SINCE OTAR LEFT (2003)

 

I decided at the end of the U3A year to retire from facilitating the Old Women in Films Group. I found that my energy diminished in sympathy with the attendance.

In the meantime Ealing Oldies Network (EON see June’s blog ) asked me to run occasional film sessions. 15 women and 3 men attended the second film show.
Once again the technology was perfect, and the projector and screen were ready on time.
I had a great feeling of freedom. No longer did I have to worry about the membership or the attendance . I was asked to show a film and chair a discussion. There was implied trust that I would show films worth seeing and nobody objected to my usual decision of not declaring the title in advance.
I chose Bertuccelli’s “ Since Otar Left “(2003).
It needed some background introduction about Georgia and France and about the director. But as is my practice I avoided to make any comment on the content of the film but asked the audience to take note of all aspects the film.
I am always delighted to note how eager people are when invited to share their thoughts and feelings about a film. So different from the usual Questions and Answers of some events. Nearly all the aspects of the film were commented on.

The humour.
The way the music was used.
The way the red colour was used in moments of strong emotions.
The imaginary presence of the main male character in a women’s household.
The range of men’s roles but the focus not on them: the young man with no future, the son gone away, the long suffering partner.
The way the lies of Stalinism go all through the film.

The way the relationships between the three generations of women were conveyed in the first minutes of the film in the cake scene.
How the tensions between the three women were true to life.
The shocking scene of the young daughter confronting her mother in the dasha scene.

I usually expand, explain or reveal some features. A couple of women commented that the grandmother did not react emotionally to the news of the death of her son.
“Surely she had processed the death of Otar beforehand as she did not seem surprised, she must have had doubts at some level”. I pointed out how the cinematography in this case expressed more about her distress than the overacting of usual melodramas.
An interesting example of interpretation differences occurred over the “resilience of grandma when her granddaughter decided to stay in Paris”. Some interpreted it as suggesting that the grandmother was pleased that her son would be replaced. My interpretation would differ. I would have said that she saw in her grand-daughter the continuity of her own love for Paris.
Obviously in a case of this sort, both interpretations are valid as they do not contradict the story or the characters.

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MARVIN’S ROOM (1996): Love and Care

It is the end of the U3A summer term for the U3A Old Women in Film Group.
I had put aside, to consider later, Marvin’s Room (1996) Screenplay by Scott McPherson (1959-1992), based on his own play.

With :
Diane Keaton (Bessie), Meryl Streep (Lee, Bessie’s younger sister), Leonardo Di Caprio (Lee’s son Hank), Hume Cronyn (Marvin, sisters’ father), Gwen Verdon (Marvin’s sister), Robert de Niro (Dr. Wally), Hal Scardino (Charlie)

About :
Multiple family relationships and conflicts, sisters, disturbed youth, terminal illness, bone marrow donors , mental and physical disability, caring and love and more.. There are also farcical, and hilarious interludes.

My first viewing left me puzzled.
I had always resisted the temptation of answering what is it about and who stars in it when asked about a film. I firmly believe that there is no way of summarising a film in a few words and actors can give  good or bad performances. But I needed some help to make sense of the pieces of the puzzle that I could not put together. One sentence kept tugging at my consciousness: At the beginning of the film during a farcical scene at a surgery, Bessie talks to the absent-minded Dr. Wally (de Niro) about her father Marvin
Dad is dying, he’s been dying for about 20 years – He’s doing it really slow so I do not miss anything.
I thought: This is the black humour that only a person who has experienced the complex feelings of watching somebody die would write.
Neither the title sequence with one long travelling shot in closeups of a multitude of medicine containers nor the lyrics of the credits sequences focusing on two sisters’ reconciliation helped me.

I needed to think clearly about the roles of the dying father Marvin and the dotty old Aunt Ruth and consulted the reviewers. A quick search reveals many writings about the very successful play. The New Yorker even reviews a revival of the play in its July 10th – 2017 issue.
There are few critics of the film and they mainly consider the stars’ performances and family relationships.

It is an article by David Richards (Washington Post 05-01-1997) that enlightened me. I think that unless one knows about McPherson’s life, the AIDS epidemic when he wrote the play and later adapted it for the screenplay, it is difficult to interpret the many pieces of the jigsaw that make Marvin’s Room a very interesting film. McPherson died at the age of 33 of the complications of AIDS after years of caring for or being cared for by his companion and lover.
Richards comments: The play’s unique tone, that commingling of deep feeling and black humor, was, he said, merely a consequence of his inability to keep the laughs going. He wrote funny until his energy flagged. Then, he wrote serious.
The screenplay was one of the last pieces he completed, before illness became his full-time occupation and he started referring to himself, jokingly, as a “playwrit.

I will only consider the two old characters. I tend to disagree with Richards when he writes: I don’t know if there’s much to be gained by showing Marvin (a gummy Hume Cronyn), who was an evocative offstage presence — a childish gurgle, really — in the play.

I cannot comment on the play, but I found in Bessie’s care of her father an aspect of caring that is unusual. (She herself has leukaemia and in need of a bone marrow donor. She hopes that her sister Lee or sons Hank or Charlie may be compatible.) Apart from a slight hint of soiled sheets there is not representation of personal intimate care as seen in other films about care like Amour or Chronic . Although Marvin cannot communicate and is helpless lying motionless in bed he shows a capacity for pleasure – mainly sensory pleasures that make him smile in wonder. Bessie understands his needs and provides him with the stimulation of light reflections of a mirror on the room walls and furniture, describes in details the meal she is going to cook for him. She understands that if he puts odd objects in his mouth it is because he likes the way they feel. When she introduces him to his grandson there is an ever subtle hint of a smile on his face and one can imagine that at the end of the film his noiseless mouthing directed at Bessie says ‘I love you, I love you’. Briefly although old Marvin is severely disabled, he is seen as a feeling being.

Auntie Ruth is described by reviewers as silly, spaced out, dotty, eccentric, nearly senile, bemused, funny/sad ailing, has a wacky obsession about watching soap operas. What they do not say is that Verdon gives a wonderfully, touching performance of a likeable, sweet, vulnerable, ineffective beautiful old woman. She shows enormous empathy with people – including TV soaps characters, but cannot cope with the practicalities of life. She may never have been capable of looking after herself. She feels completely lost when she cannot rely on the presence of Bessie. Her inadequacies are very funny and give rise to hilarious, surreal episodes. Her innocence provides the humour in the film but we never laugh at her. Her severe back pain that kept her in bed is cured by electric stimulation of her brain. But the side-effect of this is that the garage door opens when it is activated. Side effect indeed.
In two long sequences of mins 35 and 2mins 22 the interactions of Bessie and Ruth go from the funny to the heartbreaking. In the first Bessie comes back from seeing the doctor having left Ruth to look after Marvin. Ruth has been watching TV and has not given Marvin the pills he has to take at regular times. She gives the excuse that it is because of her brain stimulator but Bessie replies the excuse used to be her back pain. Ruth: Stupid me – I am so useless. She breaks down at the realisation of her own failings but proceeds to tearfully express her fears and anxieties: what if he dies? Bessie reassures her. The mood lightens up when Ruth notices the plaster on Bessie’s arm (blood sampling) and proceeds to offer her useless funny medical advice for her ‘deficiency’. She also volunteers to make soup. Both gestures are gallantly refused by Bessie who knows that they would be more trouble than help.

In the second sequence showing a descent from laughs to tears the scene is a hospital bed where Bessie is recovering from radiotherapy treatment for leukaemia. Ruth tries to suggest to Bessie ways of dealing with being confined to bed. With wonderful facial concentration she comes up with ‘sleep… or… lay awake’. The comic mood continues when she describes how she conceals from Marvin the presence of a nurse in place of his daughter as carer. The skill of the screenwriting and the wonderful acting makes the viewer visualise a surreal hilarious scene. This turns to tragedy when Ruth is told off by Bessie for concealing the truth.Then a crying distressed desperate Ruth asks how else could she explain to Marvin that his little daughter is dying.

In a one minute scene with Ruth, it is the warm relationship between her and Charlie (Lee’s younger son) that is shown. They are sitting face to face and they talk about the TV soap while Charlie is busy putting the last touches of make up on Ruth’s face. She already looks beautiful with a tiara on her white curly short hair, earrings and necklaces.. She looks at her face in the mirror and is delighted what a good job. Lee enters and the beautician in her admires and sees her aunt in a new light: You look beautiful
Ruth: I am not. I am just a silly old woman getting dressed up for a TV show.
Later, a short clip shows young boy and great-aunt enjoying together the drama of a TV soap.

I have only considered the old characters in this piece but the film deserves more attention. I feel it is suffused with McPherson’s sensitivity and compassion:
We all take care of each other, the less sick caring for the more sick… At times, an unbelievably harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love, of caring for one another. By most we are thought of as dying. But as dying becomes a way of life, the meaning of the word blurs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Make Mine Mink (1960) at the Ealing Oldies Network meeting.

I was asked by the Ealing Oldies Network to show them a film and lead the following discussion. EON is a friendship group of old people who meet locally every Monday. It is self organised, people share their knowledge and plan their activities.
I was pleased to be asked but wondered what film I would choose not knowing the members of the group or how many would attend. I felt that I would leave the great classics for later if enough members showed interest in this activity. I was delighted that 12 people turned up for the session, and pleased to see that the technical facility was all sorted out.
I chose Make Mine Mink (1960) taking the risk of some people not appreciating farce.

The following notes were taken by two members:

Most enjoyed it and laughed out loud
A few objected to the sexist stereotypes and some pointed out that men were also stereotyped.
Enjoyed the nostalgia
One person did not, it reminded her of watching similar comedies with her mum and dad and found it very sexist, especially at the beginning, she preferred the later part of the film when the action started
One person noted that the screenwriter Michael Pertwee was the brother of John Pertwee actor in Dr. Who
The old people in the film were bored and came to life when they started their actions, one identified with that feeling and would like to set up a “Spontaneous Action” group (laughs all round)
It was fun, usually there is a lot of negativity about old people, here it was refreshing
The mother next door was made to be a fool

We went on to have further debate about  how , in recent years older woman are having more significant and stronger roles in film. We talked about Judi Dench in the Bond film, Maggie Smith in “The Van”. We also had a discussion on “Iris”, the film about Iris Murdoch and agreed that it did not depict her whole life, her life as a writer and an intellectual was not portrayed, just her early life and her life after dementia. We wondered was this because her husband John Bailey wrote the
book on which the film was made.

It was obvious that the members of EON enjoyed sharing their feelings and thoughts about the film as they expressed that they would like more sessions. I look forward to introducing them to the often neglected ‘classics’ about old people.

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WOMEN AND WAR FILMS.

Delighted by Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest (2016), and intrigued by Sue Harper’s 1996 description of Great Day (1940) as a masterpiece, I attended the BFI for the screening of GD and two ‘shorts ‘ in the British Women and WWII Cinema series.

GD is an interesting feel good film about the Women Institutes during the war. The driving force was the preparation for a visit of Mrs. Roosevelt. My immediate thoughts were to note the unusual representation of the few men, and the absence of war in this war film. I automatically thought of the later (1942) Went The Day Well , its violent images, the active role of women and the brutalising effect of war. GD is certainly worth studying as an all-women film, the spread of actors’s ages, the class element, and Flora Robson presence.
It is worth putting it on the list of older women in films.
I found the two shorts Choose Cheese (1940) and They Also Serve (1940) fascinating. Both were directed by Ruby Grierson. They show such potential in a woman director who is not as well known as her brother and who died tragically at the age of 36 on a torpedoed liner. They Also Serve, shows the daily routine of an older woman going about caring for her household, friends and neighbours. My first thought was “ what a shame that the significant  contribution to society of  the older woman needs a war to be recognised” .
(http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/561579/ )

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TOKYO STORY – film group responses

The film group ‘gut’ responses to Tokyo Story. The general discussion brought out many more subjects and comments. The overall impression was that the film was very relevant to our times.

  • Sadness on the part of the father- just realising what he has lost. Anger with shige
  • and her husband for their ‘carlessness’ of their parents and their offishness.   Noriko is kind to her in-laws and probably did not have a happy marriage. The harshness of the New Tokyo. The opposites of the timescales of the lives of parents and children.
  • Utterly beautiful . So true and universal. Moving and tough -provoking. Unforgettable.
  • The often disconnections of family. Excellent black and white photography.
  • Perfect depitcion of the intricacies of family relationships. Touch of King Lear about it in that the daughter -in-law was the nicest of the children.
  • tradition and modern dress. Figures placed deliberately hierarcally.
  • Lyrical film with great expression of deep emotions both positive and negative, mainly conveyed by facial and body language. The film depitcts real intimacy between Noriko (the daughter-in-law wife of the dead son) and the mother, very tender poignant scenes. The hand of the auteur can’t be missed in the long shots , the sudden insertionf of industrial scnes. The music is western but totally appropriate.
  • Very moving and philosophical on old age, children’s lives and work taking them far away to Tokyo, leaving little time or space (work/own children) for caring for their children. Loneliness all bearable when the older couple had each other.
  • Shows selfishness opposed to duty. Sadly the need for the parents to thank their children for taking care of them.
  • Sad reflection on post industrial societies. The attenuation of family ties. The need to move to the cities for work and the perception that there  no time for the older generation is a sorry thought.

 

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ON FILM STILLS, CLIPS AND REVIEWS

I recently obtained access to an academic library. Having a little time on my hands I decided to explore the subject of the representation of older women in films. The first article I came across is from Feminisms: Diversity, Difference and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film Cultures (2015). Lucy Bolton’s chapter The Intertextual Stardom of Iris: Winslet, Dench, Murdoch, and Alzheimer’s Disease, delighted me. At long last a paper that asks the right questions about a whole film and not an isolated part of it. After a detailed analysis of all the aspects of the film she asks:

At the forefront of this is the matter of whose perspective is being shown and whose voice is being heard. Then there is the question of which elements of the woman’s life are foregrounded – biographical, psychological, or intellectual – and whether the camera’s gaze is a pathologizing one. Iris grimly illustrates how a star persona can be hijacked by a social concern or cultural preoccupation.

Things have changed while I was not looking. When I started being interested in the representation of old women in films the research literature was sparse. Some images and scenes were used to illustrate an argument or confirm a film theory, and there were generalised statistics about old women stereotypes.
Although Bolton addresses a specific film about a writer and philosopher and celebrity actors, the questions she asks can be applied to all films featuring an old woman. Had we had these questions in mind, I think that our discussions in the film group would have been much richer.
Notes on a Scandal
I remember clearly coming out of seeing the very popular and well reviewed Notes on a Scandal feeling disturbed by its sexism and ageism. A member of the film group was also there. She said “I loved it”. I retorted “don’t you think it was ageist?” Her reply is one that I often hear : “but there are people like that”. I did not write about Notes on a Scandal but referred to Daphna Baram in the Guardian who expressed my feelings better than I could.

When the members of the film group worked on the paper British Films 1997-2006 we all found The Mother and Notes on a Scandal profoundly misogynistic and ageist. But we differed on Iris. Some women thought that the very good exposition of Alzheimers disease was all the more tragic affecting a writer and thinker. Other women thought that the film contrasted the young Iris Murdoch with the old Iris without stressing her life as a writer and philosopher.

I think that Bolton’s questions applied to the highly popular films featuring an old woman: The Mother, Iris, Cloud Nine, MidAugust Lunch, Le Week End, would give us more understanding of ageing and ageism issues than the adulating reviews about the old woman ‘still doing it’ of The Mother and Cloud Nine.

A film image, clip, sequence isolated from its context can support a variety of contradicting arguments. Reviews, often sexist, prime us to look for the features described and we dismiss important elements of the film. To be critical of the representation of old women in film it is most important for old women viewers to ask:

– whose perspective is being shown and whose voice is being heard?
– which elements of old women lives are foregrounded
– what do the mise-en-scene, the camera gaze, the dialogue, the music express?
– what do the critics and reviewers say.

– Does the film challenge or collude with the general sexism/ageism of the industry? 

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Grief and Guilt -The Straight Story and Manchester by the Sea

Again a brief post that does not deal with the representation of old women in feature films but since I wrote about The Straight Story (1999) 5 years ago  I will consider Manchester by the Sea (2016).

I find I have no time at the moment to analyse these two remarkable films and compare and contrast them. I remarked on my blog about Chronic how the back story of the main protagonist is redundant, irrelevant and manipulative. The two films above demonstrate how good directors, Lynch and Lonergan use the same back story to produce great films.

In both we have a man who lives with the grief and guilt of having been responsible for the death of own grandchild /children.  In SS the man is old and terminally ill, disabled by age and lives with his daughter whose children are in care. In MBS the man is young estranged from his wife. In both films the natural environment beautifully filmed is part of the story. In both films the reason for the tragedy is the abuse of alcohol  by the grandfather (and or his brother  – here there is ambiguity in the Lynch film)  and in  MBS alcohol and drugs. In both films children die in a burning house and this is of extreme visual emotional power.

What interest me is the differences between the two films:

1-  The way the memory of the burning house is expressed in the two films:  Lynch deals with the loss of control and powerlessness that the grandfather felt, while flashbacks take us to the father looking at the actual event in MBS.  They deserve detailed analysis.

2- The differences between the young man and the old man of lived grief and guilt about a past tragic event.

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