A Productive Fortnight

To begin with, my apologies for the delay in updating. My plan was to write the blog on Fridays as a way to reflect on the week’s work. The last two Fridays have just gotten away from me apparently. I’m learning though, to forgive myself when I’m not quite as productive as I want to be because getting grumpy about it is simply counterproductive. So anyway, because I’ve now gone two weeks without a blog, doing it on a Monday and then hopefully getting back on track with my Friday updates seemed like a good idea.

It has actually been a pretty good two weeks, despite me throwing my organised schedule somewhat to the wayside. This fortnight, I completed my first Annual Progress Report for my Candidature. That was a far easier process than I originally expected it would be. It was also a good opportunity to stop and take stock of where I’m up to and what’s left to do. I’m grateful that I had no major issues to report and that I have been blessed with wonderful and helpful supervisors that I think I work well with and work well together. I know that myself and my thesis are in good hands with them! Examining where I’m at and where I have left to go was a bit more anxiety inducing. I know that I have been working fairly consistently but I did feel like I could have been a bit further ahead than where I am now. I also know that this chapter I am working on is going to form a guide for how to write my other analysis chapters and that I’m working out the bigger ideas through writing it but I think that I had thought I might have more content down by now. Nonetheless, having to do the research plan based on submitting on time (Jan 2021) was helpful. Next year will be busy but if I stick with my plan, for the most part at least, it’s doable!

Over the past fortnight I have also read a good amount of really interesting and useful things. Worth mentioning are Jerome Christensen’s article “Studio Identity and Studio Art: MGM, ‘Mrs. Miniver’, and Planning the Postwar Era” and Gabriel Miller’s book William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s Most Celebrated Director. Both of these texts discuss some of the production context that I had been neglecting in my Miniver chapter. Christensen in particular, discusses the role of MGM during the war. He argues that MGM was a “synecdoche for the industry in the eyes of the public” during the 1930s and into the 40s and that because of its prominence, its activity during the war, including the involvement of major stars, was particularly notable (p. 261). He also delineates three types of home front films that MGM was making during the war. The first of these was promoting civilian participation in the war effort, the second was “domestic spectacle,” and the third, which concerns Mrs. Miniver, are those which extend the home front to include Great Britain, bridging the gap between the U.S. and the U.K. (p. 261–262). He argues why these films were important, most of these reasons being things I have already looked at with Miniver, such as encouraging Americans to sympathise with the British and to think about the war coming to them if they don’t help out. He adds though, the idea that by 1942 when Miniver was released, public opinion was centred on the war in the Pacific rather than in Europe, which Christensen suggests was “of greater strategic consequence” to the Roosevelt Administration (p. 264). This is helpful context for the production of the film. I did not realise until I read this that I had been forgetting about this in my actual chapter.

Christensen raises another point I’d like to note before moving on. He discusses the difference between persuasion and propaganda in a way that I think will prove really useful when I come to writing my section on the discourse around propaganda. To begin with he simplifies the difference by arguing that persuasion “influences choice” and propaganda “instills or confirms a faith impervious to evidence” (p. 271). I thought that this was an interesting idea that I can explore further in the propaganda research and writing. I was also impressed by a particular analogy that he uses. He states that the differences between persuasion and propaganda “are as clear as that between black and white, or rather the difference between choosing black or white and being compelled to see black as red” (p. 271). This struck me as I was reading it and I’ve noted it down to return to when I’m working on that section. I also watched the Netflix documentary The Great Hack (Karim Amer & Jehane Noujaim, 2019) which looked at the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which it was revealed that Facebook had turned over user data to company Cambridge Analytica in order to target and ‘persuade’ voters in favour of the Trump campaign in the U.S. and the Leave.EU campaign in the U.K. This raised points for me while watching it about the line that extends between propaganda films of the Second World War that were persuading general audiences towards particular ideas and the current notion of ‘fake news’ specifically targeted toward individuals through their social media accounts to encourage them toward particular political positions. This feels like it might be worth exploring to an extent, as this kind of campaigning was intrinsic to the Brexit referendum which is important context for Dunkirk (2017) in particular.

Moving on, Miller’s book provides some more detailed context for William Wyler himself, both personally and as a director. Importantly, Miller breaks down the idea that Wyler’s style as a director was largely realistic. Rather, he claims, “Wyler’s mise-en-scène is in no way neutral…. Wyler’s pictorial arrangements are often complex” (p. 3). He further argues that Wyler was masterful at subtly controlling and manipulating the gaze of the audience (p. 4). This struck me as important given the discussion of mise-en-scène and melodrama that I have in my analysis section of the chapter. This context gives more credence to Wyler’s use of melodrama in Miniver. Miller also points out that Wyler had a long history of making socially and politically conscious films, often critiquing American society (p. 13).

Notably for my research and analysis, Miller explores in depth the production of Miniver. He discusses the adaptation of the story from Struther’s novels, noting that most of the important plot points in the film were added by screenwriters, Arthur Wimperis, James Hilton, George Froeschel, and Claudine West (p. 209). However, Wyler himself had significant input into the script. In the original script, the German pilot that Kay confronts was originally cast more sympathetically, “suggesting that he reminds Mrs. Miniver of her son Vin” (p. 212). This is obviously not the version that made it into the actual film. According to Miller, Wyler refused to shoot the scene this way, believing that the sympathy for the Nazi pilot was going too far. Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM at the time, was wary of offending foreign audiences and wanted Wyler to keep it as it was in the script. Eventually Mayer relented but Miller notes that by the time America entered the war, the entire incident “was forgotten” (p. 212–213). I won’t carry on but the insights that Miller provides in this book will be really useful for filling out the creative context for the film. Miller also notes that Wyler himself published a number of essays on his work that may be worth looking up at some point, just to see if there is any insight to be gained there.

Other than all of that, I have been working on my draft a bit, working out how I can restructure the analysis in particular so that it flows a bit better. I’m feeling happier about it at the moment and I think that by next week I should I have something worth looking at again.

Sydney Film Festival 2018

Thursday 7th June – Sunday 17th June 2018

While somewhat tiring given the schedule, this year’s film festival was a real joy. I saw 32 films altogether and can safely say I didn’t actively dislike anything. There was a really diverse range of films, in style, subject matter, and place. I saw films this year from places I don’t think I had ever seen a film from before, including Finland, the Arctic, Indonesia, Kosovo, Slovakia, and Paraguay among others. It’s always interesting, and a pleasure really, to see how people live in other places around the world, watching other cultures, and discovering the differences as well as how there are some experiences, love, loss, family for example, that bind us all together.

While there were a lot of films I really enjoyed just as films there were a couple that I found interesting in terms of my research. To start with there was a film called Transit (2018, Christian Petzold) which is about a German WWII refugee, Georg (Franz Rogowski), fleeing France by impersonating a writer who has been granted passage to Mexico through Marseille. Whilst in Marseille, he meets and falls in love with a woman who, naturally, turns out to be the wife of the writer he is impersonating. I didn’t think it was a super fascinating story but the notable thing about it is that it was actually set in modern day Marseille. This is not directly addressed in any way in the film nor is it overplayed, there aren’t smartphones or computers or anything like that. It is a much subtler approach, the most obvious nod to it being so modern are the contemporary cars. Otherwise, it becomes steadily clearer as the film progresses as you begin to realise that certain things seem out of place if we’re dealing with the beginning of the occupation of France by the Nazis. For one thing the soldiers we can assume are meant to be German are dressed almost like modern SWAT teams with high powered assault weapons. Also, once Georg reaches Marseille, the American embassy is guarded by American soldiers who are in modern American Army uniforms we’re used to seeing from films and news footage about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Once I finally realised the setting was modern I was immediately a touch confused. I wondered whether I had misinterpreted the narrative and we were not dealing with events of 1940 but a hypothetical version of events happening now. As the film went on however, it was apparent this was not the case and that got me to think about why the filmmaker would choose to approach the story this way, displacing the narrative in time. I have thought about it a lot since the screening and the more I think about it the more I think that I might have been partly right when wondering whether it was a hypothetical version of events for now. Perhaps the filmmaker was, by setting a story about refugees fleeing perhaps the most infamous oppressive regime in history, making a point about history repeating itself. Maybe he was remarking on the political climate and the plight of refugees in Europe at present. I can’t answer these questions with any certainty, but it feels to me that if this was not the intention, then it’s definitely an interesting way to look at the film. The idea of using a historical narrative not just to obliquely examine modern issues but directly address them by setting the historical narrative within a contemporary time period is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before nor even considered.

Another film that was relentlessly thought provoking for me was a film called Bisbee ‘17 (2018, Robert Greene). This was described in the festival guide as “a hybrid film” in that it almost feels like a documentary and a narrative feature film rolled into one. The film is about the town of Bisbee in Arizona, on the Mexican border. Bisbee is a mining town and in 1917 there was a strike by the largely immigrant mining workforce. The result of this strike was that the mining company and the Sheriff’s department, who deputised most of the men in the town that were not miners (mostly white men), and, armed, they gathered the miners up and any civilians that were deemed to sympathise with them, herded them onto cattle cars and dumped them in the desert of New Mexico with nothing but a warning to never return to Bisbee. This has come to be known as the Bisbee Deportation. This is a history that lingers over the town but has seemingly not been addressed properly. It is often referred to as having been kept a secret but whilst the town does acknowledge that it happened, there are still very mixed feelings about how it went down. Bisbee is still a mining town, with generations having worked within the company, so there are some who feel a sympathy with the company and the Sheriff’s department who in their words “had no other choice.” Then there are artists and others community members who feel certain shame about what happened, one man even describing it as an ethnic cleansing, as it was mostly migrant workers who were “deported.” Others in the town are simply apathetic about the events, claiming to see both sides of the story.

The film is in part a documentary about the organisation of a centennial commemoration of the Deportation within the town, talking to various members of the community and following groups as they put events and activities together. It also follows the organisation of a reenactment that almost the entire town will participate in. This is where the narrative film element comes into play. Rather than having the typical dramatisation that one might expect from a historical documentary, this film has the community act in the dramatisation, with townspeople playing characters in the story, not just of the deportation itself but of all the events leading up to it. These scenes are shot like any other drama film and are added and mixed into the documentary. At one point, a scene between the young migrant miner the story focuses on and his mother is interrupted when the young man playing the miner, who is himself a second-generation Mexican immigrant, becomes emotional about the conversation which is akin to something he wished he’s said to his own mother. The lines between documentary and reenactment becomes slightly blurred throughout the film.

The film culminates in the community recreating the deportation on the day of the centennial anniversary, with half the town rounding up the other half. As this happens, we get slices of the real people discussing how they’re feeling about the situation and reflecting on some changing feelings and opinions about the event, having to go through it themselves in a sense. The man who is playing the Sheriff in the scenario had previously felt apathetic about the event but as he herds these people whilst armed, he remarks about how it feels wrong. The young man playing the migrant miner begins the film talking about how he doesn’t like to engage in political debate or discussion and over the course of the film, becomes more engaged and angry about the specific situation as well as more widely, lashing out at a white man for saying that Mexican migrants had previously “assimilated” to white culture, by reminding the man that Mexicans had been on that land for much longer.

What I was interested in with this film was the extent to which performance allowed a particular engagement with history. We often talk about how film allows an audience to engage with the history because of some kind of experiential connection – we have more of a connection because we can clearly imagine what it would have been like for these people because the film shows us. In Bisbee ‘17 however, the connection for the participants is like a more direct and intense version of this I imagine. They are literally going through what the men of 100 years earlier had gone through (though of course with the full knowledge that they are in a reenactment and their lives are not actually in danger). The fact that it altered the way people thought about their history was really powerful to me. Then I was thinking about the layers with it, in that as a viewing audience we’re somewhat experiencing their experience if that makes any sense. We’re learning about the history of the Deportation through the townspeople learning about it. I’m still not sure exactly how to properly conceptualise or articulate these ideas but I think it was utterly fascinating.

The last film I want to talk about in any detail is Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman, which I am admittedly a bit enamored with. I was really taken with the film in part because of how painfully relevant it felt. Set in the early 1970s in Colorado, the film is the true story of an African-American undercover cop, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who hatches a plan to infiltrate the local chapter of the KKK. With the help of a fellow cop and Jewish man, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who acts as Ron in person with the Klan whilst Ron interacts with them himself over the phone, they successfully gain the trust of the klansman. It’s so successful that he establishes a relationship with the ‘Grand master’ David Duke, a racist, anti-Semitic, politician who’s still spouting his ugly rhetoric today, and gets himself nominated as the new chapter leader. It’s a really funny film but its sense of humour is sometimes a really dark one and a lot of the jokes come from the pointed way that Lee connects this story with our contemporary political climate, aligning the 70s KKK with the Trump campaign and administration as well as pointing out the same apathy from the white characters that no doubt helped in Trump’s election and with white nationalists once again feeling empowered. The Black Liberation movement that appears in the film that our main character Ron has a slightly tense relationship with mirrors the Black Lives Matter movement and it has a real sense of feeling like a contemporary film even though it’s very clearly a period piece.

This idea that we have not learnt from our history or that history is repeating itself (perhaps a theme for this entry) is brutally compounded by the last ten or so minutes of the film in which there is a shift from the KKK burning a cross after Ron’s investigation has been halted by the police department, symbolising that despite Ron’s best efforts, the KKK are still free to do their evil thing, to a documentary montage of footage from the neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville in August 2017. We bear witness to white men chanting “Jews will not replace us” with Nazi paraphernalia, and violent clashes between these men and anti-fascist protesters. We watch Trump claim there were “bad people on both sides,” effectively refusing to denounce Nazis and suggesting that the anti-fascist protesters were just as bad, and Lee pays tribute to Heather Heyer who was murdered on August 12 by a violent car ramming attack on protesters by a white nationalist. It’s a sickening few minutes of film that left the audience I was in at least, in stunned silence.

I’m interested with this film in the way that Lee connects the true story of Ron Stallworth with our contemporary climate, first through humour and then through a brutal reminder that racist violence really is not remotely funny when it’s really happening. Again, perhaps it links a bit with the idea of the visceral experience because for me and for the people around me that I spoke to, the film almost lulled us into a false sense of comfort. We know what’s going on in the film is wrong, the racist tirades from the klansman and the heartbreaking story of a black man’s murder told by an old Harry Belafonte, making a powerful cameo. I imagine that any decent audience understands that all these things are sickening but that tension is broken with the humour and we can take comfort in the fact that it’s history, right? Right up until the last moment where Lee reminds us that it’s really happening now, Nazis think they have power again and people are dying. It feels like being kicked in the guts. It’s confronting and its important. (For some context maybe, here is Spike Lee’s powerful response at Cannes to the idea of the film being relevant to what’s going on in America at the moment and addressing his reasoning for ending the film as he did. Fair warning there is some heavy language).

Again, I don’t really know exactly how to conceptualise any of my feelings and impressions on these films, but they did make an impact on me and got me thinking about my research and different ways in which the relationship of film and history could manifest itself.