“A Special Day”, “ Padre Padrone” and the 1977 Cannes Film Festival

Una Giornata Particolare

The Palme d’Or for Best Film at Cannes in 1977 was fought out between two relatively low-key Italian films, Una Giornata Particolare and Padre Padrone. So it was up to that year’s jury head, the revered Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini, to reach a decision. His verdict proved controversial on two counts. 

Una Giornata Particolare, clumsily translated as A Special Day (though I can’t, I have to confess, think of an improvement), is set on May 6th, 1938 and is particolare for a number of reasons. It was on this day that the Führer arrived in Rome from Nazi Germany to pay an official state visit to his good friend and fellow dictator Mussolini.

The drama unfolds over a single day and takes place entirely in a now empty block of flats, as practically all the residents have flocked to pay tribute to the visiting dignitaries. The only two people left are Sophia Loren, the down-trodden, stay at home mother of six, and Marcello Mastroianni, an urbane and secretly gay radio announcer.

Loren and Mastroianni as they are more traditionally imagined.

It’s particolare for him, because this is the day that he, like so many other gay men in 30s Rome, is due to be exiled to the island of Sardinia. That being the not quite final solution employed by the perennially inept fascists that Italy laboured under. And it’s particolare for her, in that she ends up spending it almost entirely in his company.

Rather like Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, if in a somewhat less operatic manner, what’s so engaging about Ettore Scola’s film is the way he transforms what could have been a drab, kitchen sink drama and elevates it into something else entirely. Rather than undermine the drama, the presence of Italy’s two most glamorous movie stars, playing gloriously against type, lifts the film from what could have been a very grim affair. As does the way the film is shot and so carefully choreographed. The result is not at all what you’d expect given the subject matter. And is all the more moving thereafter.

Padre Padrone.

Padre Padrone, by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, offers a different kind of grim. Set in what feels like another century but is in fact the remote rural mountains of Sardinia in the 1950s, it’s about the effective imprisonment of the young Gavino, who is bound by the centuries-old tradition that he serve his father on the barren family farm. And his determination to somehow escape, which he does ultimately through the portal of education.

But it too is moulded into a surprising form. It begins and ends as if it were a documentary, which, far from giving you any sense of actuality, merely serves to heighten the sense of artifice. As does the fact that, once we embark on the film proper, we are constantly privy to the inner thoughts of the different characters. Including, even, the farm animals that they come into contact with.

One of the great, iconic scenes in Italian cinema, Rossellini’s Rome, Open City.

That regular intrusion of those voice overs, as we eavesdrop on what they are thinking, is used by the Taviani brothers to consciously distance the viewer from what feels otherwise like an intimate portrait of real people living their actual lives. 

You can see what a film maker like Rossellini would have been drawn to in each of these two films. But it’s equally obvious how far film had moved since his hey day, even with films that were dealing with exactly the kinds of topics that he had once been drawn to.

Ultimately, it seems that the presence of two titans like Loren and Mastroianni, and those elaborately orchestrated shots of Scola’s, proved too much for him, and he campaigned vigorously for Padre Padrone, which duly took the prize. The controversy that followed was twofold.

Mastroianni and Scola teamed up again for what is one of the very few films that gets Naples.

On the one hand, the other members of the jury let it be known that they had very much not appreciated his 12-Angry-Men like determination to convert them to his choice – if indeed that waswhat actually happened. And on the other, rather more surprisingly, the Festival committee announced that they too were unhappy with the decision. Their reason though was on the grounds that Padre Padrone was in fact a made for television “film”, and Cannes was a celebration of cinema with a capital C.

They rang Rossellini up a few weeks later to smooth things over, and to invite him on to the following year’s jury. But a week after he returned to Rome, he died of a heart attack.

Truth be told, watching them both today, it’s difficult to say which of the two is the better film. They are both, in their very different ways, wonderful. But ultimately, you would have to side with the rest of the jury. There’s a classicism and balance to Una Giornata Particolare and a universality to its themes which, necessarily, isn’t there for the very particular and specifically local story that Padre Padrone tells.

You can see the trailer for A Special Day here

And the trailer to Padre Padrone here

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Hugh Grant in “A Very English Scandal”

A Very English Scandal.

There’s a wonderfully seductive and darkly comic drama available on the BBC and RTE at the moment which delves into sexual mores and politics in a refreshingly mature manner. A Very English Scandal is a dramatization of the non-fiction book of the same name by John Preston, charting the Jeremy Thorpe affair of the 1970s. 

Very much of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up variety, and, without giving anything away, it’s the story of the leader of the Liberal Party in Britain at a time when there was a real possibility that they might have ended up in government there. 

Inconveniently though, one of his former male, ahem, friends refuses to leave him in peace, and so he decides to take definitive and decidedly drastic action.

Ben Whishaw, left, as Norman Scott, right.

I have to confess, the idea of watching a drama revolving around a forgotten leader of a defunct British political party from the 1970s, and starring Hugh Grant, was about as appealing as, well, watching a drama about a forgotten British politician from the 1970s. And I gave it a wide berth first time around. So I’m really pleased to have caught it this time round as it is, as one of its characters might have put it, an absolute hoot.

There are all sorts of reasons as to why it all works so well. For starters, and very surprisingly, Grant gives a career-defining performance as the brilliant, driven if flawed Thorpe. Then there’s the tone it strikes. Pretty much everyone involved seems to have been some class of an eccentric. But instead of playing this for laughs, showrunner Russell T. Davies and director Stephen Frears play it largely straight. Which, of course, makes it all the more comedic.

Then there are the various subplots which complicate the central plot, broaden the story’s horizons and add layers of enveloping irony. Thorpe’s search for a wife, and then for her replacement. His support, as a staunch Liberal, for the bill to have homosexuality decriminalised. And his rise through the Liberal Party and up the greasy pole of British politics, and the politics of party politics that that creates.

Normal People, lovely view.

The contrast with Normal People couldn’t be starker. The latter takes a two hander, bereft of subplots, and tries forlornly to stretch it out over a never-ending six hours. So it’s forced to paper over the dearth of plot with an over-reliance on familiar and exotic locations.

A Very English Scandal also makes wonderful use of its locations, but they are never anything more than the backdrop to a wonderfully dynamic story that’s constantly building in momentum. And the fact that its events are both true and accurately recounted only makes the series all the more remarkable.

You can see the trailer for A Very English Scandal here.

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A Small Present, Just for You

Good news! This blog is moving into phase 2 of its life. Phase 1 was the slow and methodical building up of the blog from scratch. Phase 2 revolves around my book, which I’m going to be self-publishing this November.

Before I can do that though, I need to move the blog to a new email subscription service.

But don’t worry, you’ll still get your monthly missives, plus the occasional extra bonus material and all the exciting news about the soon to be published book. 

All you have to do is to send me your email address so that I can add your name to the new list.

Send your email address to: anthonyokeeffe6@gmail.com

That’s all! Just one, incredibly brief email, and you’re done.

And once you do, and the list is up and running, I’ll send you this month’s post PLUS an Exclusive Bonus Chapter from the book.

Your bonus chapter, The Death of Socrates describes how he ended up on trial in the first place, and what the likes of Plato and Nietzsche made of his contrary behaviour over the course of that trial.

The important thing is: send me on your email address!

Otherwise, this could be the last that you hear from me. And just imagine what an unmitigated disaster that would be.

So send your address to anthonyokeeffe6@gmail.com and, as ever I shall keep you posted every month, and more!

And thanks for your continued support!

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“Annihilation” and the demise of British film criticism

Annihilation.

Aside from the aborted first attempt at an Irish Film Board in the 1980s, for most of the 20thcentury there was no indigenous film industry in Ireland. So when the Film Board was re-established in 1992, and the economy finally began to take off, the few films that started to get made here were greeted by everyone as miraculous events akin to the moving statues that had preceded them the decade before. 

This was as true of Irish audiences as it was of the film critics who served them. Which was perfectly understandable. But that didn’t make it any less disappointing. Films like Words Upon the Windowpane, 1994, Circle of Friends, ‘95, The Sun, the Moon and the Stars, ‘96, The Last of the High Kings ’96, The Nephew, ’98 and Ordinary Decent Criminal, 2000, were all joyously celebrated and applauded when they should have been quietly lamented and apologised for.

A poster as meticulously crafted as the script they used.

For one thing, it’s hopelessly patronising to the film makers. We don’t laud Dubliners, the Pogues or Brian Friel because they’re Irish, but because they’re good. To encourage audiences to see a film or watch a television series just because it’s Irish is mortifying. It’s criticism sunk by a sense of inferiority, anchored by a cripplingly chipped shoulder. It is, in short, unforgivably parochial.

Which was why, in days gone by, we turned to Britain when we wanted any serous cultural criticism. When The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Times or The Sunday Times reviewed a British film they judged it on its own merit. 

That contrast in innate cultural confidence was all the more striking in the decade that saw Trainspotting and Four Weddings at the cinema, Britpop on the airways and the YBAs take the global art market by storm.

Trainspotting: the British were coming.

But since the turn of the century, the view from across the Irish Sea is of a very different Britain. It’s suddenly become uncharacteristically provincial and insular. Smaller and less interesting. 

That loss of confidence has recently become visible in its film criticism. Dispiritingly, British films have of late been handled by the film critics over there with the same kind of kid gloves that we used to handle our own films with. Annihilation being a case in point.

Annihilation (2018) is Alex Garland’s follow up to Ex Machina, his well–received 2014 screen debut. In the triumphantly positive review that he gave it in The Telegraph here, Tim Robey descried Annihilation as being “exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure”. Whilst Benjamin Lee, in the 4 star review he gave it in the Guardian here, praised it for being “admirably uncompromising… and wonderfully unknowable.”

Ex Machina.

Really. Imagine a group of first year film students after one too many joints on a picnic in Central Park. And they suddenly decide, inevitably, that what they absolutely have to do is to shoot a film on one of their phones, right now! So they stitch together a script for what they think will be an hilarious B movie pastiche, a sort of Ghostbusters meets Alien but with 5, all female protagonists, who are all, get this, scientists!! 

But once they get back to their dorm to edit what they’ve shot, they completely forget that the whole thing was meant to have been a joke, and they all start taking the whole thing terribly seriously. This, alas, is the result.

Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta; happier times. c/o wallup.net

Apart from anything else, it all looks and sounds so unremittingly cheap. What on earth can they have spent the $55m budget on? The effects look like they were done on an earlier version of the phone you replaced your current one with. And the, ahem, science that the misfortunate actresses are asked to spout is of the sort that would once have been found on the back of a matchbox. 

It’s hard to know what’s more disappointing, the film itself or the reviews that it received. Still, no need to write Garland completely off quite yet. Six episodes into Devs, his BBC/Hulu TV series suggest something of a return to form. He just needs to stick to conventional thrillers, and leave the big science to actual scientists. 

You can see the trailer for Annihilation here

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“American Epic” watch, listen and marvel

American Epic

American Epic is an extraordinary window on to the roots from which American music sprang. And it provides therefore the key to understanding all subsequent genres that popular music went on to spawn throughout the course of the 20thcentury. Essentially, it’s in two parts.

The first, American Epic, is the three part documentary series produced by BBC4’s Arena, and the 5 cd box set that that produced. The second is The American Epic Sessions, which is a documentary feature (effectively episode 4 of the series), and the two cd box set that that generated.

Jack White and The American Epic Sessions.

The whole project revolves around the technological revolutions that were going on in sound at the beginning of the 20thcentury, and the cultural waves that those ripples produced. For the first couple of decades, the music industry had been an exclusively middle class enterprise. Phonograph recordings were manufactured so that opera arias, classical music and Broadway show tunes could be played in well to do homes.

But the invention of radio in the 1920s seemed to have dealt a fatal blow to that nascent industry. Anybody with electricity could listen to any amount of music, all day long. So, in desperation, the recording industry sent scouts out into rural America to record the sorts of music that people without electricity – and therefore a radio – would be interested in listening to on their hand-cranked phonographs. 

Charley Patton.

They then went back to headquarters with these stacks of discoveries to fuel the most powerful medium of the day, radio, with the same thing that all media are always in search of; content.

What this did, crucially, was to connect the urban radio listeners and the industry that served them, with an entire country of rural communities that had, up until then, existed in effective isolation. 

In many ways, it was the field recordings that came out of the 1920s that moulded and created a United States of America. And it was these recordings that laid the foundation for what would become the blues, country, bluegrass, soul, RnB, gospel, rock n roll, hip hop and each and every conceivable kind of pop.

The second part, The American Epic Sessions, focuses on the technology that made all of this possible. In 1925, Western Electric made a portable recording apparatus that could be powered by battery. Scouts were quickly sent out to scour the country to record anyone who had a song to sing and wanted to have it memorialised on wax. 

Lead Belly.

Overnight, a host of nationwide stars were born. The Carter family, the Memphis Jug Band (because they used jugs in place of the instruments they couldn’t afford), Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell, Lead Belly, Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson to name but a paltry few.

Depressingly, the US government melted down the vast majority of these 78s in the course of their second WW effort. The shellac that records were made from before the advent of vinyl was needed for the production of camouflage paint. So by the time the folk revival kicked in in the 60s with its celebration of all things Americana, incredibly few 78s were left in existence. And none of Western Electric’s recording pieces had been preserved for posterity.

The Cater sisters.

Until now. Because over the last couple of decades, sound engineer Nick Bergh has managed to get his hands on the individual bits and pieces that the apparatus was made of, to painstakingly reconstruct a single, functioning recording piece. 

And he and programme maker Bernard McMahon decided that the best way to re-master all the original recordings that go to make up American Epic, was to invite current performers to record a song on wax, using the original, recreated Western Electric recording apparatus. That way, they would all gain an unrivalled understanding of exactly how it had functioned. 

So Alabama Shakes, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Nas, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Raphael Saadiq, Rhiannon Giddens, Los Lobos and Ashley Monroe got together with producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett to record an album, which they documented on film. 

Monroe by the way penned one of my favourite lyrics, with her autobiographical Like A Rose, which she wrote with none other than Guy Clark.Ran off with whatshisname when I turned eighteen…” which is quite simply the perfect kiss-off.

Rhiannon Giddens.

Documentary wise, the 3 episode American Epic is the one to watch. The Sessions is basically an added bonus. Conversely, musically speaking, unless you’re an aficionado, you should go for the 2 disc American Epic Sessions, rather than the 5 disc American Epic box set. As the former is that bit more expansive, made up as it is of original as well as traditional songs. Obviously though, if you can, watch and get both.

Taken together, the whole enterprise is nothing short of monumental.

Watch Los Lobos here

And Alabama Shakes here

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

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