thequeensguardspowell
Contributor

Rediscovering Michael Powell’s The Queen’s Guards

We here at Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second are really excited to introduce a new contributor to our ranks. Yusef Sayed takes a rare look at Michael Powell’s until-recently-thought-lost The Queen’s Guards, the filmmaker’s follow-up to Peeping Tom. For Hope Lies the relationship between this particular film and the site goes back some way, and now we are finally able to cover it in great detail.

In January, the BFI screened Michael Powell’s rarely seen film The Queen’s Guards (1961). Shot following the completion of the notorious, and now lauded, Peeping Tom (1960) Powell was given privileged access to the Queen’s Brigade of Guards, and filmed the Trooping the Colour ceremony in June 1960. However, then as now, the film provoked little interest and was once famously criticised by Powell himself.

The commonly held view among Powell fans, concerning the film’s reception, is that Peeping Tom had effectively ended Powell’s career by the time of the film’s release. But the production of the film, its initial reception and Powell’s own feelings toward it are not so clear cut, and the mixed sense of pride and frustration, the latter arising in large part from the hiccups that reportedly permeated the film’s production, seems to underscore its narrative.

Looking at the chronology, The Queen’s Guards was in production before the media outcry and industry backlash against Peeping Tom had fully developed. Powell was given permission to film the Horse Guards and he was evidently proud of this association, as well as his own past in the armed forces. In the autobiographical book, Million Dollar Movie, Powell writes: ‘I will never let it be forgotten that I was an honorary sergeant, attached to the First Sussex Yeomanry, in the 1914 War.’ At the outset, then, Powell was hardly out of favour – the fallout from Peeping Tom would follow later – or disinterested in the subject matter. In a thought-provoking write-up for a screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art in 1980, William K Everson judges that the film mourns the passing of tradition, at a time when other British films were actively rebelling against such tradition [1]. Others saw it more simply, considering the film to be outdated even at the time of its release.

In his introduction to the BFI screening Ian Christie referred to The Queen’s Guards as one of the first post-Suez films. Drawing on Everson’s notes, he commented that the film had an imperial melancholy. The mood evoked by the film was also likened, after Everson, to John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), an imaginative leap to make since the film seems incontrovertibly British, but one which becomes somewhat logical when bearing in mind the portrait of Tom Doniphon that is guarded by Ransom Stoddard in a manner reminiscent of David Fellowes’ reputation in Powell’s film. The film is visually reminiscent of Ford’s The Long Gray Line (1955) [2], a film of life in the military also told in flashbacks, but which is closer to Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939) in its warming, familial spirit, than it is to The Queen’s Guards. Ford’s film frames the military recruits similarly – in their uniform, geometric splendour – but it actually seems closer to Powell’s earlier The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); the focus on the aging of their protagonists and their place in society superseding the uncertainties about the honour of a life in the forces.

The photography of the film has given rise to some confusion; it was reported in the press as being shot in Technirama (and there are production photographs that clearly show special cameras being used) though the film was ultimately released as a CinemaScope picture. The recollections of at least one member of the crew, third assistant director Michael Klaw, suggests that the film was shot in Super Technirama 35mm in its entirety. In an online forum thread regarding the film, Klaw comments:

Most important-the film was entirely shot in Super Technirama but using 35mm stock.-THAT IS A FACT-I was there!” [3]

It is worthwhile to read Klaw’s full recollections of this production, for the insights it provides concerning the Super Technirama process, and the issues with casting, equipment and the weather, particularly during a shoot in Rye, during the film’s production. Interestingly, Klaw points out that even he has not seen the film, which was shown on television once in 1974 in a pan-and-scan version. In any case, the colour photography is thick and rich, dazzling in parts, even when perfectly capturing a grey, rain-soaked morning in London. Klaw also recalls that there were endless script amendments that he feels served only to confuse the final work:

The film was a mess for the simple reason that the script was virtually re-written EVERY DAY!! It started off as normal script – albeit much thicker (about 1 inch) than the film scripts I was used to working with.Then as the days went by the script changes & amendments started to appear – each one colour coded – pink, blue, green etc & at the end my script had more than over doubled in size! Each morning there was a meeting on the stage at Shepperton to decide what we were shooing that day – bits of the original, bits of the pink pages, ditto for the other colours – often we had no idea what the hell we were shooting!!! And that is why, in the film there are lots of loose ends etc!” [4]

Powell referred to the film in his memoirs as the most inept piece of filmmaking that he had ever produced or directed, but we should also be aware that during the increased critical interest shown towards Powell and Pressburger’s work beginning in 1970, helped by a retrospective in London recounted by Ian Christie before the screening in January, the pair were sceptical of the quality of what is now considered some of their finest work. Just as uncertainty regarding the direction a film should take, or the message it might want to deliver, can cause a film to be confused, it can also lend a sense of ambiguity that is perfectly suited to the film’s themes. This is one of the aspects that makes The Queen’s Guards interesting today.

The idea for the film was Simon Harcourt-Smith’s and Powell was quickly taken by it. The story focuses on the Fellowes family. Captain Fellowes (Raymond Massey) and Mrs Fellowes (Ursula Jeans) have lost their son David, a soldier in the Guards, in an overseas operation. David’s younger brother John (Daniel Massey) feels that he must honour the family tradition and follow in his late brother’s footsteps, by joining the Guards. However, each member of the family is riven by conflicting emotions. John is uncertain whether he wants to walk in his brother’s shoes, but realises that he is under pressure to please his father. Captain Fellowes is outwardly proud of David’s service and seems to show little regard for John, yet he is troubled by the knowledge that David died dishonourably, after having killed an unarmed prisoner. Mrs Fellowes deludes herself that David is still alive and only ‘missing’. Raymond Massey and Daniel Massey were not overly keen on playing father and son onscreen. Indeed, there is a blurring of documentary and fictional elements throughout the whole film, which this real-life family relationship adds to.

The film begins on the morning of the Trooping the Colour parade, during which John Fellowes’s story of joining the Guards and serving with them, as well as his familial conflicts, is recounted in a series of flashbacks. The film is full of playful banter and fisticuffs among the young soldiers, the type of behaviour typically found in any boarding school drama. Enemies to begin with, in the barracks and on the romantic playing field, John eventually befriends Henry Wynne-Walton (Robert Stevens, playing a character who is presumably part of the extended family tree of the Wynne family, along with Roger Livesey’s Clive Wynne-Candy, from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) and the two serve together in North Africa, in a mission to rescue kidnapped leader, Abu Sidbar from rebel leader Farinda.

Several contemporary critics, writing at the time of the film’s release seem to think the film somewhat off the mark, expressly with respect to what they saw as its supposed intentions: to show the Guards in all their glory, whether honouring a tradition for Her Majesty at home, or fighting in her name in tough conflicts abroad. While the action abroad may have been intended to show the soldiers at their best, the central significance that it plays seems to be twofold: to try to resolve a conflict within John Fellowes and to draw out a central metaphor – that of actions being directed, and of being governed by external demands. John’s visit to a military cemetery abroad at the end of the film also affords a crucial mirror image to a shot that opens the film, a shot of the parade ground seen through an arch, on the other side of which a memorial is visible. Rather than unravel a rousing tribute to the Guards, the film reflects the way in which traditions direct and constrain our action; while we feel it is important to honour traditions, both familial and national, we often mask the sense of failure, as well as the losses of individual conscience that result.

The emphasis given to the Captain’s bizarre, overhead trolley rail system, which he uses to move around his house, uncomfortably, in place of a wheelchair, also suggests an eerie comment on a person’s actions being determined by external barriers and guidelines, or at least stubbornness to appear upright and proud in the face of any setback. The image of the Captain ascending the stairs to David and John’s room, from where he hopes he will see the parade, is unnerving. John, too, is obviously troubled by the feeling that he needs to fulfil a role and stick to a tradition, stay within set codes of conduct – leading to the uncertain feelings about following in his brother’s footsteps, which culminates in letting an unarmed prisoner go at the end of the film. A recurring image of the soldier as a doll, or figurine, seems to fit in with this negation of individuality, freedom and conscience. While it has been typical to refer to the Guards lovingly as ‘toy soldiers’, the image of a doll is always suited to convey dehumanisation or automatism. It suggests the ‘only a pawn in their game’ criticism of the soldier.

This connects with the more general idea of an individual being identified only by their role in society, whether as a soldier or a gentleman (there is a scene in which a great deal is made of Henry and John dressing up in suits and bowler hats to take two girls – they eventually end up at a beat club, in what is a fairly pointless scene). You are what you appear to be, what role you take. The importance of outward appearance is also emphasised in the scenes with the father of John’s girlfriend, Ruth, who has little desire to change his outward, working class outfits to impress John. Indeed the class tension is evident during these scenes and it is handled well – another opportunity to dig into Her Majesty’s troops while also lending the opportunity to level the ground between the classes. Interestingly, there is also a scene in which John tries to guide Ruth’s father while he is backing up his truck, causing him to strike a post, thus bringing this theme of unhelpful guidance and sticking within boundaries into play again. This echoes the way in which Captain Fellowes directs his sons, and extends the comparison drawn out between John and his father throughout the film (both suffer from back pain, for instance). And as we are shown repeated overhead shots of battle plans and the trooping of the colour throughout the film, the emphasis on direction and order is drilled in.

What is particularly intriguing is that this work, made by one of the UK’s most esteemed directors, could have completely vanished from film culture, given scant attention at the time of its release and almost never mentioned in subsequent years. There is evidently no problem with the condition of the print in the BFI archive and, though outwardly old-fashioned in some respects, it draws out the conflict between adhering to tradition and the losses that this inevitably brings about, as well as the constraints it places upon personal volition, a theme that is certainly still relevant.

But time has already vindicated Peeping Tom and will surely do the same for The Queen’s Guards.” [5]

Yusef Sayed is a freelance writer and proofreader, based in Lincoln. He has contributed articles to The Wire, Little White Lies and Film International and programmed community film screenings. Current research interests include intertextuality and the films of Mai Zetterling.

Notes
[1] This program note can be found online: http://www.mip.berkeley.edu/cinefiles/DocDetail?docId=22862
[2] I am thankful to Brad Stevens for drawing my attention to this.
[3] Michael Klaw’s comments taken from: http://www.powell-pressburger.org/Reviews/61_Queens/Memories.html
[4] Klaw, ibid.
[5] Everson, ibid.

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Contributor

Eastern Premise #51 – Umarete wa mita keredo lit (I Was Born But…)

This week Jason Julier introduces Ozu to Eastern Premise, with an early silent, I Was Born, But….

Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo lit otherwise known as I Was Born, But… is an early silent film from Yasujiro Ozu. Filmed in late 1931 until early 1932, it represents one of his most beloved works and a film he would remake in 1959 as the enjoyable but admittedly inferior Ohayo (Good Morning). Conveniently the excellent BFI Ozu blu ray series, offers both films in a single dual format release.  Only Good Morning is in high definition however, as sections of I Was Born, But… are scratched and damaged but remain entirely watchable.

This edition of Eastern Premise marks the debut of Yasujiro Ozu, rated by some as the greatest ever film director. Unlike many of his contemporaries that I’ve already covered, Ozu prefers to depict the daily lives of the Japanese middle-class. The harsh realities of street life and prostitution that have formed common themes in Eastern Premise to date are nowhere to be seen. Instead in I Was Born But… we have the typical family unit with the husband as the sole breadwinner and a company ‘yes’ man. Ozu wanted to make a film about children, but the initial light hearted feeling changes midway to a more pessimistic outlook, switching attention to the adults in the story.

The change in social class brings new dynamics to proceedings. The lives of the middle-class here are tranquil and without threat of starvation or where the next wage packet will come from. Instead the social circle consists of playing tennis, enjoying films and relaxing in spacious homes. Ozu tended to focus only on a handful of topics, identifiable to us all, even today, which imbeds his films with a timeless and universal quality.

Clearly by 1931 Ozu was an extremely confident and capable director. This is evident from I Was Born, But… where he even manages to coax exceptional performances out of the most disruptive, volatile and challenging of resources, i.e. children. The cast and events of the film are dominated by children of a young age. Perhaps it’s just me, but whenever I watch this film I think of Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, where the children have adult sensibilities and their own persona. Underneath such an exterior they are kids and can call upon this defense mechanism when required. A perfect example in I Was Born, But… comes when the father punishes his oldest son, Ryoichi. Clearly knowing that his time is up, the youngest son (Keiji) considers his options before embracing tears, like his beaten brother. It’s one of my favourite moments from the film, an enticing mix of humour, emotion and violence and at the same time, a touch of relief.

We join the Yoshii family as they are making the move out towards a Tokyo suburb. It soon transpires that this move not only offers the opportunity for the two sons to have more freedom, but also (much to the delight of office gossip) means Yoshii’s boss will be a neighbour. Already evident is the pressure from both parents for their sons to excel at school and receive top grades; a trend that continues today. Beneath the confident exterior of Yoshii, we realise through the course of the film that he is unhappy in his job and feels (as many of us do) that his promise and talent remain unfulfilled. This aspect highlights the universal quality of Ozu’s films, as we all can look back on our youth, and at times feel disappointed by how our life has panned out. This regret is turned towards his offspring who must not repeat the same mistakes.

Both of Yoshii’s sons are excellent and deliver charismatic and engaging performances. At times the duo is capable of widespread mischief and a range of facial emotions necessary in the silent medium. They generally run amok and have little to worry about, yet feel threatened by the school bully, which in turn forces both boys into truancy and potentially their future in society. This prompts a series of confrontations with the bully, his gang and ultimately their own father who is seen to display qualities that disappoint both his two sons. For both lads it is a wakeup call that life will continue to be unfair, even after school.  

The original running time of I Was Born, But… was 100 minutes but this was cut and the version we have today clocks in at 86 minutes. This is typical of many releases in Japan where studios and censors played an important part in a theatrical release. The initial release was actually delayed for two months by the Shochiku Kamata Studio, as by all accounts the dark subject matter was not expected. As I suggested in Eastern Premise 48 with Kurutta Ippeji (A Page of Madness), we have to be thankful for what little Japanese silent films remain in existence.

For this release the BFI commissioned a new score by Ed Hughes. This works well and doesn’t interfere with onscreen events, although the option to watch the film without any accompaniment is available. Such a move allows you to appreciate the trademark Ozu transitions, camera angles, lack of movement and why Ozu resisted the temptation to embrace the dawn of sound. Preferring to carry on with the silent medium almost 6 years after other directors had embraced sound technology; it was partially helped by the Japanese benshi. Ultimately Ozu did change tact but it wasn’t until 1936 that his first talkie arrived in the form of The Only Son.

The BFI release offers the ability to compare both films from an influential director at the dawn and sunset of his career. Apart from the informative booklet, there are no extras to be found which given the status of Ozu I find disappointing. It is a consistent trend that the BFI has kept throughout their Ozu series. Even today, the films do speak for themselves, although a little more background or educational introduction would have been appreciated.

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In Defence Of...

In Defence Of… Point Break

Damon Carter returns with his continuing adventures of the In-Defence Of kind. In this instalment Damon takes a look at Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break.

 “The plot of Point Blank invites parody” Roger Ebert – Chicago Sun Times

That invitation was taken up directly by Messrs Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the 2007 hit Hot Fuzz. In the same way that Shaun Of The Dead was championing a love for the silliness of zombie movies, Hot Fuzz was championing a love for the silliness of action movies and Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break lead the way.

Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is the rookie FBI agent who is immediately assigned to bring down a group of bank robbers called the ex-presidents. His partner is Pappas (Gary Busey) who has an outlandish theory that the ex presidents are surfers. Is he right? Well, obviously, otherwise the film would have been called Point Less.

This leads Utah to going undercover where he eventually meets the enigmatic Bodhi (Swayze), his gang and falls for the beauty of Tyler (Lori Petty) who introduces him to the thrill of surfing. From there Utah wrestles with being an undercover cop whilst juggling his admiration for the gang and the girl. It doesn’t take a script doctor to work out where the plot might be heading and according to Roger Ebert it wouldn’t look out of place in David Zucker’s The Naked Gun.

The key here is in characters interplay and action set pieces. Utah would be the genesis for a lot of Keanu Reeves best characters. He doesn’t say too much and thinking isn’t at the forefront of his brain. The rookie is a standard choice for him and one that works. Busey plays Pappas with a character that we have seen done a dozen times before and he is a very likable presence, he also manages several comedy moments with my particular favourite being when he improvises not knowing Utah in front of Bodhi. One of the films strengths lies in Swayze’s ability to be able to charm the audience into liking him and therefore almost looking past his crimes. Swayze has not had the best material to work with over the years and this was the first sense of him playing against type by playing the villain. He is enigmatic and draws everyone in including Utah who finds it unable to shoot him in the famously iconic scene where he decides to shoot at birds and Boeing 747’s. Up until that moment we are treated to a thrilling foot chase through houses, gardens, over walls and throwing dogs (yes that does happen) all adding up to preposterously gripping entertainment.

The two skydiving set pieces are also wonderfully staged if ridiculously over the top. Would Utah not have been better off just trying to land the plane as opposed to leaping without a parachute on the off chance he can catch Bodhi? But this is an action film and realism doesn’t always have to be at the forefront of characters motivations. Every action film is equipped with ludicrous set pieces and even directly leap of faith moments especially in the cases of Die Hard & Lethal Weapon. Some of the dialogue is outright hilarious as well, and must surely have been aware of itself. The gags while the ex-presidents are robbing are squared right at the nose and possibly only play better to an American audience. On the whole the dialogue is so fuelled with testosterone and wit it’s impossible not to be laughing. Particularly at FBI headquarters with Pappas, Utah and Ben Harp (John C. McGinley). - 

“You know nothing. In fact, you know less than nothing. If you knew that you knew nothing, then that would be something, but you don’t.” Ben Harp.

I very much doubt that the tongue was not in cheek when this script was constructed as the list of dialogue like this is so prevalent it’s not far off being an all out comedy.

Bigelow cranks up the tension all throughout the film with us all by the early nineties fully versed in action movie culture we know that a standoff is coming between our two leads. The term `bromance` irks me at the best of times but it would be difficult not use it here. The good part of us wants Utah to save the day, but the bad part of us wants to see Bodhi get away. The homoerotic subtext is barely hidden and when they both start wrestling in the sand and sea water you almost expect them to start kissing and probably wouldn’t be surprised either. These are all characteristics that exist in the best action movies and to give it a kicking for that would be outlandish. Some critics have commented that because Bigelow is a woman she is merely mocking the testosterone fuelled action movie world. I would say that her tongue was placed firmly in cheek along with that of John McTiernan (Die Hard) Tony Scott (Top Gun) and Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon) who knew their genres well and had fun with the characteristics of male friendships.

 We get our wish at the end when Bodhi goes on his terms fulfilling his lifelong wish. “He ain’t coming back” says Utah to the Australian cops but we will keep watching again and again and this will stay high on the list of all time American action movies.

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Interview

An Interview with Alma Har’el, Director Of Bombay Beach

Bombay Beach shook Hope Lies At 24 Frames Per Second to it’s very foundations whence we caught it at it’s UK Premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest last June. Making for a unique and unusual docu-fantasy-experience, we quite literally saw nothing like it all year. To mark the films UK theatrical release, Nathanael Smith caught up with the film’s director, Alma Har’el. 

Bombay Beach is the beautiful documentary about the town of the same name from Israeli-born Music Video director Alma Har’el. It tells the story of three of the towns inhabitants – bright and unique yet directionless child Benny, college hopeful CeeJay and the wise old man Red. Featuring music from Beirut and Bob Dylan, as well as stunning cinematography and inventive dance sequences, it’s an unforgettable piece of documentary film making, and here Har’el explores further some of the themes within the film, as well as how she came to find the town in the first place.

Hope Lies – Bombay Beach is an incredible place, how did you discover it and what first drew you there?

Alma Har’el – I worked as a music video director with a band called Beirut and we were doing this low-fi music video by ourselves with a small camera, and we were shooting it in LA and then we sorta wanted to a back story for it, I wanted to do that, and Zach (Condon, lead singer of Beirut) told me he was going to Coachella, to perform there, it’s a music festival in the desert about an hour and a half from Palm Springs, so I ended up going there with him thinking I would film him. But it was very chaotic, and I was staying with the band and then at a certain point a friend said “well, I know you’re not shooting yet but I know you wanted to do some location scouting so why I don’t I show you this place that I think you are gonna love.”

And he took me there, and I arrived there and I was so haunted by it and affected by it that I had to come back the same day, at night, and the day after I came back again and I met two kids at the beach, and one of them was Benny, whose in the film, and Mike, his brother. I asked them if they wanted to be in the music video, and I shot the background for the music video then and there, that afternoon. Then the music video came out for a song called Concubine and I really just loved it so much that I wanted to come back and do a whole film there.

So Zach was quite involved from the beginning?

Yeah, I told him I’m coming back there and I’m gonna do a whole film, and I hoped that he would do the music for it and when I had some footage I’d send it to him. One of the first things I shot was the scene with Benny and the pink wig. I sent it to Zach and said ‘This is what I’m doing, do you wanna do the music for it.’ He loved it and just said ‘tell me what you need.’ So I asked him to send me all these songs that I wanted in separated tracks, so I could get each instrument separately and his vocals and just use what I need. And when I was editing I used all that as far as I could until I had a rough cut, then I went to New Mexico for a week and stayed with him and we just saw the film on my laptop at his studio and he composed whatever was missing and we just finalised it.

Obviously your background in music videos comes through in the choreographed sequences. At what point did you figure you wanted to get some dance involved in the film?

I had the idea to make a documentary with dance sequences a year before I made the film, and I was talking about it with people I wanted to do it, but I didn’t know where I wanted to do it. I knew I wanted to do it with people that are non-dancers and have nothing to do with the art. I just had to find the right place. And when I found Bombay Beach it seemed that it would be a perfect backdrop to that. So the idea was there from the start, and when I presented it to them I told them I wanted to do a documentary with dance sequences and if they would agree. A lot of that dictated who stayed until the end and who wouldn’t.

How did you go about choosing the people to profile? There was clearly any number of stories that could have been told with all these fascinating people.

Yeah, I shot 160 hours, so I went there without any research. I moved there for five months and just started wandering the streets, meeting people in the grocery store, or just seeing people in the street and walking up to them and asking if I can start filming them and following them around. So I followed a lot of people, and just slowly it was clear that these three characters together form something very special, because of their different ages and also because they were such interesting people and I developed a relationship with them. I really felt like I could make them my collaborators, because the film is not a usual documentary so I really needed them to be part of what I was doing, in many ways, and agree to do things with me.

160 hours… that’s a lot of footage. The saying goes that a film is found in the edit…

Definitely this film.

You were Editor as well as Cinematographer and Director, so how true was this, for you?

Well I edited this film with two great guys. For both of them it was their first film. I met a lot of people that I wanted to hire as editors but I wanted to edit it myself, too. I wanted to work with somebody. Some of the people I met that had more experience and had already edited a lot of films had a lot of, I would say, preconceived ideas about what works and what doesn’t, and were very afraid of the idea of having music sequences with dance, and none of the sound of the characters. They thought that because was not the kind of music that these characters would necessarily listen to, and because you don’t hear them talk and move while they do it, that it would make it superficial, that it would make it just a music video. So they had a lot of pressure, whenever I met with those people, that they would negate my initial idea all the time.

Then I met a very young guy, he’s 24 years old, named Joseph Lindquist, and another guy who came in as an editor’s assistant but did a lot of editing, too, named Terry Yeates. And they were just so open, and excited about the concept and had never edited a film before, and were just into doing something new and finding the film, and the tone of the film. They were also not driven by usual ideas of ‘What’s the story? What’s the story?’ It’s not that we didn’t have a story, and it’s not that we didn’t have to find each character’s story and what happened to them, but we didn’t let that, necessarily, be the first thing that dictated what we were doing. It was more, there were a lot of other elements, too, because we had to let the dance sequences come at certain points in the film, and that was very important.

So the whole editing process, I would also go and shoot stuff. We would edit, and I would feel that something was missing and I would go and shoot it, or another dance. Some things like that. We definitely made most of the film, and the structure of it, in the editing room. It’s very true. We would have all these cards on the wall with all the scenes and slowly we would build the structure, and the first cut we had was four hours. We had to work it down from there, obviously.

If we look at each of the individual characters, there are, although it’s a more impressionistic documentary, arcs or themes running throughout the film. Looking at Benny, for instance, there’s one scene that stood out to me, when Benny was being left out by his friends and he is framed against an American flag. And in another, he doesn’t stand for the pledge of allegiance. Do you think he represents the people let down by America?

Yeah, definitely. He’s one of the children that has been let down by America. I mean, he lives in an area that has been forgotten by the county and the people don’t try to help the people that live there. And the kind of medical help that he gets is not helping him. And he is in great trouble at school, he needs a lot of help and the place that he lives at has no activities for children, and nothing to do. It’s a complicated thing to say ‘let down by America’ and I find that a lot of people around the world, and I was one of them because I moved to America four years ago, have a pretty narrowed down view of America. And it definitely has right now a certain… reputation I would say, or just a certain image. But the truth is that when you go and you move in to the country, you see how complicated it is, you see how big America is, how many people live there. How hard it is to take care… I mean it’s such a huge country. And you also see how complicated the American Dream, that has failed, has made it for a lot of people. And the Parrishes are a great example of that, because they grew up on a fantasy of army, and weapons and made that into their hobby and their lives. They had no education, and at the same time they tried to be part of something that doesn’t exist any more and they ended up in jail because of it. Their child is this beautiful, creative, smart kid that doesn’t even really know what he was born into. And that flag is something that they put into their apartment. They love America. At the same time, when you hear the pledge of allegiance and you hear them say ‘Justice for All’ and you see him sitting there, obviously it’s very strong. To see how little justice there is in his life.

He’s a contrast to Red…

Hopefully the other characters show you that there’s different destinies for everybody in America, and we don’t know what’s gonna happen to Benny when he grows up.

Red seems quite content with his lot in life, doesn’t he?

He loves it! He enjoys it, he thinks that not knowing where his next meal comes from is the best excitement that a person can have. Red is a mythological figure…

The old man of the west.

He is, he is. I always say that he is the Marlborough man that never gets cancer. This man is bigger than life in a lot ways, because he’s really just part of the land. He went through so many things in America: he lived through the dust bowl era; he worked in the oil fields. He’s the mythological character.

And he loves freedom. Which is what America really stood for when it began.

As he’s the product of old America, he often comes up with some slightly… racist remarks.

Yeah, he does.

Did you find this difficult? What were your thoughts on keeping that in the film?

Well it’s interesting with Red because the kind of racism he expresses, if you notice, doesn’t come from the superior race agenda of, maybe early America, where they say that these people are less than my race, and should be slaves, or they should be exterminated. It’s not that kind of racism. It’s a much more practical, sort of, racism that was handed down to him. He says “If blacks and whites have children, their children are gonna be very confused.” He says “The poor little devils, they won’t know who they are.” So to him it’s more about identity and confusion. But when he talks about black people, and I have a lot times when he does talk about them, it sounds racist at first when you listen to it. But then he says that his whole life he was jealous of them because his parents had told him that they are always happy. Which is a racist thing to say, because you assume something about a whole race, but at the same time it’s a romantic notion. And when he describes black people, it’s always in a romantic way. He always talks about their beautiful skin, and how they dance. So it’s not black and white. I think every character in this film, and what’s interesting about it, is that it’s complicated, and it has a lot of contrasts in it. He’s not a racist, he’s just a product of his era.

And actually there is a lot of wisdom in his voice overs, and they are very poetical, aren’t they?

Very. And I love listening to him. And his language is so beautiful… nobody talks like that any more.

It sometimes comes across as like a Terrence Malick voice over.

I love Terrence Malick.

Apart from anything it’s not scripted, it’s just his thoughts. It works beautifully with the voice over the montages.

I love what he says at the beginning about what love is. How when you are a kid, I bet you loved seeing your Dad give your Mum a hug or a kiss. And he says that if you’ve seen love when you were a child then it will install something, a sense of love, in you. The ability to love. And if you didn’t, then you are going to end up a lonesome man. Which is what he is. Because he feels about himself that he didn’t see love. He had a very hard relationship with his Mum and he left the house when he was 13. So he’s very lonely but at the same time he’s very thoughtful, and very free, in many ways. He’s such a fascinating, kind character. So I’d never call him a racist. Although there is a lot of racism in him, I just think that it’s complicated.

I really liked CeeJay because he was a dreamer. He had a vision to move and he was very creative. It’s one of the big themes of the film – creativity even in this place that America seems to have forgotten. Out of personal investment in his story, where is he now because I desperately wanted him to succeed.

He did succeed! He got a full scholarship to a University in Nebraska and he has left Bombay Beach, the first of his family to go to college. And it is amazing because it’s also another interesting thing about the concept of the American dream because you see someone who has left Los Angeles to go to Salton Sea to make it. He left the place the place everyone dreams to go to, to a place that’s dead and forgotten so that he can make it. That just shows you how poor the American dream is doing. And at the same time what he did there is he created this world for himself that allowed him in a way to go back to the American Dream because now, by working hard, he got a full scholarship to go to college, which is like the American doctrine. If you work hard, you get what you want, and fulfil your dreams and all that.

So on one hand he represents everything that doesn’t work. And then on the other, how it still works. That’s what’s really interesting about America right now. I think America in general is really interesting right now because it’s going down, economically and culturally yet at the same time there are so many talented and creative people in America, that are hard working, and I think what we are used to associating with America right now is the corporations and the ass holes that destroy people’s lives. At the same time you see the people in America, and the people in this film, they’re just so… precious to me. I just feel like they are so genuine and I feel like they are… they couldn’t have been anywhere else.

Could you shed some light on the fire engine sequence at the end? What was your inspiration for that?

Well I always saw that fire truck as… Bombay Beach is so desolate, there’s really nothing there, and the only beautiful, shiny thing there is that fire truck. And it just stands there. I always thought of Benny as someone that needs to… [searches for the correct English phrase]… put out fires. To put out the fires of his parents, the fires of the past. And the whole idea of him wanting to be a fireman, and then maybe, possibly in the future getting the chance. Because Red says in the end, when you see Benny, that he doesn’t like to say goodbye because he doesn’t like talking about something so definite, and you don’t know what the future holds. It takes a whole community to raise a child, he says, but you must remember even the best raised child can turn bad because of his inner thoughts.

And it’s just, you know, that question. Because the opposite is also true. Even if the whole community can’t raise this child, he can still turn good because of his inner thoughts, because he is so creative, and beautiful. It echoes as what it is, but also the opposite of that. Also the fantasy sequence… I don’t really like putting it in words because I feel the images say it so much better. It’s just him driving around Bombay Beach to Bob Dylan. And the song, I almost feel like it was written for Benny every time I hear it because there’s a sentence, it says at the end, that I feel could be about him and about my film. “Dreams where the umbrella is folded, into the path you are hurled, and the cards are no good that you are holding, unless they’re from another world.” And I just think that about Benny. People don’t always listen to the lyrics, just the music, but I think it’s really important.

Details of where Bombay Beach is showing can be found on Dogwoof’s website: http://dogwoof.com/films/bombay-beach

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Contributor

The Sunday Sermon

Recognition among like-minded individuals is a key component in development. If we know that which we do is considered not just right and proper, but also exceptional, by those who share most closely that frame of mind, then this will inform how we continue. Awards perform a very real and tangible recognition of skills, so it is always odd that some choose to dismiss awards as “industry back-slapping”. Well, yes, that’s how awards work. The Academy Award Nominations were announced on Tuesday and, as commented upon at the time, witnessing reactions live via social networking sites such as Twitter, there was a real sense of a cycle at play.

Excitement. Anticipation is always the best feeling: the sense of the unknown is palpable and exciting. Waiting to see what films one has seen and loved have been recognised, which actors and actresses, directors, costume designers: whatever our field of interest, we all have ideas of what should or shouldn’t be included. Waiting to see who will be destined to have their names preceded by “Oscar Nominee” on trailers forever more is for film fans, good stuff.

Outrage. This stage of the cycle is inevitable. There will be films missed out for major awards (DriveSenna to name just two that were largely or entirely overlooked) and films included that defy logic. (Apparently these include Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which given it stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, I thought was going to be The Nicest Film Ever Made until someone mentioned it was about 9/11.) Twitter was filled with bile and apoplexy at the films or stars missed or included because, how very dare they, they were not identical choices to that the individual complainant would have chosen.

Indifference. Of course, once the initial reactions die down, there is the distancing mechanism that has people using the complaints mentioned at the start: dismissive comments about awards themselves. How the Oscars are political; they don’t give a true picture of cinema; they always award people for a career not a film, because they missed their chance at the proper time (I’m looking at you, Mr Scorsese).

It’s an amusing cycle to watch in microcosm unfold on Twitter, as happened on Tuesday. Betrayal is a loaded word, but it does seem at least counterintuitive to complain about a process that ultimately celebrates film. The Academy Awards seem to have grown into this persona of the epitome of entertainment; the final word in film. Of course some films will get missed while about other nominations we are incredulous. It is the collective opinion of one group of people largely from Southern California which, by its nature, will be less diverse than the larger world public. The Academy Awards may not give the definitive picture of cinema, but they do cut a slice through film history. Like rings on a tree trunk, the Best Picture winners from the last 84 years give a picture of the world, or at least the USA, at that point. In the bicentennial year, an underdog film about an underdog character broke through to win Best Picture. When America was at war in Korea, a Jingoistic piece of musical fluff starring Gene Kelly as An American In Paris won Best Picture. At the first Academy Awards during the Second World War, a huge sweeping drama depicting a very different war attained that top prize.

It’s a frivolous look through history, but a curious one to make. There is arguably not enough diversity in the awards (whither comedy?) but it remains a living part of Hollywood history. Ignore the naysayers, I intend to be watching the Awards come February 26. I’ll be excited, I’ll possibly be outraged. But I won’t be dismissive.

Tim Popple works as a verger and has been involved in churches and cathedrals his whole life. He is also the editor ofThe 24th Frame, and can also be found on Twitter.

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