Parky At the Pictures (10/1/2020)
(Reviews of The Runaways; Heimat Is a Space in Time; and Cleanin' Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters)
Richard Heap has been making documentaries since the late 1990s. He turns to fiction with The Runaways, a kidpicaresque that owes much to the heyday of the Children's Film Foundation and Lionel Jeffries's cherished adaptation of Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children (1970). Sprinkling a little sentiment into the social realist mix, this is a fine showcase for its young cast and an affectionate tribute to the landscape and people of North Yorkshire.
Reith Tennet (Mark Addy) provides for children Angie (Molly Windsor), Ben (Rhys Connah) and Polly (Macy Shackleton) by giving donkey rides on the beach at Whitby. They live in a tumbledown shack near the ruined abbey that looks over the port and often spend their evenings in the local pub singing along with the folk band. The siblings barely mention their mother, Maggie (Tara Fitzgerald), who abandoned them when Polly was born. But they adore their father and are concerned when he is shaken by the return of his younger brother, Blythe (Lee Boardman), who has been released from prison after serving a sentence for murder.
On her 16th birthday, Angie receives a golden locket from Reith, who apologises for having left her to raise her siblings. However, he dies in the night and Blythe evicts the children because he reckons he's entitled to his brother's belongings in payback for his travails following the trawler accident that resulted in his incarceration. Burying their father at sea, the kids take two donkeys, Sonic and Teabag, and set out across country to avoid going into care.
After a night in the open, they smuggle the animals on to the steam train from Grosmont station and hide from the guard in the washrooms. Angie has decided to find Maggie in Leyburn and they steal a map from a shop in Rosedale Abbey, unaware that nosy neighbour Belle (Cathy Breeze) has told Blythe that the Tennets have flown with the locket that is worth a small fortune. Somewhat inexplicably, Ben calls his uncle to let him know they are on the moors and Angie smashes the phone is fury at his thoughtless betrayal. She is angrier with herself when an eavesdropping stranger named John (Sean Ward) offers to give them a lift in his horse box, only to steal the last of their money. But Ben snaps at Angie for always knowing best and putting such blind faith in the mother who has shown no interest in them.
Aware that Blythe has posted reward notices in various moorland villages, the children keep to backroads and are grateful when farmer's son Toby (James Senneck) cooks for them on a campfire beside the turret of a ruined castle. He is taken aback by Angie's paranoia, but assures them that fugitives are cool and they resume their journey with fresh heart. Polly gets scared when they have to sleep on the outskirts of town, but takes solace from the continued presence of Reith's ghost, who has been keeping an eye on them since he and his youngest played `One Potato' through the bars of a wooden gate. He tells her about the night he saved a drunken Blythe from drowning and how he now has a duty to provide for him.
While Reith's body is found by a couple of Whitby fishermen, Angie has the locket valued and discovers it's worth £10,000. She opts not to sell and guides Ben and Polly to Leyburn, where Maggie is singing with a Country and Western band in a pub on the estate. In no state to make them beans on toast, let alone mother them, Maggie leaves the kids to wash in the bathroom and they wander across the road to watch the show. Back at the house. Angie tries to tell her mother how her siblings are doing at school, but Maggie is too tipsy to listen. Moreover, during the night, she attempts to steal the locket and the trio hit the road, unaware that Maggie has told Blythe where they are.
After a couple of days in the open, Angie goes to the local library to read about the trawler tragedy on a microfiche. She realises that Reith ruined his reputation trying to protect Blythe from his drunken recklessness and hits upon a plan to lure him into a trap. They allow him to follow them to a garage, where the woman at the till calls the cops after Blythe snatches the locket. However, Ben has found a JCB in a barn and he jams the bucket under his uncle's car and leaves him high and dry in a field. Maggie apologises for letting them down and suggests that Angie becomes Ben and Polly's legal guardian before they wander off into an uncertain future with Sonic and Teabag.
Echoes of unjustly forgotten `lost children' pictures like William Fairchild's John and Julie (1955) and Jim Clark's The Christmas Tree (1966) reverberate around this amiable, if rarely riveting ramble across the North York Moors. Writer-director Richard Heap is to be credited for attempting to tackle such weighty issues as bereavement, family feuds and the lingering impact of the recession. But the `oop north' grimness is lightly laid over a comparatively gentle rite of passage that places the Tennets in no real peril and precious little hardship. Indeed, Heap tends to leave tricky situations like escaping from the train off screen, while we don't see a single copper throughout.
Much more might have been made of the donkeys, who prove no trouble whatsoever during the journey, while there is no real tension between the siblings. Molly Windsor shows well in the `Bobbie' role, but Rhys Connah and Macy Shackleton aren't always so comfortable with some of the script's less natural sounding dialogue. Brassed Off alumni Mark Addy and Tara Fitzgerald make the most of sketchily written roles, while Lee Boardman's one-note malevolence is given a buffoonish edge by the need to limp after he stubs his toe in flip-flops.
Genial ditties by Andrew Swarbrick punctuate the action, along with standards like `Donkey Riding' and `All My Trials'. But the alehouse sing-song feels contrivedly cosy, while it seems unlikely that a pub on a housing estate would have a resident country band. Nevertheless, Phil Wood's views of the Whitby coast and the purple heather on the hills are charming. It's just a pity the action didn't necessitate a diversion to the nearby fishing hamlet of Staithes, which will be familiar to anyone who stayed at the Holiday Fellowship camp and featured briefly in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread (2017).
HEIMAT IS A SPACE IN TIME.
To cineastes of a certain age, the word `heimat' will forever be associated with the five films that Edgar Reitz set in the fictional village of Schabbach in the Hunsrück region of the Rhineland. Spanning 32 episodes over nearly 60 hours, this epic saga was rooted in the same `homeland' tradition that had inspired Carl Froelich's 1938 Zarah Leander vehicle, Heimat, and countless other German, Austrian and Swiss features extolling traditional Teutonic virtues. But this sentimental idyll was rent asunder at the end of the Second World War and documentarist Thomas Heise explores both its corruption and its consequences in the 218-minute opus, Heimat Is a Space in Time, which opens teasingly on a woodland recreation of the Grimm fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood.
In 1912, 14 year-old Wilhelm Heise writes a homework essay about warfare being an horrific waste of life that belongs to the ages of Louis XIV and the `bloodthirsty Corsican'. But, as we see monochrome photographs of Wilhelm in a Red Cross uniform, it seems as though he has been dragged into the Great War, which he claimed would be inevitable if anybody dared challenge the might of the German Empire. By the time he writes to introduce himself to Edith Hirschhon as inflation grips the nation in 1922, Wilhelm has acquired a doctorate and his polite entreaty to meet the Viennese visitor to the German capital is read with deadpan reserve by Thomas Heise over shots of modern Berliners enjoying a night out.
Writing in 1945, Edith recalls her life as an Austrian Jew from her time at art school (when, as a socialist, she supported the 1918 revolution in Germany) through to the deportation of her closest family members to Poland during the Holocaust. As Heise reads his grandmother's words, we see a view through the rain-streaked rear window of a Viennese tram that makes the pedestrians look like Lowry stick figures.
Despite only knowing each other for a short time. Wilhelm and Edith exchange affectionate letters throughout 1922 and their innocent phrases are charmingly contrasted with a young couple kissing goodbye at the foot of the staircase at the Schönhauser Allee Metro station. The following year, her parents, Max and Anna, give their consent for their marriage. We see pictures of Edith with her sons, Hans and Wolfgang, as well as some of the statues she sculpted. However, we are also shown her identity papers from the Third Reich and the camera lingers on the Gothic `J' on her card, as we hear extracts from Wilhelm's 1937 letters to various ministers entreating them not to enforce retirement from his teaching post solely because he is married to a Jewish woman and is, therefore, considered a corrupting influence on young Aryan minds.
For the next 30 minutes, the visual side of the film is dominated by a list of names dated 19 October 1941. All Jewish and the sickening implication that these are victims of the Shoah is left to linger, as Heise continues to read from family correspondence, as Wilhelm and Edith seek to negotiate the hideous realities of their situation. Edith had returned home to see her dying mother, but is powerless to help her father. Aunt Elsa and sister Pepi, as they are forced to move into a smaller apartment. They endure all manner of restrictions and shortages, while growing increasingly concerned about rumours of deportations to Poland and the fate that awaits them there.
As the date switches to 26 January 1942 on a list relating the Latvian city of Riga, Barred from public transport during a harsh winter, Max laments being unable to visit Anna at the cemetery and urges Edith (whom he calls `Dittl') not to worry about them having no coal or gas. Then, on 18 January, their luck runs out and Max writes a hasty postcard during the three hours that he and Elsa have been given to pack their suitcases before being evicted. This proves to be their last communication and, as the date on the scroll moves on to 28 July 1942, Pepi takes up the story, as she struggles to get by alone in Vienna. She admits to not having heard from her loved one since their departure, but hopes Max is in an old people's home and that Elsa is keeping busy. However, she falls silent after 23 July, when she thanks Edith for everything and announces that she is due to travel that day.
In 1948, the 23 year-old Wolfgang writes a resumé outlining his background and the ordeal that he and Hans endured at the Zerbst and Fliegerhorst labour camps during the last years of the war. Over shots of wind turbines towering over abandoned buildings, they describe the conditions in the barracks and how they try to keep up with news of the Allied advance in the hope that they will soon be liberated. But they are also targeted during air raids and both seek to reassure Wilhelm and Anna that they are safe.
The next source is the diary of Rosemarie Barke, whose reminiscences of a first kiss with a boy named Horst on a skiing holiday give way to an account of the aftermath of the fire bombing of Dresden. She wheels her bicycle through streets strewn with corpses and dots her description with fears about what will happen when the Russians arrive. By the time she records that Hitler and Mussolini are dead and that the surrender is about to be signed, Rosemarie is in a camp for displaced persons as a Frenchwoman, in the hope that she will be moved out of what will become the Soviet sphere of influence.
A long travelling shot along a pipeline gives way to a track through a dark forest, as Rosemarie reveals that she is still hoping to get out of Germany as late as June 1947. along with the thousands of others who are lined up on railway platforms waiting for trains to the west. By 1948, it's clear she is still in East Germany, but has fallen for Udo, who writes her passionate letters from the West. However, Rosemarie is also seeing Pyotr, a member of the Yugoslavian trade delegation who keeps threatening suicide unless she marries him.
The situation remains tense into 1951, when Udo writes from Mainz complaining that he can't get Rosie out of his head and hopes that she can cross the border for a camping trip in the summer. As the camera roves around an empty railway station, Udo pours out his views on politics and the lies spun by leaders hoping to indoctrinate the gullible. He also admits to fantasising about his beloved and wishes she would be more effusive in her letters. Cursing that his law studies will prevent him from travelling, Udo describes their affair as a cheap melodrama enacted by unremarkable supporting characters. Amidst the references to sensual encounters in the countryside, he also reveals that he has ambitions to make 8mm films before lamenting that the Pyrenees will remain standing long after their thwarted passion has cooled and has passed into insignificant history.
Over shots of a slow goods train moving towards the camera. Udo gives his impression on the Cold War and boldly announces that the Soviets and the West will avoid hostilities. He mentions the wars in Korea and the Middle East and the decline of the French Empire. But he also concedes that he still loves Rosemarie, even though he has been dating a Frenchwoman. A backlit topless snapshot of Rosie is followed by a telegram in which Udo proposes marriage. Images of men clearing snow from a suburban street accompany Udo's news that he has found a place where they can live. However. he becomes frustrated by her reluctance to reply and he sends a mournful missive informing her that he is setting her free because he feels he has waited long enough for his impossible dream.
Rosemarie is living with a man called Ernst, but she confides to her diary that he doesn't understand women and isn't interested in her as a person. She meets Wolfgang, who is now a philosopher, and is taken by his relaxed attitude to life. They sleep together and she meets Edith, who seems to be a very modern woman. Wolfgang asks Rosie to move in with him and we see a photograph of them with their two young sons, Andreas and Thomas.
It's now September 1963 and Gerd Semmer writes to Rosemarie from Düsseldorf to enclose a couple of poems for the magazine she edits. He notes how much he enjoyed watching her boys clobber each other and jokes that Germany will always be able to defend itself with such warriors around. A snapshot of the brothers in short pants turns to colour, but the view of a ploughed field is in black and white, as we hear Christa Wolf's 1995 paean to Wolfgang Heise. She recalls their meeting in a sanatorium in the early 1960s when the Soviet Bloc was still reeling from the revelations about Joseph Stalin's crimes. They were both academics and covert opponents of the state, but they agreed on a strategy of decency to help them survive.
A long train passes through a flat landscape carrying motor cars, as the scene moves on to 1964, when Wolfgang is facing dismissal from his position at Humboldt University in Berlin for refusing to condemn such subversive students as Rudolf Bahro and folk singer Wolf Biermann. A letter from the ministry states that his intransigence implies a sympathy with the ideas of the admonished cabal and Wolfgang is invited to clarify his views on the Communist project within the German Democratic Republic. He seems to hold on to his teaching job.
By 1966, however. he is suffering from physical and psychological ailments and asks to be relieved of his duties as dean. Over shots of a road that appears to have been churned up by an earthquake, Despite being apart from her husband after he fled to Ahrenshoop, near the Baltic Sea, Rosemarie remains supportive and is worried for his health, as she knows that Wolfgang will blame himself for letting the side down. Yet she does that very thing by unintentionally revealing his whereabouts to the police.
In a 1970 homework assignment, Andreas writes about the expectations that have been foisted upon him now that he is 16. He admits to being uncertain how he will turn out, but wishes he wasn't so prone to temper tantrums and regrets having such an irrational dislike of his younger brother (the director, of course). Perhaps it stems from a teenage visit to the cinema with some girls that culminated in the siblings accidentally snogging each other in the dark,
Within four years. Andreas is drinking beer while on road patrol with the First Motorised Rifllemen Division based at Oranienberg, while Thomas is serving with Airforce Technical Battalion 9. Against shots of a long-deserted camp, he writes to his parents about the awful food, rats in the dormitories and the fact that several of his classmates are unfit for active duty. The platitudes spouted in the lectures dismay him, as do the bed-making competitions that are supposed to fire the socialist spirit.
Clearly, the Stasi was aware of the Heise attitude towards the state and we hear an extract from a 1976 neighbourhood watch report, in which Wolfgang and Rosemarie's failure to deliver election material is linked to the frequency of visits that they receive from either some Turks or Arabs in a smart car. A list of worthy comrades who contributed to the surveillance ends the document, which even avers that Rosie wears clothes that are far to young and trendy for her.
In June 1966, Wolfgang records himself and the famous dramatist, Heiner Müller, and we see pictures of the encounter, as well as hearing snippets of their discussion about Bertolt Brecht and the links between politics and art. Evidently, they drifted apart and we eavesdrop on a letter from Heiner to Rosemarie lamenting that so much time has elapsed since they were last together. He begs for some news, even if it's only about the books they are reading.
As yet more trains crank past slowly into a floodlit marshalling yard and we see the typaged faces on a mural in praise of socialism, Christa Wolf writes to Rosie in 1991 about her despair at the United States dragging the unified Germany into an imperialist war. She can no longer work because she can sense the start of the process that will bring about the end of the world.
Two years later, Rosemarie writes to Wolf in America to express her dismay that she had been exposed as a Stasi informant between 1959-61. She recalls being put under pressure by a man named Werner to dish the dirt on her staff at the literary magazine. As he threatened to leak details of a clandestine affair, Rosemarie had felt compelled to co-operate and had done so under her own name rather than a code name. But she is hurt that Wolf had taken the easy way out and, even though she thanks her for defending Heiner and offers her a hug for old time's sake, it's clear that she feels betrayed by a literary icon of the GDR and a close friend.
Passengers crowd on to a railway platform, as we hear a Heiner's 1992 newspaper article, `The Shores of the Barbarians', in which he hopes that Germany doesn't follow Yugoslavia in its violent fragmentation. He declares unification to have been a mistake and complains that cities like Leipzig, Rostock and Mecklenberg have lost their sense of pride since being preyed upon by capitalists seeking to give them corporate makeovers. To emphasise his point, Heiner refers to Thomas Heise's 1992 documentary, Stau - Jetzt geht's los, which profiles five skinheads in Halle, who are trapped between two cultures and are angry at both.
A final sequence gives Thomas his own voice, as the camera hovers outside the nursing home where Rosie is living. He confesses that he is unhappy at her leaving her flat, but she can no longer care for herself and seems content that she can focus on looking death in the eye. Andreas has also been admitted to hospital and Thomas is unnerved by the fear he hears in his brother's voice. There is still much to do with the film and he feels a little overwhelmed. But, as darkness falls, and yet another train rolls by, life goes on.
Having trained at the famous DEFA Studios in Neubabelsberg and seen every documentary from his debut, Why Make a Film About These People? (1980), banned by the East German authorities, Thomas Heise is ideally placed to reflect on the concept of `heimat' and how it has been remoulded by a century of social and political turmoil. The decision to view events from the perspective of his own family makes perfect sense, as their experiences not only mirror those of the nation(s) at large, but they it also provides him with exclusive first-hand source material that he cannily complements with the evocative high-contrast monochrome imagery of Stefan Neuberger (which is deftly edited by Chris Wright with an immersive sound track by Johannes Schmelzer-Ziringer).
Many of the sequences centre on abandoned buildings and railway lines, which generate a sense of both the inescapable past and time's relentless forward momentum. The wind turbines also serve a dual purpose, as they put a quixotic spin on proceedings, while also standing like stentorian guards over a landscape and population that became accustomed to being watched over by the state. But it's the archive material that hits home hardest, particularly the deportation documents that need no explanation either in the film or here. However, the family letters testify to a steady erosion of rights and liberties prior to the Final Solution, which should serve as a warning to us all as governments across the world lurch to the right.
While alerting the audience to creeping oppression, Heise's intimate, five-chapter epic also celebrates love's ability to shine through at even the bleakest times. His use of letters to chronicle the romances of his grandparents and parents is fondly discreet, although it might have been interesting to hear a little bit about his own relationships during the last days of the GDR before the Berlin Wall came down. This lapse in continuity isn't too damaging, but it does leave unanswered questions about the future of the Heise clan, which had reached the democratic promised land after surviving the vicissitudes of history and the structures imposed upon them by diametrically opposed totalitarian regimes by simply remaining decent.
CLEANIN' UP THE TOWN: REMEMBERING GHOSTBUSTERS.
Once upon a time, the `making of' documentary was a key part of the DVD extras package. Now that films are made primarily for cinemas and streaming platforms, the Hollywood studios have stopped producing these behind-the-scenes insights, which used to have fanboys hugging themselves at the prospect of ingesting all that lovely trivia.
Along the way, the occasional stand alone item has emerged, including George Hickenlooper, Fax Bahr and Eleanor Coppola's Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991), Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's Lost in La Mancha (2002) and Charles de Lauzirika's Dangerous Days: Making of Blade Runner (2007). Anthony and Claire Bueno's Cleanin' Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters sits somewhere between the two formats in backing up the special features presented on the 1999 video release. However, it's nowhere near as forensic as such recent Alexandre O. Philippe cine-essays as 78.52 (2017), Memory: The Origins of Alien and Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist (both 2019).
According to Dan Aykroyd, the story starts with his great grandfather, Dr Samuel Aykroyd, a dentist with a fascination with psychic phenomenon and spectral manifestations whose letters and journals provided the background for a comedy in the mould of such Hollywood gems as George Marshall's The Ghost Breakers (1940), which starred Bob Hope. Director Ivan Reitman persuaded Aykroyd to set the action in a modern city rather than in a futuristic hole in the space-time continuum and envisaged Aykroyd, John Belushi and Eddie Murphy as the three ghostbusters.
Circumstances resulted in the latter pair being replaced by Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, who joins Aykroyd and Reitman in recalling the two-week screenwriting blitz in a basement in Martha's Vineyard that drew the story together and established Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz and Egon Spengler as New York academics. We also meet novice producers Joe Medjuck and Michael Gross and SFX and animation experts Richard Edlund and Terry Windell. who joke about the ridiculous deadline that Reitman had agreed to get the green light from Columbia Pictures.
While Steven Tash, Jennifer Runyon, Alice Drummond and John Rothman look back on the Columbia University and New York Public Library sequences, we learn how John Candy lost the role of Louis Tully to Rick Moranis. Annie Potts became Janine Meinitz and how Sigourney Weaver won out over Denise Crosby and Darryl Hannah to play Dana Barrett.
On the technical side, we meet effects and model specialists Steve Johnson
Stuart Ziff and Mark Bryan Wilson, as well as prop designer John Bruno, who discuss the workings of the proton packs the ghostbusters use for zapping spirits. They also explain how Slimer was devised in tribute to John Belushi and how a green-sprayed peanut was used in the chandelier shot, while cameramen Bill Neil and Robert M. Stevens recalls the stock and lenses used by cinematographer László Kovács. Sound designer Richard Beggs also discloses how he came up with the siren for the Ectomobile.
Cast late as Winston Zeddemore, Ernie Hudson had expected to play a more significant role in proceedings. However, Reitman decided that he had too many funny lines for a secondary character and instructed Ramis and Aykroyd to share them out among themselves. Hudson admits to having been frustrated, but it grateful to have been involved in such a cult movie. The same goes for Timothy Carhart and William Atherton, who was cast as the notional villain, Walter Peck.
Weaver and puppeteer Terri Hardin Jackson remember shooting the scene in which Dana is grabbed by hands through her armchair, while dimensional animator Randall William Cook recalls how the Terror Dogs came into being and how they were brought to life by a mixture of stop-motion animation and puppeteering. He wishes there had been more time available to polish the effects, but Reitman was working to a tight schedule and some images were completed on a one-shot basis. So impressive were some of the FX that he commissioned 100 more and the producers had to persuade him to cut the number in half, as the effects crews were already working weekends.
While Weaver enthuses about the transformation she underwent to play Zuul, David Margulies riffs on his role as the mayor. We also hear from Ramis, assistant director Peter Giuliano and others how Mayor Ed Koch gave orders to close down roads in Central Manhattan to allow Reitman to film, while credit is given to production designer John DeCuir for finding ways to create the illusion of the road opening up outside the Mayflower building and for fashioning the Babylonian rooftop for the final showdown. This was erected in the hydraulic soundstage at Warner Bros that William Randolph Hearst had had constructed for Lloyd Bacon's 1936 Marion Davies-Clark Gable musical, Cain and Mabel.
Next. Billy Bryan and Diana Allen Williams ruminate on their work on the Stay-Puft marshmallow man, while stuntman Tony Cecere explains how they set the suit on fire. We also hear about the techniques involved in the big explosion and the euphoric reception the picture got at a test screening in Seattle. However, Sam Longoria recalls that his was one of several names that were omitted from the closing credit crawl and Reitman took out a full page advert in Variety to ensure everyone got their due. He could afford to be magnanimous, however, as the picture became a sleeper smash and remained top of the box-office charts for five weeks when Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had been expected to have the summer 1984 marketplace to itself.
As the credits roll. it's thuddingly apparent that neither Bill Murray nor Ray Parker, Jr. had anything to do with this engaging and enjoyable trip down memory lane. Of course, it would have been nice to hear Murray's recollections, but anyone familiar with Tommy Avallone's The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man (2018) would have had low expectations of him participating. As the writer and performer of the iconic theme, however, Parker is a more peculiar absentee, although Leonard Bernstein's potent score is also accorded a mere passing mention. Maybe copyright issues intruded, as they often do in films of this kind.
Glaring omissions aside, the Buenos do a decent job in assembling the principal talent from either side of the camera and coaxing them into sharing their enthusiasm for a project that has not only stood the test of time, but which has also seen off Paul Feig's contentious 2016 all-female reboot. It remains to be seen how Reitman's son, Jason, will fare with Ghostbusters 3.
In addition to the copious talking-head interviews, the action is enlivened with clips, home movies and animated interludes that have been nimbly edited together by Anthony Bueno and Derek Osborn. Moreover, as well as telling the backstory, the siblings have also highlighted the cultural impact that Ghostbusters had in its day and the legacy it continues to embellish. A decade in the making, this is a labour of love in the best sense of the term and devotees will be delighted.