Author Archives: michaeljglass

267 – Small Axe: Red, White and Blue

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Another Steve McQueen rendition of a true story, Red, White and Blue examines institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police, as did Mangrove – but from the inside. Leroy Logan, a research scientist, applies to the police with the express intention of combating its attitude and behaviour towards black people, in part because of his father’s own abuse at their hands.

The theme of black British identity runs throughout Small Axe, and here it’s intriguingly augmented by imagery of the Queen; we discuss how it can be interpreted, including as a symbol of the common nationality the Windrush generation ostensibly shares with British-born white people, and a painful reminder of the fact that that shared identity is not truly embodied, and also as an icon of the establishment Leroy hopes to disrupt and improve. We also concentrate on Leroy’s relationship with his father, which frames the entire film, and how their attitudes, experiences and understanding of each other intersect.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

266 – Mank

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José hasn’t seen a worse film from David Fincher than Mank, a contentious biopic of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter whose collaboration with Orson Welles resulted in The Greatest Film of All Time™, Citizen Kane. Mike had rather a good time, despite seeing numerous problems with the film, raising the question: How much background knowledge is the right amount for enjoying Mank?

Mank doesn’t even explain, for instance, that the film Mankiewicz and Welles would create is considered one of history’s greatest, so some knowledge of the subject is clearly necessary; too much, though, and its missed opportunities and purposeful alterations to and adaptations of the facts become evident and impossible to ignore. Mike finds that he’s just ignorant – or is that informed – enough to understand the film’s background and setting without going crazy, as José does, as it clashes with his knowledge of the history.

We discuss Mank‘s obvious inspiration in Pauline Kael’s discredited essay, Raising Kane, which argued that Mankiewicz deserved sole credit for Kane‘s screenplay; its flashback structure that shows us where the screenplay came from and why Mankiewicz is the only person who could have written it; its depiction of Hollywood in the 30s (not to mention Mankiewicz in HIS 30s); the parallels that it draws with Hollywood and, more generally, the state of the world today, and more. Almost every criticism José makes, Mike agrees with – but he cannot and will not deny that he had a good time, finding the film witty and energetic where José felt it musty and lethargic. It’s a poor showing from a filmmaker with a largely exceptional oeuvre – unless you’re in that Goldilocks zone with Mike.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

265 – The Palm Beach Story

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Do English people get Preston Sturges? Is his work all it’s cracked up to be? These questions are on the table as we tackle The Palm Beach Story, a film Mike’s twice been encouraged to see by Canadians, and twice found infuriating and tiresome. José’s a fan, and we discuss the differences in our responses to the film, the pleasures that can be found within it, and how Sturges gives comically sensitive voice to the strong, silent American male, with several helpful interjections from Celia, friend of the podcast and the first Canadian who told Mike he just doesn’t get it.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

264 – Small Axe: Lovers Rock

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Small Axe continues with Lovers Rock, a stunning musical set in a house party in the 1980s. Hit follows hit on the soundtrack, and José in particular is blown away by how Steve McQueen’s camera observes its euphoric subjects, concentrating on specific body parts, taking as much time as it likes to explore the mood, the resulting experience as sensuous as any we can recall. We discuss the cross-national identity the partygoers occupy, the Christian symbolism conspicuously on display, the open-ended narrative structure, and more, but always returning to the bold and brilliant dancefloor sequences. A masterpiece.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

263 – Small Axe: Mangrove

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Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s remarkable anthology of five films made for the BBC, begins with Mangrove, a dramatisation of the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine, a key event in British history in which the institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police was successfully litigated by members of the black community in Notting Hill. While it is undoubtedly key, it’s an event with which neither Mike nor José is familiar, and the film embodies the BBC’s iconic mission statement of “inform, educate, entertain”, doing all three wonderfully.

We discuss the way in which Mangrove both fits into and demonstrates an evolution of McQueen’s filmmaking – it’s as powerful and subtly impassioned as any of his previous work, but, perhaps owing to the medium for which it is made, unusually accessible, less keen to make the audience seek its depths for itself. The long-term implications of the trial in raising the nation’s consciousness about institutional racism are clear to the characters, and they’re not shy about discussing them, indulging in justified and welcome exposition. Mike discusses the differences between the characters, particularly Frank Crichlow, the owner of the titular restaurant, and Darcus Howe, an intellectual who is introduced to us as such, how they play off each other, and particularly the way in which Howe persuades Crichlow of his central place in the West Indian immigrant community and their fight to address the racism they face from the police. And José picks up on McQueen’s style and visual expressiveness, confidently holding some shots for a long time, and carefully composing others with considerations of framing and colour to create striking imagery.

Mangrove is the first of an extraordinary series of films about black British history and the experience of West Indian immigrants and their children in the 1970s and 80s, and our podcasts on the others will follow. They’re on iPlayer and unmissable.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

262 – A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

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You find us in reflective mood, as we reflect upon a reflective Swedish comedy, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Hopping between vignettes, Andersson’s dispassionate camera sits in corners of rooms, its wide angle lens taking in everything on display from wall to wall, as often absurd and sometimes unsettling action slowly unfolds. The final film in Andersson’s “Living” trilogy (2000-2014), it asks, “what are we doing?”; and, as José points out, in one especially disturbing scene, “what have we done?”

José delights in its sense of humour, the film offering deadpan responses to surreal events; while it’s also up Mike’s street, the film’s studied slowness begins to grate on him, and when it loses him after an initial flourish of spontaneous and unpredictable oddness, it fails to win him back. We discuss its origins, its title inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow; its focus on life’s less fortunate, and how we interpret their behaviour; moments of stillness that eschew the opportunity for jokes; and its historical references, to World War II, to the brutality of white, and particularly British, imperial history, and to elements of Swedish history that our primitive knowledge of the country keeps us from properly accessing.

Our instinctive responses disagree, but perhaps mostly because of the difference in how comfortably we matched the film’s mood. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is an undeniably well-made, carefully considered and original work of individual expression and curiosity, and one that inspires boundless questions and interpretations of its own.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

261 – The City Without Jews

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1924’s The City Without Jews, an Austrian silent film adapted from Hugo Bettauer’s enormously successful novel of the same name, published two years earlier, imagines a European city undergoing hyperinflation and mass unemployment, blaming the Jews for its problems, and expelling them. Unthinkable! Needless to say, it both drew on and prefigured actual events, but some of the imagery is chillingly evocative of what was yet to occur, including the Chancellor’s proud address from a balcony to the ecstatic crowds below, and the entire depiction of the Jews’ eviction, from being kicked out of their homes to the trains that remove them from the city.

Despite its historical interest, the stories that surround it, including the murder of Bettauer by a Nazi less than a year after its release, and its obvious and depressing relevance 100 years on, The City Without Jews is not a great film, its story and world feeling somewhat poorly thought-out, and its ending rather pat, perhaps the result of the significant changes made in adaptation that led to Bettauer falling out with the director, Hans Karl Breslauer. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking film, and worth watching.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

260 – The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

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The winner of the 1971 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis tells an aching story of doomed love within a wealthy Jewish community in Fascist Italy. The 1938 racial laws, enforcing the segregation of Italian Jews, have just been introduced, but the titular family’s titular garden offers insulation from the rising tide of fascism – for a while.

Mike finds the film’s love triangle somewhat banal, but is impressed with the subtly observed way in which the central characters allow themselves to remain comfortably ignorant of the increasingly hostile and dangerous Italy beyond their walls; comparisons to frogs in saucepans abound, not to mention the present-day normalisation of absurd corruption and violence in the Greatest Country in the World™. José is more keen on the romance, but still, the film’s sociopolitical side remains our focus. We consider the film’s use of physical space, the ways in which the Jewish characters can navigate it without being suspected by the racist public, but find themselves eager to retreat to safety as the film develops. We note that The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was made 25 years after the end of the Second World War, but 50 years prior to today: it’s now conspicuously an historical artefact that speaks to the time in which it was made, and whose proximity to the horrors it dramatises is necessary to keep in mind. And Mike reflects on his relationship with his Jewishness in this day and age, and how the film demonstrates that whatever divisions we may find among ourselves, to those who hate us, there’s no distinction.

It’s also Bonfire Night – well, the day after, but it’s a Friday evening so the festivities continue – and we celebrate by closing the window and trying to ignore the fireworks going off outside.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

259 – Love Me Tonight

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We’re enraptured by a musical neither of has seen before, 1932’s Love Me Tonight, starring Maurice Chevalier as a charming and roguish Parisian tailor, and Jeanette MacDonald as a princess he falls for. Its soundtrack is peppered with Rodgers and Hart classics, and its stunning audiovisual design is endlessly experimental, expressive and exciting. In amongst our swooning over the film’s many pleasures, we find time to discuss the careers of Chevalier and director Rouben Mamoulian, discuss what makes it a uniquely American form of fairytale, and examine the fascinating censorship and production records made available on Kino Lorber’s special edition Blu-Ray.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

258 – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

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Fourteen years have passed since Sacha Baron Cohen’s first tour of the USA as Borat, his friendly, clueless, and decidedly un-PC Kazakh journalist. Borat gave his unwitting participants, real people who didn’t know that he was a character, space and encouragement to display their bigotry, sexism, racism, and stupidity – now he’s back to do it again, in a world in which bigotry, sexism, racism and stupidity are no longer deemed necessary to hide.

Sexism in particular is this film’s bedrock, the film introducing a daughter, Tutar, who Borat didn’t know about, and when she stows away on her father’s trip, he decides to offer her to Mike Pence as a token of Kazakhstan’s friendship. Women are chattel, and the only objection raised when Borat decides to give the fifteen-year-old Tutar breast implants is that he can’t afford them. Women’s role as playthings for men, and the society that refuses to allow them control over their bodies, shape almost every scene, including a debutante ball, a conversation with a Christian doctor, and of course, THAT scene with Rudy Giuliani.

We also discuss the question of the reality of what we’re seeing and how the film’s camerawork and editing fails to convince us of it, how comedy has changed in the last decade and a half, and how the film unexpectedly gives its unwitting participants the opportunity to be tolerant and welcoming. And we each share memories of our grandmothers.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.