The Stranger’s View

Last weekend I went to the cinema to see a movie set in my homeland. I suppose it qualifies as a kind of period piece now, the action taking place over 40 years ago. ’71 is a thriller which unfolds amid the Troubles in Belfast in the titular year. Frankly, it impressed me a lot, and not only because it recreated the world in which I grew up, with its tight pacing and essentially simple storytelling. As I watched it, and then reflected on it afterwards, I was struck by how the film tapped into the mentality of the people, my people, and thus offered a very honest portrayal of the times and circumstances. The director of this movie is Yann Demange, a man of French birth. This had me thinking how some of my favorite films set in my country had been directed by those who were basically outsiders – Odd Man Out (Carol Reed) and The Gentle Gunman (Basil Dearden) – yet managed to get under the skin of the people on the screen and perhaps see us more clearly as we really are.

It occurred to me then that this isn’t some isolated phenomenon confined to films set in Ireland. Hollywood in its heyday was packed with émigré directors who shaped the popular culture of the era. Film noir is one of my own favorite styles and came to be a staple of American cinema in the golden age, yet the movement was largely dominated by those born far from its shores – Lang, Wilder, Siodmak (who grew up in Germany), Tourneur, Brahm, Ulmer and many others besides. Isn’t it a little odd that such men should wind up as the biggest movers and shakers in what was arguably a generic American film movement? The western, which is the genre closest to my heart, has fewer examples of course, but directors such as Lang, Tourneur, De Toth and Fregonese still made significant contributions to its development.

So, I guess that’s the question for the day: is it sometimes more beneficial for a filmmaker to come at their subject, or indeed genre, free of the inevitable baggage an insider brings along? Does distance in some way sharpen perspective and allow a clearer appreciation? I’m not sure  there’s a definitive answer but if anyone feels inclined to offer their thoughts, they are most welcome.

 

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28 thoughts on “The Stranger’s View

  1. The cheeky answer my friend is that it depends on the filmmaker in question 🙂 There are of course plenty of example of Hollywood ‘Oirish’ that are pretty pathetic (and don’t get me started on how poor Al Pacino’s Italian is in THE GODFATHER). But I think you may be right, that an outsider can reveal things you would not expect. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine being able to migrate the intimacy of a Bresson or even a Mike Leigh very far

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    • Well indeed. Perhaps I’m cheating a little by singling out some of the better filmmakers. There are lots of examples of weak portrayals to be found in the work of a whole range directors that seem to contradict the theory. I just thought how certain little things – attitudes and reactions mainly – have been picked up on by filmmakers I wouldn’t have thought would be familiar with them. I’ve noticed before how Irish directors can gloss over such things, or perhaps I mean overlook them, yet an outsider seems to spot them right away.

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      • I think you put that very well – I would have to pick somethign like SUNDAY, BLOODY SUNDAY as a film which captures the early 70s as I remember it from my childhood though none fo the people comform to those I knew. On the other hand, there are some wonderful examples of combination fo director and material that shouldn;t work and yet really mesh brillaintly. I mean, I hope Ang Lee never does another Marvel film, but his adaptation of Austen (SENSE AND SENSIBILITY) worked incredibly well, not to mention his westerns, which have been remarkable.

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  2. Colin, though largely a biopic, I thought Richard Attenborough handled India’s freedom struggle objectively, through the eyes and ears of Gandhi in the namesake film. It was true to what actually happened and showed Indians in a good light considering that Attenborough was an Englishman. The only issue as I remember it at the time was Ben Kingsley’s selection as Gandhi which, on hindsight and many awards later, was the best thing to happen to GANDHI.

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    • That’s very interesting, Prashant. I never knew how Attenborough’s film was received in India and it’s good to hear your input on that. I wonder if you feel his handling of the period and events was actually enhanced by his coming at it as an outsider.

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      • Thank you, Colin. Indians read and learn about the freedom movement and the freedom fighters, like Gandhi and Nehru, from a very young age, through history textbooks in school. Many of the country’s freedom fighters and revolutionaries, social reformers and thinkers, and philosophers are held in high esteem. I think, being an outsider definitely helped Attenborough look at the period with a fresh perspective not to mention bringing both Gandhi and the movement alive on the big screen like never before. I have seen few movies with a script as tight and taut as GANDHI. There was no wasted spool, so to speak. Besides, Kingsley’s Indian roots (he was born one) made it easier for Indians to accept him as the father of the nation.

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        • Cheers. I felt that a film such as Michael Collins, just for the sake of comparison, might have benefited from a similar approach. As it stands, it’s OK I suppose but I find it a little too fond, if that makes sense, and believe it might have been better had Neil Jordan not been the director.

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          • Colin, thanks for mentioning MICHAEL COLLINS. I haven’t seen it. I’m familiar with the Irish war of independence towards the end of WWI and later the battle for Northern Ireland glamourised by Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson) in many of his thrillers. Irishman Liam Neeson must have been convincing as Michael Collins.

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            • Yes, I thought Neeson was fine. Overall though, the film was nothing special in my opinion. This is what I mean about being perhaps too close to the subject matter. I have a hunch a non-Irish director might have provided a different insight, and maybe have given us a more interesting movie. That said, biopics and the like frequently struggle with striking the right tone, regardless of where the director hails from.

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  3. “…is it sometimes more beneficial for a filmmaker to come at their subject, or indeed genre, free of the inevitable baggage an insider brings along?”

    I happen to think it’s not only beneficial, it’s essential. Take William Wyler’s look at the western through THE BIG COUNTRY (a film we both love), for instance. I’ve no doubt his Jewish-Swiss ancestry (via Germany) influenced his newcomer look at this distinctly American genre. One so tied with what was the perceived masculinity within. Questioning it like few had before, nailing the subject through the outsider James McKay in the tale. So, too, with the likes and styling of Sergio Leone’s work. Without them, I think it too easy for a variety of film to stagnate with those only reinforcing perceptions and traditions. Those outside of it, through their culture or nationality, offer this, I think.

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    • Yes, that’s very similar to my own thinking. And genre pictures seem to profit more from outside influences, the fresh view or approach acting as something of a shot in the arm periodically.

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  4. I think whether the filmmaker is working in narrative or documentary forms, the sense of discovery that an outsider or newcomer brings to a subject provides a delicate layer of excitement and fascination to whatever subject is being tackled. There is an astute atmosphere of searching, for reasons and answers, that a filmmaker who knows only a limited amount about his or her subject matter brings to a project. This becomes especially clear in the documentary form, where filmmakers who know their subject from top to bottom often end up reciting a laundry list of their knowledge, and thus saddling their film with a certain almost undefinable sense of dullness.

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    • I’m by no means an expert on documentary filmmaking, Dean, so that’s an interesting observation. I think your point here does relate well to narrative cinema too though. Being overfamiliar with one’s subject (or genre/location if you like) can, though not always of course, lead to stagnation. At worst, it can result in what we might term filming by numbers, and a fresher, more probing view is certainly welcome.

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  5. Interesting question you pose. I never looked at film that way, but you’re right. Many of the best films have been directed by those with more imagination than direct personal experience in the subject matter. However, the worst movies have also been directed by outsiders, some of them quite appalling. Between those two poles lies, I think, talent.

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    • That’s nicely put, Marilyn. I guess it does boil down to talent; if we have a gifted filmmaker who also happens to bring a fresh or uncluttered viewpoint to their work, then the results are likely to be much more pleasing and successful.

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  6. A good point, Colin.

    There are plenty of examples out there of key moments in a country’s cinema that were helmed by an outsider. Off the top of my head I can think of Joseph Losey’s The Servant, which said more about class delicacies that any other British film of the 60s; Bunuel’s Los Olivdados ranks with any of the best of the Mexican new wave while two of the pinnacles of Australian cinema – Walkabout and Wake in Fright – were both directed by foreigners.

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  7. I think of Emeric Pressburger who made such interesting British films with Michael Powell. Of course, one always hears of the Korda brothers and how well they portrayed the ideal of the “British Empire”. I love those too, but many of those are about an ideal or at least a type. The Powell/Pressburger films are very much about people, with a great deal of human warmth and a touch of human quirkiness which makes the stories so interesting and endearing.

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