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Two Adaptations of the Seagull


Anton Chekhov's The Seagull has remained a mainstay of the classic canon of dramas since 1896, following an eventful and disastrous opening. Its ensemble cast, and complicated, realistically subtle if tortured characters have ensured that it remain an attractive option to playhouses everywhere. As for film adaptations, however, they tend to have more in common with the play's opening night than its rich legacy. Strange, since cinema is such a subjective art form, it would seem a perfect medium to convey the intricacies of each player's inner life, yet there has never been a truly (forgive the pun) soaring adaptation. Good ones, but never amazing.

The Seagull was a departure from traditional dramatic action, far more involved, placing an emphasis on the thing we do most often in life that reveals us; talk. It took some time before it was recognised as the fantastically subversive and subtextual work we understand it to be today, informing, like the rest of Chekhov's work, dramatization and writing to this day. As we all know; complicated plays that aren't appreciated without due time and context make for oh so easy adaptation on screen.

As with any story about inconsolable, broken and miserable people, there are only two ways about it, without falling into ridiculousness. Tragedy or farce. Hamlet or In Bruges. Of course there are shades of one within the other, and that's the nature of the beast when it comes to The Seagull, but a filmmaker must pick a side. A tonal middle ground regarding something of this sort, where emotions run this high, would be absurd.

Two Adaptations of The Seagull

As fate would have it, 2018 saw the release of two of the best adaptations of The Seagull yet, both by filmmakers who come from theatre, one a faithful period set light farce backed by reputable Hollywood talent and the other a small Afrikaans variation set in the modern day, host to our own stars (what Annette Bening and Elizabeth Moss are to Hollywood, Sandra Prinsloo and Rolanda Marais are to... do we have a name for ours yet?). These diverging approaches to the material make for an interesting look into how The Seagull can be adapted well by capturing the humour Chekhov insisted was always there, and yet breeze by like a tepid fart, or adapted well with ferocity, but become somewhat arduous.

The prim and proper period adaptation, The Seagull, is an all-round solid effort. Nothing crazy, but a showcase for the massively talented cast. Elizabeth Moss and Annette Benning, being each on the opposite end of the misery to vanity spectrum, are absolutely perfect. Moss is on the verge of tears for almost the entire film, it would seem, and that sort of 22-year-old woe-is-me act is both funny when it needs to be (she wears black in mourning; “for (her) life”, and upsetting when we confront the pain of unrequited, and inexplicable love. Benning, with an utter disregard for the trouble around her, is the most blatantly comedic aspect. Saoirse Ronan as Nina is great when playing up the naïve actress to be, but embodies the trouble the film has with the tortured side of things in that, yes, she is believably hurt by the end of the film, but I don't see jaded. The same can be said for much of the film, not as jaded as is called for. Konstantin, here played by the handsome Billy Howle, comes across in no way as the emotionally-stunted, frightened, and overly eager mother's boy from the play. Rather he comes across as a sensitive, but tortured soul, sometimes something like a Mr. Darcy. On the whole, it's a film more at ease than I think can be justified by the conclusions the story draws. Maybe the filmmakers sensed this; they made the choice to play a scene from the dramatic fourth act as the opening, to colour what was to follow.

Our own South African take, modernized and retooled for a '90s era Afrikaans setting by perhaps one of only a handful of auteurs from SA; Christian Olwagen, only makes time for the darkest of humour. Olwagen's is a ruthless take on the material, having his actors push to the absolute to convey what is obvious from everything the characters say and do; they are damaged goods. With his characteristic long takes, following characters as they march across spaces, framing them to fill the wide screen marked, avoiding editing at all costs, he just about films his stage adaptation, rendering the camera as basically an impartial witness. With these prolonged takes, and a lack of music, tension is brought to the foreground. Realism, sexuality, trauma, uncomfortable neurosis, all dialled up. Konstant is more embarrassing, Nina more desperate, Irene the absolute epitome of the egomaniac starlet (in Sandra Prinsloo's best performance), and so on. All this means that this is a refreshing and exciting take on the material, but it does suffer a weighty flaw: it becomes laborious to finish. This is a demanding and distressing watch, riding hostility and discomfort for hours on end. For a play once touted for doing away with melodrama in favour of naturalism, the material can absolutely lean towards dramatic, and it can do so for a little too long, a little too strongly. Die Seemeeu is still the adaptation to beat though, it would survive on the strength of its cast alone, so familiar with their roles that they've reached a new state of spontaneity in their performances.

So there we have it, not a bad year for Chekhov movies, though there's a chance that The Seagull is destined to remain best seen in person, on stage. Either that or the perfect adaptation lies somewhere in between these two; dark, but funny, dramatic, but reigned-in, in a word: nuanced.

 
There's Something About Lily


Lily James has thoroughly annexed her corner of the space for young movie stars, and there's very little chance she'll be slowing down any time soon. She has the mark of a star, and if she manages to keep up the string of good choices she's been able to make for years now, we can only expect to see her become a household name.

Lily's mother was an actress, and having attended a few performing arts schools, and clinching management shortly thereafter, she seemed poised to do well from the start. Her work on stage and in TV, as a key player in Downton Abbey, for instance, gives us some early insight into her draw, but let's face it, she's a movie star, and that's what we'll be looking at here. What is Lily James to the movies, and what will she be?

Well, following some solid work and minor roles, her big break tells us a great deal about the quality James gives off; she was launched to stardom after being cast as the lead in Disney reboot Cinderella. A Disney princess is a few things. Stunningly beautiful, but in a full-cheeked, youthful way (less sculpted). Likeable, with an obviously kind soul and innocent demeanor. And a joy, practically an inspiration to everyone around her (save for the villains). It was great casting. Lily James has the graceful beauty of movie legends like Ingrid Bergman, capable of convincing an audience that a character could fall in love with her or be swayed simply because of her presence, no further explanation required. She is immediately pure-hearted, with beaming doe eyes, which in turn seem so vulnerable when they widen in childlike fright, or well up with tears. James is cast so consistently because she arrests us into caring for her character with such ease. And, after marking herself out as such a valuable asset, she experienced an unbelievably quick ascent to several major subsequent productions.

There's Something About Lily James

Baby Driver, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, Darkest Hour, these were huge roles, but the productions all played on the same ‘good-naturedness' James brings time and time again. In Baby Driver, the romance is downplayed in the plot, but suffice it to say: the girl is Lily James, of course the getaway driving protagonist falls in love and drifts closer to the goodness within him personified by her. In the sequel to Mamma Mia, a plain of reality so very divorced from cruelty and malice, she was the answer to: Who could play a young Donna, lifting the prequel sections of the film, telling a story we already know the end to, from going through the motions to effortless charm? And unlike some Pierce Brosnan shaped holes of key and rhythm, Lily James had infectious timing and spirit. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies she was at least able to kick some ass and serve as a role model to young girls, one who is independent and strong-willed, but still a young woman of her time, frustrated with herself for caring about silly romances and what a rude man thinks of her. Altogether, still cast because little girls would see themselves in her. Similarly, in Darkest Hour she is Elizabeth Layton, the chipper, go-getter foil to the curmudgeonly Winston Churchill, the only woman allowed in the map room. Once again, she's the in, the (relative) outsider getting to see the real Churchill behind the legend, as the audience is.

But on that note, you may be sensing a crushing familiarity between most of her roles. And you wouldn't be alone, James herself has expressed frustration with being typecast: “I've just had this feeling that I can't get rid of recently—and sometimes what you think is right for you is total nonsense anyway—that I've wanted to step away from playing characters that feel quite honest and open," she said. "There's a goodness to them that I want to get away from."

We should be excited by this prospect. How many times has an actress had the ability to step outside of her designated box, to stunning results? The industry liked to play a puerile game, drawing a line between the prestigious, reputable actors of note, the Viola Davis', Frances McDormands, et al., and the ‘movie stars' (who shall remain nameless). The line blurs more and more each day. The biggest name right now is probably Anya Taylor Joy, a massive talent who hops from practically independent productions like Thoroughbreds to world-gripping Netflix mini-series like The Queen's Gambit. And, if she has any say in it, this way lies Lily James.

Working with Ben Wheatly, she enters Rebecca the archetypal Lily James character, and through 83 year old spoilers, leaves a conniving but dutiful accomplice. Then a pivot back, as the neglected and bookish Peggy Piggot in The Dig, again for Netflix. These weren't quite the resounding success she was looking for, but that may well be fast approaching. James has jumped ship to Hulu, who've cast her, as you certainly already know considering this is the biggest casting news in some time, as Pamela Anderson in the upcoming limited series Pam and Tommy. If you aren't aware of who Pamela Anderson is, maybe stick around for the show, but it should be said Pamela would be new territory for James.

There's already some controversy surrounding the series, and James specifically; Pamela Anderson is, per a friend of hers, not happy with the attitude the script is approaching her and her relationship to Tommy Lee with, and hilariously isn't pleased with the choice of Lily James to embody her, because Anderson doesn't know who she is. Regardless, it's a fantastic opportunity for James to expand the scope of her talents, and the likeness is uncanny to say the least. We can only hope the show delivers.

 
This is NOT Toshiro Mifune


Today we're going to take a quick look at what is either a small and inconsequential mistake or a grave injustice, depending on how fond you are of Toshiro Mifune. Japan's greatest actor, and in the running for the best to ever work on screen, Mifune is a cultural icon, a titan of world-cinema and has rightfully achieved his status as a symbol for the broader trend of great Japanese films from the '50s and '60s, held in high esteem by critics, filmmakers and audiences. Specifically, many coffee table books collecting blurbs and recommendations from the history of film will choose Seven Samurai, with possibly Mifune's greatest performance, as the standard-bearer for a huge swath of celebrated works, inevitably cut to make room for more recognisable Hollywood classics. These reference books do have to sell, of course. So turn to movie number 272 of the 2020 edition of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and you'll see a nice two-page spread reserved for Seven Samurai. One side with the poster and a contribution discussing the film, and the other a big shot of Mifune in Seven Samurai, adorned in a kimono and gruff beard, brandishing his sword, ready for battle. The only problem is: that's not Toshiro Mifune.

This is NOT Toshiro Mifune - click to see original

The image is of another of Japan's top actors; Tatsuya Nakadai. Nakadai is in fact in Seven Samurai, in his very first on-screen appearance, though he only very briefly walks past the camera. You might be able to make the case that the two actors look somewhat similar, sometimes, but the real question is whether the image of Nakadai used in the book resembles Toshiro Mifune made up as his character Kikuchiyo, from the film. No, Kikuchiyo is a young buffoon, it would ruin his characterization for him to appear with such a stately beard. Instead he has thin, sharp and expressive facial hair. Their kimonos also appear onscreen as black and the other white, respectively, and for a great deal of Seven Samurai, Kikuchiyo doesn't wear a kimono at all, but battle armour, a key plot point since this was lifted from dead samurai, enraging some of the characters and revealing details about Kikuchiyo himself. You may be inclined to argue that this isn't a problem big enough to warrant a complaint; one book made an error, someone will point it out, it will be corrected and we'll be able to move on. Not quite.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die is hardly the only publication to make this mistake. In fact, as far as can be gleamed by looking at only the most mainstream of selections from bookstore shelves, this is the most used image when referring to Toshiro Mifune in the film. From other reference books like Great Film Directors A to Z, to a myriad of slapdash web articles (which don't really need to be held to quite the same scrutiny), to huge publications like The Guardian, far too many people seem to be falling prey to a photo being sold under false pretences. British publications mostly credit Sportsphoto/Allstar, but the number one culprit looks to be Alamy stock photos.

The photo is sourced most often from the Alamy A.F. Archive, where they have titled it: TOSHIRO MIFUNE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). They provide some more information: TOSHIRO MIFUNE AS Kikuchiyo FILM TITLE SEVEN SAMURAI DIRECTED BY AKIRA KUROSAWA FILM COMPANY COLUMBIA 26 April 1954. A more apt description would be TATSUYA NAKADAI AS Hanshiro Tsugumo FILM TITLE HARAKIRI/SEPPUKU DIRECTED BY MASAKI KOBAYASHI FILM COMPANY SCHOCHIKU 1962. Yes, the picture was actually taken at an unspecified date 8 years after the date currently accredited to it. Two further bits of information stand out.

Toshiro Mifune

The REAL Toshiro Mifune

First; a lengthy declaration of the circumstances under which the photo can be reproduced once you have purchased the image. It reads: “**WARNING** This photograph is the copyright of the FILM COMPANY and/or the photographer assigned by or authorised by/allowed on the set by the Film Company at that time of this production & can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above film. A Mandatory Credit To THE FILM COMPANY (AND PHOTOGRAPHER IF KNOWN) is required. ” Well. Most publications that have used the image have used it to promote Seven Samurai, not Harakiri, as well as crediting the studio Toho, not Schochiku. Or by “the above film” do they mean what is written above? You may only use this image from Harakiri if you use it to promote Seven Samurai? And second; “This image could have imperfections as it's either historical or reportage”. They weren't lying.

And that's the real issue here, reportage. The more publications fork over up to $69.99 for an image that isn't even of what they're looking for, the more the precedent is reaffirmed that this is the go-to image for Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai. And that's not fair. Not to Mifune, who's role is recognised as invaluable by the very publications misattributing the image. Not to Nakadai and the makers of Harakiri, for obvious reasons. And not to admirers of their work, who only ever get to announce their displeasure with the incorrect choice of stock photo in the odd comment section. There has been a new edition of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die every year since 2007, and every year without fail, the image remains. This is in all likelihood one of the bestselling reference books ever made about cinema. It's an easy mistake, but also, it would seem, easy to fix.

There are plenty of other images of Mifune as Kikuchiyo on Alamy, some of them even larger in format, available for the same price range as the Nakadai photo. Production stills, shots from the film, in the same aspect ratio to fit the page, which better capture the spirit of the epic. Beware, there are a few more mislabeled photos. Just be sure to have a fan help pick out the replacement. Please.

 
How the Movies Introduced Reggae to the World


If pressed to name their favourite Jamaican film, many people may mistakenly offer Cool Runnings as an answer, and while, yes, Cool Runnings is delightful, it is strictly speaking not Jamaican. With an American director and writers, at least one Canadian star and a German composer, the most convincing case for a nationality for that film is probably the House of Mouse: Disneyland. But, who could fault them for making that guess? Jamaica's number 1 cultural export is and has been its music for as long as they've held any kind of spotlight.

The Harder They Come was the first, and arguably remains the best, Jamaican film ever made. That metric meaning it was directed by, written by, starring, and produced by a crew comprised of Jamaicans.

The plot of the film was based partially on the escapades of real life cult figure Vincent “Ivanhoe” Rhyging Martin, who went on a minor killing spree. The film updates Ivan's rise-and-fall into contemporary Jamaica by introducing the underworld of drugs and record-making, which were capturing the minds of the Jamaican public.

Ivan comes to the big city, Kingston, believing he can dig himself out of poverty by becoming a star and cutting a record deal. He becomes entangled with a local preacher's adoptive daughter, and has a run-in with the law, but does manage to cobble together a potential hit. His producer buries the track to avoid Ivan becoming too unwieldly, leaving him to push drugs to escape ruin. When a cop tries to stop him on a run, things don't go well, and Ivan makes good on his promise of becoming famous.

The film came right out of the gate with a strong sense of working class national identity, how folk-heroes are idolised and come to define themselves by idolizing their own conceptions of legend (for Ivan, seeing Westerns like Django fuel his desire for a glorious struggle against his oppressors, seeing how the films capture the imaginations of the people). When he is left unable to make good on his musical decrees of resistance, he wills a seemingly unobtainable fame and cult following into existence by embodying the spirit of his only hit through crime.

The production operated on a shoe-string budget, opting to shoot many scenes in slums and streets, among the unfiltered hustle and bustle. This was a plus to distributors, because the movie captures Jamaica at the time with what would have been a very attractive exoticism to American audiences, not in the least because of the major presence of Jamaican patois, the native language. Patois is referred to as a ‘creole-language', comprised of mostly English, but it combines influences and vocabulary from West Africa, which confounded some international viewers and critics, never mind the often heretofore unheard accents. Upon its release in 1972 at the Venice film festival, the film played with subtitles, making it the first film ostensibly in English requiring English subtitles.

The plot thread where Ivan cuts a record deal identifies part of why there were no Reggae stars yet who had crossed over to become international stars. When making records, artists would typically not enter into negotiations to become a long-term fixture of a label's releases. This deterred labels from forking over cash to promote or properly market their artists, since the musicians may just have jumped ship once they hit it big. So essentially no reggae musicians received significant pushes from their labels, therefore even if their songs became slightly popular, few if any listeners bothered to learn who had made the music.

This problem was solved by creating The Harder They Come as a starring vehicle for ska, rocksteady and reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. The soundtrack to the film features a number of artists and singles spanning from 1967 to 1972, but Cliff dominates, performing half of the 12 tracks, with two of his best songs serving almost as leitmotifs reappearing continuously throughout the runtime. Specifically, although there isn't a weak moment on it, the title song by Cliff is a real highlight from the album and perfectly captures the attitude and identity of the film's main character. This served as a brilliant introduction to the genre, being comprised largely of hits by seminal reggae singers. The music amplifies the film as few soundtracks do, without it the movie would simply not work as well as it does, at all.

Whilst the story of the film divided critics, the soundtrack transcended criticism entirely. It became a massive hit on the international market as well as on home soil. Reggae escaped the label of curio and became a world-renowned and beloved genre. For its immeasurable impact on popular culture, and more than likely for the faultlessness of its tracks, the soundtrack for The Harder They Come is widely considered a classic, and was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

The movie and album were followed by a number of Jamaican movies involving reggae, further cementing the nation's cultural identity as seen by American audiences, but the Jamaican film industry is still largely underground. What really took off was reggae, allowing artists featured in the film and many more not involved with The Harder They Come to flourish in a market that now welcomed their work. In this space of blooming success, reggae evolved and perfected itself, and we are all better off for it.

 
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