Humanity Hallows Issue 6 Out Now
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By Christopher Witty
The Happiest Day in the Life of Ollie Maki (dir. Juho Kuosmanen, 2016)
Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne, 2013)
Whilst many films were shot in black-and-white long after the advent of colour film, certain directors – for example, Akira Kurosawa, whose first colour film, Dodes Ka-Den, was released as late as 1970 – chose monochrome over Technicolor due to either budget restrictions or artistic decisions. Pretty soon, though, as the old guard began to die off or retire, and colour film stock became cheaper to process, black-and-white films were seen as ‘artistic’ pieces, with the thought of a film being released without colour spelling box-office poison for the studios. Now, it is unimaginable to see a black-and-white film on general release.
However, as proven in the past, by choosing to shoot in black-and-white, directors have produced some of their finest films. Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose are frequently placed in the top-ten of the director’s works, thanks largely in part to Gordon Willis’s cinematography. Martin Scorsese once said he shot Raging Bull without colour, as the black-and-white imagery lent itself to the Life magazine pictures of title-fights he would see as a kid, and Paper Moon, arguably Peter Bogdanovich’s best film, emulated the photographs of Depression-era Americans to stunning effect.
And so, to Juho Kuosmanen’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Ollie Maki. On limited release, this Finnish production recounts the true story of Ollie Maki (Jarrko Lahti), a lightweight boxer pressured into contending for the featherweight belt against Davey Moore in 1962. Having found true love for the first time with his girlfriend Raija (Oona Airola), Maki’s mind is not as focused as his manager Elis (Eero Milonoff) would like. This basic premise allows Kuosmanen and writer Mikko Myllylahti to explore the three principle characters in what is, essentially, a love triangle.
Ollie and Raija’s relationship is portrayed with a child-like innocence by both actors (at first unsure of how to act, then clowning in front of each other as they become closer), and is by turns tender and comical. However, it is the complexity of the relationship between Ollie and Elis which gives the film its edge.
Elis’s demands for Ollie to lose the weight he needs to drop a division are as much to do with the manager not wanting his own boxing past to be over-shadowed by another lightweight fighter, as they are to do with any dreams of glory for his protégé; a trait not uncommon in jealous fathers and their sons. Elis very much acts as the father figure and he treats Ollie in the same way as he treats his own infant children. There is a scene when he leaves Ollie in the car with the kids, telling them all collectively to “stay in the car”, while he goes to speak to a sponsor. Ollie’s naturalness around the children who feature prominently in the film, as well as a scene where he flies a kite, further highlight his childish qualities. When Ollie and Raija are invited to stay with Elis and his family, they have to share a bunk bed; any manager worth his salt knows that a boxer’s performance in bed can have an adverse effect on his performance in the ring, but there is also a hint of possessiveness behind Elis’s decision too.
Shot throughout in black and white, the film will no doubt draw parallels with Raging Bull. Scorsese’s masterpiece was always a film about the man rather than boxer, as is The Happiest Day, but that is where the similarities end. Raging Bull asked its audience to try to sympathise with a pretty repugnant figure, whereas Kuosmanen’s film uses pathos and naturality, allowing the viewer to warm to Maki from the first scene. The grainy black-and-white photography gives an authentic, early-sixties look to the film and the fight, when it comes, is as far removed from the rousing, music-led climax of a Rocky film as it is possible to get. Kuosmanen uses sound to convey the confusion and blindness of being in the ring, with the pounding of leather cranked up to a deafening level.
Like the aforementioned monochrome classics, The Happiest Day would not work in colour; it would lose its authenticity and the documentary-like quality which adds to the naturalness of the performances.
Another recent addition to the canon of great contemporary black-and-white films is Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Throughout his career, Payne has shown a deft hand in handling comic, humanistic stories, and with two of his greatest successes, Sideways and About Schmidt, the road (that staple of American self-realisation) served as the canvas to paint these stories on. Nebraska carries on his fascination with American minutiae and character-led narratives.
Bruce Dern plays Woody, an elderly, cantankerous man with a drinking problem, who receives junk mail promising him a cash prize of $1 million. His innocence, or gullibility, leads to him setting out to collect his cash prize in person. His son, David, played by Will Forte, agrees to drive him in the hope that they can spend some quality time together.
With a stop-over in Woody’s home-town of Hawthorne, David starts to learn things about his father which have been all-but buried without his knowledge. As Woody becomes a more rounded person in David’s eyes, his son begins to see him, not as the alcoholic, distant father he thought he knew, but as someone whose genuine love and generosity stand him alone in a world where everyone else are out for their own means. Family and neighbours scramble over one another to get their hands on what they see as their share of the money, particularly Woody’s old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach). Of course, there is no cash prize, as David repeatedly points out to his dad, but Woody’s bull-headedness in getting to Nebraska could be the last act of independence from a man who doesn’t comprehend the dishonesty of America. Or he could just be taking to the road to experience movement before it’s too late for him.
Originally shot in colour to appease the Studio execs, the film was converted to black-and-white in post-production, and it is easy to see why Payne chose to do this. The landscapes of Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska are stark (all grey and white clouds and fields in shifting sunlight), and they meld with the chrome and smoke of industrial plants and logging trucks, in a way in which colour film would not have been able to reproduce.
Avoiding any false sentimentality and with great support from June Squibb as Woody’s over-bearing wife and Bob Odenkirk as David’s brother Ross, Nebraska works as both a biting comedy and a work of genuine tenderness, contemplating old-age, values and family.
Both films are well worth seeking out and, if your taste for all things monochrome still isn’t satisfied, Woody Allen’s Manhattan is showing at HOME, Manchester from the 12th of May.