31 May 2010

'Black May' 2010

Bangkok is again recovering from the aftermath of a military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. A state of emergency was declared on 7th April and, three days later, the army opened fire on the UDD protesters who had gathered around Democracy Monument since March. Twenty-five people were killed.

The protesters then intensified their demonstrations, establishing city-centre protest camps at Siam Square and Sala Daeng. On 14th May, the camps were surrounded by armed soldiers, leading to a week of street battles between soldiers and protesters. Public transport in Bangkok remained closed throughout the week. The army fired live rounds, and the areas around the camps were designated as 'live-fire zones' by the army, with military snipers carrying out a shoot-to-kill policy. Thirty-nine people were killed.

On 19th May, armoured personnel carriers were dispatched to demolish the camp at Sala Daeng, and soldiers then began advancing on Siam Square. The protest leaders surrendered, and most protesters disbursed, though arsonists set fire to Siam Theatre, CentralWorld, and several other buildings. The King, who had intervened during the Black May massacre of 1992, made no statement. Even the Prime Minister remained at army HQ and made no public appearances.

A total of eighty-five people were killed, a death toll exceeding the most notorious military crackdowns in modern Thai history (October 1976 and May 1992). However, anti-UDD government propaganda (portraying the protesters as violent terrorists), and censorship of UDD media, have prevented a widespread public outcry against the military.

[A photograph of CentralWorld, depicting Ravinder Reddy's golden sculpture The Head and a torn Thai flag in front of the burning building, has become an iconic image of the massacre and its aftermath. It was taken by Adrees Latif for Reuters, and has been syndicated internationally; it appeared on the front page of The New York Times on 20th May.]

27 May 2010

Film Noir: The Encyclopedia

Film Noir
Film Noir: The Encyclopedia is the fourth edition of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference To The American Style, and is edited by Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini, and Robert Porfirio. Silver and Ursini also wrote Film Noir (edited by Paul Duncan) and The Noir Style, and recorded DVD commentaries for Call Northside 777, Boomerang!, and Panic In The Streets.

Panorama Du Film Noir Americain (by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton) is historically significant as the first book on film noir, and there are some significant analytical essays in the first volume of the Film Noir Reader anthology (edited by Silver and Ursini). Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, however, is still the most valuable reference to noir films.

The introduction from the previous edition has been retained, though the extensive essay on neo-noir has been considerably shortened for the new edition, and a useful literature survey has been removed. The numerous lists from the 3rd edition are a more understandable omission: they took up too much space, and were mostly superfluous. The book's design has been dramatically improved, and it's now much more compact and elegant.

Aside from some largely superficial new side-bar articles, Film Noir is now essentially a book of in-depth film reviews. Many entries from the previous editions have been revised or completely rewritten, and around 100 new entries have been included (reviewed by Richard Schickel, amongst others). The films are divided into two sections: classic noir (traditionally defined as the period from The Maltese Falcon to Touch Of Evil) and neo-noir (revisionist Noir from post-classical Hollywood, such as Chinatown and Blade Runner).

26 May 2010

42nd Street

42nd Street
42nd Street, directed by Lloyd Bacon, was the first of a series of Warner musicals choreographed by Busby Berkeley. The characters - a tormented director, an amorous financier, a plucky ingenue - became cliches in later musicals, though it was 42nd Street that initially established them. The plot, in which tense backstage preparations produce an ultimately triumphant show - also became a genre convention. Ginger Rogers is notable in a supporting role, filmed before her partnership with Fred Astaire.

As the film takes place largely during rehearsals, many of the songs are performed without costumes or sets. The final three production numbers, however, are much more lavish, with Young & Healthy featuring the first use of Berkeley's kaleidoscopic choreography. Berkeley arranged the chorus dancers on a three-tiered revolving circular platform, and filmed them from directly overhead to create geometric abstractions from their synchronised movements. He developed this technique in subsequent Warner musicals such as Footlight Parade (also directed by Bacon) and Gold Diggers Of 1933, both released shortly after 42nd Street.

21 May 2010

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!
Mail & Guardian
It all started last month with a spoof poster by cartoonist Molly Norris, titled Everybody Draw Mohammed Day! and featuring caricatures of Mohammed resembling domestic objects: a cup and saucer, a domino, a box of pasta, a cotton reel, a handbag, and a cherry. (Her concept that any object can be a Mohammed caricature was also used by the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen in 2005, when it labelled a series of unconnected artworks as Mohammed portraits, in response to the controversy surrounding the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoons.)

Norris dedicated her poster to the creators of South Park, after Mohammed was censored from two recent episodes. When her poster was circulated on the internet, inspiring thousands of online Mohammed caricatures, Norris insisted that she had not intended for people to take the poster literally.

This month, students at three American universities (Ilinois, Northwestern, and Wisconsin-Madison) reacted to her u-turn by drawing stick-figure pictures of Mohammed in chalk. The chalk drawings were perhaps also inspired by the stick-figure Mohammed in South Park; also, just as a South Park character asked "Is that okay?", one of the chalk figures was captioned "is this okay?".

Zimbabwean cartoonist Zapiro drew an image of Mohammed commenting on the Norris poster, published in the Mail & Guardian newspaper this week. His drawing of a glum Mohammed complaining about over-reacting Muslims is similar to a front-cover cartoon published by Charlie Hebdo in 2006. (Zapiro also caused controversy when he depicted Jacob Zuma as a rapist in the Sunday Times last year.)


09 May 2010

Charlotte & Son Jules

Charlotte & Son Jules
Charlotte & Son Jules, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, features Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anne Collette. Collette plays Charlotte, who returns to her ex-boyfriend's apartment. Belmondo, playing her ex, immediately launches into a monologue which runs for almost the entire length of the thirteen-minute film. The self-pitying Belmondo mocks Collette and implores her not to leave him again; though the conclusion is funny, it's also predictable.

This was the last of Godard's short films, made shortly before his feature debut Breathless. Belmondo would go on to star in Breathless and two further Godard features, A Woman Is A Woman and Pierrot Le Fou. Charlotte & Son Jules was filmed in Godard's hotel room, and Godard himself dubbed Belmondo's voice.

Chambre 12, Hotel de Suede

Chambre 12, Hotel de Suede
Claude Ventura's documentary Chambre 12, Hotel de Suede, was made for the French television channel Arte in 1993. Ventura checks into room twelve in the hotel's final week of operation: it is demolished the day after he checks out. Room twelve was one of the principal locations for Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave masterpiece Breathless, and Ventura's documentary investigates the production of Godard's film.

Ventura interviews all of the key figures involved in the making of Breathless, including star Jean-Paul Belmondo, cinematographer Raoul Coutard, and 'technical adviser' Claude Chabrol. Chabrol confirms the rumour that he and François Truffaut (director of The 400 Blows, which launched the New Wave) were associated with the film merely to secure financing and distribution: they lent their names to the project because, at that time, they were more famous than Godard. Truffaut, and Belmondo's co-star Jean Seberg, both died before the documentary was filmed, as did producer Georges de Beauregard. Ventura finds an archive of production documents relating to Breathless, including a letter from de Beauregard insisting that Godard adopt more conventional filming practices.

Godard himself declined to be interviewed for the documentary, though Ventura does telephone him twice. Each call lasts for less than a minute, with Godard dismissing Ventura and hanging up. In the first conversation, Godard simply says "Dream on!" when asked to discuss Breathless. When Ventura calls back, asking specifically about the film's final lines of dialogue, Godard says he can't remember. In the Breathless production archive, there are discrepancies between Godard's hand-written dialogue notes and the continuity script, thus Belmondo's last words in the film remain ambiguous: when he says "degueulasse" ('disgusting'), is he criticising himself, Seberg's character, or life in general?

06 May 2010

Daily Mirror

Daily Mirror
Bullingdon Club
Today's issue of the Daily Mirror newspaper features a photograph from 1987 of a group of Oxford University students who were all members of the Bullingdon Club. Conservative Party leader David Cameron is pictured in the photo, and the accompanying article begins: "THIS is the picture that David Cameron really, really doesn't want you to see."

The image was withdrawn from distribution in 2007 by its copyright owners, Gillman & Soame, to avoid causing Cameron any further embarrassment. Its publication in the Daily Mirror is clearly an infringement of the ban, though the Mirror presumably felt that any potential fine would be worthwhile due to the impact of printing the photo on its front page on the day of the UK general election.


George Cukor directed Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in their first film together, Sylvia Scarlett, which was neither critically nor commercially successful. Holiday, Cukor's second film with Grant and Hepburn, also failed at the box-office, perhaps because audiences during the Great Depression could hardly relate to the central character's dream of retiring comfortably at thirty.

Grant plays Johnny, who is introduced to his fiancee Julia's rich father Edward, alcoholic brother Ned, and liberated sister Linda. Julia, played by the forgettable Doris Nolan, is never more than a supporting role; she is marginalised as soon as Johnny meets Linda, a typically assertive, charismatic Hepburn character. Our attitudes towards the characters shift during the course of the film: Julia, apparently infatuated with Johnny, initially appears sympathetic, while Ned seems insensitive and irresponsible; later, we are shown the harder side of Julia and the softer side of Ned.

'Screwball' comedies often featured fast, overlapping dialogue, pioneered by Howard Hawks who directed Grant and Hepburn in the excellent Bringing Up Baby. Holiday has its share of rapid repartee, especially when Johnny visits his friends the Potters and when Linda organises a playroom party. Adding to the occasionally manic atmosphere, Grant (who was a circus performer before he went to Hollywood) performs acrobatic stunts, and the Potters present a Punch and Judy show. Other sequences, involving Edward and his aristocratic social circle, are more restrained, with the comedy provided by the snobbish and hypocritical opinions expressed.

Cukor's The Philadelphia Story, also starring Grant and Hepburn, is lighter and more romantic. Holiday, however, particularly because of Linda's passionate rejection of protocol and privilege, seems a more significant film. Holiday was based on a play by Philip Barry, who also wrote The Philadelphia Story; the play was first adapted by Edward H Griffith in 1930, and Edward Everett Horton played the same role (Edward) in both film versions.


Fitna Fitna
Fitna, a short film made by Geert Wilders last year, was screened on 5th March at the House of Lords in London. (It has also been shown in Jerusalem, on 14th December 2008; and in Rome, on 13th February 2009.) Wilders had previously attempted to screen it on Dutch television, without success. There have been demonstrations against the film in several Islamic countries, as it includes a caricature of Mohammed carrying a bomb.

Fitna begins as an attack on the Koran. Passages from the book, which seem to incite violence, are followed by images of Islamic terrorism. Wilders presents Islam as a violent, intolerant religion; what he does not acknowledge, of course, is that there are some equally blood-thirsty passages in the Bible. The second half of the film, however, degenerates into a racist, anti-immigration polemic. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has criticised the film, saying that "it serves no purpose other than to cause offence".

05 May 2010

Stanley Kubrick
Fotografie 1945-1950

Stanley Kubrick: Fotografie
Edited by Rainer F Crone, Stanley Kubrick: Fotografie 1945-1950 - Un Narratore Della Condizione Umana is the catalogue for the Stanley Kubrick: Fotografo exhibition he curated in Italy. It includes over 200 photographs taken by Kubrick while he worked for Look magazine as a photojournalist, though they represent only a dozen of the photo-stories he worked on.

Crone previously curated the exhibition and catalogue Still Moving Pictures, and edited the monograph Drama & Shadows, which also document Kubrick's Look photography. Crone's essay from Still Moving Pictures is reprinted in the new catalogue, though the catalogue's full-page reproductions are similar in presentation to Drama & Shadows. Many photo-stories and individual photographs are duplicated in all three books. A useful appendix reprints the covers and layouts of sixteen vintage issues of Look magazine.

Ladro Di Sguardi was the first book to reproduce Kubrick's photographs, and a brief selection was also included in the exhibition and catalogue Only In New York. Kubrick's contact sheets can be found at the Stanley Kubrick Archive, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Library of Congress.

I have researched and compiled a comprehensive list of Kubrick's Look photographs, and this is reprinted as a chapter in Crone's new book (pp. 306-309) without permission or acknowledgement. I have been assured that, in any subsequent editions, this chapter will either be credited to me or removed from the book.