“We’s Who’s the Earth is For”: Storm Visions

by Ciarán O’Rourke

A decade ago I began to form a habit that in the intervening years has evolved into a strange passion: going to the cinema, and watching movies, alone. Two films in particular, from those early days, seemed so urgent and exhilarating, so attuned to what was then (and is still) being talked about as the greatest threat to civilization, climate change, but at a human level, that I lay a good deal of the responsibility for my cinematical hermeticism at their feet. I saw Take Shelter and Beasts of the Southern Wild in short succession, and they both taught me something about how to see, and read, and think about environmental devastation as a collective experience, from the confines of my own small life. Each picture still filters my understanding of the many dooms that are already taking shape about us, and are promised to intensify in the time ahead.

Take Shelter (2011) begins with an apocalypse that only Curtis (Michael Shannon) can see, which nevertheless threatens to envelop everything he knows. Staring at trees shaking and shimmering in the wind, Curtis watches, as in the backdrop an immense storm cloud gathers, and oleaginous rain begins to splatter his shirt and head. The film proceeds as a close-focused portrait of a loner in crisis, as Curtis risks his job, family, financial stability, and standing in his community to build an underground bunker for his loved ones, in anticipation of an ecological and social disaster that nobody else understands, or wants to.

Jeff Nichols’s film stands (as the title suggests) as an admonitory projection of an atomised America drowning in a storm of oil, a storm that only one incorrigibly reticent man, whose sanity is questioned throughout, can discern. Take Shelter was released three years before the Flint water crisis laid bare the reality of the USA’s poisoned waters, and the social regimes ensuring that some people would suffer the effects of failed public infrastructure more than others. Likewise in 2005, six years prior to Nichols’s picture, the people of New Orleans had been left to fend for themselves by the federal government in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and then criminalised for surviving. Nichols’s cinematic parable is alert to the reality of these murder traps, and still perturbs, mixing fantastical foreboding with the sharp, persistent tang of realism.

Watching the movie now, it’s difficult to imagine any other actor than Shannon for the part of Curtis. Shannon, in his late thirties in the film, has the truculent, creviced features and uneasy, watchful gaze of an ageing veteran from a forgotten war. He conveys both seething anxiety and blank-eyed stolidity, and seems always to have wandered onto the screen from some Great Nowhere, that lost hinterland where America’s ghosts have been left to die. Curtis wakes from nightmares screaming, or asphyxiated in terrified paralysis. When lightning crashes in a far-off field, he flinches, and lurches instinctively to draw his young daughter (who is deaf) into the house. The lines between sight and vision, climactic crisis and personal breakdown, grow blurry, as Curtis mutters in disbelief and trepidation: “Is anyone seeing this?”

In some respects, Shannon is comparable to Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, the “only actor” of the 1930s with whom the writer James Baldwin “identified” as a youth, just “by the way [he] walked down the road at the end of the film”. For Baldwin, Fonda’s on-screen presence was such that his whiteness was almost erased, composed not of savage entitlement but of empathic anger and downtrodden longing: he epitomised in his person those dispossessions endured by predominantly black and brown communities in the actual nation that Baldwin knew while growing up. The foreboding that we see encoded into Shannon’s permanently pained expression is, in part, the face of white America turned back upon itself; he is a witness to catastrophe that none of his neighbours recognises, and against which there is no protection.

Nichols’s picture is set in America’s backlands, near Elyria, Ohio, where Walmart remains one of the city’s top five employers, and (in the movie) Curtis and his friend Dewart (Shea Whigam) work in a gravel pit. Left deflated and unappeased by liberal America, within half a decade of the film’s making, places like this would embrace the demagogic populism of Donald Trump, as he began his march to the White House. The dread Curtis feels in nightmares, as friends and neighbours are driven to acts of visceral violence and desperation, accurately foreshadows the rancour and resentment stoked by Trump in reality.

In the micro-drama of Curtis’s escalating distress, which may be madness, we also glimpse the macro-epic of climate catastrophe, baring its fangs. “It rained for two hours yesterday,” his boss snaps in exasperation. “Two hours, and our entire [drilling] schedule went into the toilet.” Industrial productivity, not to mention human survival, becomes considerably more difficult and dangerous when the natural systems it depends on move with a gargantuan rhythm and momentum of their own. Take Shelter registers the pulse of a maelstrom that later films like Parasite dramatise in full-blown action.

Bird-murmurations swarm the skies, then vanish at a glance. When Curtis expresses his disquiet during a medical appointment, his doctor swivels his chair away from him, asking, “You been out to see your mother,” living in psychiatric care, “lately?” For Curtis, to question the seeming complacency of his peers is to be consigned to outsider status, exiled. When he does visit his mother (Kathy Baker), he wonders quietly if she can remember what happened before she was “diagnosed”. “It was a real stressful time,” she says in a soft voice. “Your father was gone a lot…there was always a panic that took hold of me.”

Nichols’s visual grammar is often so beguiling because of his parallel capacity to enter the inner (and intimate) life of his characters. Much of the power of Take Shelter lies in its recognition that many of its central characters can’t: the precarity and many burdens of their days are such that the very idea of safety, sustainable comfort, enduring happiness is constantly endangered. “You got a good life,” says Dewart (Shea Whigam) to his friend and workmate. “Well, it ain’t always so easy,” Curtis replies, looking away.

This is a drama in which basic medical procedures and prescriptions are frequently out of financial reach; where people are expected to suffer, or (somehow) pay. Curtis’s wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), sells hand-sewn curtains and quilts at the local car-boot sale for extra cash. When Curtis gets “a home-improvement loan” from the bank to build the tornado shelter in his back garden, he jeopardizes his ability to cover the expense of Hannah’s hearing implants. “How could you do that without talking to me,” Samantha almost pleads: “Tell me something that helps me understand why you’re being like this.” He breathes heavily: “There’s nothing to explain.”

Communication and mutual understanding, their necessity and frustration, are organising motifs in this strangely symphonic drama of private calamity and collective crisis. We watch transfixed as Chastain’s Samantha, whose searching intelligence makes even silence eloquent, teaches Hannah “a new sign” word, and the windows of the house grow grey: “S-T-O-R-M.” When Curtis eventually tells his wife about the “dreams, I guess they’re more like nightmares”, he evokes “this dark, thick rain, like fresh motor-oil”. Such terse, weighted lines could be taken from a play by Sam Shepard (an actor-writer who adds to the grounded gravitas of Nichols’s 2012 feature, Mud). “It’s not just a dream,” Curtis says. “It’s a feeling. I’m afraid something might be coming. Something that’s not right. I cannot describe it. I just need you to believe me.” The times are out of joint.

The question of belief, of human faith-in-one-another, is resolved only ambiguously in this film, which brings us face to face with a premonition of extinction that is at once powerful and difficult to absorb in full. Curtis’s slow diffidence and physical unease nevertheless convey what we (and he) cannot quite define in verbal terms.

In Field of Dreams (1989), despite accusations from all sides of insanity, financial and medical, the character Ray (Kevin Costner) knows that “if he builds” a baseball field on his land, “people will come”:

They’ll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past…. Then they’ll walk off to the bleachers, sit in their shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon…and they’ll watch the [baseball] game, and it will be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.

Curtis’s nightmares repeat the same parable, but in altered form. If he builds his storm shelter, his vision will be true and his fears vindicated: the apocalypse he’s felt brewing for so long will strike.

In a vivid distillation of Curtis’s anguish, after fighting with Dewart in the mess hall, frothing at the mouth he yells: “There is a storm coming. Like nothing you’ve ever seen. And not one of you is prepared for it.” None of his friends and neighbours can look him in the eye. “Sleep well in your beds,” he screams, “because if this comes true there ain’t gonna be any more.” Then, turning to Samantha and Hannah, his eyes clearing as he looks into their faces, he crumples into tears, in agony and shame.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, – that is genius,” Emerson once wrote, urging that each “man” should “carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he”. Curtis’s actions exemplify the stubborn wildness of such a credo, while exposing the preposterous insulation of its originator. Curtis’s need to trust his convictions “in the presence of all opposition”, his will to act on the recurring, fearful visions he sees, cost him nearly all he has. Emerson’s sermon at the pulpit exacted no such toll on the eminent philosopher.

In similarly immersive fashion, Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) dramatises the experience, at an almost bodily level, of fragility in the midst of social and climactic collapse. Set on a small Louisiana island, in a forgotten town called the Bathtub, the film is narrated and led by Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in a decrepit portacabin, suspended by trees, with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Their home is alive with rust, and roots; lit by weather and lived in by birds and (sometimes the strangest of) beasts.

The first words we hear in the film, in voice-over, are faltering, precise, and powerfully expressive of the world Hushpuppy knows and the binding laws she intuits to be true there: “All the time, everywhere, everything’s hearts are beatin’ and squirtin’, and talkin’ to each other the ways I can’t understand.” Hushpuppy’s statement of incomprehension is deep and real with wisdom, partly because (like Curtis) she understands more, perhaps, than she can allow herself to say out loud.

We see Hushpuppy holding a chick in her small hands firmly, and yet with total gentleness. Patrolling a nearby junkyard in her faded yellow wellington boots, she lays her arm across a recumbent hog, sleeping in the mud, and listens for its heartbeat, a gesture she repeats throughout the film, motivated by the nameless but palpable sickness that is increasingly depleting Wink of energy and aggravating his mood.

“I hope you die,” she shouts at Wink, after he has struck her in anger and panic. She punches his chest, and we see, on his face, a flicker of remorse and grief. He will die (soon), and he recognises that at some instinctive level Hushpuppy already knows it. When Wink collapses, in seizure, a rumble of thunder sounding in the skies, Hushpuppy quivers in open-eyed distress at this great apocalypse descending on her father, and overtaking their life together, which is grubby, precarious, and full.

Hushpuppy and Wink fish in a scrap-metal boat that floats on the mud-brown river, which, as in one of Mark Twain’s quintessential (and insightful) yarns, is always “raising”. After floods, the water becomes choked, in large measure due to a forbidding levee, which separates Hushpuppy and her people from the smoke-spewing industrial landscape beyond, where the American State reigns supreme. “Ain’t that ugly over there,” Wink says, nodding in the direction of the factory towers. “We got the prettiest place on earth.” In moments like this, Benh Zeitlin’s film (his first) has truth and grit in equal measure, which may account for its overall vitality, its magnificent flavour.

“They built the wall that cut us off,” Hushpuppy proclaims, with a kind of triumph. “They think we all gonna drown down here, but we ain’t goin nowhere…. The Bathtub has more holidays than the rest of the world!” In the form of the Bathtub, the commons has survived, and we see its openness and revelry, the plenteous river, and the companionship that thrives in and around it, up-close. This is a place where people share their resources, knowledge, and company, together in nature.

“Everything is part of the buffet of the universe,” smiles the kindly Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana), who tells the local huddle of listening children before her of the fierce, ravenous aurochs, now extinct, which once roamed the earth. As Wink’s illness takes hold of his body, violent storms rocking and wracking their home, Hushpuppy is haunted by these creatures, looming and immense: they shadow her world. “I’m recording my story for the scientists of the future,” she says, without irony, fear or self-pity.

This is also, however, a community attuned to its own destruction. “Ice-caps gonna melt, water’s gonna rise,” Miss Bethsheba says, so “y’all better learn to survive now,” an instruction Hushpuppy internalises, and converts to poetry, a boat-speak vernacular:

One day, the storm’s gonna blow, the ground’s gonna sink, and the water’s gonna rise up so high, there ain’t gonna be no Bathtub, just a whole bunch of water…. But me and my daddy, we stay right here. We’s who’s the earth is for.

The radicalism of Hushpuppy’s world-view is ultimately less impressive than her resounding trust in it. Her intent, soft, observing eyes, her mellow, thoughtful words, find truth wherever they rest. “We’s who’s the earth is for.”

Take Shelter evokes the terror of a grown man both lost and anchored in a world overshadowed by lethal catastrophes; Beasts of the Southern Wild re-creates the lush and often urgent textures of childhood, a time of true magic and deep yearning, in this case imperilled by those hungry predators, natural death, social and environmental devastation, and a coercive State. When Wink commits an act of sabotage on the dam in an attempt to clear the area of the now-stagnant waters, police and rescue teams arrive to implement an “emergency evacuation”, forcibly transferring the Bathtub community into homeless services. “It didn’t look like a prison,” Hushpuppy remarks of the crowded medical centre where Wink is transferred. “It looked like a fishbowl with no water.” If it is stirringly humane and fluently constructed, the film remains alive (in A. S. Hamrah’s words) to “an America that is divorced from social services and beset by environmental collapse”.

The movie holds in balance an unflinching recognition of precarious lives faced down by (sometimes lethal) inevitabilities, and a child’s experience of community and fellowship – with nature and her people. Everything Hushpuppy loves comes close to vanishing, or actually drowns, as the monsters that stalk her life knock down the walls, covering her world with swampy water.

Without shirking its responsibility to these sureties and circumstances, the final act dares to imagine some of the ways in which lost children may find warmth and protection: in the arms of outcasts, or in the companionship of one another. Hushpuppy can walk back to the “raising” river and call it home. As we look into a future of certain loss and potential planetary ruin, the tenderness and fierce courage of this film quickens the heart.

Further Reading

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976).

A. S. Hamrah, The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing 2002–2018 (2019).

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841).

Ciarán O’Rourke is a poet, based in Galway, Ireland. His first collection, The Buried Breath, was issued by Irish Pages Press in 2018 and highly commended by the Forward Foundation the following year. His miscellany of essays, One Big Union, was published in 2021, and his second poetry collection is forthcoming. More information about his work can be found here. http://www.ragpickerpoetry.net/books

French working class noir

The birth of a genre, French noir 1930 – 1960

When thinking of “film noir” the names that spring immediately to mind are Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Orson Welles, Raoul Walsh, Sam Fuller… Humphrey Bogart, Edward G Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall, James Cagney, Robert Mitchum… But across the Atlantic the genre was also gaining momentum in French cinemas. Long before India and China entered the arena, France was the world’s second most prolific film making nation behind the USA – with as strong a national identity as its cuisine.

Two seismic events shaped the evolution of cinema in the 1930s: the advent of sound recording and the Great Depression. In the USA the main cinematic themes were the lavish escapism of Busby Berkeley, Astaire and Rogers et cetera, and the countless gangster movies involving the likes of Paul Muni and James Cagney, both genres catering to the wish fulfilment of an impoverished audience that still still flocked to the movies.

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1930s packed movie theatres

Even during the Depression Hollywood films were produced with budgets their European counterparts could only dream of. Wanting to preserve the French film industry, and no doubt la culture francaise as well, the French government introduced a quota system that reduced the amount of American imports and also gave domestic film-makers modest financial incentives – but in the main film making in France remained a relatively low-budget industry.

While escapist musicals and costume dramas certainly featured in 1930s French cinema (many of them interestingly co-produced with German companies), audiences flocked to see films that reflected their own lives and backgrounds too. A genre of films that showed working class lives became mainstream. Perhaps in part due to budget restrictions, and possibly due to the influence of left wing ideas amongst many writers and directors, much of the cream of the French classic cinema concerned itself with working class lives. Below I describe some of the films that help define French noir and French cinema’s portrayal of working class life.


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Jean Daste and Dita Parlo

Jean Vigo’s “Atlante” (1934) tells the story of newly-wed barge skipper Jean (Jean Daste) and Juliette (the wonderful Dita Parlo), and Juliette’s compulsion to escape the tedium of ship-board life to taste the pleasures of the big city, only to find it’s not the paradise she’d imagined. The film counterbalances the simple drudgery of life on the canals with a great depth of emotion. The stars are not just the young couple, but the flat industrial landscapes of northern France… and the crusty, enigmatic old first mate, le Pere Jules, marvellously played by character actor Michel Simon.

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Gabin and Mireille Balin

Pepe le Moko” (Julien Duvivier, 1937) stars French cinema stalwart Jean Gabin as Pepe, a notorious French gangster hiding out in the Algiers casbah. He knows that as long as he remains in the honeycomb of dives, hovels, shops and brothels that form the casbah, among the thieves, beggars, traders, prostitutes and other locals whose company he keeps, he’s safe from the pursuing Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux). Trouble arrives with the appearance of alluring Parisienne Gaby (Mirelle Balin), who reminds him of the life he’s left behind. Almost inevitably, and against his better judgement, he allows his feelings for Gaby to lure him from his sanctuary. While the casbah may appear a little romanticised, the feel of the film is classically noir.

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Gabin and Areletty

Marcel Carne was a master of French noir, and one of his best remembered films is “le Jour se Leve” (1939). Jean Gabin stars as Francois, a factory worker, holed up in a top-floor apartment, with armed police closing in on him. Told in flashback, the film recounts Francois’ attraction for young florist Francois (Jaqueline Laurent), and her reluctance to commit to him due to her mysterious liaison with seedy, older musical hall performer Valentin (Jules Berry). Things get more complicated as Francois takes up with Valentin’s ex, Clara (Arletty), while still having eyes for Francoise. Things come to a head when Valentin taunts Francois with details about his dalliance with the younger woman, leading to a scuffle in which Valentin is fatally wounded. As dawn breaks, Francois chooses to die in a hail of bullets rather than at the end of a rope.

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Suzy Delair and Louis Jouvet

Next I include Henri Georges Clouzot’s “Quai des Orfevres” (1947), not because it’s one of the best of the genre – it isn’t – but because it’s so typical. Jenny (Suzy Delair) sings in a music hall, accompanied on the piano by her unassuming husband Maurice (Bernard Blier). Maurice, mistakenly believing the vivacious Jenny of having an affair with with a lecherous old businessman takes a gun and goes to have it out with the would-be lothario – only to find him dead. Jenny, who had earlier clobbered the businessman with a candelabra whilst fighting him off, mistakenly believes she has killed him, but Maurice offers to carry the burden of guilt to save her. It’s left to Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) from the Quai des Orfevres to unravel the mess and find the real culprit, but the film is memorable for its portrayal of the seamy side of Paris. It’s also notable for its treatment of Jenny’s lesbian fiend and would-be lover, and Antoine’s adopted black son, as utterly un-notable facets of the film.

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Not many of Rene Clair’s films could be described as noir, but “Porte de Lilas” (1957) certainly does. This film dates from the twilight of the classic period and benefits from the presence of Georges Brassens (his only cinematic appearance), who acts as a kind of musical narrator to the film. Juju (Pierre Brasseur) is a drunk who falls for Maria (Dany Carrel) and renounces the bottle. He gives shelter to fleeing hoodlum Pierre (Henri Vidal), and even keeps him out of harm’s way when he takes up with Maria. When he gets wind that Pierre is about to abandon and betray Maria, however, he snaps and kills the hood. Left with nothing, he takes refuge in alcohol once more. Again, a working class area of Paris takes centre stage, along with the characters of the quatier.


Class is a theme that runs through much of the cinema of the classic period. Moving away from noir, Rene Clair’s “A nous la Liberte” (1931) is about the corrupting influence of money and power (and the dehumanising effects of the machine age), shown in a deceptively light-hearted manner.

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A nous la liberte

Many say Chaplin plagiarised the movie in his classic “Modern Times” (1936). Some of the similarities are indeed remarkable.

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Gabin and Dita Parlo in La Grande Illusion

In two of Jean Renoir’s finest films, “La Grande Illusion” and “La Regle du Jeu” (1937 and 1939), a main theme is the absurdity and increasing irrelevance of the ruling classes. While many people cite Regle du Jour as Renoir’s finest, I prefer Grande Illusion by a short head. The aristocratic de Boeldieu sacrifices himself to aid the escape of working class Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the bourgeois Jewish Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) from a forbidding German prison (which uncannily foreshadows the Colditz Story), thereby acknowledging that they are the future and the aristocracy a dying breed.

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Lastly country folk should not be forgotten. Several French films centred on country life, many of them comedies starring the incomparable Fernandel. Just to give a flavour, I’m including the Fernandel-less “La Femme du Boulanger” (Marcel Pagnol, 1937), which is many miles from being definable as noir, but as an affectionate mirror of Provencal villagers’ lives it is an absolute gem. The premise is simple: Aimable the baker (Raimu) is married to gorgeous young Ginette (Aurelie Castanier), who promptly runs off with a handsome young shepherd. The villagers are at first amused by the inconsolable Aimable’s plight, but when he refuses to bake any more bread they realise the situation is serious and mount a village-wide campaign to bring young Ginette back to her senses. The details of village life are beautifully observed, and the villagers portrayed with great humour and affection.


I’ve limited the above selection to films I know and love. It goes without saying there are glaring omissions, and my choice is absolutely personal. None the less, I think I’ve given a flavour of those wonderful film-makers’ achievements.


The end of the 1950s marked the end of the classic period. Auteur film-makers such as Francois Truffaut, Jean Luc-Godard, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, Eric Rohmer (et al) were ushering in a new wave.

As an angry young film-maker Truffaut wrote in Les Cahiers du Cinema that the future of film lay with the young, that cinema had to go out onto the streets, and that the old cinema classique was dead. In later years he retracted that statement and declared that he and his colleagues owed a great debt to the old film-makers. That goes for all cinema.


Paul Halas is a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader. He is a self described Corbynista. As a result he has been a Labour activist for the past five years – and most of his current writing is political. He is currently hoping to find something funny to write about.

Tony Hall’s Interview with Yves Montand

Yves Montand in Nairobi in 1966

By Tony Hall

On the face of it it may seem strange for a film star to speak so much on politics. But for Yves Montand and his wife, Simone Signoret, one of the really distinguished couples in the world of serious entertainment, taking a stand on burning political issues is part of every citizen’s duty.

It is a view shared by many of their friends, such as artist Pablo Picasso, and the playwright Arthur Miller.

The name of Yves Montand is a household name in Europe as a singer, dancer and serious actor in films like the ‘Wages of Fear.’ In fact he needs very little introduction anywhere in the world.

Tony Hall: You are a top international star today. Did you have a difficult start in your career as an entertainer and a film actor?

Yves Montand: Yes and no…I come from a poor Italian peasant family. We moved to Marseilles when I was two years old.
I started to sing when I was 18 in the suburbs of Marseilles in the little bistros and cafes on Saturday nights. I must say it caught on quite well straight away.
No, there wasn’t much difficulty…but then I had some trouble finding song material and routines and to find my personality.
Because you see your personality doesn’t come just like that out of the blue. It comes from the people you meet and other external circumstances; you come across people who are simple and modest or people who are highly educated. It’s their influences which help to form your personality.

During the Nazi occupation, you had to be one thing or the other. I would call that a time for commitment. And when there is this situation you must take a stand – if you are man.

Q You have reached the heights in two directions – as an actor and as a ‘chansonier‘. Which achievement are you most proud of?

A Well in fact I do a one man show only every three or four years – I’m not a chansonier. I am a little fortunate because I can also do a play when I want to like The Crucible, which my wife Simone Signoret and I did . And two years ago I appeared in an American play called A Thousand Clowns.
It was a comedy, very funny and very strong. When I have this kind of play, or a wonderful story like we are doing now or like the last picture I made with Frankenheimer called Grand Prix…all the sequences were for real.
For a month we took driving lessons with a champion racing driver Jim Russell…when you have this kind of story, I prefer to make a movie.
Four years ago I made four pictures in America, but I don’t think they were successful – especially in Hollywood it’s very dangerous because they want to use you in Hollywood as the oo-la-la, l’amour toujour kind of Frenchman – you know the kind of thing.
Now I’ve stopped it, I don’t want to shoot in Hollywood any more – except that last picture, but we did the shooting in England, France, Belgium, Germany.

Q It was an international film?

A Yes, in Cinerama. I don’t know if the picture is good, but I can tell you the racing sequences are just fabulous.
I think motor races come over well on Cinerama. And Frankenheimer saw racing drivers as ‘the gladiators of our time’.’
It’s true because in every race somebody dies or is wounded. And the accidents you see in the picture are all real accidents, which happened many years ago.

How do you feel about what is happening in [Apartheid] Southern Africa?

Q Before we go any further into your present work, I’d like to go back to your past – and ask you if you were ever in the Communist Party?

A What are you? FBI or something…? No, I assure you I’ve never been in the Communist Party. But I was with the Left-Wing during the war, because they were the people who really fought.
At one point they brought out the Stockholm Appeal, like Bertrand Russell is asking for now on Vietnam. I don’t regret I signed that at the time.
I signed appeals for the Rosenbergs. I signed petitions for peace – for many things like that.
It wasn’t easy at that time, now it’s easy because many people are signing, everybody is doing something in every country, even in New York and Hollywood nowadays.
But in Paris it wasn’t easy to do. I don’t regret it. The only thing that changed me – not my mind, but it affected my conscience, was what happened in Budapest, in Hungary in 1956.
It seemed to me then that things were not so simple and so clear, and that in every movement you have contradictions; good and bad.
During the war my stance was very simple: You are with them or you are against them. During the Nazi occupation, you had to be one thing or the other. I would call that a time for commitment.
And when there is this situation you must take a stand – if you are man.
But when this condition does not exist, when the issues are not confronting you, you must see people as they are, and not consider a man an enemy if he is not of your class.
You mustn’t be a fool and sectarian about it.
For example, I am 80 per cent for DeGaulle. He is an intelligent courageous man. He is a brilliant politician. What we can criticise him for are things inside France. We need more housing, more hospital facilities, this sort of thing.
But for what the French represent and their relationship to the world – he is a fantastic man. We must take that into account.

But I was with the Left-Wing during the war, because they were the people who really fought.

Q How do you feel about what is happening in Southern Africa? I believe in this film you play the part of a journalist who goes there…

A I don’t like what’s happening. I tell you I am ashamed as a human being, to hear what goes on in South Africa. If a human being doesn’t have the same feeling, I don’t want to speak with him. This is what I was saying earlier. This is a clear issue, a point of fixation. You must be on one side or the other. You can’t say: ‘Oh well, you know I’m not involved in politics.’
That’s wrong, because when you pay your income tax, that is politics, right?…
It’s a coward’s position.
I don’t hesitate on this point – even if they shoot me. I don’t want to argue about this.

Q Do you allow your records to be sold in South Africa?

A I don’t know. This is a good point. It’s not my decision but my record company’s. I could speak to them about…I wouldn’t go there.
Take Spain. I refuse to go to Spain…The Russians are going there. They are doing business with them. I’m ashamed. Because for me Franco was held in power by Hitler’s Fascists. If the Spanish people voted for Fascism – OK.
All countries can elect the government they want, but in this case they killed people; they strangled the republic whose government had been properly elected. This is something I cannot accept. This may sound unreasonable – but I think convictions are very important in life.

Q Do you share the view of Jean Paul Sartre that selling arms to South Africa as France is doing, is an interference in the internal affairs of the country because it perpetuate slavery?

A Yes. Absolutely. I agree with Sartre. In fact we don’t have to sell these arms. But you see how complex the problems are, how many contradictions there are when the Russians make business with Spain – for a movie, can you imagine that?
OK, some people might say that after 30 years it is necessary to have normal relations. But take the Mexicans. Right up to the present they do not recognise Franco. For me, this is the right policy.

Ah, voila. When I sing Les Feuilles Mortes no Brassens, or Becaud or Aznavour will sing it after that.

Q I’d like to go back to your role as an entertainer…The French tradition in singing is very rich and strong. What we would call folk singing, where the words mean something, is widely popular in France. You are one of the big names, but where do you fit in to the tradition?

A Well, as I said I do a one man show, in which I dance and sing. But, for example George Brassens, a wonderful guy, is not an entertainer at all. He’s a wonderful poet, even comparable to Villon, so strong.
But he’s the kind of performer whose records you buy to listen at home quietly. On the stage you need a show. This is not an attack against my friend Brassens, whom I respect very much. Jacques Brel is another strong singer like this.

Q And yet even your own work…I mean you were the creator of ‘Les Fuelles Mortes’

A Ah voila. When I sing Les Feuilles Mortes no Brassens, or Becaud or Aznavour will sing it after that. And I can’t sing a song of theirs as they do.
You must create your own material. Although I have done one record which is a selection of the best songs of the last 20 years, I put in: Les Fuelles Mort, La Vie en Rose, C’est ci Bon, Under the Skies of Paris… I also put in one song of Charles Trenet, one of Becaud, one of Aznavour and so on…It’s a salute, a tribute.

Q What about pop singing in France, people like Johnny Halliday?

A No, Johnny Halliday is something to do with publicity. We don’t consider him a singer in the same way. He and even Francoise Hardy are more like glamour idols.
Dress them in some new fashions and they look fine and you can sell them to the youth.
Also they have good faces and they move very well on the stage. But when you are French and you call yourself Johnny Halliday you’re starting off on the wrong foot.
Francoise Hardy is better. She sings the British or American arrangement – but she sings typical French songs. She doesn’t take an American song and translate the words into French…
In America there are only a handful of people who can really move a big audience, like Danny Kaye, Sammy Davis Junior, like Sinatra, maybe Judy Garland – and now Barbara Streisand, of course.
Out of 200 million people only five entertainers can move an audience in this way. We must make this distinction between various entertainers.
In England there are the Beatles. In Europe though maybe not in England, they move only the youth. In France, Spain and Italy people still don’t understand the Beatles humour, their spirit.

No, Johnny Halliday is something to do with publicity. We don’t consider him a singer in the same way. He and even Francoise Hardy are more like glamour idols.

Q Do you appreciate the Beatles?

A Oh yes, very much. They sing very good songs you know. And I also like their movies. Because thy don’t take themselves seriously. They are not dupes. They laugh at themselves too.

Q In France one notices a sort of tremendous self satisfaction about French culture and history, almost a smugness…

A Oh yes, you are right, too much so: because we had in our country Zola, Voltaire, Pasteur, people think they themselves are Moliere, Zola and Voltaire…
But in fact as in every country I suppose, when you meet a good Frenchman he is really good – brilliant like Jean Paul Sartre, Alan Renais, the director, and other people not so well known.
But I think, like in every country, in my opinion in France you get 70% of the people who want to be against everything: religion, policies…but in fact they are very ordinary.
Also Frenchmen don’t open their hearts easily. You have to be patient. But when they give you their friendship then you know you have got it for good.

Q What do you think of what Andre Malreaux the Minister is doing in the French cultural world?

A Oh tremendous. He has opened a house of culture in every big city, even in the suburbs of France.Though of course, people are what they are, and perhaps not enough people use them.

Q You are a friend of Picasso?

A Yes, like many other people.

Q Do you know why he suddenly decided to accept the Lenin Peace Prize recently after refusing it for years?

A No, I don’t know…But don’t forget he is Spanish. Don’t forget that for Spanish people who fought in Spain they don’t care about what happened in Budapest or any other place.
They suffer from Fascism in their country. For him, even though his heart may be breaking, he sticks to one line, as with Vietnam.

Q Part of this film you are now making is set in Vietnam?

A Yes, we are going to do some shooting there. But it is something we try to be perfectly neutral about…
Maybe we won’t go. I don’t know yet.
It’s for the director to decide.
When I say ‘neutral’ I mean we forget the American position or the Vietcong position.
In making this picture we worry about what happens to the people in this situation. The human being is important whether one side or the other is right, in the meantime there is killing every day!

Q Have you been in any of the French Nouvelle Vague films? You seem to have been caught up in the Hollywood world in the last few years…?

A Oh no, the last picture I made was directed by Alain Renais who is only 29 years old – a masterpiece called ‘Un Homme et Une Femme.’
I simply do pictures which interest me because I think it is impossible to live in a glass house and say ” I’m just an artist living for my art. Don’t bother me with the rest of the world.”
If you say that you are just an idiot. I don’t want to carry the flag and shout slogans n art or in politics. It looks ridiculous…People might say, oh, it’s easy for him to take a stand.
In fact it’s not easy at all. I don’t mean in the present time, but in France in 1945 up to 1958, people wanted to kill you – just like that!

‘at that time to have answered: ‘No Sir I am not a Communist,’ was already a concession to the witch-hunters.’

Q Can you explain that?

A Well, don’t you remember OAS, for instance? That’s just one thing. During the days of big tension between East and West, in the McCarthy days, it wasn’t easy to speak out.
But in that time I felt one must take a definite position – not for the sake of any political party or anything like that, but for myself!
One day they asked us, my wife and myself, if we were Communists. I didn’t answer at that time and if you had asked me that question ten years ago m’sieu, I wouldn’t have answered you.
Because at that time to have answered: ‘No Sir I am not a Communist,’ was already a concession to the witch-hunters.
In fact we were never, never in the Communist party but the people who asked us were the wrong people – so we refused to say ‘No, we are not.’ You see what I mean?

Q Of course it is a very good point…Is the position about censorship in France better than it was six years ago? I mean the film ‘Le Petit Soldat’ was banned for a long time.

A Oh, but it is released now. The position is better, yes. But sometimes, it depends on the director.
When you make a film which is very strong meat you must take your courage in your hands and not go running to authorities for approval and you must make it good. Otherwise they kill you, the critics and so on.
We made what I think is a wonderful picture with Alain Resnais called ‘The War is Over’. It’s been released in Paris, New York and London…

Q How come your wife, Simone Signoret has been working in England so much lately?

A Well, she learned English as a teenager from a very comfortable family. She went to school until she was 18 years old. She is a very intelligent woman.
And one day they asked her to make a picture Room at the Top, and she has been working there a lot since…She prefers to work in France, but at that time, 10 years ago, it wasn’t easy to work. ..

Q You got to know Marilyn Monroe well when you starred opposite her in ‘Let’s Make Love.’ Did you see signs at the time that she was an unhappy person?

A Well, I don’t want to answer that question.
When we worked together it didn’t look like she wanted to end her life.
In my opinion it was an accident. She took too many pills, and as you know, if by accident you take one or two too many, you can die. ..I think it was a terrible loss.
She was a wonderful personality. I don’t know if she was a great artist, but we don’t care about that – like with Bardot – she was an extraordinary person, larger than life.
She just hit you…Pow…right on the nose. This is something you cannot explain….Thank God.

she [Marilyn Monroe] was an extraordinary person, larger than life. She just hit you…Pow…right on the nose. This is something you cannot explain….Thank God

Q Many commentators say that as a person she was the victim of image-makers and money-makers; that there were too many pressures on her,…

A No, I don’t agree with that. At one time I might probably have said yes – by political education. But I think it is wrong.
I’ll tell you something. I signed a Hollywood contract and I never made a film in Hollywood that was a big success. So I could perhaps be anti-Hollywood. But it isn’t like that.
In show business they are fantastic. They give to you the most that they can – I’m not talking only about money – to give you the best advantages.
If it doesn’t work -goodbye. And I think that’s right. It didn’t happen to me.
I was asked several times to make another picture, but I said no, show me the script…You see the last picture I made there was Sanctuary, from the book by William Faulkner, with Tony Richardson directing.
Now you cannot put Sanctuary on the screen just as it is written. So they changed it. But not only did they change it, they changed the love scenes. It doesn’t come over at all in the book, so why call the picture Sanctuary?
In the book the character is a small man. In the film he is a big tough guy with a lot of women working for him. Then in the film the girl comes from the bourgeoisie and they both find purity and salvation in their love affair. It’s nothing! Call the picture what you want, but don’t call it Sanctuary.

Q So you are finished with that kind of film now?

A Oh yes.

Q Was this the fault of Tony Richardson? You did say he was a good director.

A He is, yes – when he is working in his own country. I think it is like this with everybody.
Why are the Russian plays so fantastic when they go outside? It is because they are typically Russian.
Tony Richardson cannot work in America. He needs to be in England where he can work with people who understand what he wants without any trouble.
Look at Mademoiselle, which he made in French with Jeanne Moreau. It was a big flop.

Q Is there a film you would still like to make?

A Well, a film like Wages of Fear. It was a wonderful story. I think the stars were those trucks. And the relationships between those kinds of men was so interesting.
Also it was like a Greek Tragedy, where everybody dies…
But I also enjoyed Let’s Make Love. It wasn’t a complete success. But a good comedy with music and song is also very satisfying.
Yet it is more difficult to do well than a tragic picture.

Q The film, ‘Is Paris Burning?’ in which you and your wife make brief guest appearances, has been criticised for playing down Communist and Left-Wing resistance figures while emphasising the part played by Gaulists and by people who are now in government…

A No, I think the spirit of the film is very good. But obviously they couldn’t put everybody in.
Of course at that time, even the Communists were under the banner of De Gaulle. In the picture one of the first people to pick up a gun is a Communist guy – and he is very sympathetic.
But the leader was always accepted as De Gaulle. We can’t deny that.
At that moment when he came down the Champs Elysees, everybody was behind him.
The picture may not be so well done, but the truth is respected.

Tony Hall

Tony Hall was born in Pretoria in 1936. He went to Witwatersrand university and then went on to work as a reporter at the Star. He joined the Congress of Democrats after Sharpeville along with his wife Eve Hall and interviewed Nelson Mandela in Hiding. His wife, Eve, was jailed by the Apartheid regime. Tony Hall was the first journalist to be banned from a major newspaper in South Africa when, after interviewing Potlako Reballo on a forthcoming insurrection, he was questioned and refused to give information to police.

Tony and Eve went into exile in Kenya where both of them worked on the Daily Nation. Tony wrote the column ‘On the Carpet and Eve was the woman’s editor. However, at the request of Ruth First, an intermediary for Odinga Odinga, Tony drafted the platform of KANU. He was appointed Communications Officer for the East African Community, but when his involvement with KANU was discovered he and his family were forced to leave the country.

In the United Kingdom Tony worked for Oxfam and then moved with his family to Tanzania to work as Training Editor for The Standard with Frene Ginwallah as editor. From there Tony was appointed Oxfam information officer for East Africa and was the first to reveal to the world, the 1973 famine in Ethiopia. After Ethiopia Tony and Eve shared the job of Oxfam Information officers in India.

After India Tony Hall worked as an editor of international Newsmagazines focused on the Middle East for eight years. Then he left to join his wife in Somalia where he worked for UNDP starting IMR, a trade magazine. He trained a team of Somali journalists to run the magazine.

In the late 80s Tony and Eve were in Harare. Tony was Editing the Magazine Africa South and East under the aegis of editor-in-chief Govan Mbeki. It was at this time that Mandela was released and Tony and Eve were unbanned. Africa South and East moved its headquarters to Yeoville. When Allister Sparks resigned as head of Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, which he founded, Tony Hall was offered a senior management job at the institute, however, once again, he left to join Eve who was working in Addis Ababa. There Tony become the Communications Director of the Economic Commission for Africa, a branch of the UN.

Tony carefully selected and oriented his replacement and Eve and Tony retired to a nature reserve in Mpumalanga where they lived together for ten years until Eve’s death in October 2007 and Tony’s two months later in January 2008.

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