around her. No artist (I borrow the expression of the delicate writer who hides himself under the pseudonym of Pierre de Corlay) has ever translated in this manner the very essence of femininity: the tenderness and coquetry, the modesty and quiet voluptuousness, the whole mystery of the heart which holds itself aloof, of a brain which reflects, and of a personality who watches itself and yields nothing from herself except radiance....' " [Eugène Müntz : Léonard de Vinci, 1899]

"The Italian Angelo Conti saw the picture in the Louvre illumined by a ray of the sun and expressed himself as follows: 'The woman smiled with a royal calmness, her instincts of conquest, of ferocity, the entire heredity of the species, the will of seduction and ensnaring, the charm of the deceiver, the kindness which conceals a cruel purpose, all that appears and disappears alternately behind the laughing veil and melts into the poem of her smile.... Good and evil, cruelty and compassion, graceful and cat-like, she laughed....' " [Angelo Conti : "Leonardo pittore" in Conferenze Fiorentine, 1910]

Freud gives the floor to Alexandra Konstantinowa:

"During the long period in which the master occupied himself with the portrait of Monna Lisa del Gioconda, he entered into the physiognomic delicacies of this feminine face with such sympathy of feeling that he transferred these creatures, especially the mysterious smile and the peculiar glance, to all faces which he later painted or drew. The mimic peculiarity of Gioconda can even be perceived in the picture of John the Baptist in the Louvre. But above all they are distinctly recognized in the features of Mary in the picture of St. Anne of the Louvre." [Alexandra Konstantinowa : "Die Entwicklung des Madonnentypus bei Leonardo da Vinci, 1907]

Freud again: " But the case could have been different. The need for a deeper reason for the fascination which the smile of Gioconda exerted on the artist from which he could not rid himself has been felt by more than one of his biographers. W. Pater, who sees in the picture of Monna Lisa the embodiment of the entire erotic experience of modern man, and discourses so excellently on "that unfathomable smile always with a touch of something sinister in it, which plays over all Leonardo's work," leads us to another track when he says: "

"Besides, the picture is a portrait. From childhood we see this image defining itself on the fabric of his dream; and but for express historical testimony, we might fancy that this was but his ideal lady, embodied and beheld at last." [Walter Pater : Studies in the History of the Renaissance, 1873]

"  ' Herzfeld surely must have had something similar in mind when stating that in Monna Lisa Leonardo encountered himself and therefore found it possible to put so much of his own nature into the picture, "whose features from time immemorial have been imbedded with mysterious sympathy in Leonardo's soul.' " [Marie Herzfeld : Leonardo da Vinci, 1906]


"Mysterious sympathy". "That unfathomable smile". "The peculiar glance". "The charm of the deceiver". "The kindness which conceals a cruel purpose". "Indecipherable and fascinating enigma". "Two diverse elements are united in the smile". "The demoniacal charm of this smile".

There is certainly more than one set of contradictions beyond Leonardo's mystery paintings. I propose that one of them belongs to the spectrum today called non-binary. The androgynous quality of Leonardo's John the Baptist has struck viewers forever. Leonardo's homosexual preferences were never a secret, nor his asexual practices. He is on record of abhorring the very idea of sexual intercourse.

A Leonardo paradox is that he is the greatest symbol of mainstream culture, and yet his paintings frankly challenge received sex and gender roles.

Freud was a pioneer in proposing a constitutional bisexuality in human psychology, but at the time of writing the Leonardo essay he was partly stuck in the past in viewing homosexuality as abnormal, while at the same time affirming there was nothing neurotic or pathological in Leonardo.

If we apply the term "queer" to Leonardo, it does not sound wrong, but we should not banalize him by labelling him a "queer artist". He belongs to the great tradition of classical antiquity and the context of fellow artists like Michelangelo and Caravaggio. Their identity politics is not a matter of limitation but of liberation in their search of a wider, opener and more universal sense of human experience.

Leonardo's worldview was based on empirical observation and rational experiment. Most of his paintings have religious subjects, but even in them, Leonardo focuses on the human, not the superhuman. He does have a profound sense of the sacred, a reverence of the mystery of life.

Leonardo's genius as a painter involved a talent for orchestrating a symphony of multiple looks. That's why his portraits are unfathomable and inexhaustible.

In our age, understanding better than ever the complexity and variety of sex and gender, it is also easier to appreciate the queer gaze of Leonardo.

Guia Besana: Mona Lisa at Le Louvre. Photo credit: Guia Besana for The New York Times, 28 July, 2014.

As a film historian I have kept returning to Leonardo da Vinci particularly since 2012, when I started to systematically revisit art history as a reference point to the cinema's transition into the digital era.

Digital cinema was being justly celebrated for being bright and clear. But Mona Lisa is an excellent example of the opposite of bright and clear. It is almost an apparition, a dream vision emerging from mist.

Leonardo was a master of the Renaissance device of sfumato ("in the manner of smoke") where everything is shrouded in subtle haze.

He was also one of the pioneers of the chiaroscuro ("bright dark") which is a way of painting with light: the figures are not conveyed in the manner of clear line drawings but emerging from light and shadows.


As a man of the cinema I have also been troubled about the trend of restoration overkill. In exhibitions of old masters I find the relentlessly glossy surfaces of restored oil paintings uncanny.

I preferred the Sistine Chapel before restoration. In Michelangelo's paintings, eyes are all-important. In restoration, the twinkle in the eyes of his figures has disappeared.

I also preferred Rembrandt before restoration. I understand the urge to do something to the dark patina accrued over centuries. But with the removal of the darkness something else disappears, too. The paintings are now ghosts of their former selves.

The original glory of Leonardo's paintings is now only possible to fathom by straining the imagination. We can read from old testimonies, recorded by contemporaries such as Giorgio Vasari, how they looked and register what is missing. Mona Lisa has been cropped and changed in a successsion of restorations. For instance she has lost her celebrated eyebrows.


The strange smiles in Leonardo's paintings after the year 1500 have affinities with predecessors in Ancient Greek and Etruscan art. The smiles seem to suggest long-forgotten secrets among artists separated by millennia.

Soon after Leonardo's death, Mannerism started, a current characterized by an increasing awareness of the paradoxical and the alienated. Representative figures included Dr. Faustus, Don Juan, Don Quixote and Hamlet. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy".

It is tempting to reflect Leonardo's strange paintings of the 1500s with regard to Mannerism. But my personal response is that they are not predecessors of Mannerism. They look back to something primitive and original that had been repressed during the Gothic centuries. The Rinascimento of Leonardo seems to refer, besides a return to a natural focus after a thousand years of a supernatural one, also to the rebirth of ancient, pre-Christian secrets on many levels.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Hemingway 1–3 (2021)

"A smiling Hemingway and his three sons in Bimini after a rare four-marlin day. Photo: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston ." Photo and caption: Anglers Journal: "Fighting Big Fish with Ernest Hemingway", 25 March 2019.

Hemingway : A Writer (1899–1929)
Hemingway : The Avatar (1929–1944)
Hemingway : The Blank Page (1944–1961)
    US 2021. PC: Florentine Films / WETA (Washington, D.C.). P: Sarah Botstein, Lynn Novick, Ken Burns. Co-P: Salimah El-Amin, Lucas Frank. Assoc P: Vanessa Gonzalez-Block, Jonah Velasco. A
    D: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick. SC: Geoffrey C. Ward. M: Johnny Gandelsman. Add M: David Cieri. Soundtrack selections: J. S. Bach.
    Narrator: Peter Coyote
    Voice actors: Jeff Daniels (Hemingway)
    Meryl Streep (Hadley Richardson)
    Keri Russell (Pauline Pfeiffer)
    Mary Louise Parker (Martha Gellhorn)
    Patricia Clarkson (Mary Welsh Hemingway)
    With Patrick Hemingway (son of Ernest Hemingway and Pauline Pfeiffer).
    With writers: Stephen Cushman, Paul Hendrickson, Mary Karr, Michael Katakis, Akiko Manabe, Edna O’Brien, Tim O'Brien, Leonardo Padura, Amanda Vaill, Mario Vargas Llosa, Abraham Verghese, Tobias Wolff.
    With biographers and scholars: Susan Beegel, Mary Dearborn, Marc Dudley, Verna Kale, Miriam B. Mandel.
    With Senator John McCain.
    With psychiatrist Andrew Farah.
    Archival: Sylvia Beach, Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway, A. E. Hotchner.
    "The filmmakers were granted unusually open access to the treasure trove of Hemingway’s manuscripts, correspondence, scrapbooks and photographs housed at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston" (Production information).
    6 hours
    Premiere: 5-7 April, 2021 PBS.
    Florentine Films screener viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 17–21 Jan 2021.

PBS advance publicity:
HEMINGWAY : A Writer (1899–1929)
"Hemingway, yearning for adventure, volunteers for the Red Cross during World War I. He marries Hadley Richardson and moves to Paris, publishes The Sun Also Rises and finds critical and commercial success with his second novel, A Farewell to Arms."

HEMINGWAY : The Avatar (1929–1944)
"Hemingway, having achieved a level of fame rarely seen in the literary world, settles in Key West with Pauline Pfeiffer but can’t stay put for long. He reports on the Spanish Civil War and begins a tempestuous romance with Martha Gellhorn."

HEMINGWAY : The Blank Page (1944–1961)
"Hemingway follows the Army as they advance through Europe. Afterwards, he tries to start a life with Mary Welsh, but is beset with tragedies. He publishes The Old Man and the Sea to acclaim but is overcome by his declining mental condition." (PBS advance publicity)

AA: The American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) is one of the most recognizable personalities in the history of world culture, and his life and legend have been covered in countless books, articles and programs.

The publications have been myth-making, and during the last decades often myth-breaking. The Hemingway film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and written by Geoffrey C. Ward represents the most distinguished trend in current biographical research.

Beyond hagiography and the "dark side of the genius" discourses, the perspective is wider and higher. We are invited into a quest to make sense of a man who was more than the sum of his contradictions.

I like the intelligent and emotionally mature approach. During the last decades, the genre of the portrait documentary has mushroomed in biography channels, dvd bonus materials and streaming services. Many are quality productions, but some suffer from dramaturgical clichés, facile soundbites and clip predictability.

This portrait is different. Ken Burns, the master of the rostrum camera, is at it again with huge Hemingway archives of photographs, home movies and documents to which the producers had privileged access. This treasure trove is subjected to the Ken Burns effect (familiar to art documentary aficionados also from the works of Luciano Emmer and Alain Resnais). The result is a richly visual moving picture experience.

The film-makers had in extenso access also to Hemingway's manuscripts, both hand-written and typewritten, and they apply the Ken Burns effect to them, too. We get a special insight into Hemingway's writing processes via illuminated and animated manuscript pages.

We get rare glimpses into Hemingway's mind as he follows his daily discipline and transforms experiences into thoughts and thoughts into words. The film-makers' approach has an affinity with Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach: by hearing the original works and seeing the authentic artifacts we enter an inside track in an approach that has parallels with Materialästhetik.

The Bach association is also relevant because the soundtrack consists largely of Bach, a composer in whose polyphonic structures Hemingway found an inspiration to his own "grace under pressure" approach.

I love also the way in which original book and magazine layouts, cover art and illustrations have been integrated into this portrait of the homme de lettres.

New in this project is the double perspective – equal emphasis is given to the female look in a saga of an alpha male. The film's testimonies do not support the allegiation that Hemingway was a misogynist, on the contrary. There is an eye-opening close reading of his first short story, "Up in Michigan". The empathic account of a woman's first sexual experience was considered too daring at the time.

Hemingway's four wives are prominent in the narrative, their words voiced by Meryl Streep (Hadley Richardson), Keri Russell (Pauline Pfeiffer), Mary Louise Parker (Martha Gellhorn) and Patricia Clarkson (Mary Welsh Hemingway). Among the most moving testimonies is the real-life farewell letter of the Red Cross nurse Agnes von Kurowsky who was the model for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. The double perspective changes the way we view Hemingway. There are affinities in this double perspective approach with recent high profile documentaries such as Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019) and Aalto (2020).

Received ideas about Hemingway's conservative macho sexuality were dealt a blow when his novel The Garden of Eden was published posthumously in 1986. Hemingway was ahead of his time in discussing gender diversity and intersex.

The art of the close-up is cultivated in the interviews made for the movie. The witnesses and the commentators, from Edna O'Brien to John McCain, get enough space to have their voice heard and their presence felt. This is the opposite of the soundbite approach.

We learn that Hemingway was not just a man's man. He loved being in love with women. But he definitely was a writer's writer who has inspired countless young colleagues. A beautiful vignette is devoted to J. D. Salinger who met Hemingway in the liberated Paris in 1944.

Hemingway was famous since the beginning for his "iceberg theory" as a writer, of lasting value for writers and film-makers. It does not diminish him to observe that the same theory was already essential for Chekhov. Simplicity was the greatest art for both. It is also the hardest art.

"My only hero is the truth" said Tolstoy in the Sevastopol Tales, inspired by Thucydides, and the same ethos inspired Hemingway, although he could not always resist the temptation of the tall tale.

The motto also applies to this deeply felt documentary.


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Anu Silfverberg: Sinut on nähty / [You Have Been Seen] (a book)

Anu Silfverberg : Sinut on nähty [You Have Been Seen]. Helsinki : Kustannusosakeyhtiö Teos, 2020. 244 pp.

Anu Silfverberg's Sinut on nähty [You Have Been Seen] is a book of anger. It's a passionate confession and indictment. The Me Too movement, the term coined by Tarana Burke in 2006 and the movement launched by Alyssa Milano in 2017, opened the floodgates to condemn harassment and abuse towards women. I believe that the final outrage that ignited the movement was the vulgar misogyny in the U.S. presidential campaign of 2017.

I have experienced powerful waves of feminism before: in society in general in the 1960s, and in film studies of the 1970s and the 1980s. Feminism was a major trend in the Screen magazine. But never before has there been a wave like this.

"The male gaze" was a favourite concept in film studies almost 50 years ago, and now Silfverberg returns to Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1973 / 1975). Silfverberg has been inspired both by Mulvey's ideas and her provocative manifesto attitude.

In her definitive statement on the subject, the book Afterimages : On Cinema, Women and Changing Times (2019), Mulvey renders a synthesis of major interests in her scholarship: woman as spectacle, studies of race and gender, avantgarde and counter-cinema, and new approaches to movie watching made possible by home and mobile formats.

There is an appendix, "Ten frequently asked questions on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'" (pp. 238–255) written for this book. Mulvey says that at some point she stopped giving permission for republication of the essay, because she found the text, meant to be a provocation, now completely archaic.

But she found herself proud of its continuing influence. "It seems to me that my personal thoughts about 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' are not really that relevant today, as the essay no longer belongs to me but to continuing and contemporary discussions on the topic. After all, spectacle has proliferated massively since 1975, and its politics are more urgent than ever".

In contemporary media culture: "Certainly, the spectator of 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' has given way to infinitely more complex, and ultimately playful, ways of relating to the screen. And on the screen gender images are now, in some kind of synchronicity, also more complex, more flexible and more playful than the spectatorial straightjacket I wrote about in 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'."

Silfverberg's manifesto is more furious than Mulvey's inspirational text. Her rage against mainstream cinema makes it compelling to read. Silfverberg is candid about her passions, articulating something close to a primal bond between the viewer and the spectacle, an atavistic state of being, a symbiosis between the movie and its audience.

Silfverberg reports a conversation with Elsi Hyttinen, a literary critic, who has reassessed the meaning of watching together during the corona epidemic. Something experienced as a part of a big shared audience body is crucially different from a lone experience in front of a home screen. They discussed an article by a biologist about how in the cinema and other auditoria human bodies tune to a shared wavelength, how we communicate via pheromones et cetera to the herd how we are feeling.

This blissful state is the starting point, leading to a violent disillusion when images prove fundamentally distorted. Women can relate to their images on the screen only with feelings of embarrassment and incredulousness. Women do not recognize themselves in these representations. They are not based on women's self-definitions but on the male gaze. Now women are refusing to accept this state of things and rebelling against it.

Like with Mulvey's original, it would be possible to criticize Silfverberg's text about being single-minded and one-sided. But sometimes the way to new complexities proceeds via provocative exaggeration.

Like in the project of Peter Berger's Ways of Seeing team (BBC series and Penguin book 1972), Silfverberg refers to the bias of Western art: men look, women are looked at. The male gaze is objectifying, about not seeing the female as an equal, but as an object of the gaze. The terminology dates back to Freud (Schaulust / scopophilia, in Über Psychoanalyse : fünf Vorlesungen, 1910) and Sartre (le regard in L'Être et le néant, 1943).

We are dealing with deep and largely unconscious issues here, and the project is about making them conscious. When I register a few reservations here, they are in the interest of making the case stronger. They do not undermine the argument.

Peter Berger's team discusses the category of the nude in European oil painting. "One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight." (Ways of Seeing, p. 47).

Peter Berger's project is valid about nude oil paintings from the Renaissance to Modernism, but perhaps no longer about Post-modernism. Also not about the thousand years of Gothic art, nor about the Golden Age of Greek art where the nude male was the chief object of the gaze and identification, and women were more often clothed. Nor about the millennia of Egyptian art. "It is worth noticing that in other non-European traditions – in Indian art, Persian art, African art, Pre-Columbian art – nakedness is never supine in this way" (p. 53). Let's also register the LGBT look of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, et al. In Finland, Magnus Enckell's look has an affinity with the classics of Greek Antiquity: men were nude, women wore clothes.

I know that Laura Mulvey's views are much more sophisticated than in her famous essay. A key figure is Josef von Sternberg, and I find it striking that in his Marlene Dietrich cycle of seven films for instance both the first and the final one (The Blue Angel and The Devil Is a Woman) are about the sovereign woman and the impotent man reduced to a clown. The sexual politics of the films is highly ambiguous, as is the star persona of Marlene Dietrich, who was always grateful for Sternberg for helping cultivate it.

Another beloved subject of Mulvey's is Alfred Hitchcock, and everybody who has paid attention to his films is likely to be aware of his double gaze. The gaze, the look, is, indeed central in Hitchcock's films also in profound thematical and self-reflective ways, and the philosopher Heikki Nyman (a Ludwig Wittgenstein expert) has written a 1800-page study on the theme. The double gaze was intimately based on the close collaboration of Alfred with his wife Alma. The director was aware that when a couple goes to the cinema, the woman is the one who decides what to see. He wanted to make such a film that when the daughter comes home and tells her mother about it, the mother wants to see it, too. There is a simultaneous male gaze and a female gaze in Hitchcock's films, but at least since The Lodger, there is also the queer gaze. Mulvey has, of course, acknowledged such complexities, for instance in the essay on Vertigo in her new book.

In the beginning there was no job title of the "film director" (and there were no credits in films anyway). Already then it was possible that it was the superstar who had agency. One of the first international superstars was Asta Nielsen, always proud and unconventional, always in charge, always in possession of the look. A case in point is also Sarah Bernhardt, whose Queen Elizabeth (1912) had such a huge success that it more than any other film led to the breakthrough of the institution of the feature film in the USA. One of the most powerful figures in the cinema (and the world) was Mary Pickford, who, although she was not the director, was the one who called the shots and produced her films. The history of the cinema and the history of the gaze is complicated. Formidable female stars had huge followings until the demise of the studio system in the 1960s. Molly Haskell has impressively tracked the paradoxical development in her classic study From Reverence to Rape (1974 / 1987). The liberated and emancipated 1960s led amazingly to the end of the power woman syndrome that had been central to the cinema since the beginning. Almost every year almost all top ten stars have been men since the 1960s.

Anu Silfverberg lambasts directors from Martin Scorsese to Krzysztof Kieslowski. It may all be true what she says about The Wolf of Wall Street and La double vie de Véronique. It annoys me, too, to observe photomodel aesthetics in works of masters. (Also Andrei Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick have displayed a weakness for photomodel superficiality). But it would be fair to remember from Scorsese Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and his Fran Lebowitz project. And from Kieslowski Trois couleurs : bleu and A Short Film About Love (based on Decalogue : Six). The last-mentioned film belongs to the cinema's most ruthless critiques of the male gaze, together with Vertigo, Peeping Tom and John Carpenter's Someone's Watching Me!

Women are making more films than ever. The Finnish Film Foundation is following a 50/50 principle in movie funding. I would have expected from Silfverberg more attention to the already impressive number of great films directed by women, from Finnish artists to start with. The recent survey by Mark Cousins in his giant film series Women Make Film (14 episodes, 40 chapters) offers a vast selection. It would be nice to have some promotion for Laura Mulvey as a film-maker, too.

This is just a start. The world is changing. There is no turning back.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

My Top 14 Exercises (Haustafel)

8) Stretching my imagination
9) Suspending disbelief
10) Exercising leaps of logic
11) Reaching into many disciplines
12) Pulling out all the stops
13) Racing against time
14) Throwing a party

Tuesday, March 16, 2021


Chloé Zhao: Nomadland (US/DE 2020) starring Frances McDormand as Fern.

Nomadland / Nomadland.
    US / DE © 2020 20th Century Studios. P: Highwayman Films / Hear/Say Productions / Cor Cordium Productions. Theatrical distribution in the US: Searchlight Pictures. P: Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Chloé Zhao.
    D+SC+ED: Chloé Zhao – based on the book Nomadland : Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017) by Jessica Bruder. DP+PD: Joshua James Richards – colour – 1,90:1 (IMAX) – 2,39:1 – CFast 2.0 – source format: ProRes 4444 (3.sK) – master format: 2K – release: D-Cinema. AD: Elizabeth Godar, Tom Obed. Cost: Hannah Peterson. M: Ludovico Einaudi. S: Sergio Diaz, Zach Seivers – Dolby Digital / IMAX 6-Track / DTS / Dolby Atmos.
    C: Frances McDormand (Fern), Gay DeForest (Gay), Patricia Grier (Patty), Angela Reyes (Angela), Carl R. Hughes (Carl), Douglas G. Soul (Doug), Ryan Aquino (Ryan), Teresa Buchanan (Teresa), Karie Lynn McDermott Wilder (Karie), David Strathairn (Dave), Tay Strathairn (James).
    Themselves: Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells.
    South Dakota: Badlands, Wall Drug, Custer State Park, Deadwood.
    Nebraska: Scottsbluff.
    Nevada: Empire, Black Rock Desert.
    California: Northern California coast: Mendocino County: Point Arena. – San Bernardino County.
    Arizona: Yuma.
    108 min
    Triple festival premiere: 11 Sep 2020 Toronto / Venice / Telluride Los Angeles Drive-In.
    Finnish festival premiere: 19 Sep 2020 Helsinki International Film Festival.
    Planned Finnish theatrical premiere: 26 March 2021 – distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Finland with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Timo Porri / Janne Staffans.
    Corona security: max 6 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Press screening at Tennispalatsi 5, Helsinki, 16 March 2021.

Official synopsis: "Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van and sets off on the road exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. The third feature film from director Chloé Zhao, NOMADLAND features real nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration through the vast landscape of the American West."

AA: Nomadland is a masterpiece and a great American movie, directed by Chloé Zhao, a Chinese, featuring an exceptional performance by Frances McDormand in the leading role.

Nomadland revisits basic concepts of the Western and overturns the classic desert vs. civilization dialectics. A company town turns into a ghost town, and Fern, a diligent worker, turns into a nomad, a van-dweller. Her quest takes her to the end of the West, to the Pacific Ocean. There is even a good man who loves her. In the finale we realize that Nomadland is indeed a great love story, too, but Fern's choice is not what we might expect.

Nomadland belongs to a thriving topical trend of women directors reinventing the Western, including Kelly Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff), Sofia Coppola (True Grit) and Emma Tammi (The Wind). The female Western has a long lineage, starting with Nell Shipman and Texas Guinan. Because of Nomadland's stark realism I was also thinking about The Lady of the Dugout, directed by W. S. Van Dyke.

Nomadland is profoundly landscape-driven. The cinematic revelation of landscape as soulscape was discovered before the WWI simultaneously by Americans (Griffith, Ince) and Frenchmen following the Lumière inspiration such as Perret. Ever since it has been a basic attraction of the Western. A major reinventor of the landscape-soulscape epiphany was Antonioni, who as a guest director even made an American film (Zabriskie Point). As for Zhao, she has a fresh and original way to see the landscape and the talent to make the familiar to look unfamiliar. The cinematographer Joshua James Richards creates powerful compositions and visions in scope. They need to be seen on a cinema screen for full impact.

The anti-glamour approach brings to mind Agnès Varda's nomadland saga Sans toit ni loi. It also evokes 1930s Depression classics such as The Grapes of Wrath, but Nomadland is not a political film. It states facts bluntly, and the viewer is free to draw one's consequences, but Chloé Zhao is not interested in social engagement. In a way, her film is closer to Dersu Uzala. Like in Kurosawa's film, the nomad is invited to join friendly and loving family circumstances, but Fern's choice is the same as Dersu's. The mythical Japanese practice of ubasute (the old person retreating to a mountain top to die) familiar from film adaptations of The Ballad of Narayama, comes to mind.

The idea of suicide is evoked. The terminally ill Swankie returns to Alaska and sends Fern a video of the mountain with hundreds of swallow nests that was his greatest dream to revisit. Fern stands by the Pacific Ocean and contemplates the crushing waves. "Goodnight Irene" is being sung as a lullaby ("sometimes I get a notion / to jump into the ocean"). But taking her own life is the path Fern will not take. Nomadland is a work of Stoicism. Chloé Zhao is Chinese, and I do not know Chinese philosophy. Might we be dealing with a Confucian Western?

Though not a work of social engagement, Nomadland is full of rich and vivid social observation. Based on Jessica Bruder's non-fiction book, it is an engrossing account of the modern American nomad culture featuring several real-life nomads, including the charismatic leader and spokesman Bob Wells.

Visiting her sister, Fern joins a dinner with successful real estate businessmen, and her frank opinions about their line of work instantly brand her as an outsider in the family.

Amazon is a key presence in Nomadland. We see unforgettable views of endless Amazon storage halls. Fern is always a welcome worker there, and contrary to what we might expect, Amazon is portrayed as a fair and just employer. One of Nomadland's many aspects is that it is a fascinating survey on the life of the workers today, including camaraderie, friendship, fun and dancing. It is a saga of the deferential worker who is getting dealt a bad hand.

It is also a grim revelation about never affording to retire. A classic text relevant to the discourse, “The End of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford to Stop Working”, first published by Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 329, No. 1971, August 2014, is quoted in the final credits. Unmentioned in the movie and not relevant to it but unavoidable for me as a critic to observe as an aside is the role of Amazon in this context. Big Tech companies such as Amazon have destroyed the livelihood of millions of people working in the cultural field, in professions of literature, art, publishing, media and criticism, because people have been taught to expect everything for free online. Thanks to the business logic of advertising, creative talents get nothing, and Big Tech gets all.

Zhao's emphasis is wider, expanding into cosmic views. In the desert we are closer to the stars. Zhao does not shrink from kitchen sink realism, but she also keeps casually returning to Shakespeare, having Fern quote both Macbeth ("tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow") and the 18th Sonnet ("shall I compare thee to a summer's day").

The performances of actors and real-life nomads blend together seamlessly. There is psychological depth in the characters, the film keeps growing in my mind, and it demands to be seen again.

American cinema has always been great in welcoming foreign talent, in the course generating some of the best movies of all times from Murnau (Sunrise) to Polanski (Chinatown). We can now add Chloé Zhao and Nomadland into their number.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Cheng mo de zheng reu / Bodies at Rest

Renny Harlin: 沉默的證人 / Cheng mo de zheng reu / Bodies at Rest (CN/HK 2019) starring Richie Jen (Santa) and Nick Cheung (Dr. Chen Jia Hao).

Renny Harlin: 沉默的證人 / Cheng mo de zheng reu / Bodies at Rest (CN/HK 2019). The trio in the middle: Zi Yang (Qiao Lin), Nick Cheung (Dr. Chen Jia Hao), Richie Jen (Santa).

沉默的證人 (traditional) / 沉默的证人 (simplified).
    CN/HK © 2019 Wanda Media Co. Ltc. / Media Asia Film. P: Cheng Kim-fung, Lei Qiao, Fei Xiao.
    D: Renny Harlin. SC: David Lesser. DP: Anthony Pun – colour – 2.39:1 – Red Weapon Monstro – Redcode RAW – master format: digital intermediate 2K – released on 35 mm and D-Cinema. M: Anthony Chue. Theme song: Xueran Chen. ED: Ka-Fai Cheung. Stunt coordinator: Ming-sing Wong.
    Companies involved include: Phantom Clip Studio, MBS Studios, Physical FX, China Film Studio. Title design: Wandasunmon.
    C: Nick Cheung (Dr. Chen Jia Hao), Richie Jen (Santa), Zi Yang (Qiao Lin), Carlos Chan (Elf), Shu-liang Ma (Security guard Uncle Jin).
    With: Jin Au-Yeung (Wei Zai), Jiayi Feng (Rudolph), Roger Kwok (Ah Jie), Sonija Kwok (Chen's deceased wife), Clara Lee (Zheng Anqi), Peng Ming (Police officer Wu), Ron Ng (Police officer Li).
    Loc: Hong Kong, Beijing.
    Languages: Mandarin, Cantonese.
    94 min
    Festival premiere: 18 March 2019 Hong Kong International Film Festival.
    Chinese premiere: 16 Aug 2019.
    Hong Kong premiere: 22 Aug 2019.
    Finnish premiere (selected cities): 5 Feb 2021 – released by Night Visions Distribution – with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Sami Siitojoki / Angel Hammer.
    Lappeenranta corona emergency security: max 20 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at Finnkino Strand 1, Lappeenranta, 8 Feb 2021.

AA: Since 2016, Renny Harlin has directed three films in China, two of them belonging to the lineage of Hong Kong action cinema. The first one, Skiptrace, starring Jackie Chan, was the biggest box office hit of both Harlin and Chan.

In his new Triad saga Bodies at Rest Harlin pursues an agenda of his own within the constraints of genre cinema. He does not focus on martial arts like Bruce Lee. He does not emphasize comedy like Jackie Chan. He does not indulge in operatic bloodshed like John Woo. His cinema is not filled with magic like that of Tsui Hark. And he is not interested in the undercover cop narrative like Ringo Lam.

There is in the core of Harlin's cinema an innate kinetic urge, an instinct for the electrifying mise-en-scène and a natural talent for action cinema, a primal vitality that belongs to the mainstream of the great current of action adventure fantasy that started with Victorin Jasset's serials at the Éclair company.

It was as evident in Harlin's debut feature film Jäätävä polte / Born American as it is in Bodies at Rest, which does not belong to his most magnificent achievements. Despite its modest scope its pulsing dynamism is unmistakable.

Harlin was in the right place at the right time during the golden age of Hollywood's turbo-charged action extravaganzas produced by Joel Silver, Jerry Bruckheimer et al.

They were an over-the-top vision of the age of the bonfire of the vanities, displaying an appetite for destruction. They were post-modern manifestations of the Nero complex that has been in the heart of the cinema since Méliès. We create a world and sit back in an easy chair to watch it burn.

Bodies at Rest takes place at Christmas time at a huge Hong Kong morgue. Harlin brings his Hollywood expertise to the movie, but rainstorms, chases in halls of reflecting surfaces, races to the rescue, car crashes, battles in the freezing works, torrents of broken glass, countdowns, explosions and firestorms are not all there is. Even more engaging is Harlin's command of space and movement.

Jumps to conclusions and leaps of logic are perhaps also stunts expected in this brand of cinema.

What dates Harlin's cinema is his penchant for sadism, but more is not more.

The blitz montages in fight sequences are so rapid that it is hard to make sense of them. Ultra-rapid cutting weakens the impact of action scenes, because it breaks down the suspension of disbelief. We cease to feel viscerally that the actors are really going through all the mayhem.

But perhaps the ADHD mentality is a manifestation of the epoch of "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains". We surf quickly ahead without stopping to reflect or feel. No matter how great the overload of attractions, everything remains indifferent.

The movie is well cast. Nick Cheung conveys quiet authority and a silent dignity as Dr. Chen Jia Hao, perhaps in tribute to Harlin's own father who was a doctor and chief physician in his city. Zi Yang as Qiao Lin is a resourceful fighter in the female leading role. Shu-liang Ma brings a jovial presence as the donut-loving security guard Uncle Jin.

The three villains, dressed in Christmas masks, are modelled after familiar archetypes. Richie Jen (Santa) is a poker-faced, callous leader. Carlos Chan (Elf) is an erratic sadist. Jiayi Feng (Rudolph) is an old-timer who faints at the sight of blood.

The relations between the villains are based on a healthy mutual distrust. Bodies at Rest is not a story-driven film, and the relevant backgrounds of the wars between the Hong Kong and Thai triads, the policemen doubling as gangsters, and the underworld connections of Dr. Chen Jia Hao remain underexposed.

Renny Harlin's first film Born American was a violent anticommunist action fantasy. Bodies at Rest has been made in a country ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. It's the last Christmas in Hong Kong for the doctor and his assistant. In the finale, the rainstorm warning is cancelled. We may pause to think about the meaning of the multiple disguises of gangsters as policemen as merry Christmas figures.

The film has been efficiently shot by Anthony Pun, and the score by Anthony Chue is engaging. I like the design of the final credit sequence based on the concept of X-ray photos and silhouettes of hands holding them.


Saturday, February 06, 2021

Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton

Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies). Starring Valerie Gearon (Ann Barton) and Keith Barron (Nigel Barton).

Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies). "At the Annual Council Dinner, Nigel listens to the Tory candidate give a self-congratulatory speech in which he claims that things are getting better for everyone, although his assessment clearly excludes people from minorities. Nigel furiously attacks the speech for its complacence and backward-looking agenda." (BFI Screenonline synopsis).

 The Wednesday Play: Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton.
    GB 1965. PC: BBC. P: James MacTaggart, Graeme MacDonald.
    D: Gareth Davies. SC: Dennis Potter. Story editors: Roger Smith, Tony Garnett. Cin: James Balfour – 1,33:1 – b&w. PD: Julia Trevelyan Oman. Film ED: Bill Brind. Telerecording ED: Julian Farr.
    C: Keith Barron (Nigel Barton), Valerie Gearon (Ann Barton), John Bailey (Jack Hay), Cyril Luckham (Hugh Archibald-Lake), Harry Forehead (Sir Harry Blakeswood), Huw Thomas (newsreader), Betty Bowden (lady chairman), Margaret Diamond (lady secretary), Madge Brindley (Mrs. Thompson), Sonia Graham (Mrs. Phillips), Aimée Delamain (Mrs. Morris), Walter Hall (Mr. Smith), George Desmond (Mr. Harrison), Fred Berman (toastmaster), John Evitts (journalist), Alan Lawrance (fat man), Arthur Ridley (mayor).
    Soundtrack selections include: "The Red Flag" (comp. Melchior Frank, 16th century, lyr. Jim Connell, 1889); final credit theme: an instrumental variation of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (pre-1865 African-American spiritual, a Christmas carol, collected by John Wesley Work, Jr.).
    News clips: Nye Bevan's speech at an anti-Suez rally ; Oswald Mosley's speech.
    75 min
    Telepremiere: 15 Dec 1965 on BBC1.
    YouTube link viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 6 Feb 2021.

AA: "Candidate Nigel Barton goes from idealism to cynicism as he becomes disillusioned and suspicious of hollow campaign promises." This Internet Movie Database synopsis seems accurate at first sight, and it seems to reflect the general opinion of Dennis Potter's remarkable sequel to his semi-autobiographical breakthrough play Stand Up, Nigel Barton.

Nigel Barton's Bildungsroman does indeed belong to the great tradition of Balzac's Illusions perdues: the growing up of a provincial youth who enters the big world of modernity. In the first film we witnessed the bitter contrast between Nigel's working-class roots and his Oxford elite existence. Nigel was left with the feeling that he does not belong anywhere.

The death of a Conservative member of parliament in a foxhunt accident necessitates a by-election. The Labour Party nominates Nigel Barton as their candidate for "the totally hopeless seat" in a traditionally and overwhelmingly Tory-dominated district. A seasoned party veteran called Jack Hay (John Bailey) becomes Barton's personal coach.

We follow Nigel's evolution step by step. His first performance is too intellectual: "try not to be too clever", advises Jack while observing a yawning and distracted audience. Next Nigel turns to heavy-handed propaganda, but because he has not done his homework, he fails to answer sharp questions and needs help.

Together, Nigel and Jack start canvassing with a tour on a campaign van: visiting voters at their doorsteps and in groups such as women riders. The idea is to "catch floating voters". ("Let them sink" is Jack's suggestion). Nigel even gets a list of the bereaved, but writing condolence letters for the sake of getting votes goes too far. A visit to an old folks' home shocks Nigel deeply, but even there he fails to connect.

The local Labour workers and a ladies' group see through Nigel's phoniness. He does not even know the lyrics of "The Red Flag". But in the final climax, the Annual Council Dinner, listening to his opponent, the smooth and experienced Tory candidate Hugh Archibald-Lake (who declares that "we are all workers now"), Nigel catches fire and speaks from his heart for the first time, debunking the "myth of affluence", although his offensive manner will bring him no votes. But the angry young man has entered politics and found his own voice.

Although Jack at first appears a cynical opportunist, it turns out that he has never lost his ideals. And although Ann, Nigel's wife, tells her husband that "yours is the worst form of betrayal", after his big speech Ann must confess she "did not know what you are capable of". Nigel was "pretty formidable". "You are not meant for the sidelines". In the process, Nigel really understands for the first time the hard life his father has endured.

One of the most refreshing features of the movie is the dynamics between Ann and Nigel. Ann ironizes Nigel's "advantage of being born to the working class", and Nigel lambasts her "condescending Hampstead socialism". (Ann's irony is similar to Tony Randall's envy towards Rock Hudson in Lover Come Back to Me: "You had everything going for you. Poverty. Squalor. There was only one way for you to go – up.") Ann makes fun of Nigel's "prize bull" campaign badge, while Nigel calls Ann "a prissy cow". Ann has accused Nigel that he has lost his virility during the campaign stress, but the bull / cow dialogue seems to rekindle the fire between the spouses.

The film has deep texture about Britain's postwar politics. Perhaps the most moving passage of the whole show is an insert from Nye Bevan's speech at an anti-Suez rally which leads to an elliptic resume of the history of the Labour Party since 1945 (Bevan was the father of the National Health Service, that has been newly universally admired for its heroic efforts during the current corona pandemic).

An ominous presence in a historical insert is Oswald Mosley, whose political past included both Labour and Fascism, and who in the late 1950s became the father of the still ongoing anti-immigration movement, topical with Brexit.

The dimensions are both timeless and topical. Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton evokes Plato and Aristotle, their studies on rhetorics. It evokes Tony Blair and Boris Johnson. "Double talk, that is my language".

The film language of Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton is less experimental than that of Stand Up, Nigel Barton, but the finale is special. At the council dinner, Nigel both loses and finds himself. There is a final blitz montage in front of a mirror. Facing the camera, Nigel rehearses three forms of address, transforming from an angry Barton to a well-tempered Barton. His speech slows down and he catches his breath when he utters: "vote ... vote ... vote".

Dennis Potter asks us a question. Each viewer must find an answer for oneself.


Stand Up, Nigel Barton

Stand Up, Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies), starring Jack Woolgar (Mr. Barton), Katherine Parr (Mrs. Barton) and Keith Barron (Nigel Barton). The coalminer's family is appalled to watch a television show in which the son Nigel, a student at Oxford, confesses his agony at living in a class society. My screenshot from YouTube.

Stand Up, Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies), with Vickery Turner (Jill Blakeney) and Keith Barron (Nigel Barton) as students at the University of Oxford. My screenshot from YouTube.

The Wednesday Play : Stand Up, Nigel Barton.
    GB 1965. PC: BBC. P: James MacTaggart, Graeme MacDonald.
    D: Gareth Davies. SC: Dennis Potter. Story editor: Tony Garnett. B&w. PD: Richard Henry. S: Paddy Wilson.
    C: Keith Barron (Nigel Barton), Jack Woolgar (Mr. Barton), Katherine Parr (Mrs. Barton), Vickery Turner (Jill Blakeney), Robert Mill (Adrian), Janet Henfrey (Miss Tillings, a teacher), P. J. Kavanagh (Reporter), Johnnie Wade (Reporter), Johnnie Wade (Georgie), Godfrey James (Bert).
    Soundtrack selections include: "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" (Thomas Paine Westendorf, 1875), "Sixteen Tons" (Merle Travis, 1947), "The Old Rugged Cross" (Methodist hymn, 1912, George Bennard) and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, 1965) perf. The Animals.
    75 min
    Telepremiere: 8 Dec 1965 on BBC1.
    YouTube link viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 6 Feb 2021.

AA: Having discovered a few weeks ago the early Dennis Potter masterpiece Moonlight on the Highway (1969) I delved deeper and viewed his breakthrough telefilms, the Nigel Barton Plays. The producer is James MacTaggart, who directed Moonlight on the Highway. Gareth Davies, the director of the Nigel Barton plays, elicits excellent performances from the cast.

The Nigel Barton plays belong to the currents of the Angry Young Men, Free Cinema and Kitchen Sink Drama. Nigel Barton is an angry young man, the mining town is conveyed with naturalism, and there is a freedom of experimentation. Much is familiar from contemporary British films such as Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life.

But a unique Dennis Potter signature is already prominent. The story is semi-autobiographical, because the agonizing Bildungsroman is very similar with Potter's own trajectory from a mining town to the University of Oxford. Nigel Barton experiences a massive identity crisis and exposes it to the whole nation in a BBC documentary about "Britain, land of barriers": "I don't feel as I belong anywhere".

Already at this point, Potter as a storyteller is far from straightforward. Instead of a linear progress, the narrative is based on a juxtaposition between home and Oxford. The present tense is intercut with flashbacks. In embarrassing school memories, grown-ups play schoolchildren. The actors feel free to address us directly.

Potter has an eye for the expressive detail. In memories of school bullying, when asked to select a passage from the Bible to read, George, a schoolmate, selects the Book of Ezekiel (the one with Oholah and Oholibah), and when Miss Tillings, the teacher, blows her top, Nigel is first held up as the teacher's pet and then inevitably bullied. In the story of retaliation Nigel tears the stem off from the class daffodil and frames George.

The film begins with a long backward tracking shot of Nigel's father walking in the middle of the road, instead of on the sidewalk. Why? It's an old miners' tradition. After Nigel's appearance in the television documentary, confessing his unease about his coal village background, mother and father are deeply shocked. Father goes out, and Nigel finds him coughing painfully. Miner's lungs. In the final long forward tracking shot we are behind Nigel and his father, walking in the middle of the road until they disappear into the darkness. It's night, and they are going to the pub together.

Soundtrack selections do not yet play such a dominant role as in Potter's most famous teleplays, but they are more inventively used than in average shows. "Sixteen Tons" and "The Old Rugged Cross" are among the tunes on display. Like in This Sporting Life, singing at the Working Men's Club is memorable.

During the closing credits, Barry Mann and Claudia Weil's topical hit, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place", released by The Animals in July 1965, is playing, a more obvious song selection than usually in Potter's plays, but it must have irresistible because it so directly articulates the British "angry young man" attitude, although written by Brill Building professionals.

Like in Moonlight on the Highway, there is an impressive "atlas of faces". In the mining town, there are no indifferent extras. Every face tells a story.