Lately I’ve found my gaze wandering to post-its on lamp-posts, graffiti, illegally put-up posters for events, transient notices of private services on public display. A whole phantasmagoria of desires, feelings, promises, services, actions and events find expression in this form of communication.
I was reminded of all of this recently whilst on vacation in Gran Canaria. The scenery was as spectacular as only an accident of nature can make possible — the rolling beaches, the spectacular sunsets on the horizon; the bougainvillea, hibiscus and bird of paradise flowers peeking through bushes, the sand-dunes. What was on or around nature, however, was as ugly as only greedy and thoughtless human intervention can make it: indistinct blocks of flats and malls, all higgledy piggledy and vying for space as close to the beach as possible; every trace of man’s work a blot on the landscape.
Gran Canaria is where the working classes of Northern Europe go on holiday. Most buildings seem in need a new coat of paint and the cons were only mod circa 1975. There’s a desperate gaiety about the place, like it’s New Year’s Eve year-round; all that expense must result in a good time and sex must be found to go with the sun and the sea or the holiday will be a bust; there’s a grim determination to not fail at having fun; and this provision of fun and sex and cheerfulness is what the place and people who work there are meant to provide.
At the ‘Restaurante El Gran Obrero/ The Great Worker’s Restaurant’, however, the talk is not of the provision of pleasure for the tourist trade but of the problems the locals are having in just getting by; and one overhears the same ramblings here as one does throughout the Spanish mainland : ‘Rajoy, robo por que soy/ I am Rajoy, therefore I rob,’ says one. ‘But it doesn’t matter who’s in power. They’re all crooks.’ ‘You wouldn’t say that if your husband lost his job and they took away your pension’. ‘Don’t worry about me, I ‘d steal a sack of lentils and I’d get by better than I do now’.
The dissatisfactions of the locals and the illicit desires of the tourists find a common if surreptitious and illicit home in the graffiti, posters and post-its that adorn the walls and lampposts of the place. There’s a forlorn air to most of them, as when the poster advertising the promised pleasure is for an event now past. They’ve at one time been hopeful: how many people turned up to that march against Capitalism now past? Will anyone actually get on that website and organize a boycott against Repsol’s despoliation? Many continue to be scary: the praise for Franco and Fascism that is silenced in the mainstream but finds too recurrent an expression darkening whitewashed walls throughout Spain; the more local appeal to the Ultras of Frankfurt to work towards the ancient promise of victory.
Often they evoke cheapness – producers that don’t have the means to draw an audience’s attention in other ways – or tawdryness – the drawing of attention to something that has to be done surreptitiously or in hiding. Or mere fun: ‘stop texting me’!
These roiling murmurings, by their very nature liminal and interstitial, reward attention in every guise. They speak of silenced conversations, disbelief, dissatisfactions, dissidence, all roiling up to the surface, expressing another point of view, sometimes in fun, sometimes in anger, even if only to hit a wall or a lamppost near you, all asking for change, most succeeding in changing only the surface you’re looking at. There’s a power in this mode of expression, one that is particularly interesting in that it’s drawn entirely from impotence
The saddest bit of graffiti I came across was a scrawled note on a white wall, at shoulder height, large enough to call attention to itself, but written with a hurry that nonetheless suggest an element of clandestinity. The literal translation reads as follows ‘Today, Thursday 8th of May 2014, I shall commit suicide at 4h25. My life is worth nothing and the only thing I have is suffering. I ask of God that he forgive me’.
Is the note real? What makes a person want to write it, eve if it’s not. Did the person go through with the act? If they didn’t, why didn’t they come back to erase it? If the person did go through with it, did anybody they knew come across the note? What despair does this note speak of? Is the despair lessened by the person still being alive? These are depressing times, austere times, even in spite of, or particularly in the light of so much sunshine and colour. The Graffitti tells a story rather different than the brochure, no less interesting, and best read alongside it.
James Stewart is so great in It’s a Wonderful Life: the repressed fury, frustration, the dashed hopes sometimes relieved by an evident yearning, the bitterness, all dazzlingly displayed by the actor and sometimes captured by Capra in a sweeping extreme close-up that swoops up on that anguished face and confronts the audience with it. A marvel of a performance, beautifully directed.
The film’s a holiday staple, and everyone’s seen it several times, but it’s much darker than one remembers; George Bailey is after all a man driven to suicide at Christmas. The warm feelings the memory of the film gives rise to seem due to the beginning (the view of community communicated through the idealised Bedford Falls), and then the very last scene (the utopian view of friends and family at Christmas), and one forgets most of what leads up to it.
It is after all the story of a man whose every hope is thwarted: he doesn’t get to go to college, he doesn’t get to travel around the world, he doesn’t even get to go on a honeymoon. Duty, obligation, responsibility, the need and well-being of others, all take precedence over his own wishes and thwart him at every turn.
The only desire he manages to achieve is that for his wife, and even that seems to catch him by surprise (and Capra’s staging of this, in close-up, whilst they seem to be talking about everything else but, manages to somehow indicate that desire growing off-screen as a both a physical manifestation and as a dawning of feeling – a tour de force of staging). As my friend Nicky Smith observed, one is reminded of the episode of Friends where Phoebe says it ought to be called ‘It’s a Sucky Life’.
It’s a crime that the film has been colourised as the black and white cinematography by Joseph Walker in the original is so beautiful. It’s really shot as a noir and even Sunny Bedford Falls is enmeshed in shadows. But it’s no surprise that dramatically the film works even when in colour. It’s a marvel of story-telling: the prayers going up to the heavens, the Heavenly spirits being made aware of the happenings of those normally too insignificant to bother with; the setting forth of a life, the way the story arrests time, speeds it up; the creation of an alternate universe; the ability to identify with George even as he looks forth on his own life and on a world without him in it. In telling us the story, the film also seems to be saying, ‘this is what cinema can be. It can do anything. Isn’t it in itself heavenly’?
It’s a film full of delights: the set-piece of the opening dance where they all end up in the swimming pool; the scene where Donna Reed loses her robe; the run on the bank; the camera rushing alongside George running through Bedford Falls and through Pottersville; Thomas Mitchell’s wonderful characterization of George’s uncle; Gloria Grahame’s even more delightful characterization of the hottest girl in town (‘this ole thing. I only wear it when I don’t care what I look like’).
Seeing it recently on a big screen,I liked it more than I ever have and found it better than I remembered though one has to accept some things being what they are (bits of capracorn, the sexism, the tinge of racism — all no worse than in any other film of the period — but there nonetheless). There are problems with the film: Did Capra really believe that being an old maid librarian is the worst thing that could befall a woman outside of becoming a prostitute?; doesn’t Pottersville look a lot more fun than Bedford Falls? But what are these next to James Stewart’s towering performance, surely one of the very greatest in the history of cinema, and next to the dazzling display of filmic story-telling that Capra and Co put on display?
Historically TV has been the whipping boy for crimes against the art of cinema. Whether it’s the butchery of panning and scanning, intrusion of advertising or hatchet job of editing, televised movies are often the husks of their theatrical counterparts. At least in America, it doesn’t appear the situation is much improving. Internet channel Netflix regularly shows movies in the wrong aspect ratio and decisions such as movie network Epix airing a colour version of the recent black-and-white Oscar contender Nebraska suggest continuing blindness to the intentions of filmmakers. However, it is just as common for television to victimise itself.
The lucrative business of syndication whereby the rights to re-air TV series are sold off has seen many classic shows chopped up to fit new timeslots and networks. Syndicated versions of sublime sitcoms like The Golden Girls and The Dick Van Dyke Show have their punchlines cut to ribbons in…
In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch makes a secretive, repressed, and recessive character transparent and emotionally accessible on various levels simultaneously. He also makes a socially inept and unlikeable character charming without watering down his worst qualities. It’s a truly great performance: a tour de force. I don’t think the film itself is good, but it works, and is very moving, particularly at the end, where one feels the whole audience collectively well up.
Some aspects of the film are unsatisfying. I understand how the three-act structure, which enables the film to focus on Bletchley Park and the various obstacles to breaking the enigma code, whilst simultaneously going back to his past to explain his character (how he is OCD, how he was capable of great love, how that love was lost and how he learned to be secretive) and to the future (to explain the causes and context of his arrest, his sentence and his suicide) is an attractive proposition to a screenwriter: it does make the story flow; it enables the narrative to travel through time whilst retaining the film’s focus — the Bletchley Park section — as a seeming constant present. However, it also makes the film seem too pat. People are messier than machines, there is no one ‘key’ to people’s character.
The best illustration of the film’s worst flaw is perhaps the character of Joan Clarke played by Keira Knightley. Knightley is a bit strained in the final sequence and not photographed to advantage there but she is lively, charming and natural in most of the film, and she is not the problem; indeed, few could have done as well with the role. The problem is that the role as written and filmed is not a person but a function. She’s there to demonstrate sexism in British society through custom and convention (her parents initially won’t allow her to work at Bletchley because it wouldn’t be ‘decorous’ and then they call her home because she’s twenty-five and single) and structure (she’s not initially allowed to sit for the recruiting test because she’s a woman).
Clarke is made to be almost as intelligent as Turing but better socialized; the function of the character is also to act in relation to and in contrast with Turing. Thus, although the film is at pains to depict the sexism Clarke suffers from, by the end she finds love and gets a husband whilst continuing with her career, her definition of having it all, whilst he who has helped save 14 million lives is arrested, castrated and driven to suicide for being homosexual. Clarke is an argument on oppression and a figure through which to convey its various hierarchies in the middle of the last century. She’s not a person. That she vaguely comes across as one is due to what Knightley as star and actor brings to the role: an elegant, glamorous, vivacity shot through with intelligence that somehow seems not too far removed from what might be deemed real but much more glamorous..
The film does offer many pleasures: an excellent Charles Dance as commanding obstruction to Turing’s project; Mark Strong brings a twinge of the nocturnal — heartlessness with a potential for cruelty — and considerable strength to his role — he makes the character of Stewart Menzies seems an embodiment of state-sanctioned deception; connoisseurs might also appreciate the sight of Steve Waddington, previously Jarman’s Edward II, the king who sacrificed his throne for the man he loved, here cast as the gruff Manchester copper who seals Turing’s doom. Aside from the performances, there’s nothing exceptional about the film but it’s adequately directed; it looks good and moves well. However, the greatest achievement of The Imitation Game is that it succeeds in making audiences cry for Turing, and by implication for all those treated equally unjustly half a century ago.
It’s not too long ago that I felt contemporary cinema had giving up on making audiences cry, thus abdicating one of the greatest functions of cinema and denying audiences one of its greatest pleasures. Yet, this is precisely what some of the most memorable and important films of the year have succeeded in doing: 12 Years a Slave and Interstellar are but two and divergent types of ‘weepies’. Moreover, seeing The Imitation Game made me realise that British Cinema has been markedly successful in eliciting tears: Philomena, Pride and now The Imitation Game, three of the biggest hits of the year, have all aimed for tears (as well as laughter) and audiences have responded as if those tears were on tap and ready to flow subject to a tactful prompt.
At heart these recent British films make us cry because they’re melodramas that dramatise the gap between individual desires and proscribed ways of being, that looks at the past and measures the gap between what was and what is just. They structure their stories around differentials in knowledge not just between characters in the story, such as the difference between what the headmaster knows about Turing and his friend Christopher and what we know, but also differences in knowledge between what the characters think and accept of certain issues such as homosexuality and what we, the audience, think and accept now. These films are important not only because they make us cry or because they make us cry about these characters but because they also make us cry at injustice.
Although Philomena, Pride and The Imitation Game, put homosexual identity at desire at the core of the narrative, they’re not gay films per se, they’re not predominantly addressed to a gay audience. They draw on a wide and accessible frame of reference that most anyone can understand. They’re part of the stories a culture tells itself about what it was, what it is, what it should be. And in telling these stories in these ways, in making ‘us’ cry about the injustices ‘we’ did to ‘them’, they re-insert gay men and women into the national narrative, they mark a move from ‘them’ to ‘us’. Homosexuality is thus re-imagined, inserted and made central to a cultural and national identity, shifted from a type of otherness and through tears re-inscribed into a national ‘we’. It is not anything I could once have imagined in my lifetime and quite something to experience.
Magic in the Moonlight is very pretty, has a serious theme, gorgeous music and a very good cast headed by Colin Firth as Stanley, who under the professional name of Wei Ling Soo performs illusions that other people take as ‘magic’. Under his own name however, Stanley is a professional debunker of all that is not reason and science, and he can get quite stroppy about it. When George (Simon McBurney), a friend and fellow illusionist, asks him to use his knowledge to attempt to discredit a spiritualist, Sophie (Emma Stone), who claims to have visions and talk to the dead but might just be swindling rich people, he doesn’t hesitate. Needless to say, he ends up falling in love with her.
The film is structured around an argument that has as a central matrix juxtapositions between reality versus illusion, magic versus science, reason versus feeling, the evidence of things not seen versus the simple sleight of hand. These are intertwined themes that unfold wittily if predictably during the course of the narrative. Magic also has an Agatha Christie-ish nostalgic feel to it that is quite pleasant, some laughs and more heart than Allen usually offers. But too many elements are not ‘quite’ right –think of what Preston Sturges might have made of the ukulele-playing boyfriend say — and it’s all a bit slapdash, a bit dull but not without its pleasures.
Firth is rather marvellous. He gets a great entrance as Wei Ling Soo (though the sensitive might find this a bit too close to blackface for comfort) and is then able to run the gamut of emotion in a very juicy role. He’s perhaps too restrained, not stylized enough for the period, tempo and mood that the film sets. And one can certainly argue that he doesn’t get as many laughs as he should. But his frustration, his discovery and the mixed emotions of his avowal at the end are a little triumph of acting skill and a pleasure to watch.
There are also lovely actresses doing fine work here: Eileen Atkins, Marci Gay Harding, and I particularly loved Jacki Weaver, as the rich dowager who finds happiness talking to her departed husband on the other side, her widening eyes, high creaky voice and an expression that starts as hesitant and ends as almost smug as she finds the confirmation of his love and fidelity that she seeks, a sheer joy to behold . I also loved how, in spite of Allen’s penchant for anhedonia, it seems the only happy characters are the ones with blind faith, as if in Allen’s terms, the intelligent are cursed to be unhappy. Firth, however intelligent his belief in reason, finally gives in to the idea that there might be things that are unseen and irrational that nonetheless are intensely felt and real. As an added bonus, Ute Lemper appears singing in a cabaret scene, although sadly all too briefly, like the film doesn’t quite know what she has to offer or how best to make use of it. Actors need to fend for themselves in Allen’s films and most do so deliciously here.
This is by no means top-notch Allen. But even journeyman Allen is interesting to me. He’s one of the few director of his generation who continuously plays with form, with different ways of telling stories without making a big fuss about it: Greek Choruses, different narrators, a story told by two different people in the same film; and most of his films have at least four or five good jokes. This is no exciting experiment but it does offer a few gentle laughs, actors who are allowed to thrill us with the type of magic only they can offer, beautiful scenery and gorgeous thirties music. It doesn’t knock your socks off but it does while away 90 minutes or so very pleasantly indeed.
A dear friend asked me to do one of those facebook lists of my top ten books and in spite of trying I simply couldn’t do it. I realized I don’t really read books individually unless they’re not really satisfying. If I fall in love with a book, then I pursue the author, in a sense inhabit their world, read their oeuvre and then sometimes even their influences, until something snaps, I lose attention and I move on to someone else. So here are the ten writers who, for better or worse, I remember now as having marked a period of my life. This of course eliminates a whole series of types of books I read as a child, books where the series was more important than the author and in fact I now struggle to remember who wrote them even though I once lived in the world they created: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsy Twins, Alfred Hitchock and the Three Investigators etc. Thus here we go:
1: J.D. Salinger. I’m a cliché but I did read Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, then Franny and Zooey and all the rest. I annoyed everyone about me for years by wanting to be Holden Caulfield, finding everyone phony, and itching to tell everyone ‘truths’ that a) might not be theirs or b) might be my view but might not be true and c) might in any case be at best inconvenient and at worse offensive. It took me years to realise that Caulfield might be a psychopath.
Simone De Beauvoir: I came across Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter at a second-hand bookshop and it rather changed my life. This led me to read all of her diaries. Until my very late twenties and beyond I re-read them, partly for pleasure, partly to compare myself to Simone until I reached a point where that comparison became laughable. Reading her diaries led me to read quite a lot of Sartre, all of Camus, all of Genet, some of Nelson Algren’s work. Reading Sartre then led to dabble with Merleau-Ponty until I realized I wasn’t really invested enough. I read all her novels too and The Mandarins led to Koestler and Darkness at Noon. The intellectual rivers that led from De Beauvoir are immeasurable — I could signal what Camus, Genet and Algren in turn led to just as I did with Sartre — and the pleasures ongoing.
James Baldwin: As a gay teenager trying to understand who I was I came across all the books one is supposed to read: A Boy’s Own Story, The City and The Pillar, A Single Man, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Our Lady of the Flowers and Giovanni’s Room. I liked them all though didn’t fully connect with any. But Giovanni’s Room did lead to If Beale Street Could Talk, Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, Just Above My Head and then the rest of Baldwin including and especially, The Fire Next Time and The Evidence of Things Not Seen. For many years I felt Baldwin spoke ‘me’ better than I did myself.
Margaret Laurence: I grew up in Canada and grew up with bookshops having a section, a tiny one, entitled ‘Canadian Literature’; it wasn’t integrated into the normal literature section, it needed special attention, special care, special nurture; on the other hand, it also had the connotation that it wasn’t quite good enough to simply be literature; that a special case needed to be made for it. In this shelf I made my way though, amongst many others, early Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, all of Mordecai Richler and Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen. But in spite of having grown up in the neighbourhood that Richler wrote about and having to then no experience with the Prairie and West Coast world of Margaret Laurence, it’s The Diviners that became the first Canadian book I loved without qualification and, after reading The Stone Angel, The Fire-Dwellers and the others, Margaret Laurence with her wise, brave, gentle and feminist narratives, became the first Canadian writer I loved without special pleading.
Michel Tremblay: Tremblay was the leading Quebec playwright whilst I was growing up; from the late sixties onwards he wrote hit after hit. Plays like Les belles soeurs, La duchesse de Langeais, Laura Cadieux, and À toi pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou have become not only canonical but absolutely central works in Québécois culture and are continuously revived. I love the plays but the Tremblay works that are important to me are the novels, which have become collected under the title of Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal: La grosse femme d’à côté est enceinte, Thérèse et Pierretteà l’école des Saint-Anges, La Duchesse et le routier etc. They were all set in the neighbourhood I had grown up in but one unknown to me because it was in French; also some of the characters were central in one novel and then reappeared as supporting characters in others; then marginal characters in one would become central subjects in a later one. I loved those characters, understanding them made me understand a culture I lived in but only marginally had access to and I felt I went on a journey with them from book to book. I haven’t re-read them since but remember them still.
Shakespeare: I turn to Shakespeare for the same reasons others resort to The Bible; when things go wrong, when they seem beyond understanding, when one can’t quite make sense of one’s feelings or one’s life, Shakespeare seems to provide answers. One finds sublime articulation of one’s feelings in his work; things make sense beautifully. I’m fifty-two so up to now the Sonnets have been a starting point and ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ a kind of leitmotif. The plays have been a constant too though I suspect they might figure more prominently now that I’m entrenched in middle age.
Anthony Trolloppe. I was very ill for a time many years ago now and I found solace in the world of Barchester. The novels were so quietly enthralling, the world so precise but expansive, that I lost myself in them and found them so comforting that when I got over my illness I decided to save Trolloppe as the security of my old age.
Pauline Kael: I have been writing on film for over thirty years in one form or another and Pauline Kael got me started. I used to save up money to buy the New Yorker and wasn’t even disappointed when I opened the magazine to see she had written on a film I hadn’t yet seen or wouldn’t even be allowed to see because I wasn’t yet old enough. I still re-read her constantly and I still think no one has written better on film. An array of different types of writers on film (Richard Dyer, V.F. Perkins, David Bordwell, Robin Wood, David Thomson, Andrew Sarris, Thomas Elsaesser — I would even put Susan Sontag on this list – and this is only to name a few) have influenced me in various ways but there’s no one I love reading more. Her sentences have a jazzy flow and a snap; her understanding of American film is vast; no one I can think of has written better on film actors; and in spite of her fame, I still think she’s underappreciated. In my view Susan Sontag is the most significant American intellectual of the twentieth century and Pauline Kael is the best critic.
Antonio Machado: The poetry that I like to read is in Spanish; it’s my first language, my native tongue. I don’t know if that really has anything to do with this partiality but I suspect it does even though some of my favourite poets (Pablo Neruda, Mario Benedetti [te quiero por que sos mi amor mi complice y todo y porque andando codo a codo, somos mucho mas que dos/ I love you because you are my love my accomplice, everything; and because together arm in arm we are so much more than two]) are not themselves from Spain. Antonio Machado, however, writes in Spanish, is from Castile, and lived in Segovia, not far from where I was born, and I was moved enough by his works, particularly by Campos de Castilla, to make a pilgrimage to the house he lived in. It was emotional to see and made me better understand both he and I, a culture and a landscape he brings to life in his work; one that I left, recognise and once more feel when reading him.
David Foster Wallace: I know he’s no longer with us but I still consider him my favourite of contemporary writers. He’s got the largest vocabulary of anyone I’ve read; I love the way he mixes different generations of vernacular speech; his collections of essays – Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Things I’ll Never Do Again – are the very best essays I remember reading in the last ten years or so. In fact only Gore Vidal’s — a previous generation’s best American essayist — can really compare…and not favourably. It always delights me to come across one of his essays that hasn’t yet been collected (the one on Federer for example). I’m working my way though his novels at present and haven’t been able to finish Infinite Jest yet though the whole sequence at the beginning where the protagonist is waiting for his dealer has to be amongst the funniest and truest I’ve ever read. I plan to plow on.
There are others of course. As a teenager I read detective novels avidly (all of Agatha Christie, all of Arthur Conan Doyle, all of Dashiell Hammett, as much as I could get of Earle Stanley Gardner, Ross McDonald, even Mickey Spillane, etc); I had a mad passion for the iron curtain adventure novels of Helen MacInnes (Above Suspicion, Assignment in Brittany, The Salzburg Connection,The Venetian Affair, Cloak of Darkness etc: I read them all); I read Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann for the sexy bits; television turned me on to Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man), Alex Haley (Roots), James Jones (From Here to Eternity) and others; I even read Jean Plaidy.
In my early twenties I lived in Stendhal and Fabrice Del Dongo and Julien Sorel are especially meaningful, my favourite characters in fiction to that point. In my first long-term relationship I lived quite a while in the world of Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City without quite rejecting outright that of Capote and Isherwood though both of those were much less appealing than the world of Anna Madrigal. For almost a decade, I went to Barcelona every Spring and discovered the work of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, particularly his series of Pepe Carvalho detective novels. Pepe ritually burned a page of a book a day, cooked a dish, solved a crime and each of his cases offered a social history of an aspect of Barcelona (Andrea Camilleri names his detective Montalbano in hommage to Vazquez Montalban) — I read all his books including the cookery ones; I also lived in Mitford-world for a while and read what all of the sisters published and everything on them to the point that I made the happy discovery of the Mapp and Lucia novels simply because Nancy Mitford loved them. Gabriel García Maquez was and continues to be significant to me though I read just as much of Isabel Allende.
There’s an intellectual formation too, one that doesn’t quite belong here, one that took place in grad school and beyond and that still pervades my working life. But the list above is the after-work dream worlds that can only really take place in times of leisure or sleep,
A friend asked me to list the ‘15 Movies That Will Always Stay With You. The rules are: “Don’t take too long to think about it. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.”
I’ve realized that the movies that made the list are not necessarily the best ones but simply ones that marked my life in some way or that have moments that stay with me.
The Law of Desire/ La ley del deseo (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain 1987). I was already in my mid-twenties when it came out and couldn’t believe that the film came from a Spain I still saw as medieval in culture and attitudes.
Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, USA, 1977): Travolta was the first star my generation ‘discovered’ and had a proprietary attitude towards. High school dances were full of boys wearing white suits for several years thereafter.
Chant d’amour (Jean Genet, France, 1950). At a time when gay imagery was rare and precious if not quite totally absent from the screen, this offered the most powerful and varied expression of gay desire and its influence is still everywhere evident: sailors, jailers, prisoners, cops, games of dominance, blowjobs on guns, blowing smoke through jail cells; a frank glance on an incantatory erotic dream.. Also my first happy encounter with experimental cinema.
La verité (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France, 1960). Bardot naked in bed insolently chacha-ing her derriere in the face of her sister’s boyfriend; or Sami Frey waiting for her in the rain whilst she jumped on a motor-cycle with another man; or Bardot being on trial for being a woman and citing Simone de Beauvoir in her defence. Lots of unforgettable moments.
Miracle in Milan (Vittorio de Sica, Italy, 1951). My favourite De Sica film; moments of great beauty, most memorably perhaps the homeless jostling for a bit of sunlight (though the whole beginning in the cabbage patch is beautiful too).
Rocco and his Brothers (Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1960). My favourite Visconti; the theme of immigration, of family, the gay sub-text and the incredible scene of Alain Delon and Annie Girardot on the roof of the Cathedral in Milan still resonate.
A tout prendre (Claude Jutra, Quebec, 1963). Claude Jutra’s masterpiece, a new-wave film made in Quebec, experimental, youthful, inter-racial, open-minded, sad. Made a romance out intellectual aspirations and bohemian lifestyles.
Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1944). A childhood favourite often seen with family that remains a perfect film.
Salo (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy, 1975). Saw it as a teenager and had to leave the cinema in the middle of the film to vomit away all the fears and disgust that it incited.
Foul Play (Colin Higgins, USA, 1978). Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase as a lovely romantic couple. Dudley Moore at his best. An hommage to Hitchcock played for comedy. The first time I ‘knew’ a film had some connection to gay culture without having any gay content. It was a big hit at the time but I’ve yet to meet anyone who shares my affection for it. Hard to get a copy now and I wish someone would re-release it.
Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953). The first film I saw when I truly felt that cinema was the equal to any other art.
The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1940) . Still my dream of a perfect romance.
Scarface (Brian De Palma, USA, 1983) ). I worked as an usher at a cinema when this was released and always rushed in to catch the audience’s reaction to the chainsaw scene. Saw it over thirty times so hard to forget.
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942). My first film at a packed repertory theatre; the audience responding to the film in the way that seemed to make it hum collectively; a glistening black and white print: it felt like magic.
In The Mood for Love (Kar Wai Wong, Hong Kong, 2000). Exquisite longing tinged with swoony sadness; unforgettable.
There are many more. But these were the ones that came to mind first.
I’ve often felt depressed going to the cinema recently and never more so than when I went to see Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For in Montreal. I rather loved the film; the hushed heightened way the characters spoke seemed like a 40s movie — a kind of pulp poetry; the glossy black and white of the image which has the effect of turning adolescent comic-book yearnings into film noir dreams; the beautiful way the film turns images into metaphors (e.g. the moment Joseph Gordon-Leavitt shrinks at the card-table and gets diced up by the cards he’s lost at); how the sharp square lines of Josh Brolin’s mug seems made for a comic book tough guy; the luscious greens, blues and reds with which Eva Green is coloured as a femme fatale. The film worked. The problem was the cinema itself. I saw Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at the Scotiabank Cineplex. Dames, killing, sin: that’s the stuff of movies and dreams; the S in the Scotiabank is pictured as a dollar sign enveloping the globe. It’s not that money is prosaic. Money is also the stuff that movie dreams are made of. But there was something that bothered me about the juxtaposition of Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For and Scotiabank Cineplex.
Earlier in the day I’d gone to an exhibit called ‘Vies de Plateau’ at Pointe à Callière, a cultural history of the Montreal neighbourhood I grew up in. As part of the exhibit, we were shown a map of the neighbourhood in grid form highlighting its landmarks. The map showed the big factories and train stations and churches. But half of the landmark buildings were cinemas. The Plateau in Montreal was were the first purpose-built cinema in the world was built, seating 1200 and already with air-conditioning in 1906, the Ouimetoscope, on the corner of St. Catherine Street and Montcalm. Other landmark movie palaces from 1914-1921 included The Globe, The Regent, The Papineau and the Rialto, which was modeled on the Opera de Paris. Except for the Rialto, which is now a concert venue, all of these cinemas have disappeared.
Returning to Montreal I often experience a sense of spectrality. Some of the buildings have changed, the skyline is not quite what it was but largely the geography of the place remains the same. One’s sense of walking through space is no different then when one was a child or a teenager. Looking at Jeanne Mance Park, one remembers spending one’s childhood there in the same swings, in the same wading pool, straddling the lions on the statue, picknicking. It was called Fletcher’s Field then but it still looks pretty much as it did. The same applies to St. Urbain, Pine Avenue, St . Laurent, Rachel, all those streets one grew up in.
The difference is that at one point one either knew or recognized everybody on those streets; that’s what happened when one walks through them every day of one’s life to get to either Jean-Jacques Ollier, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, McGill University or whatever school one happened to be going to when living on the Plateau. Now one walks through those streets and the streets themselves are the same, the geography of travelling through those spaces is unchanged, one turns at the same corners, but now one knows none of the faces that walk through them, and yet the ghosts of those loved ones from long ago appear in one’s memory, the street acting as its own form of urban madeleine, bidding hello to all those people you once knew and reminding you how much they once meant and how one treasures those memories still.
Because I’m of a generation that grew up with and at the movies, old cinemas have a particular resonance: A double bill of Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks at the Atwater was my first time at the movies in Montreal; seeing Saturday Night Fever at the old Palace, which was the size of a football stadium and packed with people itching to disco; watching Casablanca for the first time at the Seville, then a repertory cinema, and drinking hot apple juice spiced with cinnamon; queuing up around the block to see Aliens at the Imperial, working as an usher at Place du Canada and rushing in to the cinema every day I worked there so as not to miss the chainsaw scene in Scarface; going to see experimental cinema at the Méliès and nursing a coffee for hours reading a book and fervently wishing one of the many fascinating cinephiles seated around me would include me in their conversation; treating my brother and cousin, both six years old, to see Superman with the very first money I earned at the Loewe’s, a lifelong memory for both, but being annoyed with them because as soon as I finished taking one to the bathroom the other wanted to go and I ended up missing half the film; wearing huge platforms to make me seem taller and blowing smoke into the teller’s face so she wouldn’t ask me for ID and getting in to watch porn at the Beaver; coming out of the Parisien during the World Film Festival and unsure of what to make of Blue Velvet but knowing it was great; going on dates, holding hands surreptitiously, protesting in front of the old Pussycat theatre, maybe it was even called the cinema L’amour already with the L shaped like a woman’s open legs and the apostrophe shaped like a penis poised and pointing. Later on, already a confirmed cinephile, seeing Sirk for the first time at the Cinémathèque; or taking thermoses and sandwiches to the Buñuel retrospective at the Conservatoire so as not to miss any of the films one might never get a chance to see again. These are memories not only of one’s life but of what one hoped and longed for, who one dreamed of being, at each of those points in one life, a condensed madeleine of a moment before the narrative alters, moves onto different tangents, zigzags its way onto who and what one is now.
What remains of these cinemas are the material remnants of a spectral past that is still very vivid in me. They’re the memories of my life. And it’s interesting to me that they revolve around films and cinema because cinema is itself a spectral form. Historically it was the imprint light left on celluloid of that which was once but no longer is until it is revived by light once more. What you get is a kind of spectral presence, an appearance made of light and shadow that gives sound and movement to that which no longer is. And of course these shadows were brought to life in dream palaces with names like Seville, Elysée, Riviera, Globe, Regent, Palace, Paris or even Papineau. Exotic places, Elysian places, grand places, places of culture, of royalty, palatial, chic or even just the greatest of historical figures. Ghosts came alive to arouse and give shape to one’s dreams and desires in the grandest and most grandiose of places any working class person had ever been to; and you could go at any time and stay for as long as you wanted. These dreams of sex and sin and dames and a better life or even just a better hairdo and nicer living room furniture had names fit for purpose; they seemed to respect and even ennoble working people and their aspirations.
On my way to see Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, I noticed that the old York had disappeared, the old Loewe’s is now a huge gym were you could get yoga classes, the old Palace is a Foot Locker, the old Parisienne is an empty space to let, though a remnant of its raked floor is still visible and has not been filled in. The Rialto is a protected building but now a venue for live music; only the old Imperial is still going, the central cinema for the World Film Festival but even the queues outside seemed to be just Golden Agers. It seemed fitness is now more of a vehicle for dreams and desires than movies.
I hated seeing Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at a cinema called Scotiabank, with the S pictured as a dollar sign encircling the globe. And I’m a bit unreasonable about it. It’s never bothered me that Arsenal play at the Emirates or that Man City play at the Etihad so why can’t a cinema also benefit from that kind of sponsorship? For most of their history films have been a commercial proposition. They’ve been about making money. But films were never only about money. In fact films made money when the dreams and aspirations their stories conveyed connected socially with those of large sector of society. What was important was to give those dreams vivid expression, incur an intensity of feeling in the audience, make those spectres connect with the real in a social form. To have reduced all our dreams to dreams of money instead of money being a byproduct of the articulation of a great variety of different hopes, aspirations and nightmares — of a job in a certain way well done — is somehow to have diminished everything that films meant. At least to me. Maybe cinema was always about the commodification of dreams and maybe I only feel bad about it now because the commodification seems of the bargain basement variety. I’m not sure. But‘Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at the Scotiabank seems to me a juxtaposition in terms wavering between a comedown and a kind of barbarism.
The president of the Drake Motor Company — rich, smart, ruthless, successful – is female. But is she a woman? She acts like a man, ‘I treat men the same way they’ve always treated women. I’d rather have a canary.’ ‘Love takes too much time. A woman in love is a pathetic spectacle.’ But she does love men: ‘Lots of them’. She picks out her sexiest employees, asks them over for dinner, puts on a gorgeous gown, plumps up the pillow, and rings the butler to bring over the vodka to ’fortify their courage.’ When they get love-sick, sentimental and start demanding more, she buys them off; and if that doesn’t work, she ships them out to Montreal, which in this film is like outer Siberia. It’s all love ‘em and leave him with Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) so she can put her energies where they really count – business. We’re told she gets rid of tricks ‘Just as Napoleon would have dismissed a ballet girl. She’s never met a man worthy of her. She never will’. But of course, she does; unfortunately for us, it’s George Brent.
The film begins in that gloriously dynamic way typical of early 30s Warner Brothers: We see the entrance to the Drake Motor Company, and then it’s irises out, horizontal wipes, diagonal wipes and quick cuts to show us what they’re manufacturing and how. It’s barely a minute into the film and it’s already exciting. Two clerks gossiping tell us ‘The President’s blowing the roof off?’ ‘Who’s getting it this time?’ before we’re shown that this scary and powerful captain of industry is not a man; nor is she just any woman – she’s Ruth Chatterton, already of a certain age, clipped diction, soignée, a big star who was then also considered a great enough actress to warrant the billing of ‘Miss’ Ruth Chatterton — no more respectful accolade was then possible.
Throughout the first half of the film, Chatterton is filmed either in her office, busily answering phones with a huge window as backdrop showing the factory buildings, or in her ultra-modern and glamorous home, wearing glorious gowns in the living room or lounging around the pool with her prey. Michael Curtiz, the director, makes every shot interesting and the film is a pleasure to look at. Sadly, she then meets George Brent at a shooting gallery. He’s a better shot, rebuffs her and of course she falls in love. When it turns out he works for her, she gets up to her old tricks but they predictably don’t work on him; too bad for us.
At the beginning of the film, she tells her board they’ve got statistic poisoning. She’s fed up with statistics and she wants action and change. By the end of the film, she does what Katharine Hepburn will do in Woman of the Year (George Stevens, USA, 1942) to get Spencer Tracy almost ten years later — she diminishes herself to satisfy his idea of womanliness. At the end of the film, she endangers a business deal in New York to chase after him at a country fair. She gets him, promising to turn over the business to him to him and have nine children. The film ends with both of them on the way to make the business deal in New York. This viewer at least was left hoping that once they got there, got the deal, and she got her way with him, that she’d return to her factory and leave him with a bus ticket to Montreal under the pillow.
This is a film where characters have names like Mae, Gert, Lil and Toots O’Neill. The women are all hookers and waitresses; the men cab drivers and pimps. The film’s world is the New York of the Great Depression, a place where women have to do what they can to get by but once they do…. ‘You’d think there’d be some men you could tell that kind of thing to and they’d understand,’ says Mae (Carole Lombard), referring to her street-walking past. ‘There were some but they all died in the Civil War,’ says Lil.
The film begins with Mae being run out of town by the cops, placed on a bus and told to go home. She immediately gets off at the first stop, hails a cab and then stiffs the driver for the money. When she sees him later and tries to return the money she catches him in the middle of telling the story but with him getting the money back as no woman is going to get the best of him. It’s a meet cute where they end up arguing: ‘I don’t like your face’ My face is ok’, ‘Yeah it’s ok for you, you’re behind it’. The driver’s name is Jimmy (Pat O’Brien) and of course he helps get her a ‘decent’ job as a waitress, they fall in love, and he does what he’s said he’d never do, marry before he’s got enough money to set up his own business. Needless to say, the past comes back to haunt them. They overcome that but once he knows of her past, trust becomes an issue. It all gets resolved at the end but not without a bit of murder and lot of melodrama.
Poverty-row Columbia was where Carole Lombard went to in the early 30s for the meaty parts she wasn’t getting at Paramount, her home studio. On the evidence of Virtue, she was smart to. Robert Riskin, already contributing depth and crackle to Capra’s films (The Miracle Woman, Platinum Blonde, American Madness) and soon to be even more famous as the screenwriter of Capra’s most celebrated and successful films of the 1930s (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take it With You) also wrote the screenplay for Virtue. It has a hackneyed plot but it’s hard-boiled, tries hard to be unsentimental, and has crackling dialogue: ‘Ya ever been married’, ‘So many times I got rice marks all over me’.
Perhaps even more important than the film’s themes of acceptance and forgiveness are the ways the film first articulates misogyny (everything Pat O’Brien’s Jimmy thinks about women and spouts to the character of Frank played by Ward Bond) and then condemns it (all the plot points prove Jimmy wrong). The film also intelligently dramatises the importance of friendships between women (Mae’s relationship with Lil) without being blind about them (what Gert ends up doing). One gets a real sense of the precariousness of good people’s existence in a harsh economic climate, how humour ennobles, and the priggishness of people yet to understand that there are many types of virtue.
At the heart of the film is Carole Lombard who is the main reason for seeing it. How someone so beautiful can seem believable as a down-and-out streetwalker and so emotionally transparent whilst evoking a wide range of sometimes contradictory feeling and simultaneously cracking wise is one of the miracles of 1930s movies.
Even devoted cinephiles might have trouble placing Richard Barthelmess today. Casual film fans might remember him as Rita Hayworth’s husband in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939); fans of silent cinema might remember the delicacy and longing he brought to his role of Chen Huang, the Chinese man who falls in love and tries to protect Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) in D.W. Griffith’s sublime Broken Blossoms (1919). He was a great star of the 20s, nominated for the very first Academy Awards in 1927 for two roles, The Patent Leather Kid (1927) and The Noose (1928), and he ran his own production company, Inspiration Film Company with Charless Duell and director Henry King. In Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, Mick Lasalle argues that ‘As talkies found their voice, Richard Barthelmess emerged as one of the most exciting figures of the era.[i]’
Barthelmess had a clause in his contract allowing him to choose his own stories and LaSalle argues that Barthelmess ‘used his stardom to examine untraveled avenues of the American soul. From his first sound film, Weary River (1929), until the enforcement of the Code in July 1934, he created a body of work unique in its exploration of racism, corruption, the dark side of business and the effects of the war…No single American film star has ever created a talkie legacy anything like Barthelmess’s in its relentlessness of conscience or seriousness of purpose’[ii]. The Last Flight is part of that legacy.
In The Last Flight four wounded and damaged WWI pilots – Cary (Richard Barthelmess), Shep (David Manners) Bill (John Mack Brown) and Francis (Elliot Nugent) — unwilling to return home and all that it represents in terms of who they were, who they hoped to be and who they are now, attempt to drink away the trauma of WWI in the great capitals of Europe and fail. The wounds are physical, and though not without challenges, can be overcome; Cary, for example, needs both his burnt hands to hold his drink; awkward in company but it certainly no deterrent to getting high. The damage, however, is psychological, over-hanging and unshakeable. They’re each in their different way broken in body and are collectively part of a generation that as so beautifully evoked by F. Scott Fitzgerald was in all kinds of ways ‘lost’.
The film begins with an exciting areal sequence in which we’re shown Cary and Shep’s plane get hit. We then see how Cary brings the burning plane down 6000 feet at the expense of burning his hands and how both pilots are so wounded they’re in critical condition. They get through it and live but as the film goes on to dramatise, not really. As in many early 30’s films, the plot moves very quickly, and in a couple of minutes it’s already Armistice Day, Cary and Shep are discharged and Cary asks Shep, ‘The old guerre is finie. What are you going to do now?’
‘There they go’, says the Doctor as he discharges them, ‘Out to face life and their whole preparation was in training for death,’ thus neatly articulating the film’s overarching theme.
The Last Flight explores existential meaninglessness as a moveable feast in which being blotto is insufficient to render one oblivious to oblivion. Death is only an elegantly-lived step away. A bullfight becomes a metaphor for the condition these men suffer from and the viewpoint they share. What’s the point of living when death is galloping at you?; and if you choose life, how to deal with death – do you dance or flirt or fight with it before it eventually wins. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is an obvious influence.
On their way out the military base, Cary and Shep hook up with Bill and Francis, who are in a similar situation to theirs and head on to Paris. On one of their drinking sprees there the four boys meet Nikki – ‘Her name is Nikki. She holds men’s teeth. She sits at the bar and drinks champagne,’ is how Cary describes her. Nikki’s rich, frail, brittle and – for reasons the film does not quite make clear – as damaged and as in need of saving as they are. It’s hard to tell whether Nikki is spouting Surrealist non-sequiteurs or whether she’s just a sweet drunk who’s seeing things from a skewed perspective and just doesn’t make sense: ‘I can walk faster in red shoes’.
The men, always tipsy, tumble at her feet on their way to her bed, which they never quite reach. Her innocence, the men’s competiveness and a distinct gallantry, learnt from despair, shared by the protagonists and beautifully evoked by the film, protects her. She becomes the object of their romantic longings, their mascot, winning her and protecting her from others, particularly Frank (Walter Byron) a nasty journalist they keep bumping into before eventually bumping off, lends a purpose to their wonderings. As Mick Lasalle notes in his wonderful book on men in pre-code Hollywood, ‘These men are past an interest in sex, too smashed up inside for small human things to make much difference. Their playful mooning over legs, feet, and back is ghostly, as if evoking some dim memory when such things were to live and die for.’[iii]
One by one the film knocks each of these men out of the picture. Bill jumps into a corrida to show the bullfighters how it’s done but gets gored: ‘that bull sure was hostile’. At a fair later on, nasty Frank pulls a gun on Nikki, is stopped by Cary but the gun accidentally goes off. Cary confronts him and just as Frank is about to shoot him, Francis fires several bullets at him and stops him cold. ‘That’s the last we’ll see of Francis. We’ll never see him again,’ says Cary as Francis disappears into the night. Nikki, awestruck, says, ‘did you look into his eyes (when he was shooting Frank). That’s the only time I’ve ever seen him really happy.’ Shep is the collateral damage of Frank’s fight with Cary. He experiences his expiration as the first descent of the burning plane, except that this time Cary’s not there to land it safely and save him. ‘You may not believe it’, says Shep but…’, this second crash, his second death, the first being the death of his spirit in the war is ‘the best thing that’s ever happened to me’. In the end Helen Chandler and Richard Barthelmess are left alone to save each other.
The last flight disappearing into the night
The film is beautifully directed by Dieterle. As we can see in the scene at the fair (above), we get the false official gaiety of the fair, with the undertow of seediness and danger and sadness. Dieterle makes intelligent choices, starting with a medium close-up of Francis with a beer in his hand looking purposefully as gunshots are heard on the soundtrack and the camera pulls back to reveal all of the characters at the shooting gallery, each with a drink, each with a gun. We will subsequently learn why the close-up has been on Francis. Every moment of the scene ties in to the overall theme. The men are all good at shooting, at killing. Nikki’s tipsy and can’t see straight. They protect her by doing what they were trained to do but in a world which no longer has a place for that training. Dieterle evokes this beautifully and every composition, every camera move, every cut counts. What’s evoked is the excitement that’s no longer possible; the destructiveness of the skills they have; the feeling that death and the void is the only place in which these men will find respite; Francis’ cool and deadly accuracy in shooting and the wonderful image of his disappearing into the night.
I still don’t quite ‘get’ the Barthelmess of the sound era. As he aged and his face spread he lost the delicate features that in his youth had enabled him to depict poetry and fragility. Here he’s silent, squat, ready to throw a punch but suffering subsequently over the morality of doing so. He’s very good. But his presence doesn’t reverberate in the mind as it does when watching his earlier silent films. Still, he is the person to thank for this exciting mix of gallantry, flippant melancholy, a kind of despairing hopefulness. It’s a film that feels slow and odd for the first part and then all the elements coalesce and becomes moving and rather great.
LaSalle notes that, ‘It’s a strange film – indeed, it’s unique – and it excites every critic who sees it’[iv] (p.98). It’s true of my experience watching it; furthermore, it makes one positively long to see more Barthelmess films of this period.
[i] Mick LaSalle, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2002, p. 30.
What is the point of this Hercules movie? I suppose it offers scope for action, spectacle and lots of special effects. But special effects are no longer sufficient to make spectacle spectacular: in the first five minutes of this film, as we’re giving the back-story, we’re shown mythological beings, places and Gods that in a 1960s movie would each have constituted a thrilling climax but here seem rather a yawn: snakes coming out of Hera’s eyes, multi-headed water monsters; it’s like most of the twelve labours of Hercules are depicted in the introduction of the film and, whilst one finds them difficult to improve upon, one also remains unengaged.
This version of Hercules is based on the First Limited Edition Radical comics re-working of the story, The Thracian Wars. What we’re introduced to here is a human-scale Hercules who with a band of marauders pretends to have the power ascribed to him in order to help other soldiers find the strength they think they lack inside themselves, which is eventually what happens to Hercules in the rest of the film. The plot revolves around two narrative lines: as background we’re told that Hercules’ family is killed by a pack of wolves whilst he’s asleep and there’s some suspicion that he did it himself; in the forefront of the story a Princess convinces Hercules’ to help her father protect his kingdom; he outfits and trains the Thracian army and then has to deal with the consequences. Neither of these plot-lines is what it seems and the resolution to both dovetails nicely at the end.
The film seems bloodless to me. Part of the problem is Dwayne Johnson, who usually exudes warmth and humour; here he just seems a big hulking blank. His being surrounded by British actors who wring laughs and garner effects from the meager materials they’re given to work with (Ian McShane does wonders but Joseph Fiennes and John Hurt also deserve credit) does not help his case; neither I suppose does his being given little to express (strength and stoicism interspersed with pain and loss) whilst being given much to do: he’s basically required to carry the whole film on the basis of his body and what he can do with it. It’s a two-note performance and he never makes us care what happens to Hercules though it is also true that we’ve rarely cared much what happens to Hercules in the past as we always know he’ll win. This film tries to inject the possibility of a different outcome but does not succeed; one just ends up staring at Johnson and his big hulking biceps with the huge popping veins and instead of being wrapped up in a story and feeling that there’s something at stake in it, something meaningful to oneself, one’s eyes begin to wander and one starts to notice that his veins have slight pops and then one asks whether what one’s seeing is scar tissue from track marks and so on. The story doesn’t grip.
The actors sometimes do. I was quite taken with McShane as noted above but also with Joseph Fiennes who it now seems inconceivable was until so recently thought of as a leading man: here his form is meltingly crooked; his face first that of a mindless saint, then later something reptilian and deadly; throughout he reminds one of a leering El Greco figure. John Hurt is good too but we’ve seen him do this before and it lacks excitement. Rufus Sewell is fine and looks exceedingly handsome. The women are not given much to do except look pretty which they do. But in the middle of these bursts of pleasure there’s Dwayne Johnson, not particularly handsome, not particularly sexy and not at all exciting.
The special effects are excellent; the fictional world is well-visualised; the 3-D so good one can almost touch the spears jutting out at the audience; it’s even hard to fault (much) the action scenes. However, how does this character of Hercules relate to us? What is he fighting for that can act as a metaphor and imaginary resolution to our own struggles? Why should we care that he win? The film offers no answers to these fundamental questions; and without answers the film feels a ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.
Niece by marriage, barely out of her teens, secretly marries her aging great-uncle, legless from the war, in order to continue receiving his pension after his death. Village gossip has it that this economic arrangement ruined any future chance at happiness, as previous marriage would have to be revealed before marrying any subsequent suitor.
Neighbourhood children rescue abandoned donkey, feed him and tenderly nurture him back to health. Donkey disappears. Many years later town taxidermist dies and family donates same donkey, now stuffed, so that the village can perform its annual tableau of Mary and Joseph heading towards Bethlehem and remind everyone of the true meaning of Christmas (I wish someone would make a movie of this as ironies abound)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez couldn’t make these up…. And many more to come
I saw Elena et les hommes last night but I couldn’t tell you what it was about, not really. It’s an elegant farce about a Polish Princess down to her last pearl who goes on a roundelay of possible husbands including Jean Marais and Mel Ferrer, all madly in love with her. She in turn is in love with making them live up to what she sees as their potential, helping to make them be the men she thinks they ought to be, which in the case of Jean Marais means becoming President of the Republic. It’s a charming film, funny, endearing; lots of people chase after each other in a small house whilst Ingrid Bergman, at her scattiest and blondest, looks impossibly beautiful in tight Belle Epoque corsets, figure-hugging skirts and hats large enough to hold a small meadow or a large aviary.
What prompted me to write a note here is that from the very beginning of the film one is dazzled by the beauty of the colour. The opening title seems encased in bright little bombons or be-ribboned jewels of glistening red, blue and yellow. Jean is Auguste Renoir’s son of course but the cinematographer here is the equally great Claude Renoir, newphew of the director, grandson of the painter. Uncle and newphew both knew something about colour, composition, perspective and this film is their evocation, their particular articulation of what they learned from Auguste.
I saw Elena et les hommes at the Cine Doré in what I thought was a 35 mm print and this is what I wrote when I returned to my hotel:
‘The only reason I’m writing a note on the film here is that from the first shot one is dazzled by the beauty of the colours. Claude Renoir did the cinematography. I saw it on a gorgeous 35 mm print where the brightness, density, luminosity, the texture, the fine grain of the celluloid brought out every delicate variation of light and texture in hats and feathers and gave one the impression of partaking in breathtaking beauty’.
I understand that this type of work with light and colour is now possible in digital, but if so, why don’t we see it? It saddens me that such beauty, simply in the hue, brightness and luminosity of the colours not to speak of their masterly arrangement as in this film may be lost to us.’
Needless to say, I’m an idiot, and upon looking at the program I realized that what I had in fact been seeing was not a 35mm print but a restored print digitally projected, one which hopefully will be with us for many generations to come.
The program also included a thought-provoking quote from Jean-Luc Godard: ‘If Elena et les hommes is ‘the’ French film par excellence, it’s because it’s the most intelligent film in the world: Art simultaneous with a theory of art; beauty simultaneously with the secret of beauty; Cinema simultaneous with an explanation of cinema
And here I was simply mourning, erroneoulsly, that future generations wouldn’t be able to see the glorious gradations of texture and colour in a hat.
I only made it to the movies once whilst in Burgos, to see Miele, the recent Italian film by Valeria Goliano on assisted suicides. What struck me first of all was the name of the cinema, Cine Golem, with all its connotations of dreams and nightmares, of magic and the other-worldly, of the like-human-yet-not-quite-human, of the inanimate, animated by magic; all of this without even considering the cinephiliac associations to the classic German Expressionist film directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese. What a wonderful name for a cinema, infinitely preferable to Cine-vue or Cineworld or even ‘electric’. Why isn’t it a more fashionable name for cinemas?
It turns out that the Golem is a regional chain with cinemas in the north of Spain: Pamplona, Estella, Logroño and Burgos. I wanted to write a little something on it here because the day I went to see Miele, along with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Sex Tape, the Jason Segel-Cameran Diaz film, posters for which one is bomarded with throughout Burgos, one is also able to see Corazón de León, an Argentinian-Brazilian co-production, Barbecue, the French comedy with Lambert Wilson, and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, the wonderful dead-pan Swedish comedy directed by Felix Herngren. Provincial little Burgos with half the population of Coventry is being treated to a menu of European cinema that much bigger and more ‘cosmopolitan’ cities like Birmingham could only dream of. Why? I’d be curious to know.
Miele is a fine movie, not exceptional in its treatment of its admittedly difficult topic but intelligent and interesting. Valeria Goliano, probably best known to English-speaking audiences for her performances in Rain Man and other Hollywood films from two decades ago is perhaps overly symbolic in her direction but she’s wonderful with actors. Miele stars Jasmine Trinca as a young woman trafficking barbituates from Mexico so she can assist terminal cases in an easy death. The plot revolves around her messy personal life with the main conflict in the plot occurring when she provides the drugs to a person who is not suffering from a terminal disease. But all of that is almost beside the point.
What struck me was two things, first how the use of George Brassens, and other European songs in the sound-track made the film seem Italian but also European. I know I’m not being clear and that one needs to define what one means by those terms; and I don’t have the time to do so now; but if one thinks how, say, there’s a Welsh Identity and a British one each which has something in common and helps shape the other but which are nonetheless distinct you’ll get at what I’m trying to express here. The film is distinctly Italian AND distinctly European. The audience I was seeing it with was in tune with both of those aspects of the film.
When I was coming out of the theatre two elderly ladies speaking to each other about how much they’d appreciated the film commented on the beauty of Jasmine Trinca who plays Irene, the film’s protagonist. And it struck me that Jasmine Trinca can be seen as the idealization of the Burgos typical woman; dark, short, thin, wiry; not at all the blonde bombshell of Hollywood ‘It’ girls or even dark-haired stars such Sondra Bullock or Julia Roberts. A lack of variety in something as simple as a culture’s offer of projected ideal selves is one of the many things that our film diet of mostly American movies with the odd Brit film quickly thrown in for a short run at our local cinemas is depriving us of.
I had an exhilarating moment last night; no, not one of those; a movie moment, one cinephiles will recognise. I went to the Cine Doré my first evening in Madrid. It’s an iconic cinema that people who’ve never been there might nonetheless recognise from the movies; it’s where Javier Cámara goes to see ‘The Shrinking Lover’ in Talk to Her/ Hable con ella. I like going there because they take great care in what they show and how they show it and I don’t really care what’s on: I’m either discovering something new or seeing something again but often in a better condition than I’ve ever seen it before. It’s a neighbourhood repertory cinema. They charge two euros and you get to see treasures by the likes of Renoir, Kurosawa, Erice and many others. The cinema functions both institutionally as part of the Filmoteca in Madrid but it is also a local cinema, and because of the prices it means anyone can afford to be there. There’s a very mixed audience, young and old, couples out on a date, cinephiles eager to see La règle du jeu projected on 35mm or just people wanting to be out of the house.
The cinema itself is beautiful. A 1912 art nouveau fantasy of dark Arabian nights, gold gilt stars on a dark blue sky, public dreams next to private alcoves as in theatres of old where you can sit around a table with your loved one or guests to see the movie in front and be seen by the hoi polloi below. The cinema I suppose had its own class divisions, ones which no longer apply because of the fixed price but which were interesting to observe nonetheless because the display of such class divisions are at the core of what the film we were all watching was about.
The thrill of seeing La règle du jeu in such a place and with such an audience was to experience a film from another era and from another culture enthrall and captivate an audience as if it had just been made now, about the world we live in and especially for us. The audience responded to everything in the film and one moment in particular that simply rocked the house: it’s where, upon finding that his childhood friend, the Marquise de la Chenyest (Nora Grégor) is crushed that her husband has a mistress and has been lying to her for the past three years, Jean Renoir himself as Octave tells her ‘But Christine, we’re in an era where everybody lies, pharmacist’s prospectus, governments, radio, cinema, newspapers; so how could you possibly expect for us simple and ordinary people not to lie?” The sense that we expect so little of our rulers and our institutions and forgive so little in each other when really we should expect so much more of our governments and be so much kinder and forgiving about each other. It’s a moment with particular resonance in a Madrid still in the grip of an economic crisis and it felt like the film as a whole was carrying the audience on its wings. It felt like magic about what was real and true. At the end, there was wild and grateful applause, maybe for members of the audience to communicate joy and appreciation to each other, more like a needed release after a kind of exaltation. It was thrilling to be there, to experience, to share in that experience.
Worth noting that we saw a scratched, slightly muddy print, one where the clarity seemed to change from reel to reel and the projection ground to a halt three quarters of the way through, presumably for a change of reels. One could get too hung up on technical perfection. Here it really did not mater. Again, magical.
I’m trying to figure out why I’m so disheartened with the movies this Summer. It’s true that the Season began badly. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a disappointment. The areal sequences at the beginning were thrilling. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have undeniable chemistry and seem on the surface perfectly cast. But as the film unfolded, Garfield’s neediness, couched in virtue, and spoken slowly, with each emotion separated from another by a pause in the dialogue and a shake of the head, ended up seeming rather twee and more than a bit tiresome. It was kind of enjoyable but a bit underwhelming and made 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.
I didn’t expect much from Pompeii, which was lucky as seeing it did make me wonder whether there was a worse director than Paul W. S. Anderson currently in work making big-budget action spectacle. It was so bad that it was an endless source of good jokes, all of them at the film’s expense. Trying to find good things to say about it, all one can dredge up is ‘Kit Hartington has the best abs of the season and is very beautiful’. But one can stay home, watch Game of Thrones, and get all of that plus so much more.
I thought Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla the dullest blockbuster of the season but then, after yawning for an hour and a half, the monsters finally arrived and woke me up. It’s a movie where everyone seems to have done an amazing job except director, writers and actors (Juliette Binoche excepted). Some of the shots are jaw-droppingly good – the vfx truly astonishing, with the scene on the bridge where the monster rises behind the hero and Godzilla’s arrival at the airport being particular delights. But ultimately, Godzilla illustrates how empty and unsatisfying spectacle on its own can be; that there’s a story-telling dimension to spectacle itself; and that a monster movie that doesn’t scare, doesn’t thrill and doesn’t allegorise with intelligence is not much of a monster movie at all.
Which of the Summer blockbusters have been good? Captain America: Winter Soldier (d: Anthony and Joe Russo) was better than the original but was released in March so probably shouldn’t figure in this account. X-Men: Days of Future Past was fun but all I can remember about it now is the sexual abuse lawsuit against director Bryan Singer that preceded the film’s release and the marvelous scenes of Quicksilver in motion. I loved the glossiness of Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, the gorgeous design and look of the film as well as Anjelina Jolie’s magnificent performance in the title role. I also loved that it was a Summer blockbuster aimed at young girls and clearly succeeded in engaging them in the story. I was glad to also see that it was a hit. But good as they are, none of these movies have been good enough to get a general audience to line up to see them again.
The best of the Summer blockbusters so far has been Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow and that in itself has proved depressing. Cruise is terrific in it; he and Emily Blunt have great chemistry together; the premise is excellent: like Bill Murray in Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, Tom Cruise re-lives the same day over and over but the catch is that he’s got to be shot first. Thus, the audience gets to see Cruise save the world but not before enjoying the pleasure of seeing him killed over and over again as he tries to figure out how to do so. It’s intelligent, critical, imaginative and very handsome to look at. What depresses me about Edge of Tomorrow is that its American marketers haven’t been able to sell it in the States. Seeing Cruise giving a great performance whilst he dies over and over again has not proved sufficient to redeem him with audiences there, though clearly world-wide audiences have been much more forgiving of America’s biggest and most iconic star (the film grossed ‘only’ 95,000,000 in the States in contrast to 350,000,000 it made world-wide).
The most hateful blockbuster of the Summer so far has been Transformers: Age of Extinction: crude, ugly in spirit, a kind of barbarism in culture. It seemed to me an illustration of Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument regarding The Dialectic of Enlightenment: all that science, all that knowledge, all that artistry, dazzling shots; all now directed at destruction, and of ideals too not just of things. It’s a cynical exercise: the chasing of the Chinese market, product placement trying to sell things, sexism, all the crash and bang and explosions and metal twisting, a militarist gun-loving display on destruction: thousands of buildings get destroyed, loads of people die, nobody cares.
The Summer has not been without pleasures at the movies, pleasures often found around the edges of, but in the same cinemas as, the blockbusters. 22 Jump Street is very intelligent about the way it makes dumb funny – Channing Tatum dances and speaks up for gay rights and he an Jonah Hill bounce jokes off each other like seasoned music-hall stars of old. I also loved seeing Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises which is slow-paced, meditative, poetic, romantic, bittersweet — it had me on the verge of welling up for most of its length. I was also very intrigued by Amini Hossein’s The Two Faces of January, a glamorous, stylish, star-driven murder mystery set in the early sixties with Vigo Mortensen at his very best as Kirsten Dunst’s deceitful, dissolute, and murderous husband.
Even the best of these films however, did not provide the pleasures one usually expect from blockbusters at their best; which is that they dazzle your senses, give you the impression of being lifted from your seat by images and sounds; that the visual effects result in emotional affect; that the visceral kick in the body leave an afterglow in the heart and head; and, that you respond to all of this both individually and as part of a collective that is bigger than yourself; and that this results in such a satisfying experience that you’re willing to repeat it over and over again as the Summer unfolds. No blockbuster has succeeded in doing this so far. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an indie just out, does in fact seem to be doing this at the moment but it is not big budget, it is not a blockbuster and will have to wait to be discussed in the next column.
A version of this has been published in The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/this-is-a-summer-of-truly-awful-blockbusters-29287
I have now seen Transformers: Age of Extinction which I find crude, ugly in spirit, a kind of barbarism in culture. In keeping with the rest, the ‘girl’ screamed a lot. The only thing barely human is Mark Wahlberg. The rests seem like an illustration of The Dialectic of Enlightenment: all that science, all that knowledge, all that artistry, marvellous shots; all now directed at destruction, and of ideals too not just of things
I went to see it hoping to understand why the franchise remains so popular. I do see that not all expensive movies that make a great big noise and that have shooting flames as a background to people leaping over things are alike; and some of them can be quite beautiful (though of this type of film, I’ve only liked Edge of Darkness so far this year). This is neither beautiful nor did I get any insight into what audiences are getting from it. Plus I mistrust criticism in the press to such an extent (and with excellent reasons) that I think I should check these things for myself and have my own views, which I now do. That’s what I expected and got from seeing the latest Transformers I suppose.
Another reason I go is because when I was young I remember critics saying those Schwarzenegger and other action/spectacle films of the 80s were the way I now see the Transformer films and I think some of the Schwarzenegger films are some of the great masterpieces of the cinema so I keep thinking maybe I’m missing something:
Terminator, Total Recall etc. are now recognised as classics of the genre (and this applies to the Robocop, Aliens, Batman etc. as well); so I’m just curious to see if younger people have reasons for loving these films that I’m not getting (I think most people would now agree with me about the aforementioned Schwarzenegger and so on; and I think the older people who dismissed them in the 80s just didn’t bother to look, or look carefully, it was partly not seeing, partly not knowing how to see). So I go to these to find out if I need to learn a new or different way of seeing or whether there’s simply not much to see beyond what I already do.
What I do see is a chasing of the Chinese market, product placement trying to sell us things, sexism, all the crash and bang and explosions and metal twisting, a militarist, gun-loving play on destruction: thousand of buildings get destroyed, loads of people die, nobody cares. I thought this of a show the Black Eyed peas did in the middle of the Super Bowl a few years ago: all military outfits, regimented movement, thousands of dancers, like soulless robots out for the kill; and one begins to see that these are signs of empire in decline; all the filmmakers cannibalise Arthurian legends without understanding what was at stake in them. The Transfomers talk of freedom without taking into account everything they’re destroying to achieve it. It’s like the collective, the common good, a sense of common humanity and individual rights have no place in this vision of the world.
The movie is making money and that is receiving substantial coverage. But there are more important things than money. If what movies say and how they make us feel don’t matter, then movies don’t matter; and if movies do matter, we should care more; and if movies matter as much as I think they do, the filmmakers should be ashamed to put such shit out into the universe. Hardened whores have more of a conscience than is evident in this type of cynical filmmaking.
Early ‘30s drivel. Tallulah Bankhead is Carlotta, a loose woman getting by singing badly and blowing on dice in cheap Panamanian dives. Fredric March is Dick Grady, an alkie bum crawling through the same low joints begging for a chance to kiss the bottle. We’re told he’s beyond redemption but we know it’s not true because we’re also told he’s got a law degree. When Tallu accidentally kills a man who’s trying to kill her, he gets her off even though everyone thinks she’s guilty. The trial wins him a new job and a new lease on life. She in turn changes her identity to Ann Trevor (she lets him choose the name), returns to America and becomes a famous interior decorator. One can see the rest of the plot coming a mile away; in fact, if one cared, one could have figured it out in the first two minutes.
Tallulah’s entrance, false through and through and not un-camp.
This is a lazy treatment of trite material, clearly derivative of Somerset Maugham’s Rain, visually uninteresting and worth seeing only for Tallulah Bankhead, whose career in Hollywood this film helped to ruin. It’s not that she’s good. In fact, she’s rather awful, not for one moment believable as either of the characters she plays in the film, and she’s not even believable in the emotions she’s meant to be feeling. She makes big theatrical gestures, or raises the pitch of her voice for emphasis like she’s batting the point over to the last row, vividly outlining an emotion so that the audience knows exactly what she’s meant to be feeling , doing and why; but the gestures are so broad and sketchy, the line readings so over-emphatic; she’s like vivid cartoon sketch indicating the outlines but burlesquing the interior and performing the dialogue as if it were variety for radio. She’s a star doing a caricature of a person, a High Definition simulation sparking an idea, false through and through and yet riveting to watch. I can’t remember who said of Cagney that he seemed to displace air but Bankhead does it here. Mind you Cagney was honest and true and he incited identification and feeling; Bankhead is completely unbelievable, fake to her last eyelash, but nonetheless inciting admiration and applause. They both have presence and they both have energy.
freddy’s intro large
A star entrance, finely acted
Fredric March is an interesting contrast to Tallulah. He’s given a real star entrance appearing through swinging saloon doors whilst characters talk about him: ‘what would you say he was?’ asks an onlooker. The camera glances at him once more: ‘oh a beggar, a tramp; ‘a beggar, a tramp and a university graduate’. After we’re told who he is, after the build-up where the supporting actors get to do the thankless work of conveying plot, the scene is set for the star to be this new person we’re told about and to shine, to dazzle us with his being and performing. It’s classic build-up to a star entrance and March gives a lovely performance: restrained, worked-through; there are so many things to admire: the way he raises his voice on ‘just one little scotch’, the way he pushes shoulders back and chest out whilst giving the ‘Oh Mr. James Bradford’ line enough irony make the very name a put-down; or the croak he gives to the Met in Metcalfe; or the way he lifts himself on his toes as he stops himself from saying ‘Hell’. It’s the work of a really intelligent actor with gifts to match. And yet….his eyes never really catch the light. As becomes clear later in the film, he’s a performer who needs to act to be great; he can’t simply satisfy an audience with his being
meeting by chance at a pool party
Freddy disappears from view in a dull scene
When Fredric March isn’t given something to do, he becomes dull, fades from the screen. A good example of this is the scene where, after he’s saved her and after she’s built a new identity and career in New York, they meet by chance at a pool party (see clip above). The dialogue is trite. It’s shot by a stage director who clearly doesn’t know how to stage a scene for the camera so we end up with most of it in a static medium shot. Once again, you never see his eyes, and I do think it’s partly do with their being deep-set and partly to do with him maybe not knowing enough about the camera to move them in the direction of the light; but worse actors than he are more watchable when they have nothing to do (think not only of stars like Cooper but even ‘charm’ actors like Robert Wagner). Then look at Tallulah, who is better here than she is when she’s given lines and situations of greater importance but still not good: her speaking wobbles between her rich native Alabaman Southern and the 1920s English upper-class miaul we now associate with the Mitfords, she over-emphasises her speech and her gestures yet…she looks lovely in profile, her eyes catch the light and she keeps the audience’s eyes constantly on her; and if the film is worth watching at all, it’s because of her though she never once matches the fineness, the trueness or even arguably the beauty of March’s first entrance — something to think about.
George Abbott directed one more film, The Cheat, once again with Tallulah Bankhead, before returning back to Broadway, where he belonged, to resume his legendary stage career; he would yet find a way to delight film audiences, a way that involve the services of Stanley Donen as co-director, in the much under-valued The Pajama Gama (1957).
Laughter is a sophisticated comedy that is also a serious work dramatising the conflict between the pursuit of money and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a vehicle for Nancy Carroll, one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, now somewhat forgotten.
It’s a film that offers many pleasures: the gruff and scatty teddy-bearishness of Frank Morgan; gorgeous Art Deco settings; magnificent Cartier jewels; the kewpie-doll loveliness of Nancy Carrol herself, most beautifully dressed in late ’20s/early ’30s chic; a young and handsome Fredric March ably conveying the weightier aspects of the drama; a soundtrack by the great Vernon Duke that features jazz and classical music, placing both on an equal footing; and even a brief appearance by that film buff’s delight, Eric Blore, here bubbly and lovely, wearing an angel costume and exuding all kinds of gayness. If it weren’t for an undertow of sadness that seeps right through all levels of the film, Laughter could almost be a screwball. Certainly it’s of historical interest as at least an early precursor to the genre.
The received wisdom regarding early talkies is that sound recording was then so cumbersome and primitive that it restricted camera movement and diminished cinema, rendering films static and stagey. This is patently untrue of Laughter.
The first shot (see below) is a long take that begins with a fade-in on a man inside a phone booth filmed from the outside so that he’s framed by the window, saying bitterly, ‘so I can call back tomorrow, eh?’, then the camera tracks to the right following his movements but from outside a corner-shop – he’s inside, the camera is outside, the shop window is the barrier that allows us to see in. The camera then goes past a lamppost to create a sense of perspective on the New York street, keeps the character in the centre of the frame as passersby walk around him and tracks in almost imperceptibly as the character goes into the door of a building door.
In the meantime, St. James Infirmary one of the great jazz songs of the period starts playing extra-diegetically and the camera tilts up to a window as the shot dissolves into the next one and we see the same man entering his apartment and unwrapping a gun. It’s a great shot and a great opening to the film: dramatic, visually arresting, dynamic in movement, exciting to hear. The first shot was enough to make me sit up, pay attention and ask ‘who directed this?’
First two shots of Laughter
The answer is Harry D’Abbadie d’Arrast. I’d come across the name before and remembered it for its effrontery but I knew nothing of the man or the artist. A little research reveals that he was a French aristocrat born in Argentina – thus the name — who served in WWI, was introduced to the movies by George Fitzmaurice (director of Lilac Time and Son of the Sheik), went to work for Chaplin, first as a researcher (Women of Paris) then as assistant director (Gold Rush), before directing his own highly acclaimed films, of which Laughter is the best remembered. James Harvey calls his early comedie like Dry Martini and A Gentleman of Paris ‘Lubitsch-like’ (p. 78). D’Abbadie d’Arrast married Silent Film Star Eleanor Bordman, stopped directing films in Hollywood in 1933 (Topaze, with John Barrymore and Myrna Loy, is the last Hollywood film credited to him) and died in Monte Carlo where he’d been working as a croupier. There’s an interesting biography to be written about him and I hope someday someone does.
Like with Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle, Laughter is structured around five central characters: ex Ziegfield chorus girl Peggy gave up pennyless musician Paul Lockridge (Fredric March) for rich industrialist C. Mortimer Gibson (Frank Morgan) but is finding the marriage so unsatisfying she’s having an affair with a sculptor, Ralph Le Sainte (Glenn Anders), who’s so crazy for Peggy he first threatens suicide over her and later tries to emulate her by also marrying for money with Mortimer Gibson’s daughter, Marjorie (Diane Ellis). Five characters, six potential couples, one dilemma: to choose laughter and love or to go for the cash and all that goes with it?
I was surprised to see how much Pauline Kael loved Laughter, calling it ‘an ode to impracticality.’ She didn’t usually have much patience for the type of movie that starts with a poor artist in a garrett speaking poetically to a statue of his beloved about the depth of his love for her and the hopelessness of life whilst feeding us all the background we need to follow the story that unfolds, even if it is as beautifully shot as it is here. Glen Anders is almost as expressive as the piece of marble he’s speaking to and luckily for us the picture doesn’t stay on him for very long.
From the beginning we know Peggy and the poor sap of a Saint are having an affair. Clearly the Cartier jewelery her husband is giving her is not enough to keep her happy. C. Mortimer Gibson can’t give Peggy what she wants; and Peggy can’t give Ralph La Sainte what he wants either — everyone’s unhappy. It’s at that moment that Paul Lockridge arrives from Paris to turn everything upside down; he’s the catalyst for change and he’s given an entrance worthy of the conflict he’ll cause.
Paul is Peggy’s ex, a musician, and only recently returned from Paris. The pace at which March makes his first appearance, walking briskly through the New York penthouse, is a pace then much admired by Europeans who found its energy unusual and energizing. Noel Coward returned to England from New York in the early 20s insisting that his plays be spoken faster and that the actors move more briskly, at a New York pace, at the pace of the jazz era if not of jazz itself. Speed, energy, New York as a metonym for America, modernity, democracy, potentiality: there’s something in March’s walk, the sunny transparency of his face and the intensity with which he speaks in his first entrance in that early scene that evokes all of that.
When Peggy’s butler insists on a calling card, Paul writes his name on the Butler’s starched shirtfront. When the butler presents this greeting to Peggy, she writes that she’s out on the same same shirtfront, letting Paul know that she’s in but doesn’t want to see him. Whilst she goes for her assignation with Le Sap, I mean Le Sainte, Fredric March shows he’s a democrat and oblivious to her wealth by going into the kitchen, speaking on familiar terms with Pearl, Peggy’s maid, who he clearly knows from before, grabbing a chicken leg and going to play classical music duets with the butler whilst having a beer, which is where Peggy’s husband finds him.
Paul’s breezyness is visualised for us by the nonchalant yet well-aimed throw of his hat onto a deco sculpture of frolicking nymphs, an image that recurs often in the Laughter. Much is made too of C. Mortimer Gibson trying to remove the hat from such placements, of his awareness of appearances, surfaces, place and position and his sensitivity to the restrictions imposed by correct adherence to convention.
The film rather exhibits a rich person’s idealization of the pleasures of third class travel and all that it connotes. Laughter is a film for the ‘common man’ but is not against the rich. And perhaps the latter has something to do with the film’s conceptualisation of average people as ‘poor’ artists who can afford to live in Paris working at their love, art and drinking without having to be stuck washing dishes at the Ritz like Orwell’s down and outers.
There are two scenes that are meant to evoke the price Peggy is paying for the penthouse and the Cartier bracelets. The famous one is the scene where Peggy and Paul break into someone’s house, frolic under bearskins and get arrested for breaking and entering.
Before that, however, there’s the marvelous scene after Peggy’s picked up her step-daughter Marjorie from the Ocean liner after returning from her Paris sojourn and we see the customs people confiscating all the liquor Marjorie’s tried to smuggle in. Marjorie and Peggy are both the same age, two jazz babies with cropped hair who like to smoke, drink and dance. One of them still can.
When they return to the penthouse, they find Paul at the piano and Marjorie asks him, ‘do you know “Raring to Go”’? He sure does. As the stuffy millionaire looks on bewildered, the three young ones let themselves go to the beat and the rhythm of the jazz, Paul playing, Peggy and Marjorie dancing with abandon, letting go of place and position in a moment that Pauline Kael has called ‘one of the loveliest, happiest moments in the movies of this period (see clip below).’ It’s a moment of joy, a moment of sensuality and of youth, the likes of which Peggy doesn’t get to experience much anymore.
Do you know rarin to go
These two moments of escape can be interestingly considered alongside the two speeches that put across the film’s meaning. In the first of those, after the bear-skin frolic, as they are taken home via police escort, sirens blaring, March says, ‘You can’t go on with this, with everything that it stands for, that noise, that, money that power….I want to tell you that you’re dying…You’re having a ghastly time, you’re whole life is false. Nothing you do is really you. God didn’t want you to live like this. You’re dying from want of nourishment, from want of laughter. You were born for laughter. Nothing in your life is as important as that. Laughter could take that whole life of yours — that house, those jewels — and blow them to pieces. You’re rich. You’re dirty rich. Nothing but laughter can make you clean.’
Fredric March is magnificent saying this. He doesn’t make a meal of it. In fact he underplays it. It’s a long soliloquy but filmed as a two-shot with Nancy Carroll as Peggy listening in so we’re permitted to see her reaction to what he’s saying. But March is the one who has to deliver, sustain and holds the quite long shot, and stay in character whilst giving meaning to the lines and putting across all the metaphors and symbolism whilst conveying the sense of a person speaking rather than an author dramatising the play’s central theme (and I use the word ‘play’ advisedly) in a speech rather weighted down by poetry, .
March is rather brilliant with it. As he’s had to be in the film as a whole because what he represents, and what he’s convincingly conveyed, is a combined alternative to both a man who can make $8,450,000 in one afternoon AND another artist at least as talented as he who, on top of that, is willing to top himself for love of Peggy. But this moment, this speech on how the lack of laughter is causing Peggy to die inside, is also the moment the film loses its audience. Can you imagine audiences in 1930, a year after the crash, pre-New Deal, no social security to speak of, Hoovervilles sprouting everywhere, apple-sellers appearing out of the wood-work, trains full of vagrants criss-crossing the country in search of work…and here are these rich people living in Art Deco penthouses above the clouds and wearing Cartier jewels moaning about how terrible their life is because they don’t have laughter?
Later, when Carroll is given a similar speech to say to her husband as reasons for leaving him, ‘laughter’ has been replaced with ‘love’. The film treats them as two sides of the same coin, different but inseparable. By then love has become a matter of life and death. St. Sculptor who speaks to statures and can’t quite bring himself to marry for money, has killed himself for love of Peggy, removing him from the picture, removing the threat to the Gibson name his marriage to Mortimer’s daughter would have represented, and removing the only other obstacle, aside from her husband, to Peggy’s getting together with Paul.
It’s worth mentioning that the film was written by Donald Ogden Stewart, an East Coast Main Liner, a liberal later to be blacklisted in the McCarthy era for his politics, a writer famous for the breezy elegance he brought to Philip Barry film adaptations such as Holiday, The Philadephia Story, andWithout Love but also famous in his own right as a writer of sophisticated comedy prized by collaborators such as Lubitsch (That Uncertain Feeling), Leo McCarey (Love Affair) and especially Cukor (Dinner at Eight, Keeper of the Flame plus all the Barry adaptations). It’s worth mentioning because some of themes seen here rhyme with those of Holiday especially but also those in Without Love and one even finds an echo of March’s ‘Laughter’ speech in the ‘Fires Banked Down’ speech that James Stewart speaks to Katharine Hepburn in The Philadephia Story. The writers involved may be one reason why Kael saw a connection to later screwballs.
There’s a wonderful coda at the end of Laughter: Paul and Peggy are snuggling in a sidewalk café in Paris and basking in the glow of being called ‘les amoreux’ . In fact they’re now married, blissfully planning on making love and music together, when Nancy’s eyes suddenly alight on a woman’s wrist. We see what she sees in a close-up: row upon row of glistening diamond bracelets. She can’t keep her eyes off of them until she notices Paul looking at her, ‘I didn’t say anything’ she says giggles before they laugh and kiss. But love and laughter aside, the audience senses that Paul better find a way of getting her a penthouse and some bracelets pronto. It’s no surprise that Herman Mankiewicz, co-writer of Citizen Kane and producer of this one, late in his life remembered Laughter as his favourite film. It’s a pretty dazzling one.
The film got good reviews but was not a popular success. According to James Harvey in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, ‘Six years later, during the heyday of screwball comedy, Herman Maniewicz recalled Laughter to an interviewer – ruefully. Reflecting on the success of such later films as It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey, Maniewicz told the press: “we” did it firs, Laughter was “the original of this madcap type of screen story (pp.78-79).”‘