Category Archives: Film

The BBC and its Tory critics


One of the most vociferous critics of the BBC is the Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer. He has routinely attacked the public service broadcaster for its ‘lefty bias’ and he’d like to see it emasculated. He presents his general view in this column written for the Telegraph. To be fair to Heffer, his is a fiercely independent voice rather than a mouthpiece for the Conservative Party, but even so it is strange to see so partisan a commentator given what is effectively carte blanche on BBC4 (a channel he would like to see closed down) to explain his own take on a specific issue about British film culture in ‘Fifties British War Films: Days of Glory‘.

BBC4 specialises in documentaries of various kinds, often using archive film materials and sometimes, as in this case, introducing a season of films. Heffers’ programme, which he wrote himself, follows a familiar pattern with ‘straight to camera’ presentation by the man himself plus clips from the films he wants to discuss and interviews with actors, directors and experts. The experts here are Peter Hennessy, well-known historian of post-war Britain, and Matthew Sweet who has built a reputation through books and TV programmes like this as a popular film historian. They provide useful observations on Britain and British films in the 1950s but neither of them engage with the central question of how representations of national identity might work in a specific film culture. There are in fact no alternative voices to challenge Heffer’s own simplistic notions.

Heffer has just one strategy to nullify criticism. He mentions the critics of the 1950s war films and then simply re-asserts his own position without actually engaging in debate. Then he moves on. In the Independent today, TV critic Tom Sutcliffe suggests that the programme was most enjoyable because it was so amusing – and that this was all down to Heffer’s presentation. Sutcliffe suggests that it isn’t subtle but “I suspect that Heffer may think that subtlety is subversively un-British in itself”. It’s true that it was amusing in this uncomfortable way, but that doesn’t make up for the lamentable analysis. It’s unlikely that BBC4 will broadcast a more carefully prepared analytical essay about British national identity as represented in its war films – but it might be interesting to see an opposing ‘personal view’ of what representations of 1939-45 in British films might mean to British audiences.

Some of the films Heffer discusses are showing on BBC4 over the next few days. The films themselves are certainly worth watching. What Heffer doesn’t say is that there were other films that featured wartime narratives (and what happened to service personnel after they were demobbed) but that overall the numbers of war films have been over-emphasised in the histories of the period.

History, Media and Memory

Ginger (Elle Fanning) worries about the bomb with a family friend played by Annette Benning in ‘Ginger & Rosa’

Ginger & Rosa, the new film from British director Sally Potter is set at the time of the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. Most people in their 60s today will remember the event – when the world came closest to the possibility of a nuclear war between the West and the Soviet Union. Whether there was a real possibility of war or whether this was just the most dramatic period in the game of brinkmanship between US President Kennedy and Soviet Chairman Kruschev, is something for historians to argue about, but in media terms this was one of the major global events of the period at a time when television in particular was beginning to become an important part of people’s lives, not just in the US and UK but all over the world.

BBC Radio 4 invited Rosie Boycott (born 1951), ex-editor of British newspapers and magazines and a ‘media personality’ in the UK, to review Ginger & Rosa. She remembered the Cuban missile crisis and she also referred to the Kennedy assassination. Kirsty Lang and Rosie Boycott both claimed that as children they had been terrified by the prospect of nuclear war. Boycott also said that she remembered being told about the Kennedy assassination at school. She went to Cheltenham Ladies College – I’m assuming as a boarder, in which case her story makes sense since Kennedy was shot around 6.30 pm UK time. My point here is that the telling of history has changed.

This ‘remembering of historical events’ has now become a modern media phenomenon. The beginnings of ‘live TV news’ was around this time with the Telstar satellites linking North America and Europe. The events of the mid 1960s such as the Six Day War in 1966, the Prague Spring in 1968 and then the war in Vietnam were media events on a scale and immediacy not seen before. ‘Memories’ became live or near live media memories.

But shared though these memories were as media events, the meanings weren’t necessarily equally shared. In her review of Ginger & Rosa, Boycott also asserts that the Sixties decade was a time when people became more selfish and more concerned with ‘self-expression’. This is a familiar observation, often a pejorative comment on social behaviour, but it’s also a very metropolitan statement, applying to a relatively small group of people in London. Elsewhere in the UK, the Sixties change in attitudes and behaviour was a much later phenomenon. Media coverage of major events and changes in social behaviour has been greatly extended since 1962 and media archives preserve a great deal of contemporary material. But how they relate to personal memories is still quite complex.

One twentysomething asking older audience members for Ginger & Rosa about what it was like in schools in the UK in 1962, said “Did you have drills for nuclear attacks?”. Presumably he had seen those US newsreels and public information films about what to do if the missiles came. My memory tells me that we took little notice of the possibility of nuclear destruction – perhaps I’ve repressed that memory? The UK government followed British practice and compiled advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack but intended to release propaganda only when an attack was imminent. Wikipedia has quite a good entry on the Protect and Survive materials eventually forced out for public scrutiny  in 1980 and immediately lampooned on TV and then in a more subtle way via a famous graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982) by Raymond Briggs.

Hallyu goes Anglo – Gangnam Style is UK’s No 1

It’s taken a long time, but the ‘Korean Wave’ or hallyu has finally reached the UK with Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ and his ‘horse dance’ officially recognised as the No 1 single in the UK. The hallyu began in the late 1990s with the successful export of South Korean TV shows to China and other East Asian territories. High quality programming, cheaper than US product and more attuned to local cultural trends, the TV programmes were followed by the spread of K-pop, a regional competitor for Cantopop and Mandopop in the Three Chinas and J-pop. Korean films have also been part of the hallyu.

Fans of visiting K-pop star Kim Jae-joong of the band JYJ in Turkey where hallyu is popular. Photo from and Korean Culture Service taken in February 2012.

According to the 2012 IFPI Report on Digital Music, South Korea has risen from being the 33rd placed national music market in 2005 to the  11th in 2011. More significantly perhaps, 70% of K-pop revenues in South Korea come from digital sales – well above the international average. The success of a K-pop act in the UK and US marks K-pop’s recognition in the other two major international markets – Japan is the second biggest market and the hallyu arrived there with TV drama serials in the late 1990s. But alongside recognition in major markets, K-pop is also finding its way into many of the world’s smallest markets where there is little industry as such. You can find its influence across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Showing and studying the film Green

Just wanted to follow-up a post from last year about the wonderful ‘wildlife-as-you’ve-never-seen-it’ film Green, viewable at and screened recently on Al-Jazeera TV. The research project which led me to discover the film has produced a website which readers of this blog may find useful.

The Al Jazeera screenings led to this article and comments in the Daily Mail.

Good to see both the film being shown more widely, and the decision to circulate the article, and the responses to it, in the Mail.

Activists from SOCP (Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme) carry an injured orangutan away for medical treatment. The dedicated workers aim to save as many of the primates as they can during deforestation.


Social media and cinema use

Do you tweet about the films you see or perhaps invite your friends to a cinema screening of a new film via your Facebook page? The film industry has started to think about how to exploit the social media opportunities of the films they distribute but according to a report by Film3Sixty – a marketing company in the UK – they haven’t yet really grasped how important these new developments might be.

I’ve written about this report on The Case for Global Film. It comes up with some interesting findings about the most frequent cinema visitors, dividing them up into four groups: Blockbuster Only, Blockbuster Mainly, Indie Mainly and Indie Only. Which group do you fit into if you are a regular cinemagoer? It seems that some groups use Facebook and YouTube, some use Twitter and some avoid social media altogether.

Archives and Re-releases

Judy Garland in ‘Meet Me in St Louis’ was ‘back’ in selected UK cinemas over Christmas 2011

In earlier editions of MSB we noted two important ways in which archives have been utilised by media industries. In the 1980s Hollywood studios (and other controllers of large film libraries like StudioCanal) realised that the value still wrapped up in library titles could be exploited by the new technologies that introduced multi-channel television and its insatiable demand for product. Hollywood had always re-released major films like Gone With the Wind at regular intervals but the value of all film libraries certainly increased when the opportunities to exploit them multiplied.

Music recordings were slightly different before the 1980s since many consumers already owned significant collections of shellac and vinyl discs. Clever marketing then helped to persuade them to buy some of the same recordings again on new formats, first on cassette and then CD. The new formats promised better quality and greater convenience – and perhaps less chance of accidental damage. However, when the move to digital came the music industry found that the next new format, digital MP3 files, allowed easy copying and instead of boosting sales through re-selling popular recordings, the loss of revenue threatened the industry’s long term future.

Now, it appears, the music majors are looking more seriously at their archives of unreleased material – alternate takes, aborted sessions etc. As it becomes more expensive to develop and promote new music acts which don’t necessarily sell recordings commensurate with the popularity of their music, why not turn to material by established stars that has already been paid for?

Kate Bush borrows an idea from cinema

As the market ages – remember the “£50 bloke” of a few years ago? – releases of “never heard before” material from Pink Floyd are due to join Kate Bush’s explorations and re-interpretations of her back catalogue on the ‘Director’s Cut’ Album. These releases although probably ‘copiable’ in digital format do offer something different, something ‘extra’ as suggested by the ‘generatives’ proposed by Kevin Kelly (see MSB5 p254). Collectors may be willing to buy a box set of alternate versions of well-known Pink Floyd songs, especially when packaged with material that can’t be copied so easily. The packages are known as ‘Immersion’ releases.

Jean Vigo's 'L'Atalante' on re-release from 20th January 2012

Digital cinema has seen another twist on the use of archives that is the product of the economics of digital distribution. Cinema re-releases of classic or cult films has again had a long history. Even so it required careful judgement of the market to make it work financially. A 35mm film print costs around £1,000 to produce. So it was often only possible to put out a single print that toured cinemas and which without the benefit of promotion and marketing could only attract small audiences. Now a 2K digital print on a hard drive costs a few hundred pounds to master and duplicate so that a digital copy of an archive film can be stored on the ‘theatre systems’ of several cinemas at the same time.  Perhaps you saw Meet Me in St. Louis or It’s a Wonderful Life over the Christmas period? Perhaps I can interest you in the restored version of Les Enfants du Paradis as well? In truth this is a development that hasn’t been fully exploited yet – it needs to reach the multiplex in areas where there isn’t an established independent arthouse cinema. But if you’ve never seen a classic black and white film on a big screen in a brand new digital print, I’d urge you to take the plunge. There’s nothing like it! In the next few weeks one of the three completed films by the cinema’s first great youth rebels, Jean Vigo, goes on release. Read about L’Atalante here and discover some of the first screening dates.

Here’s a clip from YouTube:

Hugo 3D Update

Following an earlier posting on Martin Scorsese, a review of Hugo in 3D has now been posted on the itpworld website. In a nutshell, I think that the use of 3D is everything that might be expected from Scorsese but the film narrative is perhaps rather less than we might have hoped.

The box office returns so far suggest that the mass audience has not been attracted to the film so we can’t really tell whether the 3D is proving a draw. In the UK, a 3D film in the multiplex sees £2-3 being added to the usual ticket price which means a significant hike in the cost of taking the family to the pictures. Hugo, like many other 3D films, is also being shown in 2D on many screens.

As of last weekend, Hugo had just reached $50 million in North America after 6 weeks and is now falling down the chart. In the UK the Christmas fortnight figures aren’t released in full until Thursday but Hugo has already shown signs of faltering – by Week 2 its screen average had already dropped below $2,000, a sure sign of weak box office. The children’s film in the UK during December has been Arthur Christmas by a considerable margin over the rest of the field.

High critical praise in the US may help Hugo into the Oscar race and eventually the film might find the audience it deserves but at the moment it would seem that 3D isn’t quite the winner it has been proclaimed to be.

Back online – with Scorsese

Martin Scorsese "directs Hugo"

We’re sorry that this blog has been quiet for most of 2011, especially given the momentous events in the media environment here in the UK and worldwide. Murdoch’s bloody nose, with the closing of the News of the World and the hounding of tabloid phone hackers, and the potential for more open media following the ‘Arab Spring’ are just two of the stories we would like to have covered.

But now we are back and we’ll try to keep the blog alive. First off we want to focus on how a well-known Hollywood name allows a possible different perspective on two current issues.

Martin Scorsese is arguably the most revered Hollywood film director, feted by cinephiles but also known to more mainstream cinemagoers and even an Oscar-winner for The Departed in 2007. That film was a ‘remake’ of stories from the Hong Kong trilogy of Infernal Affairs films and its Oscar and box office success seemed to give a legitimacy to the Hollywood practice of remaking foreign language films. We’ve covered this in MSB in relation to horror films like The Ring series and in MSB5 we noted the remake of Let the Right One In which emerged in 2010 as Let Me In. In many cases the remakes are quite serviceable but the debate goes on – why remake? Why not release the foreign language original properly? I’m not looking forward to David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake due out in a few weeks. Fincher, like Scorsese, trades on his reputation as a ‘name’ filmmaker. But in this case the Swedish film (directed by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev) is already an American-style thriller and without Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, the Fincher version seems hard to justify.

But why link this to Martin Scorsese now? Simply because a report a couple of weeks ago announced that Scorsese is to adapt the work of the best-selling Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø. Nesbø is in some ways the heir to Stieg Larsson’s popularity with the Millennium Trilogy featuring Lisbeth Salander, although Nesbø’s Inspector Harry Hole has been around for several years in a succession of crime thrillers. Scorsese’s choice is The Snowman which was an international bestseller earlier this year. This isn’t a re-make since Nesbø has been very careful about allowing his work to be adapted – the first adaptation (not a Harry Hole story) was only released in Norway this year. And Nesbø loves Scorsese. He tells us that the poster for Taxi Driver was on his wall when he first began to write and that he doesn’t mind if Scorsese moves the setting of the film. In the midst of the international rush to put ‘Nordic Noir’ on screens in English (e.g. the US TV remake of the Danish series The Killing), Scorsese might well find acceptance with some fans (Nordic film companies are only to happy to co-operate).

The other Scorsese story is the opening of his film Hugo – a children’s film, a fantasy, a narrative about cinema? The film has already won an award from the National Board of Review in the US and it seems set to be an international hit. It is also the first film by a director of Scorsese’s standing to be made in 3D. Mark Kermode, perhaps the most popular film critic in the UK and famously extremely ‘anti’ towards 3D once said that he wouldn’t take it seriously unless Scorsese made a film in the format. Last Friday on his radio show on BBC Radio 5 Live Kermode grudgingly accepted that used by Scorsese, 3D could be interesting.

3D is now central to the release of ‘tentpole movies’ in mainstream cinema. In the UK, the biggest multiplex chain, Odeon, is now completely digital and able to offer 3D in many of its screens. But recently box office for 3D releases has been disappointing with audiences not willing to pay the extra cost for the 3D versions of films like Harry Potter. It will be interesting to see if Hugo will buck this trend. Scorsese fans will be interested to see how he presents the history of special effects in the cinema (which is an integral part of the plot of the film). But will this fascination with early cinema tricks attract the family audience? We’ll let you know. Also to come over Christmas is the latest Bollywood blockbuster, Don 2 starring Sharukh Khan and scheduled as a 3D release.

Freebies on Let the Right One In

The UK publisher Intellect Books is extremely prolific with new book titles and a vast array of academic journals appearing on a regular basis. The latest journal to launch focuses on Scandinavian Cinema. Intellect’s policy is to offer free samples of each of its journals to entice new readers and Issue 1 of the journal can be downloaded here.

The great success of Let the Right One In internationally has prompted several academics to start work on the film and in this journal there are two useful resources that complement and extend the work on the film in MSB5. ‘Old fangs into new viewers: the American poster to Let the Right One In by Anders Marklund is a short piece that offers a textual analysis of the poster.

‘Vampire in the Stockholm suburbs: Let the Right One In and genre hybridity’ by Rochelle Wright is an interesting analysis of how the film has been received in Sweden, the US and the UK. Wright suggests that the genre hybridity of the film has possibly been more easily appreciated in the American and British markets. As a scholar specialising in Swedish Cinema, Wright provides very useful background on Let the Right One In‘s release in the context of Swedish indigenous cinema.   For instance, vampires are not that common in Swedish film and literature so there is the possibility of a kind of double response to the film – in its international context (i.e. the recent cycles in UK and US horror) and in its Swedish context. Swedish audiences react differently to the ‘social comment’ aspects of the film. For them, the setting is mundane, but for US/UK audiences it is exotic. Wright supplies a very detailed analysis of the film in terms of genre, narrative and representation, so this is essential reading for anyone considering working on the film.

The Big Beasts and the Smaller ones


The forest from 'Green The Film'



Went to the excellent Wildscreen Festival of wildlife documentary and environmental films last week (Oct 10th to 14th) at Watershed, Bristol. Lots of industry buzz and fascinating insights from an international range of ‘wild life’ documentary makers and commissioners, including discussions and demonstrations of 3D technology.

Despite the assertions of some speakers that “3D is definitely coming this time—all the big money (Sky and Sony, and a 3D iPad is on the way) . . . is being bet on it”, I learnt that apparently a significant percentage of the population (estimates vary but apparently 12% have problems with binocular vision) are not even able to view 3D. In fact a speaker from the Japanese industry at one session said they were still conducting careful medical research before committing (though a deep recession, given the cost of both makers’ equipment and sets at present may also drive such decisions, in Japan and elsewhere). At present lens changes can take up to an hour, so filming is very slow and expensive, but of course the industry is predicting that costs will soon go down.

In these sessions the excitement of film makers, and the omni-presence of the big money position together made it impossible to point to the tsunami of often toxic waste that will be produced by the necessary changeover to 3D viewing and making equipment. This will probably end up in waste dumps in Indonesia, for example, where kids will pick it over for valuable minerals (see MSB5 Globalisation chapter, and the ‘Ideologies and discourses’ case study on the eco-film The Age of Stupid).

Yet after all this blockbuster technology talk the most astonishing film I saw at the festival was not a ‘blue chip’ documentary – a term used across the festival to refer to very expensive, ‘high quality’ wild life programmes, which arguably rule out much questioning of what is happening to what we call the natural world since the emphasis is understandably on an immaculate kind of spectacle and expertise which will sell globally. The film was not in 3D, nor would it have gained much from being in 3D. I saw it in a tiny screening, almost by mistake. Imagine the pleasure of seeing it then get the Gold Award, as well as an Environmental award at the final ‘Panda’ Awards ceremony, and to learn it has had other prizes.
I don’t want to pre-empt your viewing with my own analysis of how it works its power. It focuses on the fate of one creature in Indonesia. Because it has no major distributor the maker (it was mostly made by one man, with some help on the very restrained soundtrack) has provided it free to download at . There he writes: ‘My name is Patrick, I am an ordinary citizen dedicated to preventing the destruction of the remaining tropical rainforest on Earth. I do so by making heartfelt films on the forest and the industries destroying it.’ At the final screening he spoke of how he himself does not like to be told what to do, and this maybe accounts for the credit which the viewer is given for intelligence, and for putting images and conclusions together in this film with no narration. This makes for a moving, gentle, very powerful story with the kind of end credits which not many of us have seen before. If you have 48 minutes to spare, sit down and attend to this film, and see if you don’t want to tell others about it.