Feature Film: The Stuart Hall Project

A revealing documentary about the life of sociologist and cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, some of the major incidents of the second half of the twentieth century, and his impressions of this politically chaotic time

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Ghanian-born, British filmmaker John Akomfrah has dedicated his 27-year career in film to questions pertaining to the identities, rights and the alienation of immigrants, particularly those living in post-colonial Britain. In The Stuart Hall Project he continues his exploration of these issues, with a revealing documentary about the sociologist Stuart Hall. It is a scholarly piece of work, bringing together the life of Stuart Hall, some of the major incidents of the second half of the twentieth century, and his impressions of this politically chaotic time. Akomfrah describes Stuart Hall as “a kind of rock star, a pop icon with brains” – No doubt, Hall, through his involvement in the activist New Left movement and his impact on cultural studies as a theorist and academic, has made a significant contribution to cultural and public life in Britain.

The film combines archive footage of Stuart Hall and various political incidents of the latter half of the twentieth century, ranging from footage of Vietnam, the arrival of the African diaspora to Britain, Jamaica during colonial rule, Cuba, the Cold War, to youth culture and riots across Europe in the 1960s – It is not an arbitrary selection of world events but an indication of how wide-ranging Stuart Hall’s interests and his impact extended. Throughout the film Hall speaks articulately on race and class, and particularly on how physical identifiers affect people’s prejudice towards one another. And thanks to the choice of the filmmaker to cobble this together with the personal life of Hall, we see how the earliest signs of prejudice towards him, as a Jamaican boy “three shades darker” than his family, or as a black student of Oxford in the 1950s, shaped his views throughout his political and academic career.

We hear first-hand depictions of the problems of assimilation in Britain, and how the many Afro-Caribbean and Asian populations felt and were depicted as outsiders within. This contrasts starkly with Hall’s imagining of one’s culture and identity as ever changing and in flux, symptomatic of the globalised world, and yet by the end of the film it is evident from Hall’s language that he regrets that his idealistic vision for a tolerant society has not been realised.

It is interesting that Akomfrah has chosen to make the film at this time, when immigration policy has reentered British politics and public dialogue, reflecting quite closely some of the film’s coverage of the views and support of Enoch Powell, which Hall labels as “a significant minority”. A more recent sound bite has Hall describe this world as “alien” to him as it has ever been – I wonder what he thinks now?

The style of the documentary, while innovative, lacks a real narrative of the life of Stuart Hall. The shift of subject matter roughly follows the timeline of his life but lacks the coherence to give a real indication of the man – I found myself craving either a simple biography or a substantial inquiry into the theoretical implications of his work, the film is neither. That said, it offers an opportunity to delve into the life and work of a man who has influenced the British left so much and yet isn’t a household name to many. This and the excellent carefully chosen score from Miles Davis makes the film well worth a watch.

The Stuart Hall Project is now out on DVD.



Family: Feature Film – Nebraska

Alexander Payne returns with another sensitive portrayal of fractured family life

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As Family Week at Litro draws to a close we take a look at a cinema release that deals with issues of the family. Nebraska is about family, it is about the breakdown of it. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an elderly, gullible father whose mind, often encouraged by drinking, has lost its footing in reality – he absent-mindedly wanders the streets and struggles to remain attentive in conversations. He is married to the strong-willed and outspoken Kate (June Squibb), and has two sons, David  (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Woody has won a million dollars, or so says his fake sweepstakes ticket that he has got in the post, and he must make the 750-mile journey to Nebraska to collect his winnings. David, sensitive to his father’s age and state of health, grants his father this one last wish and they embark on the journey that takes them back to where Woody grew up.

The film becomes a father-son road trip, a sentimental genre, but Nebraska is not a sentimental film. Much like the other Alexander Payne films that deal with broken families (The Descendants, About Schmidt), in place of nostalgia and sentimentality are authenticity and an exposure of characters’ errors and misjudgements that have had long-lasting repercussions. Take David, Woody’s sensitive younger son, whose mother once says that when he was a child people used to think he was a prince made of porcelain. He works a job that does not fulfill him in the least, and has just been left by his girlfriend, after a 2-year relationship, it is suggested because he can’t make a decision about her and their future. His character smacks of a man who lacked and still lacks a positive male role model in his life.

Many children hold onto the belief that their parents are infallible or omnipotent right up until teenage years when they begin to contest their parents’ authority, but for David, this was shattered at the age of 6 when Woody first offers him alcohol. There is no relationship between the two to speak of, the bond they share is more an empathy for each other’s ineptitude at life. The journey is more about David than it is about Woody, and it satisfies his need to express the unsaid things before it is too late, things that Woody is either too incapable or unwilling to hear. Along the way, he meets people from his parents’ past and hears stories that are great revelations to him, either because reticence or alcohol has prevented Woody from speaking out about them.

There is an interesting portrayal here of the generation gap that exists between fathers and sons, whereas Woody lived in a world where men were stiff and solid and suppressed the emotional sides of their lives, David has grown up at a time where men can express themselves more freely. This creates a difficult dynamic between the two. Woody can seem brutish at times, particularly when he has an intimate discussion with David over a few beers; in response to David’s personal questions, he cannot register any intention behind marrying his wife or having children, “I figured if we kept on screwing we’d have a couple of you”. However, there is a sign of tenderness behind Woody’s actions, the admittance that his desperate seeking out of the money is because he wanted to leave his children something. He represents all the ineffective fathers; the drunks, the emotionally distant, the emotionally incapable, the rarely present, those who haven’t grown up, those so wrapped up in their own lives that they forget their duties as a father, or aren’t aware that those duties exist.

The script and humour sometimes tries too hard and some of the scenes between the Grant family and their extended family is slapstick and unbelievable, showing all the stereotypes of the American hick. However, the film draws on what are important themes and explores how the modern American family survives amidst joblessness, religious divides, infidelity, alcoholism and tedium.




Feature Film: Nothing But a Man

A remarkably authentic film from the 1960s about the lives of black people in the American south, receiving its first official release in the UK this week

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It’s a pity that Michael Roemer’s Nothing But A Man has only made it to UK cinemas when, fortunately, racial inequality has improved to a state unrecognisable to when the film was made. Filmed in the early 1960s and set in the American south (although filmed exclusively in New Jersey) the film follows Duff (Ivan Dixon), a young black railroad worker, as he falls in love with a preacher’s daughter, Josie (played by jazz singer, Abbey Lincoln), a girl who all of Duff’s coworkers believe to be out of his league. Duff himself remarks on their differences: “either we gonna hit the hay or we gonna get married. You don’t wanna hit the hay and I don’t wanna get married.”

However, Duff transforms. After a visit to his estranged alcoholic father and to his four-year-old son, who he meets for the first time, he returns to Josie convinced that his mistakes will not be repeated and that his father’s image does not predict his inevitable future. He asks Josie to marry him. At first she is reticent, perhaps because of Duff’s history or because of her family’s vehemence that she reconsiders, but she ignores her family’s wishes and they marry. Duff leaves his independent traveller lifestyle behind him and they find a small house in the town.

Married life proves more difficult than they first imagined, especially when Duff refuses to be a “white man’s nigger”. There is a stark contrast between Duff’s attitude and almost all of the other black people’s attitudes. One can imagine the white bigoted beliefs of the time but it is equally shocking for us now as it is for Duff’s character in the 1960s that the resistance for change was equally apparent in black people as it was for white America. The moderate approach to racism by black people, personified in Reverend Dawson, Josie’s father, was an indication of the fear at the time and how firmly fixed power was in white men’s hands.

Duff’s radical attitude ostracises him from the town. No white employer will hire him because of the reputation of “trouble” that he has acquired, and few black men will befriend him in fear of the association. Duff comments that it’s “just like a lynching – they don’t use a knife on you, but they got other ways”.

Nothing But a Man is a marvelous and realistic depiction of the lives of black men and women at a time when their inferiority was only beginning to be seriously questioned. The film has been said to be Malcolm X’s favourite film, which is especially remarkable as the film was made by two Jewish filmmakers, Michael Roemer and Robert M. Young.

For all of his misbehavior Duff’s principles and his steadfast respect between people of all races shines through in this film and his retort to Josie’s father when his attitude his questioned particularly resonates: “You been stoopin’ for so long you don’t know how to stand up”. What a message this might have been to the sixties civil rights movement in the UK. Nevertheless, it’s as unmissable now as it would’ve been then.




Feature Film: Museum Hours

Jem Cohen’s quiet and contemplative film explores individuality, the subjective experience and the idle mind.

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New York-based director Jem Cohen is best known for his documentaries and visual art often containing candid urban environments with leanings toward the radical and obscure. His latest film, Museum Hours, set in the ashen pallor of a Viennese winter, is a quiet and contemplative drama that explores individuality, the subjective experience and the idle mind.

Johann, a museum attendant, seizes the opportunity to strike up a friendship with Anne, a Canadian visitor who travels to Vienna in support of her distant cousin who is hospitalised and in a coma. Like Johann, Anne lives a solitary life and an unfulfilled one. Cohen’s film allows the audience to observe the temporary moments of companionship between these two and enjoy fragments of their lives told through their eyes.

One of the real delights of this film is the representation of a role where time is not precious. As a museum attendant Johann is invisible to many, he sits or stands for the majority of his time behind the gallery ropes disconnected from the hundreds of people who visit the museum, and excluded from the potential interactions that these bring. Johann’s movements are measured, his voice slow but his mind is permanently active, and it lives out all kinds of realities deeply affected by the paintings that surround him. He imagines the visitors nude, women’s glances, and we see it all too – with him we search the faces of strangers, we desire to learn their stories, to know what they are thinking and to see the world through another’s eyes.

Anne’s experience recalls a solo journey in a foreign place, the contrast of one’s silence against the noise of the city, with her only connection being her comatose cousin who is unable to interact – her cousin is as static and as unattainable as the characters of the paintings that Johann fantasises about daily.

Johann is particularly captivated by the wondrous paintings of Pieter Bruegel, whose busy and animated pictures depict whole villages at play, at worship or at war. Here Cohen deftly connects these paintings with the characters’ lives, and indeed that of the film. In one scene, with Johann looking on, a guide gives her account of Bruegel’s paintings and asks how accurate that depiction is, she concludes that it is the painter looking over his subjects, mixing fantasy with reality, creating “hallucinations of the real”.

The film has no perfect picture postcard shots of Vienna, arguably one of the world’s most beautiful cities, instead we see the industrial sprawl on the city’s outskirts, the homeless and the poor in flea markets, and all Vienna’s traditional beauty enveloped by snow and short dark days. We see Cohen’s Vienna, with all of his predilections and biases built in, just as we see Bruegel’s own view of his world when he painted it. It speaks of the value of individual experience and how subjective our “realities” really are.

We learn from Johann that Vienna is meticulously cleaned every spring so that tourists take home the image that the authorities would like them to see. The film lives by its example, looking deeper than this to find the detail, making its own idiosyncratic impression, just as the guide of Bruegel’s paintings does when delivering a speech to the visitors. She ends it by avoiding justification – “there is no reason we all have to share my opinion”. This is the impression that the viewer takes home, that this is the city according to the director and the world according to its characters, just as our worlds are according to us.




Feature Film: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Werner Herzog’s re-imagining of the German legend of a boy raised in a cellar is re-released and showing in London cinemas this month.

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The most moving of German director Werner Herzog’s films are often his most controversial. Almost 40 years after the release of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser the impact of the film has lost little of its power to shock and to mystify.

Herzog’s reimagining of the 19th century legend of Kaspar Hauser sees a young, almost mute, perhaps retarded man appear early one morning in Nuremberg unannounced and unchaperoned to the confusion of the townsmen and women. We know from the opening scenes of the film that Kaspar had been kept in a chamber isolated from human contact. He has acquired minimal language save one complete phrase, “I want to be a gallant rider, like my father before me”, planted by his captor, who perhaps is his father. Kaspar grunts, he has barely learned to walk and is amazed and sometimes fearful of the most simple of objects and animals. Herzog’s casting of Bruno S., a man found by Herzog working as a toilet attendant, makes the film all the more convincing due to Bruno’s history of speechlessness in his youth brought about by beatings by his prostitute mother.

Some members of the community are reluctant to accept Kaspar but the majority welcome him, although not as an equal but as an outsider, an immigrant who is eventually put to work as a member of a freak show, billed as one of the “four riddles of the spheres” alongside a dwarf, a savage from the new world and an autistic young Mozart.

The tale of Kaspar Hauser has become a regular fixation of German literature and film, appearing numerous times since its first literary rendition in the late 19th century. Before Herzog’s version, the most popular and explicit adaptation came from Jakob Wasserman’s novel Caspar Hauser: the Inertia of the Heart. As a Jew in early 20th century Germany, Wasserman found strong connections to the story of a man living in a community but not fully integrated as a member of it, writing as he was at the time of inequality and stigma of the Jewish people living in Germany. It also coincided with the emerging beliefs of educated men supporting notions of eugenics that spawned out of the newly accepted ideas of Darwinian theory in Western Europe. Evolution, productivity, purpose and genetic determination were the buzzwords of the day; minorities couldn’t be further from either power or mainstream public approval as they were then. It was the Brave New World that Huxley eloquently captured in his novel.

The context of Herzog’s account is almost certainly a trigger for his adaptation. Released in 1974, the film appeared in German cinemas whilst terrorist attacks struck German cities and aimed at German citizens from sources of marginalised communities, predominantly Palestinian liberation groups and Marxist-Leninist armed “urban guerrillas”, and appeared in cinemas worldwide as the farce of the Vietnam war rolled continuously on. Herzog, never shy to criticise German and Western culture, uses the story of Kaspar Hauser as a symbol for what he saw as the unaccepting, intolerant and bullish nature of the West, self assured and convinced of its Alpha Plus status in the world.

More so in Herzog’s rendition of the Kaspar Hauser legend than any other is the imperative for society to look within itself and see where it has gone wrong. Herzog’s Kaspar invites the audience to ponder its existential isolation. Kaspar is not only an outsider but an aspect of us all – he is a riddle that defies logicians, preachers and teachers, and represents Herzog’s attempts to demystify the unknown malaise that afflicted his contemporaries, and can still be applied today in what is arguably a more self-interested world more disengaged with nature than it was then. And wrapped up in Kaspar’s character is a hint of the image of Christ appearing immaculately with unknown origins to question the civilised world and purify its ills.

Herzog released The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser shortly after the 1972 Extremist Act, Radikalenerlass, was passed in Germany – it prevented “radicals” with questionable political persuasions from being hired in public sector jobs. It smacks of the oppression of liberty today, of extradition, detainment without charge, extraordinary rendition, and burqa bans.

Re-released in London this month the film still speaks powerfully to audiences. It appears as Germany has reestablished itself as the European super power and is perceived to be cocksure of itself, bullying smaller members of the EU to adhere to rules crafted because of the general acceptance of German dominance and superiority. The film appears at a time when the West is ever more fearful of outsiders, terrorist threats and emerging political unknowns.

The British Film Institute will be showing a month of Werner Herzog’s films throughout July. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is on a limited re-release nationwide and is currently showing at the BFI.