Franklin Pangborn’s pansies are on the great joys of 30s cinema. Here is a little compilation of some of his best bits from Mitchell Liesen’s Easy Living, written by Preston Sturges.
Mr. Holmes is of such paralysing dullness one is rendered too inert to walk out of the cinema. Thus, one ends up appreciating the excellence of Ian McKellen’s very subtle and complex performance; remarking once more on what a fine and underused actress Laura Linney is; noting how Frances de la Tour is now so broad in everything she does that she serves as a destabilising force field to any work she’s in rather than as an actress; and lastly one mourns how Frances Barber seems doomed to always be wasted. Bill Condon directs as if for an important and prestigious BBC show where everything is rendered obvious, underlined by voice-over, all at a slow and portentous pace.
Mr. Holmes is a ‘serious’ film and great thought and care has been taken as to its form and structure. It has a great premise: Holmes is old and getting senile. He retired 35 years previously because of a case and can’t remember it. Watson wrote it as a great success but was it? What made him retire and how will he find out now when he’s often not altogether there?As he tries to find out, we flashback to the past and his relationships with Mycroft and Watson who we see as vaguely as he remembers. There’s also something that happened in Japan that affected him and that he might have dealt with badly. The dramatisation of his cases in the cinema offers another perspective and potential clue. There’s also a relationship with his housekeeper’s son, a young boy who she wants to put to work right away rather than get the education living with Holmes can provide. Overhanging all is an important difference between bees and wasps used both as a clue and as a symbol.
It’s all intelligent, literate, tasteful; yet, aside from the contributions of McKellen and Milo Parker as the young boy, also lacking in spark, drama, motion, life. Visually, it’s disappointing with the quality of the image lacking depth and texture; and with those sharp outlines, clear colours, and thin texturality one associates with digital. A film that seems to diminish even the very Cliffs of Dover.
One of the joys of watching Pre-Code films is the array of gay pansies on offer: Tyler Brooke, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and many others. I’ve been watching a lot of Preston Sturges films recently and have been struck by how often characters coded as effeminate or homosexual figure in his work. In the first clip, which was adapted from one of Sturges’ Broadways plays, Child of Manhattan (1933), we see Tyler Brooke insisting that he is Dulcey Inc. and not *Madame* Dulcey! The character is funny and endearing but like so many homosexual characters then as now is linked to surfaces, appearances, fashion, the ‘feminine sphere’. In the second clip, Easy Living (1937), this time from a from a screenplay by Sturges, we see Franklin Pangborn, an actor to appear in so many subsequent Sturges films, also selling women’s couture, this time to the Bull of Broadway. Lastly we see Brian Donlevy in The Great McGinty, Sturges’ first film as director, making fun of William Demarest for not ordering a manly enough drink. It’s interesting to note how there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the representation of the Brooke and Pangborn pansies even though one is pre-Code and one post. It is also interesting to note how in all of these films the poof is used to shore up the masculinity of the hero. Moreover, in the films adapted from or merely written by Sturges, the gay character is endearing (in the case of of Easy Living, perhaps aided by the personal understanding of director Mitchell Liesen). In the McGinty clip, Donlevy’s camping it up feels nasty and one is left uneasy: it feels mean, brutish and exactly like the type of bullying that is still so fresh a memory for many of us. This observation leaves me with some questions: what was Sturges preoccupation with homosexual men and can his work be considered homophobic? I don’t yet know.
Have you ever experienced a great night of theatre? One where you’re conscious of the materiality of bodies, the particularities of space; one that makes you aware of vision and different ways of seeing and how perception shapes thought and results in different modes of analysing and different answers to the questions posed; one that highlights the sometimes monadic and alienated nature of existence whilst highlighting attempts at connection even if only through fighting; one where discipline and freedom to create are seen as two sides of a single coin, the very currency of artistic expression; one which for a moment made a Brummland resident connected to events in Tunisia (Collectic Corp Citoye’s MOUVMA), Spanish surrealist wit (since the word ‘miracle’ is applied to wonders one doesn’t understand, isn’t almost everything around us a miracle and a wonder?), an Irish way of seeing (from the witty and minimalist Squarehead Productions), and concerns over the limits to freedom and the struggles to move forward in Czechoslovakia (Vertedance’s ‘Correction’); one in which what happened onstage was made possible only by shared ideas of community and volunteerism that happened around it? Last night’s BE Festival programme at the Birmingham Rep was such a night. Vertedance’s performance of ‘Correction’ in particular was so great it lingers in the mind still and makes one want to see it again. Oh, and at the intermission they served a banquet for all on the stage of the Rep, looking out onto the seats were one normally sits, like something out of Buñuel’s ‘The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ but without the interreptuions . An incredible evening of art, theatre and community that offered much to think about.
Walking through Birmingham City Centre yesterday, I saw the image pictured above and I thought, ‘Why is Jon Snow advertising Jimmy Choo?’ I at first didn’t realise the ad was for perfume and was picturing Jon Snow with his shaggy hair and his furs — an essential accessory for Castle Black but also such a gorgeous backdrop to his brooding face — now wearing Jimmy Choo heels through the ramparts of The Wall, perhaps hoping the heels would lift him up from the cloud of melancholy that always seems to surround him.
It then struck me that I had referred to the image as Jon Snow rather than Kit Harington. That never happens when I see Leonardo DiCaprio flog TAG Heuer watches: there it’s always Leo. And what ‘Leo’ means has changed and expanded over time. ‘Leo’ is polysemic: he is Romeo, Gatsby, Howard Hughes; he is also the characters he played in Titanic (James Cameron, USA, 1997), Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2010), The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorcese, USA, 2013); he’s a great actor and the biggest box office star of his generation; he’s also someone who shags models, works to enhance social awareness of endangered species and climate change and dances like one’s dad.
Now, I have seen Kit Harington in Pompeii (Paul W. S. Anderson, USA, 2014) and in Spooks: The Greater Good (Bharat Nalluri, UK, 2015) so why does he remain Jon Snow? Does it have to do with the degree of stardom? I don’t think so. Harington is as hot an actor as any at the moment; that’s why he’s had big-budget films built around him; and indeed that’s why he’s being paid to flog perfume by Jimmy Choo. Does it have to do with differences between stardom in one medium or another? Again, in the past I would have said yes. But I don’t think that’s any longer true. James Garner, Matthew McConnaughey, Woody Harrelson, Charlie Sheen and many others since at least the fifties have had enormous success on television without being solely identified with one character. Perhaps it’s process. After all, Clint Eastwood was ‘Rowdy Yates’ throughout America for years before he became ‘Clint Eastwood’.
So, let’s say it’s not about intensity or extent of stardom, or even the medium in which that stardom was first created and took hold; let’s say that it’s merely about polysemy and intensity, about the power and range of different meanings signified by a star sign, such as Kit Harington’s face. But in that case, is Kit Harington ‘The Jimmy Choo Man’ or is it Jon Snow. If the latter, wouldn’t it be appropriate for Harington to hand over some of what he got paid over to whomever owns the image rights to Jon Snow? Isn’t the image for sale on the basis of its meanings here not that of Kit Harington but of Jon Snow? or at best, that of Kit-Harington-as-Jon-Snow? I suppose the two are one in the public imagination. Kit Harington’s face and body is what now embodies Jon Snow; it’s how Jon Snow is signified. In the novels, we each had our own view of him. Now Kit Harington gives flesh to Jon Snow; and we like that embodiment so much that it can be commodified and put for sale; it has an economic value; but until Kit Harington becomes ‘Kit Harington’ does he have the right to commodify Jon Snow and attach those meanings to a scent? Does Kit Harington have the right to get rich from what Jon Snow might mean to an audience? Just a thought.
How does Game of Thrones manage to juggle so many characters and such convoluted plots in a way that makes sense but without losing complexity and whilst furthering the narrative? One of the ways is by keeping the structure simple, breaking it up into distinct but linked sections, ensuring that each picks up logically from where the last one left off, and building into at least each of the larger units a question for the viewer that incites a desire for an answer that will have to wait for later, usually the next episode.
The fourth episode, Sons of the Harpy, was 50m21s long. I had assumed all episodes were the exact same length but I now see that they’re not; the previous episode, High Sparrow was 59m50s, the next one, Kill the Boy, will be 56m37s. In this one, the narrative proper begins 1m53s into the episode, after the celebrated opening credits, and ends at 48m59s, before the closing ones. Episode Three ended with the kidnapping of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) leaving us unsure as to whom did it and why. The fourth episode begins by providing an answer: it’s Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and his aim will become clearer later on. This sequence lasts just over a minute and at 2.57, whilst one brother is being moved on a barge in one direction, the other, Jamie Lannister (Nicolaj Coster-Waldeau) is on a boat headed to Dorne to bring his daughter/niece back home to King’s Landing without causing war between Westeros and Dorne. This segment is also very brief and 5m47s into the episode, we’re with Cersei Lannister, the mother of Jamie Lannister’s daughter/niece Myrcella (Aimee Richardson), where we will linger for about ten minutes until 15m48 seconds into the narrative.
What one can extract from this is that one of the things that links the first three episodes is that they all revolve around the Lannister siblings. There are also further connections: Tyrion has been kidnapped after Jamie freed him; thus Tyrion is free only to be kidnapped; in Jamie’s segment, the second one, Jamie promises to split Tyrion’s head in two should he run into him; visually they are linked by boats and water (see figs a & b above). In turn, Jamie and Cersei are linked by their daughter, Myrcella, whom Cersei has commanded Jamie to bring home and is the reason for Jamie’s voyage; visually we’re shown them in the same glowing honey-brown palette (see fig.1 and fig. 2 below).
This all raises interesting questions Raymond Bellour once posed in relation to cinema: how to categorise for analysis? What is a segment? What is a sequence? What is a scene? I won’t presume to try and answer those questions here but will merely indicate that, if one takes unity of character, place and action as foundational criteria, then one would take what I’ve just described above as three different scenes. But if one takes it to a different level of generalisation, one can argue that the episode has just spent the first 15 minutes on the Lannisters and then goes on to spend another 15 minutes on the house of Stark (from 15m48 on Jon Snow and Castle Black and from 25min to 30m16 on Sansa Stark at Winterfell) which has it’s own kind of balance. The standard unit seems to be of about ten minutes and this episode has four such units: Cersei’s at King’s Landing, Jon Snow at Castle Black, later Jamie Lannister’s story line at Dorne and finally the episode with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) with the rest of the smaller units used as a narrative thread, as rhyming and echoing devices, as comparison or counterpoint to what leads or follows from it, and sometimes simply as a reminder that these other stories are still in process, still at play and will be returned to with an accretion of events and meaning and rendered more complex and richer.
What I found fascinating about each of the ten minute slots is that they offer a staggering amount of plot, most typically conveyed via dialogue and in medium close-up and with striking side-lighting as a characteristic stylistic device (see fig. 3 above) . Thus, in the first segment with Cersei, she ships her daughter-in-law’s father off to Braavos, solidifies her power by making her council as small as possible, resuscitates the Faith Militant — a military religious order previously extinct for two hundred years — and arms them, makes High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) High Septon, they get so powerful they arrest the brother of the queen and block entrance to the king himself. The new Faith Militant go on a bloody rampage, raiding brothels and killing deviants and infidels like a new Inquisition.
This is only scratching the surface of the plot of this ten minute section; it goes on even further and in more convoluted ways, like a ‘30s Warners film; and like a ‘30s Warners film everything is elegant, spare, understandable, necessary; you get told exactly what you need to know and it all makes sense. And this can be seen as a particular accomplishment since some of the characters have been given names that are equivalent to those in Russian novels — so difficult to remember and write. I also find it hard to keep track of the story, not a problem when viewing, a particular accomplishment of the televisual story-telling — but becomes one when trying to remember, analyse and write here. Mind you, I read the novels when they came out and had forgotten pretty much everything by the time I got to see the show. So keeping all the narrative elements in play, focused, and clear and easy to follow whilst viewing is but one of the particular triumphs of this series.
I also found it interesting that within each of the roughly ten minute sections, the focus of the narrative often moves away from the central protagonist. Thus the section on Jon Snow and Castle Black moves from Jon Snow, his concerns, and Melisandre’s attempt to seduce him into supporting Stannis Baratheon’s crusade against the Boltons, and puts the focus on Stannis’ daughter, her disfigurement, her mother’s guilt at only having borne her husband a daughter — and such a disfigured one! — the daughter’s concern that her father doesn’t love her as a result, and the father’s complete reassurance of his love; something that will have such repercussions later on in the series. This moving the narrative focus from the principal character in the section onto others so that supporting characters – their desires, motivations and actions – are put into focus is also to be found in the section on Jamie Lannister that begins at 30m16 and ends at 39 min; and also on the section on Daenerys which begins at 42.28 and ends at 48m59s.
The episode is also structured around rhyming sequences, thus the spectacular violence of the Faith Militant in the first 15 minutes of the show is echoed in the spectacular violence of the Sons of the Harpy. There are also other rhymings: Like I discussed in relation to the first episode, the image is kept relatively simple with the eye drawn at most to a few elements see figure four above) or a clear arrangement of a handful of elements to be rendered not only delightful but legible on a smaller screen, even when in complex and spectacular shots (see fig. 5)); the use of change of focus that I described as so elegant and meaningful in Episode Three is also used here (this episode is also directed by Mark Mylod) but I found it a bit coarser, too obviously underlining what didn’t need to be (see clip below). Lastly the type of sweeping spectacular reveal that I discussed in Episode Two is also evident throughout this episode, but most interestingly in the last shot, which like the last segment in the previous episode poses questions that will be answered in the next one. ‘Cliffhanger’ endings seem to be typical of the series.
Thus, to summarise, in spite of the complex plot, the array of characters, the obscure names and convoluted array of kinship and alliances, the episode is made easily understandable by being kept simple with the main sections kept at approximately ten minutes each, generally with four sections per episode, but threaded through with smaller ones that echo, or rhyme with previous ones but that also help set the context for the subsequent one; there is a logical order to the episodes both thematically (clans) and also stylistically (use of colour or rhyming contexts); there is also a clear but melodramatic conveyance of plot with cliffhangers from episode to episode, usually through dialogue and in close-up. The episodes are tied together through familial relationships, or through editing on lighting or objects (see, for example, how the candle in front of Stannis Barathean motivates the cut at 25m to the episode with Sansa). The complex plot is also made manageable through a consistent use of stylistic devices within each episode and from episode to episode in spite of the different directors that work on each. I’m sure there will be more thoughts, shorter, and clearer, once I’ve thought this all through a bit more. But the main message is obviously that there are a lot of complex structural factors that go into making the storytelling in Game of Thrones so clear, elegant and satisfying.
In ‘High Sparrow; the third episode of Game of Thrones S5, the series continues to impress by the conscious expressiveness of its mise-en-scène, the way that it creates a sense of place of where the action happens that is tied to a mood the work wants to convey that in turn expresses meaning, partly through the use décor, costuming and lighting on its own, partly through a more overt symbolisation of those elements.
Place is of course central –Winterfell, Castle Black but also and more specifically the Gladiatorial Coliseum of Meereem, the House of Black and White in Braavos, etc. Each place is tied to one narrative thread; it is symbolic of a home, a kingdom, and is itself sometimes a pawn in a struggle for dominance. I will come back to this in a later post and demonstrate how each of these places and thus each of these narratives is visualised for us to evoke, express and also to narrate. But for now I just want to indicate a few things that caught my eye in the third episode.
The episode is called ‘High Sparrow’ because this is where we’re introduced to the character played by Jonathan Pryce but it seems to me that it’s as much about marriage, the promise of its surface, the lack of agency those it is offered to have in its acceptance or rejection, the threat the state of matrimony poses to the newlyweds and those they are newly allied to. And all of these elements it seems to me are symbolised in the still below:
Cersei’s son Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) is marrying Margaery Tyrrell (Natalie Dormer), a much desired union politically. But what’s symbolised by the shot is the horrible ramifications such a union will have on the status of Cersei (Lena Headey) and thus on the power that she will wield; will she now be known as Queen Mother or Dowager Queen? or perhaps, hopefully soon, Queen Grandmother? is Margaery’s taunt to Cersei. Each of those is a step closer to political irrelevance; and the need for Cersei’s plotting to involve the High Sparrow in order to control any such new re-distribution of power and to maintain her hold is perfectly symbolised by the shot. What’s important is not the marriage per se, but the affect of that marriage on Cersei, and the steps she will put in motion to ensure she will be the focus and centre of power in spite of Margaery now having much closer and much more intimate contact with the King than any mother could. Cersei will try her best to do her worst and cause that union to fade.
The use of a shift in focus is also made very expressive in the scene in which Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) gives Jon Snow (Kit Harington) his opinion of what he should do with Ollie (Brennock O’Connor) sitting behind and looking on. It’s an intimate scene, just the two men and the boy, with the shots alternating between those of Jon Snow filmed largely from below in medium close-up and those of Davos and Ollie, with Davos in the foreground and Ollie behind. Note how when when Davos first asks Ollie to recite the oath — ‘how does the Night Watch’s Oath go again? I bet you’ve got it memorised since you got here’ –the scene places Davos in the foreground but fixes the focus on the young boy, an indication that what the oath signifies will become more and more meaningful as the series progresses. Then when Davos tells the boy not that bit, the bit at the end, and the boy begins to recite, ‘I am the Sword in the darkness, the watcher on the walls, the shield that guards the realms of men’, that shot is filmed in depth so that Davos and the boy are both in focus though the composition favours Davos who is foregrounded. Then when Davos himself repeats, ‘the shield that guards the realms of men’ Ollie is shown completely out of focus. Attention is now on Davos as his listening underlines the meaning of those words for the audience; and the significance of those words, and the repercussions they portend, is then shifted by a cut onto Jon Snow, shown the more powerful by being shot from below, so that he can turn those words to action. Here something as simple as a shift of focus is rendered very meaningful and expressive, something characteristic of the series.
The last scene that grabbed my attention (see clip below) is the one where Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish (Aiden Gillen) standing on the edge of a precipice with Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), grabs her face with his hands and tells her: ‘There’s no justice in the world. Not unless we make it. You loved your family: avenge them!’They’re wearing black capes, the hill behind them is wintry green, The wind is blowing a banner on the right bottom of the frame indicating that they’re on official mission, the personal is political here, she looks at her old home — and though everything in her fears and revolts agains the notion, now her future one — and as Littlefinger is foregrounded smiling and about to head on his way, we see Sansa with his back to him and to us contemplating the black ruins of her past and her future, on that precipice and below tumultuous low-hanging clouds. Littlefinger smiles as they ride off, his mission accomplished, and the the camera pans left through the black, burnt, war-torn ruins of her past and future. But as we’re shown the horses riding towards the ruins of Winterfell, the camera moves past them only to settle on two other people on a horse, Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and her squire Podrick (Daniel Portman) thus linking the fate of one to the other, linking one story to the other through a now shared landscape, and by mingling them perhaps offering the viewer a bit of hope that Sansa knows nothing of yet. It’s brilliant filmic storytelling.
Because art expresses it so much better than one can oneself.
‘The Sweeping Reveal’ – A Note on the Second Episode of Game of Thrones, S5
Andy Medhurst has called the category of HBO-type ‘quality’ series of which Game of Thrones belongs to, ‘television for people who don’t like television’. In conversation, Victor Perkins has told me he can’t see the difference between this type of work and cinema. Many other critics have talked of the ‘cinematic’ dimension of this type of work.
Watching the second episode of the latest series of Game of Thrones, I’m coming to the view that it’s a kind of cinema designed to be viewed on a small screen. Narratively, it’s episodic and relies on cliff-hangers to create suspense, and the roots of this can probably be traced to the very earliest serials. However, unlike early serials and much of traditional American network television, the narrative develops and acquires depth and texture from episode to episode, something which the mini-series developed for television but which the HBO series have refined. Moreover, there’s not one central protagonist but various, something movies have always found difficult to do (bringing into the discussion something like Coronation Street in the UK would complicate the broad strokes sketched above but not negate them).
What fascinates me about Game of Thrones is that it sets out to be spectacular and succeeds. Thus for the first time, I find my eye gazing at the credits for cinematography (David Franco), production design (Deborah Rivery) costumes (Michele Clapham) and sfx (Steve Kullback and Joe Bover) as well as the director (Michael Slovis).
In looking at how the series achieves its intent to be spectacular, one begins to detect patterns in certain types of shots. In a note on the first episode, I remarked on how ‘I was struck also by how one saw shots (see below for an example) that one could not have imagined possible for TV even a few years ago, the scale, the spectacle (though when one looks closely one sees, again, how simple and uncluttered it is, how few elements actually go into it; but enough to be dazzling in themselves. Something that is probably minimises cost but maximises visual impact). Here the image begins by seeming only of sky, moves down so one get a clear close-up of the stature, keeps moving down and away so one see sit in full and, as it crashes down the camera keeps pulling away so one sees people and then the full panoramic dimension of pyramid, sea, mountains and city as it comes crashing down. Absolutely dazzling’.
In the second episode, we get a very similar shot at the very beginning (see below), just after the Captain tells Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) not to be afraid and we get a close-up of her saying ‘I’m not afraid’, she looks off-screen but instead of her point-of-view of the shot of the statue of the Titan, the focus of attention, and what her gaze and ours has been directed to thus far, we get a shot which rhymes but surprises; instead of cutting in to the shot of the statue of the titan (‘it’s just a statue’), we get a sweeping panoramic shot which moves away from the statue and which shows us what she doesn’t see, a busy port city beyond, full of people and activity, and which suggests that it’s a place to be feared if not by the character then by the audience.
Cinematographer Ed Moore has intriguingly remarked that Michael Slovis, the director of this episode, ‘joins the likes of Phil Abraham (Mad Men et al) as TV directors who were very successful TV cinematographers first (Slovis shot almost all of Breaking Bad; Abraham was launched by The Sopranos). Because on these shows the “show runner” producers are so in charge of script and edit, it does make sense that they would really look for directors with a strong visual sense above all else’.
What made me think of this as a particular type of cinema made for a small screen is that the image would not stand up to close scrutiny on a larger screen. We’d see how such a shot is constructed, the image might lack detail, the city on close scrutiny seems drawn in. But one doesn’t see this on a small screen. What one sees is a brave and frail though increasingly skilled young girl in a new, exotic and dangerous context. The shot is both spectacular and melodramatically expressive. Its spectacularity and expressiveness are both maximised on a small screen. And this is beginning to seem a characteristic shot in the series.
Watching the first episode of Game of Thrones last night I was struck by how satisfying the use of colour and composition are in the series: the richness of the imagery, the colour, the texture of the materials, the design of the sets and costumes. I’ve not yet thought through the expressiveness of imagery – is it ‘merely’ pretty or is the full expressive potential of these particular arrangements of line, colour, people, places and things being realised? This is something that intrigues me and that I mean to come back to at a later point. But what struck me immediately was how delighted I was by them; and how much I’ve missed this kind of pleasure at the cinema recently. Mad Max: Fury Road is about the only recent film I can remember making an impression on this basis; the rest of the films seemed grey or otherwise lacking in luminosity, thinly textured visually, mis-arranged (Jurassic World) and sometimes even un-arranged (Pitch Perfect 2).
In this first episode of Game of Thrones one sees imagery that would be the envy of many a feature film but designed to be best viewed on a smaller screen. It’s not only a question of privileging close-ups or medium shots (though one detects that element as well, though decreasingly so) but more of keeping the image relatively simple with the eye drawn at most to a few elements or a clear arrangement of a handful of elements to be rendered not only delightful but legible on a smaller screen. Just as magazine covers tend to focus on faces or at most full-figure shots, rather than put landscape or busy arrangements of crowds of people on their covers, these type of shows are also designed to take optimum advantage of the context in which the majority of their viewers might be expected to see them (arguably the home television 1st, and the computer screen second)
I was struck also by how one saw shots (see below for an example) that one could not have imagined possible for TV even a few years ago, the scale, the spectacle (though when one looks closely one sees, again, how simple and uncluttered it is, how few elements actually go into it; but enough to be dazzling in themselves. Something that is probably minimises cost but maximises visual impact). Here the image begins by seeming only of sky, moves down so one get a clear close-up of the stature, keeps moving down and away so one see sit in full and,as it crashes down the camera keeps pulling away so one sees people and then the full panoramic dimension of pyramid, sea, mountains and city as it comes crashing down. Absolutely dazzling.
Has anyone done a book or thesis on hairdos and film? A day after seeing Jurassic World, the only thing I find vaguely amusing about the film is that Bryce Dallas Howard’s hair goes from straight to ‘naturally curly’ when she undergoes a transformation, just like used to happen to Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand in the 1970s, except there the transformation was from uptight and repressed or wanting to pass for WASP to liberation whereas in Jurassic World it’s from running a huge corporation to letting go of control and giving herself to Chris Pratt.
Now that we take CGI for granted, seeing dinosaurs is not a big deal; and Jurassic World doesn’t offer much more than that narratively or in terms of spectacle. Even the look of the film doesn’t seem as colourful or luminous as I would have wanted; the action sequences aren’t particularly exciting; and some of the performances, like Irrfan Kahn’s as Simon Masrani, are simply not good enough. One is left sadly pondering on how hairdos in Jurassic World are sign and proof of a particular kind of ideological regression in cinema and wishing someone would make a proper study of it.
A satisfying if overly-controlled and ‘tasteful’ WWII drama about the Nazi occupation of a small town in France based on Irène Nérmirosky’s novel of the same name. Kirsten Scott Thomas is Madame Angellier, the judgmental upper-class matriarch whose absent and much missed son is fighting the very same people she suspects her not-good-enough-for-my son daughter-in-law Lucille (Michelle Williams) to be screwing around with. Mathias Schoenaerts is Commander Bruno von Falk, the sensitive and gorgeous Nazi who writes the beautiful music that makes Lucille fall in love with him (I kid you not).
Suite Française is the kind of film that was being made in France in the 80s ( Le dernier metro, Aux revoir les enfants) and then felt charged with some kind of political or social importance; like collaboration with the Nazis was a shameful history and then current cultural conflict the nation needed to discuss or redress. Here you wonder why they bothered to make it at all; or rather why THESE particular people made it. Who made the film, how they made it and when they made it has resulted in a kind of cultural deracination that makes it feel less vital and dramatic, at least when seen in an English context, and brought to the fore the melodramatic elements rendered rather safe by the controlled prettiness of look and approach.
It is nonetheless worth seeing for the actors: Kirsten Scott Thomas, Lambert Wilson and Harriet Walker give performances that are sketched out in broad, stylised, strokes, and coloured in with moments of great subtlety and delicacy, the kind only great actors with age and experience can command when, as here, they take the trouble to.
Schoenaerts has a quality of carefulness and attention to detail. He’s very good on internal conflict and well conveys both controlled action and uncontrolled passion. He’s also very sexy in the role and we understand why Lucille eventually succumbs. I love Michelle Williams also but her careful and transparent performance here is almost too one-note; ‘true’ but all done in the same ‘naturalist’ style, like a singer being very fluid but only within a small range of notes.
A film that speaks of great depth of feeling, uncontrolled passion and of the difficulties and great sacrifice involved in making moral choices but one that doesn’t convey them, or at least not in a way that gets audiences to feel anything approaching that which the characters themselves do.
Saul Dibb directed.
Grace of Monaco is the kind of movie where the star wears billowing ballgowns and races distraughtedly through endless palace corridors to leap into a huge bed and weep. Life is so very difficile; even when Maria Callas (Paz Vega), wearing a fabulous Jeanne Toussaint panther ring, is your friend and warbles beautifully at every occasion except when riding wild stallions; and even when all your jewels are stunning Cartier creations. Luckily there’s a ball that will resolve all conflict, international as well as marital. Nicole Kidman gets such enormous close-ups that her earrings end up out of focus. It’s pure trash, lovely to look at.
Can a film be both fascinating AND dull? In The Clouds of Sils Maria Juliette Binoche is Maria Enders, a celebrated actress and star, who first became famous in Maloja Snake a work about an older woman, Helena, who falls in love with a much younger girl, Sigrid, and is driven to suicide. Then, she played Sigrid; now she is asked to play Helena. Kristen Stewart is Valentine, Maria’s super-efficient, smart and cool assistant. The relationship between Maria and Valentine is the opposite side of the coin of that of Helena and Sigrid but as Valentine is helping Maria with her lines, one often can’t tell where the boundary lies between the real and fictional relationship between them; and the film creates an interesting tension between the layers of fictional worlds in which this tension gets played out and in doing so complexly dramatizes questions on the nature of acting and being.
The interplay between Stewart and Binoche, and the differing styles in which the act it out, also adds an interesting twist on this. Everything people claim for Streep, I feel for Binoche. I simply think there’s no one of her generation better, and layers of conflicting emotion are conveyed absolutely transparently. In this film she’s beautiful and plain, feminine and masculine, flirtatious and castrating; she runs through the gamut and it’s all clearly understandable as coming from one character. Plus, she is also a star and one can’t take one’s eyes of her, at least until Kristen Stewart comes in to split our gaze. She’s not transparent at all but she is mesmeric. You don’t know what she’s thinking really but one keeps on looking intently in the hope of finding out. They’re great together. From their interplay, interesting ideas about the connection between age, desire, and vulnerability are played out, with Stewart forcefully making a claim for the desirability of Maria/Helena and the desire and vulnerability of the much younger Sigrid.
The film is fascinating on acting, performance, performing, stardom, aging, celebrity culture and on debates on the nature of cinema and cinematic art in our time. It gets even livelier when Chloë Grace Moretz, playing Jo-Anne Ellis, a star of X-Men type sci-fi action films and active participant in paparazzi-infused internet celebrity culture, gets cast opposite Maria in the role of Sigrid. Jo-Anne will contradict all of Valentine’s interpretations, whilst Maria, who has learned form Valentine in the process, will start to think about ways of asserting them. This is a fascinating film on the nature of acting, its relation to being, the thin line between them, and how that thin line is made even thinner when the unreality of celebrity culture is thrown in the mix.
The Maloja Snake, a cloud bank that winds its way through the alpine pass like a river or a snake by a twist of nature, thus providing the illusion of winding and forward movement whilst observing it from the top of the mountains but obscuring that which is below, is used as a metaphor for the film. Excerpts from Arnold Fanck’s 1924 film, Cloud Phenomena of Maloja, are used in the film.
The Clouds of Sils Maria is a much more fascinating film to think about then to watch. But one has to undergo the latter in order to engage with the former.
A programmer but one that packs a lot of power: Ruth Brock (Nancy Carroll), a small town working girl, is accused of doing things she didn’t do with Romer Sheffield (Cary Grant) by Conny Billop (Edward Woods), a co-worker who failed to force her to do the same things with him. Town gossip gets so ugly she loses her job at the bank as well as her childhood sweetheart and prospective husband, Bill Fadden (Randolph Scott) — nice, handsome but a bit self-righteous and rigid; she’s really better off without him. She gets so fed up with the injustice of it all that she eventually does end up doing all the things with Romer she was at first wrongfully accused of — ‘The things you believed about me last night were lies. But this morning they’re the truth,’ she tells Bill –and is shown to have a wonderful time doing it. At the end of the film, Ruth and Rumer say good-by to Hicksville and all its social restrictions and drive off to New York to marriage and adventure.
The film starts with a striking and fluid travelling shot of a note being passed by the tellers in a bank that one initially suspects has something to do with the world of high finance but which turns out to be a request for a date. That sets the tone for the film: sexy, smart, cynical; with a rueful wisecracking edge one associates more with the twenties than the thirties (The eponymous novel it’s based on, by Harvey Fergusson, was published in 1926).
Hot Saturday is today worth seeing for many reasons. I love the whizz bang type of plot development in these pre-codes: no mucking around, on with the story. Also, it’s logical, makes sense, doesn’t contradict anything else. It’s just fast in telling you everything you need to know; and that speed has its own uplifting energy.
The bulk of American cinema has so sentimentalized small-town life –- think of the fictional Carvel, where all of the Andy Hardy films are set — that its representation in Hot Saturday is a surprise and a tonic. Here all the oppressive aspects of small-town living are teased out one after the other from the very first title card which warns us: ‘Marysville boasted one bank, two fire engines, four street cars and a busy telephone exchange. Everyone knew on Sunday what everyone else did on Saturday…and the rest of the week.’ Moreover, all the gossip is exaggerated, people’s characters are dissected and impugned, and this in a place where the appearance of high morals is a necessary passport to employment and the ability to earn a living.
In Marysville a ‘hot’ Saturday can ruin your life; and all the characters are aware of it. When Connie suggests taking the gang to Romer’s cottage beforehand, his friend warns him, ‘the town would burn down to the ground if we took the girls within a mile of that guy.’ Romer’s and out-of-towner who’s seen as rich and decadent; fancy women are seen driving around in his car; being seen with him is enough to ruin any girl’s reputation. But the lure of free drinks in luxurious surroundings is too strong. Ruth is a girl who saves up for new knickers; Romer has great clothes, a posh pad, a fancy chauffer-driven car and a Japanese servant who speaks English better than the rubes and knows how to put them in their place. All the luxurious living is there not only as a story point to contrast to the life of the working stiff but as a way of offering a tantalizing peek at the posh life to a Depression audience.
But any kind of connection to that which is different much less glamorous may exact a price in the narrow-minded small town. Later in the film, Ruth tells Romer that she’s been ‘sneered, scorned, talked about – you don’t know what it’s like to live in a small town. You can only play on the surface and even if you’re honest about that you’re not safe from a lot of evil-minded people’.
But the film posits that one can find no safety whatsoever in a small town like Marysville, even without incurring gossip. After all, the reason why she walked through a forest to get to Romer is to escape Connie’s advances: ‘what do you expect for a boat ride, Marlene Dietrich?’ She basically avoids something that seems uncomfortably close to rape; and her lucky escape is punished, mainly by the women of the town (though Connie’s no gent) whose tarring of her reputation results in the loss of her job and the eventual collapse of her marriage prospects (the only other out), home and family.
The film’s critique of small-town life is matched by its critique of the family. Hot Saturday is no Meet Me in St. Louis in this regard. For her family, Ruth is a meal ticket. She’s the only one in work, buys her father his cigars, gives her mother the rest of her pay packet — though that doesn’t spare her from being bullied into chores — and she’s got a greedy younger sister stealing the few thing she’s got (the knicker-ripping scene is great). Yet, all of this is mingled, with affection, responsibility and a kind of love. The film’s views on family are varied and textured. But critical.
Hot Saturday offers a complex view of people and of society. It has an eye open to weakness, lies, jealousy, laziness, theft, pride, appearances, vanity; all are touched on but with a forgiving eye. It is also good at conveying the elements of sex and desire that make for a ‘hot’ Saturday. In the ‘I’m burning for you’ clip below, listen to the lyrics of the song: ‘call the fire engine, and the whole darn crew, tell them all to hurry cause I’m burning for you’. Note the wonderful panning shot of people dancing and the discrete and offhand revelation of the frank sexuality with which many of them move. See also how the light of the illuminated dance floor goes up the women’s dresses and offers the audience the outline of a shapely leg in peek-a-boo style. This is a film that knows what a ‘hot’ Saturday is and, better yet, knows how to communicate it to the audience, how to make us feel its heat.
According to the AFI’s catalogue listing on the film, when Hot Saturday was released, Variety commented that the ‘film has no A-name draw in its cast’. However, one of the main pleasures in seeing the film today lies in watching Cary Grant, Nancy Carroll and Randolph Scott. Cary, in his first year in pictures is surprisingly top-billed over Nancy Carroll, who is really the lead in the film, and had been one of the very top Paramount stars only a few years earlier.
Grant looks impossibly handsome wearing a Noel Coward-esque wardrobe. He’s wearing more make-up than Nancy but does the glamour and dash to perfection; it is already a joy to watch him move. One can see him becoming ‘Cary Grant’ much more clearly than in some of the Mae West films he was doing in the same period.
Nancy Carroll’s got a heart shaped face that needs careful photography and whoever designed her hairdos did her no favours here. She looks very puffy and worn out in the early bank scenes but kewpie-doll pretty in the rest and she’s very alive and vivacious throughout. Cliff Aliperti in Immortal Ephemera writes that ‘Nancy Carroll has just concluded her period of major stardom by the time of Hot Saturday. She had been not only Paramount’s top star, but just a couple of years earlier she was receiving more fan mail than any other star at any studio.’ One can understand why she was such a big star and can only wonder at why she didn’t remain one.
Randolph Scott is stiff as a board but rather nice to look at also. The film might be of particular interest to all those intrigued by the rumours that Cary and Randolph were an off-screen couple, as the clip below is bound to raise a chuckle amongst them. Fan culture in general and this type of sub-cultural discourse on film is as much a part of cinematic culture as any other dimension and the film would to me be worth seeing if only for this.
But the film offers much more than this. Hot Saturday is smart with a slight accent on cynical; wise to people and their self-interest and foibles but without judging them too harshly; romantic but also aware of the sizzle of sex and the power of its pull; knowledgeable too of the social cost one might have to pay in succumbing, and conscious also of the glamour of the high life and its appeal to characters within the film and audiences watching it. It’s got a fantastic score composed of jazzy versions of the hits of the period (‘One Hour With You’, ‘Isn’t it Romantic’ and several others) and a great cast upon whom the downslide and upswings of star careers can be intriguingly charted.
One of the films released on DVD as part of the great Pre-Code Hollywood Collection in the Universal Backlot Series and which includes Merrily We Go to Hell.
Carole Lombard is Regie Allen, a hard-boiled Hannah working as a manicurist in a posh hotel so she could nab herself a rich husband. She meets her match in Theodore ‘Ted’ Drew III (Fred McMurray), a loafer from a still distinguished but now poor family whose only concession to earning a living is to marry money. In true screwball fashion, they meet cute in a hotel lobby where she bumps into him playing hopscotch on the hallway tiles and spoils his game. He asks for a manicure in order to get to know her better and she’s so nervous she destroys each of his fingers, a small price for what turns out to be a great date. They go out and fall for each other but neither wants to deviate from their goal of marrying money, until of course they do, but not until the end. Ralph Bellamy plays, well … the Ralph Bellamy role of the earnest, well-intentioned, but no fun guy who hangs around waiting to not get the girl. What distinguishes the character of Allen Macklyn from any of the countless others Bellamy was cast in is that Macklyn is a former pilot who had an accident and is now a paraplegic. His wheelchair is his character.
Hands Across the Table is sometimes flagged up as an undiscovered or under-rated screwball and I must say I don’t agree. All the ‘madcap zanyness’ feels a bit forced and a bit mean to the other characters, like when Lombard and McMurray pretend to be married so she can stand up a previous date, William Demarest, and he can do him out of his box of chocolate mints. Ah-ha. Hilarious.
The film doesn’t work as a screwball because it’s constantly veering into melodrama and all the longing and desire and angst and abnegation takes all of the shine out of what is meant to be sparkly ‘zaniness’ and makes for a confusing inconsistency of tone. However, those moments of melodrama are some of the bits I liked best.
The clip below wonderfully illustrates the film’s weaknesses and strengths. Reggie and Ted have just come back from this wonderful expensive date. The camera dissolves from the nightclub into the back of the cab, from a kind of theatre of dreams, to a context for other kinds of possibilities. Lombard plays Reggie as slightly phony and still trying to impress when she says ‘I’ve really had a lovely time’; then the scene shifts onto McMurray. What’s called for is an actor with the skill to convey the debonair nonchalance of the stylised artificial situation – a rich guy with no money out to have a good time but who just might have gotten involved asking a girl who’s not to be his wife out for another date after his wedding — and also the ability to simultaneously convey a sense of loss and regret, all whilst playing drunk. McMurray is simply not skilled enough.
However, look at Lombard. The film does. He speaks but she communicates, and she doesn’t need lines to do it with. She’s got three close-ups after she’s just heard he’s getting married and he says, ‘they all want honeymoons,’ where she looks slightly down and manages to convey the sadness of all those girls who never get to go on honeymoons because rich guys like this Theodor the Third here think they can get them the day after their own wedding; then after the ‘slaves of fashion’ line, where she does a slight grimace indicating something like ‘I should be so lucky as to be a slave to fashion’; and then, after he tries to say ‘the whole business is a vicious scam’ but falters on ‘vicious’ and she moves her eyes smartly to the side as if to indicate ‘are you kidding me?’ and then sighs. Hard-boiled Hannah is back but the sadness cuts through the cynicism and she beautifully conveys the limited options, the drudge and unfairness of a million girls working too hard and not making enough. Lombard is true, beautiful and really great: so much meaning in such few gestures. The film is very much worth seeing if only for her.
But the direction and the editing help the film too, note how we now get another dissolve, this time onto the bleak and prosaic night-time street. This dissolve mirrors the one that introduced us to the scene of revelation in the cab, but if before we went from the dream date into intimate revelation, this one takes us back to the harsh reality of the street. It’s very well done.
But the film does offer more than Lombard or the skill and polish of the mise-en-scène to appreciate. There’s McMurray too. He’s easy to ignore as, aside from his work for Billy Wilder in Double Indemnity and The Apartment, there’s not much people remember him for. However, it’s worth reminding ourselves that he was one of the most famous and likeable stars in American cinema and at the very forefront of celebrity culture in the US, first as a top film star from about 1935 and throughout the forties and fifties, then as a very successful star of Disney films such as The Shaggy Dog (1959) and The Absent Minded Professor (1961); then, even later, in one of the top-rated TV shows in the US in My Three Sons (1960-1972), first for ABC (1960-1965) and then for CBS (1965-1972). Aside from that, he’d recorded records, been on Broadway, starred on radio and even been the original model for Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel. He can’t simply be dismissed.
Moreover, the film does everything in its power to make McMurray glamorous, sexy and desirable. He’s much more on display than Lombard is (see image capture below):
Finally, another reason I find the film rather fascinating is due to something that used to be called ‘gay sensibility’. It was thought that if an artist was gay, an understanding of the world shaped by the artist’s social and historical circumstances as a homosexual person would somehow seep into the work and be magically conveyed to those who had access to those codes and conventions. Liesen was a film director in the 1930s with a primary sexual interest in men and thus the interest in surfaces, images, the conflict between idealised romance and harsh social realities; prescribed ways of being versus individual desires, all of that conflict of melodrama, but prettily and lightly put together would be ascribed to this ‘gay sensibility,’ even when the subject material of the work had nothing to do with homosexuality.
One of the wonderful things about studying and thinking about film today is that we can look closely, as often as we want, stop and start the image, re-combine it. In Hands Across the Table, is the way that we’re shown McMurray to be delectable an articulation of Liesen’s desire or could it be something as banal as Paramount policy for one of their leading men? I don’t know. But what we can now see is that in this film he was lit, framed, made-up, clothed, unclothed and displayed to be glamorous, beautiful, fit, a romantic ideal with a raw sex appeal. Hands Across the Table is not just a fascinating film by a top director and yet another example of Lombard’s greatness as an actress, it might also be a key to understanding McMurray’s stardom at the height of the Studio Era.
A screwball not quite up to the heights of the very greatest but with moments as fine as in any. Edward Arnold plays J.B. Ball, the ‘Bull of Wall Street, a stockbroker so shocked by his wife’s spendthrift habits that he throws her latest sable out of their penthouse and onto the street, where it lands on Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) and changes her life. Ray Milland is J.B. Jr., the well-meaning but directionless son who goes to work at an automat to show his father he can make it on his own.
Soon everyone thinks Mary Smith is the mistress of one of the richest and most powerful men in the city and she’s showered with luxury hotels, couture and even money. However, it is JB Jr. who’s been staying in her hotel suite after having been fired for stealing a free meal for her and sparking a food fight at the automat. Yes, this is the kind of film where sables fall out of the sky and people wear gorgeous sparkly outfits, live in grand hotel suites, and can stand in their bathtubs amidst sculptures of Goddesses but can’t afford to eat at the automat. Amidst all the farcical misunderstandings, the stock market goes up; it goes down; butlers have views on stocks; everyone’s on the make but everyone’s equally cynical except for Mary, who remains pure throughout, even when she’s furiously rampaging through stockbrokers’ offices with two huge and fluffy sheepdogs. Confusion ensues. Romance wins. Classes are reconciled; all with a gentle wit, much gentler than is usual for Sturges, who wrote the screenplay. Ralp Rainger and Leo Robin wrote the eponymous song, now a jazz standard thanks to immortal cover versions by Billie Holiday and Chet Baker, especially for the film. A mellow big-band version is the only soundtrack. It’s all pretty heaven Easy Living is worth seeing for many reasons: Mitch Liesen sure knows how to film a glamorous image; and Jean Arthur, dressed by Travis Banton and photographed by Ted Tetzlaff, looks particularly lovely throughout — even her shoes sparkle and glow. The theme of appearances and advertising is one that Sturges would mine later, more thoroughly, and to slightly different effect in Christmas in July. Franklin Pangborn offers us Van Buren, an expert stylist of feminine couture, and really one of the loveliest of the famed Pangborn pansies. One can even begin to detect the formation of what would later become the Sturges stock company (Pangborn, William Demarest, Robert Greig as the butler).
Sturges blamed Liesen for ‘ruining’ his screenplay, which he thought a masterpiece, with bad pacing; and there is something to that: the food fight at the automat is beautifully filmed but the slapstick lacks snap. There are other niggles as well: the character of Mr. Louis Louis, the great Italian chef turned lousy America hotelier, is so caricatured it borders on the offensive; the last line about Jean Arthur finding her true calling in life cooking Ray Milland breakfast….well, it almost ruins the film. However, this has moments that are at least the equal of anything Stuges ever filmed himself (though more glamorous, less cutting and abrasive; the satire is sharper in Sturges’ own films): the interplay between Edward Arnold and his secretary, the firing of Jean Arthur, the beginning of the automat scene, the sable landing on Jean Arthur — a moment that Rashna Wadia Richards says evokes the spectral eeriness of a surrealist nightmare and that James Harvey believes is the moment everyone remembers from the film — the song; and above all Jean Arthur herself.
Has Jean Arthur ever looked lovelier? It’s hard to think of another film in which she’s so carefully photographed and to such glamorous effect. Also, in relation to the classic period, we often talk about faces. ‘We had faces then’ says Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. But we rarely talk about voices. Yet think of how distinctive the voices were also: Bette Davis’ quick clipped pronunciation, Rosalind Russell’s foghorn, Katharine Hepburn’s grating Bryn Mar voice. Personally I prefer the low throaty ones that sound like an intimate whisper. I adore Margaret Sullivan’s, for example. But none affords me as much pleasure as Jean Arthur’s, surely one of the most expressive and distinctive voices of the period: low, soft, with a throaty crack and a squeaky end-note, a hushed sound full of a kind of feeling that first reverberates and then evaporates into a kind of sigh, particularly when it’s uttered in excitement. It, she and the film are a delight.
Bombshell has an opening montage that is very instructive in how studios and audiences perceived the life and function of a film star. We see Jean Harlow as Lola Burns in film magazines, in newspapers, awarding prizes, being the subject of scandal, in advertisements selling hosiery, and on film-screens — bigger than life — with an audience enraptured as she’s embraced by Gable; celebrity, scandal, glamour, the personal and the social, significance and signification, already all rolled into one. One of the many interesting things about the montage is that we see men reading Modern Screen, Photoplay, Silver Screen and other movie magazines as avidly as women, which, even whilst keeping in mind that Lola Burns/Jean Harlow is meant to be a sex-symbol, is not exactly what one expects. We see audiences enraptured by the image, copying Lola’s stockings and perfumes, her name in lights and finally a hypnotic reunion in the dark where audiences identify, desire and long to that image provided by Burns/Harlow; and of course Harlow does seem to burn up the screen with joy, and wit and life as it all unfolds: A glorious beginning to an entertaining film.