Tag Archives: British

274 – Citadel

John Smith’s 16-minute short, Citadel, gives voice to the City of London – Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s voice, specifically. Filmed during the first few months of lockdown in 2020, it builds an oppositional portrait of British life under Johnson’s blustery leadership – it’s Boris Johnson vs. the British people, and the City vs. the British people.

But in tying Johnson to the City, it ignores his shockingly unsympathetic stance, for a Tory leader, towards business – summed up succinctly in his overheard comment in June 2018: “Fuck business“. Late on, it depicts the British public as lambs to the slaughter as Johnson decrees they must return to work, but while Smith employs a soundtrack of outdoor construction, the homes he is able to show us are suggestive of the middle class, their inhabitants likely able to work from home.

Still, Smith only has so much to work with, stuck at home as he is, and Citadel is an evocative and concise film, cleverly conceived, shot, and edited. Its simplifications are small in comparison to the pleasures of its imagery, wit and tone. A treat.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

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

269 – Small Axe: Education

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Small Axe ends with what, based on his 2014 profile in the Guardian, we take to be a tale partially inspired by Steve McQueen’s own childhood. In Education, a young dyslexic boy, Kingsley, is transferred to a school for the “educationally subnormal”, a real practice in the 1970s that disproportionately involved black children. The institution to which he’s sent is barely a school, the children left unsupervised by bored teachers and allowed to run riot – but it’s covertly investigated by a group of activists hoping to fight and end the system.

Mike relates to the film, recognising in Kingsley’s mum the same righteous anger and desire to fight for her son that his own mum showed for him as a youngster, and to its evocation of British school life. (It may be set twenty years prior to his school years, but British kids have had to perform London’s Burning on recorders and tambourines since time immemorial.) The aesthetic evokes the era vividly, the visual quality of the images, the shot selections and editing all perfectly emulating the look of Play for Today, the iconic anthology series. And as with the rest of Small Axe, a concise historical struggle within Britain’s wider racist society is effectively rendered complex…

… up to a point. Though the situation and its effects are complex, the characters are mostly fairly one-note, and the film’s ending is rather pat – even a little phony, though it’s forgivable for this series to want to end on a hopeful note. Still, it’s an intelligent, thoughtful film that fits in perfectly amongst the rest of the series, and as we have throughout, we implore you to watch it all.

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

268 – Small Axe: Alex Wheatle

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

The theme of assimilation is given a fascinating twist in Alex Wheatle, the fourth Small Axe film. While Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, in particular, depicted black people’s attempts to assimilate into mainland British culture and life and the racism they faced, the title character here is a young black man brought up in an abusive children’s home, orphaned from his parents, and whose move to Brixton sees him culturally dislocated and having to, in effect, learn to ‘be black’.

Cultural and familial dislocation are connected through Alex. The abandonment by his parents led to his upbringing by the state, amongst white Britons, and when an influential Rastafarian he meets in prison expounds on the importance of education and knowing one’s past, to Alex, he’s speaking just as much about his personal past as about the history of the African disapora. This is the most interesting aspect of Alex Wheatle and we focus on it, but there’s more to discuss, including the continued invocation of music as a kind of life-giving force, how Alex learns to be black and British and the spaces in which that happens, and director Steve McQueen’s expressive formal visual storytelling.

Alex Wheatle elegantly tells a unique and complex story, and we continue to urge you to watch this remarkable series of films in its entirety.

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

267 – Small Axe: Red, White and Blue

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

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.

264 – Small Axe: Lovers Rock

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

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

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

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.

206 – The Gentlemen

206 – The Gentlemen on Apple Podcasts

Guy Ritchie returns to the guns ‘n’ geezers mine with The Gentlemen, a caper with a beautifully dressed and enjoyably playful cast. We discuss his stylish direction, ability to work with actors, the audiences that adore his work, how the film functions as fantasy, and its issues with being casually offensive.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

190 – Sorry We Missed You

Returning to Newcastle after shining his coruscating lens on the inhumanity of the benefits system in I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach now casts his eye on the gig economy and the exploitation of workers in Sorry We Missed You. A struggling dad and husband gets a job as a delivery driver, coerced into handling unfair responsibility and meeting impossible targets, with the stability of his family bearing the brunt of the stress.

José argues that Sorry We Missed You only tells us what we already know; Mike contends that its dramatisation makes it scarily real. We’re in agreement that it’s not especially interesting filmmaking, though, José suggesting that Loach doesn’t trust images to convey what he wants. And José has never enjoyed his depiction of the working class, finding it unrealistic at best, with no joy or love available to his films’ victims, though he agrees – with some relief! – that there is love in the central family here. Although there’s a lot to criticise in his often mechanical filmmaking, we agree that Loach makes meaningful films with which he sincerely wants to make a difference, and that’s admirable to say the least.

If nothing else, Sorry We Missed You inspired Mike to try and do one nice thing for a stranger upon leaving the cinema, and that must mean it’s a work of genius. If, however, you are already someone who does nice things, then you may find it less inspiring, though it is in some respects vital. It won’t do you any harm to wait until it’s shown on telly though.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

188 – Bait

Shot in black and white on a clockwork camera from the 1970s, the hand-development of its 16mm film resulting in scratches and unpredictable changes in exposure, and its soundtrack entirely post-synchronised, Mark Jenkin’s Bait is audiovisually suffused with atmosphere and texture, and not a little dreamlike and weird to boot. It tells the story of Martin, a Cornish fisherman struggling to cope with the upheaval of both his region and his life specifically that results from an influx of middle-class settlers. He’s sold his family’s cottage to a family of outsiders, his brother now uses his fishing boat to take tourists on drunken stag parties, and Martin snarls and growls his way through dealing with these changes.

It’s clear that we’re meant to see Martin as a hero, but he’s tilting at windmills – though perhaps that’s WHY he’s a hero – and José argues that the film is deeply conservative, asking, for instance, why it’s so bad that Martin’s brother adapts to his changing environment by taking tourists on trips. Mike argues that the family of newcomers is too caricatured, so keen is the film for us to see them as invaders who fuck everything up, and thinks about the film’s parochialism in the wider context of Brexit – the unfriendliness to outsiders displayed here speaks to anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the UK; is there a difference between the way the Cornish in Bait feel and the way Brexiters throughout the country feel? Perhaps there’s a tension between the relative power and privilege of the “invaders” and “invaded” that we don’t resolve, but in overly simplistic terms we don’t emerge from the film feeling entirely on its side.

Jenkin’s cinematography and editing beautifully conveys what there is to love about Martin’s way of life, concentrating on manual labour and his close-knit community. José suggests that the film looking the way it does makes it feel as though it’s already an object from the past, with the romance, nostalgia and loss that goes along with it – just as it depicts the decline of its way of life. It also puts us in mind of Italian Neorealism, José bringing up Visconti’s La terra trema, Mike thinking of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and we’re indebted to Mark Fuller for offering a perspective on Bait‘s place within a tradition of similarly claustrophobic coastal dramas, such as Gremillon’s The Lighthouse Keepers, Epstein’s Finis Terrae, Flaherty’s Man of Aran, and Powell’s Edge of the World. Mike also considers the film’s visual and tonal similarity to Aronofsky’s Pi, thinking about how effectively that film places the audience in the main character’s headspace, and suggesting that the visual design here does the same.

Bait is a considerable film, one that speaks deeply to the loss of a certain way of life and the anger and resentment to which that leads. But the film doesn’t appear keen for this resentment to be questioned, and we feel it needs to be.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

185 – Don’t Look Now

Neither of us has ever seen classic British thriller Don’t Look Now before, though we’re keenly aware of the esteem in which it is held. And it’s fair to say that we’re blown away by the expressive visual design and editing style, though Mike at first admits to a certain degree of nonplussedness – a film’s reputation for greatness can often result in a dampened experience when it is finally encountered – but finds that the film quickly opens up as we discuss it.

Don’t Look Now is about grief, and expresses it at a formal level. Donald Sutherland’s character is unable to save his daughter from drowning at a young age, and thereafter, Mike argues, cannot prevent images of her death from flashing into his mind, just as they flash into the film with no warning. His wife, played by Julie Christie, handles her grief differently, and we discuss whether she does so more successfully than her husband – but if there’s something on which we agree, it’s that the film primarily conveys his point of view and experience of his grief rather than hers.

José considers the film’s depiction of Venice, dilapidated, sparse, but still beautiful. We think about the film’s place in the canon, its status as a great horror, comparing it to other British oddities such as Under the Skin and Kill List – is it even right to think of these as horror? And we try to get a handle on some of the motifs used, such as the supernatural element underpinning the husband’s experiences, the red-hooded figure, the elderly sisters, a motif of doubling and replacement, and more, but often having to resort to the anodyne comfort of asserting that this is a film that would benefit from repeated viewing.

However, even after seeing it once, Don’t Look Now captures our imagination and burns its wonderful, imaginative imagery into our minds. If you haven’t seen it, this 4K restoration is doing the rounds as we speak, and it’s how the film should be seen. It images are meaningful and considered. See it in a cinema and it’ll get its hooks into you just as it’s supposed to.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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