First Position (Bess Kargman, USA, 2011)

FirstPosition

 

I love documentaries on ballet. I like seeing the toil, the boredom, the grind of constant effort, the blistered feet, the pain, the process. I find it interesting that all of this is in the service of the unnatural, of getting one’s body to contort in ways it wasn’t designed to, and thus do things that we call ‘marvelous’ because they’re not natural, they’re not ordinary. I somehow find it moving that all these years of grinding out the practice, of sweat and hurt are mobilized into the creation of an ideal of beauty that is both precise and evanescent, that disappears the moment it’s achieved, so fleeting that if you blink you’ve missed it.

There’s something interesting too about the composition of the cast in these films. Ballet is international so ballet films always feature characters from different countries interacting with each other; yet the action or story tends to have particular settings, be it a ballet school in Paris or London, so these characters’ are often seen as adapting to the culture of their school or company.

This documentaries follows six young dancers of various ages as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, a contest that could determine their future as dancers, thus the culture of home, of comfort and feeling, is usually placed in contrast with the culture of work and achievement. The stories I found most interesting were those of two mixed race siblings (mother Japanese, father Australian) whose mother is determined to have them realise her dream. The girl wants to be a dancer but does the boy? The mother has the potential to be the stage mother from hell but will she be?

The other story I found very moving was of Joan Sebastian Zamora, a 16 year old from Columbia training in NYC because Columbia has no ballet culture. He’s got a girlfriend. They eat with their legs stretched out in a semi-split, stretching each other’s legs as they do so and sometimes tapping endearments on each others’ toes with arched feet. His whole family’s well-being seems to be riding on his future as a dancer.

Lastly, there’s Michaela Deprince, a black girl from Sierra Leone adopted by a very loving and supportive white American couple. She saw her biological parents and teachers hacked to death before her eyes as a three-year old. She was almost not adopted because she had white skin blotches all over her neck. Seeing her, one senses a desperate striving to find in ballet the control and beauty not afforded by life. But ballet has historically not been very welcoming to black dancers. Will Michaela succeed? A lovely and moving film.

José Arroyo

The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Marc Webb, USA, 2014)

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The areal sequences at the beginning are thrilling. Sally Field is the best Aunt May ever, her feelings so close to the surface that you just want to give her a hug and let her know that she really has  been a good Mom to Peter and that her world will end up alright; her scenes with Peter Parker are to me the best in the film. Andrew Garfield is a dilemma: on the one hand, he seems perfectly cast; on the other, all that neediness, couched in virtue, and spoken slowly, with each emotion separated from another by a pause in the dialogue and a shift of the head, ends up seeming rather twee and more than a bit tiresome. I liked Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon very much but then the actor and what an actor can bring to a role seems so effaced by the CGI when he becomes Electro that they could have gotten anyone to voice that ‘animation’. Emma Stone is rather perfect as Gwen and she and Garfield have a definite chemistry though one that could have been directed with more wit: the earnestness drags everything down. The plot is serviceable and Dane DeHaan is brilliant casting as the Green Goblin, he brings something jagged, excessive, dangerous, diseased; he spikes the story with much needed and sour malevolence. It’s all enjoyable but a bit underwhelming and makes one ask at what point special effects detract rather than enhance a production? Whatever that point is, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has reached it.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Movies Will Never Die

‘Movies will never die’, writes James Wolcott in ‘Prime Time’s Graduation’, his influential 2012 essay for Vanity Fair, ‘but TV is where the action is, the addiction forged, the dream machine operating on all cylinders. Even in cine-mad Manhattan…the new movie that everybody’s talking about is being talked about by a shrinking number of everybodies. Movies divide and stratify; television, like sports, is the democratic includer’.

I’ve been thinking about Wolcott’s argument because I’ve been away for several weeks in Cuba with no access to TV or internet and found that I hadn’t missed TV at all and furthermore had no desire to ‘catch up’ on anything I missed. My Twitter feed however was full of dozens of articles, comments and lists on the new season of Game of Thrones. This same kind of gigantic publicity whirlwind is now also starting on the new season of Mad Men. I have seen all previous seasons of both shows and they are indeed marvelous. It would be naïve, however, to think that the reason why those shows seem to be central to ‘the conversation’ that happens socially on culture is because of their inherent quality or their superiority to anything else that is happening at the moment or indeed that they’re sufficient to the needs of every cultural conversation worth having.

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I did return from Cuba with a desire to catch up on what I’d missed at the movies and was really startled and delighted not only by individual works but by the range of films on offer:

 

Jalil Lespert’s Yves St. Laurent is a biopic of the coutourier. It’s not really a good movie but the clothes are of course sumptuous, and we get to see practically all of his landmark collections (the Mondrian, the Le Smoking, the Ballets Russes). Pierre Niney give a great central performance, shy but self-centred, slightly repressed, as if when not coiled in he’d make his effeminacy public and dangerous. The film is mostly drugs, sex, haute couture and low-down loucheness but it’s also the only gay film I can think of that’s about what happens after a gay couple move in together, what they do to stay together. It is at times very moving.

 

Joe and Antony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a Marvel Comic Book adaptation and one of the best of the recent crop of super-hero films. It’s got superb set-pieces, a sexy and witty performance from Scarlett Johansson as The Black Widow and is part of a series of films (The Place Beyond the Pines is one of many that fit into this category) that mourn the idea of America, that compare the America of the film’s setting to the idea of America as found in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights and finds it lacking. Neil Burger’s Divergent, also currently playing, is a sci-fi teen film, clearly inspired by The Hunger Games, that thematically plows the same furrow. American cinema has never been more critical of what America has become —  of the gap between it should be, what Americans want it to be, and what it is —  and, despite the films being of varying quality and some of them, like Divergent, frankly not even very good, they’re collectively fascinating to see and stimulating to talk about.

 

Also at my local cinema are two other types of adaptations: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Richard Ayoade’s The Double. Noah transforms the Bible story into a sci-fi movie of epic proportions, one with an environmental moral. It’s had mixed reviews but is conceptually imaginative, visually dazzling and with another of those great Russell Crowe performances that make one almost forget how crude and obnoxious he often appears in ‘real’ life, or at least in talk shows. The other adaptation is Ayoade’s noir-and-amber take on Dotoyevski’s The Double, a present imagined as a dark 19th-century world with 1930s appliances where everyone is lonely, the self is divided, alienation is the norm and suicide is the only way out. Jesse Eisengerg plays two versions of a character and impresses with each. These are films that dazzle the eye and stimulate the mind.

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And these were not even the best of the films playing: Stefan Zweig, the Viennese author of Letter from an Unknown Woman, inspired Wes Anderson to a wit, charm and elegance in The Grand Budapest Hotel that Ernst Lubitsch himself would have been proud of. Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake is a beautiful and daring exploration of desire in the face of death that is as complex and haunting a depiction of sexual compulsion as I’ve ever seen. And then there’s Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson again, a mysterious, ambiguous and rather magical film on no less a subject than what it is to be human. These three are truly great films, films that deserve to be written about individually and at length, that deserve to be part of ‘The Conversation’.

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I’m not sure what TV is at the moment. I’m not sure that series like Mad Men or Game of Thrones are TV or something else (Andy Medhurst has called them TV for people who don’t like TV). I do think that old divisions between high culture and low culture are reasserting themselves and, if the appearance of visual media in art galleries is something to go by, film is falling on the high side of that divide. It certainly seems to have lost the mass audience. As Edward Jay Epstein so ably demonstrates in The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies, people don’t go to the movies, they go to a movie, the one they’ve been primed to see by publicity budgets that often exceed the cost of making a film.

But if you want to take a pulse reading of the state of an art, you can’t base it on one work, or indeed one medium, you need to see at least a representative range of what’s on offer, and put that in a larger social and cultural context. And from what’s on offer at the cinema now, film is as exciting, stimulating and beautiful as it’s ever been. It might not be ‘The’ conversation but might be another, or many, with probably fewer people but just as, if not more, interesting. It’s telling perhaps that Wolcott’s very latest column for Vanity Fair is a re-think of the arguments that began this column entitled ‘Everyone Back to the Cineplex!’ In this, I’m with Wolcott.

A version of this was published in https://theconversation.com/stop-watching-tv-get-off-your-couch-and-head-to-the-cinema-25624

José Arroyo

 

 

‘I will remember this moment’ from The Seventh Seal

As everyone knows, The Seventh Seal is a masterpiece.  It’s been the subject of countless parodies (e.g. French and Saunders, Monty Python or even in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, where the boys play Battleship instead of Chess and win, thus cheating Death, an outcome possible in comedy but never in Bergman  despite his work being funnier than his reputation admits to). But in spite of their number, they have yet to diminish the film’s power. In fact The Seventh Seal‘s seriousness, its humour, its meaning and its beauty seem only to grow with repeated viewings.

I have a particular love for the moment excerpted below: Antonious Block (Max von Sydow) has returned from the Crusades. He’s seen enough horror to make him doubt the existence of God, he’s already playing a game of chess with Death and fears his life has been pointless. Death is ever present; God has yet to answer his prayers or to make himself known. He’s trying to find meaning in life and to make his life meaningful. This moment of community in the face of plague and death, the sharing with friends, an appreciation of the music, the  beauty of the light, the sensuousness of the strawberries and fresh milk, the promise of the young baby; all ending with the drinking of the milk, which is in itself an act of communion but with a loving community instead of the blood of Christ, is what will spur him to a later act of generosity and goodness that will end the search to that which he sought. It’s a gorgeous moment in which people of all faiths or even adherents of therapy such as mindfulness will find in Bergman’s dramatisation of that which is holy in nature and in community a reverberating  reflection of their own best beliefs.

Jose Arroyo

Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit, John Gielgud Theatre, March 1st

angela 1Angela Lansbury’s mere entrance in Blithe Spirit last night was greeted by an eruption of wild applause. We wanted to thank her before she’d even done anything. Or rather for all she’d done for us thus far; all she’d made us feel and think and dream of; for the role in our lives that she continues to occupy and that we continue to treasure. She provides the comfort of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, the artistry of her musical triumphs on stage (Gypsy, Mame, Sweeny Todd) and some of the most complex and/or appealing and/or comforting performances in a long and varied film career. Take your pick from The Manchurian CandidateGaslightBedknobs and Broomsticks and so very many others. There will be an Angela Lansbury film festival in London April 5-6 April to celebrate some of those performances with Sir Christopher Frayling interviewing her on the Manchurian Candidate at 2:30 on Sunday 6th..

Pauline Kael famously said that she didn’t think she could be friends with anyone who didn’t love her Sibyl Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray. I always misremember that and cite it incorrectly as the young maid in Gaslight. She’s so delicious in both that perhaps I can be forgiven for the error. We probably all have our own favourite Angela Lansbury moments. Mine begin with her saloon ‘hostess’ in The Harvey Girls, my first memory of either her or Judy Garland, seen on a little black and white television and the beginnings of my love for both. This is one of my all-time favourite moments on film (though Angela, unbelievably glamorous, appears only towards the end of the clip). There’s something about Judy’s fear in going into the saloon and then the way she blows into the smoking guns that is a comic delight. And of course all of this is followed by Lansbury’s bad-girl sashay at the end. Who could remember that Lansbury was a bad girl or that she could move and pout like that? Too much Jessica Fletcher has made most of us forget. But not I. It’s how I first got to know her.

Blithe Spirit is the perfect theatrical vehicle for an 88 year-old star which is to say it is the perfect vehicle for Angela Lansbury now. The play is from Noel Coward, one of THE great and most long-running of West End hits during WWII, and there’s not a single creak in it. It’s still a marvel of theatrical mechanics. The introduction of the characters, the entrances and exits, the curtains, the spectacle provided by what beings from ‘The Other Side’ can do on our world – all work superbly; thus all the actors get their laughs and a chance to shine, and thus is less of a  burden is placed on the undisputable but aging star of the evening. She appears in only a few scenes but they are key ones; they were enough to  make Margaret Rutherford a star. It’s a cracker of a role.

I had my first trance when I was four years old...what an exciting day that was!
I had my first trance when I was four years old…what an exciting day that was!

The music, many of Coward’s greatest hits plus Irving Berlin’s ‘Always’, is a treat; and the producers are aware of the element of nostalgia in all of this and milk it; the stage is framed as if it were a silent film and as if we all longing  for a Cowardesque past of elegant living, witty sayings, perfectly made plays and great stars – which we, or at least the audience last night and certainly myself at any time, certainly are.

The Gielgud is also a perfect venue for a Noel Coward sophisticated drawing room comedy —  intimate, gilded, bijou-y, decorated with caricatures of Coward and Gielgud and Ivor Novello, Beaton photographs of Binkie Beaumont, and an oil painting of Margaret Rutherford. The bar, a round rotunda balcony from which you can lean over with your gin and ogle at the people coming in through the box-office is itself worth the price of admission.

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Lansbury’s character, Madame Arcati, is forever associated with Rutherford so Lansbury is not without a challenge on her hands. She only appears in a few scenes and needs to not only get her laughs but also try to efface the memory of Rutherford, one rendered more vivid by being immortalised in David Lean’s film of the play. Lansbury appears dressed like the salacious Salome Otterbourne she played in Death on the Nile but acting like Maggie Smith’s curt companion to Bette Davis in the same film, all brisk common sense. She was a bit wobbly on her lines  and her voice was lighter than that of the other actors. To me, she did not efface the memory of Margaret Rutherford in the movie, particularly the relish with which Rutherford pursed her lips and rubbed her hands before starting her communications with ‘The Other Side’. But Lansbury still got all her laughs  plus a few more that weren’t there for a marvellous quasi-Egyptian dance she does when she goes to turn off the lights for her séance. At the end, when she got that standing ovation it was not just due to the audience’s gratitude for a lifetime of lovingly remembered work —  her career is like a huge box of assorted  movie madelaines — as it could be said to have been at her entrance, but for still owning that stage like the star and actress she proved to be; for giving us another reason to love her; and for giving us the chance to show our gratitude personally.

Jose Arroyo

Matthew McConaughey

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 12.06.09There was a time, a long time, like from 1996 to about 2011, when many men couldn’t look at Matthew McConaughey’s mug without wanting to punch it. He was so good looking – tall, lean, tan and with that blonde curly hair that always seemed placed just so by an army of hairdresser; and he seemed so smug and self-satisfied with it, like he knew he was God’s gift. And there was a tension between the slick self-confidence he exuded and the audience’s feeling that acting chops had not been included amongst his many blessings. It seemed too that however much he insisted on his just being a ‘reg’lar dude from good ol’ Texas’ he was a manufactured star. Yet here he is now, named front-runner for the Oscar for Best Actor by The Hollywood Reporter for his performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club and enjoying the greatest success of his career on television as well for True Detective, a series that already seems culturally essential.

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McConaughey first made an impression in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused in 1993, still a cult film, and one where some of McConaughey’s lines still get an airing: ‘I love freshman chicks; I get older, they stay the same age. Yes they do.’ Fans show a particular appreciation for McConaughie’s relish in saying them, the musical uplift on the ‘Yes they do’ for example. However, McConaughey became famous before any of the movies he starred in were released. He got a Vanity Fair cover in August 1996 with a headline that read ‘Lone Star: Why Hollywood is so hot for McConaughey’ that possibly did him more harm than good. Hollywood might have been hot for McConaughey but audiences like to discover and make their own stars and of the four films he released in 1996 (Lone Star, Larger than Life, Scorpio Rising, and A Time to Kill) only the latter was a big hit, and though he’s very good in it, the film was based on a John Grisham novel, a big draw then, and boasted an all-star cast of which the biggest box-office name was Sandra Bullock, riding high then as now.

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It’s worth remembering that McConaughey never touched the upper reaches of stardom: he didn’t command the salaries of the Tom Cruises or Tom Hanks’, audiences were never sure what constituted a ‘Mathew McConaughey film’ and in his whole career he’s never been the sole star of a big box office hit. In fact he’s had very few box office successes for someone with his high profile and, until recently, each has bragged a bigger, top-billed, female co-star to claim a greater portion of the credit for its success: 1996’s A Time to Kill (Sandra Bullock), 1997’s Contact (Jodie Foster), 2001’s The Wedding Planner (Jennifer Lopez) and 2003’s How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days (Kate Hudson).

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McConaughey has been one of the most famous men in America for almost twenty years. Photographs of him flashing his pecs with wild abandon appeared in all the weeklies year after year. He was famously arrested playing the bongos naked whilst high. He was named People Magazine’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ in 2005. Yet, with all that, or maybe because of all of that, audiences in general didn’t quite seem to take him to heart. A woman I know used to refer to him as Matthew Mahogany,  a nickname which well expresses the mixture of desire and disdain that even women who liked seeing him in romantic comedies used to feel for him. Until recently, I never met a man who liked the sight of him. There’s a wonderful episode of Family Guy that beautifully expresses a large number of people’s views of McConaughie for most of the last 15 years:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQnZIdl5wsc 

Stewie: I’m going to tell Mathew McConaughey how much he sucks. You know Mathew you are just awful. You are one of the worst actors in the history of film and you need to go away.

Mathew: ‘But that’s what I do most of the year. Going away to exotic places, having sex with my beautiful girlfriend, doing sit-ups and counting money.’

Stewie: ‘Contact. They didn’t even need you for that movie. They could have done the whole movie without you’.

Mathew: .  ‘I know I told them the same thing but they told me ‘we just need a good looking guy with a great ass and some tight abs to just provide some down-home enthusiasm for this picture’.

Stewie: ‘You make me physically ill to my stomach and I wish that you would get a heart attack’.

All of this began to change in what now seems an intelligent and carefully orchestrated manner from 2011. That year, he gave a very fine performance as Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer, a courtroom drama that seemed lean and lush and which got very good reviews but middling box-office. More significantly, the same year, he also played the title role in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, a disturbing noir in which McConaughey chanced playing a religious zealot with a penchant for murder and young girls. It was not a hit but McConaughey  proved that he could bring something much more interesting to his roles than his looks — a presence, a threat, a character.

Since then, he’s been extraordinarily adventurous in his choice or roles. In 2012, he played Zac Effron’s older, kinkier, brother in the camp Gothic swampfest that is Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy. Yet, though these movies were getting McConaughey talked about, it seemed to me that he was still better at picking the roles than performing them.  Jeff Nichols’ Mud changed my view. It turned out to be one of the most successful indie releases of the last year and McConaughey was also very good in the title role as the romantic stranger who’s killed a man but returns, risking all, to win back the woman he loves.

During this time McConaughey changed people’s perceptions of him as a star and as an actor to such an extent that GQ has named this shift in his career the McConaissance, an irritating way of nicknaming the very real renaissance, some would argue naissance should suffice, of his career. Yet it’s worth remembering that in terms of box-office, the only real mainstream hits he’s had so far have been in supporting parts. First in Magic Mike, where the very theme of the film, how people turn themselves into sex objects for easy money and lose their youth and future choices in a sea of drugs and easy sex, seemed uncomfortably resonant with McConaughey’s own career. Moreover, his part was secondary to Channing Tatum’s stripper, and seemed interestingly consonant with the wise-old-whorehouse-madam roles Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford were reduced to in the latter stages of their careers. His other mainstream hit is of course his superb cameo as Leonardo DiCaprio’s lush and thieving mentor in The Wolf of Wall Street. He’s only in the film for a few minutes but he puts his stamp on it as surely as DiCaprio. These are his only two blockbuster hits since How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days in 2003, a full decade ago.

To me the most interesting aspect of McConaughey’s recent career is that, here he is, unarguably at the peak of it with blockbuster hits (Magic Mike, Wolf of Wall Street), films that are already beginning to be seen as significant and important (Mud, Killer Joe), work with some of the most important directors (Scorcese, Soderbergh, Lee Daniels, Jeff Nichols, William Friedkin), great critical acclaim (for almost all of his recent films but particularly for Dallas Buyer’s Club), front-runner for the Oscars…This is the moment where you’d expect a Hollywood star to get his pick of roles and name his price. And what are we seeing him in and on? True Detective for HBO

Historically TV stars — James Garner, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Tom Hanks, Will Smith – all wanted to leave TV behind because movies were where the big money and the possibility of art both were. Now, the move to TV is not seen as a move down but as a move sideways, one were actors at the top of their game and at the peak of their box office, stars like Mathew McConaughey, can get the combination of serious drama, juicy roles and mainstream audiences that film no longer seems to offer. Whilst he may very well win the Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club, it is on television and in True Detective that McConaughey is proving what a truly great actor he is, one currently associated with culturally essential work. Only Hollywood seemed to be hot for McConaughey in 1996. It’s taken almost twenty years for audiences and critics to agree.

A shorter version of this ran in The Conversation at: https://theconversation.com/columns/jose-arroyo-114860

José Arroyo

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, USA, 2013)

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In Only Lovers Left Alive, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are said to have lived for thousands of years but clearly haven’t spent even ten minutes of them Hoovering their homes. They live in dusty spaces crammed with things they’ve loved enough to keep for centuries, books and music mostly. Some people walked out of the film but I loved it; the anomie, the sadness, the great r&b tracks –  particularly Charlie Feathers’ Can’t Hardly Stand It and Denise Lasalle’s Trapped by a Thing Called Love — which speak of loss and loneliness but with an energy that conveys the opposite; the use of drugs as a parable for vampirism; the final insistent choice on life and love. It’s stayed with me all day.

The film begins with Adam, played by Tom Hiddlestone, shy, reclusive, living in Detroit, a city as much of a shell of former glories as he himself, a spectral place with hidden beauties, echoes of former lives and secret places were bodies can easily be disposed of. Adam lives for his music and for his fix. He’s got everything neatly arranged, a doctor who gives him top-grade, really pure blood and a sweet-faced squeaky-voiced young man (Anton Yelchin) on the edges of the music industry who might be pirating and selling on  Adam’s compositions but can arrange pretty much everything else Adam might need and is well-paid for doing so.  Adam  is trying to find a reason to continue living and having trouble finding it.

Meanwhile, Eve (Tilda Swinton) is living in Tangiers, the Tangiers of myth with Pepe Le Moko streets, Paul and Jane Bowles ambiance,  and the sheltering sky of balmy nights and a good supply. She’s got a friend there, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt, gruff, poetic, endearing) who is also her connection to centuries-old literary gossip and grade-A blood. Her life is neatly arranged until she talks to Adam, finds out the extent of his loneliness and goes out to him. Adam and Eve once, maybe even originary lovers, reconnect as soul-mates, wonder through the nights, talk, find their old maybe unexciting but still essential rhythm with each other, until Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives. The aptly named Ava, with her disrespect for convention, her selfish need to have a good time, her intense focus on her bodily needs and pleasures disrupt the more cerebral, retired life of Adam and Eve and brings chaos: though Adam and Even try to keep the humans they call zombies at bay, Ava has a positive and dangerous relish for them.

I can’t imagine watching Only Lovers Left Alive on anything but a big screen. It has its own pace, one which requires patience, but if you give yourself to its tempo and its conceits, it draws one into its enveloping images and and hazy rhythms, enthralls, involves you in its play of allegory, meaning, sensation. By the end, the audience becomes enveloped and enchanted by the Tangier sky, the night, the music, the feelings and views of worn out junkies in love wondering what the point of it all is, the speculation on the meaning of life and art. Then, when Adam and Eve, and we, hear Yasmine Hamdam sing ‘Hal’ in a café, we understand why art, why evoking what Hamdam conveys and makes us feel, is worth living for — even if the price is murder. And we then realise that Only Lovers Left Alive has provided that as well.

It was nominated for the Palme D’Or at Cannes and worth seeing on the largest screen you can find.

José Arroyo

Britishness at the BAFTAS

Britishness seemed to be main motif in BBC’s broadcast of the BAFTAS Sunday evening. When host Stephen Fry mentioned that the event was the highlight of the British Film Calendar, he backtracked as he heard what he was saying and asked: Is there such a thing as a British Film Calendar?

He did well to ask because the constellation of stars he took great trouble to show off — Leonardo Di Caprio, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Tom Hanks – is no different than what we’d expect to see at the Oscars, though at the Oscars one wouldn’t have had to rely on Twitter to learn that Brad Pitt and Angelina wore matching Yves St. Laurent tuxedos, Lily Allen was in Vivienne Westwood, Amy Adams wore Victoria Beckham and Cate Blanchett wore McQueen – there would have been a whole series of programmes right up to the start of the broadcast breathlessly recounting every aspect in great details and using the very latest technological developments to broadcast every stitch to an eager public and garner worldwide unpaid publicity for the giant fashion houses. But as Oprah Winfrey said before the show started, ‘this (the Baftas) is not about glitz and glamour’.

But what are the BAFTAS about? What are they for? Presumably it’s to honour, celebrate and promote British Cinema. But one really wouldn’t have known that from the nominees of Best Film (12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Philomena), Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Greengrass, Steve McQueen, David O. Russell, Martin Scorcese) Best Actor (Christian Bale, Bruce Dern Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejifor, Tom Hanks) or even Best Actress (Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson). Indeed when the first award of the evening was announced and Gravity won for Best British Film, the twittersphere went into a frenzy of speculation as to what was British about it with Droo Padhiar of Peccadillo pictures insisting ‘It is NOT a British film. It is NOT a British film. It is NOT a British Film’. Three times. Just in case one didn’t get the message.

Of course, one need not get too purist about these things. If the nominations don’t necessarily reflect a particular definition of British cinema, one which would probably run something along the lines of: films predominantly financed in Britain, about British stories, with a predominantly British cast and crew (Philomena, The Selfish Giant would be unproblematic examples), they do reflect British film culture: the films celebrated are the films that have entertained, delighted and informed us here, be they British or not. Moreover, later in the show when Cuarón returned to the stage to collect his award for Best Director and had presumably been made aware of the brouhaha over Gravity’s win for Best British Film he said, softly but pointedly: ‘I consider myself part of the British Film Industry. I’ve lived here for 13 years and made about half my films here. I guess I make a good case for the curbing of immigration.’ Yet, at the end of his speech, the cinematic culture Cuarón feels a part of was made clear and partly contradicted his earlier statement when he thanked Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu, Mexican compadres and current colleagues in the higher reaches of global cinema. ‘I wouldn’t order breakfast before consulting them first,’ he said.

The Britishness of the BAFTAS was visible at oblique angles and at ‘special’ moments; thus the event was hosted at the Royal Opera House in London, one won the ‘Alexander Korda Award for Outstanding British Film’, or the ‘David Lean Award for Outstanding Direction’. The Britishness was also evident in the special awards presented. Thus we had the pleasure of seeing Juliet Stevenson, still truly, madly and deeply dazzling with her looks and her eloquence praise Peter Greenway as a visionary who challenged existing cinematic forms and pushed the boundaries of where cinema and painting meet, and to award him the ‘Michael Balcoln Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema’. Greenaway  graciously expressed his surprise and commented on the changes in contemporary cinema: It’s not the same as the cinema of our fathers and forefathers. Cinema has to be continuously reinvented.’ Tellingly, the person he singled out for thanks was his Dutch producer Kees Kasander who he said somehow always managed to put together the money for the British director to realise his singular works (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Prospero’s Books, etc). Such is filmmaking today.

A concern with Britishness and the forms of its articulation continued as  a recurring motif. Earlier in the show, after Stephen Fry introduced her as a ‘ghastly piece of shrieking, stinking offal, Emma Thomson replied, ‘Is it me or being British that makes being referred to as stinking offal …makes me feel so much better about myself.’ The finale of the evening was when HRH The Duke of Cambridge in his role as President of BAFTA introduced Jeremy Irons to really bring out the pomp and ceremony and recount the highlights Helen Mirren’s career. Accepting the award for her Fellowship of the BAFTAS, Mirren first thanked her old teacher, Alice Welding, who recently died at the age of 102 for having inspired her to desire to live in a world of literature and poetry; and then finished off her acceptance speech with a dazzling oration that invoked both acting and Albion, the ‘stuff that dreams are made on’ speech from The Temptest:

Our revels are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And like baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-cappe’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all of which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

is rounded with a sleep

It was a rather theatrical and very British end to a BAFTAS that saw 12 Years a Slave, a film which had Channel Four money, a British director and a large British cast, win Best Film but Gravity with its American money and cast and its Mexican director win Best British film. Chiwetel Ejiofor, black and British, won Best Actor. Oh and The Great Beauty the winner of Best Foreign Film didn’t even make it to the broadcast and was put in the little ‘These awards were handed out earlier’ addendum after the end of the main programme. The Britishness of these BAFTAS seems to be defined by placing America at the centre, various articulations of Britishness on the margins or ‘specialised’ categories, and Europeans out of the picture.

José Arroyo

A shorter version of this was published in the conversation as  https://theconversation.com/baffled-baftas-dont-know-how-to-be-british-23162

Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2010)

somewhere poster

This is about a Hollywood film star, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), kind of lost, marriage failed, all his wishes are met but they’re not really desires because all he’s got to do is look and he gets offered it. He doesn’t even need to ask. Girls flash their tits at him everywhere he turns and, tired though he is, he’s eager to please and be pleased, though sometimes he’s so tired he falls asleep doing it. Once in a while he returns home with his daughter to find random women in his bed and has to shoo them away, but always with a wistful regret that charms and seduces even at the moment of rejection. He’s so agreeable he can’t understand why they keep getting pissed off at him when he can’t give them more. He’s professional in his job and nice to everyone but detached.

The film begins with a beautiful sequence, a long take of a black Ferrari racing around an empty road in the desert. The Ferrari races in and out of the frame whilst the camera maintains its ground gazing emptily at the beautiful but parched scenery until the Ferrari once again drives into frame. A person we will later find out is Johnny gets out of the car. We’re allowed to see the emptiness of the landscape and the car becomes a metaphor for the film and the person: sleek, desirable, celebrated…but driving aimlessly and in a desert. The Ferrari and the Chateau Marmont, the shabby chic hotel where all the cool celebrities in LA stay, are recurring tropes in the film, evoking the luxury and comfort made available by celebrity. The Chateau is contrasted later with the chic, elegant and formal hotel in Italy. Coppola depicts luxury next to, sometimes even as, anomie — the plenitude and glitz of things but always on the verge of the void.

The film, and Johnny, sparks to life when his daughter Cleo (Ellie Fanning) arrives.  I can’t think of a better representation of a father-daughter relationship ever depicted on film: sweet, complex, reciprocal, full of feeling but always constrained by external forces partly of their making and partly outside their control. Johnny and Cleo communicate simply, through looks, clearly love each other, each want to spend more time with the other. She makes him eggs benedict; he loves her eggs benedict. She seems to know all his faults, questions him glancingly on them, sometimes implying ‘really?’ as she sees the next girl he’s bringing over for breakfast. But though she seems to question his actions, she accepts him for who he is and never judges him as a person. He’s clearly crazy about her. She’s what really brings joy to his life and makes it meaningful. When they part, the anomie and the desert kind of re-engulfs him without quite extinguishing him. He gets back on an expensive car and back into an emotional desert. She goes to her mother; he returns to the walking dead. It’s a beautiful and rare relationship on film and it’s a beautiful and rare film.

José Arroyo

Robocop (José Padilha, USA, 2014)

robocop

The Robocop remake is a mixed bag. I think Joel Kinnaman is a brand new star. In the original, Paul Weller seemed a little robotic and inhuman even before he became a cyborg. Here, Kinneman runs the whole gamut from romantic longing to mechanical catatonia but lets the audience into every aspect of it. The rest of the cast is a treat too. I’ve not seen Michael Keaton better since Beetlejuice. He’s lithe, charismatic and oozes the kind of menacing and sleazy charm that can bribe politicians with one hand and pick your pocket with the other. He’s like a Mafia Don of robocops but one who’ll bring out the jazz hands if needed to seal the sale. His scenes with Gary Oldman — as a scientist emollient to the point of weakness and ambitious past the point of ethics — have a real snap.

Samuel L. Jackson, hair high, almost but not quite straightened  and set with enough hairspray to stop any onslaught is a delight as a manipulative Fox-style news presenter: reasonable in a speaking-from-the-pulpit kind of way when setting out a case, impatient when he’s not, and bombastic when speaking directly to the audience. It was lovely to see Jennifer Ehle as well wearing clothes as dark as her morals and with elegant features arranged into a poker face until called to action. I also liked Abbie Cornish as Murphy’s wife though the spectre of Nancy Allen – curvy, saucy, crisp and acid – like biting into a tart apple —  is bound to haunt anything ever connected with her.

The film is set in 2028; in a Detroit that seems prosperously reconstructed but still crime-ridden and corrupt;  thus is license afforded to critique present-day America. But Robocop doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: corporations rule above governments unimpeded by checks and balances; we live in a surveillance culture that surveys and manipulates the weak and powerless; the media is brutally manipulative and mendacious; life is cheap. The original told us all of that and with a lot more wit, in a setting that seemed more spectacular, and with dialogue that was spare but with enough cutting lines to pack a punch: they relied on irony, conveyed satire, and earned belly-laughs from the audience – who can forget ‘you’re fired!’?

This Robocop doesn’t really overcome the failings that plague cinema in the digital age: the image still seems too thin to me, Padilha hasn’t learned how to make action exciting, lots of people get killed but there’s nothing at stake in their death – or indeed in Alex Murphy/Robocop avoiding his own — and the narrative still hasn’t figured out how to make use of all of story-telling possibilities new technology both diegetically and extra-diegetically make possible. I think what’s really missing is thought on how the new possibilities of dealing with time and the new challenges posed by changing standards of what is believable can result in different ways of communicating meanings and conveying pleasures.

If one could stop thinking about the original however, the film is very enjoyable and worth seeing for the actors alone.

José Arroyo

Modigliani vs Gérard Phillippe in Montparnasse 19

Modigliani by Brabander
Modigliani by Brabander

Browsing through the Estorick Collection in London I came across this portrait of Amadeo Modigliani by François Brabander and my first thought was ‘No! That’s not Modigliani!’ I saw Montparnasse 19 as a child on television and Modigliani is forever etched in my mind as the face of Gérard Phillippe. I have not seen Montparnasse 19 since then but I’ve never forgotten how beautiful Anouk Aimée is in that film nor Phillippe’s sadness at loving her but finding it all impossible because art was his life and his art wasn’t going well and he was so hungry; the film seemed full of shots of them walking around Montparnasse, loving but not wanting to love, both looking impossibly beautiful whilst sad and starving.  I also remember Lilli Palmer at her most vivid and charming, tempting and taunting Phillippe with her body and her money.

montparnasse 19

This person in the Brabander photograph is suitably sad but that short moustache, the too long neck, the double chin! No! My reaction to the Brabander portrait is ridiculous even to myself. Phillipe was not only Modigliani to me, he was also the face of Stendhal’s heroes having played both Julien Sorel and Fabrice del Dongo in the movies; he was also the great Fanfan la Tulipe and, even though it is Marcello Mastroianni who played Arthur Merseault in the movies (for Visconti in The Stranger in 1967), it is Phillippe’s beautiful and sad face that is to me also the face of French post-war Existentialism. Thus whilst Modigliani to me has until now always been Gérard Phillippe, Gérard Phillippe has been Modigliani and more.

I nonetheless find it interesting that Phillippe was my first reference point, that the filmic representation of Modigliani took precedence over the historical portrait. In my mind, the Brabander portrait was being measured against, and found lacking in relation to, the image of Phillipe. Is this type of response typical? I suppose it doesn’t apply to historical figures who are already iconic to us before we encounter them at the movies – the Hitlers or Henry VII’s or Napoleons– but those who become famous to us through the movies –  Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur, Anna Neagle as Edith Cavell, Cagney as George M. Cohan , perhaps this will even come true of Leonardo Di Caprio and Howard Hughes – it’s as if the figure of the actor becomes the root image against which all others — even historical paragraphs — get compared to, at least initially.

Image Capture of Phillipe as Modigliani from traier.
Image Capture of Phillipe as Modigliani from traier.

I’m sure this is often true and that people have been disappointed in the past to find that Madame Curie might not look very much like Greer Garson. Certainly I was disappointed to see that the real Modigliani only vaguely resembled the dreamy, trembly and poetic Gérard Phillippe even as my reason told me how silly it was to even think that it should. The movies offered dreams and fantasies, ideals and nightmares: reason there is really the least of it. And perhaps that’s why I’m afraid to re-visit Montparnasse 19 even though I now know the film was started by Ophuls and finished by Jacques Becker —  information that would have meant nothing to me as a child — and even though I now see that Lino Ventura and Lila Kedrova are also in it: how could I forget that?

What could one hope to achieve by re-visiting Montparnasse 19 that is worth risking the beautiful and fragile memory embedded so powerfully so long ago? Yet seeing the Brabander portrait confirmed how Phillippe has always meant so much more to me than Modigliani, and indeed so has Ophuls and Jaques Becker and Lilli Palmer and even Lino Ventura. Ad perhaps a new encounter with them need not result in the ruin of an old one.

José Arroyo

A Story Lately Told by Anjelica Huston

A Story Lately Told

Anjelica Huston’s A Story Lately Told (London: Simon & Schuster, 2013) is her memoir of growing up in an unconventional, bohemian and artistic household; first in Ireland, then London, and later, by the book’s end, in New York, where she starts her first serious love affair with fashion photographer Robert Richardson. She is of course the daughter of the legendary film director John Huston, the maker of classics such as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Fat City, The Man Who Would be King, and many others. Her mother too was famous, ‘the youngest member to join the best dance company in the nation, Ballet Theatre,’ (p.13), gracing the June 9, 1947 cover of Life as ‘Young ballerina, Ricky Soma’ and under contract to David Selznick when she met John Huston.

John and Anjelica making A Walk with Love and Death, 1968
John and Anjelica making A Walk with Love and Death, 1968

The story is told with great generosity of spirit, a flair for conveying the drama of incident and a sharp eye for a telling detail that readers appreciate knowing, like her father’s wearing Guerlain’s lime cologne or his middle name being Marcellus – who knew? Huston evokes through naming flowers, animals, the different kinds of colours one finds in Ireland, the obstacles to a hunt. She’s got the vocabulary to convey a range of places things and experiences — and she writes vividly and well.

Anjelica's Mother
Anjelica’s Mother

Anjelica Huston is not only an iconic 1970s model, Academy Award-winning actress (for Prizzi’s Honour in 1985, directed by her father), and a director (Agnes Brown); she’s  an American aristocrat. She likes to tell us that she’s descended from Civil War generals and the State Attorney of Ohio on her father’s side; a yogi and owner of the famed showbiz speakeasy Tony’s Wife on her mother’s; that she was born whilst her father was making The African Queen and that Katharine Hepburn was the first person to ask whether her father had had a boy or a girl.

John and Anjelica at the premiere of Prizzi's Honor with Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner
John and Anjelica at the premiere of Prizzi’s Honor with Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner

Any film buff will know about her father, or that her paternal grandfather was Dodsworth in the movies and introduced Kurt Weill’s beautiful ‘September Song’ on stage; or that she herself is the third generation of Oscar winners in her family. But like all Twentieth Century aristocrats, though they might derive their power from a particular genealogy grounded in the history of a specific country, they themselves are not rooted to a particular place. The world is their arena of action and the great capitals and fashionable vacation destinations their playground. The ‘jet set’ was the term developed for the late twentieth-century variant of the rich and /or famous to which Anjelica Huston and her family belonged.

IMG_8532

In the acknowledgment section of  A Story Lately Told, Huston thanks her ‘darling sister Allegra, whose own memoir was an inspiration’ (p.253). And one can understand how that would be the case: Allegra Huston’s book, Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found (London: Bloomsbury, 2009) is also a coming of age story that deals with many of the same places and people. But it is a truism that each child has a different upbringing even when raised in the same family by the same set of biological parents; parents become more experienced, they change, or circumstances change, or each child may bring out a different aspect of the parents’ personality.

Plus, Allegra Huston had a more dramatic story to tell: growing up thinking that she shared the same set of parents as Anjelica she later discovers that her real father was Viscount Norwich, son of Great Britain’s postwar Ambassador to Paris — Duff Cooper – and Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duke of Rutland, one of the great beauties of the 20s, and under her married name of Diana Cooper, a sensation on stage in The Miracle for Max Reindhart. There are enough books by or about the Norwich’s to fill a small bookshelf. Their names also appear in the memoirs and letters of Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton and other luminaries of the era. Norwich himself appears as a fictional character guiding tourists through the great sights of Europe in Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred; it was whilst undertaking such tours that Norwich met Allegra’s mother and thus the ‘Love Child’ in the title of Allegra’s book.

Lady_Diana_Cooper_on_TIME_Magazine,_February_15,_1926

It is an indictment of Norwich, and a compliment to Huston, that in spite of her three other siblings having slightly different parentage, she remembers that ‘We were brothers and sisters, and Dad was our father. I never felt I was second best to him. I was as much his child as any of us (p. 218). This couldn’t be said for the Norwich’s; and in her own book Anjelica remembers that, ‘Mum told me that when she was pregnant with Allegra, John Julius’s mother, Lady Diana Cooper, had come by the house with a bunch of violets. Mum was ambivalent about the gesture, feeling that there was something condescending about it, particularly in Diana’s choice of flowers, like a bouquet a grand person might present to a poor relation she said (p.150)..

Part of the great pleasure one experiences when reading A Story Lately Told is the account of the places and people that form the context of a kind of upbringing that might have seemed exceptional in the middle of the last century but might no longer seem so: people travel a lot more and families made up of different baby-daddies and indeed different baby-mommies would, if one believed daytime television, be the norm rather than the exception today.

St. Clerans in 1821
St. Clerans in 1821

The first part of the book deals with Ireland as Anjelica’s first memories are of growing up there, or more precisely at St. Clerans, a 110-acre estate in Craughwell, Co. Galway. Jean-Paul Sartre who went there to write a script for John Huston’s film of Freud wrote Simone de Beauvoir[1], ‘Through this immensity of identical rooms, a great Romantic, melancholic and lonely, aimlessly roams. Our friend Huston is absent, aged, and literally unable to speak to his guests…his emptiness is purer than death.’ But that’s not how Anjelica remembers the house and that’s not how she remembers her father. For her, the house is full of the music of Montand, Sinatra, Holiday, Piaf and Moloudji; it’s full of art books and Penguin Classics. It’s a house where the rugs are Aubusson, the posters are by Toulouse Lautrec, the crystal is Waterford, the silver is Georgian, the couture is by Dior and Balenciaga, and there are Greek marbles, Venetian glass, Imperial jade, Etruscan gold, Louis XIV furniture. Anjelica knows both the price and value of such things. Her father, who gambled for and won a Monet, taught her. But the people she grew up with are the servants, the nannies, the Creaghs who were cook and butler; and she remembers them not only with fondness but with enough feeling to have kept up with them and revel in their successes: the Creagh’s daughter, Karen would later be ‘and All Ireland Champion céili dancer’ Anjelica recounts with warmth and pride (p. 54).

If the chapters on Ireland sketch out a childhood, the chapters in London sketch out her teenage years. It’s Hyde Park and Carnaby Street, crushes on the Beatles, shoplifting at Biba. Part of the pleasure of reading this book is the anecdotes about the famous; Carson McCuller’s visit to St. Clerans where she was taken around the house the first day and then didn’t leave her room for the rest of her stay; Anjelica’s first sighting of Mick Jagger when she was understudying Marianne Faithfull in a play; feeling slightly used by James Fox.

Huston By David Bailey for Vogue 1973
Huston By David Bailey for Vogue 1973

Huston has a storyteller’s gift. I love her evocations of place. But I also love how she dramatises her anecdotes: the story of the Irish lady she met at one of the country hunts who won a paternity suit against the husband she had not lived with for seven years because she claimed they were once guests at the same country house and accidentally ‘shared a sponge’. There are many more like that. The chapter in New York, where she finds herself in fashion, meeting Diana Vreeland, being photographed by Avedon and Bailey, modeling for Halston and Zandra Rhodes. It’s a rich life that Anjelica Huston shares.

A Story Lately Told is a beautifully told tale, one that honours both her mother and her father as well as the three countries in which she grew up. It’s the story of an artist as a confused but interested young woman; and it’s proof that Anjelica Huston is an artist in more than one medium.

Jose Arroyo

Corolianus, NT Live Transmission

coriolanus

Seeing the live National Theatre broadcast of Coriolanus last Thursday brought home once again how we’re all glued to screens now: our eyes rarely far from and seemingly hypnotized by the lure of the light emanating from our phones, tablets, computers and TV’s. But the screen that has always meant most to me – a big one with a movie projected onto it– is decreasing in significance, at least socially. Arguably, movies are better than ever. But we watch them through many outlets other than the cinema – computers, TV, DVD — and when we go to the pictures it’s not always movies we go to watch.

What ‘cinema’ is, where we see it and how we see it is all in flux. Theatre, ballet, opera — even boxing — are only some of the events we can now see as live transmissions onto big screens at cinemas. The picture-houses themselves are evolving to meet the different functions they’re required to fulfill in order to survive. The Electric in Birmingham is now the type of trendy venue where people pay premium prices for the privilege of sinking into big leather sofas to drink in their art with their cocktails. I tried to get tickets for Coriolanus there but they were sold out.

I was luckier at Cineworld because Corolianus was showing on two different screens. Of course, I could have waited to see it on DVD later but it would have lost the dimension of ‘liveness’, the size of the screen would have shrunk, and it would have meant wresting control of ‘time’ from the show’s makers: on DVD, I could pause at any time, make myself a cup of coffee and possibly wreck all the filmmakers’ carefully considered attempts to realise effects that rely on suspense, timing, rhythm.

But what are we watching when we see Corolianus at the ‘pictures’? It’s for sure we’re not watching a movie. There was no evidence of the care with choice of camera angle, camera movement, design, décor and editing that would have gone into conceptualising Corolianus as a movie, evidence clearly visible in, say, Ralph Fiennes 2011 film version. During the live transmission there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for camera set-ups or movement except following the actors. Even the focus on some of the close-ups was poor; and for cinema, that’s as basic as it gets.

It was also clear that the actors had not designed their performances for a big screen. The pitch of their voices and the size of their gestures were aimed at the audience in the Donmar Warehouse, which however cozy in relation to other theatres, is not as intimate as a close-up. The actors’ movements seemed too outsized and their speaking seemed oddly stylized on a big screen. Though I loved some of the performances (Hiddleston’s Coriolanus and Deborah Findley’s Voumnia were particularly memorable), they weren’t designed for the big screen.

If the Coriolanus I saw was not a movie it was also not live theatre. The staging seemed marvelously inventive for theatre but pretty ‘blah’ for the movies, or at least so I deduced from what I could see. For example, one can imagine how the fight sequence must have been thrilling on stage but here it just seemed like a phony, rather well-choreographed little tumble. Tom Hiddleston’s shower and his being hung up near the end must have seemed equally dazzling theatrical moments at the Donmar but didn’t quite thrill through a lens. One could imagine the effects but one didn’t feel them. Moreover, in the cinema even a ‘live’ transmission does not convey presence and one also loses the ability one has in the theatre of letting the eye wonder, of picking and choosing where to lay the focus of one’s attention.

One of the reasons for these live transmissions is to see the great actors of the day perform in great plays old and new. That was the rationale for the old BBC ‘Play of the Month’,  which ran from 1965-1983 (Janet Suzman and John Gielgud in George Bernard’s Shaw’s St. Joan from 1968 is but one example), or the series of filmed plays to be sold and screened at cinemas that Ely Landau produced from the  1960s onwards, two of them starring Katharine Hepburn: Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962)and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (Tony Richardson, 1973).

What these live transmissions offer that is new and valuable is the combination of a large screen, a communal and social viewing experience, and the sense of occasion that attends to the ‘liveness’ of the transmission; although these events are recorded and sometimes shown in cinemas later, whenever there seems to be a demand for it (the NT’s production of Frankenstein with Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch played in cinemas long after it ceased its run at the National).

Though I find nothing as boring as seeing ballet on television, I love seeing live broadcasts of ballet on a big screen. Size really does reveal the athleticism and control of the dancers in a way that is impossible on TV or sometimes even on stage. Seeing Sergei Polunin in a live transmission of the Royal Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty was for me an unforgettable experience, one I’d not had in a theatre for a long time. But I’ve still to experience anything remotely close to that when watching a play broadcast at the cinema.

I enjoyed Coriolanus. The language is glorious. It felt it a privilege to be able to see Tom Hiddleston so close up, to see how Mark Gatiss’ Melenius compares to his Mycroft, to evaluate how Brigitte Hjort Sørensen, the lovely Danish reporter from Borgen, spoke Shakespeare. The live transmission is not a replacement for theatre and it’s not a replacement for cinema as we knew it. It is however an addition to an audio-visual ecosystem that is helping to transform and redefine the visual culture that we live in.

José Arroyo

Seen Thursday, 30th January at Cineworld Cinemas, Birmingham

A Shorter version of this was published in The Conversation at https://theconversation.com/screening-shakespeare-coriolanus-doesnt-captivate-at-the-multiplex-22682

Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, USA, 1941)

sullivan's travels

Joel McCrea is John Lloyd Sullivan, the very successful director of Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1939 who has decided that he cannot continue making frivolous, light films in a world where Europe’s at war and where there’s so much unemployment and misery in America, not when he’s got the greatest educational tool ever invented by man at his disposal: movies!

He convinces his studio bosses to let him make ‘O Brother, Where Art Though?’, a film about the plight of the common people; realistic, pedagogical, depressing. ‘I want this picture to be a document! I want to hold a mirror up to life! I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!’ Nothing could terrify the movie moguls more, but Sullivan is so successful that they have no choice but to agree to let him make it, though he in turn concedes to put ‘a little sex in it’. When the studio bosses point out that the reason he makes such light, optimistic and successful films is that he’s had a privileged life –what does he know about misery? — Sullivan decides to dress as a tramp, go on the road, and find out.

At first everything conspires to bring him back to Hollywood, but then, just as he feels he’s done enough research and he’s out handing out dollar bills to those less fortunate than he who helped him on his quest, events conspire to send him to jail, put him in a prison chain-gang and teach him what real misery is really like. As he learns that, he also learns the value of the light, the frivolous – what joy, laughter and entertainment can bring to a world full of misery — i.e. he learns the value of his own work.

In many ways Sullivan’s Travels is a self-serving and self-affirming film, with Sturges and Hollywood patting themselves on the back for doing exactly what they’ve always done. But it’s also a marvelously entertaining film that shoots the audience with such a quick, smart, and witty spray of jokes that you might miss out if you’re not quick on the uptake. It’s great to see a film that assumes each individual member of the audience is the smartest and brightest person in any room.

Sullivan’s Travels successfully satirises Hollywood and the audience’s own trivial sentimentalising of the poor whilst offering quite a critique of: Hollywood’s pretensions; the issue of class in America; the inadequate system of poor relief, with prayer often being the price – non-negotiable – of a floor to sleep in and a bite to eat; and the brutality of prison chain-gangs. It might even have tried to critique race; though what the film does on this score now sits a bit uncomfortably.

David Thomson has written that ‘Sullivan’s Travels falls flat when it tries to move from comedy to pathos.’[1]I’m not sure I agree with him. Firstly, I don’t think the film sets out for pathos. It tries to reveal poverty and injustice, to make the audience aware of it, but not to induce pathos, or at least not until Sullivan himself is imprisoned and seems to have no way out. Until then, we see the misery from the outside; from Sullivan’s eyes, but the eyes of an outsider whose experiences are purely optional; and the jokes, the winks, the acknowledgment that even your brothers in the soup-kitchen can steal the very shoes from your feet unless you have eyes in the back of your head and can see whilst sleeping, all take priority over the arousal of emotion. Pathos has no bigger enemy than laughter. But it’s Sturges choice not his lack.

Personally, I rejoice in that choice. When McCrea, feverish and trembly from illness, reiterates his convictions as if a spirit of daffy do-gooding giddiness has taken hold of him in Church –  ‘nothing is going to stop me. I’m going to find out how it feels to be in trouble. Without friends, without credit, without checkbook, without name. Alone’ — he’s irresistible; as close to reaching the endearingly irrational heights of the great  screwball dames (Colbert, Hepburn, Lombard) as any male actor except for Cary Grant.

Andrew Sarris indirectly touches on this and attributes it not only to McCrea but also to Sturges. In fact he sees it as a characteristic of Sturges’ work: ‘It is as if his characters were capable of being lit from within by the cartoonist’s device of the instantly ignited light-bulb in the hero’s skull. Joel McCrea’s movie director in Sullivan’s Travels experiences and expresses such a flash of practical creativity at the stirring moment in the film when he proclaims himself to be his own murderer’.[2]

Although I don’t quite agree with Thomson that the film falls flat when it moves from comedy to pathos, the film’s various changes in tone and register, seem to catch the audience by surprise. There are those who delight in the surprise. Steven J. Schneider in his appreciation of the film in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die has written that the script is a tour de force and ‘brings together a remarkable range of genres, including slapstick, action, melodrama, social documentary, romance, musical and prison movie.’[3] But there are also others who have found in these shifts, a loose and shambly shapelessness.

Manny Farber called Sullivan’s Travels ‘immature in its philosophy, formless and without a single discernible characterization; but it had an astonishing display of film technique.[4]’ We can agree on the philosophy and on the astonishing technique; but as to the rest, I’ve already mentioned McCrea and his performance as Sullivan and I find the film formally clever too, beginning at the end of an ‘entertainment’ with a fight scene on a train that’s still thrilling, and later, near the end, signaling clearly to the audience that the film is at a turning point and that it needs to unravel the tangle of plot its gotten itself into before the closing credits. The montage with which it does so is a marvel of narrative economy that can still thrill those who are interested in visual story-telling.

Veronica Lake is ‘The Girl’. She’s given no name. And this might have been part of why Farber accuses the film of ‘lacking characterization’. However, ‘The Girl’ is a function rather than a character and thus needs no name and no characterization, though Veronica Lake is a very memorable look and presence in it. Moreover, she matches up with McCrea beautifully, the disparity in their height alone creating an element of comedy that doesn’t intrude on the romance needed to put ‘a little sex in it’.

It’s also joy to see all the Sturges stalwarts: William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore and other wonderful comic actors who would have been just as famous to audiences of the period as the stars. There are scenes that still linger in the mind: the opening sequence, the sex-starved sister locking McCrea in his room, the first real experience of a Hooverville, the black parishioners singing ‘Let My People Go’, the pettiness of the bureaucrat in the train station, the injustice of the court, the brutality of the chief of the chaing-gang.

Sturges achieves what the film says on one level isn’t possible; a film that both documents and critique its time — brimming with social relevance — that teaches us a lesson on the social conditions of the Depression, the filmmaking practices of the Hollywood of the period and on how brilliant and bright American comedy once was – directed by one of its greatest practitioners — but with some feeling, thrills, chills, lots of laughs ‘and a little sex in it’.

***

Film buffs might be interested in knowing that, according to Pauline Kael, ‘Sturges himself can be glimpsed behind Veronica Lake on a set inside the movie studio’.[5]

José Arroyo

 

 


[1] David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, London: Little and Brown, 2002, p. 846.

[2] Andrew Sarris, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949, Oxord: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 323

[3] Steven J. Schneider, ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ Steven Jay Schneider, General Editor, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, London: A Quintet Book, 2004, p. 180.

[4] Manny Farber, Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, edited by Robert Polito, A Special Publication of the Library of America, 2009, p. 40.

[5] Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982, p. 568.

 

A Thought on a Moment in Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1945)

In a lovely note on his memories of seeing Meet Me in St. Louis as a four year old in 1951, critic David Ehrenstein writes, ‘I didn’t understand what was going on in the Halloween sequence. But then neither did (Margaret) O’Brien’s character, ‘Tootie’. She’d elected to ‘kill the Brokoffs (neighbors who lived down the street on the beautifully detailed set) by throwing flour at them as demanded by the other children. Walking away from the bonfire, wind and shadows whipping around her, she’s clearly terrified.’ But she succeeds, runs away from the Brokoff house and to her gang, the community she is now a part of, and is accorded the ultimate accolade of being the most horrible. ‘And indeed she is,’ remembers Ehrenstein,  ‘But that was in 1945. And that was in 1951. And now it’s 1998. And I’m dreaming of MGM’[i] It is now 2014 and MGM musicals in general, Meet Me in St. Louis in particular, and the Halloween sequence most precisely, are still the stuff that dreams are made of.

fig A
fig A

Amongst the many pleasures of watching the very greatest films over and over again is that the remembered pleasures are anticipated but also re-experienced as if for the first time. I remember sitting behind a gaggle of girls at a screening of Titanic and when Kate Winslett and Leonardo Di Caprio are holding onto the ice-flow one of the girls said, ‘Shh, this is the moment were we cry’; and then Di Caprio died and they did, loudly. But one of the joys of re-viewing great films is that whilst re-experiencing remembered pleasures one also discovers new things about the film, new reasons as to why those pleasures occur in the first place. Sometimes, it can just be that you’re at a different point in your life and the films mean something different to you; other times that you see things you’ve not quite registered before (it took a few times for me to delight in the frozen bloomers in Meet Me); other times still, that you notice elements that enhance your understanding of why the film in questions achieves its particular effects. After all, it’s not magic or alchemy; someone arranged, orchestrated, chose.

fig b - Mr. Brokaff by the window as if from Tootie's point-of-view.
fig b – Mr. Brokaff by the window as if from Tootie’s point-of-view.

Seeing Meet Me in St. Louis for the upteempth time earlier this week I had one of those moment of – revelation might be too strong a term – let’s say insight into why the Halloween sequence, a sequence without a ‘number’ in a musical, remains so memorable. Minnelli claimed that that sequence was the principal reason he did the film[ii]. And it’s a sequence justly famous for its formal elegance — the crane shot at the beginning, the long slow travelling shot as Tootie heads towards the Brokaffs, the much more quick rhyming shot heading back to her gang once she’s succeeded in killing Mr. Brokaff – its technical complexity – the orchestration of all of those elements, often within a shot, and which focuses on a child – the achievement of such varied effects –fear, humour, relief, excitement, creepiness, tension – all the while tying in to the theme of a child excluded from her community, sent on a dangerous quest, overcoming her fear, accomplishing her mission, and returning in triumph to be admitted into the group and garlanded as one of its heroes that but foreshadows the threat to the whole Smith family that Mr. Smith will announce at the end of the ‘Autumn’ sequence to the film, just after the Halloween sequence and before its triumphs have been fully savoured, as a ‘move to New York’.

Tootie enters the shot from screen righ
Tootie enters the shot from screen right

The moment I want to point to is but a simple cut; or rather how the elements surrounding that cut are orchestrated. It takes place immediately after the long shot where Tootie is slowly and fearfully heading towards the Brokoff house (see clip above for a view of part of the sequence). Her friends and  the fire they are feeding have completely receded into the background. She’s already passed that horse that has scared her so and has made us laugh. The shot ends with Tootie looking fearfully at the house (see fig. a), we’re then shown the house as if from Tootie’s point of view (see fig. b) but then we’re shown that it couldn’t be Tootie’s point-of-view as we see her enter the shot (fig c).

Now, what’s gained by this? Minnelli could have shown us the house, then returned to Tootie and then showed us Tootie heading towards the house; Or we could have seen Tootie gazing at the house and then cut directly to Tootie heading toward the house. What’s gained by showing us the house first as if from Tootie’s point of view and then having Tootie enter the shot (i.e. it becomes a false point-of-view shot). Watching the film this week I posed myself these questions for the first time;  and of course, the answer is simple: it’s to achieve particular effects, it’s why we feel what we feel when watching that moment.

Tootie’s scared, she looks at the house with fear; we then see what she sees: a massive house shown from a low angle and with a wide lens to make it as imposing as possible. The choice to have Tootie enter that scary image has the effect of showing us that Tootie’s scared, she’s not wrong to be scared but, aware of the dangers, she confronts them and enters into the realm of action. That’s why Tootie is the ‘most horrible’ why it doesn’t matter that she’s a girl or that she’s smaller. That minute difference of where, how and on what to cut makes a huge difference in how we see and evaluate what Tootie does. It makes her seem conscious, aware, courageous. She knows that it’s an arena of danger, chooses and acts in spite of her fears. It’s marvellous. And it’s one of a whole array of minute but decisive choices that makes Meet Me in St. Louis such a great film.

José Arroyo


[i] David Ehrenstein, ‘David Ehrenstein; writer, critic’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 1. (Autumn, 1998), pp. 59-60.

[ii] Gerald Kaufman, Meet Me in St. Louis, London: BBI, 1994, p. 53.

Love theme from Les parapluies de Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, France, 1964)

I’m a sap. I know. But this gets to me every time. The music is by Michel Legrand. Catherine Deneuve is the young girl in love. The almost as beautiful Nino Castelnueovo is the young man who loves her back but is conscripted into two years of military service. You might note the influence of the MGM musical: –the streets were painted so that the colour scheme could become one of those largely unnoticed but crucial elements that create meaning and feeling in movies — perhaps excessively so: see how in the bar the drink on the table matches the background yellow. Vincente Minnelli was a particular influence on director Jacques Demy and you can detect it in the use of background, décor, costumes and particularly in the flowing camera movements. Everything is consciously put in the frame, everything signifies — that’s why we feel it so deeply. The end, when the couple seems to be floating on air, is particularly lovely — and significant — as the rest of the film is about how all those young dreams are crushed. For many years that type of shot with the camera maintaining equal distance from the characters whilst they seemed to move seamlessly, as if standing still on an a moving sidewalk, was often to be found in Spike Lee’s films but with lesser impact and effect. Seeing it on its first release and far away from home, Kurt Vonnegut wrote his wife, ‘I saw Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heartbreaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken[1].’ One of the great musical numbers of all time and a very wonderful film.

José Arroyo


[1] Kurt Vonnegut, Letters, Edited and with an introduction by Dan Wakefield, London: Vintage Books, 2013; p. 107.

Ava Gardner, The Secret Conversations (Peter Evans and Ava Gardner, London: Simon and Schuster, 2013)

Ava Gardner The secret Conversations

Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations reads  the way a gulp of smoke must feel like to a nicotine addict: a sensuous rush of sheer delight. Gardner sashays out of the pages of the book and into our consciousness like the Ava of our dreams: as cool and ravishing as her Kitty Collins in The Killers, a ‘sister under the mink’ to Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat; but with the weary sadness, good conscience, conflicted morality and dashed dreams usually attributed to the male heroes of noir. Peter Evans’ achievement is to give us the impression that we are hearing her at night — with a drink in one hand and a cig in the other — just before bed or in bed when she couldn’t sleep; as unguarded as she ever was to the closest of her friends who didn’t quite make the inner circle with whom she shared her heart: her sister and her maid.

The book tells two stories: Evans’ attempt to get a book out of Ava; and Ava’s own struggle to tell her story honestly but without revealing much or compromising anybody. As she tells Evans, ‘I’m broke baby. I either write the book or sell the jewels. And I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels’ (p.20). .

Part of the joy of the book is in hearing forties lingo from one of its savviest practitioners. “I’m a gal who likes to buy her own drinks’, she says, evoking a lost world of smoke and nightclubs with live bands, dashing millionaires and glamorous b-girls hovering by to hoover in some of that cash whilst underlining that she wasn’t one of them (p.12).  Sinatra doesn’t drink, he ‘kisses the bottle’ (p.224). Ava doesn’t offer refreshments, she offers ‘Tea – or something else? I’m a something else kind of woman myself ’ (p.21). She makes it clear she’s only doing the book because she’s had a stroke, can no longer act, and, ‘if our book don’t replenish the larder, honey, dying’s going to be my only hope’ (p.22).

We get the bare outlines of her biography. She sums up her upbringing in the Depression with, ‘If you’re going to be poor, be poor on a farm, that’s what I say’ with the last clause summoning up all those smart career girls of ‘30s films who were at the bottom of the economic ladder but knew their views were as informed and accurate as anybody’s: a sharp cookie with a hard past, a democrat’s outlook, and a moralist’s code of honour, however particular.  They had a right to their say. And so does Ava, even if she doesn’t say as much as we want to hear.

Her career, making the cover of Time when it really meant something, all are lightly touched on, maybe because she saw herself as someone who had nothing to offer movies but her looks. In a way, it’s a pity that the book overvalues who she knew and who she slept with over what she did as any cinephile will appreciate how much her presence in movies meant for so long. But that’s been covered in other books and can be covered better still by future scholars. This is another kind of book.

What the conversations recounted here focus on is a particular definition of life: ‘Lana Turner says that life is what happens to you while the crow’s-feet are fucking up your looks. Lana has a name and a story for every goddamn wrinkle in her face’ (p. 9). Luckily, Ava’s not afraid of telling us how she got at least some of her wrinkles; and most of the people she talks about come out looking better than they usually do in this type of book.

Of Mickey Rooney, her first husband, she remembers his energy, his sunny disposition and his ability to bounce back: ‘He always believed he had a sure thing for tomorrow… His relationship with his bookies was built on eternal optimism. He had a kind of cartoon resilience (p.160)’. She liked him enough to keep having sex with him even after they separated, ‘After all, we were still married and the sex was legal – and still pretty good, thank God’ (p.169). But ‘it’s a lonely business fucking someone you no longer love. Especially a husband,’ (p. 160). Nonetheless, after their divorce, she told him ‘You were the perfect first husband, Mick Rooney’ (p.245).

She then had an affair with Howard Hughes, one which lasted off and on for about twenty years. ‘It was a strange relationship. I don’t think he ever put his arms around me out of affection, or to comfort me. He’d only take me in his arms if he wanted sex – or to stop me from hitting him’ (p.252). She almost killed him once, ‘I hit him with an ashtray. I think it was onyx. Anyway, it was heavy. I practically had him laid out on a slab. We fought all the time but I nearly put a lily in his hand that night.’ (p. 235).

Her second husband was Artie Shaw, one of the most successful bandleaders of his day, a lefty who fought for Billy Holiday to sing with his band and a musician extraordinaire. He was also a bit of a bully. ‘He was always putting me down…(but) I owe Artie plenty. He made me get an education. We must say that in the book. Give the guy credit where credit’s due’ (p. 203). She was crazy about him; his intelligence, his success and most of all his music. ‘Artie played the clarinet the way Frank sang. They both knew how to bend a note, stretch a phrase. The could do that stuff better than anyone alive’ (p. 208). He was the only one of her husbands who left her: ‘He didn’t waste any time doing it either – that marriage had lasted just about a year when he called the cab on me’ (p. 245). The marriages to Mickey and Artie were easy come, easy go. ‘I called them my ‘starter husbands’! You only had to sneeze and you’d have missed both of them’  (p.31).

She didn’t sleep with everyone she had a crush on. Of John Huston, she remembers, ‘‘I fell for him at once…But he made a pass at me first. I was twenty-four, I had divorced Mickey Rooney after only a year, I’d had an affair with Howard Hughes, and I was in a mad marriage to Artie Shaw. I couldn’t blame him for thinking I’d be a pushover. He chased me around the bushes. I was as stewed as he was but I didn’t sleep with him …I don’t think many women said no to Johnny. He was a spoiled son of a bitch’ (p. 55).

But Huston is remembered with fondness, as is Robert Mitchum: ‘I was crazy about him. I know he was pretty gone on me, too. But the truth was – it still is—he was committed to his wife, Dorothy. She was a saint. She was devoted to him. I once proposed to him, kind of kidding on the square. He said, “It’s okay with me, baby. But you’ll have to clear it with Dorothy first”’ (226).

She’s got a soft spot for pirates, rascals, outsiders – those who get it on, get high and give authority the finger. She remembers Onassis as ‘a primitive with a yacht…For some ladies that’s an irresistible combination’ (p. 12) but ‘If he hadn’t had a dollar he could have snapped a lady’s garter anytime he liked’. She has affection even for ‘Mr. Limp Dick Brando’ (p.20), who got her mad for lying about sleeping with her. “I told him that if he really believed I’d ever jumped into the feathers with him, his brain had gone soft. He apologized. He said that his brain wasn’t the only part of his anatomy that had gone soft lately. He said, ‘Ithn’t that punithment enouth baby?’ she lisped, mocking Brando’s speech impediment. ‘That’s a funny line, isn’t it? How can you stay pissed with a guy who comes up with a line like that?’

Not everyone comes off well in the book. On George Raft ‘I had to slap him down a few times to keep him in line’ (p. 207). On Peter Lawford, President Kennedy’s brother-in-law, ‘There was a lot of Iago in Peter,’ (p. 168). As to George C. Scott,  ‘When GCS was loaded, he was terrifying – he’d beat the shit out of me and have no idea next morning what he’d done. I’d be lying next to him, black-and-blue and bleeding, and he couldn’t remember a thing,’ (p. 202).

The book comes to an end when she starts to speak about Sinatra. She remembers her first meeting with him, ‘‘I was with Mickey in the studio commissary. We had just gotten married. Frank came over to our table – Jesus, he was like a god in those days, if gods can be sexy. A cocky god, he reeked of sex’ (p. 223). But even though she can’t act any more because she’s had a stroke, and even though the book is needed to make up the income she can no longer get from her acting, she can’t bring herself to say much more about Sinatra. And thus the book starts its end; thus why it was never published during the lifetimes of Gardner, Sinatra or indeed Peter Evans.She’d promised. ‘Bad’ girls sometimes have the best principles.

There’s a wonderful anecdote near the beginning where Ava asks Evans, who’d previously written a book on Aristotle Onassis, ‘‘Did Ari ever tell you his views on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – about the morality of broads who bargain with their pussies? He might have said ‘cunts’ I don’t remember. He probably said ‘cunts’,” (p.9). Ava was never one to go in for that kind of bargaining. She took what she wanted and paid the price: ‘‘The fucking you get for the fucking you got’ (p. 145).

In the end, and in her own words: ‘You can sum up my life in a sentence, honey: She made movies, she made out, and she made a fucking mess of her life. But she never made jam’ (p.2).

A slim volume but one that packs in more phrases you’ll like to remember than much weightier tomes. A quick read but an essential one for all those interested in Ava, in noir films, in Classic Hollywood, in movies. Best experienced when listening to Sinatra’s Only the Lonely LP.

José Arroyo

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, USA, 2013)

ain't 2

I love the sound of Casey Affleck’s voice; a high-pitched bass sound, roundly toned, softly uttered, as distinctive as any in the current cinema; and capable of expressing so much; here the strangled murmur of the intensely wished about to be extinguished. It’s got Rooney Mara, very good in it as well; and it’s lovely to see Keith Carradine onscreen at any time. But I didn’t think much of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; and there were moments where Bradford Young’s cinematography was so dark I felt I wasn’t seeing it either.  I suppose I found it sub-Badlands; however, I do understand why others rate the film more highly. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints conveys an acute but flowing sadness that remains in the memory and is difficult to shake off: a sigh for that which is treasured but can no longer be. It feels not only the story of a doomed couple but also a kind of mourning for America.

José Arroyo

Nebraska (Alexander Payne, USA, 2013)

Nebraska poster

Nebraska is very funny, bleakly beautiful, and sad in all the right ways. An elderly man (Bruce Dern) ravaged by a lifetime of drink and with incipient Alzheimer’s is convinced he’s won a million in a sweepstake which everyone else knows is a way of conning elderly people to take out magazine subscriptions. David (Will Forte), the youngest of his two sons, decides to humour his father and drive him to Nebraska as a way of spending time with him, a way of getting closer whilst there’s still time. What the son discovers is what all children no matter how old are shocked to learn about their parents; that they are not defined simply by their relationship to their children; that they are automous beings who have dreams, desires, hopes, histories, and wishes which may predate and extend beyond their offspring; which sometime does not even include them. Nebraska is like a ‘30s Depression movie in its bleak view of America and in some of the wisecracks the mother (June Squibb) gets to utter. It differs in that the wisecracks are sometimes mean-spirited and in that the characters are as bleak, blank and miserable as the conditions of their existence.  It also rather shames itself by having no one on screen as smart as the man behind the camera — the film is spiritually hemmed-in and diminished by a whiff of smugness and self-satisfied superiority towards its subjects . A Cagney, a Davis, a Blondell, any working class prole in front of the camera in the 30s would have punched the highlights right out of Alexander Payne’s hair. But Dern no can do, which is perhaps why, in spite of concerted efforts since the late 60, and no matter how good he is, he’s never become a star. That said, it’s a great performance in an almost great film.

José Arroyo

The Butler (Lee Daniels, USA, 2013)

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A history lesson à la Classics Illustrated - the Scooby-Doo version – on the civil rights of black people in America told through an imaginative depiction of the life of Cecil Gains (Forest Whittaker), a White House butler who worked for eight different presidents, The Butler  is nonetheless at times very moving. Moreover,  the melodramatic story is wittily leavened  by a humor that seems agreeably camp; camp that is enlivening, affirming and all the more pleasurable to see for being unusual in a story that focuses on an African-American family. Whittaker is better at conveying the emotion underneath the mask of blankness when with the presidents than the on-the surface human emotionality when with his family. Oprah Winfrey gets the down-low and sexy dimension of the wife just right, a considerable achievement given who she is and what she represents. There is a pleasure in seeing an all-star cast play these historical characters: when icons impersonate icons does the iconicity  of each combine to jive or jar? I’ll leave it up to you to pick your favorites though I can’t resist mentioning that I was shocked at how Jane Fonda was made up to look, even if she was playing Nancy Reagan. A movie that has nothing to do with the art of cinema but a lot to do with the fulfillment of film’s role as ‘America’s National Theatre’; the way such films make Americans feel they’re taking part in a collective conversation; and the audience’s pleasure in seeing how wigs and costumes are used as a shortcut to period and how an array of actors, many treasured since childhood, are now doing, ‘being’ and enacting.

José Arroyo